“She was only pulling your leg, honey. You don’t really believe that melodramatic fable?”
Genie Galen shook her head vigorously and emphasized her displeasure by twisting out of range of a proffered back rub. “I know for certain that Melisande Thomas is too vapid to invent a melodrama on the spot. She may have distorted a little around the edges, but, yes, I believe her basic story.”
“But that’s a disaster, isn’t it? With St. Petersburg helping the Seattle bid -”
”Only little people suffer disasters. If you saw the whole picture, you’d realize that this is the scenario I’ve been working toward all along - Lars Gleason as their undisputed leader.”
“What’s so good about that? Stavrakis is the one who’s discredited. Come back over here, darling. I need to touch you.”
“Do you want to discuss the future of the bid or indulge your filthy mind?”
“Can’t we do both?”
“I’m not in the mood. Besides, Gleason may arrive at any moment. I asked him to drop by before my party starts.”
“Whatever for, sweetheart?”
“As I said, I’ve maneuvered a long time to reach this point. You’re right when you say Stavrakis is discredited, but Gleason is better than discredited.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Wait and see. One-half hour from the moment Gleason enters this room, love, the Worldcon race will be effectively over.”
Gleason entered a few minutes later. The fire of indignation that had burned in his face when he left the Seattle suite still smoldered. He looked at his hostess more fiercely than etiquette recommends and barked, “I don’t have all night to waste. Why did you want me?”
“Lars, Lars, any woman this side of menopause would want you. Sit down, and let’s chat.”
He continued to stand, but the truculence of his posture softened somewhat.
“I’ve heard that some changes are coming to the Seattle committee. Am I right to divine that I’m addressing the soon-to-be sole chair of the bid?”
At this he sat down. “If you’re not simply guessing, you have amazing sources of information.”
“I never guess. Well, I’d like to congratulate you. Your former co-chair’s new position, I take it, will be a sop to his pride, not a real job.”
“You could say that. He can plan to his heart’s content. Who knows? Somebody might look at one of his plans someday.”
“Obviously, there are stronger personalities than his in charge of the con. Now let’s talk about you, Lars. Have you considered that it would be good for fandom if your bid and mine could make peace?”
“Feel free to drop out at any time.”
“That wasn’t quite my idea. I was contemplating a - let’s call it a merger. You see, I’m not wedded to holding the Worldcon in Las Vegas. My goal all along has been to see the Worldcon done right, wherever it’s held. Now that Jerry Falwell’s clone is out of the picture, you and I could work together.”
“Precisely what are you hinting at?”
“A joint bid for Seattle, combining our two committees.”
“With you in what position?”
“My tentative idea - just tentative, mind you - is that a divided chair won’t work, for the reasons that you’ve found out. So it would be best if I became chair and you took a position like, say, executive director.”
“You know, Genie, I almost thought you were serious. I won’t say that’s the most preposterous proposal I’ve ever heard, because I’ve heard some doozies, but it’s certainly preposterous enough.”
“You shouldn’t dismiss ideas out of hand, Lars. You’re overlooking an important advantage that this one has, from your point of view.”
“Am I indeed?”
“Yes.” She dropped her voice and imbued it with a degree of conspiratorial intimacy. “Lars, do you recall when you lived in Los Angeles?”
“My memory cells are still intact.”
“How you worked for a man named David Halstead?”
“Get to the point, Genie.”
“The point is that I know why Mr. Halstead fired you and why you stopped living with Jody Silverbury.”
He was silent, but, scrutinizing his countenance, she realized that the blow had not struck home. He was silent, not because he was stunned but because he was mystified.
“Are you threatening to write my biography?” he said at last. “If this is a blackmail attempt, it’s the feeblest I’ve ever heard of.”
Cool under fire, she thought, but I can break him. “I have a tape to play for you. It may refresh those memory cells.”
She lifted a microcassette recorder from her purse, dropped in a tape and pushed the play button.
“A few years ago, I was at Capricon, and a young woman and I had a fascinating conversation. So fascinating that I thought it worth preserving, just in case it might come in handy one day.”
Static crackled, succeeded by a wavering, intoxicated voice.
“. . . all stick up for him, all the damned smofs. He took everything I had, and I did it to help him, and he never even thanked me, just used me and abused me and - and nobody wants to hear.”
“I’m here, dear. I’m listening. But start at the beginning. Who is this dreadful human being?”
“Lars. Lars Gleason. He cheated me, everything I owned, all to protect him, keep him from going to jail.”
She hit the pause button. “Do we need to hear the whole conversation, Lars?”
