Fifteen years ago, that voice had been Harold’s daily companion. He would have denied the possibility of ever forgetting its rounded, ironic tones or failing to recognize its owner in an instant. Nevertheless, his mental wheels spun for enough seconds to draw the attention of the room.
The nickname “Harry” was the crucial clue. Early in his professional career, Harry Bramwing had metamorphosed into “Harold”, symbolically shedding a misspent youth along with the diminutive. So the speaker was from his college days or earlier. His imagination stripped a couple of decades from the face, removed the straggling black beard, experimentally slenderized the figure - and all at once Constantine Stavrakis was there in front of him.
“Deno! What in heaven’s name are you doing here?”
“Oh, spinning webs. And what about you, Harry?”
“How do you two know each other?” Melisande broke in. “Mr. Savoy keeps claiming to be an absolute neo.”
His old friend gave Harold a scrutinizing look, seemed on the verge of answering Melisande’s question, then fell into an unexpected silence. Harold felt forced to bridge the gap.
“We were at college together. Roommates.”
Also fraternity brothers, drinking buddies, partners in the quest for truth and meaning, partners too in less worthy endeavors. Suddenly recalled, the friendship seemed as vivid now as it had been on Commencement Day at Berwick College, when two new-coined Bachelors of the Arts made cloudy plans on the assumption that their lives would always run together.
That hadn’t happened. Attending graduate schools a thousand miles apart in disciplines that were not much closer, they let their meetings dwindle. The last had been seven years ago, a constrained evening of conversation between two men who had no subjects in common. They had said that they would meet again, but neither had believed it.
“So you’re Milos Savoy,” Deno said, abruptly coming out of his study. “I didn’t know that you wrote.”
“I dabble. This young lady has been reminding me of my sins against the Muses.”
“Emperor of the Dust was good. I did a review of it.”
“Really? Where? My editor sends me clippings, but I’m sure I didn’t see one with your name on it.”
“It wouldn’t have gotten into the clipping file. I review for Christian publications, mostly with tiny circulations. It’s my small effort at breaking down some of the barriers between religion and popular culture.”
Harold nodded vaguely. Neither religion nor any variety of culture had been among Deno’s collegiate interests.
“Let me introduce you around. You know Melisande and Dick already. This is Lars Gleason. Lars and I are chairing the Seattle Worldcon bid. . . . The reason for this party,” he added after another pause.
“Glad to see you, Milos.” A huge figure loomed in the foreground. Lars Gleason, now addressing Harold with ponderous bonhomie, was in every sense a heavy man - in physique, in manner, in humor and in voice. Deno Stavrakis’ ample torso was svelte by comparison, and Melisande was just a wisp.
Strangely enough, the name Harold Bramwing was familiar to him, too. “You do the column on pensions for Accounting Monthly, right? I don’t work much in that area myself, but my partner does. He likes your stuff.”
“That does remind me of a question that came up the other day. I have this client with a defined benefit plan, and -”
All at once, Zephyrcon lost some of its uniqueness and seemed more like a convention of actuaries. If Harold could have charged even quarter-rate for all of the free advice that he dispensed at such affairs, he would have been a candidate for the Forbes 400. Luckily, Melisande moved closer at that moment and spoke to Lars, drawing his attention from his client’s pension problem.
“Hi, Mel. Have you brought your latest conquest to show off?” He winked a slow eyelid at Harold. “Lucky dog.”
“We met twenty minutes ago,” Melisande contradicted, so quietly that Harold barely heard her. “Lars, I have some bad news. I had Jody give me a disk of our financial records, so that I could copy it for you, but something went wrong.”
“What do you mean? I told you I needed the stuff this weekend.”
Melisande extended her hand, balancing on her palm the computer diskette that Harold had seen earlier. “We tried it on Jody’s computer when we got here, and it couldn’t be read.”
Lars grasped the diskette, almost enclosing it inside his fist. “Maybe I’d better try it out.”
A laptop computer sat on a desk in a corner of the room. A sign taped to the desk read, “Presupporting memberships $15.00. Seattle bid T-shirts $7.50.” Lars popped the diskette into the machine’s drive and typed a command.
