“Lieutenant Ricklefs has vanished,” Melisande announced. “I scoured the lobby from end to end.”
“Did he find Corsi’s sister?” Bronkowski asked.
“Oh, yes. She was still on the phone when we went to look for her. I pointed her out, then scurried back to you guys.”
“How did she look? Upset?”
“I couldn’t tell. She had her back to us.”
“Well, I suppose Ricklefs questioned her, decided there was nothing more to do here tonight and went back to his wife and kids. He doesn’t have to check in and out with me.”
“So he went home, and the mystery was solved without him. He’s going to feel awfully disappointed tomorrow.”
“That’s life. Let’s get sleeping beauty stowed. Then I think we should follow the lieutenant’s example and turn in for the night ourselves.”
The manager-on-duty located suitable accommodations for the quasi-prisoner, a suite with a bedroom that opened only onto its parlor. The unconscious Mark was lodged in the bedroom, while Bronkowski took the parlor’s murphy bed. Melisande hugged him good night.
“Will I see you in the morning, Bronc? Maybe you’d be interested in breakfast?”
“I’m not making any promises.”
“All right, all right. How about you, Mr. Savoy?”
“I’m not so reluctant to promise. Is eight o’clock too early?”
“That’ll be fine. We’ll meet in the coffee shop?”
They walked together to the stairwell, then separated to go to their rooms.
Against all rational expectations, Harold slept peacefully. The only dream that he could remember occurred near dawn. He and Melisande Thomas and Jody Silverbury were children playing on a beach. Melisande was building a sand castle. Jody helped her for a while, then began digging into the foundations, taking sand away as rapidly as her companion could pile it on top. Nonetheless, the structure continued to grow. After a while, the foundation was completely gone, but the castle hung in the air, slowly revolving and casting back the rays of the Sun.
For no clear reason, he woke thinking of the one great love of his life, to whom he had dedicated his first book. That had been a collection of sentimental poetry, which had made no profit until the publisher reissued it a decade later under Harold’s science fiction pseudonym, with the addition of a few short stories and a number of bombastic stanzas on SF-like topics.
The girl who had inspired that volume was many years gone from his life, if one could truly say that she had ever been in it, and hardly any of the readers of Milos Savoy knew about this aberrant publication, even in its second edition. Lying on the verge of wakefulness, he wondered whether Sergeant Bronkowski, putative leader of his fan club, would recognize the title.
He was drifting back into the dream when the telephone jarred him to full consciousness.
“Hullo,” he wheezed.
“Harry, this is Deno. Did I wake you up?”
“Not really. What’s happening?”
“I heard a rumor I thought you might know something about. They’re saying that the guy who stabbed Lars has been caught.”
“It looks that way. A kid who was going around with Melisande’s friend Jody. I remember he came into the con suite drunk and complaining that she’d thrown him over. Evidently, your co-chairman was the unlucky guy who’d gotten her.”
“That’s odd. They used to be an item, a long time ago, but I didn’t think she cared much for him these days. Anyway, the story’s true?”
“So far as I know.”
“Thanks, Harry. I’ll talk to you later.”
Harold hung up the telephone and struggled out of bed. The clock told him that he had less than half an hour to prepare for his breakfast engagement.
He arrived in the coffee shop at eight fifteen. Although the lobby was thinly populated at that hour, the denizens looked subtly different from the past two days, as if in a state of transition between fandom and mundane existence. Clothing was casual-ordinary rather than casual-strange. The conversational knots were unraveled, leaving isolated individuals, standing watch over commonplace luggage, the sort of people that one might see any morning in any hotel.
When Melisande arrived ten minutes after Harold, she confirmed the impression. She wore a green, velvet jump suit, such as a young professional would select for a Sunday excursion to the mall. Her only item of apparel that did not fit this image was the canvas book bag that she carried along with her purse. The bag’s exotic decoration was obscured by buttons. Most legible to Harold was a themed pair:
“Time spent at science fiction conventions doesn’t count against your allotted span.”
“Unfortunately, time spent waiting for elevators does.”
He also noted a plaintive and appropriate, “. . . but this is the earliest that I’ve ever been late”.
She had obviously taken trouble over her hair and makeup, but the effect was diminished by the tightly drawn lines around her lips. She looked several years older than Harold remembered her from yesterday.
“I’m worried about Jody. She hasn’t come back yet.”
“Probably stuck in the storm. Didn’t you say she was out with local friends? She could have put up with them for the night.”
“She would have called.”
“It was getting pretty late.”