“No, we don’t. I haven’t any notion what wild tissue of fantasies you extracted from poor Jody while she was drunk or stoned, but they don’t frighten me at all. Good night, Genie. May the best bid win.”
“You deny that you embezzled from Halstead’s firm, Jody gave you the money to make restitution and stay of jail, and you refused to pay her back?”
“Ms. Galen, I’ll be delighted to give you David Halstead’s phone number, and you can ask him those questions. Dave and I parted on excellent terms. As for my breaking up with Jody, that was hard on both of us. We were both pretty bitter for a couple of years, but money had nothing to do with it. Once again, good night.”
When he had gone, it was Genie’s turn to be silent and mystified. She blinked at the tiny cassette that she had extracted from the recorder. Then she collapsed on top of her partner and convulsively wept.
Before submitting to further questions, Melisande insisted that the men wait in the hall while she changed into an after-dinner outfit. When she let them in, she was wearing a green T-shirt (the design showed Alice in Wonderland at the Mad Hatter’s tea party) and matching skirt. Her buttons read, “Friends don’t let friends run Worldcons” and “Casually intuitive to the most obvious observer”.
“You know Satterlee pretty well, don’t you?” Bronkowski asked her after he had settled into the only plush chair.
“He hangs around a lot. I haven’t been able to avoid knowing him.”
“Think he might have any interest in drugs?”
“Colin? No, he’s always struck me as a straight arrow.”
“What does he do for a living?”
“He works for an insurance company, though I don’t know exactly what his job is. Nothing all that impressive.”
“Does he seem to have lots of money? Ever throw it around extravagantly?”
“He tries to spend money on me now and then, but I don’t have the impression that he’s particularly open-handed. I know that he crashes with friends at conventions whenever he can.”
“Okay. . . . Does he have any local connections?”
“Not that I know of. I always think of him as a West Coast fan.”
“All right. This is beginning to look like a dead end. Too bad. I had a marvelous little theory going. It almost seemed to fit all the facts.”
“What sort of theory?”
“He was so vague about his assailant, then tried to incriminate Gleason on the spur of the moment. I began to think he might not want me to find out who assaulted him. Which would make sense if he knew the guy and was afraid of him. For instance, if Piero Corsi came here to meet him and they got into a dispute.”
“Who?” Melisande exclaimed.
“Piero Corsi. He’s the thug I pointed out to Mr. Savoy.”
“That’s an odd coincidence. Lars’ girl friend is named Corsi.”
“Really?” Bronkowski cast his eyes toward the ceiling and mentally riffled through file cards. “Old man Corsi has a daughter. Name’s - ah - Cathy. . . Carla. . . Cassandra. . .”
“Caroline?” Melisande prompted.
“That’s it. Caroline. Works as a nurse, isn’t supposed to be involved with her daddy’s business.”
As Melisande digested this information, the telephone rang. She picked it up.
“Oh, hi, Jody. What’s up?”
“I wanted to check to see that you’re taking your medicine.”
“I am. I took a pill at dinner and have to take another before I go to bed. Right?”
“That’s right. I wanted to be sure you remembered, since I won’t be back by then. Did you get my note?”
“Of course I got your note. Jody, I shouldn’t pry, but you’re being awfully mysterious about this date, or whatever it is, that you have tonight. If you keep rubbing my face in it, I’ll become uncontrollably curious.”
“It’s very mundane. I’m with a couple of friends who don’t want their whereabouts known. They’re not doing anything illegal, immoral or fattening; they just have reasons to want privacy. I feel I have to respect that.”
“Sure, Jody. I truly don’t want to be overly inquisitive. I’ll see you in the morning, okay?”
“Okay. Say hi to people for me. Bye bye.”
“Good bye to you, too.”
She replaced the receiver. “Jody says hello and otherwise remains an enigma. She says she’s with people who don’t want their location known.”
“Then it’s probably best for you not to know,” Bronc declared. “I don’t have any more questions for you, Melisande. Now I think I’d like to poke around a bit. All my suspicions may amount to nothing, but you never know.” He shuffled off with a distinctly thoughtful countenance.
“And that is that,” Melisande announced as the door closed. “I’ve had enough conundrums for one con - or one year, for that matter. From this moment on, if it isn’t a party, I’m not part of it. Except -“ Her face clouded. “Damn, I still haven’t found anybody to retrieve the data from that wretched disk.”
Under most circumstances, Caroline Corsi was confident that she could deal with her younger brother. Once in a while, however, his eyes lost their communion with humanity, transmuting into windows looking into the soul of a beast. When that werewolf-like transformation occurred, neither Caroline nor her older brother Angelo nor her revered and dreaded father himself could control the youngest Corsi’s actions.
