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).
"It's one o'clock in the morning," John protested, answering his phone.
"I have to talk to you," Blue said.
He sat up rubbing his eyes. "It's dark out. Where the hell are you? I thought you were sleeping here."
"I'm at my hotel packing and I could use your help."
He stumbled to the bathroom and whizzed while cradling the portable phone under his chin. "Are you running out on me?"
"No, silly. Say, are you by the pool?"
"No, I'm in a canoe. Can you hear the surf?" He flushed.
"My, we do have our sense of humor at one a.m. Do you want to help me find Madame X?"
He washed his hands. "Now?"
"Yes, now. We have to catch a plane to Ohio."
"Ohio," he said. He looked in the refrigerator. The cat rubbed against his ankles. He listened to Blue's story, pouring milk in the cat's little dish. Then he rolled himself a burrito using a flour tortilla, a slice of cheese, and a dab of refried beans. Microwave, one minute. "No kidding?"
"We're not telling the Akron police yet. In fact, we're not telling anyone. Only Martha Yee knows, and she can't leave her jurisdiction without written orders and so on. I thought you'd be the perfect person to tag along with me."
"Let me guess. You need me as bodyguard."
"Oh stop being difficult. I just want you. With me."
"Okay," he sighed. "Mmm."
"Sounds good. What is it?"
"A burrito," he said with his mouth full.
"Mexican food, huh? I'm not sure about that stuff. Spicy?"
"No. Are you hungry?"
"Could you bring about a dozen along to the airport?"
Most of the passengers were asleep. The night sky was turning indigo, but stars were still visible. Blue was glad he'd come along. "Yesterday evening I called a guy I sorta know in Akron. Andreas Gump, don't laugh or I'll slug you. He works for the newspaper there. I woke him upI'd forgotten it's three hours later on Eastern Standard Timeand asked him if he knew anyone called MacIvory. He nearly jumped out of his shorts. MacIvory, he told me, is a State Congressman who wants to run for governor in the next race. I said thank you, than-kyoo!"
Blue said: "We may meet your Lady with Blue Neon Eyes."
"Oh GGGG," Blue said as they stood side by side on a street corner near the airport in Akron, Ohio.
"GGGG," John said. The temperature at 2 p.m. was twenty. As they watched, the display over a bank changed: "2:05
"Gawd," Blue said, "how soon we forget."
"No bull," he said. "Let's get our bags into a hotel room. I want to take a hot shower." Traffic roared around them. It was Middle America in Februarygray, subarctic, closed in, allowing strangers to visit, charging dearly for hospitality.
"How about a nap?" John said in their Crazy Eight Motel room.
"No time." She was on the phone, first, to let Tomasi know she had arrived safely, then: "Hi, Mr. Gump."
"Hello, how is the weather out there in sunny San Diego?"
"Warm," she said. "Real warm. I'm sitting on the balcony of my hotel room in my bikini, and it's pretty darn warm. You can almost hear the sun oil sizzling."
"Ooo. That sounds divine. The sun oil, too. I was able to roust up Bill Willoughby for you. Want his number?"
He did. "On MacIvory, is there a local story in it for us?"
"Not quite yet, Mr. Gump. One of these days I'll make it to your fair city and we'll have lunch."
"You have a very"
"Thank you, Mr. Gump. I hope you like large women."
"Well, I, uh
"Because I weigh three hundred pounds and you sound like my kinda guy. Are you going to be there for me?"
He hung up.
"What was that?" John Connor asked. He toweled his hair. He wore tight jeans and was bare from the waist up. A lot of dark curly hair was matted damply on him. He sat on the edge of the bed and poked a finger into one ear. "An admirer," Blue told him. "Wants me to come to Ohio and marry him."
"Oh. That's okay. I have a return ticket."
She threw a pillow, then dialed Bill Willoughby's number. A child answered the phone.
