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).
Hugh Stone stood on the hill one morning while it was still dark, and surveyed what he and Marga had spent their lives building. Stone Electronics sprawled in starlight: dark buildings, winking red air traffic warning lights, empty parking lots with white herringbone lines. A month from bankruptcy.
Money and power were Hugh Stone's aphrodisiacs. Now, for the first time in his adult life, those two intoxicants were being torn from him, and the result was a revelation even to him. He did not feel old or beaten. Angry, yes. He felt alert, combative, and strangely young again. Contracts had stopped coming in, and he neededquicklyabout six million dollars or that parking lot would soon remain empty. He was leveraged to the hilt, and could obtain no new credit. He had not feltno, the word was tastedthis kind of delicious danger since his youth. He remembered what it had been like: desperate, on the run across Europe from police agencies of a half-dozen countries, in love with his blonde baby goddess Margaret; wanted for everything from drug dealing to murder.
A silver moon drifted in the bluish morning sky like a ship without sails. He smelled juice in stems of grass. His senses were sharpened as they had not been in decades. He thought of his wife: Darling, we did it your way for thirty years, and it was good. Now you are nearly gone, and Hugo must do it his way. The old lion has not finished with this lovely jungle.
His footsteps rang hollow in the empty factory building. Hugh walked with a sure, steady rhythm. Sunlight stabbed laser-like from high window panes. Motes of dust whirled in these dreamy pillars of light. Shipping crates stood abandoned in hazy stacks. Here and there, a tow motor sat idle, its fork half-raised and abandoned.
Hugh opened a room filled with printed circuits, wire reels, manuals for obsolete equipment. From a sagging cardboard box filled with old personal papers, and clothes he hadn't worn in twenty years, he pulled a black velveteen case with cheap brass corners. Dusting it off, he rose and contemplated it. A shaving kit from long ago, a gift from Pierre LeSable, dotted with primordial bleach stains. He remembered young, lovely Marga reclining on the bed watching him proudly shave forty years ago in Marseilles. Now what was there? A cheap looking case; inside, a cracked, dirty cake of soap that had lost all its fragrance; a shaving brush whose bristles fell out as he touched them; a rusty scissor; and a straight razor. The razor's mother of pearl handle looked dull now. He took the razor out and opened it with an unpracticed hand. Its blade had a ruddy sheen, little red speckles of rust, not from the stainless steel blade but from inside the handle. Hugh tried the blade on a piece of paper. It still cut, silently and stealthily. Nothing that polishing and oiling would not cure.
The mirror embedded in the lid was splotched with water marks from long ago. Mediterranean water. He wiped the mirror, and as he did so, light hit it and it shone. As he looked into the mirror, it was like looking into the past. The light transfigured his face.
Hugo, age 22, feels the Mediterranean sunshine on his shoulders as he sits on the window sill bare-chested and facing the simple one-room apartment with its sagging grayish walls and battered dark-brown furniture (bed, vanity with wash basin, table, chairs, propane stove). He can smell the sour docks, with their fish and rats. The smell of burnt gasoline quickens his blood, for he loves the sound of fast cars on the winding coastal highway. Margarethe, blonde, 17, lies on the bed paring her fingernails with an Emory board. There is, as always, a glass of wine by her side. She drinks more than would please him. "Where are you going, Hugo?" Her pale soft legs are crossed at the ankles. They are not the muscular legs of a woman, but the dimpled knees and plump thighs of a girl. Her skin is so fine that veins and capillaries give off a healthy interior glow. Round soft face, but strong: Direct, big eyes with summer under their lids, full mouth, firm chin. "You always have that look when you are up to no good. You and that Schwein LeSable." She is smart for her age.
He cannot bring himself to be angry with her. "Darling, we have six francs, fifty five sous."
"Six francs, seventy," she snaps swatting at her nails with the Emory board. No malice, just firmness. "I counted."
"All right so what. Five francs, six francs, what does it matter. We need to eat. I will provide for you. For the baby."
She thinks for a moment, probably about the baby, puts the file down and holds her arms out. "All right then. Be careful. Come here first." As he takes her in his arms, he remembers that each time he goes like this, she sits on a chair by the window without lights on, by day or night, vigilant until her man is back. Often she holds the baby like that for hours.
