Melisande began to laugh. “God, Time, Fate, Whatever really doesn’t want Lars Gleason to get his hands on our budget. Maybe we should take the hint.”
Harold, drawing on years of experience with the vagaries of hotel front desks, doubted that a supernatural explanation was necessary. “There may be some confusion. Are you certain that the package you’re referring to was for Bramwing, Miss?” he asked.
“Says so right here,” the clerk insisted, pointing to her piece of paper.
Melisande tugged at his sleeve. “You have to get to your panel. I’ll show you where it is and then look into this.”
“Fine, but I’m sure there’s no problem. Obviously, my wizard hasn’t finished his conjuring yet.”
“I admit that’s more logical than your secretary’s flying across the country to receive packages for you. But we’ve had such bad luck with that disk that I’m not going to trust logic from now on.”
As Deno Stavrakis had prophesied, the panel was late in starting. Harold arrived in time to take his place with three other speakers. Two were writers whose names he recognized. The third, taking the role of moderator, was Lars Gleason. Gleason wore a three-piece suit, puffed a pipe and looked solemn and important, as well as heavy. He cleared his throat into a microphone as Harold sat down.
“Let’s get under weigh. This panel is entitled Start Your Own Galactic Empire, and we have three experts, each the creator of many galactic empires, to share their secrets.”
He proceeded to fulsome introductions, not omitting mention of articles in Accounting Monthly. Of Harold’s two counterparts, one was a woman with gentle eyes and graying hair, who specialized in swashbuckling tales of space brigandage. The other was one of the famous names in the field, an author whose gargantuan publisher’s advances and regular appearances on the best seller lists aroused Harold’s envy. At the moment, the great man was thoroughly inebriated. He acknowledged the introduction with a few incoherent sentences, then concentrated his mental acumen on lighting and snuffing out cigarettes.
Ever since learning of his assignment, Harold had been trying to devise some reasonably cogent remarks. He had asked Melisande what was expected and had been told to “just talk”. He doubted, however, that the inspiration of the moment would be enough and thus felt an unpleasant flutter in his stomach as the moderator completed the introductions.
The difficulty was that Harold had never given any thought to how an empire covering scores or hundreds of star systems might plausibly come into being and perpetuate itself. In his own books, the political and economic regime was simply background, not meant to endure scrutiny. Krellor Sarn’s imperium was the product not of history but of the author’s fancy of transposing Moussorgsky’s Boris Godounov into science fiction terms. All in all, he feared that anyone seeking enlightenment on the topic of the panel was going to be rather disappointed with what Milos Savoy had to contribute.
Soon, though, his worries started to dissipate. He had assumed that, after his prologue, Lars Gleason would let the panelists speak. Instead, the moderator launched into his own discourse on galactic empires. He had a pet theory about how they might work, based, it seemed, on somebody’s hypothesis about empire-building in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. The exposition was learned and involved, with occasional citations of books with names like Aztec Warfare, Royal Commentaries of the Incas and The Toltec Heritage.
Under ordinary circumstances, Harold would have found this tedious enthusiasm unbearable. But it was a relief not to have to improvise, and he was too grateful to be bored. He began to think that panels at science fiction conventions might be run on the same lines as those at academic conferences, where one participant presents a paper and the others are there only as “discussants”. In that case, he should be able to make one or two vaguely pertinent remarks on the thesis that an interstellar polity would resemble the Aztec realm of medieval Mexico.
He was almost completely relaxed, his mind attending lightly to the speaker and more seriously to a plot idea for his next manuscript, when the equivalent of a mile-wide asteroid smashed into the proceedings.
The coughs, scraping feet and stifled yawns emanating from the audience had not registered on his consciousness, perhaps because these were the standard audience reactions at the professional conferences that he attended. Still, there was a slowly swelling buzz of discontent. Finally, one of the spectators raised his hand. He was thin, with long, blonde, ill-kempt hair, and sparked a cloudy sense of familiarity.
Gleason saw the hand and paused. “Yes, Mr. Satterlee, you have a question?”
“I sure do. Why can’t you shut up and let us hear the pros?”
There were murmurs of assent, and the heckler would easily have won the day if he had rested at that point. Unluckily, signs that he had allies encouraged him to go on.
“This is just like you, Gleason. You want to run everything you touch and keep everybody else out. Anybody who votes for you for Worldcon chair has got to be insane.” The young man’s voice, a disagreeable tenor, rose as he spoke, reaching almost a screech at the end of the last sentence.
“That is not the subject of this panel,” said Lars Gleason with emphatic authority.
