Caroline Corsi’s face was proud and impassive. As the effects of exposure to the weather diminished, her color changed from red to ivory. The perfectly set features were a study in serenity.
On the other hand, her fingers shook when she extracted a cigarette from her purse, and smoke puffed between her artfully shaped lips in brief, erratic bursts.
As she and Melisande walked down the stairwell, she divided her attention between tending the cigarette and keeping her heel from catching on the rough, concrete steps. Silence enveloped them, which Melisande felt no desire to break.
On the first floor, the masquerade was letting out, and a line was forming in front of a door marked -
The Fractal Players
“We Never Came Back From the Future”
First (and Only) Show: 11:00 p.m.
Melisande inspected the budding queue, fairly confident that Lars would not be in it. He wasn’t, but Colin Satterlee was, wearing his sling like a badge of martyrdom.
“You were supposed to stay in bed,” she chided him.
“That’s boring. If I couldn’t throw a bid party, I wanted to see the Fractals. I’ll let you cut into line if you want.”
She shook her head. “I’m tied up at the moment.”
“Not a quest that you would approve of. Hunting for Lars Gleason.”
“If you’re doing it, I’m sure it’s for a worthy cause, such as his assassination. I can cut your hunt short, though. He’s at the Vegas party. I saw him there before I came down to the show.”
“Thanks, Colin.” She turned to Caroline, who had drawn back to emphasize her aloofness from her surroundings. “Sorry to keep you waiting. I was consulting my sources, and I can now take you directly to Mr. Gleason.”
Caroline vouchsafed an austere thank you. The movement of her fingers grew more frantic as she snuffed her current cigarette and lit another.
But Melisande’s source was not finished with her. “Could I have a favor in return?” Colin asked. “You’ll see Mr. Savoy again, won’t you?”
“I imagine so.”
“I have another idea for him - not about the bid. A professional idea.”
“What sort of idea?”
“Well, I haven’t worked out the details, but the general notion is that there ought to be a sequel to Cosmic Amoebas; only he’s probably put it off because he doesn’t have time to do all the work and doesn’t have an artist handy. My thought is that the sequel doesn’t have to be a graphic novel. It could be an ordinary book. I’d offer to write an outline, then he could flesh it out - you know, add descriptions and dialogue and that stuff. It would take hardly any time for him, and he could still keep most of the royalties. What do you think, Melisande? He’d go along with that, wouldn’t he?”
“That’s a - a fascinating idea, Colin. Unfortunately, the last time I saw Mr. Savoy, he and an old friend had settled down for an all-night reminiscing session. I doubt I’ll be able to get hold of him for the rest of Zephyrcon.”
“Then you’ll let me have his phone number, won’t you? He couldn’t possibly mind. It’s so obvious that he wants to get back into Amoebas. Every time I’ve spoken to him, that’s been the only subject we’ve talked about.”
“I really have to go now. I’ll see you in the morning.” She flung herself behind Caroline, and the two of them retreated hurriedly.
The masquerade exodus made the elevators unapproachable. “Want to walk up?” Melisande asked.
“Tell me, is this ‘source’ of yours reliable?”
“Not especially, but he doesn’t have any reason to lie.”
Caroline pondered, as though she had heard something profound. “That’s the best one can expect from a man: no reason to lie. I don’t think we have any choice but the stairs.”
Melisande would have been content to proceed upward as silently as they had come down, but her companion suddenly became talkative.
“Have you seen Lars today?”
“Oh, he’s been around. We waved at each other a few times.” Trying to be honest without being frank, she added, “And talked a little.”
“Anybody with him?”
“No one in particular.”
“I thought he might be spending time with old friends.”
“He is. He knows lots of people here.”
“I meant, a special old friend.”
Melisande saw where this road was going. She preferred not to follow it tortuously to the last milestone.
“Do you mind if I skip the next few steps? Are you trying to pump me as to whether Lars is seeing Jody Silverbury?”
“Jody? That’s the name of a girl friend he once had, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is. And if she’s the one who’s making your cigarette shake, I can set your mind at ease right now. She’s one of my best friends, and she can barely tolerate Lars these days, no matter what their relationship may once have been.”
“She hasn’t been with him this evening?”
“Jody? With Lars? Jody’s not even at the hotel. She went to visit friends.”
Caroline gave her a peculiar look, in which it was impossible to read any emotion at all. Perhaps, though, its flatness was simply an effect of climbing eleven flights at a moderately brisk pace.
Near their destination, Caroline’s eyes grew abstracted, and her lips formed soundless syllables. Melisande thought that she heard “green dress”, but the words could easily have been an aural illusion.
