After a few further minutes of wooziness, Melisande became aware, first, that she did not really feel sick and, second, that she would feel even better if fewer heads and arms were pressing sympathetically on and near her. She cleared a breathing space by waving her own arms, then pulled herself to a sitting position.
“Isn’t anybody looking after Genie?” she asked.
“Dr. Party’s gone outside,” a voice answered.
“What happened to her?”
“That I figured out. I mean, how? Why?”
The physician returned simultaneously with these questions. He frowned to see his patient sitting up and talking but uttered no rebukes. Melisande repeated her demand for information.
“It looks like she jumped from the roof. God knows why.”
“Couldn’t she have fallen accidentally - or been pushed?”
Dr. Partington shrugged. “Who can say? Maybe Bronc will come back with an answer. Meanwhile, I discovered something rather curious.” By now, he had gestured the crowd away, and he and Melisande were speaking privately. “Genie’s purse had snapped open. This evidently fell out of it.”
He displayed a cassette tape. Its label was marked in felt-tip marker: LARS GLEASON - CAPRICON.
“Very, very strange,” Melisande muttered, hefting the salvaged item in her hand. “Well, the obvious thing to do is to listen to it.”
“Perhaps that should be left to the police. Could be evidence.”
“Oh, don’t spoil all the fun. It’s not evidence so long as nobody knows what’s on it. Now, where can we find a tape player?”
“Yeah, that’ll do fine.”
They proceeded to the parking lot, passing the hotel security guard who, with a half dozen convention attendees, stood protectively over the remains of Genie Galen. Approaching sirens told of the authorities’ imminent arrival.
The drop had not damaged the cassette. After a brief prologue of static, it began to play: the voices of two women, conversing quietly at first, then shrilly, until the dialogue turned into a fierce soliloquy punctuated with intermittent promptings. Melisande knew both voices.
An emotional Jody Silverbury, slurring her words and her thoughts, was telling a cool-toned Genie Galen about Lars Gleason, about how he and Jody had been lovers and how they had separated.
Nothing in the tale was to the man’s credit. He and Jody had worked at the same accounting firm in Los Angeles. He had stolen from a client. Jody had found out. She had covered for him, providing the funds to undo his offense. Then he had kicked her out of his house and arranged for her to be fired by the firm.
“It’s almost more than even I can believe of Lars,” Melisande gasped when the reel was done. “If anybody except Jody had said it -“
The doctor was thoughtful. “This casts an odd light on Savoy’s theory about the murder,” he remarked. “Why did Genie have a tape like this? It must have been in order to blackmail Lars. Which means that the murder went in the wrong direction.”
“You mean, normally the victim kills the blackmailer, not the reverse.”
“Precisely. The other point, of course, is that it provides another suspect with a motive.”
“I can’t deny it, if a fraction of that story is the truth. Still, Jody seems to be the one person at this whole con who has an alibi.”
“I said it provided a motive. Method and opportunity we have to find some place else. And I suppose the motive’s rather stale.”
“This is peculiar, you know. We’re speculating about what Jody did years ago, about whether she might be a murderess. Yet we don’t have any idea where she is now. We can’t so much as be sure that she’s still alive. Dr. Party, this is so awful!”
“I wish I didn’t have to agree with you, Melisande. Come on, let’s find Bronc and turn our evidence over to the professionals.”
The huddled figure on the floor in front of Sergeant Bronkowski stirred feebly and emitted infantile noises. The policeman pulled up her eyelids and took her pulse.
“Might be an overdose,” he mumbled. “Hard to tell. What’s certain is she needs medical attention right this minute. Deno, get hotel security pronto. Satterlee, stay here and watch her. Savoy, come with me.”
Having deployed his forces, Bronkowski started up the stairs to the roof. Harold trailed, disturbed by an unexpected queasiness in his inner organs.
The staircase twisted once, then ended at a door. Bronkowski eased it open, warning Harold back with an extended arm.
“Let’s just take a look-see here. Snow’s all sludgy from the heat rising through the roof, but it still shows footprints. There’s boots and pumps walking together, round the perimeter. And there’s another set of women’s shoes sprinting down the middle. And there’s the pumps backtracking to where we are.
