Shakespeare says that a man may smile and smile and be a villain. Colin Satterlee would not have disagreed. Going further, he would have contended that certain smiles were the very essence of villainy.
The smile on Lars Gleason’s face as he overtook Colin on the stairs was one of those: arrogant, self-conceited, devoid of any trace of amicability. Compounding its villainy was its failure to alter upon encountering one of its wearer’s victims. A tincture of gloating, Colin thought, would humanize it.
On his side, he had no smile for Lars. He kept his countenance as unmoving as he could, nonetheless afraid that some weakness in demeanor risked handing his adversary another triumph.
Colin was not the only critic of Lars Gleason’s smile. A backward look revealed, on the next landing above, a plump young man whose intense, mildly inebriated eyes clung to Gleason’s movements. Colin gave no verbal greeting, but the grim smile that passed between the two men was enough to mark them as comrades in a common struggle.
Lars left the staircase on the sixth floor. His shadow hung back on the landing. Colin proceeded downward, to carry out the mission that Deno Stavrakis had assigned him.
After the silent stairwells, the lobby rang with life, though less life than earlier, as fans seeped slowly toward the art auction and the masquerade queue. Colin, moving against the general flow of traffic, felt conspicuous. When he noticed Milos Savoy relaxing in a chair, he seized the opportunity to tread water for a moment.
“Pardon me, Mr. Savoy, do you have a minute to talk?”
“Certainly.” For some reason, the author did not look Colin in the face but kept his eyes fixed on a point in the background.
“You remember we were talking last night about Wars of the Cosmic Amoebas? I have an idea about how you can get it back into the public eye. And coincidentally, if you don’t object, it would help the Portland Worldcon bid, too.”
Hearing no response, he plunged on. “Portland’s going to be putting out a bidzine, see, and my thought was to run a new Amoebas strip in it, maybe two pages an issue. If you’d agree to script it, I know plenty of artists - I might even be able to persuade Kenny to draw it again. You wouldn’t have to plug our bid. This would be a special feature, and it would get people reading Amoebas again. Maybe the book could get back into print.”
“That’s really not the sort of work that I do.”
“But you’ll think about it, won’t you? Everybody’s been hoping for a new Amoebas.”
“In God’s name, why? I’m sorry - uh - Colin, but I’m - hmmm - waiting for someone and can’t discuss this now.”
“I didn’t mean to bother you, Mr. Savoy. Maybe I’ll see you at our party.”
Colin moved away, trying to head toward the front desk without overtly going in a different direction from anyone else. Eventually, he arrived at his goal. The only clerk in sight was an intimidatingly attractive blonde.
“Excuse me,” said Colin, “I - I - I just got here and need to pick up the key to my room.”
“Certainly, sir.” She looked at the inquirer with sulky irritation. There was a silent interlude before Colin realized that he ought to say more.
“It’s Room 916. I’m - ah - sharing it. My roommate’s already picked up his key.”
“Room 916?” The clerk’s fingers played with the keyboard of her computer terminal. Her lips formed a smile as she typed, not a friendly smile but a pleased one, the smile that referees smile before signalling the penalty that nullifies a touchdown.
“According to the computer, you have already checked in, Mr. Gleason.”
“No, I’m not Gleason. I’m his roommate.”
She ran her eyes up and down his long torso. “Your name is Caroline Corsi?”
Colin had rehearsed this scene in his mind. Thanks to Deno’s coaching, he knew how to reply.
“Ummm, that’s a mistake. It’s ‘Colin’, not ‘Caroline’.”
She drummed her fingers on the counter while her jaws worked with extra vigor on her chewing gum. “There sure is a mistake, whoever you are. As it happens, I gave Ms. Corsi her key a couple of hours ago. Now, I suggest that you stop whatever game you’re playing and go away. Else, I call the manager.”
Colin wilted. His awareness wilted with him. Some time later, he was in his own room, unsure how he had gotten there.
His watch said that the clerk had rebuked him only five minutes ago; the subjective time period was closer to five days.
