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).
Blue and Martha worked out an angle of attack. Martha had other duties (shades of Eddie!) which left Blue to her own investigation. But San Diego was a huge city, not a little town you could get to know in a day or two.
Martha stepped into Blue's office and closed the door. "About the other night."
"I'm sorry I barfed and all."
"You were very sweet. I'd like to see you more."
"Thanks, Martha. I just broke up with someone in New York, and I'm trying to lay low. Especially with this investigation."
"How about dinner soon?"
"Sure," Blue said.
After many hours of poring over police and paramedic reports, and fruitless phone calls and visits with other detectives, Blue had made no progress. She was home when Eddie called.
She was in the tub. "How are ya?"
"That's a glum howdoyoudo."
"It's cold enough to freeze your balls off."
"That would never be cold enough for me." She moved mounds of bubble foam over her skin.
"Blue, about that other priest from Hamilton who just bit the big one, Monsignor Gordon? I made another pass through Joe's stuff before Pollack sent it to Joe's parents in Ohio. Joe had this monsignor's phone number written down in about six places in his diaries. They were connected, I'm sure."
"Try Father Binder," she suggested. "Ask him how much money Travignan and Gordon stole together." She wondered if the two-timing priests had a little fun-lair someplace in San Diego.
Barnes called not long after her conversation with Eddie. She was drying out on the little balcony overlooking San Diego Harbor from the 15th floor, working on her tan after a swim. "Miss Humboldt, you ought to know, and I'm about to call Mr. Connor. There's a stabbing victim at UCSD Medical Center. Female, and unconscious. Her name is Jana Andrews. We're checking her prints against the state files."
Blue sat up. "Unconscious? Hasn't talked yet?"
As she drove to the hospital in her rental car, she reviewed what Barnes had told her. Jana Andrews was wheeled out of surgery for the third time in two days, still unconscious. Cocaine worth a million dollars on the street had been found in a suitcase in a car rented by one Jana Andrews, all else unknown. Paramedics had found her bleeding and near death. She had a stab wound to the chest, deflected by her sternum. She had a stab wound to the arm, and several blows to the head. She had banged her head on the concrete and surgeons had drained blood and brain fluid from her inner ear. She was under 24 hour watch, not only for her safety, but to catch anyone coming to finish her off. The connection might never have been made were it not for a persistent records clerk.
At the hospital, she met Barnes, Connor, and Martha. They followed an exasperated ward clerk, a chubby little black woman with rattling jewelry and too much make-up, huffing behind two orderlies and a nurse who were pushing the gurney. "I had to know if her dental work has been checked," the clerk explained as the entourage made their way along semidark halls with glistening floors and a smell of boric acid. "Someone somewhere must be missing a wife or a daughter or mother! If figured, time to call the police back and try one last measurethe state fingerprints databank, to see if perhaps she had a record."
"Wonderful work," Barnes said.
As they wheeled Jana Andrews into a room, the nurse said: "She's stable for now. Lost a lot of blood. She's had several operations to relieve pressure from leaking brain fluid." Martha Yee said: "We'll have a round the clock watch in case she talks. Funny part is, SDPD had a watch on her because they found a million bucks of cocaine in her rental car."
Blue asked: "Where did they find her?"
"On the steps of a ritzy place in La Jolla."
"Could that be Monsignor Gordon's little love nest?"
"Something to check out," Martha agreed.
John Connor stepped forward, looked at the swollen, black and blue face, and turned away. "I can't tell if it's her."
Barnes patted Connor's shoulder. "Easy now. We're double checking the fingerprints against state records if we have any."
Outside, Blue bumped into Connor. "You look upset."
"Yeah." He rubbed his cheek in disbelief. "I'm going for some lunch. Care to join me?"
She saw herself falling right into it. "Sure."
He opened the door of a dark Porsche for her. He wore jeans and a white cotton shirt that offset his light tan. His dark hair looked wet and curly, as though he had carelessly combed it after a shower. Round aviator sunglasses hid his eyes. His strong jaw and smooth face with streamlined nose radiated a sense of tiger strength. His long, lanky limbs moved with casual athletic grace. She slid into the seductive smells of leather, upholstery, and a faint, citric aftershave or cologne. The machine growled and started away from the curb. He was a quick, smooth driver, comfortable with the powerful car.
Oddly, she felt as though she were on a date. Not a bad feeling, despite the circumstances. He took her to a restaurant called Kabuki-san. They walked through a pebble courtyard overhung with ivy growing out of pots hung from wooden beams. The interior was festooned with paper lanterns and cord-wrapped white canvas bundles suggesting bales of tea. Buddhas gleamed in little wall niches. There were odd mingled aromastea, fish, salty stew, peanut sauce. At the sushi bar, they each drank a small egg-cup of hot sake, rice wine, potent as a martini. They were served small wooden trays of sashimi: Bits of raw fish and vegetables pressed into truncated rice cylinders wrapped in dark green seaweed. He showed her how to hold chopsticks, dip the sashimi in hot green mustard, and after each bite clean her palate by eating a few shreds of pickled ginger.
