At the Las Vegas party, the atmosphere was different from Seattle or Portland. The lights were dim; an active wet bar served drinks; the people present circulated furiously and gave the impression of being louder and more numerous than they really were.
Harold found himself moving cautiously, trying to avoid collisions. Jody, determinedly guiding Melisande’s steps, was bolder. In tandem, the women proceeded across the room, to a long table stocked like a miniature buffet. Harold, uninclined to eat, followed Jody’s boyfriend to the bar and was given a plastic cup filled with dark green punch of indeterminate ingredients and indescribable flavor.
As they migrated to a quieter part of the room, the boyfriend suddenly showed a desire for conversation. “Are you one of Melisande’s friends?” he asked.
“I seem to be, but we first met an hour ago.”
“She’s like that. Everybody she meets is her best friend within ten minutes. That’s why she’s in charge of the Worldcon. Of course, Jody does all the real work.”
His tone suggested that making friends readily was far from an admirable trait and that the chasm between those who are “in charge” and those who do “the real work” was about as wide as that between dukes and serfs in medieval Europe.
The women joined them at this point. Each carried a paper plate, Jody’s bending under a substantial sandwich and mounds of potato salad, Melisande’s garnished only with some miscellaneous greens and wedges of fruit.
“It’s about time I introduced you,” said Melisande. “Jody, this is Milos Savoy. He’s the man I had the drink with.”
“Oh.” Earlier encounters had encouraged Harold’s ego to feel rather pleased with itself. This one put it back into its place as belonging to a moderate-selling author of genre fiction.
“Can I get you a drink, Jody?” the boyfriend asked.
“Sure. I’ll have a punch. Get Melisande one, too.”
The boyfriend trotted away. As he departed, Jody draped an arm confidentially across Melisande’s shoulder. “You’re not mad at me, are you?” she whispered.
“Of course not.”
“It probably was my fault that the data didn’t copy right. I’m still a neo at computers. We can send Lars a new disk as soon as he gets back from his vacation.”
“No problem. You may not even have to make another disk. Mr. Savoy thinks he can get somebody to fix the one we have.”
For the first time, Jody looked at Harold with a smidgeon of interest. “But there isn’t anything that can be done, is there? We tried the disk, and it just said abort, retry, fail. Sort of a dull conversationalist.”
Harold was a consumer, not a producer, of computer expertise. Personally, he found “abort, retry, fail” to be a forbidding frontier. On the other hand, his employer spent impressive sums of money on people to whom the great challenges of computerdom were mere trifles, experts who probably faced “abort, retry, fail” with no more apprehension than Harold felt when he looked at the couple of hundred pages of Internal Revenue Service regulations explicating the rule that a tax-qualified pension plan could not skew benefits toward highly compensated employees.
“Maybe you’re right, but there’s no point in giving up.”
“Of course not,” Jody quickly agreed.
In his Galahadian mood, Harold wanted to drive the reassurance home. “Last Wednesday, one of my colleagues accidentally reformatted his hard drive and thought he’d destroyed a Library of Congress’s worth of data, including - unfortunately - a half week of my own work. But we summoned one of our electronic geniuses, and he had every byte back within the hour.”
“It’s the weekend,” Jody protested. “You shouldn’t make somebody come into work on Saturday for something like this. I can make a duplicate.”
“But if Mr. Savoy’s geniuses can solve the problem, Lars’ll be able to work on his budget this weekend,” said Melisande. “Otherwise, he’ll be delayed for weeks.”
“So what?” responded Jody. “His Worldcon is five years away, if he ever gets it.”
“Well, he can start working on a budget now, if he wants to. I’m not going to tell him he shouldn’t.”
“No, no, I didn’t mean that.”
Before Jody could start explaining what she did mean, her boyfriend returned, bearing drinks and leading a big, red-faced, pimply woman who glanced at Jody and Melisande, and then headed straight for Harold.
“Now this is a wonderful surprise! Thanks so much, Melisande. Milos is one of my absolute most favorite authors.”
She put a clammy hand around Harold’s and embraced Melisande with her free arm. “Dinner tomorrow?” she breathed huskily into Melisande’s ear.
“Umm, sure, Genie.”
“Good. Et tu, Milos?”
If Melisande could face this prospect with equanimity, so could Harold. He hastily agreed.
“I know this wonderful little Tibetan place.”
Harold supposed that Tibetans, like everyone else, must eat. Therefore, he wasn’t surprised to learn of the existence of Tibetan cuisine. On the other hand, one hears about many things that one doesn’t expect to meet face to face.
“You do know about Tibetan, don’t you?” the red-faced woman challenged.
“Well, I’ve heard of it.” Melisande answered after a pause. “My friend Bronc once said that it was his ideal diet - one-third protein, one-third cholesterol and one-third fat.”
