Neon Blue (suspense) and This Shoal of Space (SF) by John Argo were the first two e-books ever published online for download, in the history of the world, 1996-7 in innovative weekly serial chapters. More info at the museum pages. If you enjoy this free read, which is offered in the spirit of the Golden Age of the World Wide Web, please consider buying a print or e-book edition as a way of thanking the author. A fine E-book is typically priced at the cost of a latte, yet offers many more hours of enjoyment than a cup of coffee. Thank you (John Argo).
Laurel "Blue" Humboldt opened her eyes and uttered a strangled cry.
"Hey," Vito said.
Half off the cot, tangled in old army blankets that smelled of mothballs, her hair matted into strings and her clothes smelling of somebody's old cigar smoke, she gasped for breath and gripped Vito Caparelli's lapels with both fists.
He disengaged himself gently. "I brought you some coffee. Want a cigarette?" He smelled of Lilac Vegetal and stale Camel smoke. Every inch of him was starched, pressed, and manicured. He pried her grubby fingers from his gray suit.
"Jesus. What is this and where am I?" She sat up dry-mouthed and remembered yesterday. "I was dreaming it was just a nightmare. Did you ever do that, dream about something awful that really happened?" She licked her lips, massaged her hair with her finger tips. The memory of dead faces and oozing wounds made her skin crawl. Poor George Olvera.
Her DEA unit shared a precinct house with NYPD. A harsh bar of sunlight stabbed through a high window and gleamed coldly. The white prison tiles in the unused lockup were dirty. She held the styro cup in both hands and slurped. It warmed her, but tasted awful. "What is this, crankcase oil?"
Vito's nose was huge and his mouth tinier than ever. His eyes were like shiny buttons. "From the coffee machine. Best I could do. Sorry, Blue."
She leaned back against the wall. Blankets wrapped around, and the hot cup in her hands warmed her somewhat. The tile room echoed with music and typing and yelling and crying from the precinct office downstairs. She remembered the dreadful night of debriefing and was glad it was over. "Thanks, Vito."
"Think nothing of it. Say, about that lunch."
"Vito, you're a womanizer. I told you. No. En, Oh."
"You're a tough cookie, Blue."
"No. This job really sucks sometimes. Don't you think?"
He nodded and she saw in his eyes that he was thinking of a thousand times that he had thought it sucked. She rested her head against his dry-cleaned arm. "Nothing personal, Vito. I like you well enough. I know how you guys are. I'm not having lunch with you. You have that macho leer. Why don't you just grow up and go back to being a family man?"
Vito rose. He took a deep drag on his Camel. "Honey, you just don't understand. You're the virginal huntress. Catholic school, right?" Smoke billowed around his nose.
She gripped her coffee cup with both hands and blew on it. "I went to Catholic school. So what."
"You remember, don't you? Artemis. From the Greek. I've got a wife, sixty pounds overweight, who couldn't tell Artemis from artichokes. You turn me on."
"Okay, okay," he said backing away, "I'm looking at a grubby urchin with hair that sticks straight out. I'm in love and I can't have you. What am I to do?"
He laughed. Their laughter echoed among the tiles. Trying to cheer her up, bless him. She shook her head. "Vito, I saw those two guys wasted." She started to cry.
Vito nodded. "I heard."
She wiped her sleeve across her nose. "It was pretty bad."
"Okay?" He inclined a listening ear.
She rolled her cup between her hands. "I want to do something."
He nodded. "The Chief wants to see you." He meant Chief Special Agent Tomasi, their boss. He rose, adjusting his tie, cigarette dangling. "Go for it. If I can help, glad to."
After Vito left, Blue washed her face at the cracked corner basin. She finished the coffee and had a Chesterfield. There was a box of last night's stale donuts on the chair by the cot and she ate one just out of perversity. Then she went to Tomasi's office.
"Sit down, Special Agent Humboldt." Tomasi was a slight man in his late forties who looked young except for the baldness atop his head, ringed with short pepper hair. He looked even smaller because of the high ceiling. In his office was a jumble of mismatched office furniture. Tomasi's suit coat hung neatly on a hanger. His white shirt was rolled up to the elbows. A gold pen and pencil pair showed in his gray vest pocket.
Blue plopped tiredly in a wood armchair opposite his desk and waited. As always, she felt slightly on edge near her supervisor. The male mystique, or was it mistake, she supposed. She wondered if he knew. A heater blew dryly into her face.
He put her folder down. "Your record is excellent."
"Thank you, Sir," she said squirming.
"This thing yesterday, Humboldt
" he sighed and rubbed the back of his neck.
"Hm, a real mess, sir."
He folded his hands over the file and leaned forward. "Yes. BOP is in a real jam with the Mayor's office and the DA. They're looking at us too, but I don't think DEA will have much of a flap." He rubbed his temples, looking tired. "We're up against professionals. NYPD towed the car to impound and found there was a bomb attached underneath, but apparently it didn't go off. They had a hell of a time disarming it. But our Friends also had a remote cut-off on the fuel line, and that's what they fell back on when the bomb didn't work. They cut the fuel and when the van rolled to a stop they wasted Guzman. Pretty determined bunch."
"It was a real bad break for us. Guzman could have helped us immensely."
He held up a composite sketch of the jogger, done by a police artist during debriefing. "This a fair picture?"
"Yes." She felt a shudder of remembrance.
"Think he'd recognize you?"
"How strongly do you feel about getting after these people? I mean, would you be willing to lay it on the line to bust them?"
"We're talking dangerous. We'd have backup available, but not in town. You'd be in the open. A liaison with the locals. See if you can warm up the trail again for us."
"When do I start?"
He stared. "You'd be dangling bait."
"I was the last decent person George Olvera ever spoke to."
He sat back with his feet on a desk drawer; on a newspaper, of course. For the first time, she noticed just how many framed certificates hung on his office walls. Combat citations from the Army and the Republic of Vietnam, awards from the Chicago Police Department, and a master's degree in something, she could not make out the Gothic from her angle of vision. "Go on home, Humboldt. Take some time off. I need to think about this. I'll call you in a day or two."
"A day or two?"
"I'm giving you some administrative time. You can see the shrink if you want to, about this shooting."
She took the subway home, dozing half the way. At 91st Street she got out, bought bagels and milk. She staggered up the creaking wooden stairs to her third-floor apartment. Too long to wait for the single cranky elevator servicing twenty floors. As she approached the door, she heard classical music. She kept her stereo playing when she was out; maybe it fooled at least your dumber burglar into thinking someone was home. In her apartment, she undressed. Sunlight made dusty filtering swirls behind her lace curtains. The apartment was warm and cozy after the cold outside. She threw herself face down on the bed and fell asleep.
A pounding at the door woke her. Muzzy, she jerked up. A trail of saliva trailed from her open mouth to her wrist. More pounding. She was on her feet, naked except for panties and bra. Wrapped herself in the bed coverlet. Picked up her automatic and released the safety. Peered through the eyelet in the door and lowered the pistol. She leaned exhaustedly against the wall and opened the door. The chain bolt allowed it to open about six inches. "Laurel," the woman in the hall said sadly. A pretty hand with chewed fingernails clamped onto the door. "Please, let me in. Let's talk about us."
"Maggie," Blue said. "No. It's over. Go away."
Copyright © 1996 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.