He appeared before her in the small, empty diner that they had selected as a rendezvous, his hair disordered, his coat thrown open, his eyes rolling, his breath heavy with whisky. She trembled and tried to persuade him to sit down and eat.
“Don’t waste your time, sis. I saw him with that whore. They went to his room - your room. They were kissing. I should’ve killed him.”
“Please, Piero, calm down. It’s my problem, not yours.”
“Like hell it is! That fat mick cheating on my sister is my problem. It’s the family’s problem.”
“Then let’s get the family together to decide what to do.”
“What’s to decide? Anybody that crosses the Corsis deserves to die.”
“Let me handle this my own way.”
“What’s your way going to be, sis? Forgive and forget? Turn the other cheek? I tell you, he was as good as laying her in the hallway. You don’t believe me, do you? Or you don’t want to. You’re in love with that cheating slime ball!”
“I won’t let any man humiliate me, Piero. I’m my father’s daughter. But Papa taught me to be fair, not to trust every tale bearer. You burst in here, drunk and raving. Do you expect me to condemn Lars on your say-so? How do I even know that you followed the right couple? You’ve never seen either of them in person, and you’re not in the best shape to be a witness.”
“If you don’t trust me, you shouldn’t have asked for my help. All right, I’ve had enough. You make excuses for him as long as you like. That’s not my style.”
“Piero, you promised. . . .”
“Promises are off, sis. I’m going to save you from that creep, whether you like it or not.”
The three or four other patrons in the diner studiously avoided paying attention as Piero stalked out, banging the door in his wake. Caroline contemplated her half-eaten muffin and trembled again.
The honor of the family, she thought. With a sudden impulse of resolution, she hurled herself to her feet and followed in her brother’s footsteps. The night had turned bitterly cold. She pulled her coat tight against the wind-driven snow and beat back the chill with cold, bitter thoughts.
After its tumultuous start, the Seattle bid party settled into a smooth, even groove. Perhaps rumors of the co-chairmen’s brawl had percolated through the convention and fans came in hopes of excitement. If so, they stayed despite the absence of fisticuffs. When Harold and Melisande arrived, they found the noisiest and best-natured party that either had yet seen at Zephyrcon.
The party also produced, within seconds after Melisande’s casual statement that she needed one, two computer hackers, whose combined efforts soon engendered a diskette containing the lost budget files. Melisande cradled it in her hand with a look near to awe in her eyes.
Harold’s only role in this episode was to telephone Lon Margolin and tell him where to send the data. Having done his duty, he found a bottle of beer and withdrew into the hall, where the air did not have to be shared with quite so many others. The only drawback was that the smokers gathered there too, but, at the moment, Harold judged the atmosphere more by quantity than quality.
Paradoxically, the hall had a sense of privacy to it. Both those fans who were passing by and those who lounged on the floor seemed immersed in their own conversations or thoughts, unconscious of what anyone else might say or do.
After a while, Deno Stavrakis joined him, looking haggard and remote. For several minutes, he stood at Harold’s side, leaning against the wall and ignoring tentative attempts to communicate. When he spoke at last, an immense weariness dominated his voice.
“This has been a rough con, Harry.”
“I can see that. You must find your co-chairman a trifle difficult to deal with.”
“Tell me about it. That was vintage Lars tonight. You saw why he can’t run a successful bid.”
Not being certain as to how the blame should be divided, Harold remained tactfully silent.
“There are times when I think I should have bailed out when I could have. Contrary to what people think, there are only a few moments in life that make a difference. You make a decision or two, and whatever happens for the next ten years follows inevitably.”
“Life sometimes seems that way,” Harold agreed. He was tempted to say more, thinking that he could find a reassuring vein in that sentiment, but Deno was sweeping on already, treating Harold’s remarks as no more than the response of the chorus in a Greek drama.
“Two years ago, I almost called it quits. The bid wasn’t official yet. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. And my life was changing. I’d just found God and asked Melisande to marry me.
“She turned me down, of course, for plenty of good reasons. Lucky God wasn’t so finicky. But if she had said yes, or if I’d gotten over rejection faster, there wouldn’t have been a Seattle bid - not one that could win, anyway. I would have moved to Florida, or maybe the two of us would have settled somewhere else, like in Chicago - she has a lot of pals here, you know - and I would have watched all this from the sidelines.
“Sure, Lars would have set up a bid, but then Portland would have bid, too, and eventually Lars would have alienated so many voters that he wouldn’t stand a chance, and Portland would have eased out Satterlee and coasted to victory.