He toyed with an after-lunch drink. All the women in the restaurant kept looking at him. He seemed almost shy; now why would that be? To break the ice, she touched his hand. "Tell me, why did you quit modeling?"
John Connor felt her cold fingertips on the back of his hand. She was smiling, but with a calculating curiosity.
"I'm sorry, Miss Humboldt, I can't seem to put a picture together. I'm not used to seeing a woman so battered."
"This has been an upsetting time for you." She added: "So modeling was not a very happy career for you."
"It was okay. This woman has somehow touched me. Taken me back. It makes me remember a divorce. Some bad times."
She said kindly: "You are handsome, wealthy, can have anyone or anything you like."
"Maybe it seems that way to you." He wondered if she was being condescending or adoring, and wasn't sure.
"I'm not entirely happy either," she confessed. That floored him. "I have a job I sometimes enjoy, even though it's deadly dull or frustrating by turns. I'm wondering if you have the same problem I have."
"That inner voice. Deep down. Like a nagging bit of heartburn. The feeling there has to be something more."
"Is there a man in your life?" He apologized with his eyes for being so forward.
"Not right now."
Could you believe it, she blushed! Well, she was honest. And her personality had a kind of crackle to it. Like fresh celery, clean and wholesome. Also humorous and kind. He envied her, and he said so.
She laughed. "What?" Her dark eyes mocked. "I have to work for a living. I'm not glamorous. The work I do is not happy or nice or even safe. You're a card!" Her pale, pretty features with their sincerity stirred him.
In a sudden flash of sympathy, her reserve toward him had evaporated. She felt a wave of understanding as he told her his story, which she found interesting.
His parents had been perfectionists, and he knew he had not entirely pleased them, dropping college plans to take up modeling; he was making up for that now, taking courses at San Diego State University. Then he'd been recruited for modeling. For two years, he'd worked hard before the camera. By night he cruised the clubs. He had women several a day, the way ordinary people get hungry or thirsty. However, he did not have the energy. That was the old story. He could have had a thousand women, a Ph. D., or a track championship, but none of those things appealed to him. While many other male models were gay and lived a totally different lifestyle, and others abused chemicals, John needed normalcy and regularity. So he married one of the many female models who carouseled through his life. A disaster, for she was childish and selfish and ultimately ran around with other men. John, however, formed solid friendships in the Big Apple. One of them was a lady named Sonya Marcus, a plain gal of 30 with thick glasses, who traded on the New York She had long ceased to look on the outside; what Sonya Marcus looked likea dumpy young womandid not matter to him as much as the fact that she was a genuine, strong person with great affection. During the worst of his divorce, he'd slept regularly with Sonya Marcus and found more solace there than in all the hard-working young mares on the fashion world trotting track. Sonya had taught John the stock market. She'd taken his earnings and doubled, tripled, quadrupled them for him. She'd done this in a way that he'd been able to avoid most alimony problems. Sonya had drifted out of his life in 1980. That was the period when he'd quit modeling. He was a millionaire by then. His parents were dead, and he'd returned to San Diego to pursue a new life. If he was not competitive by nature, he also resented being used. Modeling was a matter of being used, and once he'd made his money he'd turned his back on it.
"Why do you want to work for me?" Ajanian the purveyor of luxury had asked during the interview four years ago.
"Well," John had told him, "I miss the working world just a little bit. Mostly the everyday contact with people. So I answered your ad. Part-time help wanted. That sounds like what I need."
Ajanian and he stood ankle deep in Persian carpeting. Ajanian's In The Mall had a quiet elegance. Gregor Ajanian had spent a lifetime creating a lavish mystique that made his store the byword for expensive buying. He was a small tidy-looking man with dark eyes, a cashew-shaped nose, a wide full mouth, and a grayish olive complexion. His store had nothing that anybody needed. Just a quarter acre of useless but beautiful furs, jewels, rugs, gadgets, glossy hundred-dollar books, and matte black James Bond novelties. Lots of foot traffic and few buyers, but those who bought spent big bucks. The interior of Ajanian's gleamed in a bluish light that bounced among mirrors.
Gregor Ajanian studied John Connor while gingerly holding a green and gold designer cigarette in a hand glittering with diamond rings. John Connor carried himself well. He had a tall, slender body that was neither soft nor overly hard, muscular but not muscle-bound. Connor's clothes were expensive and understated. Ajanian had a reedy, abrasive voice modulated by a burr like a drill smothered in lubricant soap. "Have you spent any time in Las Vegas, son?"
John Connor had frowned. "Pardon me? Yes, I've been there."
