Getting Lars Gleason on the way to his final resting place was no easy feat. Every emergency vehicle from Rogers Park northward was either out of service or preempted by subjects with more hopeful prognoses. At first, the young police lieutenant who had taken charge of the scene insisted that the body could be removed only by authorized medical personnel. Not until it became evident that authorized personnel might not arrive before Spring did he give way to the urgings of Sergeant Bronkowski and Dr. Partington and permit the doctor to transport the corpse in his car to the nearest hospital.
Bronkowski, remaining behind, took it upon himself to brief Lieutenant Ricklefs. Together, they needed very few minutes to agree that Piero Corsi was the prime suspect.
“Ironic, isn’t it?” said Ricklefs. “We know this bird’s a key man in the biggest coke ring in the collar counties, and what do we nail him for? Defending his sister’s honor. It’s a crazy world.”
“It’ll be a happier one with fewer and better Corsis. Especially fewer.”
“I hope we can get fingerprints from the knife.”
“You don’t think he was that stupid, do you?”
“It was a crime of passion. If he’d been thinking sanely, he would have shot the guy from a safe distance. He probably didn’t have a gun handy and grabbed the first weapon he could find. But that’s enough chit-chat. In this weather, he can’t be any great distance away. I’ll call in an APB.”
“Trouble is, even though he can’t move much, our troops can’t either.”
“It’s worth a try.”
But not everyone agreed.
As Lieutenant Ricklefs worked his way through the tiers of officialdom needed to institute an All Points Bulletin, he encountered rising skepticism, culminating in a police major who demanded bluntly, “Where’s your probable cause?”
“A witness who heard -”
“Yeah, you told me that part. But it was hearsay. Besides, he didn’t see the speaker. How does he know it was Corsi’s sister and not some other dame talking about some other brother?”
Ricklefs argued in support of his witness’s accuracy and credibility. The major listened, hemmed and hawed, asked for Bronkowski’s Chicago P.D. badge number, then bucked the decision to yet a higher level.
Eventually, the deliberations got into the hands of legal counsel, and the officers on the scene had no further role to play. They left the APB to fate and sought warmer quarters inside the hotel.
The coffee shop was trying to close, but its hostess would not turn away two officers of the law. She found a coffee pot and a bowl of pasta salad and left the policemen to discuss the case while the staff cleared tables and mopped floors.
Bronkowski filled a plate with salad. Ricklefs limited himself to coffee and an infrequent nibble from the bowl.
“Sergeant, if I know those Peter Principled imbeciles, they’ll need all night to make a decision. What can we do in the meantime?”
“Figure out a backup theory.”
“You have doubts about Corsi?”
“Some. I’ve been thinking about him. The motive’s passable but not great. Method is rotten. Leaving evidence behind ain’t his style. As for opportunity, that’s a puzzle. From what I heard his sister saying, it sounded as if he was gathering his forces. He would’ve had to gather them awfully fast to get back here in time to stab Gleason.”
“He had half an hour from when you heard the victim and Corsi’s sister talking.”
“Less than that. I felt Gleason’s hand. Rigor mortis was starting in the fingers, so he must have been dead at least fifteen minutes or so. No, Corsi’s the best of all possible suspects, but we can’t make book on him yet.”
“Who else is there?”
“I hate to think about that. Fact is, Gleason had a lot of enemies in fandom - that’s what the science fiction crowd calls itself. I’d be flabbergasted if any of them carried a grudge far enough to kill him, but I’ve been flabbergasted before.”
“Any enemies you could name?”
“I’m not a fountain of fannish gossip. What we need is somebody who is. Like -“ He surveyed the portion of the lobby visible from the coffee shop. “Melisande Thomas.” He pointed. “She’s standing over there with the fellow in the suit. If anybody knows who really despised Lars Gleason, she would.”
“Can you ask her to join us?”
“Yeah, I’ll do that. Though it’ll be more attractive for her if you can rustle up another pot of coffee.”
A few minutes later, Melisande and Harold were seated at the table, the coffee had been refilled, and the hostess had even found an intact apple pie.
“Unhappily,” Bronkowski began after the food had been portioned out, “this is not a social gathering. Melisande, you know that we’re investigating Lars Gleason’s death. I’d like you to tell me whether you know of anyone who genuinely disliked him.”
“Enough to murder him, you mean?”
