Jody handed the taxi driver two twenties and a ten and declared, “Keep the change.” He didn’t deserve the tip, and the gesture left only nine dollars in crumpled singles in his passenger’s purse, but the passenger felt like a soul released from Purgatory and was careless of secular goods.
The long drive, lengthened by false turnings and recoveries of lost ground, was already dimming in her mind, a succession of pale suburban images: white frame houses and white picket fences and white, squarish churches with white snow clinging to their roofs. At the mid-point of the journey, the clouds shredded and blew away, washing the landscape with intense reflected sunlight that forced her to squint her eyes. Her underfed stomach writhed with nausea, her head complained dully, and languor enveloped her. The driver’s announcement that they had arrived at the hotel was like the blast of an alarm clock.
In defiance of the Sun, a bitter, persistent wind snapped across the ground. The few steps to the lobby left her panting from the cold. Too frayed for caution, she went in boldly.
The convention crowds were gone. The stragglers, waiting impatiently for rides, were intent on luggage and farewells. Walking among them, Jody was a phantom.
She was glad of her anonymity, though it differed from the picture that she had formed during the cab ride. She had imagined anxious concern over her disappearance, puzzlement about her earlier phone message for Melisande, perhaps search parties and calls to the police.
The clock above the registration desk read a quarter to four. She fuzzily recalled that she and Melisande had been booked on a three-thirty flight. Had her friend simply gone on without her? Why not? Why should both of them forfeit nonrefundable tickets? (Was being kidnapped, like a death in the family, sufficient excuse for a missing a flight?)
Her head and stomach shook with a new bout of queasiness, and the distance to the elevator bank looked marathonic. She set out to trudge the whole bleak way.
“Jody! Over here!”
For an instant, she did not recognize either her own name or the voice that stridently and cheerily shouted it. With an effort, she turned toward the sound and focused her eyes slowly on the bulky, red-faced form of Genie Galen.
Genie seemed to be loitering by herself, perhaps conversing with the potted rose bushes that decorated the tiled floor in front of the elevators. Her eyes ran over Jody’s hastily purchased garb, but she spoke as if nothing were at all unusual.
“I was hoping you wouldn’t get away from the con without saying good-bye. We have a lot to talk about.”
“Do we? I’m sorry, Genie. I’m not feeling well, and I think Melisande caught the plane without me.”
“No, no. She’s still here. But you poor dear! You do look exhausted. Why don’t you come up to my room, and I’ll order you something from room service? Also, I have a surprise for you that should make you feel better. Then we can talk.”
She did not feel energetic enough to disagree. Genie guided her into the elevator, a little too briskly for comfort.
“I should let Melisande know I’m back,” Jody said weakly.
“No problem. You can call from my room. Besides, I think she and Milos went out somewhere. They had business together.” The tone of the last sentence verged on the salacious.
The elevator lights blinked - blinked - blinked. “Genie, haven’t we passed your floor?”
“Oh, I changed my room for the night. I don’t need a suite any more.” The answer sounded rehearsed.
The elevator stopped on the top floor of the hotel. Again taking Jody’s elbow, Genie ushered her out. Around the corner from the elevators, a door stood slightly ajar. “In there,” Genie said.
Irrationally, knowing that she was irrational, Jody pulled back. “Can’t we go to my room?” she whispered.
“Don’t be silly.” Jody felt a stern shove against the small of her back and gave way.
The room on the other side of the door was like any other in the hotel. Seeing nothing amiss, Jody let her breath out in a huge sigh. Her relief was premature.
“Hello,” a quiet voice said, rising from behind one of the beds. “I’m glad we could meet again.”
The face was not quite his - older and grayer and oddly benign, except for the feral eyes. It was the eyes that convinced Jody. Despite the surface discrepancies, she was looking at the man who had introduced himself as “Mark”, the man who had clumsily tried to lure her into probable murder.
“This is my surprise,” burbled Genie. “Mark said you two had been missing each other during the weekend, and he didn’t want you to leave Chicago without saying hello.”
“That would have been a tragedy, my dear,” the man intoned.
This is what it feels like when the Hand of Fate grips your shoulder while holding a grudge, Jody thought. No one stood between her and the door, but she knew as surely as she knew the law of gravity that, if she opened it, a massive, thuggish figure would loom in the hallway and any screams she uttered would be like the agony of an ant colony beneath a bulldozer.
