“Melisande! Are you all right?”
Lulled by keeping watch over Jody Silverbury’s fitful doze, Melisande Thomas, slumping in her bedside chair, had gradually fallen into the same state. Her friend’s voice roused her into an uncertain semi-wakefulness. She needed time to be completely certain who was the hospital visitor and who the patient.
Jody was sitting upright, her face flushed and looking, to a casual glance, alert and cheerful. A closer inspection showed that the old lineaments of tension were still present and that her glow was more feverish than healthy.
“I’m fine, Jody. Tell me how you feel.”
“Awake. Light-headed. Hungry.”
“Do you remember anything?”
“Uh - I’m in the hospital, amn’t I? I think I recall being taken here. Before that - oh, I remember all sorts of things. The trouble is, they don’t fit together. It’s like a puzzle with big pieces and little pieces, but I can’t tell where any piece belongs, and the pieces seem bigger than the room for them in the frame.”
She shook her head, her brow screwed in a frustrated knot.
“Don’t worry about all that now. There’s some fruit salad on the night stand. Why don’t you nibble on it?”
The refreshments were no better than hospital issue, pale and tasteless chunks in a watery syrup. Jody nonetheless gobbled them avidly and lay back looking moderately less febrile.
“So. How was the con?” she asked.
“Memorable. . . . yes, memorable is definitely the word.”
That was not the question that Melisande most wanted to answer. She tried to pass it off with a quick shrug and a perfunctory, “So, so.”
“What about -” - she seemed to grope for names - “- about Mark?”
“He’s - well, a little under the weather. I haven’t seen him today.”
“He’s been drinking too much, I guess.”
“To tell the truth, he was drinking a lot last night. Did you two have a quarrel?”
“Just a silly one. I thought he’d get over it.” She sat partway up and snuggled into a ball, her chin pressing on her calves. “Who else is there? Oh, let’s see. Are you and Howard getting along?”
“You know, the writer, what’s-his-name Savoy? Why, Melisande, you’re blushing.”
“No, I am not blushing. I’m flushing, which is completely different. The way people keep linking me to that poor man, they’re going to convince him that I’m some kind of female cobra. For your information, Mr. Savoy hasn’t shown a hemi-demi-semi-quaver of romantic interest in me. In fact, I strongly suspect that his secret aspiration is to revivify my relationship with Deno. He drove me over here, and on the way regaled me with flattering anecdotes about Deno’s college days.”
“Did they touch your heart?”
“Not particularly. They were all variations on one anecdote. Deno wants to do X. Everybody else wants to do Y. So everybody ends up doing X. Thus illustrating, first, Deno’s cleverness and iron will and, second, though unintentionally, how fortunate I am not to be Mrs. Stavrakis.”
She observed that the patient’s attention was wandering and guiltily broke off her incipient monologue.
“And how’s Lars feeling?”
The question popped out of Jody’s mouth without foreshadowing. Melisande gulped and regretted having given up control of the conversation.
“He’s - well, it’s this way -”
“Is he sick? He looked a little peaked the other day, I thought.”
“Sick isn’t the right word, Jody. Lars is. . . .” Forcing her lips to function, she uttered the word, “dead.”
Jody’s hands jerked to her mouth, smothering a scream and lacerating a knuckle. All hint of color left her face.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you. Of course it’s a shock, even to you. He had a heart attack last night. His body turned up in the parking lot.”
Jody was obviously too stricken to hear more. Melisande was relieved to be able to cuddle her wordlessly, without having to talk about drug overdoses, suspicions of murder or her own not-quite-resolved legal situation.
They remained together until the close of visiting hours. By then, Jody was again bright-faced and alert. She insisted that Melisande convey her greetings to a long list of fans who might still be at the convention and asked no more questions about Lars Gleason. A single, brief convulsion had relegated him, it seemed, to the land of the forgotten.
Caroline’s father had been calm - “inattentive” might summarize his attitude best - through her long, traumatic apologia. He asked an occasional short, sharp question but heaped no abuse on her head. When she had run through all that she could bear to say, he fondled her hand gently, the way he used to when she was six.
“Your life has been so sheltered, little one. You have never known truly what it is to be a Corsi. Now you shall have to learn.
“Your brother is weak. I always knew it. But a father’s brain is helpless against his heart. He will betray us. We are all in danger, even you, who have kept away from your father’s work.
“Well, we must take what precautions we can. For you, it would be good to be away from here for a time. And luckily you are about to embark on your vacation, scheduled months in advance, completely unsuspicious. You and your young man, go and have fun, with your papa’s blessing.”
“You forget, papa, that my young man won’t be going.”
“Get another one, then. That should be easy for a pretty girl like you.”
“Is that really necessary? I can just go on my own.”