"Is Mr. Bill Willoughby home?" she asked. There was a lot of background noise. Children playing. "Yes," the little voice said timidly. The receiver bobbled on a table. John jumped on the bed and made gorilla arms. Blue shushed him. "Hello?" a man's deep voice said. It was a responsible, tired voice.
"This is Laurel Humboldt. I
"You're the woman that Gump guy has been calling me about."
There was a nasty, suspicious edge to his voice.
"Yes, Mr. Willoughby. I just wondered if you would answer a few questions."
"You're with the federal government?"
He was silent a moment. "Hold on. Let me take this into my office." John was blow-drying his hair. Blue made a furious face and waved him away. John closed the bathroom door.
"All right, Miss Humboldt. What do you want?"
"Just some information."
"Where are you?"
She told him.
"You're lucky you didn't call ten days later."
"Why is that?"
"Because my parole ends in ten days and I'd be hanging up in your face. Look, I don't want my family involved in anything more. I'll drive over to see you, okay?"
"That'll be fine, Mr. Willoughby" He had hung up.
Twenty minutes later, there was a knock on the door. Blue had quickly showered and dressed. She knew the time was too short to call Tomasi for a crime check, and she figured it best to have Johnno out of the way, so she sent him out for food.
Bill Willoughy had shoulders like a Mac truck. He was a big, graying man with a troubled face. Blue put him at 40, but he looked far older. "You got a badge?"
She showed him. "Look Bill, just call me Blue. I'm with the DEA, and I had no idea you had a sheet."
"I embezzled twenty thousand dollars from the bank I was working with. That was seven years ago, minus ten days. I paid the money back, and they gave me two years in, five out. Now what can I do for you, Miss?"
"Did you ever date a girl named
"Joanna?" He made a bitter face. "Yes. There was a girl like that. A tall, dark, beautiful girl. I was young and dumb. I gave her the razz. She was madly in love with me, the dumb bastard who later embezzled twenty grand and thought he could get away with it. What a fool I was. A couple of newspaper people have tried to get my story over the years. I've always turned them down. But you're flashing metal, so I'll cooperate."
"Mr. Willoughby, please relax. I just want you to tell me what your relationship with this woman was."
"We were sweethearts, until I got drafted and went to Nam, and Joanna ran off to the big city. She came home a few years later and married MacIvory, Mr. Big on the rise. I was headed for prison by then."
"So," Blue said, "I'm trying to locate a woman who was a model in New York City going by the name of Jane Willoughby, which we know was an alias."
He nodded. "That was Joanna. I came home from Vietnam and raised hell for a while. I went to New York City a few times to see her. We laughed about the fact that she used my name as her alias. She didn't want to reflect badly on her parents, you see. They're in some staunch church and all."
Blue injected: "Same church as Jana Andrews?"
"Yes. They were pals, those girls, growing up. But it wasn't going to work out between me and Joanna. And it's just as well. She gave it up and returned home. I headed for jail, and she met this guy MacIvory, just out of college, a hot shot lawyer, and the rest as they say is history. They're on their way to becoming Mr. and Mrs. Governor. And, Miss Humboldt, I hope you understand this, it's the only thing I have left to give the girl. I don't want her name associated with me. I don't want them to have to go through any of that press bullshit that ruins good people. I'm just a stiff out of her past. I've made a new life for myself in insurance. I'm a successful underwriter and I have a really nice practice. I'm about done with parole, and I don't want any more trouble."
"I understand," Blue said. "I won't make any for you. Just one more thing. What was her maiden name?"
He looked at her long and hard. "You really don't know?"
"I wish you'd tell me."
"Her maiden name was Joanna Travignan."
"Oh God," Blue said. "Oh my God, my God."
"A tragic family," he said.
"When I checked Joe Travignan's background, there was no mention of a sister."
"Half-sister," Willoughby ironically. "There's been a lot of covering up for the MacIvorys. She and Joe had different mothers. Their dad, old man Travignan, married a widow with a little daughter many years ago. With Joe's activities, they probably felt it was best to keep the connection secret. To spare Doug MacIvory. Governor MacIvory, soon, I'll bet."
