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).
Joanna McIvory, 35, alias Jana Andrews, had long dark hair, a stunning figure, and dark blue eyes with a sultry skyline glint. As she sat in her silvery BMW beside a desert road in California, she decided to go through with her plan. With the sudden slam of her hand on the gear shift knob, the car roared into life. Kicking up dust that drifted quietly in starry night, she drove the remaining miles into Palm Springs.
She found the Hugh Stone mansion with little trouble. Valet parking attendants hustled her wheels out from under her on the broad horseshoe driveway. She stepped up to the floodlit, pillared entrance with a clear, almost numb mind. The high-ceilinged foyer bustled with guests in evening dress. Carrying a champagne glass, Joanna looked about for the man she wanted to destroy.
Briefly she met Brady's accomplice, Hugh Stone, the estate's owner, who had made his fortune in electronics manufacturing. Stone turned out to be a good-looking man. She had expected somehow a toadier looking individual. Stone's cheeks had pink highlights. His gray eyes were chilly and penetrating, and she shivered slightly. Dangerous eyes. She extricated herself from that conversation with an unholy crawling feel about her spine.
The house smelled of coffee, fresh bread, and roast meat. Guests wandered everywhere, chattering and laughing. Snatches of piano music filtered through the heavy curtains and the ivied trellises. After about twenty minutes, she saw Vincent Brady.
A smile here, a smile there. A pair of eyes, a laugh, a charge up the stairs by a portly man who carried himself lightly, like a successful salesman. He had dark, full hair just sprinkled with gray. Joanna put his age around 45. She trailed Brady for a few minutes. He had charm all right, but then so had the serpent in Eden. He was a loner, too. He moved among people with that dazzling face, that guileless baby face with its pink dimpled cheeks and rosy lips, its boyish dark eyes and roguish eyebrows, and everywhere people smiled and nodded, but he never really stopped to speak with anyone. Collar open, neck tanned and ruddy looking. Cigar in hand. Joanna timed her approach. She blocked his path, cocking her head to one side and smiling meaningfully. Vincent Brady raised an eyebrow. "I'm
charmed." Under the smile was something serious like the darkness on an antique gold coin. He extended a hand. "Vincent Brady."
"Pleased to meet you," Joanna said, "Jana Andrews. Are you enjoying yourself?"
He slipped the cigar into a sand tray. "Dear Lady, an occasional vice, these excellent cigars of Hugh's. Oh, that you should ask such a question. I am now, more than ever."
The steady party chatter in the house, the rattle of glasses and the glossy piano phrases, were punctuated by an occasional plush of a dive into the pool in the house's inner courtyard.
Vincent liked tall woman with poise. Jana's red satin gown left much of her chest and shoulders bare, what was not covered by her black lace shawl. She was leggy, drifting through the gaze of every man she passed, and a few tried to make conversation, but she walked away from each of them. To an observant man, she was genteel, but had something hard about her. Not an abrasive hardness exactly, but a subtle steeliness. She had a rather bony face with hard cheekbones, a gently curved nose, lush lips that rolled with character and humor as the muscles in her face moved. She had a low, almost husky voice and a slow, measured way of talking. Vincent asked: "Do you know about Aphrodite?"
"The Greek Venus? Goddess of Love?"
His eyes glittered over his champagne. He put the glass down and drew a satisfied breath. "The original. Not the Roman imitation. The original, precious and pristine as the creation of the world. Born in foam at the edge of the sea. Botticelli painted her as standing in a huge seashell."
"How charming. I take it you are an art expert?"
"No, not an expert. Just a connoisseur. I have the fortune to have a classical education. Fordham. Jesuits. Life is short and we should reach out and touch the finest things." Vincent lied without a thought; he'd walked across the Fordham campus once. He ached to touch her long limbs, her easy gracefulness, her laughing eyes.
Her hip touched him with a sharp edge. "And what are some of the finest things?"
He looked her directly in the eye, and she did not flinch. "The finest things present themselves and then vanish forever if we don't reach out and take them. Like you. Like now."
She laughed uproariously. Big girl, big vocal chords. "You're going to reach out and grab me? Here?"
He smiled and looked at his feet. "No, Miss Andrews, I'm not a satyr. I'd like to be friends if that's possible. I'm not staying long. That's why I am so forward. I'd like to call you next time I'm in Palm Springs."
Jana brushed his lapel with her champagne glass. With her little finger under the lapel, she pulled him closer. "But I don't live in Palm Springs and I don't visit here often."
"Well darn it," he said, "I get around quite a bit. I'm in the computer business. I sell big industrial accounts around the country. Maybe I'll be in your neck of the woods one day." He reached out with his index finger to touch the spot on her red gown where her belly button ought to be. He felt an outie. His fingertip ran lightly down the midline of her belly.
Suddenly she put her glass aside. The way she loomed over him, he thought she was going to hit him. She laid her arms over his shoulders and brought her face close to his. Her breath was grapey and musty, like a wine cellar. Her skin was lightly but seductively perfumed. "Why don't we dance?"
He placed his arms around her waist. His fingers dallied about the dimples on either side of her tailbone.
"I'll give you my card," she whispered. "I can't promise anything, but you could give me a call. We could have dinner."