“Abort, retry, fail,” he muttered. “Mel, did you let this go through the airport X-ray?”
“I’m not sure. I suppose I might have.”
“Don’t you know that ruins disks? It’s like rubbing them against a magnet.”
Dick had returned to the conversation, a can of a Northwest microbrew in his hand. “That’s nonsense, Lars. I take disks through security all the time.”
“You’ve been lucky, then. I’m not saying they get zapped every time, but the risk is too big.
“All right. I don’t want to sound critical, Mel, but you’ve really let me down. I have to work on the budget between now and Monday morning. I told you I’m taking Caroline to Cancun.”
“I’m sorry, Lars. I was trying to help.” Her lower jaw trembled.
His voice turned indulgent. “Now don’t get upset, babe. Maybe I can figure out something. If you’ll just try to be more careful next time. . . .”
Harold felt as he usually did in the presence of a damsel in distress, eager to slay the threatening dragon and powerless to do so. Intently he watched Melisande’s face and saw the tears start to seep into her eyes.
Then inspiration came. For five days, he had put in an average of twelve hours a day for his firm’s Chicago office. He had played the key role in landing a client whose annual billings would exceed three-quarters of a million dollars. And for the effort he had gotten no billable hours and several dull, overpriced breakfasts and dinners. Chicago was in no position to complain if he saw fit to exact an additional quid pro quo.
“Maybe I can help,” he said. “I could have one of my firm’s computer wizards try to recover the data.”
“That’s no use if it’s been zapped,” answered Lars. It was evident that, having found a grievance, he would be disappointed to see it taken away.
“We might as well let Mr. Savoy’s wizard try,” said Melisande.
Lars shrugged. “Yeah, for what it’s worth.” He handed Harold the diskette. Harold pocketed it and waited for conversation to resume.
It didn’t. At last Melisande said, “The other parties should be opening. Maybe you’ll want to see what they’re like.”
“Sure. Lead the way.”
She flashed a grateful smile and guided him by the arm.
“You’re leaving, Harry? Let’s get together later,” Deno said as they passed.
“Sure thing, Deno.” As he spoke, Harold wondered whether this promise was like the ones exchanged so sincerely almost a decade ago.
The hallway was still quiet. “Thanks so much,” Melisande whispered. “It’s irrational, but Lars frightens me terribly. I know. Dick would say that’s more of my ‘ecumenical phobia’.”
“He’s a frightening man in some ways,” Harold agreed. “Do I understand this correctly? He and my old college pal Deno Stavrakis head up the group that wants Seattle to be the site of the World Science Fiction Convention?”
“It seems like a peculiar alliance.”
“Peculiar? Everybody thought it was downright queer when it happened. The two of them have been fighting for years over control of Seattle fandom. But they finally saw that neither could run a winning bid alone, I guess.”
“I remember what you said in the lounge. Together, you think they have a winning bid, unless they kill each other first.”
“That’s exactly what I think, even though I don’t think I said it that way. Seattle’s a great place for a Worldcon. I’d bid for it myself if I lived there. And they’re lucky in their competition.”
“Which is where? You said something about Las Vegas and - was Portland the other one?”
“It’s hard to remember that Portland’s in the race. But I’ll show you both bids. You’re an impartial observer, and you can draw your own conclusions.”
Near the elevator doors, the wall was littered with signs announcing the times and places of parties. Harold had noted them in passing before. Now he peered more closely while Melisande copied down room numbers on a scrap of paper.
LAS VEGAS IN ‘05 screamed for attention. A double-sized, fluorescent orange sheet, it featured a complex pen-and-ink drawing of multi-eyed, multi-tentacled creatures clustering around a roulette wheel, pulling the handles of slot machines and otherwise looking the part of wide-eyed pigeons in Vegas. In the lower right hand corner stood a human couple, the man whispering to his buxom companion, “At least it’s not as strange as Lake Geneva. . . .”
The Portland announcement was small and plain, a block letter poster headed “Portland for 2005 - The Real Northwest Worldcon”. It bore no illustration, only the spare details of time and location.
“Have you eaten dinner?” Melisande asked.
