The voice that greeted Deno Stavrakis over the telephone was sleepy and grouchy. Pam Brauer was not an early riser, particularly not on Sunday, which she regarded as sacred to the goddess of sleep.
“Yes, Deno,” she muttered wearily when she recognized his voice.
He chose not to smooth the path with apologies. “Lars Gleason died last night.”
“You’re kid - Deno, what happened?” The sleep was instantly gone from her tone, replaced by amazement and distress.
“Heart attack, apparently. They found him in the hotel parking lot.”
“I can’t believe it.” The words came out unsteadily. “Has anybody called his family?”
“I don’t know how to reach them. Do you?”
“Not really. But what about his fiancée - Angela or whatever she’s called? Isn’t she at the convention?”
“I haven’t seen her today. I don’t know for sure that she’s even heard.”
“Well, thanks for letting me know. . . . This is such a shock. God, Deno, what is the bid going to do?”
“Carry on, of course. What else can we do?”
She hummed into the receiver, obviously reluctant to supply an answer to the rhetorical question.
“Something wrong, Pam?”
“Not exactly. It’s just that - I’m not sure I want to say this.” Audibly, she sucked in air.
“Deno, do you really want to be the only chairman of this bid?”
“I guess I’ll have to be, whether I want to or not.”
“Some of us had the - the impression - even before this - that fandom isn’t your big interest any more. . . that, well, maybe you didn’t want the responsibility. . . .” Her voice dwindled to an unsteady whisper.
“As I said, what I want isn’t the point. The bid can’t get knocked off its tracks now. Genie Galen’s probably issuing victory pronouncements already.”
So softly that he could scarcely hear: “Maybe she’s right.”
“Do you really think that, Pam?”
“Y - yes, Deno. A lot of the others - the other board members do, too.”
“Oops, there’s somebody at the door. Be back in a second.”
There had been no sound from the door, but Deno unlatched and opened it noisily, then uttered loud outcries at an unseen arrival, before taking up the telephone again.
“Sorry to break off, Pam, but Melisande just showed up. I’ve got to talk to her. I’ll call you back just as quickly as I can.”
“Fine, Deno. I’ll be right here.”
He replaced the receiver, stretched full length on the bed and wound loops of beard through his fingers. Pam Brauer’s reaction was no great surprise, much as he had hoped for something different. And Pam had a powerful following on the board.
Deno was not one of those souls who dream impossible dreams about unreachable stars. If he had any virtue, he thought, it was a realism that did not let itself be blinded by personal hopes. Even before placing his call, he had formed a contingency plan. The moment had come to execute it - without wasting energy on regrets.
He deliberately waited ten minutes before calling back, filling the interval by composing imaginary dialogues.
The first time he dialed, Pam’s line was busy. He suppressed a curse, waited a minute or two, and tried again. This time, he got through.
“Sorry for the interruption, Pam.”
“That’s okay. How is Melisande taking it?”
“Weren’t she and Lars pretty close? I think I remember something about the two of them. . . .”
“No. They weren’t close at all. But it shocked her, of course. It shocked everybody. Anyway, what I wanted to say before the interruption was that the bid must go on, and I’m not inclined to be the lone honcho. In fact, I have someone in mind to take over Lars’ position. Though the name may surprise you.”
“I like surprises, Deno.”
“Okay, then. Jody Silverbury.”
“Whoosh - that is a surprise. Why in the world -“
“First, she has a great track record with the St. Petersburg Worldcon. Second, she’s Melisande’s closest friend. Even if Melisande herself keeps up a pretense of neutrality, her friends in Florida and the Midwest are bound to assume that she’s for any bid that Jody’s involved with. Third, Jody doesn’t have any special ties to Florida. She has a nothing job. She can pack up after their Worldcon and move to Seattle. The way Propp and Pavlac moved to Chicago to run Chicon in ’82, or -”
“Enough. You don’t have to cite precedent. It’s a fascinating idea. Creative. Look, Deno. If you want, I’ll call around and see what the board thinks. Somebody has to tell them about Lars in any case, and there’s no reason why you should run up long distance charges.”
“Thanks. I’d appreciate that.”
“By the way, I assume that you’ve sounded Jody out.”
“Indirectly. I couldn’t say too much right away. Not in good taste, you know. Besides, the board should think about it before I make a definite offer. Still, I talked to her, and she understood what I was driving at.”