Vincent was confused. She was baiting him and then pushing him away. What was this game? He did not have the experience with women that his schooled, easy manner suggested. He never admitted this to anyone, of course. Probably she sensed money and was playing hard to get while trying to reel him in. Why did women do these things? Well, she was welcome to his ass. She was a beautiful woman. Venus on the half-shell.
Soon they were kissing deeply. They maneuvered into a dark, quiet corner half hidden behind a heavy brocade curtain and some palms. There, his breath came faster, and his hands massaged the soft round places under her gown. Her tongue sucked at his and her hands stroked the back of his neck until it burned. She would be more than passionate, he decided, she would be violent in bed. Gasping, he thrust his hand through a slit in the side of her gown. She was wearing only a finger's width of breath- thin lace. When his finger tips encountered a mons of the purest Venus, she pulled away.
"Not now. Not tonight.."
"I must have you
"No!" Surprising vehemence, almost anger.
He took a deep breath and rubbed his cheek. "All right."
She laughed. A mean little gurgle. "You're out of breath."
She held up a business card and cocked her head to one side, rolling her lips together. He took the card. She dabbed at his mouth with a tissue that smelled of too-sweet birthday cake. He looked at the card. "Jana Andrews. Consultant. Chicago." She pulled his bow tie too tight. He freed his neck, annoyed.
She touched his chin with her finger. "You like your women spirited. No wimps for you. I can tell. I'm right, aren't I? You like to fight your women into bed."
Weakly, he said: "Yes."
She forced a dry, close-lipped kiss on his lips and strode away. She winked over her shoulder. "Don't wait too long."
He stared after her, addicted to her perfume, to her.
Vincent found Hugh near the pool, speaking with a distinguished looking jowly man in a tux with tanned, wrinkled wife who made admiring blinky eyes and whose powdered and rouged face seemed permanently supportive and admiring.
"Jana?" Hugh answered Vincent. "I don't know. Briefly met her for the first time tonight. Why?"
"I got her card," Vincent said patting his breast pocket.
"You bad boy," Hugh said. "Excuse me," he told the man and woman and they nodded. "Vincent," he said putting his arm around his companion's shoulder, "why don't we go into the library. I know you have a flight out."
They passed the pool, where the band was beginning to tune up. They just avoided getting splashed by the people playing in the pool. Vincent saw Hugh's eyes. Ducking to avoid getting splashed, Hugh suddenly had a veiled look of utter irrational anger. It passed in a nanosecond. The two men laughed it off. A trail of hackles burned softly on Vincent's back. Fear.
In a carpeted, quiet room, Stone closed the door. "Drink?"
"Scotch and soda on the rocks."
The books on the walls muffled their voices. The party sounded mute and distant. Ice crackled as alcohol and seltzer attacked it. "I have good news for you, Vincent." Hugh lit a large cigar, working the soapstone lighter around its tip.
"That's what I like to hear."
"I spoke with my friend and we are ready to do business." Cigar smoke filled the room. Hugh sucked on the cigar.
"I seem to be on a roll tonight." Vincent felt giddy.
"Indeed you are." Hugh set his drink aside. He had a way of being pontific that irked Vincent, but what the hell, they were using each other. "There is a time element involved. My friend is very nervous. He has been given a very short time to put this deal together, or else he will be in trouble. So, we must receive your money post-haste, as the deal depends on you."
"How much?" Vincent asked, his stomach fluttering.
"Your entire three million."
"You're kidding." The floor seemed to drop away.
"If something went wrong, I'd
have to start over
"Nothing will go wrong."
"How can you be sure?"
"Think, Vincent. I know it's scary. But it's simple and foolproof. I've done it before. You'll be free, just think, isn't that what you want? To be free?"
"God, yes." In some ways, he felt frightened, even angry at himself. He didn't need this. He could be free anyway with the money he'd gotten together. But his greed
"Suppose I don't want to go through with this."
"Oh you will," Hugh said. "You have too much at stake." He puffed happily on his cigar.
"What if you keep my money and just kiss me off?"
Hugh cleared his throat. "Vincent," he said, and Vincent's stomach knotted up, "let me explain something to you. You hold something over me, and I hold something over you. We could burn one another. I don't normally do business like this, but I'm desperate. Do you understand? Desperate. I need three million dollars to finance my business, and I'll need more money on subsequent deals. We'll both do okay, don't worry. But let me tell you one thing. I want this to be clear. If you fuck up on me, I will blow the whistle on you, do you understand?"
Vincent slept most of the way to New York City. He ate a light dinner in the airport lounge and had two drinks to fortify himself before finding the limo to Hamilton, Connecticut.
It was drizzling lightly when he walked the long glass corridors at JFK on Long Island. Taxis circled the concourse and rain (ice?) glittered on their yellow bodies. The sky thundered as planes landed or took off. He found the limo station rest room.
Coming out moments later, he avoided two stewardesses passing by. Lovely girls. Rakish caps, sweet dark uniforms, legs, conversation
Having changed his clothing, he felt home again. He felt it going the other way, too, always the excitement of changing worlds, tension between heaven and hell.
"Take your bags?"
"Why certainly, thank you."
Little Italian looking boy, peppy, eager to please, twentyish, maybe a college student. "Where are you headed, Monsignor?"
"Just over there. The limousine stand for Connecticut."
well, here we are. Thanks!" The boy hurried off with a two-dollar tip.
Monsignor Vincent Gordon smiled and raised his hand in blessing amid a streaming rain.
Copyright © 1996 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.