"Do you know what a shill is?"
"Sounds like a rare coin or something," John laughed.
Ajanian kept a pickle face. "You haven't played Chemin de Fer then."
"I don't gamble," John assured him.
"That's good," Ajanian said, reassured. He looked John up and down. "A shill is a come-on. Chemin de Fer is supposed to be a high-brow game. It's a sucker's game the way it's played in the U. S. The casino hires a couple of gorgeous women in evening gowns and studs in tuxedoes to sit at a ritzy looking table and pretend they're playing Chemin de Fer. Joe Shmoe, you walk by, you're a sucker, you want to feel elegant, you step up and play. For a while you pretend you're James Bond. Then you're broke and the shills charm your ass out of there to make room for the next sucker."
"That doesn't sound like my kind of game," John said.
Ajanian burred: "Chemin de Fer is French for Railroad, though I don't think there's any pun intended."
John: "You're very knowledgeable. I understand you travel all over the world to buy the wonderful things you sell here."
Finally, Ajanian laughed. "You'll do fine in sales. You're charming me, and I see you coming." He paused. "Maybe I can use you, John. Have you ever done any sort of sales work before?"
"Not exactly, but you just said I might have charm."
"What kind of money are you used to?"
"I've never earned less than a thousand dollars a day."
Ajanian blinked; a rare event for this accomplished world-class poker player. "Then perhaps this job would be menial for you. I'm paying seven dollars an hour. I could make it ten for you."
"I don't care."
Ajanian not only blinked; he blinked and swallowed. "Very well. Ten dollars an hour."
"Great," John had told him. "You can simply send my pay to a bank account I'll set up. When do I start?"
"I like for my sales staff to dress to the nines. To be polite. Elegant."
"Shills," John said.
"Yes. Only nobody gets suckered here."
"The customer is always right."
"Very well then, you understand. You'll be part of the atmosphere. When you sell a five thousand dollar Rolex or a ten thousand dollar Persian rug, you're selling yourself and this store. I want the atmosphere of elegance to stay shining on that sold object for as long as the customer owns it. Capisc'?"
For the next four years, John reported religiously on Thursday and Saturday evenings for work at Ajanian's In The Mall. For a while there were a lot of stories about him. That he was a reformed criminal. That he was a European prince in hiding. In exile. That he had no foreign accent had quashed those last tales. In the end, they became used to him. They forgot the weird stories and malicious gossip and were usually too busy working to whisper about him. They called him John, John, Hey You. He loved it. They didn't really understand, but they were the anchor of his weekly schedule. And by now he had bought himself into a limited partnership with Ajanian, a 20% share of the business.
Ajanian spent quality hours on the floor with his people. He was a hard man to work for because he was exacting. He was relentlessly critical, but he was also enormously forgiving. If he had a drawback, it was that he was a miser with praise. Only once, about a year after hiring John, he took him aside and whispered: "You know why I've kept you on? Sure, you're beautiful, a lot of ladies come by at least twice a week just to look at you, but that doesn't sell watches and diamonds. I like you because you don't have a fat head. People like you for that, John. You're a nice guy."
"That is a nice story," Blue told him.
Slowly, the earlier grin, a boyish squiggle of the lips against white teeth and light tan skin, broke through like the sun through clouds. "You warm me."
She caught herself. She did not want to get chummy. She stepped away and looked at her watch. "Well, I think I ought to call Barnes and see what's going on." Keep it professional.
"There is a phone in my car," he enthused. Of course, there would be. So, moments later she was in touch with Barnes who had just returned to his office from the hospital. She asked: "Is she conscious yet?"
Connor put his sunglasses on and started the car.
"I'll be back in the office shortly," she told Barnes.
"Fine," he said, "I'll be gone the rest of the day. Get with Martha if you need us."
She hung up. John said: "Can I show you around?"
She felt stiff. "I'd like to keep things on a rather formal level. After all, you're a material witness."
"Okay. Let's keep it formal. Where to start?"
Not your house, please, she thought.
"The zoo, then." John Connor paid for their tickets. There were plenty of tourists about, and lots of babies crying in strollers. Flamingoes padded through their wading pool like pink dancers and on the lawn around their pool were ancient pygmy date palms with delicate fronds.
"What about your parents, Miss Humboldt. What do they think about your career?"
"As a cop? I think they hate it. I think they're afraid for my safety. But they've stopped saying things."
"And you're all alone? In the world, I mean? In New York City?"
He seemed to sense her bottomless fright. "Look," he said, "the giraffes. They are the gentlest creatures, don't you think? One of the lady giraffes just had a baby. They have her in that special corner. The other giraffes keep wandering over to look over the fence at the mother and her new baby."
