Harold looked at Sergeant Bronkowski and hoped that the policeman could read his face. He could.
“Move quietly to your right,” he whispered, without turning his head toward Harold, “and be ready to run.”
Harold began to edge away. Bronkowski remained immobile, his eyes seeming to grasp the door.
“What about you?”
“You get paid to write, Savoy. This is what they pay me for. Now get going.”
Without haste, the door was swinging farther ajar. Harold watched its progress, his imagination making far greater speed than either the door or his feet.
The long tableau ended in a whirl. When the opening was large enough to admit a pair of arms, Bronkowski leapt toward it and grabbed. His hands grappled a wrist, twisted it around and, an instant later, gripped a forearm and throat. From his own throat came the opening syllables of a command.
But only the opening syllables. Before a full sentence had formed, he closed his mouth, dropped his hammerlock and stepped back into the hall. The torso that he had freed turned slowly to face him.
“You wanted to see me, Bronc? You might have knocked.”
Deno Stavrakis emitted the question in a weary, deadpan tone. His countenance, when it came into Harold’s view, looked quite as unconcerned.
Bronkowski was less blasé. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“It’s my room.”
“What about the terrorist who’s supposed to be in there with you?”
“Oh, him. He got panicky and left. Tied me up with sheets, but of course it didn’t take me long to work free. He obviously was never a Boy Scout.”
Bronkowski’s large shoulders drooped. “Well, looks like we’ve done all we can do. I suppose he took the elevator down and walked out the front door about the time we came up to look for him.”
“Not likely, Bronc. He heard sirens and thought a SWAT team was on its way to nab him. He wouldn’t have risked showing his face in the lobby. By the way, has a SWAT team come, by any chance?”
“Nope. Yours truly is the long arm of the law at this moment. So you think the terrorist is still in the hotel?”
“I wouldn’t call him a terrorist. He was more like, well, a waiter in an Italian restaurant who’s fallen into bad company. Maybe the patrons accused him of putting flies into the soup. He looks like the type who would.
“Anyway, I met him - rather, he insisted on meeting me - up on the roof, and my suspicion is that he went back there to hide. Who would ever suspect -”
Bronkowski shook his head. “The roof’s the last place he’d want to be. Too much the center of attention.”
Deno looked puzzled.
“Maybe you didn’t know. Genie Galen fell off it.”
“What? . . . Bronc, I’ve got to sit down.”
All three went into the room, and all three sat.
“So there’s no more Las Vegas bid,” Deno said. “Oh, don’t look shocked, Harry. She would have thought the same thing about Seattle if I had been the one to fall.”
“I can believe that,” Harold answered, trying to sound wry rather than bitter. “It looks like she killed your co-chairman.”
“I knew all along Melisande was innocent. Didn’t I tell you so, Harry? And I can believe Genie would go that far.”
“Yeah,” Bronkowski agreed. “The evidence isn’t all in, though. The big hole is, did she know about Gleason’s heart condition?”
“Sure she did. Everybody knew. It was obvious.”
An indefinable irritation at his erstwhile friend impelled Harold to intervene. “I had the impression that almost nobody knew. Melisande didn’t, until you told her.”
“Well, Genie would have known, if anybody did. She was fandom’s greatest snoop. She did things like hire detectives to check up on her ‘enemies’ - and she defined her enemies very, very broadly.”
From his limited acquaintance with the woman, Harold had to concede that this assertion sounded plausible. He abandoned the discussion, and conversation lapsed.
“Okay. Time to get back to work,” Bronkowski said at last.
Harold felt a wave of apprehension. “We’re not going to look for Deno’s waiter-gone-wrong, are we?”
“I’m only mildly crazy, Savoy. What I do want to do is see whether he left any clues on the roof. And make a sketch of the tracks before they melt off. I’m not sure whether there’s been a crime up there, but no sense in letting evidence get away.”
The roof was, to Harold’s eye, a wilderness of dirty snow. He remained with Deno in the shelter of the doorway while Bronkowski meticulously marked a sheet of hotel stationery with a record of vanishing footprints.
Deno shuffled his feet and coughed, seemingly wanting a conversation to begin without having to start it himself. Harold was willing to accommodate him but found it difficult to devise a neutral, pleasant opener. He had said and heard all that he wanted about murders and mysterious gunmen.
At long last, one of Deno’s coughs turned into speech. “We haven’t talked much this weekend, Harry,” he said.
“No. It’s hard to pick up after so long.”