“That last set of tracks is Jody’s, for sure. You must have noticed her shoes still had snow on them. So the sprinter pretty much has to be Miz Galen. Which leaves one pair of boots unaccounted for. . . .”
He closed the door as smoothly as he had opened it. “Time to summon reinforcements. Whoever’s loitering out there, I’d rather not approach him unarmed.”
“You think the loiterer threw that woman off the roof?”
“Seems like a decent theory. It sure would be funny for a guy to be out there sightseeing.”
They moved down the stairs, past the twist and to the door at the other end. Harold, first in the descent, turned the knob.
“Stuck? I would’ve thought a writer would have stronger hand muscles, Savoy.” The policemen grasped the knob and turned. The door did not respond.
“Not stuck, Savoy. It’s been locked.”
They banged against the wood for a few moments, not expecting any result. Their expectations were satisfied.
Bronkowski put his ear against the door. “Things are going on out there,” he declared. “Sounds like a few people, but I can’t make out anything definite.”
“What do we do?” Harold asked.
Their waiting lasted half an hour. Then the door opened abruptly. The first sight that Harold made out clearly was a pair of thuggish looking men holding guns.
“C’mon out,” said the slightly less disreputable of the thugs. We’re all clearing out of this place.”
“Make a sound, and you’re dead.”
Until he heard the words and felt a hard cylinder poke into his lower back, Colin Satterlee had not realized that he and the semi-conscious Jody had company on the twenty-sixth floor. He turned his head just far enough to see that he was outnumbered four to one. Symbolically, he raised his usable arm.
“Good boy. Now press your body flat against the wall and close your eyes and don’t open ‘em again till I tell you it’s okay.”
Colin obeyed. He heard a key turn in a lock, a body bump ungently against the floor, a door open and shut, fists slam against unyielding wood. When he was allowed to resume a normal stance, he and his captor were the sole occupants of the corridor.
“Smile, kid. Aren’t you better off’n that babe? Lousy how these drug fiends’re overrunning us civilized human beings, ain’t it?”
The inside of Colin’s mouth was completely dry, sparing him the temptation to ask unwise questions, and the other man seemed to have emptied his verbal storehouse. He pointed to a door, not quite closed. Colin entered. Following another silent order, he lay down on the bed.
Far away, a siren - two sirens - wailed. They grew louder and rose in pitch. The man with the gun grew stiff and still. When all rational doubt about the sirens’ destination had vanished, he picked up the telephone.
His whispers were barely over the threshold of Colin’s hearing. “What brought the cops, Luigi? Is this a setup?”
Pause. “We can’t just saunter out through the lobby.”
Pause. “Screw that! His papa wouldn’t of got us into this mess.”
Pause. “Then call the capo! Else, you go up the river by yourself, Luigi. I ain’t keeping you company for the next twenty years.”
Pause. “I’ll wait.” The receiver slammed down.
For Colin, time had lost its determinacy. After an indefinite interval, the telephone rang. It was the loudest noise that he had ever heard.
Pause. “Crazy! What d’ the kikes say? Made of sugar, that’s what it is.”
Pause. “No, I don’t got no better idea. I don’t get paid to think, remember?”
Pause. “If the capo says so, I’ll do it. But I don’t gotta like it one bit. . . . We who are about to die salute you.”
The receiver slammed down again.
“All right, kid. Here’s your orders. Do things right, and you’ll live to be twenty-one.”
Colin nodded morosely.
“A bunch of us are going down to the lobby. Your friends’ll be with us. You all stay in front. Don’t stop. Don’t spend time talking to nobody, but don’t do anything unnatural. You walk straight past the cops and out of the building. Then we’ll catch up and show you where to go. You got that?”
Colin found a sort of hopeless courage. “How can you keep me from calling for help?”
“I can’t. If you do, your friends may get rescued. Trouble is, you’ll be dead. Now, you gonna cooperate?”
Courage faded. Colin nodded again.
