For dinner, Melisande had exchanged her T-shirt for a lavender sweater and had chosen a new pair of buttons. These said, “Check my schedule, and see when I have my next break down” and “Obviously intuitive to the most casual observer”.
Harold would have been glad to see her in any event. His gladness at this point was spiced with relief, for he had been standing next to Genie Galen for fifteen minutes, struggling to maintain a light conversation.
Ms. Galen - Harold recognized in her one of those women for whom “Ms.” had been invented - was not to be distracted by comments on the weather, the decor of the lobby or the events of the convention. Nor would she deign to respond to questions concerning Tibetan cuisine. With single-minded intensity, she insisted on talking about personalities in fandom, people whom Harold knew not at all but about whom he was evidently expected to form on-the-spot opinions.
If he followed his informant’s lead, few of those opinions would be favorable. For Melisande she had fulsome flattery, too ardent to be taken seriously, but only cudgels for the rest of her subjects. She was especially cutting when she spoke of the leaders of the Seattle bid.
For Deno Stavrakis, she had not so much criticism as contemptuous dismissal. “A spent force. Absolutely out of touch. They don’t want to fire him, because that would spoil their line about how united Northwest fandom is, but they’ve relegated him to doing nothing important. He helps out at parties and writes letters to fanzines. And I think they let him putter around with the hotel contracts. That’s about it.”
Her view of Lars Gleason was more complex but no more positive. She conceded that he was “the real power” behind the Seattle bid, then impaled him on a string of discrediting anecdotes. Most of these involved a convention called “Alkicon” and its failure to put authors on as many panels as they wanted.
After his own experiences, Harold was unsure why he should feel sorry for the authors. Nevertheless, he nodded with vague sympathy, until Melisande’s arrival diverted his hostess from malevolent narrative to effusive greetings.
“You’re so beautiful, my dear. I wish I had your figure.”
Galen’s own ample dimensions were swathed tonight in beige chiffon. Melisande looked at her carefully, as if searching for something to compliment. “Sorry I’m late,” she said at last.
Galen waved the apology aside. “I have a car waiting for us.” She led them out the door, where a large automobile stood ready. There was room for all three passengers in the back seat. Galen sat behind the driver - a thin youth outfitted with an earring - shouting directions, warnings and advice into his ear.
But harassing the chauffeur did not occupy the whole of her attention. Between instructions to turn left and reminders to keep both hands on the wheel, she found time to talk steadily to Melisande, with an occasional word for Harold, too.
“You’ve done such a marvelous job with your Worldcon,” she enthused. “I’ve modeled my bid’s campaign on yours, and I know I’ll learn lots from how you run your convention. St. Petersburg is such a lovely city. You were so clever to choose it for your site -”
“I live there,” Melisande pointed out. “That had something to do with the choice.”
“Then you were clever in choosing your home. I remember the first bid party of yours that I attended. You gave me such brilliant advice on how to start my bid.” And so on and so on. Harold began to pay more and more attention to the passing panorama of fast food franchises. Once in a while, the soliloquy included praise for Milos Savoy’s novels, at which he would mutter an acknowledgment.
He would have liked to say a word to Melisande about the wayward computer disk, but his feeble attempts to break into the torrent were flung aside like loose pebbles.
The Lhasa Pavilion came into view, its facade copied from movie images of Buddhist shrines in Tibet. Inside, it proved to be small, simple and hospitable. The menu did indeed feature protein, fat and cholesterol in profusion. A sidebar proclaimed:
Through centuries, Tibetan food has shown itself the healthiest in the world. Many monks live 100 years or more, eating only the traditional dishes on this menu that we serve at Lhasa Pavilion.
“But don’t Tibetan monks also run up and down mountains before breakfast?” Melisande asked.
Their waitress, a chubby, smiling woman obviously unacquainted with mountain exercises, came to take their drink orders. “Smith & Kerns” elicited no recognition, so Melisande declined cocktails and excused herself for a visit to the powder room.