“She would have apologized fifty thousand times, but she still would have called.”
“You think something’s wrong?”
“Well, there’s one circumstance under which she might not have called. If she had a date -”
“I see your point.”
“But who? And why wouldn’t she come right out and tell me she was seeing a man, instead of inventing a story about mysterious friends who have to keep their movements and identities secret?”
“Her friend Mark obviously thought she was seeing Lars Gleason.”
“That’s one way to read his note. But it can’t be right. Lars was in the hotel all evening, and Jody wasn’t. What I think is that Mark was hoping to win Jody back by terrorizing someone he thought she loathed. When matters got out of hand and he killed Lars, he was overcome by remorse and tried to get out of a desperate situation via suicide.”
“Crazy enough to be true.”
Harold spotted Sergeant Bronkowski entering the coffee shop. The policeman saw the two of them at the same moment and came over, dragging his feet and looking meditative. “Either of you ever heard of something called Nardil?”
Melisande giggled, choking out her words, “Have I ever heard of Nardil? Look here.”
She snatched her pill box from her purse, threw open a random compartment and dumped its contents onto the tabletop. Minuscule brown-orange pellets rolled out.
“That’s Nardil. You bet I’ve heard of it.”
Bronkowski squeezed a tablet between thumb and forefinger. “What does it do?”
“For me, it controls the symptoms of a disease called Shea’s Syndrome. It’s also prescribed for chronic depression and various other ailments.”
“Why would Gleason have taken it, do you suppose?”
“That’s easy: he wouldn’t have. Lars had - at least, I’ve been told he had - heart trouble. Nardil would be strongly contraindicated. There’d be a high risk of cardiac arrest.”
“You sure of that, Melisande?”
“Positive. Believe me, I know this medication. The Physician’s Desk Reference could take my correspondence course.”
“Very, very strange. You see, I’ve been on the horn with Dr. Party. He told me that the stab wound is out as the cause of death. The blade went in at an angle and barely grazed the rib cage. But the autopsy found a high concentration of this Nardil stuff in Gleason’s blood. The doc didn’t explain what that meant. From what you say, I gather it could have brought on a heart attack.”
“A large enough dose could have. For someone with a heart that was already weakened, it might take - oh - a hundred or hundred twenty-five milligrams. That’s four or five tablets.” She pouted, then swore in an undertone. “Pardon my French.”
“What’s wrong?” Harold asked.
“It’s so annoying. There are supposed to be four tablets - one day’s dose - in each compartment, and this one seems to have only three. One must have rolled under something or off the table.”
Harold peered about and tried lifting plates and place mats, while Bronkowski knelt and explored the nearby floor with the palm of his hand. The search did not last long.
“It’s hopeless,” Melisande opined. “That’s okay, though. One less on one day of the week isn’t dangerous.”
Bronkowski’s face, as he resumed his chair, drooped further than normal. He folded his hands together and gazed solemnly at Melisande.
“Bronc, what are you thinking about? You’ll frighten me.”
His mustache quivered as he dredged up words. “Melisande, I have to repeat to Ricklefs everything you’ve told me. This is potentially a murder investigation, after all.”
“Is that all that’s worrying you? Of course, you can repeat what I told you about Nardil. It’s not exactly a secret.”
“Ricklefs doesn’t know you.”
“N-o-o-o-o, he doesn’t. . . . Bronc! You don’t believe for a minute that he could accuse -”
“Think about it. The cause of death was an overdose of a medication that Gleason probably didn’t take and you do. You have a motive -”
“Lars made a pass at me? What kind of motive is that for murdering him?”
“You have what Ricklefs may regard as a motive,” Bronkowski continued evenly. “Now, as for opportunity, that’s not so easy to establish, but you certainly were in contact with Gleason yesterday.”
“What about method? How could I have administered Nardil to him? ‘Here, Lars, take these five pills; they’ll be good for you’?”
“How could anybody have administered it? But either somebody did, or he committed suicide. And I don’t consider suicide the leading theory at the moment.”
“So the fellow I found in the rest room is innocent?” Harold said, wanting to divert the conversation into less unpleasant channels.
“He doesn’t know he was ever a suspect. He’s not likely to wake up for a few hours yet. When he does, he may wonder why he isn’t in his own room, but hopefully he’ll think being in a strange room is better than being dead.”
“I don’t know,” said Melisande. “He might be upset. Can he sue you for denying him the right to choose suicide?”
