With the murder of a police officer to investigate, Lars Gleason’s place on the Carmody Park authorities’ agenda plummeted. Lieutenant Ricklefs’ replacement was a quiet, elderly officer whose experience ran more to shoplifting than homicide. He conferred briefly with Sergeant Bronkowski, then politely demanded that Miss Thomas accompany him to the station house for questioning.
A small delegation saw her off - Harold, Bronkowski, Deno Stavrakis, one or two others. She held her face and body rigid, struggling against a breakdown.
When the police car had driven away, Deno looked solemnly at Bronkowski. “Will they keep her in jail?”
“No way to tell. She’s not even under arrest yet.”
“It doesn’t look good, though?”
“It doesn’t look good.”
Harold returned to his room, all desire for further contact with Zephyrcon, or any other science fiction convention, damped. The hotel’s checkout time was noon. In a dull stupor, he began to pack for the flight back to New York.
“I’ll tell Marj this convention idea was a bust,” he muttered. “Crazy people.”
Thoughts of his editor unearthed a new vein of discontent. He had sent in the page proofs of his last novel over a month ago. One of his goals during the current trip had been to devise a new writing project. Toward that end, he had done nothing at all. He blamed Zephyrcon for that. He even - with gross unfairness, he knew, but depression knows no logic - blamed his unfortunate companion of the past two days.
“I ought to see about helping with her bail.” But he could not bring himself to put packing aside and walk back downstairs.
At least, he could try to think about writing. Many times in the past, he had softened the edges of depression by delving into the despair of imaginary others. He got out his notebook, leafed to a fresh page and poised a pen over it.
The old idea that he had mentioned to Bronkowski, a medieval detective story, rumbled about in his mind. Not a surprising direction for his thoughts. At the head of a page, he wrote the word MYSTERY. After skipping a few lines, he labelled four columns, Suspect, Motive, Method, Opportunity.
But when he went to put text beneath the columns, his attention refused to stay in the late Middle Ages. Instead, almost by automatic writing, he sketched the mystery that most troubled him.
Cause of death: deliberate overdose of Nardil, a drug that can induce cardiac arrest. Victim died of a heart attack, perhaps after being attacked by a knife-wielding assailant.
He began with the least unsettling theory.
Suicide or accident, he wrote under Suspect. Accident needed no motive, and he could fill in none for suicide, though Lars Gleason, outwardly self-sufficient and confident, might have suffered invisible traumas. In their short acquaintance, he had not impressed Harold as someone destined for, or even intelligently pursuing, a happy life.
Method was easy: Took too many tablets. Opportunity was hard, assuming that Melisande was correct about the effects of the drug and the state of Gleason’s heart. Still, doctors sometimes prescribe risky medications. Or Gleason might have been a medical autodidact who devised his own prescription. His fiancée was a nurse. Perhaps she had arranged for him to obtain the treatment that he thought he needed.
Melisande Thomas had to be the next suspect. Weary of incessant pursuit by L.G. Protective (?) of D.S. (former lover?); D.S. in bitter conflict with L.G.
But how - to revisit the question that she had raised in her own defense - could she have led the victim to ingest the fatal dose? Did the tablets dissolve in liquid, or could they be ground into powder? Were they similar in appearance to some medication legitimately prescribed for an overweight man with a heart condition?
He might as well leave the cell blank. The same enigma would recur with every suspect. In that regard, they all stood equal.
Similarly, though for the opposite reason, there was little point in wracking his recollections to determine precisely when particular individuals had been in Gleason’s presence. His observations of the whirling spectacle of the convention made it clear that almost anyone could have encountered almost anyone else in the course of an evening.
His most hopeful course, then, was to identify more motives.
Deno Stavrakis: fighting with L.G. over control of Seattle Worldcon bid. Also angry/jealous over L.G.’s role in destroying his romance with M.T.?
Genie Galen: takes winning Worldcon extremely seriously; Seattle bid would collapse without L.G.
Colin Satterlee: hated L.G. with irrational fury; suffered recent humiliation at L.G.’s hands
Caroline Corsi: fed up with L.G.’s infidelities?
Of course, there might be dozens more, individuals whose reasons for loathing Lars Gleason had never come within Harold’s purview as an outsider. If he was going to make a serious stab at the mystery, he could not imitate The Old Man in the Corner, ratiocinating clues brought by others. He would have to plunge back into Zephyrcon.
Why should he bother? In the faint hope of bringing small, probably futile aid to a woman whom he had met less than forty-eight hours ago?
He closed his suitcase, leaving two shirts on the outside, and picked up the telephone. First, he called the front desk to announce that he would be staying for an extra day. Then he asked the operator to connect him with Peter Bronkowski.
Jody Silverbury woke little by little, her thoughts fragmented and feverish. The lightless bedroom gave no clue to the time of day. Her exhaustion and the silence on all sides suggested that her restless sleep had broken many hours before morning.