“Right. I’ll let you know what the board thinks.”
Deno hung up the telephone confident that, whatever the board thought, it would not be inclined, for the moment at least, to alter the status of Deno Stavrakis. Next, he punched the number of Jody and Melisande’s room. He was unsurprised - and not particularly disappointed - when no one answered.
Once his sister was gone from the house, Piero Corsi sent away his henchman, too. The man had other duties and would scarcely be needed to deal with a girl.
Annoyingly, he could not bring himself to plunge into speaking to her. He lingered at the breakfast table, poking at the shards of his meal. He had already imbibed one Bloody Mary. He mixed a second, then a third, meanwhile ruminating on whether he should call his father and, if so, what the patriarch should be allowed to know.
The morning newscast had made it plain that the witness could not be allowed to go about her business. But the risks involved in simply disposing of her were incalculable. He dared not take that step without his father’s blessing. Yet if he asked for approval -
The elder Corsi was not a sentimental Don in the Hollywood mode. He had the hard soul of those ancient Romans who condemned their sons to death for the good of the res publica. Should he see his own res endangered by Piero’s rashness. . . .
Feeling extremely young, desperately at the mercy of unfathomable adults, Piero at last wrenched himself from the table. Balancing a newly refreshed tumbler of tomato juice and vodka, he pushed open the door to the cellar.
The low chatter of a radio program came from the prisoner’s room. He found her sitting in an armchair, dressed in one of Caroline’s lovely silk nightgowns, attempting to focus her eyes on a book. The gown had been carelessly put on, leaving her right breast exposed almost to the nipple. She looked up at him like a dazed fawn adrift in an unfamiliar forest.
The infatuation that had gripped him briefly last night smote again. His loins stirred, and blood raced through his arteries. He had already made up his mind to wear a mask of friendly concern. The resolution was all too easy to keep.
“Good morning,” he choked, his throat unexpectedly hoarse.
She continued to stare at the book. Her eyes flickered meaninglessly.
“Did you sleep all right?”
“Who are you?”
“My name is - you can call me Mark.”
“I’m Jody.” Her lips continued to move without emitting sound.
“What was that?”
“Nothing. I was just thinking about another Mark I know.”
He sat on the bed, close enough to embrace her.
“May I talk to you, Jody?”
“If you want to. . . . Can you tell me what’s happened to me?”
“Don’t you know?”
“Last night is blurry. We met somewhere, didn’t we?”
He nodded. “Tell me what you recollect. I’ll fill in the blanks for you.”
Her face grew hopeless. “There’s so little. We met and drove somewhere and. . . did I sleep with you?”
He felt himself blushing. “No, no.”
“I wasn’t sure. You’re very. . . masculine. Better than the other Mark. I mean, I guess I don’t really know whether you’re better, but I think you would be.”
Without waiting for more, he kissed her.
After that, she turned coy, insisting that she was hungry and thirsty and needed both food and drink immediately. He took her upstairs, where she poured him another Bloody Mary and fixed herself toast and a small glass of white wine.
His thoughts were chaotic now. He formed a cloudy plan of sending her away to some secure haven, where he could visit her while remaining safe from any renascence of her memories. He tried to reveal this inspiration to her, but words formed only with difficulty, and it was much easier to accept more alcohol from her voluptuous hand and lose himself in the moist warmth of her kisses.
When she helped him off with his trousers, he did not notice how the beautiful hands deftly picked through his pockets.
Melisande felt no apprehension at the knocking on her door. Her first guess was that Jody was back at last and had forgotten her key. She roused herself from a semi-doze and undid the latch.
“Ms. Melisande Thomas?”
The policewoman was in uniform, carrying handcuffs. Instinctively, Melisande knew what would come next.
“I wish to inform you that you have the right to remain silent. Any statements that you make may be used against you in a court of law. Before making any statement, you have the right to speak to a lawyer. If you cannot afford a lawyer -”
She droned the litany made familiar to the American public by hundreds of television shows.
“Please don’t use the handcuffs,” was all that Melisande could utter in response.
The policewoman let them dangle. “Do you have a lawyer, Miss Thomas?”
“Do you want one?”
“I think I’d better. May I - may I ask a friend to help me find one?”
“Go ahead. You can use the telephone.”