Harold watched the elevator doors open. They seemed painfully slow, like the doors to an execution chamber. He jostled against Sergeant Bronkowski’s stolid form as he stepped out. The men in the back of the elevator lingered until a distance of about fifteen feet separated the two groups, one consisting of Harold, Bronkowski and Colin Satterlee, the other of the four mafiosi.
The lobby was all but empty. An ambulance and police car at the hotel entrance had magnetically drawn the last Zephyrcon hangers-on. The one exception, Harold observed, was his new friend Melisande Thomas, who sat on a couch, peering at nothing.
Melisande rose mechanically at the sight of the advance guard. She approached with a discouraged and weary air. Harold waved, trying to convey a message with his own glumness.
Bronkowski was the first of the group to encounter her. “Bronc,” she said, “I need to talk to you.”
“Not now, Melisande. I’ve got important business to take care of.”
“Oh. Well, can I see you later?”
Bronkowski paused in mid-stride. “Yeah. Six o’clock in the coffee shop. That’s a promise.”
The group moved steadily past Melisande, impelled by the invisible pressure of the men at their back. Anger rose in Harold’s throat. Bronkowski was next to Melisande. He could have made some sort of sign. Instead, he sounded nonchalant, as if this were a voluntary excursion.
He began to wonder whether he had misjudged Bronkowski. The sergeant had shrunk from venturing onto the roof, had waited passively for capture, had taken no positive action since. Was he simply a coward? The fact that he devoured Milos Savoy’s fiction was no guarantee of sterling character or professional competence.
Before he could think further, Melisande had withdrawn and they were outside. The representatives of authority gathered around Genie Galen’s corpse paid no heed.
Dr. Partington was too absorbed in his professional duties to notice the procession that swept briefly past on its way to the parking lot. Later, he went looking for Sergeant Bronkowski, without success.
Unable to find any recipient of his evidence, he drove home, where a wife, three children, a couple of cats and a long list of not-quite-urgent phone calls awaited him. It was only after the calls had been returned or otherwise disposed of that he told Anne about the peculiar events of the day and the tape that he had recovered.
“Well, why don’t you call David Halstead and see what he has to say?”
“David Halstead. Remember? The fellow Lars worked for in Los Angeles.”
“Honey, how do you ever recall things like that?”
“We saw Lars out there in ’96, of course. He took us to Mr. Halstead’s house for dinner, and Robin broke the Halsteads’ Moon Rover statuette. They were very gracious about it.”
“Of course.” The vaguest of recollections stirred briefly. Dr. Partington was often thankful that he had Anne available to fill in the nooks and crannies, however minute, of his autobiography.
His immediate reaction, though, was that her proposal was silly. He was not a detective and had no reason to spoil the afternoon of a brief acquaintance whom he hadn’t seen for nearly a decade.
On the other hand, hadn’t Bronc told him once that civilians made the most useful investigators, because evidence that they uncovered was least likely to be thrown out of court on technicalities? Like many in the medical profession, Dr. Partington viewed the Law as a strange sequence of irrational conundrums. Perhaps Bronc’s calling Lars’ old boss would violate some arcane subcorollary of the Miranda decision.
Just before dinner, he reached the conclusion that it was his duty to place the phone call. Happily, information had a home telephone number for David Halstead, and Halstead himself answered on the first ring, thoughtfully announcing his name.
“Hello, David. My name’s Jeff Partington. I don’t suppose that you remember me.”
“You’re the guy with the rambunctious daughter, right?”
“Ummm, yes. I suppose you could say that.”
“Great to hear from you, Jeff! It’s been years, hasn’t it? You’re one of Lars Gleason’s pals, as I recall.”
“Well, yes, sort of.”
“What do you mean, sort of? You and Lars have a quarrel?”
“No, not that. It’s just that Lars doesn’t have pals any more. He’s dead.”
“God! What happened?”
“That’s why I’m calling. I - ummm - work for the Chicago Police Department these days, and I’d like to ask you a couple of questions about Lars.”
“Does this mean he didn’t die a natural death?”
“I’m afraid so. It’s not certain that a homicide was involved, but. . . .”