“Let’s not make judgements like that right now. No fans are under suspicion, but I need accurate information. You can be sure that the rumor mill will be running full throttle real soon now and that the lieutenant and I will be bombarded by tales of every harsh word that Gleason ever exchanged with anyone. It’ll help winnow the chaff if you’ll be frank with us.”
She poked her fork tentatively into a slice of pie. “Well, Lars had plenty of friends and plenty of enemies. I don’t think he attracted neutrals. If I had to name enemies - do I have to, Bronc?”
“Only if you want to help. You’re not under subpoena.”
“The person who hated Lars more than anyone else in the world, by a titanic margin, was Colin Satterlee. Luckily, he’s in the clear, because he’s been at the Fractal show while all this has been going on.”
“A good alibi, if it holds up. Of course, he could’ve sneaked out, put a knife in Gleason, and sneaked back in. No, I’m not accusing him, Melisande. I’m just making an observation.”
“Bronc, Colin has one arm in a sling.”
“It’s his left arm.”
“Yeah, he’s going to lurch out into the snow and attack Lars one-handed.”
“You got me there, Melisande. For now, I’ll take him off the list. Go on.”
“Okay. As for Lars’ next fiercest enemy. . . w-e-e-e-e-l-l, that would most likely be my friend Deno.”
“Eh? A falling out between co-chairmen?”
“Like the Loma Prieta earthquake. Do you want the details?”
“Later. Let’s keep thinking up names.”
“Genie Galen’s another obvious one. She’s fanatic about her own bid, and I know that she sees Lars as the real force behind Seattle.”
“Beyond those three, I have trouble coming up with anybody with a current reason to hate Lars. He has a big non-fan club - me, for instance - but not rising to the level of homicide.”
Ricklefs now took up the questioning. “I want to get a better feeling for how the victim related to other people. Would you two mind telling me how you felt about him?”
Harold answered first. “I wouldn’t mind at all, but I met him for the first time yesterday, so I don’t have much basis for an opinion. He struck me as frightening, in a certain sense. If he treated others the way he did Miss Thomas, I expect that he had very few whole-hearted admirers.”
“And how did he treat Miss Thomas?”
“Oh, he made a pretty serious and annoying pass,” said Melisande. “It was no big deal. That was simply the way Lars acted.”
“I thought he had a fiancé,” Ricklefs observed.
“He wasn’t the sort to let a minor fact like that discourage him. I feel sorry for the poor woman, but she seemed rather cynical about men in general. I remember she said that the best you could hope for from a man was that he wouldn’t have a reason to lie to you.”
“This is Corsi’s sister you’re talking about?” Melisande nodded. “We ought to ask her a few questions about her brother.”
“You can do that if you want. I saw her in the lobby just before Bronc - I mean, Sergeant Bronkowski - called me over. She was using the telephone.”
“Thanks. Can you point her out to me?”
Melisande nodded again, and the two of them went off, leaving Harold alone with Bronkowski.
There was a period of silence while the policeman devoured the last scraps of salad and pie.
“Tell me, Savoy,” he said when the food was gone, “did you ever think of writing detective stories?”
“I started one once upon a time. It was going to be set in the Middle Ages, with Geoffrey Chaucer as the detective. But I could never get the plot to fit together right. Then I made the mistake of floating the idea for those blasted tel-Wissiu novels and Marj insisted that I write them.”
“Going to write any more?”
“Not if I can help it. I have a constitutional aversion to series novels. I wish the dratted things hadn’t sold so well.”
Talking shop with an aficionado of his work was pleasant, but Harold’s bladder had been complaining for a quarter of an hour. Trying not to be too abrupt, he asked, “Do you know where I can find the, ah, facilities?”
“There’s a john at the back of the coffee shop. If they haven’t locked it for the night.”
The men’s room had not been locked, but the lights were out. Harold ran his hand along the wall in search of a switch. It eluded him for an irritating length of time.
When the light did come on, he was staring directly into its source, a pair of unshielded incandescent bulbs. His eyes blinked and teared. When he looked away, spots marred the view, so that he did not immediately realize that the dark lump sprawled on the floor was not an optical illusion.
“What is this, a treasure hunt?” he muttered.