He showed her the Bengal tiger, a massive padding creature with beautiful markings. She saw the sullen gorillas and was sure they resented their captivity. The orangutans were behind a special plastic enclosure whose surface they had marred with vicious clawing attacks. It was cool and shady in the tropical rain forest. Tropical plants grew amid concrete paths and plashing waterfalls. A woman passed, pushing a carriage containing a severely crippled and retarded boy with a deformed head and oddly twisted fingers. With a sudden surge of heart, she turned and told him: "Mr. Connor, we're very lucky. I mean, we look on the negative side, we all do, we human people. But we have so much."
Connor had seen the boy too. "Yes, we're very lucky, Miss Humboldt. We have to keep remembering that."
The elephant triggered another sadness in Blue. "Look how he has to patiently keep walking around and around that dusty path all day with screaming kids on his back."
"Elephants have been doing hard work in India for thousands of years," Connor stated.
"Don't you think he'd be happier in the wild?"
"He'd have to fight for a living. I don't knowmaybe he'd be happier. He looks like a happy elephant to me."
Elephant dust drifted before her field of vision. "Are you a happy elephant, Mr. Connor?"
Night fell over the harbor. John Connor watched a two-masted schooner glide past. Her decorated rigging formed a pyramid of little white lights.
John watched Humboldt's pale, harmoniously featured face, under floating puff of black hair and inset with lustrous dark eyes, grow quietly and subtly lovely. He put his hand over hers. "The happy hour crowd is rolling in. The band is tuning up. Let's stay and dance."
For a moment, he thought she would reject his offer. Instead she nodded, pleasure in her eyes. "I'm going to run upstairs for a moment to freshen up. Will you wait for me here?"
Waiting, he ignored watchful eyes. Of a blonde lighting a cigarette. Of the slender brunette hostess each time she passed by. Of two older women with garish wigs and too much makeup who kept looking his way. The harbor had a quiet beauty of lights and cool wind beyond the noise of the four-piece combo doing Beatles songs.
A pair of shapely legs in a jeans miniskirt, white hose, and black high heels caught his eye. He turned his eyes discreetly in that direction, saw that the owner, in a puffy-sleeved white silk blouse, was coming directly toward him among the stares of men, choked, and realized it was Laurel Humboldt. She smiled, and her teeth made an ivory contrast with the darkness of her eyes. He felt comfortable enough with her to say: "I didn't recognize you, Laurel. My god, you're gorgeous."
She blushed. "You have some original lines."
He sat back a little frustrated. He knew better than to argue with a woman about her self-image. Like many women, this one was self-demeaning to a degree.
She tapped his wrist. "Come on, let's dance."
They gyrated through two fast dances, becoming sweaty in the noisy, dense crowd. Young businessmen had loosened their ties and developed red faces in a never-ending call for beers and drinks. Young businesswomen became brash and giggly over their drinks and cigarettes. Connor's eyes reveled in the lithe twisting motions of Blue Humboldt, whom the second drink had also apparently loosened up. Then came a long slow dance. He led, and she followed securely, tucked against his right shoulder. Her left hand splayed against his right shoulder blade. His left hand and her right hand were clasped, and their fingers twined and intertwined like two lovers in bed together.
They stepped outside with their drinks. The harbor breeze was quiet and refreshing. She said: "I've never heard of a cop dancing with a material witness."
"You're undercover, Blue. You're working your way into my sinister private life to set up the drug bust of the century."
"Oh stop it." She slugged him on the shoulder in a sisterly fashion. For a while, they leaned shoulder to shoulder on the wooden railing, watching ships passing on the night water. "It's a lovely city," she said.
"I like it." And he did.
"It would be nice if they reassigned me here."
"That would be nice," he agreed. Impulsively, he put his arm around her, feeling the lightness of her waist, the curve of her hip. Her arm pressed on his. They were that way for a few minutes. He turned toward her, and she faced him. Their faces were inches apart. He inclined his face toward hers, and her eyes sank shut. Her lips parted as though about to drink. Then she squirmed away. She said: "One more fast dance. Then I've got to go upstairs and you have to go home."
Blue ran to her room and bolted the door. She went to the window and looked after him, but all she could see were the myriad flashes of restaurant lights on the dark harbor water.
This guy was a dream. Surely a million women thought so. No way she was going to latch onto a guy like that. I am not going to set myself up to be hurt again. In the shower, surrounded by soothing hot steam, she thought about her innermost doubt. Society liked neat tags. Either you were straight or lesbian. She thought of Donald and Tessie and Mike Aguilar and Maggie. What am I, she wondered. Fifty-fifty, eighty-twenty, sixty/forty? Would such a relationship work? Connor left you breathless. But she would have to be professional. Which would be hard because, she realized, she suddenly had a crush on him. It was a breathless, anxious, hopeful, happy, desperate thing to have a crush on so handsome a man. Keep control, she told herself. Don't let him know. You'll be back in Connecticut within a week.
Copyright © 1996 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.