Sergeant Bronkowski played a flashlight over the corpse and its vicinity. “You can see there was a scuffle, even though the snow’s partly filled in the traces. The attacker didn’t take Lars by surprise. I wonder whether we can follow his tracks anyplace.”
The effort proved hopeless. It was barely possible to pick out the remnants of a trail that might have belonged to Lars Gleason’s killer, but the spoor disappeared among parked cars and could not be found again.
Melisande was crying gently against Dr. Partington’s chest. Harold stood awkwardly beside her.
“I hate to leave the poor stiff out here,” Bronkowski continued, “but he won’t mind, and you never know what might be evidence. Would you mind taking a quick look at him, doctor? May as well have professional confirmation that he’s gone.”
Partington nudged Melisande out of the way. She tottered, then swayed against Harold. Feeling yet more awkward, he held her upright.
The doctor stooped next to the body. “Yep. He’s dead, Bronc.”
“Funny thing. He was alive less than half an hour ago. There hasn’t been time to bleed to death. The knife must have gone straight through his heart.”
“Not unless his heart’s in an unusual place. The blade entered a good inch and half southeast. If you know for a fact that he was alive thirty minutes ago, he can’t possibly be dead now.”
“What the hell? So stabbing’s not the cause of death.”
“It would have to be a freak wound. More likely, he had a heart attack or stroke, triggered by the assault. That wouldn’t be surprising for someone in his physical condition.”
“It’s homicide just the same. Maybe second degree instead of first.”
“We’ll have to wait for the autopsy to find out for sure.”
“I have a pretty good guess as to what happened. The challenge is going to be collecting evidence. Well, we’d better call the morgue and get the process rolling.”
Bronkowski waded back toward the hotel, pushing through snowdrifts. The others followed in the path that he cleared. At first, Melisande, barely able to walk, clung to Harold and the doctor. By the time they reached the lobby, however, she had recovered. Her eyes were dry, and she proceeded without assistance.
“What do you think happened?” she asked Bronkowski.
“Lars should have picked his floozies more carefully.”
“You don’t mean - They looked lovey-dovey the last time I saw them.”
“Probably were. But her brother wasn’t part of the love feast. And that’s enough questions for now. It’s not my job to speculate in advance of the evidence.”
Melisande bit her lower lip. “We have to tell the concomm.”
“You and Savoy take care of that. Doc and I’ll deal with the authorities.”
At this hour of the evening, the sole inhabitant of the Zephyrcon “operations room” was a glassy-eyed chain smoker, who waved a negligent greeting as Melisande and Harold entered.
“Can you beep the chairman?” Melisande asked.
“Sure, but why?”
“There’s a little bit of a problem.”
“Lars Gleason was just found dead in the parking lot.”
“Roger. Beeping the chairman.”
“There’s nothing worse than carrying a beeper. You get bothered with all these trivial problems.” Melisande laughed at her own joke, but Harold could see that her spirits were by no means jolly.
Piero Corsi’s car phone hummed and popped and occasionally let through an intelligible word. His sister, pacing the room that Lars Gleason had vacated a few minutes before, cursed under her breath while shouting her side of the conversation.
“You leave him to me! Hear that? To me! Keep your damned nose out!”
Snap - “. . . for you. . .” - crackle - “family can’t allow that scum. . .” - pop - “what Papa would. . .” - hum.
“If you want to help me, do something about that woman! She’s the one I really hate, that sneaking bitch!”
“. . . saw with him. . . green. . . .”
“That’s the one! She was smirking at me - just talked with Lars a minute, she said. . . . Bitch! Whore! Bitch! Bitch! I want to see her dead! Bloody! Do that for me, Piero! Do that for me. . . .” Her words faded into gasps and sobs. Whatever reply her brother made, her own noises overwhelmed it. She hung up in despair.
Traces of perfume still tainted the air, and one of the glasses next to the television set had lipstick smears on its rim. All hope that her suspicions would prove to be an illusion had faded like her tear-choked voice.
The main target of her fury was her own willful blindness. Lars had not, to put it bluntly, maintained a silent reticence about this woman. He found over-frequent excuses to drag her name into conversation, even though he knew how little interest his lover had in the personalities of the sci-fi universe.
Then there was the tale he had told, in one of his full-and-frank-confessional moods, of his week with her in Atlanta. On first hearing, Caroline had relegated it to the ranks of masculine fantasy, judging that Lars’ vague, uncircumstantial account seriously lacked the ring of truth. She saw now how clever he had been, finding a way to confess without being believed.