He released her hand and folded his own together. “No. Then it looks as if you are running. There must be a man with you. I shall assign one, if you like.”
She thought desperately, weighed one objectionable alternative against another, and came to a decision. “That’s fine, papa. I can get an escort.”
“I assume that I just have to go there with him, right? I don’t have to spend time with him after we reach Cancun?”
“It would be a sad story: The loving young couple arrives at their Mexican paradise and quarrels and is seen together no more. A sad story, but is not our age filled with sad stories?”
He nodded solemnly. Caroline nodded with him. Meanwhile, she reviewed her wardrobe and decided that it would be prudent to add an evening dress or two, preferably on the gauzy and shimmery side. With luck, she would be making new acquaintances in Mexico.
“Dead dog party? I’m afraid to ask - it’s bound to be worse that I anticipate.”
“No, no, no. Just the last party of the con, for all the dead dogs who’ve hung around till now. It’s a tradition.”
“Yeah, pogroms are a tradition, too.”
“I assure you, it’s perfectly safe. And, frankly, this con had suffered more than a few shocks. It’ll be good for morale to have a big name pro like Milos Savoy stick around.”
“Okay, it may be more fascinating than darning socks in my room. Though I’m not sure why I want to be fascinated. Like Bilbo Baggins, I have had all the adventures I desire.”
Harold was not quite so disgruntled as he sounded, though he was also not about to do endorsements for Zephyrcon. His current gruffness was due as much to embarrassment as annoyance. Melisande Thomas, on returning from the hospital, had dragged him into her room and proceeded to carry on a lengthy conversation while applying makeup.
Not only did Harold have little interest in makeup, but his hostess’s methods of putting it on would not have appealed to the most enthusiastic connoisseur of the practice. Melisande evidently believed that each flyspeck of rouge required the most infinite pains, with the result that, in three-quarters of an hour, she had progressed about as far as an active teen-aged girl can in forty-five seconds.
Before responding to Harold’s last comment, she dipped into her purse and rummaged for awhile.
“Darn, darn, darn. What did I do with my mascara?”
“Next to the telephone?” Harold suggested, pointing to a tube lying on the nightstand.
“Oh. I would have sworn that I last saw it when I lent it to Jody yesterday and that she put it back into my purse. Memories are fading, I’m afraid. For instance, Jody is convinced that your name is ‘Howard’.”
“I have an uncle named Howard. Not that she’s likely to have met him. He’s a retired bishop in Tanganyika. Oddly enough, he writes murder mysteries.”
“Really? I don’t recall the name.”
“Under a pseudonym, of course. Jennifer Wildleaf. And if you haven’t hear of her, uncle will be grateful. In his own happy phrase, Miss Wildleaf’s output skillfully unites the vices of the pulp detective to those of the Harlequin romance, while evading the virtues of either.”
“Would Genie Galen would fit into one of his plots?”
“Absolutely not. Uncle Howard’s standard murderer does the deed to avoid the revelation of a Guilty Secret in his or her past. In An Unsatisfactory Vicarage, for instance, the curate is in the habit of supplementing his income by filching pound notes from the collection plate. An auditor appears, sent by a parliamentary commission, and the curate finds himself forced to do away with the fellow. Actually, his intention is to incapacitate him briefly and doctor the books in the interim, but an unfortunately excessive application of force renders the incapacitation permanent.
“My uncle drew two morals from this tale: first, that Parliament should meddle less in church finances and, second, that divinity schools should include courses in practical anatomy. The curate’s last, despairing words, as he is led to the hangman, are, ‘If only I had studied Vesalius as diligently as Hooker.’”
Perhaps to forestall being told who Vesalius and Hooker were, Melisande abruptly announced, “I’m ready. Let’s get going.” And they almost did get going. The only delay was that needed for Melisande to pin on two new buttons: “I’m a Worldcon chairman, and I don’t have to eat broccoli!” and “Intuitively observant to the most casually obvious”.
The site of the party was the convention’s hospitality suite, now looking relaxed and bedraggled. Harold saw no familiar faces when he and Melisande arrived. She, better acquainted, made the rounds of the room while he sat back and sipped a frigid bottle of beer, overchilled from too long an immersion in an icy bathtub.
One other person present seemed equally out of the proper environment, a tall, very thin young woman with long, black hair. Harold did not remember seeing her before and was sure that he would remember her if he had. She held a can of diet cola in her hand but did not drink from it. Instead, she devoted her attention to a close examination of the other party goers.
Curiosity nagged Harold to approach her. In the mundane world, he would have shied away from anyone so attractive, but in this small subculture, he reassured himself, he was a minor celebrity and could safely take liberties.
Like several others in the room, she was not wearing a name badge. She looked at Harold’s and went through a visible process of cogitation before returning his greeting.