“Yeah. And I’m afraid I’ve been distracted. It’s funny how something like Worldcon politics can prey on your mind. That and - Harry, there’s one thing I’d better confess.”
Harold nodded dimly and wished that he were elsewhere.
“It’s about Melisande.”
“That fact is, I’m still in love with her. I pretend to take her lightly, tell people we’re only friends, but it isn’t true. Worse, I’m still jealous. So when I saw how you and her hit it off. . . . What I want to say is, it’s obvious that the two of you have a special thing, and I - Let’s put it this way. My instinct is to hate anyone who touches her, but for you, Harry, I’ll make an exception. I really do wish you every happiness, and. . . and. . .”
Harold hoped desperately that he would not see any weeping. The easiest way to avoid the risk of such an unpleasant sight was to look somewhere else, so he stared at the roof, where Bronkowski was now approaching the air conditioning apparatus, his eyes flickering along the ground and his pen sketching vigorously.
Harold glimpsed movement behind the apparatus. A man appeared. He stood a yard or two from the policeman, brandishing a revolver.
This was an excellent opportunity to distract Deno by latching onto his shoulder and pointing. Harold took it.
“Is that the guy?” he asked.
Deno needed a moment to reorient himself from self-pity to awareness of the world. “Yeah, that’s him.”
The gunman’s mouth was moving, but the words did not carry to the stairwell.
Even without words, however, the message was clear. Bronkowski turned his huge body away from the gun. Its owner prodded him in the back.
Harold let the door swing shut. “We ought to be able to do something,” he mumbled. “It’s three against one. . . . Suppose we lay an ambush at the foot of the stairs?”
Deno nodded abstractedly but did not start down until Harold nudged him. They descended nervously and clumsily, tripping over one another as they went. My characters’ stomachs never feel like this, Harold reflected.
Opening the door onto the twenty-sixth floor, he discovered that the corridor was no longer empty. Melisande Thomas and Gallagher, the hotel security man, stood near the elevators, with a shivering, white-faced waif draped between them. Before Harold could give a warning, Melisande was dragging the assemblage toward him. Her face wore a wide smile of relief that struck Harold as badly mistimed.
“Looks like you and Deno made it okay. We’re taking Jody to my room. She needs a doctor, but I think she’s going to be all right.”
The limp figure made a vague noise that seemed to indicate assent.
“Get out of the way!”
“What’s wrong?” Melisande’s smile turned instantly to alarm.
“No time to explain.”
There was indeed no time. The stairway door opened abruptly, catching both Harold and Deno out of position for a surprise attack.
If the gunman was nonplussed at being greeted by crowds, he successfully hid his feelings. “All of you, back off,” he said evenly, gesturing with his weapon. “One shield is all I need.” He contemplated the candidates for this office, then pointed the gun at Melisande. “You’ll do. Come over here. Everybody else, to the far end of the hall.”
Melisande looked from Harold to Bronkowski to Deno and received no intimation of hope. Trembling slightly, she detached herself from Jody, who, for the first time, looked up.
Her face had so far been blank and lifeless. Now her eyes focused on the gunman. “YOU!” she screamed and leaped at him.
It was not an especially effective leap, for her limbs were disinclined to act in coordination, but it startled the gunman. Instinctively, he ducked away from the would-be assailant. His eyes were momentarily devoted to following her movements.
Bronkowski spun around, took two quick steps, and hurled an oversized fist into the gunman’s belly. The man crumpled. His hand continued to enfold the revolver, but his fingers were too weak to work the trigger. Bronkowski opened them and took the gun away.
The burst of adrenalin that had carried Jody forward spent itself quickly. She too began to crumple. Harold and Deno caught her before she hit the floor.
“Well, Mr. Corsi, you’ve sure been a busy boy this weekend,” Bronkowski said. “Maybe we can arrange a vacation for you.”
Sitting in the State’s Attorney’s conference room, her files neatly disposed on the table in front of her, Jace Barrington felt a proud glow of professional achievement that soothed her pique over losing her racquet ball court time. She doodled on her legal pad, sipped a cup of herbal tea and waited for the State’s Attorney to arrive.
He entered only a few minutes late, his broad, Irish face (which Jace had always thought noteworthy for its good-natured stupidity) beaming and his hands occupied with a box of doughnuts. He took two for himself and pushed the box in Jace’s direction.
Unhappily, the conference room had a mirror. While professional achievement might be soothing, it really was no substitute for exercise. Jace examined her figure, wondered whether the fatal one hundred seventeenth pound was even now lying in wait, and pushed the doughnuts back. The State’s Attorney took another for himself.