Deno gazed after Melisande. When he resumed talking, he spoke in snatches of soliloquy, like a radio picking up a broadcast at the extreme edge of transmission range.
“I shouldn’t sneer at Lars. I wasn’t any better. . . . Melisande made a difference, though. . . . But not every decision is immutable. . . . Maybe tonight is another one of the turning points, one of the decisions that count. I was almost ready to settle matters with him. . . . Then - but I still could. . . .”
The musing went on. Harold’s thoughts strayed to his empty beer bottle. Stealthily he shifted his weight in the direction of the suite door and prepared to escape. But as he lifted his foot, Deno’s eyes transfixed him. With a guilty start, he stiffened his body to show that he was not going anywhere.
“He’s bound to drop in on the Vegas party sooner or later. It’s about time for his second supper, and Genie will feed him.”
Deno started for the stairs. Harold followed, his will in a state of semi-paralysis. He analyzed it later as a form of hypnosis, brought on by noise, smoke, beer, tiredness, Tibetan calories and, most of all, bewilderment.
Tonight the Las Vegas party had opted for a different character. Instead of being dim, it was bright and blaring. An all-but-nude woman, her torso painted green and gold, antennae sprouting from her forehead, greeted newcomers by pressing fluorescent stickers onto their convention badges.
The bar was the same, however, again featuring the strange blue punch whose ingredients Harold had been unable to identify, and Genie Galen had again set up her ice cream dispensary near the windows.
The mob awaiting “ice cream fantasies” was too thick for Harold to breast. He accepted a cup of the punch and stood near the bar, watching the hostess from an oblique angle.
Genie’s arms and hands worked frenziedly, accentuated by the blizzard beating on the window at her back. Sweat matted her hair, and the blotches bulged on her face. A maenad in winter, Harold thought.
Lars Gleason approached. He swayed in the middle of the crowd, grinning and jovial, his hand clutching a goblet of red wine. Continuing in the classical vein, Harold identified him as a Silenos.
“Savoy, come here!” Silenos roared, waving open a pathway with his wine-bearing arm. “Hey, Genie! Have you met my buddy, Milos Savoy?”
The maenad’s rhythm slowed. “We had dinner tonight,” she said, breaking the illusion with those words and again becoming Genie Galen.
“Good. Glad to hear it. Fix him one of your best.”
“Certainly. But you’re first in line, Lars. You do want a fantasy, don’t you? To show there are no hard feelings?”
“Hard feelings! Never had a hard feeling in my life - not that kind of hard feeling, anyway. Yeah, I’ll take one. Then one for my buddy Savoy.”
Genie slapped a scoop of ice cream onto her platform and poured in condiments: chocolate chips, bits of fresh orange, strawberry slices and more that Harold’s eye didn’t catch. Her spatula whirled, and she presented the finished product to Lars. He grasped it, somewhat too rashly, in the same hand that held his wine, attempting to leave the other free to wield a spoon. The ice cream dish remained upright, but the goblet was not so well-handled. It tilted to one side, its contents flowing smoothly to the rug.
Lars gaped at the spreading stain, then stepped out of the way as towels appeared. Placidly devouring the ice cream, he sauntered from the parlor into a bedroom, where the brightness and blare were muted. There he sat on the foot of a bed and polished off his snack.
“You’re a friend of Melisande’s, aren’t you, Savoy? She’s a good girl, very good girl, one of the best. Yeah, let’s drink a toast to Melisande Thomas - except I’m all out of what you need to drink a toast.”
He stumbled to his feet. “Where’s the wine?” he called.
“Here. Sit down, Lars. I’ll pour for you.” Deno Stavrakis materialized, balancing a multiple-liter wine jug. Lars held out a wobbling goblet. Deno extracted it from his hand and set it on a table to facilitate refilling.
“Skoal, buddy,” Lars grunted when he again held the goblet. He drained it in two swallows and shoved it toward Deno again.
“That’s enough for now. Could we go somewhere and talk?”
“Talk? Sure we can talk. Talk about any subject under the sun. This is a beautiful day, Deno. And you know what makes it beautiful? Beautiful women. Like -“ He goggled and stood up. “Like this beautiful woman.” He took a few steps toward the door, spread out his arms and caught Melisande squarely between them.
“Lars!” Alarm sounded in Melisande’s voice. Lars raised his head from the vicinity of her chin. His arms dropped to his side.
“Hello, darling,” Caroline Corsi greeted him, her tone cool and unruffled. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Startled? No, not startled. It’s - it’s wonderful to see you. I didn’t expect -“
“Obviously not, dearest. Still, I trust this little surprise won’t spoil your evening.”
