Between Colin Satterlee’s departure and Jody Silverbury’s knock on his door, Deno methodically reviewed his position and his arsenal of counterstrokes. The former he found perplexing, the latter puny.
That his self-important, minimally competent co-chairman had pulled off a genuine coup was too irritating an idea to be true. Yet Melisande had been unswayed by his logical demolition of the board’s purported letter, and her skepticism might not represent simple feminine contrariness.
Mentally he replayed months of conversations with members of the board, discovering that he could recall his own words and reactions clearly and theirs only in the most generalized terms. Had he carelessly overlooked crucial portents? Or was he now imagining portents that had never been?
He did not realize that he had responded to a knock until he recognized Jody’s face through the spy hole. Summoning her was a wild roll of the dice, based on a few sentences heard years ago. With a dry throat, feeling much as the unfortunate Satterlee had half an hour before, he opened the door.
The combination of nervousness and surprise at her glamorous facade momentarily left him gulping for air. She danced into the room and pirouetted into the closest chair.
“Well, Deno, Melisande says you want to see me. It wasn’t just so you could stand fish-faced, was it?”
“Didn’t expect you so soon,” he managed to gurgle.
“I’m a punctual girl. What’s on your mind?”
“Did Melisande tell you anything. . . that is, about the talk she and I had?”
“Nothing to speak of. You and Lars have a problem, I gather.”
“Yeah, that’s one way to put it.”
“Too bad. Well, my opinion has always been that no bid should serve two masters. Either you or Lars should stand aside.”
“Oh? Do you have any opinion as to which?”
“Why should I care? My own con’s politics are complicated enough without worrying about yours.”
“I thought you might have some - opinions - about Lars.”
“Based on our past relationship?”
“Based on what happened to your relationship. Let’s not spar, Jody. Do you remember a conversation we had at Capricon about four years ago?”
“I doubt it.”
“I’ll refresh your recollection. Lars and I were in the middle of the war over AlkiCon. You were introduced to me as his former girlfriend. I said a few words about my difficulties with him, and you answered, ‘Don’t be afraid of Lars Gleason. If I ever told the whole story of why we broke up, he’d be lucky to stay out of prison.’
“I didn’t ask you to elaborate then, because I didn’t need more ammunition than I had -”
“But now you do need ammunition, is that it?”
“I might want something in reserve.”
Her expression was impassive, although her eyes might have flickered briefly in mockery.
“You have no reason to cover for Lars.”
“Nor any to uncover for you. It’s true, of course, that I could sink him, but I’ve kept quiet for years. Why ruin another human being’s life?”
“You wouldn’t have to tell the world, or even me. Just a little chat with him. You could suggest that he would be happier if he pursued other interests.”
The mockery was more than a flicker now. “You haven’t answered the question of why I should. No babble about ‘the good of fandom’, Deno.”
“What do you want? If I can give it to you, it’s yours.”
“Let me consider. There might be something. . . .” She shifted her gaze to the clock on Deno’s nightstand. “. . . though I can’t think of anything at the moment. Besides, I have an appointment tonight, and I’m late already.” She began fussing with her outfit while Deno sank into gloom.
“Maybe we could talk later on?”
“I don’t expect to be back until very late. Good-bye, Deno.” She cast an incongruously cheery smile his way as she departed.
Afterwards, Deno found it hard to set himself into motion. The perplexity that had troubled him earlier had grown paralyzing. Too much was murky, not only when he tried to foresee the future but also when he looked at the present and the past.
He thought and thought, but his thinking scrabbled over dry stones, unable to get a firm foothold and oftentimes bruising the thinker. Melisande Thomas had brushed his pleas aside before they were uttered. Jody Silverbury had refused to help. That left the hope that Colin Satterlee’s raid might produce something of value. It was a thin hope indeed.
Harold arrived early for the art auction. As he stood by the door, the setup crew arrived, pushing laundry carts loaded with paintings and looking on outsiders with splenetic glances.
