“I’m talking to you now, because I think there’s a high potential for resolving this case very quickly. I’m sure you agree that would be in your client’s best interests.”
The assistant state’s attorney was a plain, young, severe woman dressed in corduroy slacks and a shapeless sweat shirt. She sat in one of the two chairs in Harold’s hotel room. Melisande Thomas’ newfound attorney - a plain, young, severe man in a crimson running outfit - occupied the other. Harold stood at a distance, feeling quite as overdressed and out of place as on his first evening at Zephyrcon.
“Do you think you’ve got a case?” the defense lawyer asked, his voice reedy but firm.
“I’ll give you the highlights, Jason. You can draw your own conclusions.”
She counted points on her thin fingers. “One. The immediate cause of the victim’s death was cardiac arrest. The cause of that was the administration of approximately one hundred milligrams of Nardil.”
“Not a fatal dose.”
“You take your victims as you find them. This one had a heart condition. A hundred milligrams was more than enough for him.”
“You can’t show intent to kill, though, on the basis of a nonfatal dosage.”
She raised a second finger. “Two. Your client knew about the victim’s heart. She was told the very day of the homicide. We have a reliable witness.
“Three. Your client brought a large supply of Nardil with her. She admits that it’s now several tablets short.”
“Why would she admit that if she were guilty?”
“Because we were certain to figure it out. We inventoried the tablets, and we can easily make a comparison with her prescription. May I go on?
“Four. Your client saw the victim frequently in the course of the weekend. She had ample opportunity -”
“Whoa. I’ve checked these tablets out. They don’t dissolve and are almost impossible to grind or crush. How is my client supposed to have given them to Gleason?”
“You know we don’t have to prove an exact modus operandi. The tablets are tiny. It wouldn’t be all that hard to trick someone into ingesting them unwittingly. Mixed in with food, perhaps.
“Five. Your client had a motive. She had been sexually assaulted by the victim. Maybe more than once. We have an account of one incident that derives from the late Mr. Gleason himself.”
“Derives from? You mean that it’s hearsay.”
“Admissible under an exception to the hearsay rule, as you know very well. I’ll grant your client denies that any assault ever occurred, but denial is a common psychological defense in cases like these. The arresting officer noted that she was hesitant when asked directly whether she had been attacked. More than anything else, that convinces me that the assaults were real. She was ashamed and defensive, trying to hide what happened from herself as well as from strangers.
“Six. We have a disinterested witness who reports that she threatened the victim. I don’t put a whole lot of weight on his account of her exact words. They sound as if they’ve been unconsciously improved by hindsight. Nevertheless, there was undoubtedly some kind of strong expression on your client’s part. It helps corroborate the rest of the evidence.
“So there you have it. And don’t forget that we’ve gotten this far in just a few hours.”
“You wouldn’t have asked me to this meeting if you were really as confident as you sound, Jace.”
“Forget any doubts about my confidence, Jason. I have a different agenda. No matter how solid this case is, we’re not eager to prosecute it as rigorously as the strict letter of the law demands.”
“Ah, how could I have overlooked it? There’s a battered woman angle here.”
“Don’t try to sound cynical, Jason. You’d squeeze it for every drop of sympathy if the case got in front of a jury.”
“So what are you offering?”
“Plead to second degree. The State will recommend leniency - no more than a year in prison, which means that your client is out in four months.”
The male lawyer’s eyes blinked rapidly, performing ocular computations. “Third degree and probation.”
“Seems reasonable to me. Severe provocation. No previous record. Good reputation in the community.”
“There has to be imprisonment. My boss won’t approve letting a killer off scot-free, no matter how politically correct the motive. But we could go with third degree.”
“Third degree and six months, with the sentence to be served in my client’s home state.”
“Get real. You know Florida’s overcrowding problem. She’d be released within a week.”
“But who up here will care about that? Your boss gets his prison sentence, and my client stays out of the slammer. Everybody’s a winner.”
She wavered. “Well, maybe. I’ll have to discuss it. . . .”
“Fine with me, Jace. Any chance of getting an answer by, say, Tuesday?”
She tossed her shoulders. “I’ll see. Anything else we need to talk about? Is your client out on bail yet?”
“Not yet. Maybe you could goose things along.”
“Thanks for your help, Jace.”
“Think nothing of it, Jason.”
Together, they breezed out of the room, disregarding Harold’s existence. Not that he was himself particularly attentive to his existence at the moment. The thought rang through his mind that Melisande Thomas had just been tried, convicted and sentenced in his presence, while he had watched and done nothing.