Her interlocutor laughed, not too pleasantly. “That’s what he would think. I hear he didn’t make it to Zephyrcon, though, so his opinions don’t matter. Anyway, let’s all get together tomorrow night. Five o’clock in the lobby.”
Melisande turned to Harold. “Is that all right with you, Mr. Savoy, or do you already have your own plans?”
“No. My editor told me to mingle. She won’t be pleased if I order from room service.”
“Your editor? Who’s that?” the red-faced woman gushed.
“Oh, Marj! That’s wonderful! She’s practically my dearest friend. Tell her I said hello. Please.”
“Sure. Er, hello from whom?”
“Damn, I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Genie Galen, chairperson of the Las Vegas Worldcon bid. How’d you like to buy a presupport, Milos?”
“A presupporting membership,” Melisande explained. “Bids sell them to raise money -”
“- for parties like this one,” Genie completed the sentence. “Do stay around, Milos. I’ll be whipping up the special Las Vegas Ice Cream Fantasy soon.”
Harold nodded absently. Even in his present state of digestion, a “Las Vegas Ice Cream Fantasy” sounded like something worth waiting for. On the other hand, he was not entirely sure that he wanted to wait in the company of Miss Galen.
“And a presupport costs only fifteen dollars, Milos.”
“Well, I don’t believe in taking sides in elections where I don’t know the candidates.”
“But for pros, it’s free, naturally. Here.”
She pinned a bright orange button onto his lapel. He twisted it into his field of vision and saw a detail from the poster advertising the party, framed with the slogan, “LAS VEGAS - THE NEXT GREAT WORLDCON!”
“You don’t need to bother with the paperwork. I’ll send mailings care of Marj. By the way, has her divorce come through yet?”
“I wouldn’t know.” Harold’s knowledge of his editor’s private life was dim and his interest in the topic even dimmer. He was about to give back the button and firmly contradict the assumption that he wanted a free anything, but the hostess, perhaps sensing that her selling job had been less than well received, had already looked in alarm over her shoulder and rushed off to cope with some ostensible crisis.
Melisande squeezed his hand. “Don’t worry. Presupports don’t commit you to anything. You can presupport Seattle and Portland, too, and then you’ll be a neutral again, like me.”
He shrugged. “All right. Do I really want to stay around for an ‘ice cream fantasy’?”
“You really do. Genie may be brash, but she’s a magician with ice cream.”
“Still, can we wait elsewhere until her potion is ready?”
“Sure. Let’s wander for a while. Maybe I can find somebody else to introduce you to.”
That was agreeable, so they slipped out of the suite, trading conspiratorial smiles on the way.
Their subsequent rambling took them up and down stairs, in and out of half a dozen parties. Melisande had friends everywhere, who greeted her with hugs and allowed her to introduce them to Harold. His ego, already shaken by Jody, noted sadly that, for most of these new acquaintances, a published author was patently a less important figure than the head of a future World Science Fiction Convention.
Eventually, they found themselves back in the lobby. The scene was much the same as before. The particular atoms were different, and perhaps they were moving a trifle less rapidly, but the overall ebb and flow hadn’t changed. As before, Melisande became the center of one of the local whirlpools.
Trying to steer safely through the tumult, Harold plowed into a bulky individual who had just joined their eddy. Melisande turned toward the collision, saw the newcomer and emitted a happy shriek. “Bronc! You’re not supposed to be here!”
“Bronc” had drooping eyes, a drooping handlebar moustache and drooping jaws. Quickly summarized, he looked like an amiable walrus. One of his arms engulfed Melisande as he growled a hello.
“Didn’t think I would be here. One of my cases closed, and I got a buddy to trade shifts.”
“Well, it’s a good thing you came, because I have the surprise of your life for you.”
But the man had already seen Harold’s badge and was blinking in astonishment, like a walrus abruptly presented with, say, a plate of Tibetan cuisine.
“I don’t believe it,” he said. “Somebody told me you weren’t real.”
“I think I ought to be allowed to do the honors,” Melisande interjected. “Bronc, this is Mr. Bramwing, alias Milos Savoy. Mr. Savoy, I am pleased to present the lifetime president of your fan club, Sergeant Pete Bronkowski, Chicago P.D.”
The walrus blushed incongruously. “I don’t know about a fan club,” he said, “but I think I’ve read everything you’ve ever written.”
Such enthusiasm put Harold into a light-hearted, teasing mood. “Really? What did you think of my last column in Accounting Monthly?”
“You shouldn’t trifle with an officer of the law, sir. By ‘you’, I mean Milos Savoy, of course, not his unimportant alter ego.” He paused. “On the other hand, I hope there are some Savoy novels that I haven’t seen. Aren’t you due for a new one?”
“Pretty soon. My editor has two manuscripts at the moment. Of course, she has to play Maxwell Perkins to them before they can be exposed to public scrutiny.”