Luckily, Sergeant Bronkowski was near at hand to rescue him from the crew’s hostility. With ponderous cordiality, the policeman made introductions and offered his and Harold’s services in arranging the art work for display at the front of the room. “Best job there is,” he confided. “You get to see what’s in the auction, so you don’t have to splinter your fanny waiting for stuff that isn’t coming up.”
This task took only a few minutes. After that, there was mysterious business that could be conducted only by the auctioneers and their staff in private, so both Harold and Bronkowski were shooed out.
“Planning to bid on anything?” Bronkowski asked.
“I like the painting I was looking at this afternoon, the extraterrestrials in the guise of New York punks. But I didn’t see it in there, so maybe I got it for the minimum bid.”
“Good painting. I know the artist. He’ll be furious that you bought it.”
“Minimum bid was way too low. His agent told him he was being a fool, but he hasn’t a lick of business sense.”
Harold reserved a quantum of sympathy for people without business sense but doled it out sparingly. He was about to make a comment on the perils of the market place when he noticed that Bronkowski had become absorbed in some far off sight.
“Well, well, well, well,” growled the policeman, sounding like a walrus who has sniffed a rotten mackerel.
Bronkowski laid a hand on Harold’s shoulder and guided him into the nearby men’s room.
“There’s a guy here who doesn’t belong. I’d rather he didn’t see me.”
Harold could think of only one reason for this reticence. “A criminal?”
“Mustn’t offend the ACLU. An alleged criminal. The one time he and I met in person, he allegedly took an alleged shot at me. If I’d been quicker on my feet, I would’ve run smack into the alleged bullet.”
“Well, I suppose even low lifes can like science fiction.”
“Right, Savoy. Try engaging him a literary conversation about your latest book.” Bronkowski brooded. “I wish I had a reason to bust the sucker. . . . Savoy, I need a favor from you.
“I’ll point him out to you. Watch him for a while. See whom he talks to, especially whether he says anything to the blonde at the front desk. I’ll be in the auction.”
Harold reflected that even the most hardened outlaw was unlikely to open fire in a hotel lobby. He nodded assent.
The quarry did not look like the sort of man who took shots at officers of the law. He was willowy, wearing an expensive trench coat over what looked like a sports jacket and slacks, thirty years old or a year or two younger. His eyes were rather dull, and his lips had a slight, sullen curl, but otherwise he could easily have passed for a junior accountant, perhaps one who had been a basketball star in college and was a bit soured by his commonplace life since then.
He stood in the center of the lobby, pivoting from time to time to scan the crowd but addressing no one.
Harold chose a chair at a distance and angle from which he could keep the man in view without overtly watching him. Next, he waited, soon learning firsthand how little glamor there is in a stakeout.
As tedium gripped him, he was relieved to see Jody Silverbury. He waved. She waved back and came over. The alleged criminal sat down and removed a cigarette from an ornate case. Looking as bored as Harold, he tapped the tip on the arm of his couch.
“Enjoying the spectacle, Mr. Savoy?”
“Just resting for a moment. Dinner had a surplus of calories.”
“Melisande told me. I hope you both recover. Meanwhile, I’m going out for the evening.”
“You might think about a coat. Dressed like that, you’ll be a Jody-sicle in seconds. On a night like this, I don’t understand how scientists can believe in Global Warming, or why they think there could be anything wrong with it.”
Jody looked mildly nonplussed, then giggled. “You mean the icecaps haven’t melted yet? Don’t worry, Mr. Savoy, I’ll get a coat. I’m on the way back to my room. Good seeing you. Bye now.”
She vanished quickly. Harold turned to resume his surveillance and discovered that his target had vanished, too.
“Sergeant Bronkowski won’t be recommending me for police force vacancies,” he muttered. “Just my luck that the fellow walks off during the thirty seconds when I’m distracted.”
He rose and decided to make a careful inspection of the premises before admitting to failure.
In the first stage of the inspection, before he had left the lobby, he encountered Melisande, who was debarking from an elevator and appeared to be in the midst of her own search.
“Trying to find a fannish computer guru,” she explained, “to link up with yours before the night gets too far along. I have four or five names, but every last one of them seems to be in hiding.”