“Who are you to tell me what I can and can’t say? Are you some kind of god, Gleason? You think you’re such a big enchilada, but you know what you really are? You’re a fat slob who can’t make it in the real world and wants to turn fandom into his playpen as a consolation prize.”
“If you’re going to be disruptive, Mr. Satterlee, I’ll call security and have you thrown out. I’ve had to do that before, remember?”
Even Harold could see that the reminder was intended as a provocation. Satterlee screamed an obscenity and charged the platform.
To reach Gleason, he had to circle behind the panelists’ table, thus yielding the advantage of surprise. He lost more time stumbling against the big name author, who, dazedly aware that a fight was in the making, tried to interpose himself.
Gleason was on his feet to meet the attack. For such a heavy man, he was surprisingly dexterous. Satterlee threw a wild punch. Gleason batted it aside and drove his right fist into the other’s abdomen. Satterlee groaned and collapsed.
“Is the track manager here?” Gleason asked. A tiny woman responded from the back of the room. “Could you see to removing this trash from the podium?” The audience, all in the unfortunate Satterlee’s favor a few minutes before, laughed uproariously.
The small woman helped the would-be disturber of the peace stand up and, taking firm hold on his right elbow, led him away. He said nothing, but, as he reached the door, glanced back. Harold happened to catch his eye. Never before had he seen such concentrated hatred in a human face. He shuddered and wished that he were in the happy state of the big name author, who, overcome by the momentary excitement, had given up lighting cigarettes and fallen into a peaceful doze.
Unlike Harold, whose naivete in the ways of fandom was not an option for a Worldcon chairman, Melisande Thomas had no real doubt that Lars Gleason’s computer disk had been the victim of foul play. She even had a suspect.
Depriving Gleason of data that he needed to construct a budget for his prospective Worldcon was a petty, pointless act of malice. Only someone who truly loathed the man would take the trouble to do it, and, while many fans disliked him to a greater or lesser extent, Melisande could think of only one whose emotions could be characterized by the word “loathing”.
After depositing Harold at the panel, she returned to the front desk to pursue her detective work.
“What did this person who claimed to be Mr. Savoy’s, that is, Mr. Bramwing’s secretary look like?” she asked.
“I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t on duty. All I know is what’s in this note.”
“Could I see the clerk who was on duty?”
“Nope. She left at noon.” Suddenly remembering that she was supposed to be accommodating to guests, the girl added, “You can look at what she wrote, if you want.”
The note, written on hotel stationery in a girlish, ornate hand, added nothing to Melisande’s stock of knowledge:
If Mr. Bramwing asks about his packidge, tell him the man dellivered it at 11:30 and his secertery picked it up for him at 11:45.
“I need to talk to Marcia. How can I reach her?”
“I dunno. You want to ask the manager-on-duty?”
Paging the manager and obtaining his presence at the front desk occupied a quarter of an hour. He was a sulking, spotty-faced youth who surely did not have a bright future in the hospitality industry. After listening to Melisande’s story, he shrugged. “We don’t give out home phones of our employees.”
“This is urgent. Can’t you dial the call and let me talk to her?”
“If I started doing that, guests would be bothering the staff all the time. Guys wanting dates with them, that sort of thing.”
“Do I look as if I want a date with someone named Marcia?”
“What I do for you, I got to do for everybody, and I don’t want to be a telephone operator. This is a busy weekend, and I got a million things to do, and I’m not going to waste my time chasing a computer disk. You want a new disk, there’s a store in the mall across the street.”
Deno Stavrakis would no doubt have confronted this unhelpful minion head-on. Melisande was an advocate of the indirect approach. She could see that the desk clerk was growing sympathetic as the manager-on-duty ranted. Retreating across the lobby, curling up in an empty chair and ostentatiously burying her face between her hands, she waited and thought.
If she was ever able to speak to “Marcia”, she expected to learn that the putative secretary had been male. Her suspect might have thought to put a female friend up to the trick, but she doubted it. He was not a careful planner under ideal conditions, and here he was acting on an irrational impulse.
Oddly, she felt more sympathy than anger toward him. He had been badly treated by Lars. His reaction was excessive but not incomprehensible. She could still visualize the furious, yet somehow pathetic, figure, shouting “Mr. Chairman, you double crossed me!” in a near-soprano monotone as a pair of uniformed guards hauled him away from last year’s Worldcon business meeting.
“Pardon, ma’am?” Fingers brushed her shoulder. She pretended to wipe tears from her eyes, and proffered a grin full of mock embarrassment as she looked up.