“More than I like to admit to.” Tonight’s four-star meal, consumed two hours earlier with the Chicago partner-in-charge and his insufferable trophy wife, lay like lead in his stomach.
“Then you probably won’t be up for Genie Galen’s buffet. We’ll visit Portland first. Anyway, their chairman’s an old friend, and I really have to say hello.”
The elevator took a long time coming. The first car that arrived was going down, but, despite the fact that the Portland party was on a higher floor, Melisande stepped in. The car descended, filled itself to capacity, started its return journey, opened at several floors where would-be up-goers looked on hopelessly, and finally arrived on Portland’s story. Evidently, taking her medication had done Melisande some good. She stood quietly throughout the ride, and her face went only moderately ashen.
The party was in a standard sleeping room dominated by two double beds. An open bag of potato chips and a carton of grocery store onion dip sat on a dresser next to an untidy stack of photocopied sheets proclaiming the virtues of the Portland Worldcon bid. Three people sprawled on one of the beds, two of them listening while the third - a stringy, sandy-haired lad - delivered an animated harangue.
Harold paused at the door, feeling that he was intruding on a private gathering. Melisande swept past him. The monologuist saw her, leaped from his place and collided simultaneously with her and one of his audience. The three exchanged a kind of general embrace, and Melisande gave him a feathery kiss on the cheek. “Colin,” she said as she disentangled herself, “I’ve brought you a surprise.”
“Invitations to our wedding?”
She folded her right hand into a fist and threw a mock punch. “Yeah. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring an invitation for me.” She reached over to Milos and pulled him toward her by the hand. “This mundane-looking person is secretly Milos Savoy.”
A moment of cogitation was followed by an exclamation: “Cosmic Amoebas! Melisande, that was the first really great graphic novel I ever read. It changed my whole life. I would have been a different person without it.”
Melisande glanced at Harold with a wry smile on her lips. “He’s written a few things since then, too.”
“Oh, really? For years I looked for his stuff and didn’t see any. After a while, I decided Savoy must be a house name.”
“He writes novels: Beneath the Wizard’s Eye, The Days When Heaven Was Falling, Emperor of the Dust - umm - well, Mr. Savoy can give you a bibliography himself.”
“I’ve heard of some of those, I think.” For the first time, he actually looked at Harold. “You ever think of having graphic versions done?”
“No-o-o,” Harold drawled, trying to take the inquiry as a compliment. Had Melisande been less obviously on the verge of open laughter, he might have been curt. As it was, he said mildly, “I don’t understand that market. I stick to what I know how to do.”
“But you did script Cosmic Amoebas.”
“It was a lark. I met an up-and-coming agent at a publisher’s cocktail party. She insisted that she could sell anything I’d ever written and then kept phoning me. So, to get rid of her, I dredged up this plot outline that I’d done when I was about fifteen years old. And sure enough she sold it.”
“Golly. I always wondered how agents got hooked up with authors.” Colin was genuinely wide-eyed at this tidbit of insider’s gossip. Harold was delighted to spoil his illusions.
“Not that way. I let her have some short stories, and she couldn’t give them away. Apparently, comic books were all she knew.”
“A lot of people don’t understand graphic literature. Have you ever read -”
Melisande cut in. “How’s the bid going, Colin?”
“Fabulous. I was just explaining why Lars Gleason is the wrong person to chair a Worldcon. The message is really starting to get across, you know. We can’t let fandom be tyrannized by petty bureaucrats.”
“Down, boy. I’m not going to take sides, remember? What I wanted to know was whether you’re picking up support.”
“Oh, we have lots of support. Plenty of fans want to see a Worldcon in the Pacific Northwest. It’s just a matter of convincing them to back us over Seattle. That’s why I wish you’d tell people what Lars is really like, Melisande. You were there when he -”
“No, Colin, dear, I’m neutral.”
“You could still be neutral.”
She shook her head emphatically and retreated toward Harold, who had idly picked up a stale-feeling potato chip and smothered it in dip. He barely avoided brushing globules of dip onto her back.