“People have a way of blinking out when one is trying to watch them. Your friend Bronc assigned me to keep an eye on a fellow who ought to stand out like a comet in this crowd, and I’ve lost him completely.”
“What did he look like?”
Harold provided a thumbnail description.
“I know the one you mean,” said Melisande. “Looked like he should have been at a greasers’ reunion. He slid onto my elevator just as I was getting off. I noticed him, because Jody was getting onto the same elevator, and I tried to say a word to her as we passed each other. I nearly got crushed between the two of them.”
“Did he speak to anybody? That’s what Bronc was most interested in.”
“Not that I noticed. And now that you’ve aroused my curiosity, what is this all about? Who is this person?”
“A thug of some sort. He and Bronc are not on good terms. I ought to try to locate him.”
“How? You’re bound to miss him if you try to scour every floor. The best course, I’d think, is to wait here till he comes down again. He can’t leave the hotel without passing this spot.”
“But that doesn’t give me any hope of finding out what he’s up to.”
“No, I guess not. How about this, then? You watch here, and I’ll search.”
Harold felt dubious about the suggestion. “This character’s dangerous.”
“So I’m not going to challenge him to a shootout. If I see him, I’ll report back right away.”
Harold grudgingly agreed. While Melisande hurried toward the elevator bank, he settled back for another spell of boredom.
The phrase “even the meanest intelligence”, however construed, fit Piero Corsi’s intellect well. He practiced a trade, however, in which cunning and audacity were more vital than wit, and of those qualities he had a decent supply. Thus when he decided that he needed the use of a room adjacent to his sister’s, he had no difficulty formulating a plan for obtaining one.
He watched through the small and rather grimy pane of glass in the stairwell door until the figures embracing on the threshold of Room 916 had separated, one of them to enter the room, the other to return to the elevators. The elevator came and went. The corridor was empty. Piero walked swiftly to Room 918 and knocked briskly.
“Who’s there?” asked a lazy, semi-somnolent voice.
“FBI. Open up.”
The yelp of surprise and sounds of panicked scurrying were gratifying. He heard the occupant put the door chain into position, after which a narrow wedge of an opening appeared, revealing part of a hirsute face. Piero shoved a set of credentials in front of it. He was proud of these documents, which had once fooled a pair of real FBI agents.
The only color left in the face was a pink tinge on its lips. “I guess it’s all over. You finally decided to pick me up,” the lips said.
Not the way to deal with feds, Piero thought scornfully, speculating on what small time mischief this amateur might be involved in. That was unimportant at the moment, though. He set his shoulders officially and spoke with authority.
“You’re lucky today, punk. I’ve got bigger fish on the line. I’m commandeering this room until midnight. Get out.”
“I understand, sir. Sure, use it as long as you like. I won’t say a word to anybody, sir. Wait a second while I unlatch the chain.”
The occupant undid the chain, threw open the door and rushed out of it in what seemed like a single uninterrupted motion. Piero sauntered in, lighting a cigarette and tossing the unsnuffed match onto the carpet, where it burned to a tiny black smudge.
He first put his ear to the wall, confirming that it was of standard hotel thinness. The faint noise of a lone person moving about came through. Next he examined his surroundings. One drawer of the dresser had been pulled open, almost far enough to fall out of its slot. Someone had rummaged hastily through the contents. The occupant’s stash, Piero thought. He shook his head at the stupidity of the man’s reaction.
The other sight of interest was an unopened bottle of Beam’s Choice standing on top of the television set. He took this as divine recompense for all the trouble that he was going through on his sister’s behalf. It would certainly make the waiting less intolerable.
He regretted that his only tasks were to wait and observe, for he was extremely fond of his sister and highly doubtful that she possessed the force of will needed to treat her errant lover as he deserved. At the crucial moment, he feared, she would grow soft and forgiving. After all, she was just a girl.
Like Harold Bramwing, he found his watch boring. The level of whiskey bottle declined steadily, while he contemplated insults, past and prospective, to his family honor and proper ways to avenge them.
After forty-five minutes, Melisande reappeared, short of breath and wearing a frustrated grimace.
“No sign of him?” Harold asked.