“What are you going to do?” she gasped.
“You are so nervous, darling. My idea was that we should go for a nice walk on the roof. It’s very private, and we can talk about old times.”
“You’re not afraid of heights, sweetheart? There’s nothing to fear. I’ll protect you.”
She trembled and shook her head, but both of his hands were gripping her now, and she could not find her footing. In her strengthless struggle, she glimpsed Genie’s face, which wore an expression of bewilderment.
“I think you had best leave at this point,” the man said. “My friend isn’t herself. She and I need to be alone. We’ll have dinner at seven, okay?”
Genie nodded and stumbled out the door. Jody tried to call her back but found no breath in her throat.
The man’s grip tightened. “This will be so sad,” he crooned. “A frozen body on a roof. An accident? Suicide? Who will ever know? The coroner will find heroin in your blood.”
The door opened, and the henchman whom she remembered from last night came in.
“Now, this will be easier if you don’t struggle.”
The henchman took over the task of holding her. The man called “Mark” opened a dresser drawer and removed a syringe.
As the elevator glided downward, Genie shook her head over and over again. Odd, she thought. But Mark had alluded to a lover’s quarrel. She was glad to give her newfound friend the opportunity to patch matters up, glad of the bag of grass that he had offered as earnest of their bond, glad of the promise of an intimate dinner and further intimacies to come.
Preoccupied, she neglected punching her floor and rode until the elevator halted of its own accord. Milos Savoy, Melisande Thomas and Pete Bronkowski got on. In her present mood, Genie felt no desire to speak to them. She nodded. They nodded back, barely aware of her presence.
“So Jody left you a message,” Bronkowski was saying.
“But it was hours ago. I can’t figure out where she’s gone. It’s not like her not to show up for a flight.”
“You want me to call her in as a missing person?”
“I can’t think of anything else to do.”
The element in Genie’s character that delighted in easy ingratiation rose to the surface. Almost, she spoke. Then she remembered Mark’s admonitions to secrecy about the rendezvous. Before thinking, she had caught Melisande’s eye. Now she let it go.
The others continued their talk. “She ever done anything like this before?” Bronkowski asked.
“Not really. I mean - Jody has her strange, private side. She keeps secrets sometimes, but I’m terribly afraid she’s gotten involved in something too big for her. She doesn’t always know her limits.”
The elevator reached the lobby. Genie exited slowly and stood indecisively near the door. She was not happy. Perhaps Melisande’s worry was infecting her. Although she felt no particular duty to anyone except herself, the scene that she had witnessed - had helped set up - was naggingly wrong. The mystery about why Mark and Jody had to meet, the secrecy, the bribe. . . .
Of course, nothing was really wrong. Nevertheless, she felt an urgent need to confirm the normalcy of affairs. The car that she had ridden down was still waiting. She entered it again.
She had embarked on the first benevolent, disinterested deed of her adult life. Had she known that, she would probably have gone back to her room.
As the syringe emptied its contents into her veins, Jody wondered what she ought to feel. Did heroin yield an abrupt euphoria, or would the effects build slowly, or would it be like her lone experience with marijuana, where her greenhorn physiology had registered nothing at all?
She could not tell whether the sense of being separated from herself resulted from the nascent influence of the drug or merely from illness or imagination. Whatever the cause, the effect was to drain away her last, frail reserves of free will. Mark had only to steer her toward the utility stairs, up a long flight and out into the chilly, but now unreal, afternoon.
The roof of the hotel was grimy, utilitarian, sludgy with semi-melted snow. Her feet slipped, and Mark circled a steadying arm around her waist. Self-protectively, she reciprocated with her own arm. Making their slow, unsteady circumambulation, they might, to distant eyes, have been lovers seeking a secure, if uncomfortable, haven of privacy.
“That’s right, honey. We’ll walk for a while, and when you feel tired, you can lie down and be a woman to me, and then you’ll go to sleep. A gentle sleep, forever and ever.
“The maintenance men come up here every couple of days. One of them will spot you and think you’ve dozed and try to wake you up. But you’ll be ice by then, my love, a sweet, frozen dessert. All pink and blue. Beautiful.”