The desk clerk was standing over her. “I saw you sitting over here, ma’am, and I wanted to say I’m sorry Rex was rude like that to you. He and Marcia have a thing, see, and he’s real protective.
“If you’d like to talk to her, I checked the schedule, and she’s putting in overtime tonight, starting at seven.”
Melisande let her expression clear instantly and her smile glow. “Thank you, Gail. That will help so much. I’ll be sure to tell the manager - the real manager, that is - how helpful you were.”
There was still the problem of confronting the suspect and persuading him to surrender the disk. On the other hand, even if he refused, at least Lars would know the real story and have a new target for his irritation.
Looking at her watch, she saw that the one o’clock panels had ended a few minutes ago. She thought of looking for Milos Savoy, then decided that Jody had been right, albeit for the wrong reasons: She was Fan Guest of Honor and had a duty to circulate among the attendees, not cling to a single pro. She would visit the hucksters’ room for a while, which would both count as circulation and enable her to fulfill her obligation to buy something at her pal Dick’s table.
The remainder of Start Your Own Galactic Empire was subdued. Lars Gleason lapsed into sporadic noises, while the female author did the bulk of the speaking. She was, alas, no better prepared than Harold, delivering random observations, only tangentially connected with either the announced topic or each other. Harold made a tentative stab at helping out by explaining how Emperor of the Dust had grown out of Boris Godounov, but the blank faces before him quickly got across the message that the operatic literacy of science fiction fans was not high.
Somehow or another they stumbled on, until the track manager mercifully announced in her wisp of a voice that the allotted hour had come to an end.
Harold and Gleason moved out of the room together. “Sorry that my panel had to be your introduction to turkey fandom, Milos,” Gleason said sympathetically.
Harold did not feel like answering.
“Say, do you know where Mel is? I saw her come in with you, but then she vanished.”
“She had a small emergency - about your disk, in fact -” But Gleason had already turned away to gesture at someone else. They were outside the meeting room now. The traffic was dense, and Harold fell behind the other man’s purposeful tread.
Gleason drew abreast of Melisande’s friend Jody. Not wanting to intrude, Harold halted a few steps away.
“Jody, have you seen Mel? I have a very important matter to discuss with her.”
“Sorry. I haven’t caught sight of her for the past couple of hours. What’s it about?”
“The bid.” His tone was curt.
“What about the bid? If you need to discuss something officially with the St. Petersburg concomm, I can handle it.”
“No, it’s a Seattle internal issue. If you find her, ask her to get hold of me, okay?”
“Okay, but I’m not likely to run into her this afternoon. I’m tired and am going to take a nap.”
“At two o’clock?”
“Let me put it another way. Mark and I are both tired.”
Gleason’s lips curved into an expression somewhere between an amused smile and an open leer. “Don’t let me keep you from your rest.” He lowered his voice. “Remember how we used to -”
Her look and voice made the Chicago wind seem mild. “The memory is fading, thank God. Good-bye, Lars.”
She strode off. Gleason chuckled and looked back at Harold. “Can’t blame a guy for trying.”
Harold pretended that something far off had gripped his attention and said nothing. Finding a convenient eddy in the crowd, he blended in and let it carry him away.
The eddy eventually deposited him in front of a room labeled “ART SHOW”. He peered through the open doors and saw a jumble of paintings, drawings, sculptures, jewelry and less classifiable objets d’art. Dominating his field of vision was a large, colorful portrayal of what looked like an extraterrestrial street gang. Or perhaps it was a human street gang that simply looked extraterrestrial. Or maybe it was both.
Traffic was dense around the doors. He edged forward and embarked on a leisurely tour of the exhibition.
Upright slabs of pegboard, arranged like shallow accordion folds, provided hanging space for the two-dimensional works, which included not only paintings and drawings in various media, from oils to colored pencil, but also tapestries, etched mirrors and papier-maché masks. Around the sides of the room, tables displayed sculptures, exotic jewelry designs, stuffed animals, decorated glasses, ceramic mugs and a couple of items featuring many moving parts and many flashing lights that he could only classify as “gizmos”.
The pattern of the pegboard walls formed semi-private recesses. He stood in one of these, examining more paintings by the “street gang” artist. It looked as if the works were for sale via some form of auction, though he was not at all sure what rules applied.
“You like this stuff, too?” said a voice at his back. He recognized the speaker, before he saw him, as Sergeant Bronkowski. With Bronkowski was a man of equal height but much slighter frame, with an angular face and an elegant goatee.
“Savoy, let me introduce Dr. Jeffrey Partington. Doctor Party to his friends. Inventor of Partington’s Convention Cure-all.”