Still, he did not deserve the primary blame. The dullest intellect could detect the teasing flirt beneath her - not even in thought would Caroline subvocalize the name - prim outward manner. Yes, as Caroline’s Sunday School teacher had put it, Lars deserved to be chastised with whips, but the other one should be chastised with scorpions.
She pondered revenge, not a crude vengeance like that of a second-rate Elizabethan dramatist, the quality of retribution that her brother would crudely inflict. No, she yearned for something exquisite and lingering, a punishment that would strip her enemy of self-esteem as well as life.
Unhappily, she could devise nothing sufficiently diabolical. She kicked the bed, lit another cigarette and glowered at the idly falling snow.
The chairman of Zephyrcon was not overweight, but it was obvious that he recently had been and was now at the climacteric of an heroic diet. His figure resembled a sandbag from which the sand was steadily draining out. He scowled at Melisande’s brief narrative.
“It’s not the committee’s worry,” he declared, after considering the news. “The parking lot isn’t part of our facilities. Frankly, Melisande, you’re a guest of honor and all that, and we’re all delighted to have you, but I wish you would stop meddling.”
“What do you call meddling? I’m telling you about a possible murder!”
The scowl deepened. “Well, thank you and good night. What I mean by meddling, if you want to know, is griping about the program book and the pocket program and the green room et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.”
Now Melisande scowled in return. “You had George Alvestone scheduled opposite himself - twice. And Chris Pasquale was supposed to do a reading at the same time as her autograph session. And the hucksters’ room opening and closing times were wrong. And -”
“I know the committee has had some problems, Melisande, but they haven’t affected the attendees. You’re thinking like a smof.” He turned abruptly and walked away as Melisande tried to continue to talk.
“I guess the committee isn’t real interested,” she said when the chairman was out of sight. “I don’t know what I should do. I hate to be the one to tell people what happened to Lars, but they ought to be told. Even if I didn’t like him much, he was an important fan, and a lot of his friends are here.” She stared morosely at the door.
“Harold, what do you think happened to Lars?”
“The doctor’s theory sounds plausible. This thug Corsi stabbed him, and the shock stopped his heart.”
“I can believe part of that, I suppose. What puzzles me is why a mafioso would leave evidence in his victim’s body. That’s not my image of how professional killers operate. Whoever stabbed Lars obviously panicked and ran.”
“Who knows? Some professional actuaries aren’t particularly competent. It’s presumably the same with professional killers.”
“Maybe. . . .” She shook her head. “I’d better take my medication. The way I feel, it’s probably overdue.” She took the long pill box from her purse, popped a lid open, then screwed up her face in puzzlement.
“That’s very odd. I have one tablet left in today’s compartment, and there should be two. Somehow I took one without remembering it. Not that my memory could be mistaken for a steel trap.”
She found a drinking fountain in the hall and washed down the last tablet. “I guess the right thing to do is to inform Deno.” She shook her head sadly. “It’s a pity that he and Lars parted the way they did. I’d always felt that they could’ve been friends, if either had been willing to treat fandom as less than a life and death struggle.”
The Seattle party was at about the same level of activity as when they had left it. Deno was seated in the chair behind his late co-chairman’s laptop computer, holding court for a small circle of young, fresh-faced fans. He nodded at Harold and Melisande but showed no desire to interrupt the session.
Melisande rumpled his hair and displayed a feeble imitation of a merry smile. “Can I lure you away for a few seconds, hon? Something’s happened that you should know about.”
“Later, Melisande, unless it’s cosmically urgent.”
The imitation smile petered out. “It is.”
“All right, what is it? Did my co-chairman drop dead?”
“I. . . think. . . we. . . need. . . privacy.”
Looking annoyed, Deno waved his audience away. A cordon sanitaire formed.
“Now, what is it?” he whispered, the annoyance in his face mirrored in his voice.
“Lars has been. . . killed.”
Deno’s face went rigid and blank.
“He was found in the parking lot,” Melisande continued, barely keeping her words from tripping over one another. “He’d been stabbed, but Dr. Party thinks the cause of death was a heart attack.”
She had been whispering, but not softly enough. Harold detected a ripple of excited talk spreading through the suite.
Deno’s lips formed slow, hesitant syllables. “Has anyone told the concomm?”