She groped for memories that could explain where she was and why. “Melisande!” she called urgently. “Are you there?” But she knew as she called that there would be no reply.
She was not in her hotel room. Instead of returning there, she had - only uncertainty stirred. She thought that she could picture the face of a man, of two men, and unpleasant emotions embroidered the picture. And wasn’t there someone else? She pondered, but her mind was strangely detached, not so much incapable of providing the information requested as uninterested in its owner’s concerns.
She slumbered again. At some point, she fancied, a woman entered the room and gazed at her. She was vividly aware of this intruder’s presence and wanted to beckon. Her distant brain would not cooperate, however. It refused to command the gesture. So she remained in a stupor. After the woman left, the state of inactive consciousness persisted.
The first of her sense organs to convey any useful information was her nose. A perturbation in the air brought the faint spoor of bacon, eggs and toast. This datum interested her brain. It began to reattach itself to its corporeal home. By the time the door to her room was flung open, abruptly admitting a startling, though hardly intense, modicum of light and an overpowering aroma of breakfast, she was on the verge of being a functioning human being, though a human being whose impressions of the recent past were extraordinarily chaotic.
She believed, on no evidence but with unshakeable conviction, that the woman who brought the meal was the one who had visited her earlier. The visitor had the look of a secular angel, a vision composed of lustrous skin, alluring hair, doe-like eyes and a sweet, sympathetic smile. She placed a tray on Jody’s nightstand, pulled a chair next to the bed and released the constraints on her smile, so that it dazzled briefly.
“How do you feel?” she asked.
The struggle to answer revealed to Jody how weak she was. To her own ears, her whisper sounded pathetic. “Not so hot.”
“Do you think you can eat breakfast?”
“I - I’d like to. It smells. . . wonderful.”
“Let me help you sit up.”
With much assistance and a wearying effort, Jody assumed a partially sitting posture. Utensils, though, were beyond her. Like a docile child, she accepted forkfuls of food from her impromptu nurse.
When she had eaten about a quarter of the scrambled eggs and could eat no more, she felt strong enough to initiate a question.
“Where am I? How did I get here?”
The query drew a counter-question. “What do you remember about last night?”
Even in her dazed condition, Jody could tell that how she responded was important. The question was a test of some unfathomable kind.
She answered honestly. In any event, she lacked the will and energy to lie. “Hardly anything. I met someone, I think, and we - I don’t remember. I was scared. He - I don’t remember.”
“Now, don’t get excited, honey. Just relax.” The woman laid a soothing hand on Jody’s forehead. “Oooh, you’ve got a fever like Hades. No wonder the world’s blurry. I’d best give you something for that.”
“Maybe. . . maybe I need a doctor. . . .”
“Not right now, honey. Maybe later. Take these.” The woman held out a pair of aspirins and helped Jody swallow them with a little orange juice. The juice burned against raw spots on her palate.
“Now, pay attention to what I say. I have to go away for a while. When I come back, I’ll bring you lunch. You’ll have a better appetite by then. Until I get back, don’t eat or drink anything that anybody gives you. Especially, don’t accept any medicine. If you’re thirsty, there’s a bathroom over there; drink water from the tap.
“A man may come and ask you questions. Be honest with him, but don’t volunteer any information, and try not to remember anything that happened last night.”
“That’s an easy order to obey.” Jody’s lips twitched in a ghost of amusement.
“You really don’t have any memory of - anything?”
“I have dreams, but I can’t untangle them.”
“That’s good. Don’t try.”
“What’s wrong? Who are you? Am I a prisoner?”
“No, you’re not a prisoner. But you’re too sick to leave right away. Just rest and don’t think.”
“I should let. . . my friends. . . know where I am.”
“Later. You can do that later. Now you have to rest.”
The woman faded from the room. When Jody attempted to respond to her last words, she was gone.
The busiest gathering place in the waning hours of Zephyrcon was the foyer in front of the art show, where a swarm of convention members waited, with more or less patience, to pick up their purchases, jostling with artists settling accounts and taking back unsold pieces.
Genie Galen, Colin Satterlee and the chairman of Zephyrcon happened to meet on the outskirts of the crowd. Under normal circumstances, they would have exchanged curt greetings and gone their own ways, but this morning they had a mutual interest in the wisps of gossip that floated through the convention.
Looking worn after a semi-sleepless night, the leader of the Portland bid nevertheless offered Genie a congratulatory shake of his functioning hand.
“Are you ready to take volunteers yet, Madame Chairperson? It’s really time that a Worldcon had a graphic novels track. . . .”
“Oh, I’m not thinking about that. Poor Lars. He wasn’t my dearest friend, but, still. . . .”