He paced the room, brooding with the anger generated by unanticipated defeat. He was angry at the clerk and her superciliously pretty face. He was angry at Deno Stavrakis for failing to foresee this contingency. He was angry at Milos Savoy for the curt rebuff that he had administered; he felt that, somehow, the promise of a Wars of the Cosmic Amoebas strip for Portland’s bidzine would have prevented the clerk from subjecting him to humiliation. Above all, he remained angry at Lars Gleason, whose villainy was the ultimate cause of all of these troubles.
At first, the anger was so hot that his brain could do nothing but boil over in rage. Gradually, however, the physical effort of walking reduced the boil to a simmer, and he was able to think coherently again.
Lars Gleason’s room still lay open to search. Gleason would presumably be at parties, his own bid’s and others, for many hours. Colin needed only to make sure that his girl friend (if she had really arrived and was not an invention on the part of the clerk) was also out of the room.
Not having a key complicated the task but might not render it impossible. He had read somewhere that hotel room locks were notoriously easy to pick, and he knew something about the art of lock picking from his college days. Certainly, he would be no worse off for trying.
He dialed Room 916. Six rings yielded no answer. His next project was to improvise a set of burglar tools from odds and ends in the room. When he had assembled the equipment that he would need, he changed his leather shoes for sneakers and set forth.
At Room 916, he tapped on the door, to be cautious. The tap seemed to generate a flutter of noise, but no one responded. Attributing the flutter to nerves, he knelt and went to work.
The lock was more resistant than his optimistic fancy had anticipated. While he pushed and pried and fiddled, his thoughts floated into the realm of daydream.
Exactly what would be in the document that he sought remained cloudy, but he visualized the impact on fandom: Deno Stavrakis congratulating him, admiration in his glance; a shame-faced Lars Gleason confessing that he had underestimated Colin and agreeing to withdraw quietly from fandom in atonement for his sins (as well as to avoid more serious consequences); Melisande Thomas offering the hero a shy but heartfelt kiss.
He ignored a sound to his right, the creak of a slowly opening door.
- You were magnificent, Colin. Of course, we wouldn’t think of having anyone else chair the business meeting. I expect that you’ll chair most of them from now on.
- If that’s what fandom wants, Melisande darling, that’s what I’ll do, but now let’s talk about us.
- Oh, Colin! Ever since I met you, I’ve known that fate was drawing us together.
He imagined, and seemed to feel, her arms entwining his -
- and yelped as the entwining arms yanked his body erect, twisted it around and threw it against the wall. He felt a pop in his left shoulder and a searing pain that smothered another pain oozing from his face. He smelled hot, alcoholic breath close to his nostrils.
“You won’t cheat on my sister, scum,” a low, bitter, drunken voice intoned.
He was aware that the voice came from a dark, malevolent head, whose features eluded the focus of his eyes. The head drew back, glared and emitted an obscenity. “Wrong scum.”. Then the man swerved and cursed again. The arms that had supported Colin abandoned him, and he slumped to a sitting position, moaning as he fell. The attacker vanished.
A shadow covered Colin. He stared into it and identified it as Lars Gleason.
Assisted by his enemy, he stood up. The door next to 916 was open. Lars pushed him into the vacant room.
The agony in his shoulder made thinking an ordeal. What filled his mind, in the crevices left free by the pain, was gratitude toward his rescuer. A buried memory objected to this emotion, but he was too broken to give it a hearing.
Lars urged him to swallow the contents of a glass. When he had coughed down a burning liquid, his head cleared to the bare extent necessary to comprehend a conversation.
“You need a doctor to reset that shoulder,” murmured a sympathetic voice. “Your face is probably okay. Superficial cuts and bruises but nothing worse.”
Lars placed his hand on the telephone receiver. “But before I summon the doctor,” he added, still gentle and sympathetic, “why don’t you explain why you were breaking into my room?”
“I wasn’t breaking in.”
“Lying only keeps the doctor away, Mr. Satterlee. Tell me what you had in mind.”
“Nothing. You’ve got it wrong.”