“I see. Okay, if I can be of any help. I haven’t seen Lars for a long, long time. Not since he moved to Seattle.”
“I’m working on a remote lead, but it has to do with what happened before Seattle. Could you tell me about why Lars left your employment?”
For the first time, the voice on the line sounded less than cooperative and jovial. “Oh, that. I was afraid I’d have to talk about it someday. Though I didn’t imagine the circumstances.”
“Whatever you can tell me will be much appreciated.”
“All right. If you knew enough to ask the question, you must know the outline of the story.”
“I admit that we’ve heard a bit of it.”
“Okay. Lars was living with a girl. Josephine I think her name was.”
“That’s is. ‘Josephine’ was an office joke, because she was so bossy. After Napoleon’s empress, you know. Okay, Lars had been with me about five years when he and the girl shacked up. She needed a job and said she had an accounting degree and was studying for her CPA exams. I needed a junior just then, so I hired her.
“I’m afraid the moral’s rather dreary. Lars should never have let his lover work at the same office. I told him it wasn’t a great idea, but, you know, the blindness of young love and all that. And I was right. It was the biggest mistake of his career.”
“So I gather from what I’ve heard.”
“Right. Jody wasn’t really an accountant, and she didn’t know the first thing about how to do her job. Worse, she let an employee of one of our audit clients fill out her workpapers, then turned them in as her own. The guy was a crook, and he got through two audits that way. Thank God we caught him the third year. I don’t think he’d paid her off. She was just embarrassed to admit she couldn’t do what she was supposed to.
“Of course, I had to settle with the client, and the loss wasn’t all insured. And Jody had to go. Lars did what he could to protect her, which wasn’t much and wasn’t good for him professionally. Word got around. We’re an industry segment firm, and our clients talk to each other. Basically, it reached the point where he couldn’t work in our niche in L.A. any more. Too many people knew the story. I was real glad when he hooked up with a firm in Seattle.
“So, have I told you anything you didn’t already know? I’ll admit I can’t see what it all has to do with his being murdered.”
“Ummm, thanks very much, David. Your information is extremely helpful.”
They exchanged further pleasantries. When Dr. Partington hung up the phone, he felt more ignorant than when he had embarked on the call.
A roomy station wagon awaited Harold and his involuntary companions. A third set of seats was folded down, and the captives were directed to sit in the middle tier, with two thugs in front of them and two behind. The car started with a roar. The abrupt motion brought Harold’s stomach to the brink of upheaval.
They drove three or four miles before anyone spoke. Then the thug in the left rear seat gave a war whoop and shouted, “God help us, it worked!”
“Sure it worked,” answered the right front passenger. “The capo knows what he’s doing.”
The man in back started to speak again. Then his words were drowned out by a loud, steady drone. It seemed to come from overhead. The front passenger opened his window and poked his head out.
When the head came in again, it wore an expression of dismay.
“Chopper!” he screamed in the driver’s ear. The car swerved pointlessly in response. At the same instant, sirens wailed behind.
The chase was short and one-sided. Soon the station wagon lay flush against a snow bank, with police cars on three sides and a grounded helicopter blocking the road ahead.
Police converged on the wagon. The occupants needed no formal invitation to come out with their hands above their heads.
“Bronkowski!” one of the rescuers called. “You owe me one!”
“Sure thing, Rosen. Next time you stumble into a fix like this, I’ll bail you out.”
“We got a buddy of yours with us. Not entirely regular, but she gave us the tip and we figured she should be allowed to come along.”
Melisande stepped out of a squad car. Bronkowski rushed to her, and she gave him a small kiss. She then turned to Harold and left him red-faced with another kiss. Colin Satterlee had to accept a shake of his viable hand.
They all rode back together in one of the squad cars, nervously quiet. When the car pulled into the hotel parking lot, Harold finally asked, “What exactly happened? This all puzzles me.”
“Isn’t is obvious?” Melisande responded. “Bronc warned me that things were wrong. He promised to meet me in the coffee shop at six o’clock. But Bronc never makes promises.”