“Okay, Miss Barrington,” he said. “What have you got?” It was not obvious from his tone that he found cracking a murder more interesting than doughnuts.
Jace rapidly summarized the bare bones of the case: victim, time and place, medical findings, suspects.
“Sure you don’t want the last doughnut?” said the State’s Attorney. Jace shook her head and wondered whether she was making any impression at all. She had brought the story as far as the plea bargain with Melisande Thomas’s attorney.
“Since then, there have been a number of developments. I’ve concluded that Ms. Thomas is innocent. What’s more, I know who the real murderer is.”
The drama of her announcement did not even draw the State’s Attorney’s gaze away from the last doughnut. Unsettled, she described Genie Galen’s death and the speculations that it had inspired.
“Mr. Garner directed me to look into the possibility that Ms. Galen had been involved in Gleason’s death. Her roommate hadn’t checked out of the hotel, so I questioned him.”
She suppressed any description of the roommate, an androgynous creature whose principal reaction to his presumed lover’s death was annoyance over the disposal of her luggage.
“She always packed so much,” he minced. “Not just clothes, but all her files.”
The files turned out to be crucial to Jace’s quest. “I guess you’ll be interested in this one,” the roommate said, quite unprompted. He handed Jace a legal-sized manila folder with a handwritten label: Gleason, Lars.
“Ms. Galen apparently had a hobby of prying into other people’s affairs. She had material on Gleason that would have taken months to develop, if we could have gotten it at all. Some items have particular relevance to this case.
“First, there was no sign that she knew anything about the condition of Gleason’s heart. She’d evidently tried to investigate his health but came up cold. So that takes her off the list of suspects.”
“The killer had to know that Gleason had a weak heart. For a person in normal health, the dose of Nardil would have been nonfatal. Not even close to fatal.”
“Go on.” The State’s Attorney picked up the last doughnut and squeezed it between his fingers. Then he dropped it and started browsing through Jace’s files. It was not clear whether he any longer heard her voice.
“That’s only an argument from silence, I admit, but there’s more. Ms. Galen had, or thought she had, a sword over Gleason’s head, facts about his past that showed him in a very bad light. I can’t tell their precise nature, but her notes refer to a tape of an incriminating conversation.
“Now, the only motive that anyone has suggested for Ms. Galen’s wanting to kill Gleason is to further this science fiction project of hers. Gleason was one of the two people in charge of her major opposition. But it obviously makes no sense for her to murder someone whom she could blackmail.
“The other new discovery is this.” Jace held up a stapled sheaf of papers; they attracted no attention. “A private investigator’s report on a trip that Gleason made to Atlanta. That was the trip during which he allegedly assaulted Ms. Thomas. Apparently, Ms. Galen had heard rumors about their rendezvous - nothing about a rape, apparently. She seems to have thought they had met by design and that there might be a scandal to uncover.
“So she hired a P.I., and his findings blow the rape story out of the water. So far as the P.I. could discern, no one ever saw Gleason and Ms. Thomas together in Atlanta. He was with a different woman, one Caroline Corsi.”
Jace had been certain that the name “Corsi” would shatter the State’s Attorney’s nonchalance. If it did, he covered well, merely putting one file down and picking up another.
“To jump ahead, I questioned Ms. Corsi later, and she admitted she’d been with Gleason that week. It was early in their relationship, and she was still hiding it from her family. The whole rape story was a hoax.
“Naturally, that made me suspicious, but there was nothing to connect her definitely to the murder until - Perhaps you’ve heard that Piero Corsi has been arrested.”
“I interviewed him. He’s desperate to cooperate - no doubt afraid of what will happen if old Corsi gets hold of him.
“He’s in on a kidnapping charge. He snatched a woman named Silverbury, imprisoned her overnight and may have tried to kill her with a drug overdose. He’s confessed to most of that. What’s interesting from our point of view is his motive.
“He says that his sister put him up to it. Gleason was with a woman last night, and the sister found out. So she called on her brother to make things rough for her rival. But there was some confusion, and Piero grabbed the wrong person. He’s not a hundred percent sure, but he now thinks that Melisande Thomas was the one with Gleason. Ms. Silverbury was a bystander who accidentally got in the way.
“It all fits together nicely. Ms. Corsi discovers that her fiancé is fooling around with Ms. Thomas. She instructs her brother to deal with the interloper, a job that he royally bungles, while she handles the erring lover herself. Her error in judgement was inventing the rape story. Obviously a try at getting Ms. Thomas jailed for the murder, after her brother failed to put her out of the way more directly.