“Very upsetting,” the chairman of Zephyrcon agreed. “Thank God the police are on top of it.”
“Police?” gasped Colin. “I didn’t think there was anything -”
“Sinister? I wish there weren’t. This is my con, after all. But facts are facts, and I’m man enough to face them. The cops think Lars was murdered. And they’ve arrested Melisande Thomas.” He related this news with none of the despair that might have been attributed to the titular head of an event marred by infamy.
Colin’s gasp turned into a fit of coughing. “That’s - I don’t believe it for a second!” he finally spluttered.
“I saw her being taken away. I don’t know the details, but it looks open and shut. I wonder what St. Petersburg’s going to do for a replacement.”
“I wonder why she did it,” Genie mused. “I would have thought the killing would have gone in the other direction. Everybody knows Lars carried a huge torch for her. When she took up with that writer - Savoy - it must have infuriated him.”
“There’s nothing going on between Melisande and Savoy,” Colin protested, though his denial sounded hollow.
“Do you have eyes, dearie? They might as well do it in the middle of the lobby, for all the discretion they show. I had dinner with them last night, and they were all over each other. It was embarrassing. Even to me.”
“A great floor show, eh?” the chairman chimed in. “I ought to feel guilty, you know. If I hadn’t let myself be browbeaten into inviting her to be Fan Guest of Honor, none of this would have happened.”
Genie shrugged. “There’s risk in everything. No one’s going to blame you, Wendell.”
“The chair gets blamed for everything. You’ll find that when you get into your own Worldcon.”
“Don’t call it ‘my Worldcon’ yet. You’ll jinx me.”
“Who’s going to stop you now? Seattle’s out of the race.”
“Surely our friend Colin wouldn’t agree that Seattle was my only competition.”
But Colin was not to be mollified by badinage. He sulkily turned away.
“Funny attitude,” the chairman observed. “If anybody ought to be elated - If the cops hadn’t solved the case, he’d be a pretty prime suspect.”
Genie squinted past his shoulder. “Maybe he is. Look who just sauntered in.”
Melisande Thomas had appeared at the far end of the corridor. She stepped forward tentatively, as if unsure that her legs would bear up under exertion, but her face, even seen at a distance, bore the afterglow of relief and the release of tension.
The chairman’s scowl revealed how ambiguously he shared the erstwhile prisoner’s delight. He abruptly concentrated on making progress toward the sales desk. Genie let him go and waved vigorously in Melisande’s direction.
“I’m so relieved,” she gushed, when they were close enough to exchange words. “I’d heard the most awful rumors.”
“Thanks for being concerned, Genie. I was really worried at first, but the police questioned me and decided I didn’t have any reason to kill Lars or any way to do it.”
“That’s wonderful. Of course, I never imagined for an instant. . . .”
“Oh, I can’t blame them. They think Lars overdosed on Nardil. I have Nardil on my person. Worse yet, when we inventoried my supply, tablets were missing. Compartments that should have held four only had three. You know the natural conclusion.”
“Thank God they didn’t decide that was enough evidence to hang you on.”
“The theory now is that the murderer ransacked my purse - which I’m afraid is easy enough to do. I don’t exactly keep it under lock and key.”
“This is all too crazy. There’s probably a prosaic explanation.”
“That’s what Bronc and Mr. Savoy said. They suspect Lars was practicing self-medication and overdosed himself accidentally.”
“By taking pills from your purse?”
“The missing pills could be a coincidence. I’m perfectly capable of counting out the wrong number of tablets when I fill the case. Bronc says his experience is that every really fascinating clue turns out to be either a coincidence or a mistake. It’s the boring, straightforward evidence that catches criminals.”
“What a drab vision of life.”
“Maybe so - but I shouldn’t be babbling like this. I came down here to see whether I could locate Jody.”
“Sorry. I haven’t seen her.”
“Neither has anybody else, so far as I can tell. I’m beginning to worry. I could dream up reasons why she didn’t come back to our room last night, but why is she still missing? It’s getting close to checkout time, and we have a flight back home at five.”
“I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about. She’ll turn up.”
“I’m sure of that, too, but not sure enough not to worry. I wish I knew where she went last night - and why she wouldn’t tell me about it.”
“I know where Jody slept last night.”
The words broke in like an avalanche of gravel damming a stream. The speaker, swaying a foot or two behind Melisande, was a ravaged ghost.
“Mark?” Melisande started to complete the greeting, then hesitated and substituted a meaningless “how are you?” for whatever she was going to say.
“You’re Jody’s best friend,” the specter answered. “I have to talk to you.”
Melisande nodded. The ghost led the way to an unoccupied corner, where he stared at her intently until she was so uncomfortable that she regretted having joined him.
“Are you going to say anything?”
“I love Jody.”
“You ought to tell her, not me.”
“What good would it do? I told you, I know where she spent the night.”