The lump was undoubtedly a moderately large man. No daggers protruded, but his hands felt clammy, and Harold could detect no breathing. A piece of paper lay a few inches from the right hand. Harold automatically picked it up and read:
My dearest, darling, beloved Jody,
It’s all over now. If you don’t want me, you don’t have to endure my existence any longer. Please believe me when I tell you that what happened was an accident. I was only trying to scare him. But he lunged at me, and the knife went it on its own. When I saw he was dead, I knew that you’d hate me forever, so this was the only way out.
Although you’ll probably go to your grave despising me, I want you to know that I’m going to mine worshipping you.
Love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love,
Despite the presence of tragedy, the imperatives of nature had to be dealt with first. When Harold had completed those and returned to the table, Melisande had also returned. He showed her and Bronkowski the suicide note and told how he had found it.
“Not a model of clear exposition,” said Bronkowski, “but it’s not hard to interpret. Let me take a look at him.”
Inside the men’s room, the sergeant examined the body. “This one’s not like Gleason. Respiration’s weak, but there’s a pulse. He’s alive, and I’d guess he’ll suffer nothing worse than a sound night’s sleep and pangs of remorse in the morning.”
“Are you going to arrest him?”
“Can’t read him his rights while he’s unconscious. No, we’ll put him to bed, try to raise an EMT - in case he does need treatment - and see about booking him tomorrow. He’s not going to go anywhere.
“Ricklefs will be pissed, though. I could tell by the gleam in his eye that he was looking forward to being the hero who bagged a Corsi.”
The woman identified by Melisande as Caroline Corsi held a telephone receiver against her ear. She was not speaking. After a long interval, she hung up the phone. She was starting to punch a new number when she idly looked around and saw Lieutenant Ricklefs. He approached deferentially.
“Yes.” Her tone was far from appreciative.
“My name is Ricklefs. I’m with the police.” He spread his credentials for her to view.
She stiffened, perhaps an hereditary reaction. “I don’t know what we have to talk about, officer.”
“I can’t tell you a thing. I don’t know where Lars is. In fact, I was trying to call him when you appeared.”
“I’m sorry. You haven’t heard, then?”
“Mr. Gleason is dead.”
Her ivory skin turned to chalk.
“You have my sympathy, Miss. I understand the two of you were close.”
She visibly resisted any display of emotion. “What happened to him?”
“I’m afraid he may have been a homicide victim.”
“You mean he was murdered? You’re - this is a trap - some kind of sting operation. . . .” Her face regained its color, augmented by swatches of violet.
“It would be helpful if you could answer a few questions.”
“No. Not until I call my lawyer.”
“I realize that this is an upsetting experience, but I have only a few questions. If you’re concerned about your own status, let me assure you that you’re not a target of any investigation.”
“You can quiz me when my lawyer’s present. Not otherwise.”
“That decision is up to you.” He sighed and shrugged elaborately. As he turned away, he added, with a casual air, “Didn’t you tell him he was in danger?”
“Not of being killed. Piero might -“ She stopped. “What business of it is yours what I told him?”
“My business should be obvious. Why don’t you want to cooperate, Miss Corsi? Are you hoping to protect someone?”
“No! You’re a hundred percent wrong, and I’ll tell you why. My brother thought he saw Lars with another woman and made threats, and I told Lars it would be best for us to go elsewhere. But I spoke to him -“
“Piero. I spoke to Piero after Lars left the hotel. I told him that Lars had been the victim of a conniving whore and I didn’t want any revenge against him. It was all that woman’s doing. Piero accepted that. If she had turned up dead, you might be right to suspect him, but he certainly didn’t murder my fiancé.
“If you’ll excuse me now, my car stalled half a mile from here, and I had to walk back. I’d like to call a tow truck.”
“I’m going to have to bear more bad tidings. Your chances of getting a tow in this weather are about equal to the odds on aliens invading from outer space.” His line of sight happened to intercept an orange-haired female wearing green antennae and blue body paint. He amended his comparison. “Less than that.”
“I’ll figure something out.” She turned back to the telephone. When Ricklefs remained stationary, she spat, “Don’t you have anywhere to go? There’s a murder for you to solve, isn’t there?”
He retreated. She swiveled toward the telephone, and his retreat halted. He could not decipher every word of her side of the conversation but had no difficulty grasping the gist. As she prepared to hang up, he deftly faded to a safe distance and mingled with the crowd.