“You said you had to work.”
“My boss changed his mind. So I decided I didn’t want to spend the night alone, and I was sure that you would feel the same way.”
“Yes. That’s right. Wonderful to see you and. . . and. . . .”
“And why don’t we stop exchanging pleasantries and head for our room?”
“Of course. Our room. I’d love to. But I do have a couple of items to attend to first. Deno and I have a meeting.”
“It can wait,” Deno assured him.
“Are you positive? Isn’t it urgent?”
“Not that urgent.”
Melisande broke in. “Let me give you this. Then we’ll all leave you to yourselves.” She placed a computer diskette on Lars’ palm. He gaped at it just as he had gaped at the wine spill on the carpet.
“It’s our budget data.”
“For the St. Petersburg Worldcon.”
“Oh. Well, I - I’d better take a look at this before I go.”
“Lars, precious, the bytes won’t melt if you forget about them until morning.”
“I only want to check -”
“And I only want to get out of here!”
“Okay, okay. Can I make one phone call?”
“One call, if it’s so absolutely vital. There’s the phone.”
“Ummm, there’s one in the bathroom I can use.”
“Use this phone right now, or forget it.”
Lars took the instrument, clutched it furtively in his lap and rapidly punched buttons. After two rings, he hit the hook switch. “Wrong number.” He punched again.
The receiver, pressed brutally against his ear, conveyed no response. His tightly drawn features relaxed. At the eighth ring, he hung up. “Wasn’t important, after all,” he said. “Let’s go, sweetheart.”
“About time.” Each slipped an arm around the other’s waist, and they exited with mutually tender glances.
Sergeant Bronkowski felt mild regret at having to badger the front desk clerk once more, but he needed to know who was registered in the room from which Colin Satterlee’s assailant had sprung. The name was a familiar one, an old-line fan who was certainly not guilty of assault and battery but had a notorious capacity for exercising questionable judgment.
The fellow was not easy to find that evening. After many false trails, Bronkowski tracked him down at a closed door party. His voice was audible in the corridor, vigorously declaiming a tale of woe.
“- knew the FBI had me on their list. There was the break-in at my apartment last February, and my address book disappeared in July, and last week I got a call at two in the morning that hung up when I answered. So I knew. It’s all part of the same pattern.”
Bronkowski tapped on the door. Its opening did not interrupt the oration.
“We live in a bloody fascist police state, and nobody realizes it. Did you know that over two hundred people disappeared last year while in police custody? The papers never report that. Oh, hi, Bronc. I was explaining -“
“Yeah, I heard you. You’re in Room 918, aren’t you?”
“What of it? I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Nobody says you did. But something funny happened outside your door. About ten o’clock.”
“I’m completely in the clear. That was after the G-man took over my room.”
“The G-man took over your room?” Bronkowski made an effort to add a special note of skepticism to his voice.
“I’ve been telling them about it. At nine or so, this dude batters on my door and announces he’s from the FBI, and will I get out so he can use the room. He didn’t say why, and I don’t want to know.”
“What did this FBI agent look like?”
“Like - like - like FBI, you know. Tall, greasy, wore a trench coat.”
“I hate to disappoint you, pal, but you’re the victim of an impersonation.”
“That’s crazy. Like, he had credentials. Why would anybody -”
“If I knew that, I wouldn’t bother you about it. Tell me, did this mystery man commandeer your key as well as your room?”
“No. He just told me to get out and stay away for a few hours.”
“How about taking me to the room, in that case? I promise you, the guy has cleared out.”
“Sure, why not? Of course, you may be part of the conspiracy, too, but what can an ordinary guy do?”
Room 918 was empty, as predicted, though disarranged. The legitimate occupant squawked to see the depredation that had been visited on his quart of Beam’s Choice.
“See. FBI wouldn’t be drinking on duty,” Bronkowski muttered.
“Yeah. What if he poured the bourbon out so that I would think he’d been drinking? It seems to me that proves he must have been genuine. Why else would he try to mislead us into thinking he wasn’t?”
Bronkowski tuned out the jabbering and embarked on a methodical search of the room’s contents, tactfully overlooking certain personal possessions. Unhappily, the temporary inhabitant had left behind no obvious debris except for an ash tray full of cigarette butts.
He was pointlessly inspecting one of these, wishing that, like Sherlock Holmes, he could deduce a recreant’s life from his tobacco, when noise came from the adjacent room. He gestured for quiet and put his ear to the wall.
He recognized Lars Gleason’s voice. “- don’t want to go to bed, then why did you drag me down here? I did have things to do.”