The con suite on Sunday morning had the ambiance of a Greyhound depot: suitcases piled in corners, patrons milling rather than conversing, an aroma of bad coffee and cheap doughnuts. The “Nicotine Breathers’ Room”, as it was labeled, completed the picture with stale cigarette fumes and a television set tuned to the Chicago Bears pregame show.
The chairman of Zephyrcon lingered there, because he wanted to avoid conversation and thought. Depression over the love whom he had so quickly found and lost occupied the entirety of his mental energies. He read into Caroline’s final words a highly conditional promise: she might condescend to see him another time, but first he must atone for his disgraceful dalliance with the Las Vegas bid.
Many fragments of talk floated by him. One at last caught his ear.
“Stavrakis is desperate, that’s all.”
“I don’t think he had anything to do with it. The way I heard it, Lars asked her weeks ago. He was planning to ease Stavrakis out.”
“Bull! Anyway, it won’t work. The Seattle bid is dead.”
“Don’t be so sure. Jody’s pretty competent. And of course she has Melisande Thomas behind her.”
“I hear Melisande Thomas is going to be behind bars before too long.”
“I’ve heard that rumor, too, but it’s silly. The cops just asked some questions and let her go. This whole business about a murder is so much superheated imagination. Now, as I was saying, with Jody as co-chair of the Seattle bid, it’ll sweep the East and Midwest.”
“I’ll believe that when I hear a real smof say it.”
Though gloom obstructed the swiftness of his thoughts, the chairman of Zephyrcon began to see the path to redemption and Caroline. He edged toward the discussion.
“Do I qualify as a real smof?” he asked genially.
“Yeah, Wendell, I guess so,” replied the doubter.
“Okay. I think Seattle will win going away.”
A penny stock broker could not have cozened a rich widow with firmer assurance. Wendell expanded on his theme, picturing the rush of votes to the side of the new Seattle team, scorning the opposition’s prospects, implying that, although he had promised not to name the names of prominent recruits to the cause, he could if he would. The doubter nodded dumbly. In the knot of observers that had spontaneously formed to listen to the chairman’s discourse, conviction took hold.
The best time for spreading an effective rumor is when the rumormongers’ minds are more than half busy with other things. Thus it was less than passing strange that, not long after noon, Genie Galen, still jubilant from brunch, encountered a nodding acquaintance who smiled sadly and said, “Too bad, Genie. For a minute there, I really thought you had it won.”
The captain of the Las Vegas bid was sufficiently tipsy and sufficiently flabbergasted that she could only stir the air by waving her arms and head.
“Haven’t you heard? Jody Silverbury’s taken charge of the Seattle bid. Everybody thinks she’s unbeatable.”
Genie drew her face into a proud study in scorn, such as the Persian King of Kings might have worn on the morning before he encountered the Greeks, and pushed past without making a reply.
The glove compartment of her purloined car held no maps, and Jody knew nothing of the local streets. But she did know that if she kept the lake on her left and drove straight, she would inevitably reach Chicago.
For the first minutes of her flight, all of her thinking processes were preoccupied with the fear of pursuit. She stared into the rear-view mirror, shuddering each time that a new vehicle appeared, moaning with relief when it turned onto some other road, maintaining as much speed as possible on the partially plowed streets.
Now and then, she wondered what she should do when she found the city: get in touch with the police? find her way back to Zephyrcon? drive straight to an airport and take the first flight to St. Petersburg?
She switched on the radio. It was set to a raucous rock station. She fiddled with the dial until news came on. The collection of quarter-minute snippets did not mention the killing that she had witnessed last night. Perhaps it was already an ancient story.
She hungered for details. The single report that she had heard - the one that had revived her memory of the night’s events - had described the dead man as a police officer. But why had he been on foot in the midst of a blizzard? Had he come to rescue her? If so, how had he known that she was in need of rescue?
As she pondered these insoluble riddles, she noticed that the car had a telephone. In an instant, the world became a simpler place.
After experimenting a little with the pushbuttons, she reached directory assistance, got the number of Zephyrcon’s hotel and placed a call.
No one answered at Melisande Thomas’ room. She cursed her luck and left a message.
Two minutes later, the telephone rang. She snatched it. “Melisande! Thank God!” she shouted into the receiver.
The receiver crackled in response. The voice that pierced the static was masculine. She needed little time to figure out whose it was.
“Hi!” it said cheerfully. “I get the feeling that you don’t like me as much as I’d hoped.”