Blue said: "Her brother just got murdered a few weeks ago. The press carried it locally, but I bet it was hushed up."
He said: "I knew Joe, too. Nice guy. Went on to be a priest. Got involved in drugs, who knows, I'm nobody to be casting stones. The MacIvorys are good people, Miss Humboldt. They deserve a shot at governor."
"What's past is past," Blue said. "Go on, get out of here." She offered her hand. "Congratulations on the parole."
He shook her hand. "Thanks."
Blue rented a car on her VISA card, and they drove to the MacIvory house. The house was a large, maybe six bedroom, two story building with 1860ish overtones: Twin white pillars on a small porch, ornamental window frames, woodwork in the eaves.
They circled the block twice, absorbing the flavor of upper class wealth: Each property one or more acres, trees among the white-daubed lawns, Jaguars and other sports cars mixed with the occasional Rolls, Lincoln, or Cadillac. They knocked, and a tall, handsome man wearing a long red house robe and slippers stepped into the doorway. "How may I help you?"
She showed her badge. "Laurel Humboldt, Drug Enforcement Administration. This is my associate, Mr. Connor. It's about Joe Travignan. And Vincent Brady. And Mrs. MacIvory."
"Oh? DEA, huh? What could you possibly want with my wife?"
"Could we step inside?"
"Of course. It's cold." He stepped aside, and John and Blue hastily entered a carpeted, cozy world of warmth, dim lights, and soft music. Blue put her badge away and pulled out a pair of sketches. "This is the sketch of the man who came and got our lady out of UCSD Medical Center in San Diego. And here is a picture of the lady. This is you and your wife, I believe."
He swallowed, rocking on the balls of his feet. His eyes flicked to his right, and a harsh voice spoke: "Don't talk to them, Doug." The owner of the voice, a tough-looking man in his sixties with a gray suit and white wavy hair and a red face stepped into the foyer and took MacIvory's arm. "Doug, think about your career. At this point the slightest thing
MacIvory shrugged the hand away with stoic nonchalance. "It won't be the first time, and unless we clear this up it won't be the last. Come on into the living room, you two, and get warm."
"Thank you," they said in unison.
"Drink?" MacIvory indicated a bar. Bottles glinted under crystal window panes. The bar was interior lit and had a sink built in, and an ice machine. Everything in the living room, from the cathedral ceiling to the marble floors, the shag rugs, and the leather furniture, was quietly posh and smelled of booze and leather and ashes, for there was a fire crackling behind a grating. "No thanks," they both said about drinks.
"Have a seat then. How about hot chocolate." MacIvory signaled to his companion, who shook his head and stormed out, presumably in search of a maid. "That was my lawyer, Ed Schwartz," MacIvory said dryly. "First, let me assure you my wife has no part in any drug dealings. I am frankly surprised you found us so quickly. And I would have expected FBI maybe."
"Why, Mr. MacIvory?" Blue asked. She wanted to draw him out, let him do the talking.
He seemed to deliberate how much to volunteer.
"Let me explain something," Blue said. "There is a man out there who is slashing people's throats with a razor. He has already killed at least four people."
"Is Vincent Brady one of them?" He showed sudden venom.
"No," she said.
"Can we wait until he nails Brady?"
"Until who has gotten to Brady, Sir?"
"I don't know. Whoever the Slasher is. I read the papers."
"You ought to help me to the fullest extent."
"Who is your friend here? He hasn't said a thing."
"This is Mr. Connor. He is a material witness. If I'm correct, your wife bought a ring from him later found with her brother's body."
MacIvory's composure was visibly deteriorating. Sweat stood on his forehead. "Miss Humboldt, can we spare my wife this? She is recuperating from a head injury and stab wounds."
"It would be best if I could interview her. Even if it's only briefly. You understand that the game, whatever it was, is up and we're now just interested in getting answers."