“Yes, maybe I do have it wrong. Maybe you don’t need a doctor, after all. In fact, maybe you need to have that arm ripped all the way off its socket.”
Gleason reached for the agonized left forearm. Colin was unable to pull it out of the way. Gleason gripped it lightly at first, then gradually tightened his grasp.
“Your last chance, Satterlee. At the count of three, I pull. One.”
“No, please, Lars, no.”
“I’ll tell you everything. Stavrakis put me up to it. He wanted - he wanted - he said you had papers in your room - he wanted them.”
“So he found you to do his dirty work, you refugee from the garbage can. Come on, stand up.”
“The doctor,” Colin groaned. Nausea was coming on.
“We’ll get a doctor in the Seattle suite. On your feet. Right now!”
Colin obeyed, adding the misery of servitude to his other sufferings. Along the corridor and up the stairs, he shuffled in front of his captor, wary and fearful, keeping conscious only by drawing on new quarries of hate.
Gleason pushed him through a doorway and onto a couch. He sank into the cushions, fast losing all concern with what might be happening around him. The whole of life was pain and humiliation, humiliation and pain - plus a cacophony of furious voices that had a connection, he subliminally deduced, with his present state. He sagged, abandoned hope and strove weakly to forget the universe.
Next to Lars Gleason and Deno Stavrakis, Melisande Thomas had no more bulk than a butterfly beating its wings in the vicinity of a pair of mastodons. To Harold’s astonishment, the mastodons gave way. Cowed by the butterfly’s indignation, they ceased to bellow. Soon the only noise in the room was Melisande’s voice cooing over the injured figure on the couch.
A telephone call brought Dr. Partington, attired in a tuxedo. The costume puzzled Harold, until he thought about the art auction and realized that the doctor had been one of the auctioneers.
Partington removed the patient’s shirt, examined the wayward shoulder and levered it back into its socket. Colin’s face immediately looked human again.
“I think we’d better get you back to your room. You need to keep that arm immobile.”
“What in heaven’s name did that to you?” Melisande asked.
“Some maniac jumped me in the hall. Gleason came along before he could murder me.”
The statement was delivered tersely. Harold expected to hear some elaboration, some expression of gratitude. But Colin said nothing further. Melisande and the doctor helped him to his feet, and he tottered off, looking, at least to Harold’s eye, old and defeated and miserable.
With the victim gone, the three principals formed themselves into an equilateral triangle. Melisande stood near the door, Deno at the far end of the couch, Lars with his back to the wet bar.
“Someone will kindly explain to me what you two have done to poor Colin.” Her voice retained its authoritative edge, but she had lost the momentum of her initial charge.
Lars poured a glass of white wine and fondled it between his palms. “It’s simple enough. I happened to get a phone call, a matter that needed clearing up at the front desk. On the way down, I decided to visit my room, and I saw Satterlee being mugged. I chased the mugger off, then asked our friend what he was doing with in front of the door of a room that wasn’t his, gripping what looked very much like lock picks. And he told me that our pious good Christian Mr. Stavrakis had engaged him for a little Watergating. He was going to burgle my room, to put it bluntly. When you came in, I was explaining to my co-chair why that is not acceptable conduct among friends and allies.”
“You don’t make your case any stronger by taking cheap shots at my religion, Lars. Let me tell Melisande what I saw, what this whole room saw. She can decide for herself how well your tale fits the evidence.
“First, you did indeed receive a phone call. Only, you whispered into the receiver and practically ran out of here. Does that sound like a routine communication from the front desk? By the way, Lars, you seem to have lost all interest in this urgent matter since you dragged Colin back here. What happened? Did you resolve it by telepathy?”
“I have a sense of priorities. An injured human being is more important than some billing problem. Once we’ve settled this, I’ll take care of the front desk.”
“Sure, sure. So you’re gone for about ten minutes and return with Colin in tow, and you start screaming and demanding that everyone listen to what the poor fellow has to say. Of course, Colin can’t utter a coherent word, but that doesn’t stop you from informing us at the top of your lungs of what he would say if he weren’t incapacitated.