She did not want to tremble, but her fingers made continual miscues before finally completing the number of Harold Bramwing’s room.
“Thank God!” she gasped when he picked up the phone.
“Melisande! What’s wrong?”
His voice calmed her so that she could converse without panic. “Harold, I’m under arrest. I need a lawyer.”
For a few minutes, they discussed ways and means, calming her further. At the end of the dialogue, she no longer felt abject terror at the police officer’s presence.
“Can you tell me what this is all about?” she asked.
“Only if you waive your right to remain silent.”
“I guess I do. I’d like to be able to talk to somebody.”
“Sit down, Miss Thomas. May I call you Melisande?”
Melisande nodded. “Thanks, Melisande. I’m Lucinda. Officer Lucinda Waverley. I know this is all very upsetting, but you should try to relax. I assure you, if you’re innocent you have nothing to worry about.”
“Of course I’m innocent. Your own people admitted just awhile ago that I don’t have the faintest motive for harming Lars.”
“There seems to be additional information. But perhaps we can clear matters up without any further bother. Do you mind answering a question or two?”
“Not at all.”
“Have you ever been in Atlanta, Melisande?”
Despite the grim circumstances, she laughed. “Anybody who lives in St. Petersburg and travels by air is in Atlanta a lot.”
“I mean, have you ever visited the city itself?”
“Well, the 1986 Worldcon was in Atlanta, and I’ve been there on business.”
“The business trips are what I’m interested in. Did you, by any chance, see Lars Gleason during any of them?”
“Are you very sure of that, Melisande? Some people seem to have a different impression.”
“He was there at the same time once. At least, he tried to call me, but I didn’t get together with him.”
“All right.” Her tone and smile implied uncritical acceptance of the denial. “Melisande, there’s something I had better explain to you. Even though you’re technically under arrest, it’s not my job to get you convicted of anything.
“I don’t know about the police you’re familiar with, but here in Carmody Park we aren’t into the macho-fascist brand of law and order. Take me, for instance. I’m a card carrying member of the ACLU. I subscribe to Ms. I organized this year’s Carmody Park Earth Day observance.
“What I’m getting at is, if you had any good reason to dislike Lars Gleason - if you were defending yourself, and I mean that in the widest sense - this department isn’t going to prosecute you. We close lots of cases without filing charges, where a woman was driven to act by sexist harassment.
“Well, that’s a long enough speech. I hope you understand that I mean every word of it.”
“I understand you, but I don’t see how what you said has much to do with me. I didn’t have any reason to kill Lars, so I didn’t. If I’d had a reason, I don’t know what I would have done.”
“He did harass you, though. You’ve said that yourself.”
“He made passes. Lots of men do.”
“And you wanted to stop him, didn’t you?”
“Sure, but not by murdering him.”
“Tell me - just hypothetically - is there anything he could have done that would have made you feel that he was better off dead?”
“Not unless maybe he tried to rape me, or something like that.”
“But he never did, never forced himself on you?”
She thought about the scene in Lars’s room yesterday afternoon, when he had seemed so near to using force, and she hesitated. Then she said firmly, “No, he never did.”
“But if he had -”
“Oh, this is all fantasy! I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
“That’s up to you, Melisande. I only want to know how you feel.”
Some nuance in the words told Melisande that she had made a blunder, yet she could not imagine what it was. She lapsed into silence, wishing that Harold would hasten the process of locating a suitable attorney.
The hotel brunch was rather commonplace in the variety and quality of its offerings. Its supreme and sufficient virtue, from Genie Galen’s point of view, was that seating spilled over into the lobby, so that she could be a center of attention and eat heartily at the same time.
An exorbitant tip to the waitress kept the advertised “free champagne” flowing abundantly, and Genie handed out glasses to anyone who paused at her table. A shifting cast occupied the chairs. Between courses - and most refilled their plates several times - they murmured congratulations and compliments in their hostess’s direction, nodding as she soliloquized on how her World Science Fiction Convention would be the biggest, brightest and best of all time.
Her speech had nothing new in it. She had been declaiming the glories of the Las Vegas bid to about the same words and music ever since its inception. What was new was the respect that her words attracted. Yesterday’s skeptical eyebrows were reverentially lowered, and an apology preceded every question that could be remotely construed as skeptical.
