In a small restaurant a few blocks north of the Loop, one of those fashionable haunts where more money buys less food, Caroline Corsi turned over a forkful of quiche while scrutinizing her own reflection in the mirrored wall.
If beauty were as purchasable commodity as caviar and champagne, she would have been stunningly beautiful. As it was, every one of her exquisite features fascinated the eye, but the ensemble was somehow disappointing. Caroline glittered, but she did not glow.
Nevertheless, the mirror satisfied her well enough. The last pound that she had sworn to lose had come off at this morning’s weighing, and her lips had at last been soothed sufficiently to overcome their annoying tendency to chap in cold weather.
Across the table, her friend and hanger-on Joan Venier was babbling as usual. Joan was the daughter of one of Papa’s minor lieutenants, a prematurely dried-up woman who lived on the scraps of other people’s lives.
Though their relationship was far from equal, Caroline and Joan were confidants, and the lesser woman felt no shyness about questioning the greater about the wisdom of her actions.
“I never heard of hiring detectives to check out a boyfriend, and I know I’d never have the nerve. Besides, if you don’t trust a man, I always say, why bother with him? Just a waste of cash to check him out. If they turn up something, you’ve only learned what you already knew, and if they don’t, you still won’t trust him.”
“It wasn’t my idea, Joanie. Piero and Angelo insisted, and Papa agreed with them. They kept throwing my ex-husband in my face. And, sure, private eyes would have found out about Eggie’s gambling and drugs and saved me a lot of grief, but Lars definitely isn’t into anything like that. Still, the family insisted, and what could I do?”
“So, what did the dicks dig up?”
“Nothing much.” Her fork stirred the quiche again. Joan knew her well enough to sense the evasion.
“Nothing much of what? You’re not going to tell me that he’s pure as an altar boy’s robe, are you?”
“There are a few blemishes. He doesn’t make nearly as good a living as he pretends to. But I’d already figured that out. And, well, he used to live with a woman. Years ago. One of the sci-fi crowd.”
Interest flared in Joan’s eyes. “Does he still see her?”
“Not for a long time, but -”
Hand trembling minutely, she took a big swallow of wine.
“I might as well tell you about it, Joanie. It’s been preying on my nerves ever since that damned private eye turned in his report. As I said, Lars lived with her. That was when he was in L.A. Then they broke up, and she moved away, and there’s no sign of contact, except maybe casual meetings at sci-fi affairs. Until now.
“Lately, she’s come into money, which is exactly what would revive romantic feelings in Lars’s heart. They broke up over money, you see. And she’s come all the way from Florida to the sci-fi meeting this weekend. Piero was beside himself when he read that in the report. I said, it didn’t have to mean anything, but he said, why does a girl travel a thousand miles to be near a man? Just to admire his ties? Angelo and Papa agreed with him, of course.”
“Do you think they’re right?”
“Of course not. Whatever faults Lars may have, and wherever he’s slept in the past, he’s incredibly devoted to me. Sometimes it gets to be a nuisance, almost. It would be a nuisance if I didn’t love him back.”
“Tell me something, then. If you and he are so much in love, what are you doing here? He’s in town today, isn’t he?”
“Well. . . it’s a test. I told him I had to work late and wouldn’t get to the hotel until tomorrow. If there’s anything between him and that woman, I’ll find out tonight.”
“I get it. You’ll sneak over tonight and see whether they’re up to no good.”
“Don’t say ‘sneak’, Joanie. I feel too much like a spy already. But, yeah, that’s the idea. The room’s in both our names, so I’ll go there later, pick up a key and surprise him. And when I don’t find anything, maybe my brothers’ll lay off. He and I can have a special little party by ourselves. I’m taking a magnum of champagne.”
“Okay. And what if he’s - you know. . . .”
“Then I haven’t the faintest idea of what I’ll do. . . . I know how my brothers would handle it.”
Melisande had carefully thought through the first stage of her interview with Deno Stavrakis. She addressed him as she would a hyperactive six-year-old.
“Deno, I want you to pay attention and look at me while I speak to you.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he answered nonchalantly, turning to stare out the window.
“I mean it, Deno. This is serious. Lars gave me information that you need to understand.”
“Lars is always full of secret information.”
“If you don’t look me straight in the face, I’ll leave.”
Grudgingly, he rotated his head a few degrees and confronted her with a sidewise stare. She accepted it as a compromise.
“Let’s start at the beginning, Deno. Are you sure you want to chair a Worldcon?”
“Yeah, I’m sure of that.”
“Fandom still means that much to you?”
“I see the line he tried to sell you. Melisande, the fact that I’ve found God doesn’t mean that I’ve lost the rest of my life. Fandom is what I’ve been doing since I was twenty-three years old.”