“I don’t believe the ACLU has gotten around to that case yet, so I should be safe. Now I’d better call Ricklefs and let him know he has a mystery again.”
Lieutenant Ricklefs was not, however, reachable at police headquarters. Indeed, he had not reported in for over eight hours, and HQ was hoping that Bronkowski knew where he was.
The 9:00 a.m. news revealed that the riddle of the lieutenant’s whereabouts had been solved.
“The storm that paralyzed the northern suburbs lifted this morning, unveiling a tragedy and a mystery. In the quiet village of Carmody Park, a snow plow turned up the body of Lieutenant David Ricklefs, a six-year veteran of the Carmody Park police force.
“According to a police spokesman, Lieutenant Ricklefs was shot through the chest by a single nine millimeter revolver bullet. The police say they have no motive and no leads at this time.
“Shortly before his own death, Lieutenant Ricklefs was summoned to the Carmody Park Hotel to investigate the demise of an out-of-town visitor to a local science fiction convention. He concluded that the victim, whose name is being withheld pending notification of next of kin, had died of a heart attack and that no foul play had occurred.
“At some undetermined time after that, Lieutenant Ricklefs himself became the victim of foul play. He is the first Carmody Park police officer to be killed in the line of duty since July 1967. The authorities have promised a full and vigorous investigation.”
The chairman of Zephyrcon heard this broadcast in the con operations room, while rubbing bleary eyes and groaning his way through a third cup of black coffee. What he heard was the worst possible tonic for sleeplessness and anger.
“They think this is hilarious, I’ll bet. Another great anecdote to recount on My Most Bizarre Convention panels.”
Bridget Mullaedy, who had been quietly making lists for herself, committed the error of asking, “Who think that?”
“Stavrakis. Melisande Thomas. Milos Savoy. All that crowd. I almost booted them out of here, and I should have. If I hadn’t been so afraid Savoy’d get mad and write letters to File 770 and its ilk, they’d be gone. They might still be laughing at me, but at least they’d have to laugh out in the snow.” He crumpled a styrofoam cup and hurled it the length of the room.
“No, I’m not going to get mad, but someday, somehow I’m going to get even.”
Bridget, not a contentious young woman, had already left the room. A second crumpled cup landed on the chair that she had abandoned.
Lake Michigan, an icescape from shore to horizon, reflecting glints of orange and purple from the dawn, bewitched Caroline Corsi. She had wrapped her nude body in a down-filled comforter and curled up on a plush chair beside her window, from which she could admire every nuance of the scene. For a time, she brushed aside the sticky spider webs in the back of her head.
The first web was her attachment to Lars Gleason, the man whom she had loved without befriending. Knowing that he was forever out of her life brought more relief than sorrow. Her passion had been fierce and anxious, a succession of crises and conflicts, and she realized now that marriage, so long as it had lasted, would have exacerbated their mutual stress. She tried to probe her own psychology, to understand why she had fallen in love and then found love so easy to leave behind. But she was still too close to the experience; it yielded no lessons that she could read.
Entangled with that web was a newer one, her hatred of the woman who had, for part of a night at least, stolen Lars away from her. Until the last dozen or so hours, Melisande Thomas had been a mere name among names, a figment of Lars’s best-forgotten past, a face occasionally glimpsed and never studied seriously. Now this Thomas woman had taken her place as the true begetter of the recent woes of the Corsi family. If only she had kept her hands off Lars -
The third web spun forth, the chain of mischances that had brought Caroline to this idyllic room at this idyllic time of day, looking toward a future in which idylls played no part.
Shivering in the gale, she had watched Piero’s methodical search of the mugger’s person. He exhumed an object from an inner pocket and held it up to the light. The reflection struck Caroline’s eyes, and she recognized a police badge.
Piero’s face was out of the field of the headlights, dark and indecipherable.
“Why would a cop want to rob us?” Caroline asked, raising her voice over the wind’s howl.
“Wanted to arrest us, more likely,” Piero howled back. “I bet he followed you here!”
He pulled the wounded man’s face into the light. The features were those of the policeman who had approached Caroline at the hotel. She moved closer to her brother.
“Damn!” Piero shouted. “Cop killing’s no game.”
“But it was self-defense. He didn’t identify himself.”
“You think the jury’ll take our word for that?”
“Maybe he’s not dead.” She tried to grasp the man’s wrist to take a pulse.
“He will be.” He slapped her hands away.
“Piero! You’re not - you can’t -“
“Assault with intent to kill is no game either, sis. If he recovers, the slammer’s a sure thing. If he dies, it’s only a risk. Get into your car. I’ll jump start it. Then we’ll go to the Hole.”