His tone was so soothing, his words so difficult to comprehend, that Jody’s remnants of intellect felt reassurance. She accepted that this man, whom she knew that she had hated but toward whom she could conjure up no living feelings at the moment, would force himself upon her. She was regretful, in a detached way, but not afraid.
They stood with no more than a skinny guard rail between themselves and the bright expanse of air. The wind was carrying warmth away from her blood, blowing it like petals to some springtime realm. She wondered at a rattling sound that she did not recognize as the chattering of her own teeth.
She did not react to the meaningless names. Mark did. His arm dropped from her, and he twisted around.
“Get away from here!” His voice was a snarl.
“She can’t be out in the cold like that! She’ll freeze!”
“I told you, get away!”
Steps banged and crunched on the roof and the snow. “Mark! She’ll die!”
“Stop, you bitch!”
Piero fumbled for the gun in his overcoat pocket, as Genie Galen hurled herself against him. They thudded together against the roof.
“Run, Jody! Run, damn you! I’m not going to get killed just so you can stand there!”
And Jody ran. At the bottom of the stairs, she fell into a heap of spastic arms and legs, shivering, retching, groaning. If she had still been capable of interpreting sense impressions, she would have heard two gunshots and a lingering scream.
Harold felt happier than he had in a long while when he and his companions stood in the glare of the lobby’s oversized windows, letting light pummel their bodies. His comfort was partly physical, the effect of brightness and warmth after a weekend of cold and gloom, but primarily mental. Stretching casually and drawing out his words for maximum effect, he said, “I believe I have the solution to our mystery.”
Melisande’s expression did not change. “That would be nice,” she whispered.
“Let’s hear it,” said Bronkowski, more forcefully but with an overlay of skepticism.
“Well -” His thoughts fumbled as he tried to arrange them into a coherent account. “Deno gave me the key. The trouble was that he thought it locked the door behind Melisande. He pointed out that the murderer must have known that Gleason had heart problems. Obviously, that wasn’t a well known fact. Melisande, for instance, first heard about it only yesterday.”
“So who else knew?” Bronkowski asked.
Melisande seemed to choke. “Deno,” she said, near to crying.
Harold rested a hand lightly on her shoulder. “No, I don’t suspect Deno. In fact, I don’t know for certain that the person I do suspect did know. But it was someone who had a motive to learn everything possible about Gleason’s health. And someone who gave him ice cream blended with tiny condiments - almonds, chocolate chips. Maybe some of them were pills.”
“Genie!” Melisande slapped a hand over her mouth, as if she had caught herself uttering an obscenity. “My God! She could have raided my purse at the restaurant. Remember. I left it in the powder room, and she retrieved it. And she must have known about my medication. Half of fandom knows that. I’ve never tried to hide it.”
Bronkowski, in his habitual gesture of deep thought, toyed with the ends of his moustache. “Not the kind of evidence you can get an indictment on.”
“Of course not. But maybe it’ll convince the State’s Attorney that Melisande shouldn’t be prosecuted.”
“Trouble is, it’s just speculation at this point. I know the assistant on the case. Jace Whitten. She’s young and bright and progressive - not the sort to entertain a new idea once an old one’s settled into her mind. You need real evidence.”
“What kind of evidence? What could we unearth?”
Harold fixed discontented eyes on the window, just in time to hear a scream that penetrated the thick glass and to see a large, soft object plummet sickeningly into the sidewalk in front of him, splattering tissue and blood.
One scream ended when the corpse struck the ground. A new one, Melisande’s, began almost at once. She slumped, sobbing, between Harold and Bronkowski.
“She’s fainted,” the policeman said, hardly ruffled by the drama around him.
“What’s that?” Harold pointed to the broken mound of flesh outside.
“You stay with Melisande. I’ll see.”
Harold maneuvered Melisande’s inert form to a couch and let it lie down. Her breathing grew less fitful after a minute or two, and her eyelids fluttered.
“Just be calm. Everything’s all right.”
“No. . . it’s not. . . all right.” Exhaustion weighed on every word. Her eyes again closed.
Bronkowski returned, looking grave.
“Nobody will be questioning Genie Galen about the murder,” he said. “That’s her splashed on the pavement.”
On the couch Melisande moaned.
“She must have fallen from the roof,” Bronkowski continued.