Then there is LeSable. "Hugo, all you have to do is step in close like this, see, use your left shoulder, and the guy will push against you with both hands, it's a normal human reaction, and you let him, but as he pushes you open the razor behind your back, you reach outlike this, see, one motionand cut his throat wide open. He never knows what hits him. Just make sure the blood doesn't splash on you because it's going to pump out all over the place. It's effective, quick, and quietthey never cry out, they just look surprised, and then they drop, suddenly, they're dead before they hit the ground."
Hugh Stone, 59, snapped the lid shut. It was back to that. He put the case under his arm, stepped out of the conference room, locked the door, and strode away through the echoing, ghostly factory with its stabbing beams of sunlight.
Hugh spent a quiet evening at home. Marga had moved back. She brought their daughter Astrid, who did not work for a living. Hugh was used to these turnarounds and took them without flinching. Marga, drinking, had bouts of egomania in which she moved out and had grand pretensions. This usually lasted six months or until her money ran out. Hugh paid his on-again, off- again wife the proper courtesies and listened to his daughter play piano. As he listened, he smoked a cigar and sipped brandy.
The Palm Springs estate reposed in shadowed sleep, guarded by armed men with dogs who hovered unobtrusively on the grounds. In the family room, candlelight converged into a quiet blaze among the mirrors, glass surfaces, and lavishly framed wall mirrors. Ten years earlier, Marga had had the room "done." It was still as her emotional little homosexual designer had created it: Lavish, overblown, rankling like too much perfume.
Astrid played a workmanlike "Für Elise." Marga, looking frail, and very drunk, went to bed. It was nine o'clock. Hugh sat on the couch enduring a social necessity.
Astrid, blonde and slender, in a white pants suit, earlobes crawling with cruel-looking little gold rings, ended the concert by running the back of her hand from the low to the high keys and then slamming the lid down. As she whirled on her stool, the room echoed with bundled discordant notes. "Daddy, you looked at your watch at least three times!"
Hugh set his drink down. "I was listening, darling."
She jumped up. "Listening!" She made claws at the ceiling. "Listening! Ahh!" She confronted him with arched back and knotted fists. "You, listen? Don't make me laugh. You were cruel to Mother."
Hugh sighed. "Darling, I love your mother very much."
"You treat her like
like a drunk."
"She is a drunk, darling."
Astrid stood up straight. "What a cold, arrogant man you are. She is a drunk, darling. She is your wife, and she drinks because
" Words seemed to be failing.
"Your mother is an alcoholic, Astrid. I let her go when she leaves me, I pay all of her credit cards and bills, and I take her back in when she returns. All of this has been going on for years. And it will go on." He felt like adding, as with you.
"All her life, she stood by you while you looked at your watch."
"This is a very old discussion," Hugh said. "Your mother has suffered, I admit. She has been through several programs, and cannot stop drinking. The doctors have told me to stop blaming myself, and I have. I have spent my life building a fortune that you are going to inherit. If I look at my watch a lot, it's from old and good habit."
Astrid stormed past him. "I hate you."
After the door had slammed, Hugh rose and finished his drink. He left the family room, closing the door behind him. It was a room he never went to unless Marga and Astrid were home.
Later that evening, Pierre LeSable welcomed Hugh into Pierre's big car. "I have it all set up with Alvaro," he told Hugh. "We will make a lot of money together. We will save your company."
Hugh was shocked at Pierre's age, his weight, his wheeze.
LeSable said: "You are still so trim. Your hair has turned white, but there are lines in your faceyou were such a baby face back then."
Hugh and LeSable rode in a Cadillac that smelled of upholstery cleaner and chocolate. The neon rainbow of Los Angeles sailed past. Fishing a liquor-filled bittersweet from a lacy box, LeSable remarked: "I have in recent years developed a taste for these things. They put a few pounds on one."
"You just like the brandy inside," Hugh countered.