Caroline was too cold and too stunned to argue. As she maneuvered her reanimated Porsche around the body, it shone briefly in the headlights’ glow. The man could have been taking a nap on thick, white sheets. She had not wept for Lars. Now her tears fell incontinently for this anonymous policeman.
The rambling lakefront house, screened from the world by five acres of forest, was the stuff of family legends. Here her father had lain in hiding from Sam Giancana and her grandfather from Al Capone. During Prohibition rumrunners had docked at the wharf, and politicians and civic leaders had swarmed over the beach at Niccolo Corsi’s grandiose parties. A briefly famous mobster called Lucky Beandorf was supposedly buried underneath the rose bushes.
Nominally the property now belonged to a squeaky clean foundation, which utilized it as the venue of small, high-toned conferences on such subjects as global warming and the ecology of the snail darter. But every one of Niccolo Corsi’s descendants, even the untainted Caroline, had a key and knew for what purpose “the Hole” had been built.
Caroline shook her head mournfully as the sundry webs caught hold of her thoughts and tugged them away from the glory of the sunrise. Soon she would have to dress, fix breakfast and think about how to exist until the Sun set rose again tomorrow.
The one cheering thought was that her enemy was in this same house, locked firmly in a basement room under the guard of her brother’s henchman. During a long spell of brooding, before she went to sleep, she had jettisoned ambitions of exquisite revenge. She would be happy if the woman suffered - and then joined Lucky Beandorf among the roses.
Opening her suitcase, she selected a pale pink blouse-and-hot pants combination that she had planned to wear on sweltering days in Cancun. It flattered her nicely, and she spent a few minutes pirouetting before the full-length mirror, imagining admiring gazes and machisimmo beaux.
Her stomach evinced no desire for immediate nourishment. She hurried through the kitchen, down the stairs, into the basement. The guard snored on a couch. Caroline found the key to the prison-bedroom and unlocked its door.
She heard steady breathing. Enough light came through the open door to enable her to tiptoe to the source of the breathing without mishap. An abundance of hair, red even in the dimness of the cell, poured over the bolster of the old-fashioned bed.
The hair was wrong. She leaned close to the face. As her eyes grew used to the illumination, she could discern who it was. She ground her teeth and cursed the idiocy of the male half of her family.
A scrupulous courtesy led her to close the door carefully, so as not to disturb the sleeper. She had less regard for her brother’s tool. He roused himself briefly and grunted at the noise made by her passing footsteps.
She found her brother, an early riser like herself, in the library, watching a pornographic videotape. He flushed and switched the machine off when he became conscious of her arrival.
“You deserve to hang!” his sister spat.
“What in God’s name is wrong with you? There’s nothing to worry about. We’ll lie low until we know whether the cops are looking for us, that’s all. If there’s a problem, Papa can take care of it.”
“Stop babbling! What’s wrong is that you lied to me. The woman you grabbed isn’t the one I told you to get.”
“Like hell she isn’t! With my own eyes, I saw her smooching your ex-boyfriend.”
“Maybe you were drunk. I looked in, and it isn’t her. It’s that girl Lars lived with years ago in San Francisco.”
Piero looked puzzled and aggrieved. “Yeah, of course that’s who it is. Who’d you expect?”
“The bitch Lars was with last night, that’s who! She told me herself that the one you’ve got wasn’t so much as at the hotel.”
“You’re out of your head, sis. I know who I saw doing what.”
“And I know who as much as rubbed herself and Lars in my face!”
Piero jumped up and stamped across the room, rattling the floorboards through two inches of carpet.
“All right, whatever you say. It’s the wrong woman, and I’m sorry. Now, shall I hang myself for you?”
“It might be a good idea. You realize, don’t you, that she’s a witness to what happened last night? And I’m not going to let you kill her like you did the cop.”
“You think only Luigi or I’ll go to the slammer? They’ll nail you as an accessory, dear sister. You may think you’ve been Little Saint Caroline all your life, but they’ll see you as just another Corsi.”
“I’ll talk to her. She must know the shooting was an accident.”
“Oh, talk till your tongue falls out, for all I care. One thing you’d better understand is that I’m not putting my freedom at the mercy of a broad. If I think it’s safe for her to go, she goes. If not, she pushes up flowers with Lucky Beandorf. Got it?”
“We’ll talk about it later.”
The siblings stalked off in opposite directions, each turning at an identical instant to glare back malignly at the other.