“Tell her to hurry up. I’m hoping for a sequel to Emperor of the Dust.”
“One of them is - not precisely a sequel, but set in the same universe, a few millennia after Krellor’s empire has collapsed.”
Sergeant Bronkowski began asking questions, cross-quizzing Harold in the manner of a trained investigator. Within a very few minutes, the author was driven to confess that he had forgotten the intricacies of the new novel’s key plot twist, had overlooked a flagrant inconsistency between it and its predecessor and probably should have chosen a different viewpoint character. Meanwhile, Melisande stood between the two men, a hand on each one’s shoulder.
“Enough, Bronc,” she said finally. “Mr. Savoy isn’t a burglary suspect. You’re going to drive the poor man to start all over again.”
“Wouldn’t want that. Been waiting too long as it is.”
“Don’t worry,” said Harold. “Marj takes care of all these points. By the time she’s vetted the manuscript, every word I’ve told you tonight will undoubtedly be a lie.”
“All right. All right. Wouldn’t want to entrap you into perjury. Tell me, what panels have they put you on?”
“Panels? Somebody talked to me about them for a minute, but - well, maybe I’m supposed to be on something about - I think she said ‘galactic empires’. She wasn’t very clear.”
“We’d better see about that. Ops in the usual place, Melisande?”
“I think so.”
“Let’s go check Mr. Savoy’s schedule, then.”
He led the way briskly, out of the lobby, past the still-quiet bar and the hotel coffee shop, into the broad corridor that led to the meeting rooms. Congoers loitered here, too, though more sparsely than in the lobby.
The doors of one room, labeled “Bonita A”, stood open. Just inside was a long table, screening a jumbled area of boxes, office supplies, desks and chairs. A man and a woman sat behind the table, the woman being the cherub to whom Harold had spoken earlier.
“Hi, Bridget. This is Milos Savoy,” Sergeant Bronkowski announced firmly.
“I know that, sweetie. I was just penciling him into the program.”
“Good. Why not let him know what he supposed to do?”
“Certainly.” She smiled winningly at Harold. “Mr. Savoy, would you mind being on Start Your Own Galactic Empire - I mentioned that to you already, didn’t I? - at one tomorrow and - let’s see - how about an autograph session Sunday at eleven?”
“That sounds fine with me.”
“Just be at the green room - Bonita B, right next door - a little before one. You’ll make sure he gets there, Melisande?”
Sergeant Bronkowski fell into his thoughtful-walrus pose. “If she doesn’t, I will.”
Melisande pressed his forearm between her hands. “Now that that’s taken care of, Mr. Savoy and I were going back to the Vegas party for the ice cream fantasies. You want to come along?”
“To tell the truth, I was planning to grab a beer from the con suite and then turn in. It’s been a long, long day.”
“You can get beer at Vegas,” Melisande pointed out, “and I want you to meet Jody.”
Bronkowski shook his head. “Not necessary. I met her at Lunacon.”
Melisande screwed up her face, puzzled.
“You know, suburban NYC, last weekend in March.”
“No, no, Bronc. I know what Lunacon is. But I’m sure Jody wasn’t there. She never said a word - at least, I don’t think. . . .”
“Jody Silverbury. Red-headed girl, late twenties, cute face, green eyes, five foot four, about a hundred forty pounds.”
“Yes, that’s Jody. Are you sure you met her at Disclave?”
“I might be wrong. What other cons has she been at?”
“This year’s Worldcon, of course, and some that aren’t far away from home - Oasis, Necronomicon, Tropicon, DeepSouthCon. But that’s about it. She scrimped to be able to afford the Worldcon.”
“Then it had to be Lunacon. I know I didn’t see her at the Worldcon, and I haven’t been in Florida since I was a kid.”
Melisande shrugged. “Okay, it doesn’t matter. Wouldn’t you like some ice cream anyway?”
“Commander says I’ve gotta watch my weight. And I’m too exhausted to put up with Genie Galen. That woman deserves to be arrested on principle.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow, then?” Melisande partly asked, partly pleaded.
“I’m not making any promises.”
They hugged briefly. Then Bronkowski, looking more walrus-like than ever, ambled off, and Melisande took Harold’s hand.
“Ice cream, Mr. Savoy?”
“Delighted, Miss Thomas.”
After well over an hour of circulating furiously, Genie Galen was taking a breather. One bedroom of her suite was closed off from the party. Genie sat on a bed there, sipping gin on the rocks, while a thin young man with a wisp of blonde moustache and a diamond stud in his left earlobe massaged her back.
“Thanks, Rich,” she murmured as the last of the gin drained from the interstices of the ice. “God, bid parties are a bore.”
“Of course they are, sweetheart. You’re working yourself into an ulcer. If you could feel the tension in your back. . . .”