Harold thus had to face another round of Genie Galen’s small talk. Only the quick arrival of his beer made the intimacy endurable.
Melisande’s return switched the discourse again.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you, Melisande: I haven’t had a chance to talk to Jody Silverbury and was wondering whether she’s neutral like you.”
“So far as I know. You’re welcome to proselytize her if you think it’ll do you any good.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t do that. She’d think I was playing on unpleasant memories.”
“I don’t follow you.”
“You must know about her and Lars Gleason.”
“Not anything in particular. They both lived in Los Angeles once upon a time, didn’t they? My first hand knowledge of Lars starts in Seattle, and of Jody in Florida.”
“You don’t know that they used to be lovers?”
“Jody? Lars? I suppose he told you that.”
“Everybody in L.A. fandom knew it. It was big news, especially after the way he dumped her. They say the poor girl almost had a breakdown.”
“She’s never said a word to me about it. Not that we have much reason to discuss Lars. Besides, I suspect that Jody’s heart bends fairly often but isn’t easy to break.”
“It wasn’t just a failed love affair. He also cheated her out of several thousand dollars.”
“Sure. Jody’s never had several thousand dollars. She has to scrape to go to cons, or get someone else to pay her way.”
“I’m only telling you what I heard. Just because she’s poor now doesn’t prove she never had money.”
“I suppose not, but the whole story sounds like fannish gossip.”
“Suppose it’s true. Would it change the way you think about the Seattle bid?”
“Why should it? I’m already not fond of Lars, but he isn’t the whole bid committee.”
“He’s pretty close to becoming the whole committee, I hear. Now, I know Deno Stavrakis is an old pal of yours, but you have to admit that he’s, well, losing influence.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. How would I know?”
“What if the rumors I’ve heard are right and he resigns? Then Lars would be sole chair of the bid.”
The appetizers had come, strange, meaty little balls accompanied by a strange, spicy sauce. Melisande interrupted the discussion to eat one slowly and thoroughly. As she swallowed the last bite, she leaned toward Harold and winked.
“All right, Genie, I ought to be up front with you. You have three-quarters of the facts, but you’re missing the most important ones.
“First, Jody and Lars are lovers now. This Mark character is a ciscisbeo to ward off suspicion.
“Second, Deno is going to leave the bid.
“Third, the reason why he’s leaving is that he’s moving to Florida and is going to be co-chairman of the St. Petersburg Worldcon. Under the circumstances, I expect that the concomm will vote formally to endorse Seattle in the near future.”
Genie Galen’s face was normally red. Now red shaded into purple. She spluttered. “But you’re supposed to be neutral!”
“So I lied.”
“How long has this - this plot been in the works?”
“Oh, for months and months. Practically since you announced the Las Vegas bid.”
Harold fully expected that the woman would duplicate the actions of the unfortunate heckler at his panel, but no explosion came. The purple visage subsided shade by shade, until it was again an ordinary crimson.
“This is such a surprise.”
“I hated to be the one to tell you, Genie, especially when you’ve so thoughtfully invited Mr. Savoy and me to dinner.”
“I think - I - would you excuse me for a minute?” She rose and trundled toward the powder room. When she was out of sight, Melisande erupted into laughter.
“Was any of that true?” Harold asked.
“Do you mean her story or mine?”
“Hers might be, for all I know. As for mine - remember Deno’s version of the hotel contract? Anyway, my hope is that she’ll shut up for the rest of dinner.
“And while she’s gone would be a good time for me to take my medication.” She reached under her chair, looked puzzled, bent over to look underneath the chair, and jumped to her feet.
“My purse! Did I have it when we came here?”
Harold tried to recall. He also tried to stifle an ungenerous sense of amusement at his companion’s alarm. Even the most modern and capable woman, he had long ago discovered, has a maternal attachment to her purse and reacts to its absence in the spirit of a female lioness whose cubs have turned up missing.
“I’m sure you had it in the cab.”