Harold shook hands. “May I ask what this cure-all is?”
“It’s the golden rule for getting through a con without losing your health or sanity: two meals a day and five hours of sleep. Unfortunately, our friend Bronc is a little confused at times. He thinks it’s five meals a day and two hours of sleep.”
Both men chortled as one does at homey, oft-repeated witticisms.
Having cognoscenti at hand, Harold asked how he could make purchases. Bronc was in the midst of an explanation when Melisande materialized.
“I was wondering whether you could find your way around without a guide,” she said to Harold. “You seem to be doing fairly well.”
“Not too badly. You shouldn’t have skipped my panel, though. You missed an exciting time.”
“I heard that there was some trouble,” the doctor observed.
Harold sketched the confrontation between Lars Gleason and the heckler.
“And it was the host of the Portland bid party, you’re sure?” Melisande asked at the end.
“Pretty sure. The voice would be hard to mistake.”
For some reason, this confirmation elicited a frown. “Something wrong?”
“Oh, I have a theory about what happened to our unlucky disk, and this incident fits right in. Colin Satterlee is very, very angry with Lars Gleason. He’s usually rather mild-mannered and wouldn’t have yelled at Lars if he hadn’t come to the con furious.”
“I don’t exactly see the nexus. . . .”
“I think Keith stole the disk to spite Lars. It’s just the sort of silly, pointless stunt that he would come up with.”
Bronkowski looked at her seriously, his face a mask of professionalism. “This isn’t my case, Melisande, but how about telling us the whole story?”
She told it in a reasonably straightforward way, beginning with Lars Gleason’s request for budget data and ending with the hotel clerk’s assertion that Harold’s secretary had picked up the repaired computer disk.
Having digested this information, Bronkowski nodded several times and tugged the ends of his moustache. “There’s one point you’ve left out,” he said at last. “When did Satterlee hear about the disk?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it came up at the Portland party.”
Bronkowski looked dubious. “Maybe. . . . You remember what you said there?”
“Not exactly. Colin mostly wanted to talk about comic books, but we might have said something. . . .”
“Not enough evidence to bring an indictment. I’d say you need more facts, Madame Detective.”
“Didn’t Sherlock Holmes say, when you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever is left must be the truth.”
“I wish the real world were that simple. While you were talking, I came up with a theory of my own.”
“I want to think about it for a bit. Are you planning to keep on this?”
“The clerk who took the package will be back on duty at seven. I was going to see whether I could find anything out from her.”
“Good idea. Be sure to tell me what you learn.”
“Then you’ll tell me your theory?”
“I’m not making any promises.”
“Before we devise any more theories, why don’t I check the front desk again?” Harold suggested.
Melisande went with him. Nothing was waiting for him at the desk. Phone calls to Lon Margolin at both home and office were not answered.
“I’m not happy about this,” Melisande said. “Bronc must suspect something serious, especially if he won’t tell me what it is.”
They were passing the bar as she said this.
“Would a drink cheer you up?”
They settled into the dark recesses of the lounge, Harold with a beer, Melisande with another Smith & Kerns.
“By the way, Melisande, I have a message. Lars Gleason wants to talk to you. Something about the Seattle bid.”
“Yeah, that’s what he says.” She looked distracted as she took her next sip.
“Why the skepticism? I had the impression that you two were old friends.”
She took a very long sip. “Mr. Savoy, I shouldn’t burden you with my problems, but you must have noticed some tension between Lars and me when we were at the Seattle party.”
“Well, yes, but wasn’t that because he was unhappy about not getting his budget numbers?”
“That wasn’t the real cause. I mean, it gave him a socially acceptable reason to yell at me, but it didn’t cause the tension. The problem is. . . . Lars - well, he makes advances, very often and very seriously. I thought I was safe this weekend, because his girlfriend lives in Chicago, but I haven’t seen her at the con. If she’s out of Lars’ sight, she’s pretty likely to be out of his mind, too.
“So I don’t have much doubt concerning the subject he wants to discuss with me, and I don’t feel at all up to fending him off yet again. This disk is worrying me now. On top of that, Jody’s in such a strange mood. And I’m probably off my medication schedule, because she’s sulking wherever she is instead of babysitting me the way she normally does.
“To be blunt, Mr. Savoy, if I had to listen to a proposition from Lars Gleason right now, I’d give careful thought to figuring out a foolproof way to murder him. It’s such a strain to go to con after con and always see him, lying in wait. . . .”
“Before you carry that thought too far, Miss Thomas, look over your shoulder. He just walked into the room.”