“I’m afraid we’ve got to run, Colin. I promised Mr. Savoy that I’d show him all the bid parties, and Vegas should be opening about now.”
Colin smiled, evidently undisturbed by this rebuff, and turned back to his original audience. As Harold followed his guide, he heard fragments of a vehement narrative in which Lars Gleason’s name figured prominently and unfavorably.
In the corridor, Melisande turned away from the elevators. “Vegas is three floors up,” she explained. “The stairs’ll be the quickest way.”
In years of frequent travel, Harold had never before ventured into a hotel stairwell. He had the impression that they were restricted zones, usable only in case of fire or other emergency. But to science fiction fans, these dingy, concrete passages seemed to be a favorite thoroughfare. Harold saw and heard other groups proceeding up and down. In the middle of their brief journey, they overtook the woman with whom Melisande had argued in the lounge.
She was cozily entwined with a rather portly, rather intense young man. Melisande traded smiles with the couple as if there had been no previous quarrel.
“Going to Vegas, too, Jody?”
“Yeah. I need Genie’s ice cream to maintain my girlish figure.”
The man patted her side appreciatively. She was not quite obese. The layer of fat gave her face a soft, self-indulgent look, redeemed by coils of golden-red hair and brilliant green eyes.
“Did you get anything to eat?” she asked sharply.
Melisande grimaced apologetically. “Not yet. I was going to, like I promised, but I ran into -“
“You didn’t sit in the bar drinking, did you?”
The reply was timid. “I had one drink, with Mr. -”
“That’s enough. We’re getting some food into you right this minute.” The other woman pulled away from her escort and dug both hands into Melisande’s left forearm.
“I’ll bet you didn’t take your medication, either.”
“No - I mean - yes, I did. Mr. Savoy saw me.”
Her imperious friend accepted this defense with a frown and a nod. Who “Mr. Savoy” might be obviously did not interest her. They proceeded at quick-march speed to the next floor. Jody’s erstwhile companion lagged with Harold in the rear.
The Seattle party began to grow lively half an hour after Harold and Melisande left. As more fans arrived, their separate conversations oozed together into a general roar, the carefully arranged refreshments and leaflets fell victim to entropy, and cans, bottles, cups, candy bar wrappers and stray bits of food began to litter the floor.
The co-chairmen of the bid had, however, withdrawn from the center of activity. In the most distant reach of the suite’s bedroom, Lars Gleason, arms folded and face grim, sat on the edge of a bed, while Deno Stavrakis stood in front of him.
“I know what you’re up to, Lars.”
“So you claim. This paranoia of yours is becoming tiresome, Deno.”
“You’ve been talking to the committee.”
“Why shouldn’t I talk to the committee? I’m co-chair, you’ll recall.”
“You know what I mean. Your weakness as a plotter is that you assume that nobody ever talks to anybody else. That’s why you lost when you tried to take over AlkiCon. That’s why you won’t take over the bid, either.”
“Deno, there are moments - and this is starting to look like one of them - when I truly believe that you need psychiatric help. The other day I described your symptoms to Caroline, and she agreed completely.”
“I’m not particularly concerned about what your latest floozy agrees with you on. I am concerned about the fact that you’re reneging on our agreement.”
“I’m doing no such thing. But, frankly, we agreed to be co-chairs before you caught your religious mania. It would probably be a good thing for the bid if I did plot against you.”
“Spare me your petty bigotry.”
“Petty bigotry? What about your raving hypocrisy? Who are you to sneer at ‘floozies’.”
“I’ve repented my sins. I don’t deny that I committed them.”
“If Genie Galen had a tape of that statement, Seattle wouldn’t finish ahead of Portland. Hell, we wouldn’t beat ‘None of the Above’.”
“Once in a while, I suspect you would rather lose the Worldcon than win it in conjunction with a Christian.”
“That’s enough, Deno. You’ve made your accusation, I’ve denied it, and there isn’t anything further to say.”
“Just watch your step.”
“Is that a threat, Deno?”
“No, Lars. It’s a promise.”
In the parlor, three or four voices had joined in an endless, mildly ribald song about the discovery and uses of cold fusion. All observers would later agree that the Seattle party had been a signal success.