A maid in black dress and white apron brought a silver service smelling of cocoa. She set china cups on the coffee table for Blue and John and poured. MacIvory waited until the maid was done. He signaled for Ed Schwartz to close the door. "The jig is up, so to speak. Where do I start?"
"How about with your wife's modeling background." Blue produced a small notebook and pen. "Her maiden name is Joanna Travignan?"
"Very astute. I may not have much to tell you."
"She grew up in Akron and attended Kennedy High, where she dated a Bill Willoughby, later jailed for embezzlement. Am I correct so far?" Drained of all color, he sat down. "Her brother Joe became a priest in 1973. He went to San Francisco, got mixed up in drugs, the Church offered rehabilitation. He was in and out of drug programs like Episcopal Winners in Hamilton.
"Bill Willoughby had gone to Vietnam. Joanna ran away to New York City as a model under the alias Jane Willoughby." She looked up. MacIvory nodded. She continued: "After several years she returned home to meet and marry you." She skipped the rest about Willoughby. "Joe became involved in drugs again in Hamilton. He also got in with Vincent Brady. Here is where my understanding gets hazy."
"I'll tell you what I can," MacIvory said.
"Vincent Brady used the alias Vincent Gordon, a monsignor in Hamilton. I suspect Vincent Brady was skimming church money for years. Somehow, he got Joe involved. Any idea how?"
MacIvory said: "Joe was skimming the poor box when he got back on junk. Brady was also paying for Joe's drugs from the outfit your people busted in Hamilton. In turn, Joe introduced Brady to elderly widows ready to donate funds to the Church. Brady got the money, Joe the drugs."
"Who killed Joe and why?"
"I don't know. Ed checked into it for me. Looks like Joe was in the wrong place at the wrong time." He poked the embers with a poker. "My wife and I have had our differences over the years, but we love each other. We have a common interest in politics. The upcoming run for governor means everything to us. Joanna needed to expose Brady without getting his dirt on us. When she learned Joe was dead, it made her mad with grief. I lost track of her for a week until she called from the hospital."
"What day was that?"
"Wednesday. She called from San Diego. Naturally, I brought her home."
"Secretly," Blue added. He licked his lips and glanced at his lawyer, who poured himself a large glass of booze. Blue said: "Joanna had a girlfriend from Akron who was a model in New York City. Jana Andrews. Jana and she kept in touch a little bit over the years, I suppose?"
"I think I can help you out," Joanna MacIvory said. She had opened the door quietly, and leaned against the frame. A heavy bandage was around her head. One arm was in a sling, and she had draped a robe over her shoulders, flannel nightgown underneath. Her face was not swollen anymore, and her beauty shone through the fading bruises. MacIvory jumped to his feet. "Darling, you shouldn't"
John Connor rose too. "That's her, Blue."
Ed Schwartz rushed to assist Joanna, but she brushed him aside. "Come in here, please, I have to lie down again soon."
With Doug MacIvory in the lead, they trooped into the adjoining large room with hospital bed and wheelchair, walls covered with blown-up photo posters. "The history of my modeling career. Call it a woman's ego. You can see, I was in quite a few prominent ads. Including, Mr. Connor, our Rolex ad."
"There it is, Blue," Johnno said, pointing to posters with Joanna as Lady with Blue Neon Eyes, mystically opening wonderful cars while her eyes poured forth cool blue light.
"Hello, John Connor," Joanna MacIvory said.
"Nice to see you again, Joanna Travignan," he said. He remembered the scratchy touch of her fingernails on his cheek that night at Ajanian's when she'd bought the ring. "I thought we'd meet again somehow, but not to compare covers, after all."
"Jana Andrews had quite a crush on you," Joanna said. "She used to talk to me about you. And I liked you too." She looked pale, and thin, and had circles under her eyes.
"Thanks. I guess you know about Jana
"Poor girl. It was downhill for years. In a way, she's better off. I do miss her."
Blue asked: "Why did you impersonate Jana Andrews?"