“Nice to meet you, Milos. I’m Jace Barrington.” She held out her hand and shook his with surprising firmness. “I saw that you and Melisande came in together. Are you with her?”
“We’ve been wandering around together. I’m new at the convention game.”
Again, she looked like an organic machine processing data. “You weren’t with her last night, by any chance?”
“Part of the time.”
“The reason I ask is that Melisande and I have - had a friend in common. Lars Gleason.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“It’s nothing. Lars and I weren’t immensely close, but I was hoping to see him at the con. I came by last night but couldn’t find him. A guy told me he’d spent some time with Melisande.”
“They had a meeting of some sort, early in the evening.”
“None of that matters now, of course.” Her head drooped with melancholy, and she briefly covered her face. Harold felt a pang of pity and wished that he knew words to comfort her.
After her recent mild but palpable humiliation in the presence of the State’s Attorney, Jace Barrington again felt pleased with herself. It had been years since she had abandoned science fiction conventions, deciding that she had no time for an activity that neither toned her figure nor advanced her career, but not much in the fannish world had changed and she was having no trouble passing herself off as a Zephyrcon attendee. All that she needed to do was gain sixty pounds, and she would be right back where she had left off.
The name “Milos Savoy” appeared in the file. A science fiction writer; one of Ms. Thomas’s companions. As soon as she started questioning him, she realized that she shouldn’t waste her time. He would be useful only as an entrée to more productive witnesses. Hence, her quick shift to the hapless female role. He responded as if cued to the part.
Without difficulty, she fit him into her stereotype of the writer, based on those whom she had known in her wilder days. Inept lechery was the trait that stood out most clearly in her memory. No doubt he found Ms. Thomas devastatingly attractive and had hounded her all weekend. He was himself smooth and plausible enough that it was possible to believe that he had scored. Jace wondered fleetingly whether he had a real job - didn’t he resemble a shoe salesman who had once waited on her? - or scraped by on royalties, loans and handouts.
As she had anticipated, the combination of an author and a pretty girl drew a crowd. As the suite’s population grew denser, the densest knot formed in their vicinity. Their status as the social center of the party was solidified when Melisande Thomas gave up her independent roving and joined her knot to Savoy’s.
After not too long an interval, a heavy-set, dark-bearded man who had to be Deno Stavrakis arrived. He pushed his way to Melisande’s side and briefly clutched her hand.
Lars Gleason’s untimely death was not a principal subject of the evening, but it smoldered underneath every conversation, now and then kindling temporary fires.
Jace heard much - even more than she had suspected from the files - about the ill feeling between the co-chairmen of the Seattle Worldcon bid. But, though fascinating in its own way, this evidence was merely cumulative. More valuable was the opportunity to size up directly a suspect who had so far been only a name.
Stavrakis emerged rapidly as one of those men who not only likes to make the rules but prefers to be the only one who understands them. He either dominated the conversation or ignored it utterly. During those periods when he was not dominant, his expression turned to a blank and he displayed scarcely any awareness of his surroundings.
During one of these vacant intervals, a figure who had been hovering at the edge of the circle, evidently waiting for an opening, edged into the space next to Melisande. He was moderately tall and moderately emaciated, his thinness emphasized by drooping folds of recently emptied skin. Jace remembered that she had looked much the same just after her own post-fandom crash diet.
The newcomer wore a heavily beribboned badge and a smug smile. Melisande looked surprised at his approach and timidly moved half a step away.
“Relax, oh Fan Guest of Honor. I haven’t come to bite you.” He patted her hand, and his expression grew even smugger. “I merely have news.”
“I’m glad to hear it, Wendell. Good news, obviously.”
He nodded. “Bad news and good news, to tell the truth. First, I won’t be able to stay for the rest of the dead dog.”
Jace detected Melisande’s lips subvocalizing the words, “And what’s the bad news?”
“The good news is that I’m leaving for Cancun tomorrow morning.”
“That’s fascinating, Wendell.”
“Yes. Would you like to know whom I’m leaving with?”
“Caroline. Lars’ former fiancée.”
“I didn’t know that you were acquainted.”
“It happened very suddenly. We saw each other today, and she fell for me hard. I had to beg off spending the evening with her, of course, because of my duties to the con. Then she called a little while ago and begged me to take her to Cancun. It’s already all paid for. We’ll be there three weeks, and then her father has a job for me. He’s a billionaire investor. I’ve already called my office and told my boss’s voice mail that he can take my job and stuff it.”
Surprisingly, a flicker of concern crossed Melisande’s eyes. “Was that prudent? You don’t really know much about this woman - and her family - do you?”
“I know enough. I know that we’re in love.”
“But you said that you just met her today.”