“Still, you have a different perspective now.”
“Which makes it all the more important for me to stick with the Seattle bid. If I drop out, people will say fandom isn’t important to me anymore and I’m not important to fandom. I don’t like that at all.”
“What if it comes to a fight with Lars?”
“It won’t. Lars can bluster, but he can’t beat me in an out-and-out fight.”
“Are you absolutely sure?”
“Melisande, would I lie to you? Lars and I have been sparring for years, and I’ve learned how he operates. Basically, he’s one dimensional, and I’m not. I work on many levels. Which is why I control the executive board. Frankly, I could get rid of him, if I really wanted to.”
“If you had a little humility, this would be easier.” Speaking rapidly, her eyes continuously locked onto his, she told him of the letter that she had seen in Lars’s room.
When she finished speaking, he rubbed his beard and broke contact with her eyes. Silence filled the room.
“A forgery,” he breathed, almost too low to hear.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Lars knows I know everybody on your board, some of them a lot better than he does. He wouldn’t be stupid enough to fake their signatures.”
“What’s so stupid? You aren’t a handwriting expert. Even if you were, you don’t have sample signatures at hand.”
“I could call the board members and ask them whether they signed.”
“Would you do that? Did the thought actually enter your mind before I suggested that the letter might be fake?”
“Well, no. I guess it’s ultimately not any of my business. But what about you? Lars couldn’t expect me to keep the letter secret - he obviously didn’t even want me to.”
“Okay. Let’s suppose that I call everybody on the board, and they all deny having signed any letter like the one you describe.”
“Then it seems to me that Lars would be in serious trouble.”
“Oh? And what if he says, ‘What letter? There was never any letter. It’s a product of Deno’s paranoid imagination.’”
“But I saw it.”
“Can you prove that?” He sat down and shook his head. “Lars is predictable, dear heart, but he isn’t a nincompoop. This move was well plotted. He’s in no danger of being exposed as a forger. On the other hand, it wasn’t plotted well enough to stampede me into quitting.”
“All right, Deno. Believe whatever you’d like to believe. You’re my friend, so I wanted you to know what I know. If you’d prefer to live in dreamland, that’s your business.”
“Even if it’s true, they won’t go through with it.”
“Oh, there are wheels within wheels. Lots can happen between now and the next board meeting.”
“You’re going to fight, then?”
“I wouldn’t call it fighting. I shall - but it wouldn’t do for me to reveal all my methods. Let’s just say that I expected a move like this from Lars, and I’m already taking steps to checkmate him.”
Bravado, Melisande thought, but she saw no point in riposting. “I look forward to seeing your next move,” she said. “Meanwhile, I’d better be going. My schedule is overflowing tonight.”
She left the room in an agitated state, highly dissatisfied with the way in which she had presented her thoughts. She had intended to convey a cautionary message to a friend, but her words, it seemed, refused to carry out her intentions. Worse, Deno’s counterarguments, self-serving and rationalizing though they might be, shook her a little. She could not believe his forgery theory, but she could not quite disbelieve it either.
She was about to turn into the stairwell when she heard Deno’s voice again. “Come back here. You left your purse.”
She returned slowly. He held the purse out to her.
“Can you stay another minute, Melisande? I have one more question to ask you.”
She tacitly acquiesced by reentering the room.
Before speaking, he paused for a long time, as if he had forgotten her presence. Then his eyes moved their focus from the ceiling to a point just over her right shoulder.
“Melisande, what do you know about Lars’ health problems?”
“It wouldn’t be surprising if he had some, given how overweight he is, but I’ve never heard of any specific ailment.”
“His heart’s in bad shape. Dr. Party warned him last year to diet and cut out drinking. Naturally, he’s done the opposite. I’d guess that he’s gained twenty pounds since then, and I never see him without alcohol close at hand.”
Melisande tutted sympathetically, waiting for the other to get to whatever point he was trying to make.
“That’s another reason I can’t drop off the bid. If, God forbid, anything should happen to Lars -”
“All right, but he isn’t likely to drop dead tonight, or in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, he has his letter -”
But Deno had drifted out of her world. “You know, the Portland bid is aimed at Lars, not at Seattle generally. I had an interesting talk with Colin Satterlee earlier today. He said Portland would fold if Lars disappeared from our bid. And I’ve sometimes thought that if the case were put to Lars in the right way, by the right person. . . .”
Melisande was determined to jerk him back to terra firma. “Don’t be comical. He’s utterly devoted to chairing a Worldcon. I suppose Genie Galen’s the world’s champion in that category, but Lars is an extremely close second.”