"Impersonate? Funny, I never thought of it that way. Sounds criminal, and maybe it is. Poor Joe told me he was in a racket with this phony monsignor. I was afraid of exposing Doug to any sort of smut. How innocent that all seems now. I wanted to ruin Brady, and I wasn't sure how. I couldn't harm him physically; look what he did to me when I finally tried. I hated him for the way he was using my brother and the church and various people. I took on Jana's identity
"Let me guess," Blue said. "You tracked Brady to Louise. Or to Virgie DeSanto. You were going to set Brady up."
"Yes. I'm the one who turned Father Binder onto him. I was going to ruin him. Expose him in a scam with fast cars and women and drugs and stolen money
"Do you use cocaine?"
"No. That was part of the setup."
"There was cocaine found on you the night you were stabbed."
"I brought that along to plant it on Brady."
"Where did you get the cocaine?"
The MacIvorys exchanged startled looks. He looked startled, to be precise, and she looked guilty. "Well, I have a, a connection. Someone in the police department. I misappropriated some cocaine that was intended for destruction. It had been used as evidence in a trial, and the trial was concluded."
"Fair enough. I'll bargain with you. I may be able to ignore that if you just help me along further."
"Whatever you say!"
"Virgie dropped off the clippings outside John Connor's house. Why involve John?"
"I never had any intention. It's only because Joe died, and they found the ring. I just went there from nostalgia; to see his oyster once more. It sort of turned into an opportunity."
Blue said: "Now about this Slasher."
Joanna's eyes slitted. "That sounds like Hugh Stone."
"Who?" several people blurted at once.
"One of the drug people running Brady. I went to his mansion in Palm Springs. That's where I first met Brady. Hugh Stone! He has the most chilling eyes. I believe he would be capable of slashing."
"I need a phone, Mrs. MacIvory." Doug MacIvory's face was in his hands. Schwartz looked as though all the blood had been drained out of him. Joanna offered a cordless phone, and Blue dialed Tomasi's number. While the phone rang in Manhattan, she asked Joanna: "Give me Stone's address."
"Tomasi," her boss said.
"This is Humboldt. I'm interviewing our missing lady, and I think I have a lead on our slasher."
"Jesus Christ, Humboldt, let me have it."
Blue relayed the information as Joanna fed it to her. The location of the mansion. Palm Springs. The description of Hugh Stone. Seeing the weariness, the grief about her brother, on Joanna's face, she said: "Look, Joanna is about worn out and I don't have many more questions for now. Let's wrap it up."
Joanna said: "I want to apologize, Mr. Connor, for dragging you into this."
"I'm sorry about your brother."
The phone rang.
"For you, Miss Humboldt," Doug MacIvory said.
Tomasi. "Yes, Chief?"
"I've got word out to the FBI and the Palm Springs PD. They know the mansion, and they're putting people on it right now. They say the place is up for sale, and only a young woman is there. Hugh Stone's daughter. What's going on in Akron? Are we busting the MacIvorys for the cocaine she was found with?"
"Please, no. I'm making a deal here."
"You'd better be careful, Humboldt."
"I can explain, Chief. We need the information more than we need a shaky charge."
"You're probably right. Well, the rest of it's up to the FBI and the several PD's involved. Want a few days off?"
"I'd like to take week's vacation in San Diego."
"That's reasonable. Got someone to enjoy it with?"
"Chief," she said, mortified.
"I assume, from what Barnes tells me, that it's Connor, and that's great. You need a little reverse PR. Go on, have a ball. Have a party. Take pictures."
Alone with Johnno at the Crazy 8: slow, intriguing rock music throbbed on MTV. The room flashed smoky red from the television while Johnno and Blue made love. Outside, a snowy icy grit blew against the windows. "Blue, I love you."
"That's nice to hear." They kissed slowly, languidly.
"I feel something I never felt before."
"I'm talking straight with you. This is me here, on the line. Oh God, when you do that
"Oh, baby, oh, yes!" She climbed on top.
Copyright © 1996 by John Argo, Clocktower Books. All Rights Reserved.