A female replied. “We don’t have time for that. Listen to me, Lars. My brother is coming after you.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Just what I said. Piero thinks you’re cheating on me with that old flame of yours, Jody whoever.”
“That’s ridiculous. I wouldn’t do that, baby. Jody hasn’t meant a thing to me for years.”
“Piero had some silly notion that he saw the two of you in, let’s say, intimate circumstances. I know perfectly well she wasn’t with you, but ideas get stuck in his tiny brain and can’t be dislodged. Half an hour ago, he declared he was going to avenge my besmirched honor. No doubt he’s picking up a couple of his bully boys right this minute. They’ll be here soon.”
“They won’t do anything if I’m with you, will they?”
“There’s no guarantee of that. Piero might think it would do me good to see my fiance beaten to a pulp. No, you’ve got to get out of here. Didn’t you tell me you rented a car?”
“Yeah, to haul party supplies.”
“Good. Pack what you need for the night, and drive to my apartment. I’ll take my own car and meet you there. In the morning, I can talk to Papa and get him to call Piero off.”
Drawers opened. A suitcase scraped across the floor. The woman spoke again, gently this time. “What’s wrong, darling? Are you nervous? We’ll be all right.”
“My laptop’s at the party. They’re using it to keep track of presupports.”
“Don’t worry about that. You can pick it up tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I guess so. Once this little misunderstanding is cleared up, we’ll have all the time in the world.”
Bid parties, Harold had observed, obeyed laws of dynamics all their own. Not long ago, the Las Vegas party had been a dizzying mass of humanity. Now it was an island of peace. He and Melisande and Deno had most of the parlor to themselves. Their company consisted of the bartender, the painted greeter, a couple nuzzling on a remote couch, an elderly man dozing in an arm chair and Dr. Jeff Partington, who had just arrived, still attired in his tuxedo.
“How did the auction go?” Melisande asked. “I’ve been kept running and never got to it.”
“Pretty well. A Hamilton sold for eleven hundred dollars. I can remember the first time I auctioned a piece for one hundred. I was positive I’d never see a higher price in my lifetime. Now some of the minimum bids are in the hundreds.”
“Oh, yes, Mr. Savoy put a written bid on one of those.”
“And I don’t even have the thrill of hearing the gavel fall,” Harold added. “Of course, I might have been outbid. How do I find that out?”
“Art show sales are staying open till midnight,” Dr. Partington replied. “Go down and ask them.”
Harold considered this a better idea than ingesting another dose of mystery punch. With Melisande and the doctor showing the way, he found the sales desk and ascertained that he was indeed the prospective owner of the alien street gang. Luckily, the art show accepted credit cards.
Once the painting was in his hands, Melisande subjected it a critical examination. “Let’s see. It has to be rematted. And you’ll want a thin, metallic frame, black not silver. And don’t use nonreflective glass. It obscures the colors too much.”
“That’s fine. My immediate concern, though, is avoiding getting a hole poked through the canvas.” The painting was too big to carry conveniently. Whatever the position in which he tried to manhandle it, his imagination readily envisioned a fatal collision with a door, a passer-by or a piece of furniture.
Melisande suggested constructing a box. A few minutes’ work with cardboard and tape created an ersatz suit of armor, which appeared to be impregnable to accident, if not malice.
The resulting package was, however, bulky, not what one wished to lug up an elevator or stairwell tonight and down again in the morning. Harold hefted it in both hands.
“The easiest thing would be to stow this in my car. Has the storm let up at all?”
Dr. Partington thought that it had. A trip to the lobby confirmed that, while snow continued to fall, the wind had slackened to one of those gentle breezes that properly belongs to a more temperate time of year.
Even the gentlest breeze, however, generated a subarctic wind chill factor. Harold shivered as he trudged through the parking lot. Annoyingly, he misremembered the location of his parking place and was feeling quite numb by the time he found the right vehicle and deposited his bundle in the trunk.
He trotted back toward the warm lights of the hotel, aware that his pace was a little too fast for safety.
A hundred feet from the lobby entrance, his right foot thumped into an obstacle. He struggled to regain his balance, but the other foot found no traction. His arms whirled, and he fell, expecting a jarring landing on concrete and ice.
Instead, a soft, bulky object broke his fall. He breathed deeply and pushed himself upright, grateful to have escaped without cuts or bruises.
The object that had saved him was indistinct in the darkness. He knelt and looked more closely.
The thing was a man, lying at full length on his back. It did not stir.
Harold squinted to make out the man’s face. A film of snow covered it. He brushed the veil away and recognized Lars Gleason.
No breath escaped from Gleason’s lips. An odd shape thrust upward near his chest. Harold touched it with rising apprehension. It was the hilt of a knife.