“I must have. I remember valiantly resisting the temptation to clobber Genie with it. And since I was holding onto it, I probably didn’t leave it in the car. God, this is such a nuisance. I must lose that thing three times a week. Okay, where have I been since we arrived?”
“You might have left it in the powder room,” Harold suggested.
As Melisande rose to check this possibility, a chastened Genie Galen returned. Almost meekly, she handed Melisande a purse. “I found it in the powder room. You must have left it behind.”
Melisande accepted the bag with a nonchalance so patently phony that Harold wondered how Genie could overlook it. Nevertheless, she did, and Melisande dominated the rest of the dinner. She was kind enough to show mercy to the vanquished foe, striving to include her in the conversation, though keeping close rein on the topics and stringently excluding all personalities and gossip.
The computer disk entered the discussion briefly. Melisande had not seen Harold’s note, but she agreed with the sentiment that all was well that ended well.
“I still wonder what happened to the first disk, but it’s a waste of time to play detective. It’ll simply go down as one of life’s little mysteries. It’s as if one slips into an alternate universe once in a while, where things aren’t quite the same.”
By seven o’clock, the meal was over, and no one attempted to prolong it. As they stepped out the restaurant door, the car that had brought them drove up. On the way back to the hotel, Genie Galen sat in the front seat next to the driver and said nothing at all. Melisande talked to Harold a little but spent most of the drive inventorying her purse.
After a quick hamburger, Sergeant Pete Bronkowski spent the rest of the dinner hour making quiet inquiries. Eventually, he reached a lieutenant on the local police force, who confirmed some half-recollected rumors.
“We don’t know that any of the staff are involved in drug trafficking,” the lieutenant said cautiously, “but I won’t deny some of our folks suspect it. And the story you heard does sound mighty funny.”
“It’s pretty amateur technique.”
“There’s plenty of amateurs in this business. Or it could be a one-time run. What do you know about this author?”
“A good writer. I love his stuff.”
“Still, he could be part of a ring.”
“Naah, he’s not the type. Besides, it’d be a little too cute, calling attention to his own drop like that. No, I’ve got two ideas. One, a real courier picked up his package by mistake. Two, the girl at the desk thought he was making a drop and decided to heist it for herself.”
“Could be. Well, there’s not enough here for me to do anything official, but I can’t stop you from asking questions. It’s a free country, after all.”
“Yeah. I’ll let you know if I turn up anything you might want to look at officially.”
At a few minutes before seven, he posted himself near the front desk and waited until a new face appeared behind the counter. Then he strolled over casually.
“Your name Marcia?”
“Yes, sir.” She looked just old enough to be out of high school, a tall girl with long, blonde hair and inane eyes.
“I’d like to ask you some questions.”
“What kind of questions?” The eyes retreated sullenly.
“Can you take a few minutes off the desk? My name’s Bronkowski. Police Department.” He held out his badge for her inspection.
“Oh,” she uttered weakly. “I haven’t. . . . I don’t. . . .”
“You’re not under suspicion of anything, Miss. Just some routine questions.”
“The safe deposit room’s empty. We can talk there. Wait by the door over there, and I’ll let you in.”
Bronkowski’s original intention had been to leave any questioning to Melisande, rather than take a hand personally. On reflection, though, if his hazy suspicions proved true, it would not be prudent to involve a civilian bystander.
Inside the safe deposit room, he motioned for the girl to take the single chair. He stood over her, his expression serious but not hostile.
Marcia held the arm of the chair tightly with her left hand. With her right, she extracted a wad of chewing gum from her mouth and delicately dropped it into a waste basket. Her eyes, no longer vacant, had the look of a fawn trapped by hunters.
“This is about a package you received when you were on duty this morning. Do you remember it?”
“I think. . . . there was one package. I remember that.”
“What did it look like, Marcia?”
“Just a package.”
“How big was it?”
“About. . . . about this size.” She formed a square with her forefingers and thumbs.
“Do you remember the person who gave it to you?”
“Not very well. I was real busy.”
“Describe him as best you can.”
“Well, he was sort of fat and not too tall and. . . .”