“It may look that way, but - There’s his heart, for one thing. For another, he’s crazy about Caroline, and she despises science fiction in general and fandom in particular. He brought her out for AlkiCon this year, and that was a disaster - came close to breaking up the relationship. Especially when she saw some of the femmefen being friendly.”
“I’ve never met this woman, but I know she can’t be so special that Lars would give up his Worldcon chairmanship for her.”
“Don’t be so certain. One thing I’ve learned in fandom is never to make dogmatic assertions. First of all, though she’s not my type, she is gorgeous. Second, her father’s loaded - in the junk trade, oddly enough, but there’s evidently lots of money in that. Third, she’s more than hinted that, if they get married, Daddy’ll take Lars into the family business, which is a more pleasant future than scratching out a subsistence living as an underemployed C.P.A. In fact, more pleasant than being an underemployed C.P.A. plus chairing a Worldcon.”
“I doubt that Lars sees it that way, and I hope this little oration isn’t going to end with your suggesting that I make matters clear to him. I didn’t think I’d volunteered for shuttle diplomacy and, if I did, I’m resigning my portfolio right this minute.”
“No, of course I wouldn’t ask you to be my emissary. I was just musing.”
“Muse as long as you like. I have to run.”
This time she was careful to take her purse. Deno waved a nonchalant good-bye.
“One last thing, Melisande,” he called just before she left earshot. “If you see Jody, would you ask her to stop by the Seattle party, or see me sooner if she can?”
En route to the stairs, she kept glancing back, half expecting him to summon her yet again. Thus she was not paying attention as she reached the stairwell door and collided heavily with the person who was emerging.
The blow staggered her to her knees. Two hands reached down to lift her back up. After a moment’s disorientation, she realized that the hands were Colin Satterlee’s.
“Thanks, Colin. I wasn’t watching the road.”
“You’re not hurt, are you?”
“No, no. Not a bruise on me.”
“It’s lucky I ran into you. Wait, I don’t mean that literally. What’s lucky is that I ‘ve just had a great idea for bid publicity and need your help with it.”
Her wind was still recovering, so the customary protestation of neutrality emerged too late.
“Remember how some bids have run comic strips in their progress reports? Well, I thought of doing that in ours and calling it Wars of the Cosmic Smofs. I’d like to ask Milos Savoy to do the script, and since you know him so well, I was hoping you might. . . .”
She shook her head as gently as possible. “That won’t work, Colin.”
“I know. I know. You insist on being neutral. Okay, I’m not going to pester you. But when you see Mr. Savoy, ask him to talk to me. Please. I know he’ll love the idea. I could tell from what he said on the panel today that Cosmic Amoebas is his favorite work.”
“Ummm, if I see him -”
”The Portland party opens at ten. I hadn’t planned to run two nights, but people will be looking for me, after what happened at the panel. You’ll stop by for a little while, won’t you?”
“Sorry, I have to run. Deno Stavrakis and I have a big smoffing session scheduled, and I’m almost late.”
Watching him hurry down the corridor, Melisande shook her head again, striving to think only gentle, kindly thoughts.
Colin Satterlee sat down uncomfortably, longing for the nerve to take some seat other than the one that Deno Stavrakis had indicated. A close look at Deno had drained from him all of his courage and most of his enthusiasm for this “smoffing session”. He had come anticipating another generalized discussion of how the “good fen” in the Portland and Seattle bids could cooperate against the common enemy. Clearly, matters had progressed to a more serious stage during the past few hours.
The Seattle co-chairman’s normal expression was distant and reserved. Now it was grim. The crisis must be here, Colin thought.
As usual, Deno was slow to get started. He gazed through his visitor, then crossed the room to sit on the arm of the same chair. He leaned casually forward.
“Colin, fandom is in real danger tonight. Lars has gone too far.”
“I know that.”
“You don’t know what he’s done this time. Not just skullduggery but. . . crime.”
Colin felt as the English King must have on learning that Joan of Arc was a certifiable witch. For so long he had suspected, had inwardly hoped - and it was true.
“I can’t tell you all the details. In fact, it would be better for you if you didn’t know some of them. But I can tell you this much: If Lars is ever going to be stopped, the moment to do it is now. Tomorrow will be too late.”
“I - is there something I can do?”
“There is. Lars has a letter - a forgery, the key to exposing the whole conspiracy. It’s vital that we obtain a copy. And by we, I mean us, you and I. The police can’t move without a warrant. . . . Are you willing to help?”
Not knowing or caring to what he was committing himself, Colin nodded vigorously.
“Good. Let me lay out the situation for you:
“The forgery is probably in Lars’ room, maybe in plain sight, maybe hidden. Luckily, Lars will be at the Seattle bid party most of the evening. All you need to do is enter his room, find the letter, make a photocopy and put the original back where you found it.”