“I’ve also figured out the solution to one of the most puzzling points about the case, namely, how did the killer persuade Gleason to ingest four or five Nardil capsules?
“The capsules are tiny, you see, easy to swallow by accident once they’re in your mouth. As I reconstruct it, Ms. Corsi pretended to know nothing about her fiancé’s escapade, went to his room and started to get intimate. But first she carefully placed the capsules on her own tongue. Well, you get the picture.”
Although he looked as abstracted and inattentive as before, the State’s Attorney perceptibly reddened. Jace wondered fleetingly whether the moralistic image that he presented in his campaigns (which she had always sneered at) might have a basis in his true personality.
His evident embarrassment caused her tongue to hesitate. In any event, she had reached the conclusion of her substantive presentation. Before she could continue, he looked away from the table, but not directly at Jace, and spoke.
“Intriguing theory, Miss Barrington. But you’re not quite through yet, are you?”
“Well, I am, actually. I mean, those are the main points.”
He rubbed his chin and blinked, as if barely comprehending what he had heard. “Oh. But we do have to fill in the hole if we’re going to prosecute. Even a marginal member of the Corsi clan - one who isn’t in the family business - won’t be represented by a schlock public defender, after all.”
“The hole? Sir?”
“The hole in your case. Did Miss Corsi plan this murder before she reached the hotel?”
“She couldn’t have. She would only have discovered Gleason’s affair when she got there.”
“But she nevertheless just happened to bring a supply of Nardil with her, on the off chance that she might find a use for it?”
He really is as stupid as he looks, Jace thought. “Ms. Corsi didn’t bring the capsules with her,” she explained patiently. “She stole them from Melisande Thomas’s purse. Witnesses say they were together for a while.”
“Oh. And how did she know that medication Miss Thomas took?”
“Well, lots of people in the sci-fi crowd knew.” All at once, Jace felt like a witness rather than a prosecutor.
“And was Miss Corsi part of that crowd? I put it to you, Miss Barrington, is it probable - does it comport with your notions of human behavior - that Caroline Corsi, having decided to murder her fiancé, would obtain the fatal instrument by rummaging around inside her rival’s purse?”
He paused. Then his face softened into a smile, and the pitch of his voice dropped. “Especially when she is, after all, the daughter of a man who owns a whole stable of trained killers?
“Sorry, Miss Barrington. The Corsi theory has its attractive side, particularly from the political point of view. But it just won’t fly. Not on the evidence that you’ve gathered so far. Still, it’s only fair to commend your diligence. You’re a first-rate fact finder. With a few more years of experience, you’ll learn how to fit the facts together.
“Unfortunately, I’m not Wimsey or Poirot. I can’t tell you at this moment who murdered Lars Gleason. But it appears to me that only two theories are left in the running. I’ll outline them to you. I’m sure it won’t take you long to eliminate one or the other.
“Theory number one. Of all possible suspects, Melisande Thomas remains the one with the readiest access to the murder weapon. She knew about the victim’s vulnerable medical condition. She did not like him. She had made statements that could easily be construed as threats. The phony rape story doesn’t show that she had no motive, merely that her motive wasn’t as straightforward and perhaps forgivable as we’d supposed.
“Theory number two. Who else definitely knew that Gleason had heart trouble? And had reasons to hate him? I was glancing through Miss Galen’s notes while you talked. She has quite a bit about bad blood between Lars Gleason and this Deno Stavrakis lad. Then, too, there could be a love angle. If Gleason and Miss Thomas spent Saturday evening together, maybe the two of them weren’t such bitter enemies after all. And maybe Stavrakis resented that. Doesn’t it say here, somewhere, that he and the woman used to be engaged?
“Finally, I notice a statement in the files that Stavrakis served a glass of wine to Gleason not long before his heart attack. As you’ve pointed out, Miss Barrington, the tablets in question are very small and could easily be swallowed unwittingly.
“Let’s see. It’s not eight o’clock yet, so you should be able to get some useful work done this evening. What say we meet again at seven to review your progress?”
He stood up and pushed the files that he had been reading toward Jace. As she moved them back into her briefcase, it occurred to her that good-natured stupidity could be an excellent mask for a politician.
“One more thing, Miss Barrington,” the State’s Attorney said as he vanished through the door.
His face again wore its pleasant, unintelligent, man-of-the-people expression.
“Eat that last doughnut. You’re looking thin as a skeleton these days.”