“Did he say anything to you?”
“Only that it was for Mr. Bramwing. Made me say the name over and over and write it down.”
“And what did you do with the package?”
“Put it under the counter.”
“Did anyone come for it?”
“Yeah, real quick. A woman. She said, do you have a delivery for Howard Bramwing, and I said, yes, I do, and she said, I’m his secretary, I’ll take it. So I gave it to her.”
“Just like that? You didn’t ask for identification?”
“Well, no. I mean, how could she have been a fake? A fake wouldn’t have even known who the package was for.”
“Did you ever think that she might have overheard you talking to the guy who brought it?”
“Gee, no. I guess - sir, is there something wrong about what I did? I didn’t mean -”
Bronkowski scowled, and she gave up the rising flow of self-justification.
“Just a couple of more questions. Then you can go.
“First, what did the woman who picked up the package look like?”
“Ummm, she was, well, kind of average.”
“Not too tall. Shorter than me.”
“What color was her hair?”
“Brown, I guess, or maybe brownish-red, or maybe. . . .”
“What about her eyes?”
“Gee, I can’t remember her eyes. I can’t tell anything for sure. She kept shifting around. I couldn’t get a good look.”
“How much would you say she weighed?”
“I can’t guess very well. Average, sort of. Somewhere between you and me.”
He pursued the description for several more questions, finally conceding that Marcia was either a poor witness or a poor inventor of imaginary secretaries. There was no way to decide which.
Afterwards, he sifted the interview again and again, searching for nuggets of useful information. Such as he found were small and scanty. He could not escape the feeling, however, that he had a clue almost in his grasp. There was something, his professional instincts told him, that was not right in Marcia’s story, some anomaly that, properly exploited, would unravel the whole mini-mystery.
Unhappily, it was only inarticulate instinct that told him this. His intellect was silent and baffled.
Melisande flung herself into a chair in the hotel lobby and unfolded the convention program. “As usual, I have much more planned for Saturday night than I could finish in three nights. Can’t you hear all the things I have to do shouting at me?” She took a pen from her purse and made notes on the margin of the program.
“The art auction, the masquerade, the Seattle party, the Las Vegas party, a couple of others, and I should talk to Deno and make arrangements to get the budget data from your office to Lars’s computer and find Jody - I hope she’s not still pouting at me - and, well, that’s enough of a list for now. I’ll scrap the interview with that desk clerk - whatever her name was. Since the disk isn’t a problem, wondering what happened to it is merely idle curiosity, and I don’t have leisure for that.
“I’m afraid I’ll have to desert you for a while, Mr. Savoy. Is there anything you’re particularly eager to do?”
“Let’s see. I still have my obligation to ‘meet my public’, as Marj Carrollton would say. Where could one do that?”
“Try the con suite - the hospitality suite, you’d call it at a mundane convention. I’ll show you there on the way back to my room.”
Harold’s image of a hospitality suite included dull conversation, rubbery hors d’oeuvres and an inadequate bar. But, as he had hoped would be the case, science fiction conventions handled matters differently. The “con suite” turned out to be a disorderly, moderately crowded venue, with potato chips, cheese curls and similar fare laid out randomly and bathtubs crammed with ice, soft drinks and beer.
Harold took a can of beer, settled into a stuffed chair and waved good-bye to Melisande. His digestive system was making heavy work of the Lhasa Pavilion’s specialties, so it was a relief to sit, ruminate and wait for his “public” to appear if it wanted to.
Slowly, it did. A middle-aged man inquired about his next book. A younger admirer presented a copy of Beneath the Wizard’s Eye for autographing. An aspiring writer asked about his working habits. A large woman with a dogmatic voice tried to quiz him on his political views.
By the start of his second beer (thoughtfully fetched by the aspiring writer), he was the geographical, if not the intellectual, center of a wide-ranging conversation. He found it hard to follow, especially since the noise level in the suite was rising steadily, but no one seemed to mind the infrequency or irrelevancy of his interjections.