Her roommate had declined brunch, complaining of various aches and pains. Unaccompanied, Genie followed an impulse to smile and wink at every man who showed up. She was pleased at how many winked and smiled back.
The place immediately across the table fell vacant for a stretch, then was filled by the chairman of Zephyrcon. As recently as last Friday, he had curtly brushed off Genie’s greetings. Now he was seeking her company for the second time in one morning. He had someone with him, a pretty girl who stirred transient memories. In her mood of glorious self-confidence, Genie lightly waved aside both the memories and the girl.
“Champagne, Wendell? One for your friend, too?” She handed glasses across the table, making sure that her fingers pressed the chairman’s.
“Wendell, dear, I do hope that I’ll get lots of volunteers from the Zephyrcon staff. You know how much I admire the way you run your con.”
His voice was unexpectedly tense. “Sure. Of course. That’s still a long way off, though.”
“It’s never too early to start planning, and I especially want your advice.”
Wendell looked at the woman by his side. She looked at her watch. “I’m getting short on time,” she said. “Maybe I’d better eat while you two talk.”
“No, this can wait. I can talk to her any time. Let me help you with your tray.” The offer was almost a plea.
The woman stood up, and Wendell leaped after her. Her expression, as she looked momentarily into Genie’s eyes, was a negligent, triumphant sneer. When she turned away from the table, her purse sideswiped one of the champagne glasses, crashing it against the floor.
By some fluke, Genie was alone at the table. She glared at Caroline’s back, then saw no alternative but to kneel down and dab with napkins at the spilt champagne.
For Caroline, the events that so annoyed Genie Galen came as a relief. She felt like a general who, having embarked on a difficult frontal assault, sees friendly cavalry appear on the hostile flank. She had gloomily anticipated spending much of the afternoon, and perhaps the night, in the company of Wendell Lanz, whose good will was so essential to her purposes. Now she had grounds for going off in a huff; if she executed the maneuver correctly, the chump would end up twice as enamored as before.
She let him catch up with her but evaded his grab for her hand. “She seems like quite a friend of yours.”
“Genie? Don’t be ridiculous. I barely know her.”
“It would be easy to get a different impression.”
“Fans are kind of - exuberant, you know. She didn’t mean anything.”
“Well, who is she? What’s this convention she so much wants her dear Wendell’s advice about?”
“Oh, she’s running the Vegas bid. After, well, after what happened to Lars, they’re pretty sure to win.”
They had reached the buffet, giving her time to prepare her next few lines. She had recognized Genie Galen but had never realized how useful her late fiancé’s old enemy might be.
“That’s terrible.” Her voice choked. “Do you mean that my Lars died a few hours ago, and they’re already taking his convention away from him?”
Wendell gulped and sputtered, and the remaining sand sloshed about in his loosely filled torso. She did not give him leeway to find a coherent thought.
“And you’re just as bad. I never expected - I thought we were starting to be friends.” Timely tears swelled in the corners of her eyes. “But you chose her table to sit at, and you let her fondle you, and you said you would help her, and. . . .” She sniffed loudly. He moved to comfort her. She skipped out of reach.
“You’ve got it all wrong, Caroline. Please, believe me. I only meant that she thinks the Vegas bid has it all sewn up. It isn’t true, though. Lots of us are for Seattle. The race isn’t over. I promise you.”
After the storm, a mild, reassuring breeze: she finally let him touch her. “I believe you, Wendell. But I’m very upset. I’m sorry. I’d better go home now.”
“Can we get together this evening?”
She shook her head. “Call me in a day or two, if you’d like. I’ve got three weeks of vacation and nothing to do with it. If I don’t make any plans. . . .”
Again he gulped and sputtered, this time from an excess of calf-like gratitude.
“And thanks for helping me with the police interview, especially for what you told them. I do hope it was all true, not a story you invented to make mine more credible.”
“I swear. I heard her say exactly the words I repeated to the officer: The world’s too small for Lars Gleason and me. By the end of Zephyrcon, one of us will be gone. It was the most awful thing I ever heard one person say about another.”
“Thanks again, Wendell.” She smiled sympathetically and walked away. With her peripheral vision, she watched him gawk. A useful idiot, she thought. If he tells his tale over and over again, he’ll believe it himself. Though let’s hope that the defense attorney isn’t a whiz at cross-examination.