“Which leads to this fantastic tale about how I want to break into your room and steal whatever state secrets you keep in your possession. Does that make even a scintilla of sense? What could you have that I would want to steal? And, if I did want to rob you, why would I put a schnook like Colin up to it?
“Now, I don’t know exactly what happened. I wasn’t there. The mysterious mugger sounds awfully contrived, but maybe that part’s true. I’m not accusing you of assault, Lars, but I don’t believe another syllable of your story.”
“Cocksure to the end, aren’t you? Well, I plan to turn this over to the police. Maybe you didn’t know that Caroline’s father has good connections with the law enforcement authorities. If not, you’re going to find it out. We’ll see what they think the facts are.”
Melisande reasserted herself. “I don’t want to hear talk about the police. If you want policemen, Sergeant Bronkowski is here at the convention.”
“Yeah, fat-footed Bronkowski,” Gleason jeered. “I was talking about real cops.”
“Lars, will you do me a favor? I’d like to talk to Deno alone. I’ll hear your side privately, too, if you want, but I have some questions to ask Deno.”
“Mel, I don’t want to sound offensive, but you’re not one of the real cops I was referring to. You and Stavrakis talk all you want. I’m going to see the front desk; then I have an appointment.” He swept out of the room with no farewells.
“Deno, let’s go into the bedroom. Harold, would you mind joining us? I want a witness.”
Once the door to the parlor was closed, the atmosphere in the bedroom reminded Harold of the painful occasion when he had fired the head actuary of the Boston office. Melisande’s face was set much as his own must have been: a membrane of cordiality stretched over a grim countenance.
“Deno, I have one question for you. Did you arrange for Colin to break into Lars’ room?”
“You know me better than that, Melisande.”
“I think I know you pretty well, but sometimes people surprise us. Did you?”
“No, of course not.”
“Look straight at me when you say that.”
He faced her and spoke with ostentatious emphasis. “Miss Thomas, I swear to you as a Christian that I did not encourage, assist, know of, or in any way contribute to the purported attempt by Mr. Colin Satterlee to force his way into the room at this hotel registered to Mr. Lars William Gleason of Bellevue, Washington. Is that a satisfactory denial?”
“Yes, Deno. Can you forgive me?”
“I think I can.”
“If Lars is lying about this, I guess I shouldn’t be so certain that his letter from the board is genuine either.”
“Use your own judgement. At least you know that I’ve never lied to you and Lars has.”
“What do you suppose really happened?”
“Do you want me to speculate? Okay, but I’m only forming an hypothesis. My suspicion is that the phone call was from Colin; he called Lars and issued some kind of challenge. Lars took it up, pounded Colin to a pulp and then seized the opportunity to try to discredit me. It’s the kind of clumsy improvisation that he comes up with when he’s desperate.”
Melisande nodded slowly. “That might fit. Colin’s been so irrational about Lars.” She jumped to her feet. “Okay, you can go now. I’d like to talk to Harold for a bit.”
Deno left, looking more confident than when he had entered the room. Melisande took a seat near Harold.
“What do you think? How does this fit the Deno you knew?”
Harold plowed up memories many years old. “Back at Berwick, when we were in Student Union politics, Deno would have thought nothing of burgling the other side’s offices. Nor would I, for that matter. But we were college kids. People grow up, and we all vicariously remember Watergate. You can’t relate then to now.”
“Maybe you’re right. And maybe I’m making too much of this whole situation. I’m not responsible for the Seattle bid. I’m not even responsible for the reputations of Deno Stavrakis and Colin Satterlee. Why don’t I mind my own business?”
She sat gloomily, not speaking, until Harold was made uneasy by her silence. He lived in a world where the most intimate friends rarely confided genuine secrets. It was discomforting to be cast as the confidant of a comparative stranger.
“Perhaps I should go,” he said.
“Wait. We do have a real policeman on the scene. Let’s find Bronc and get his opinion.”