“I told the chairman. He’s not interested.”
“He’s an idiot, then. The committee has to take charge. Otherwise, there’ll be all sorts of rumors. You’re sure he’s not planning to do anything?”
“He gave that impression.”
“Then we have to take up the slack. Starting here.” He stood up, his legs wobbling slightly. His eyelids drooped, and his whole expression was a study in weariness.
He tapped a pen vigorously against the side of the computer. The flat thunk of plastic on plastic drew no reaction at first, but gradually the nearest layer of the crowd noticed that their attention was being solicited and grew quiet. The silence spread. After a couple of minutes, Deno could publicize his news without raising his voice.
“I have an unhappy announcement. I’ve just been informed that Lars Gleason is dead. There isn’t much information. It seems to have been a heart attack.
“Lars was my co-chairman and comrade. We didn’t always see eye to eye, but he was a true friend. Losing him is a tremendous blow to the Seattle bid, but I know that he would want us to carry on. From this moment, the 2005 Seattle Worldcon is dedicated to him.
“Now I think that it would be appropriate to observe a moment of silence.” He bowed his head, and a wave of heads bowed in response. The silence lasted a full minute, until Deno raised his head again.
“We’ll keep the party open as long as anyone wants to stay. For myself, I feel I’m obligated to make announcements at the other parties. All of you, whether or not you’re Christians, please pray for Lars tonight.”
As he left the party, moving like a pallbearer, the room broke into applause.
Standing outside the door, however, was someone who was not applauding. The chairman of Zephyrcon glowered with incandescent fury.
“What do you think you’re up to, Stavrakis? You’re not going to wreck this con!”
“Calm down, Wendell. I’m not wrecking anything.”
“Shut up! Get out of this hotel right now! And you, too, Madame Thomas. You’re not a guest of Zephyrcon any longer. You’re a - trespasser!”
Melisande’s face began to redden to match the chairman’s. “What’s got into you?”
“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! Get out, or I’ll call the police!”
“The police will be here soon enough on their own,” Deno commented drily.
Harold’s temples throbbed. Speech came unbidden. “Excuse me, sir. If you treat my friends that way, you can expel me, too.”
“And who the hell are -” A glimpse of Harold’s badge pulled the chairman up short. His tone changed from blustering to wheedling. “Please, Mr. Savoy, can’t you understand my position? Your friends can stay, of course. I didn’t mean to sound like I wanted to ‘expel’ them. I just - don’t you see - we’ve all worked so hard. . . and this. . . .” He turned away, incapable of continuing.
“Deno, maybe it would be best for you to take a break,” Harold said. “There’s no point in upsetting people.”
Deno shrugged. “I hear a siren. Must be the police.”
A siren was indeed faintly audible. The four-person tableau listened without shifting position as the whine rose in volume and in pitch.
It ended without warning. “Let’s go downstairs and find Bronc,” Melisande said. “I want to know what’s happening.” Harold followed her to the stairs. Deno shuffled behind. The chairman of Zephyrcon remained still as a sculptured gargoyle. Only the rapid blinking of his eyes gave evidence of a living spirit.
The storm’s brief interlude had come to a close with a blast of wintry trumpets. A fifty mile an hour gale, heavy with snowy moisture from Lake Michigan, rampaged westward. As the wind chill factor approached sixty degrees below zero, what little motion existed to the north of Chicago froze into a glacial stillness.
Piero Corsi’s car ground forward through the sludge, groaning each time its tires revolved. He could see a few yards in front and a few yards to the side. The back window and the rear view mirror were frosted to opacity.
A siren caught his attention. It drew near, not rapidly but faster than was safe on the slippery road. He pulled his own car toward what he could discern of the curb, allowing the siren to pass.
“Fuzz,” his passenger remarked in a flat tone.
“Yeah. Looks like they’re going to the hotel. I hope my sister hasn’t made an idiot of herself.”
The police car slewed into the hotel parking lot and came to a jerky halt. Piero thought that he could see officers emerging.
On the other side of the road, on the fringes of the mall, was an all-night diner. After a second’s thought, he turned toward it.
“Gonna wait this one out?” the passenger asked.
“Seems like a good idea.”
The short walk from automobile to diner left them snow-covered and chilled. Piero’s eyes were stinging as he pushed the door open.