She shook her head. “He hasn’t passed by here, either?”
“Nope. I haven’t seen a single familiar face, except for that fellow who so admires Wars of the Cosmic Amoebas. He had some idea about reviving it that I couldn’t understand. I’m afraid I shooed him off a bit ungraciously. Well, it’s about time I broke the bad news to Sergeant Bronkowski.”
Bronkowski reacted mildly. After ascertaining that Harold was positive that the man had not spoken to anyone in the lobby, he tugged a moustache and said, “Okay, he might be visiting a friend. Thanks for helping, both of you.” After which he turned his full attention to a crystal statuette of a space-helmeted Sphinx, on which the bidding had reached sixty-five dollars.
Harold and Melisande retreated to the far end of the room, where they could simultaneously watch the auction and converse.
“How well do you know Deno?” Melisande asked.
“He was my best friend in college. We’ve been out of touch since then.”
“What was he like, back then?”
“Bubbling, full of life, always trying new things and not taking any of them too seriously.”
“So I noticed. Of course, I’ve probably changed just as radically. We aren’t aware of our own evolution.”
“He and Lars are girding for a serious fight. I couldn’t say anything at dinner in front of Genie, but I’m concerned about what may happen.”
“What can they do, get into a public brawl?”
“Honestly, I wish they would. What I’m afraid of is that they’ll drag my convention into their intrigues. For instance, Deno told me he wanted to talk to Jody. I passed the message on, and I assume that she saw him, and the next thing I know she tells me she’s going out for the night and not to expect her back until the wee hours. I sense a connection.”
“I don’t. Her clinging vine was bawling in the con suite about how she had thrown him over for another man. With that datum, plus a glimpse of her dress, I infer that Deno Stavrakis and Lars Gleason and skiffy politics are very far from her thoughts this evening.”
Melisande blinked hard. “She’s broken up with Mark? He was most of her reason for coming to Zephyrcon. Though it would be in character for her to meet a local this afternoon and be swooning at his feet by dinner time. . . .
“Harold, I just had an awful thought. Could that man Bronc wanted you to watch have been the local? He and Jody were getting onto the same elevator.”
“By your account, that was just coincidence. Was there more? Did they speak to each other?”
“No, I don’t think so. Still, I’d like to check my room. Also, the parties are starting to open. If you don’t have any more interesting plans -”
Harold gave consent by letting her lead him out the door.
A brief stop at her room showed that it was unoccupied. A note rested on the pillow of Melisande’s bed.
Don’t forget to take your medication. I may get back to the hotel very late. No point in waiting up for me. Sorry to sound mysterious, but I don’t have much time. Personal matter. Will explain all in the morning.
“That’s that, then. I’ll see her when I see her. She may be my nursemaid, but I’m not her conscience. I feel sorry for Mark, though. He’s a turkey, but he’s spent a lot of money on her, and she certainly led him on till now.”
“At least you don’t suspect her of having taken up with a simulacrum of a Mafia hit man?”
“Probably not. Jody’s the most fickle woman I’ve ever known, but she isn’t totally bereft of common sense.
“Putting that aside, would you mind going to the Seattle party first? You have a different perspective on Deno, and I’d like to hear your impressions of his mental state. To me, he looks like a time bomb nearing the end of its countdown.”
As they neared the Seattle suite, however, her judgement seemed too optimistic. Bombs were already exploding.
Through the closed door, masculine shouts penetrated - Lars Gleason’s basso profundo counterpointed with Deno Stavrakis’s heldentenor. Harold shrank back, but Melisande pushed the door, and it swung ajar.
Separated by the length of a couch, the Seattle co-chairmen stood, each endeavoring to shout down the other. Their words conveyed no objective meaning, only a feral rage.
Between them, huddled on the couch, ducking his head to evade their verbal blows, sat a limp rag of a man. To his patent psychological devastation was joined physical trauma; a long red and black bruise ran from his right temple to his left cheek, and one arm hung at an eerie angle from the shoulder.
The rag figure was the first to notice the new arrivals. He looked up without displaying any power of speech.
Harold needed some seconds to recognize him as Colin Satterlee.