A doubt disturbed Colin’s rarely adventurous mind. “How do I get in?”
“Duck soup. Lars has a roommate who won’t show up till tomorrow. You go to the front desk and announce that you’re the other person who’s supposed to be in the room. That may be a little tricky, because the roommate’s named ‘Caroline’, but don’t worry. The desk clerk probably won’t check names. If he does, insist that there’s been a mistake. If he still hangs back, a tip should bring him around. You can use this.”
A twenty dollar bill appeared in Colin’s palm. It seemed as unreal as the words that he had just heard, as the words of consent that issued from his mouth.
Deno’s face was no longer grim. A giant smile enwreathed it, and his large, firm hand was shaking Colin’s limp, perspiring one. “Thanks from the bottom of my soul, friend. Someday fen will remember you as the man who saved fandom.”
“He’ll really be gone?”
“From fandom, at least. The mundanes may have to put up with him. As for the future - what would you say to becoming vice chairman of a unified Pacific Northwest bid?”
“This is all so hard to believe.”
“Twists and turns. Wheels within wheels. When you’re a real smof, that’s what you have to expect.”
Ordinarily, Colin did not drink. As he left Deno’s room, however, following several further minutes of briefing on what he was to look for and how he was to carry out his mission, his most urgent desire was to reach the con suite and down as many beers as he could before the appointed time for his task.
Irritated at her own impatience, Caroline Corsi glanced cautiously about the hotel lobby before leaving the shadow of the entrance foyer. The lobby was a cascade of shapes, shifting unpredictably. She assured herself that none of them was Lars, set her features in an aloof mask and proceeded to the front desk. The clerk on duty was tall, blonde and vulgarly attractive. Caroline felt the automatic surge of jealousy that afflicted her in the presence of any young, presentable female.
“May I help you, ma’am?” “Ma’am”, with its overtone of youth addressing age, impelled Caroline’s gleaming teeth to snap together.
“My name is Corsi. I wish to obtain the key to my room. The other occupant has already arrived, I believe.”
“Certainly, ma’am.” The girl busied herself slackly for a few minutes, finally presenting a key. “Here, ma’am. You and Mr. Gleason are in room 916. Enjoy your stay. Shall I have the bellman take your luggage?”
“That is not necessary. Thank you.” Caroline turned away as quickly and firmly as minimal politeness would allow. The motion brought into view two women standing by a potted plant about a dozen feet away. She could see the half-profile of each. It was a fillip to her sense of irritation that one of them, wearing a lavender sweater and off-white skirt, had lovely features, spoiled only minimally by lines of tension across her chin and mouth. Had a mirror been handy, Caroline would have noticed the same lines in her own expression.
The other member of the pair was short and fat, her flesh rolling out of a flimsy green dress. “Cuddly” was the word that came to Caroline’s mind, and she sneered at anything cuddly.
Yet there was something about the woman’s face that evoked a memory. After a spell of cogitation, Caroline slipped behind a pillar and extracted a much-ruffled sheaf of documents from her handbag. Among them was a blurry, overexposed photograph, showing an overweight woman in a pants suit and sunglasses stepping off of the Disney World monorail.
Was it the same woman? Caroline ground her teeth and walked forward. “Pardon me,” she asked the figure in the lavender sweater. “Can you direct me to the ladies’ room?”
The woman pointed and gave directions. Meanwhile, Caroline caught a glimpse of her companion’s name tag. Even without this conclusive piece of evidence, the resemblance, seen close up, was unarguable.
“Poor mundane. She must feel like she’s landed on Mars.”
Caroline had keen hearing and, what was more valuable, a knack for picking threads out of the general babble. She slowed the pace of her departure a step or two.
“A pity she’s not a fan. Then maybe Lars would chase her instead of me.”
She was not positive of the name that the woman had spoken and knew that her own insecurity could have crafted it from random noise. Still, as a wide turn carried her into the refreshingly frigid night air, her original strategy lay in tatters.
She went to her car and punched a call through on the cellular phone, unhappily aware that she was surrendering to her family’s suspicions.
Her older brother answered in the middle of the first ring.
“Ciao, sis. I thought you’d call.”
“She really is here. I saw her. But she wasn’t with Lars.”
“It doesn’t hurt to play it safe. I’ll be right over.”
She wanted to say almost anything except the words that actually came from her lips. “She’s wearing a green dress. You’ve seen pictures of Lars.”
“Yeah, I got him memorized.”
“Piero, please.” Her voice was pleading. “Just watch them, okay? Tell me if - if - you know - but don’t do anything.”
“Right, sis. No rough stuff. I’ll leave all that to you.”