At some point, a recognizable persona joined the circle: Jody Silverbury’s boyfriend. He was unaccompanied, and every line of his face drooped miserably. Instead of drawing on the con suite’s stock of refreshments, he had brought his own, an unmarked flask that was already two-thirds empty.
Harold watched the level of the alcohol diminish centimeter by centimeter. As it did so, the young man’s sadness gave way to anger. His head bobbed up to drink, down to swallow, each time moving a little faster, with a little more purpose. At a gap in the conversation, he jerked forward, contorted into a squatting position, and spoke.
“You seen Jody?” he demanded, indiscriminately addressing everyone within earshot.
Harold made the tactical mistake of replying. “No, not for hours.”
“And you won’t see her, either! You know why? Because she’s - she’s -” The anger dissolved into incoherent sobs.
The space around Harold emptied swiftly, leaving only this unhappy youth to talk, or rather listen, to.
The tale came forth in drunken spurts, a fog of emotions and facts. The principal fact was that Jody had kicked her lover out, and had kicked him out, if one took his complaints at face value, abruptly, brutally, without any foreshadowing.
“She just, just tells me, I don’t wanna see you tonight. And why not, I say, and she says, because, because I want some time by myself and I’ll see you tomorrow. But then she gets dolled up, and I know she’s got another guy, and I tell her so, and she says get out, and I shouldn’t of let her get away with it, and I’m gonna find the bastard who’s laying her, and - and - and -
“You know how unfair it is? We’ve been together, together, yeah, it would've been eight months at the end of the month, eight months -” he counted them off with exaggerated motions - “since I saw her and said, that’s the only woman for me ever, and now she just goes off with some stud, and what’ll I do now? What if he gives her AIDS? I’ve gotta save her, I’ve gotta, I’ve gotta. . . .”
He moaned, and his cheeks bulged, turning first pale, then livid. Only the lucky fact that his head bobbed downward at the last moment saved Harold from what came next.
The youth’s sickness attracted the sympathy that his tirade had repulsed. Someone brought towels, and kind arms assisted him into an adjacent bedroom, where he fell into a fitful, tear-interrupted doze.
Embarrassed at having been so near the epicenter, Harold gulped the remainder of his beer and left quickly. Marj Carrollton’s Christmas present was once again in jeopardy.
“Dolled up” might be too strong and vulgar a phrase, but, as Melisande entered the room that they shared, Jody Silverbury was taking definite pains over her appearance. She wore an artful, filmy, lime-green dress that called attention to the curves of her figure while deemphasizing its amplitude. Her long red hair, carefully washed and brushed, billowed lushly, filling her roommate with admiration.
“Hi, Jody. You and Mark must have big plans tonight.”
Jody grunted noncommittally, absorbed in the application of lipstick. Only when that ritual was completed did she look up and smile warmly, with no trace of the coldness that she had shown earlier in the day.
“What have you had to eat?” she asked.
Melisande’s attempted descriptions of Tibetan dishes were unsatisfactory, leading to a firm lecture on the need for a balanced diet.
“You’re so impossible, Melisande. Don’t you care whether you live until the Worldcon?” She frowned at the mirror. “Do you have any mascara in your purse? Mine’s all gone.”
“Sure I have mascara.” Melisande handed over the purse, and Jody rooted about in it.
“You’re absolutely certain? I can’t find it.”
“Here. I’ll look.”
“No, no, that’s not necessary. Now I see it.” She pulled out a mascara tube, unscrewed the brush and went to work on her lashes. Melisande drew closer to observe.
“Jody, you’re nervous about something. Elizabeth Hurley’s lashes aren’t that black.”
“Oh. Well, maybe I have overdone it - a trifle.” Jody took her own purse and, after some fumbling, produced tissue paper with which to repair the damage.
Melisande stayed only long enough to call Deno Stavrakis’ room. To her mild surprise, he answered the phone.
“Deno, there are some things we should talk about.”
“I thought there would be.” His voice was calm and self-confident. She wondered whether even the news that she was about to reveal would nick that marmoreal front.