“I promise you, dear, if there were any other way that I. . . .”
“I don’t know. Is the Worldcon really worth it?”
“We’ve had this conversation before. You don’t understand how I feel.”
“You feel all knotted up. Why don’t you do something different tomorrow? I’ve got some good stuff a friend gave me for my birthday. Let’s get together tomorrow night and. . . .”
“Evening. All night. Till we’re good and stoned.”
“Another party tomorrow night, remember?”
“Just dinner, then. We’ll start about four in my room. Plenty of cheap wine, and then we’ll smoke, and then -” He rippled his fingers sensuously along the small of her back.
“No, darling. I have a dinner engagement. Melisande Thomas and her new boyfriend.”
“Melisande Thomas, sweetheart? What a way to devastate an entire evening.”
“Look, I’ve got to stay on good terms with future Worldcon chairs. She can do a lot for me, if she’s well-buttered.”
“But why do you have to butter her now? I’m just going to be heartbroken.”
“This is a crucial moment. She’s been very, very neutral up till this point. Which was the best I could hope for, since Stavrakis is an old buddy of hers. Luckily, he’s not likely to be with the Seattle bid much longer. I hear they’re fed up with him.
“So that leaves Lars Gleason as my number one enemy. I don’t think Melisande likes him either, so I want to sound her out. Maybe she can be moved just a hair’s breadth. Besides being a Worldcon chair, she has influence in the Midwest.
“Also, there’s the new factor of this pro she’s got her sweet little hooks into.”
“Oh, I saw him. Milos Savoy. Is he her boyfriend? Such a pig.”
“A hack would be more precise. And his editor’s that Carrollton bitch. Not somebody I would choose for a bedmate, but that’s Melisande’s lookout, not mine. The point is, he’s never been active in fandom. It shouldn’t be hard for me to bend his ear in the right direction.”
“This is so boring, sweetheart. You want to try some of my stuff?”
“Now, Rich? Sorry. I’ve got to do my ice cream act in five minutes.”
“Sometimes you’re a very mean person.”
“All times I’m a very determined woman who is going to get what she wants, no matter who or what stands in her way. If you don’t like that, kiddo, find yourself a Barbie doll.”
While Harold and Melisande had roamed, the Las Vegas party had intensified. The noise and heat disoriented Harold. He quickly found a safe corner while Melisande went off to locate friends. She came back with an icy bottle of beer to help alleviate his distress.
“Jody says that the ice cream fantasy has been announced for eleven sharp. You don’t have to endure too much longer.”
Harold started to nod gratefully, then paused as Genie Galen burst upon them, all unforeshadowed.
“Melisande! Milos! I was so afraid you wouldn’t be back. Come with me, and you can have the very first fantasies of the night.” The friendly enthusiasm in her tone was marred by a lurid wink that turned the last phrase into a double entendre.
Plowing an opening through the dense swarm of humanity, Genie conducted them to an area partitioned off by a makeshift barrier of chairs from the rest of the party. In the background, a skinny, weasel-like man guarded a few pieces of equipment.
Genie went to work rapidly. With the skinny man’s help, she set up a four foot by four foot table, the surface of which gleamed like obsidian. Beside it they set an outsized ice chest, its lid open to reveal that it was divided between a canister of vanilla ice cream and a multitude of smaller containers, each holding a different condiment: several varieties of nuts and fruits, chocolate chips, coconut shreds, miniature jelly beans and many more. Genie produced an ice cream scoop and a spatula.
“The first one is for you, dear,” she said to Melisande. “What would you like?”
Melisande peered at the condiments. “Oh, blackberries and pecans. I’m not real adventurous.”
Her hostess served up a perfectly round scoop of ice cream, formed a cavity in it, and spilled the requested fillings into the void. Then her spatula went to work. Within thirty seconds, the ingredients were thoroughly mixed. She reformed the scoop into a sphere, tossed it into a cup, added a spoon and handed the result to Melisande.
“Now you, Mr. Savoy.”
A number of watchers had gathered, and Harold did not want to disappoint them by being too tame in his tastes. Thus he allowed himself to be persuaded to have jalapeno peppers along with his strawberry slices, almond halves and chocolate sprinkles. The product unquestionably had a unique flavor, and there was no denying that Genie Galen’s artistry was fascinating to observe.
He watched for some time, until his eyes began intimating that they did not want to do any more work today.
“I’d better turn in,” he whispered to Melisande. “I have to be up early to see about your disk.”
“Oh, yes. Thanks so much for trying to do something - even though I don’t suppose there’s much hope. See you tomorrow.”
Harold’s last glimpse of her that evening came as she took a second helping of ice cream and joined an animated dialogue with someone who had just arrived at the party. Yet another of her oldest and dearest friends, he supposed.