He hesitated, looked at her defensively, then resumed his former expression. “No. It was today that she declared her love. Naturally, I’ve known her for a long time. We see each other at all the Chicago cons. Frankly, it was already obvious - before - umm - what happened to Lars - that he was on the way out. I suspect that we’d have been going to Cancun pretty quickly, regardless of anything else.”
“You’re really sure about this?”
“You know, girl, that’s your big problem. You’re always so super-prudent, never taking a risk. Not that this is really a risk. You should see how she gazes at me, like she can barely resist disrobing on the spot and getting down to business.”
“Still. . . . Wendell, be careful. . . .”
“I’d rather be happy. You can be careful.” He walked away. If self-satisfaction had been fattening, he would by now have been back to his previous weight. Melisande frowned and nudged Stavrakis, who seemed not to have heard any of the conversation. He came out of his cloud reluctantly.
“You aren’t listening at all,” Melisande chided.
“Yes, I am. You were talking to Harry about that comic book he scripted.”
“That was ten minutes ago. Didn’t you hear a word that Wendell said?”
“Lanz? Where is he?”
“He’s gone. He’s going to Mexico tomorrow with Caroline Corsi.”
Stavrakis looked blank again. The writer, speaking across Melisande’s other shoulder, chuckled and spoke. “You know, if my uncle the bishop were plotting this story, that fellow would be a prime suspect. Secretly pining for the femme fatale. At last, he receives a hint that she reciprocates his passion, but - alas! - she feels bound to her unworthy fiancé. They meet in a romantic, moonlit glade, and she whispers despairingly, ‘If only I were free to love you, Wendell’.”
Stavrakis picked up the conceit. “So, maddened by desire, he purloins a few doses of a powerful medication, not knowing its precise characteristics but imagining - he is something of a dolt, after all - that any drug dispensed only by prescription must have fatal effects. He drops a few tablets into the fiancé’s drink -”
“And it turns out that the dose really is fatal,” Savoy concluded.
Jace stifled a contemptuous sniff. Even as a potboiler mystery, the plot had no credibility. Then she noticed a troubled glint in Melisande’s eye.
“Something wrong?” Savoy asked.
“Not really. It’s just - the whole idea is absurd. But I remember - I can’t remember which party - but Wendell was around Lars. I think he fetched him a drink. And he knows about my medication. When we were arranging for me to come to the con, I asked him questions about pharmacies in the area. . . .” Her voice trailed off, and both men were preternaturally silent.
A large, booming voice, coming from behind Jace, filled the void. “Sounds as absurd as a Jennifer Wildleaf novel.”
A fast jerk of the head and shoulders confirmed that the voice belonged to a known persona. She had encountered Sergeant Peter Bronkowski on half a dozen cases. She gave him a brief, confidential look, and he showed understanding by inclining his massive neck a quarter of nod.
Now it was Deno Stavrakis’s turn to copy Melisande’s thoughtfulness. “Definitely far-fetched. But it has one advantage as a theory. It explains the nonlethal dose.”
“I thought that, at least, was explained,” remarked Savoy. “The killer knew about Lars’ heart condition.”
Stavrakis, looking ever more abstracted, replied, “How could he have? Nobody knew. I doubt Lars knew himself. He wasn’t the sort to go in for a physical.”
“What do you mean, Deno?” Melisande now looked startled. “You knew. You’re the one who told me.”
“No, I didn’t. How could I tell you something I didn’t know myself, even if it did turn out to be true?”
“Yes, you did. You asked me whether I knew about Lars’ health problems. I said no, and you said he had heart trouble. I suppose you wanted me to volunteer to persuade him to step down from the Seattle bid, on the theory that the stress would kill him if he didn’t.”
“You must have misunderstood. I might have said something about the state of his heart - but only as a metaphor. Where a man’s treasure is, there is his heart also. He was letting the bid dominate his life, and it wasn’t good for him. But I didn’t mean anything about his physical state.”
“If you were speaking in parables, they were extremely obscure. Ezekiel is a model of clarity by comparison.”
Happiness surged through Jace’s tired frame. She looked up and asked Melisande the last, crucial question, striving to keep all excitement out of her voice.
“So you believed that Lars Gleason had heart trouble, isn’t that right?”
She didn’t come close to sensing the trap. “Sure. I believed the plain meaning of what Deno said. Why shouldn’t I have?” The note of irritation in her voice was clearly directed at Stavrakis, not at the questioner.
“No reason at all. Of course, that means that you were the only person connected with this case who believed that a small overdose of Nardil would kill, not merely inconvenience, Lars Gleason.
“Ms. Thomas, this has been a long, long chase, but now it’s the appropriate time for me to show you my credentials. You’ve already heard your Miranda warning, I believe. If you like, I can repeat it.”