“But none of that happened. I guess it’s all Melisande’s fault.” He tried to make the last sentence jocose, but it rang hollowly.
“Cherchez la femme, as they say.”
“Yeah, they do, don’t they?”
His gloom was obviously deepening. Harold felt the helpless guilt that comes over witnesses to ineluctable calamities.
“If I weren’t a Christian, I think I’d hate Lars. It’s not just that he’s made the bid an ordeal. He was also the chief reason why Melisande and I didn’t get married - maybe not the chief reason but the immediate cause.”
He spun out the tale of his broken romance fragment by fragment. It was, Harold reflected as he listened, the species of tragedy to which possessive, imaginative suitors are prone. Stripped of innuendo and paranoia, all that had happened was that Melisande and Lars had been in the same city at the same time and Lars had afterwards engaged in adolescent boasting about an alleged tryst between them. Melisande denied the story and Deno insisted that he trusted her, but the incident poisoned his perceptions. By his own account, he grew morose and moody, until his marriage proposal drew only the question, “Do you expect me to live the rest of my life with a man who acts like this?”
Harold felt a craving for another beer, sharpened by the apprehension that the spigot of anecdote was not going to turn off on its own. Already Deno was starting to muse about an earlier, equally fruitless attachment.
“Pardon me,” chimed a welcome voice from behind Harold’s shoulder.
Deno looked up. “Hello,” he said dully.
The speaker was a tall, striking brunette swathed in a coat that would have induced apoplexy in an animal rights advocate. Her skin was still reddened by wind and cold, and a layer of melting snow covered the coat. She treated Deno to a rather frigid smile. “Do you know where Lars is?” she asked.
Her face reddened further, and the smile went away. As she turned to go, she noticed Harold, apparently for the first time. She hesitated, then, in an unexpectedly demure tone of voice, asked, “Are you the Milos Savoy? The author?”
“That’s the only Milos Savoy there is, I believe.”
“I don’t know why I should be surprised. This is a sci-fi convention, so you sci-fi writers ought to be here. I don’t read much of the stuff, but I loved one of your books. It was called - oh, I can’t think of the title, but it was great.”
“I wish I could chat with you, but I have to find my friend Lars Gleason. Maybe you’ve run into him? He’s a big name in these circles.”
“I’ve met him, though I’m afraid I can’t tell you his location. Have you tried his room?”
“I called - no answer. But he wouldn’t be there this early in the evening. My Lars is a party animal.” She addressed Deno again. “Shouldn’t he be at the Seattle party?”
“Yep, but he isn’t.”
“Where are the other parties, then?”
“Look at the signs. They’ll tell you.”
“Always the same cooperative kid, aren’t you?”
“At your service.”
“Maybe you could help me, Mr. Savoy?” she asked in a little-girl-lost voice. “I’m going to search for Lars, but if you see him, would you let him know that I’ll check back here every half hour? It’s very important that he and I get together as soon as possible.”
“Well, if we run into each other - Ah, wait. I see someone who can give you real assistance. I think she’s also looking for your friend.”
Melisande was emerging from the party suite, the small, blue square of a computer disk clutched in one hand and her purse in the other. As her legs moved into the hall, her head bent in the opposite direction, trying to finish a conversation. A knot of fans trailed after her. By the time she pulled free, she was standing in front of Harold.
“Harold, look what I have here. This is really, truly it, after all of my running around - and yours, too. There ought to be a blare of trumpets.” She paused, but no blare came. She frowned at the disk as if it were a disobedient puppy or a wayward child. “From now on, you don’t leave my possession till I hand you personally to Lars. Who naturally has vanished when I finally would like to see him.”
“This young lady wants to locate him, too. Perhaps you can form a syndicate.”
Melisande smiled at the woman. “We’ve met, haven’t we? You’re Caroline?”
The answering smile was feeble. “Yes. Lars often mentions you.”
“There aren’t all that many places that he’s likely to be. If you don’t mind making the rounds together -“
”Thank you. I have trouble finding my way at these affairs.” With a last, ice-laden glance at Deno, she followed Melisande toward the stairs.
“Not your best buddy, Deno?”
“Harry, that is the woman for whom savants coined the word ‘bitch’. She and Lars are a perfect pair. In my unholy, vengeful moods, I pray that they’ll marry each other.”
“Somebody said she wasn’t going to be here tonight.”
“I’m sure that Lars will be more surprised than anybody else. I can’t believe she’s so naive as to think he’s not in his room just because he doesn’t answer the telephone.”