“Not jumped from a window?”
“The windows don’t open, and there’s no sign of broken glass. I’m going up to take a look.”
“I’ll go with you.”
“No. Melisande needs you with her.”
The mention of her name elicited motion from Melisande. “I’ll be all right, Bronc. Don’t go up there alone. I have a. . . feeling. . . things are terribly wrong. . . .”
She made signs to push Harold away. He stood up and followed Bronkowski.
For over half an hour, Deno Stavrakis and Colin Satterlee had been roaming service corridors and nonpublic stairways and other obscure bypaths of Zephyrcon’s hotel. Colin, overly conscious of the sling that bound his left arm, moved awkwardly. Deno, by contrast, carried his bulk with confident assurance.
They had been arguing, not with raised voices but with quiet conviction, bitter on one side, weary but firm on the other.
Just now, they were heading up a dark and musty ramp in the higher reaches of the building. The gloom-drenched dust softened their voices and led even Deno to stride a trifle more cautiously.
“You don’t make any sense, Deno. Yesterday, you offered me the vice chair of your convention. Now you’re not willing to talk about any position.”
“The situation’s changed.”
“How? Why? It’s still a three-way race. I agree Genie looked like a fool, declaring victory for Vegas like that. But her bid’s no weaker than it was yesterday, and snaring Jody for your concomm doesn’t make Seattle a sure thing.”
“No, it doesn’t. All it did was break the panic. I don’t disagree with you in the slightest.”
“Then you will take me on as vice chair - in return for Portland’s dropping out.”
“That I do disagree with you about.”
“Yesterday you didn’t disagree. The only obstacle was Lars.”
Deno marched twenty paces without speaking, then came to a door. He rubbed the knob with his right hand but left it unopened.
“Colin,” he said levelly, “your support was worth something yesterday. Today, to be blunt, I don’t need it. And I’m not going to pay for anything I don’t need.
“Why was there a Portland bid? You know the answer to that. It was because you hated Lars - and found like-minded fen who’d vote against any Worldcon bid that he was associated with.”
“Maybe that’s so.”
“Of course it’s so. Now, tell me: What motive do your supporters have now? Oh, they might still make Portland their first choice on the ballot. But you’ll run behind both Seattle and Vegas in first-choice votes, so the Portland ballots will be divided according to second choices. My worry was that Lars’ hard core enemies would choose Vegas second. Now that’s not too likely. Portland supporters are mostly from the Pacific Northwest. If there’s a Northwest bid they can tolerate, they’ll vote for it over a con in the Nevada desert.”
Now it was Colin’s turn to stand in prolonged silence. When he spoke, the previous undercurrent of bitterness envenomed his tongue.
“So that’s the way it is with you, Stavrakis. Long as you needed me, you were my buddy. I did your dirty work for you, and this is your Christian gratitude.”
“We’ve talked long enough, I think. It’s a tough world, Colin. Once in a while, doing dirty work has to be its own reward.” He turned the doorknob sharply and exited into a corridor. Colin shoved the door viciously as he followed.
“I’m not through with this, Deno!”
“But I am.”
Deno picked up speed as he paced toward the elevators. His pursuer matched him stride for stride.
Colin was looking only at Deno’s back, yearning for the physical capability to seize the other by the nape of his neck and hurl him to the floor. All at once, that back reared up and stopped and collided with him.
“Damn you! You did that on purpose!” One-armed, Colin came near to attacking. Deno turned. His face was suddenly pale as a trembling hand pointed downward.
Colin’s eyes followed the gesture. Recognition arrived slowly. “That’s your new co-chairman,” he said at last.
Deno simply stood where he was, frozen.
Jody Silverbury was curled up on the floor, disheveled, arms wrapped around knees, breathing quickly and shallowly. Colin had seen such postures before.
“We’d better get help. She may have OD’d.”
“Yeah.” Deno spoke but still did not move.
“As you said, Deno, it’s a tough world.”
A lilt entered Colin’s voice. “What if Seattle runs last in the first round of counting? Wouldn’t your supporters prefer a Northwest con over Vegas?”
And then his tone hardened. “One thing’s for sure. You needn’t take the trouble to ask for a position on my Worldcon.”
An elevator bell dinged. Colin hurried toward it.