He watched her re-don her coat, glance apprehensively at the falling snow, and exit into the night. She walked through the parking lot and was still dimly visible trudging along the shoulder of the highway.
Ricklefs pulled on his own overcoat and went to his squad car. Using the car’s telephone, he called the uncooperative major, who answered grumpily. “This is Ricklefs. Any word on the APB for Corsi?”
“Request for APB turned down.”
“What the hell! This is Corsi we’re talking about, not some jealous husband hacking up his wife’s lover.”
“At ease, lieutenant. Because it’s Piero Corsi is the prime reason for not doing anything. We don’t want an embarrassment like the New York cops had that time they mistakenly arrested Gotti. This has to be an airtight case or no case at all.”
Weighing the satisfaction of telling off indolent higher-ups against the potential ruin of his career, Ricklefs confined his reply to an ungracious, “Yes, sir” and choked the phone receiver as he put it back onto its cradle.
The Corsi female was a thin wedge glimpsed dimly through a haze of snow. He took a shotgun from the trunk of his car and set out after her.
There was little danger that she would notice the pursuit. They were walking into the wind, and she kept her head facing down and forward, buried within a capacious hood and bent so that her cheeks were cocooned in the plush collar of her coat.
Ricklefs, more used to nature’s inclement moods, found the trek tolerable if not exhilarating. In good weather, he could have walked the distance from the hotel to the woman’s car in ten minutes. With a headwind and slippery footing, the time was closer to half an hour. At last, he saw an intersection, its light changing mindlessly to direct nonexistent traffic. A white Porsche with no lights showing sat in the middle of the street. A larger, darker car had drawn up next to it, headlights glaring into the storm.
The headlight beam was aimed obliquely, away from the path of the woman and Ricklefs. The policeman judged that he could slip behind the Porsche without being seen from the other automobile. He made his profile as small as possible and crept to his left, then zigzagged back. By the time the woman reached the cars, he was esconced in a secure vantage point. He did not dare lift his head to see what was going on, but he could hear reasonably well.
A car door opened and closed. A gloom-shrouded figure got out. “Took you long enough to get here,” growled a male voice.
“I had to walk all the way. Why couldn’t you have picked me up at the hotel?”
“Too risky. See who’s in the front seat? I didn’t want to take the chance she’d raise a disturbance.”
“I can’t see into the car. It’s too dark.”
“Well, that’s the bitch who tried to steal your boyfriend.”
“Piero! How did you - no, I don’t want to know. Just let her get what she deserves.”
“Now do you feel better toward your brother?”
“Yes, yes, yes. This is marvelous.” A long pause, followed by a more serious tone. “There’s one complication, though.”
“Brother, dear, you didn’t, umm, punish Lars too, did you?”
“I would’ve liked to, but you said to lay off.”
“The cops think you killed him.”
“You mean he’s dead?”
“That’s what they told me.”
“How’d it happen?”
“I don’t know. I wouldn’t talk to them, so I didn’t get the details.”
“Damn. You know what this is? A frame up. They want to pin a rap, any rap, on me.”
“Well, if you didn’t do it, they aren’t likely to succeed.”
“You’re so innocent, girl. If they need evidence, they can find it. They can make it sound real plausible. You’re my sister. Gleason cheated on you. I killed him in revenge. They’ll call it a Sicilian thing, and the jurors’ll eat it up.”
Another long pause ensued. Ricklefs, forced to remain motionless, began to feel the chill creeping into his bones. Worse yet, the conversation that he was overhearing disconcerted him. His theory about Lars Gleason’s murder was shredded badly. On the other hand, instead of a simple arrest, he might have a rescue to undertake.
He stood up slowly. Corsi and his sister were standing in front of Corsi’s car, illuminated by the headlights. The line of sight to the man was unblocked. Ricklefs swung his shotgun around.
“Freeze!” he ordered.
The woman leaped. Corsi turned languidly. “Both of you, put your hands on the hood of the car.”
They complied silently. The policeman walked toward them. “I want to see who you’ve got inside.”
“Just friends. Who are you?”
Ricklefs considered how to display his badge without loosing his grip on the shotgun. He did not observe the left rear window of the car as it rolled down an inch or two.
“I’m Lieuten -” he started to declare. He said no more. A hand poked through the crack in the window. A revolver barked once, and the policeman slumped into the snow.