The art auction was still in progress, not too seriously impeded by the absence of one of the auctioneers, and Sergeant Bronkowski was still in his place. He wore a look of resignation.
“Is this Rockefellercon?” he asked when Melisande inquired how the evening had gone. “Every piece I bid on, some millionaire has to have for his private collection.”
“If you haven’t been able to buy anything yet, maybe we shouldn’t tear you away.”
“No, tear me away, please. I know if I stay here much longer, I’ll make a crazy bid out of sheer frustration.”
“Would you mind, then, coming with us to talk to Colin Satterlee?”
“Satterlee? You want me to choose between bankruptcy and terminal boredom?”
“He’s been the victim of a crime. Will that make it less boring?”
“A crime outside of my jurisdiction. What good is that?” But his mass heaved upward as he spoke, and his gesture told Melisande to lead the way.
En route to Colin Satterlee’s room, Melisande provided a precis of what had happened. Bronkowski limited himself to one-word comments and pulled his moustache frequently.
Dr. Partington was leaving as they arrived. They found Colin reclining on the bed, his arm in a sling and his face largely obscured by a cold compress.
Sergeant Bronkowski scrutinized the victim. “Let me give you some advice about fighting, Satterlee. Never pick on anybody your own size or larger. Now tell me how this happened.”
“You’re a policeman, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, I’m a cop.”
“You can arrest whoever attacked me?”
“This isn’t in my jurisdiction. If an offense has been perpetrated, I’ll contact the local authorities.”
“And they’ll make the arrest?”
“I’m not making any promises. Let me hear your story, and I can give you an idea of what might be done.”
“Here’s what happened. I was minding my own business, walking down the hall, when Lars Gleason came up to me. He blocked the passage and said he was going to settle matters between us then and there. I said, let me by, and he said, no way. Then he punched me.”
“I heard a third party attacked you and Gleason broke it up.”
“I said that, but I was afraid. I wanted the whole situation to go away.”
“Also, Gleason claims you were trying to break into his room.”
“You just happened to be passing his room when he just happened along with assault and battery on his mind?”
“Yeah. That’s the way it was.”
“Fine. It’s your word against his, but luckily there’s evidence to decide between the two of you. Melisande, check whether I have this right. Gleason doesn’t claim to have seen Satterlee trying to break in. So why does he think that’s what happened?”
“He said something about seeing lock picking devices.”
“So. Physical evidence. Either those devices exist or they don’t.”
“He faked them,” Colin said emphatically.
“We’ll see what he comes up with.”
“Besides, how can he prove they belong to me? The other guy might have dropped them.”
“What other guy?”
“The guy he says was beating me up.”
“But that individual doesn’t exist, remember?”
Colin looked confused. Bronkowski wore the grave expression of a stern father walrus.
“Another piece of advice: When you lie, don’t improvise.”
Colin flushed. His head fell back against the frame of his bed.
“I don’t much care why you were in front of Gleason’s door, but I’d appreciate it if you’d describe whoever attacked you.”
“. . . . I didn’t see him all that well. He was tall, curly black hair, sort of a swarthy face and - it was all so fast - I don’t know if I could recognize him.”
“Relax. Take your time. Think back to the first second of the assault.”
“I was, well, kneeling, and there was a noise to my right, a door opening. That’s it. He must have come out of the next room. The door was open later, after he ran off. Lars took me into the room and threatened -”
“Lay off the Gleason theme. What else do you remember?”
“Nothing. Really, nothing.”
“Okay, that’ll do for now.”
Melisande laid a soothing hand on his sling. “Get some sleep, Colin. I’ll come visit in the morning.”
Bronkowski was silent for a time after they left the room. At the stairwell, he turned portentously.
“Melisande, Savoy, you’ve both been very helpful. Now I’ve got to ask you to stop being helpful. Let’s adjourn to somebody’s room so I can ask you a couple of questions. Then I want you both to go away, enjoy the con and forget about this mess.”
“Can’t you say what’s wrong?”
“Think, Melisande. Do I have to paint you a picture?”
She bowed her head. “My room’s closest, I think. We can meet in there.”