Terror and anger and humiliation came near to rendering her inarticulate. “I know you’re a kidnapper and a murderer. I don’t like that.”
“Awfully harsh words, especially coming from a car thief.”
“I won’t hurt your car. I’ll drop you a line saying where I’ve left it - after I’m safely out of the state, that is.”
“You really think I’m a murderer?”
“Your underling is. I saw it with my own eyes.”
“Then maybe you’ll believe me when I tell you that I have a few other faults. For instance, you might not want to be stopped by the cops while you’re in that car.”
“I won’t be. I’m a very safe driver.”
“If I report it stolen, you’ll be stopped. And the cops might find fifty pounds of cocaine in your possession.”
“So what? It’s your car, not mine.”
“You think I’d have drugs in a car registered in my own name? No, sister, that buggy is officially owned by a fine old gentleman who currently occupies six feet of ground not far from the late Mayor Daley. Nothing can be traced to me. As for you, well, you are the driver.
“Now, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. Losing all that coke would not be financially uplifting, and I’d like nothing better than for you to get as far away from Illinois as you want to. So let’s see whether our mutual interests can lead to a deal.”
“What kind of deal?” She lifted her foot from the accelerator and let the car slow to well under the posted speed limit.
“You turn around and come back here. I’ll arrange for a ride to your hotel. Then you pack as fast as you can and get out of the state and don’t say a thing about what you think you might have seen last night.”
Does he imagine I’m feeble-minded? she thought. As if to reassure her, a sign reading “Chicago 18” appeared.
“Well?” he demanded. “That’s the best offer you’re going to get. Just to provide some incentive, I am going to report the car to the cops as soon as I hang up. Come back quick, and you should be safe. Try to run, and they’re bound to nab you.”
She made an effort to speak with a level timbre. “I don’t seem to have many choices.”
“That’s right, sweetie. Though I don’t know what you’re afraid of. Hey, I like you a lot. This could be the start of something big, if you know what I mean.”
She could tolerate no more. “Good-bye, Mark, or whoever you are.”
“Good-bye to you. See you soon!”
Like hell you will.
She slowed the car and took stock. She was wearing a borrowed housecoat and slippers, not the best attire for appearing in public but not absolutely impossible. She also had her purse, complete with credit cards and money.
She pulled into a strip of shops that included a women’s clothing store and tried once more to reach Melisande.
Still no answer. So the soft options are gone, she told herself. She stepped out of the car, not bothering to remove the keys from the ignition.
The cold was harsh, and wet snow rapidly soaked her slippers. She shivered and trudged toward the stores, looking like a young suburban housewife who had not taken the trouble to dress completely before running a Sunday morning errand.
After a spell of writer’s block in his room, Harold felt a craving for the hotel lounge. It was as close to empty as ever when he arrived. The surprise was the lone occupant of the bar, Deno Stavrakis.
“Hullo, Harry,” Deno said. The greeting was dispirited.
These were not the ideal conditions for a reunion of old buddies. Harold guessed the reason for his friend’s depression and attempted to exude sympathy.
“I suppose you’re upset by what’s happened to Melisande.”
“That? Oh, yeah. I never imagined she would do anything like - no matter how hateful Lars could be.”
“You mean you believe that she -”
“I forgive her, of course. Forgiveness is my duty as a Christian. I was in prison and ye visited me. Poor Melisande. She must have been desperate.”
“Are you so sure that she’s guilty?”
“One has to be realistic. The evidence is pretty strong. The police questioned me, and I had to tell them that Melisande knew about Lars’ heart problems. That’s really the key. There’s no point in giving somebody a non-fatal dose of Nardil. It makes them real sick for twenty-four hours or so, and then they’re good as new. Who else but Melisande had a supply of the stuff and knew how much to administer?”
An answer sprang to Harold’s lips, but he suppressed it. A new subject was called for. Besides, the bartender was hovering at his elbow. He ordered a Heineken, while Deno asked for “a non-alcoholic pan-galactic gargle blaster”. The latter came in a plastic cup decorated with the name “Zephyrcon” and a drawing of gangster aliens on the running board of a spaceship.
“What’s going to happen to the Seattle bid, Deno?”
“You want to hear the official line or the truth?”
“How about both?”
“Right. The official line is that Jody Silverbury is going to take over for Lars and the bid will continue. The truth is that I pulled that line out of a hat and seriously doubt that it’ll go anywhere. It seemed brilliant this morning, but you know what happens to brilliant ideas in the afternoon.”
“She’s Melisande’s roommate, isn’t she?”