Inside, a homely waitress was wiping off tables while the cook lounged on a counter stool. The only other person present was a red-headed woman, who sat in a booth in front of the detritus of a salad.
Piero had to blink several times before he recognized her. When he did, he silently promised to light an extra candle at tomorrow’s mass.
His last conversation with Caroline had been wavering and unclear. He gathered that she had somehow taken care of her problems with Lars but very much wanted revenge against Lars’ strumpet.
And here was the strumpet, serendipitously (not that Piero thought that word, but he recognized the concept) at hand. He motioned his companion to remain in the background, while he himself approached the redhead.
“Lousy night, isn’t it?” he said.
She looked up without replying.
“Mind if I join you?”
“It’s a free country.”
He sat across from her. The waitress took note of the new arrival and meandered in their direction.
“You serve beer in this place?”
“Does this look like a bar? We got soft drinks and coffee.”
“I’ll take a coke, then. And an order of onion rings.”
“Okay. Anything else for you, dearie?”
The redhead frowned, evidently irritated at being addressed. “Nothing at all. I’m fine.”
“You part of the science fiction group?” Piero asked.
Her expression at last showed interest. “How did you guess?”
“I was over there myself. I thought I saw you.”
“Maybe you did. My name’s Jody.” She put out her hand.
“Piero.” He felt a small tingle as their palms met. She was, he decided, an extraordinarily attractive girl, one whom he could have liked very much under different circumstances.
“Are you a fan?” she asked.
“Nice to meet you. Who’s your favorite author?”
Piero in fact had read quite a bit of science fiction; it was the heaviest fare that crossed his intellectual palate. He reacted to the question by calling up the names of a dozen or so authors and selecting one at random. “Milos Savoy.”
“Really? That’s a coincidence. I met him at the con.”
The waitress interrupted with Piero’s order. When he had sorted it out, he asked a follow-up question. “What’s he like?”
“Not much different from anybody else. The name’s a pseudonym. He’s really called Howard Bramwing.”
“Poor stiff. Amazing how inconsiderate parents are.”
“Have you read Emperor of the Dust?”
“I read it, but I didn’t get the point.” He gave her a look that he knew from experience encouraged females of a certain sort to embark on explanations.
“It’s a parable about - you’ve heard the saying, all power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
It struck him as an absurd sentiment. He nodded nevertheless.
“Krellor Sarn is the embodiment of absolute power, but he has enough of a conscience to be disturbed when he starts becoming absolutely corrupt.”
Few men can bat their eyes in a way that is attractive to women. Piero had that knack. Batting enticingly, he spoke. “I’d never thought of it that way. That’s a brilliant analysis.”
“Do you need a lift anywhere?” he continued.
“I’m staying across the street. I just wanted to - to get a bite to eat.”
“I know a better place than this, where we can get drinks. Like to join me?”
She looked at her watch and seemed to be engaged in mental calculations. “Well, I do have some time to kill. Is it far away, though? The weather looks terrible.”
“Bark’s worse than its bite. I didn’t have any trouble getting here.”
She accepted with a nod and a smile. Piero helped her stand up and felt another tingle. His plans were beginning to take definite shape.
He pressed against her as closely as he dared while assisting her into her coat. Her body yielded slightly to the pressure.
“You aren’t planning to meet someone later, are you?” he asked.
“No. The whole night’s free.”
They stepped through the door, into the cascading wind. She drew back. He circled a protective arm around her shoulders, and she buried her face in the fur lining of his coat.
Piero’s companion had left the diner by a different exit. Now he took up a position about fifteen feet behind the couple, his presence shielded from view by the storm.
Piero let the woman into the passenger’s side of his car. Simultaneously, his colleague bent double and sprinted to the rear door on the left. He and Piero entered at the same moment.
Jody, who had been wiping snowflakes from her hair, swiveled at the sound of two doors closing. “Who’s he?” she yelped.
“Buddy of mine. We’re all going for a drive together.” The note of friendliness was gone from Piero’s voice.
“What is this? I want out!”
Piero slammed the accelerator. “No way, sister. I promised you a drink, and you’ll get a drink. Plus a lot more.”
She worked the door handle frantically. Before she could get it open, a strong arm from the back seat restrained her.
“You don’t want to argue with Luigi, babe. Just relax and keep cool. I’ve got a great night in store for you. I hope you’ll enjoy it.
“‘Cause this I can guarantee you: it’s the last chance you’ll have to enjoy anything, ever again.”