LeSable drove slowly, deliberately. "Hugh, it is a serious matter. My padrone in Colombia has given me thirty days or else I will be in serious difficulties. Already this is the third day. You won't let me down? Can you come up with the money? It would otherwise go very badly for both of us."
"I'll have it in a few days," Hugh said curtly. LeSable knew nothing about Hugh's source of money, and Hugh intended to keep it that way. "About tonight," Hugh changed the subject.
LeSable pulled out into a deserted street. "This young college student has been asking for more of our product than he has been paying for. I think either he has developed a heavy habit, or else he has been carefree at parties. We are to meet him here this evening. I want to send a message to his friends. It will take him a few minutes to get here from the college."
"I understand," Hugh said.
The two men sat quietly. A lacework of steel was overhead, a railway overpass. The street was hidden between concrete revetments. One street light on shone the opposite side. LeSable had parked facing the cross street for a quick getaway.
"These people get involved for fun or quick money," LeSable said. "I tell them it is serious business, but they rarely listen. Oops, here he comes." Quickly he stepped out. Hugh followed suit. "This is your show, Hugh. Let's see if you still have the old touch, eh?"
A moped wavered into sight in the intersection several hundred feet away. The young black seemed ludicrously too big for the small vehicle. He wore a white tank top, gray sweat pants, and ankle-high red sneakers. The moped's headlight focused on the two men. The moped weaved a little, getting underway. It sped toward them.
Hugh felt the casing of the razor in his hand. He had rubbed violin wax on the handle in case he got sweaty palms. A giant. His bare shoulders and arms shone like the skin of a plum. Here and there, a rivulet of sweat meandered crazily among his steel-cable muscles. A basketball player, Hugh guessed; a real challenge.
The boy gave his moped one last rev and then shut the engine off. His lips looked pink and tight, pulled back in fear over his white teeth. The boy did not have to climb down. He rose and stepped back from the moped. He had huge, powerful looking hands hidden inside black leather gloves. He approached with raised hands, and Hugh could feel the tremor in his voice behind the false bravado. "Now look here, man, I came here like you said I should. I got a thousand bucks on me, and you can have it all, and then I'm through." His hands waved agitatedly.
"Quiet down, sonny," LeSable said. "We are still friends, are we not?"
The boy tore his gloves off and threw them on the ground. Tears streamed and his voice rose to a shrill squeak. "Aw man, I tole you time and again I got a girl and I just wanna get out. Cain't you understand when I say No?"
LeSable laughed. "Relax, sonny. Let's count the money."
Quickly, wiping his wrist against his nose, the boy fished a wallet from his back pocket. "Man, I took up a collection in a hurry." LeSable had him count the bills onto the hood of the car. They boy's hands shook, and wind rattled the money. Hugh maneuvered to the boy's right.
" the boy sobbed.
"I have a basketball scholarship."
"I understand. We understand, don't we, Monsieur?"
Hugh cleared his throat. "Yes, of course."
The boy looked at LeSable, at his left, and Hugh, at his right. "We have a message for your friends," LeSable said.
Hugh tapped the boy on the right shoulder. The boy looked at him, and Hugh crooked his left index finger as though he wanted to whisper something into his ear. The boy bent close, and it was over in a moment. LeSable stepped out of the way. The boy wheezed and touched his throat where, one supposed, there might have been a brief stinging sensation. Then he gasped. His eyes widened, in a last instant of horrified understanding. Blood spurted through the air with an audible hiss and spattering. The boy keeled over backwards, dead before his head shattered on the hard pavement.
Driving back along the neon-jazzy streets, LeSable told him: "I haven't seen anything like that since the old days."
Hugh held up the bag containing the bloody razor. "This goes into the bleach, like you taught me, remember?"
LeSable looked pale. "You enjoyed that, didn't you?"
"It has to be done."
LeSable looked troubled. "You haven't lost your touch. But I want you as a manager, not street killer. We have Garth to do that for us. People are more sophisticated now."
Hugh shrugged. "The Guzman hit was really sophisticated. Your bomb didn't go off, and Garth had to stiff him by hand."
After a while of silence, LeSable said: "And what about your lovely wife and daughter"
"Don't ask," Hugh said sharply.
Copyright © 1996 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.