“Yeah. The connection with Melisande was what inspired me to tell people she’d be my co-chairman. Naturally, I didn’t ask her about it. But she might agree, and the idea might work. The trouble is, it needs a spark, and I’m too damp to supply one.”
“Maybe there’ll be spontaneous combustion.”
“Maybe. A smof - preferably one who’s trusted in Chicago - would have to declare that getting Jody on board is the salvation of the bid. Once talk like that starts, it’ll be believed. Fans are infinitely credulous, you know.”
Piero Corsi waited at The Hole long enough to know that his bluff had failed. He was not too distraught, for he had not really expected the woman to be stupid enough to return. It would be adequate for his purposes if she took his statements seriously and avoided the police for a while. Ideally, she would leave the tainted vehicle behind and make her way slowly back to the hotel. He would have plenty of time to prepare her reception there.
Luigi had returned at his summons, accompanied by three other useful characters.
One of these was a makeup artist. He and Piero devoted an hour to an elementary disguise, just sufficient to throw off any memories that yesterday’s visit to the hotel might have generated. The remodeled Piero was older, with wire-rimmed glasses on his nose, gray streaks in his hair and an incipient paunch around his middle. He wore blue jeans and, as a special touch of camouflage, a sci-fi t-shirt that Lars Gleason had given his sister. Caroline had dozens of these buried in her closet. Piero picked a colorful harlequin design advertising a convention in New Orleans.
The hotel lobby was as disorienting as before. Piero draped his overcoat casually over his arm, arranged so that the revolver underneath was reachable without being easily seen, and tried to blend in with the surroundings. This proved less difficult than he had feared, for the surroundings were content to ignore him.
At the edge of the lobby, a brunch was in its declining stages. He sat at one of the tables and ordered a vodka martini when a waitress approached.
If necessary, Piero could be patient. He would have been happy to watch quietly for his prey, with no companionship except refills of his drink. The sci-fi crowd was sociable, however. Inevitably, one of them sat down at his table.
“Hi! Mind if I collapse here for a bit. I don’t know that we’ve met, though I was at NOSF3, too. Got a t-shirt just like yours. I’m Genie Galen - chair of the Las Vegas Worldcon bid.”
She extended a flabby hand. Piero nodded and focused his eyes on his glass.
“Haven’t seen you around here this con. How’d you like it?”
He would have to say something or risk sticking in her memory. “Oh, I haven’t been here. Just came to see a friend.”
“Really? Who? I might know him.”
“The name’s Jody.”
“Umm - yeah.” He was not in fact certain of the surname, but “Silverbury” sounded right.
“Sorry, don’t know where she’s gone. I’d like to find her myself.”
For a few breaths, she seemed to have exhausted her conversational resources. Then the meddlesome waitress appeared. Genie asked for white wine, making it look as if Piero would be stuck with her indefinitely.
“Say, maybe you could do me a favor, since she’s a pal of yours. Have you heard these wild rumors about her taking over the Seattle bid?”
He grunted what might be affirmance or denial.
“Well, tell her not to make any decisions without talking to me first. I can give her a much better deal than Deno Stavrakis. Will you let her know that?”
He grunted again. She babbled on, losing his attention and demanding no more replies. He shut out the noise and continued to survey the house.
A woman drew a surge of interest as she entered. Piero noted that she was thirtyish, pretty, but pale and nervous. A mob gathered about her. The scene soon grew boisterous enough to distract the monologuist.
“God! There’s Melisande Thomas!” she exclaimed. “She must have gotten out on bail.”
Bail was a subject that brought a flicker to Piero’s face. The other interpreted it as an invitation to provide details.
“She was arrested for Lars Gleason’s murder. Have you heard about that? It was on the news.”
“Something, I think.”
“I forget. You’re Jody’s friend. You probably know Melisande yourself.”
He shook his head and stood up. “I’ve got to go.”
It was not her talk that had driven him away. Among the newcomer’s well-wishers he now spotted Sergeant Peter Bronkowski, Chicago P.D. Disguised or not, he did not care to remain in the policeman’s potential range of vision.
His temporary companion, after a brief meditation over her wine glass, rose and followed him. He decided that he did not like her looks: self-indulgent, half-stoned, vulgar, predatory. Women like that circled around his father, laying snares and inflicting intimacies.
He looked for a men’s room, that ultimate in emergency sanctuaries. Then it occurred to him that he might have a use for Genie Galen, after all. He slowed his pace and allowed her to overtake him. When she did, he suggested another drink, in a less conspicuous location.