“All right. Where? I’d like to know myself.”
“Is that what’s preying on you? Well, I’m relieved to be the bearer of good tidings for a change. Wherever Jody was last night, she wasn’t with Lars. She was out of the hotel.”
“She’s your friend, Melisande, but you shouldn’t lie for her. I saw her go into his room. She’d told me she’d be away for the night, and I suspected that meant with another man. So I shadowed her. She went to his room. She waited. He came. They kissed. He let her in. Then he came out again, but she didn’t. I watched for a long time. Then I just wanted to die. I went outside, into the cold and snow, and I sat there. I hoped I would freeze.”
“Stop it! Mark, you’re hallucinating. You were drinking last night. You took what you thought was an overdose of sleeping pills. It’s all in your imagination. Try to be sensible. Jody doesn’t even like Lars.”
“I don’t know any more what she likes or doesn’t. I thought she liked me. We’ve been together, well, since Lunacon. I saw her and fell in love, and she acted like she loved me back. But it was all a lie. Just like your cover story for her is a lie. I hate you! I hate her! I hate -”
She never heard what else he hated. Without premonition, his skin turned a whiter shade of pale, his knees wobbled, and he collapsed limb by limb.
A dark, brooding cloud occupied Caroline Corsi’s thoughts, so dark and brooding that it obscured past, present and future, obscured all impressions save the urgent lust for revenge.
Deep within her, a buried center of rationality knew that she was temporarily mad. At odd moments, its warnings broke through and pulled her back from her course. But the cloud, steadily darkening, eventually smothered sanity’s pleadings.
Seen through her madwoman’s vision, the hotel lobby was a stark, frigid place, sprouting organic icicles that discomfited her nerves. She tried to breath deeply and steadily to combat the illusion. By degrees, a few of the icicles turned into human beings.
One man was goggling at her. She was used to goggling males and had paid them only selective attention since age fourteen or so. Nor was this goggler a particularly attractive specimen. Nevertheless, the formless schemes churning in her brain demanded allies, and here was an ally for the plucking.
She formed her smile with as much care as she used in applying makeup, walked over to him, inducing his eyes to bulge with adolescent joy, and brushed a hand, seemingly by accident, against his upper arm.
“Can you help me?” she asked in her sweetest voice. “I’m looking for Melisande Thomas.”
The mention of her enemy’s name, she noted gladly, momentarily deflated the target’s pleased expression. He answered with a trace of a stammer. “L - last I saw her, she was over by art show pickup. But -” She watched his courage struggling to rise. “If you need information or anything, I can help you. I’m the convention chair.”
“Really? Maybe you can help.” This time she squeezed his arm in a way that could not be mistaken for chance.
She made her face solemn. “I am - was a friend of Lars Gleason.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” He boldly patted her shoulder. She pretended not to mind.
“Can you tell me anything about what happened to him? It was so sudden, and the police aren’t any help.”
“I’ll tell you everything I know. Only -” She encouraged him with another squeeze. “Could I buy you a drink or something. This isn’t a good place to talk.”
“I’d like that.”
Her companion floated into the bar. They took a quiet, dark table and ordered mimosas. He gulped his between bursts of speech.
Desperate as she was to act, she forced herself to listen. She heard how Lars’ death had first become known, the initial speculations about its cause, the police department’s current theory, Melisande Thomas’ removal to the police station, followed by her disappointing return.
“She must be the prime suspect, though,” her informant concluded. “Who else could have done it? My guess is that the cops want to lull her into a sense of security. She claims she doesn’t have a motive. But there must be one. They’ll track it down.”
The clouds in Caroline’s brain collided, and lightning boomed. The fragments of impracticable plans blew away, swept to oblivion by a powerful sense of purpose. She lifted her eyes, previously fixed on her straw, and enticed the man’s eyes to meet them.
“I almost wish you hadn’t told me that,” she said. “You see, I know her motive. I’m probably the only living person who does. But it’s a terrible dilemma. If I tell the police, Lars will be disgraced. If I don’t, his murderer will go free.”
Awkwardly, he failed to ask the necessary follow-up question. She had to improvise a continuation.
“Maybe you can help me decide. Will you promise to keep this an absolute secret - from everyone?”
“Yes, of course.”
He looked so much like an emaciated fish practicing lessons in sincerity that she came close to spoiling the mood by snickering. She coughed to recover from the near-lapse.
“Lars told me this last night. He was in a mood to confess his sins, because we’d had a tiff that he wanted to patch up.
“A year or so ago, he went on business to Atlanta. She was there at the same time, supposedly on business too. They got together for dinner. After that, they went to her hotel room. They were pretty good friends back then.
“But not as good friends as he wanted them to be. They ordered drinks from room service. She got a little giddy, but not giddy enough to be seduced.
“So Lars raped her.”