“I’ve already been arrested once,” Melisande pointed out. “Isn’t that enough?”
Jacinth L. Barrington, Assistant State’s Attorney for Cook County - so the laminated card that she had extracted from her thin, elegant purse identified her - looked directly at Melisande and smiled in a professionally sympathetic fashion. “It really won’t be so bad, Ms. Thomas. The deal that your lawyer and I talked about is still on the table. Maybe we could improve it, if you would -” She let the sentence hang unfinished.
“Confess, you mean. You want me to say to the world that I killed Lars. Well, I didn’t.”
She was trying to sound brave and defiant, but Harold could see the pallor that had taken possession of her face. Her palm was resting lightly on his forearm. Its temperature suggested that she had just come in from a blizzard, although droplets of sweat welled from her pores.
At roughly age seven, Harold had absorbed the wise principle that futile arguments are worse than futile. Nevertheless, he glared as harshly as he could at the Assistant State’s Attorney and spoke in his most commanding voice.
“The standards of evidence in Cook County are quite opaque to me, Miss Barrington. After the last half hour’s revelations, the leading theory concerning Mr. Gleason’s unhappy demise ought to be suicide. Of course, that lacks drama and political visibility, doesn’t it?”
“Suicide was ruled out at an early stage of our investigation, Mr. Savoy.” Her voice matched the temperature of Melisande’s skin.
“May I ask why?”
“Among other reasons, because the deceased had no motive for suicide.”
“If he did have a motive, though, wouldn’t all the tangles straighten out? Gleason could easily have extracted the tablets from Melisande’s not-too-secure purse. There’s no need for rococo hypotheses about how the tablets got into his system. And he surely knew as much as anyone about his own medical condition. All simple and neat, though not, perhaps, career-enhancing.”
“Simple and neat. But the motive, Mr. Savoy?”
“You heard the motive not long ago. The love of his life was about to desert him for another man.”
“Egotistical masculine rubbish.”
“Well, is he or isn’t he accompanying her to Cancun? You should be able to verify that part of his story. If that’s true, maybe the rest isn’t incredible.”
Melisande was losing her whited-sepulchre look. “It’s hard to believe that a woman like her could fall for Wendell Lanz,” she murmured.
“- or for Lars Gleason,” Bronkowski added. “There’s no accounting for feminine tastes. What you say’s started me thinking, Savoy.
“First off, the most obvious fact about Gleason’s recent relationship with the Corsi woman is that they weren’t together for most of the con.”
“She couldn’t get off work,” Melisande reminded him.
“So Gleason told us. But he was hardly going to say he was having romantic troubles. A guy with his ego would never admit to that. Might be interesting to check with the girl’s employer and see whether he really kept her at work all day Saturday.
“Second point. I overheard a snatch of conversation between Gleason and her after she did finally come. Boiled down to essentials, she claimed that her brother was after Gleason. She told him he’d be safer if he went to her apartment for the night. But - here’s the fascinating point - she arranged for them to leave this hotel in separate cars.
“What if she had no intention of meeting Gleason at the apartment? He waits there. She connects with her new sweetheart. Next day, one of her brothers delivers Gleason’s walking papers, while she’s on her way to Cancun with Lanzy.”
“A complicated way to dump a boyfriend,” commented Jace coldly. “Well, these speculations are all a lot of fun, just like a mystery novel. But I have a job to do. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll call my office.” She left the room with a sharp glance at Melisande and trace of annoyance on her face.
Melisande did not return her look. Her attention was concentrated in a baleful stare directed at Deno Stavrakis. Reading her eyes, Harold estimated that his old friend’s chances for a romantic revival were approximately on a par with his prospects of starting a romance with the Assistant State’s Attorney.
Dr. Robertson was tired and had early morning appointments. He would have put off calling the police until tomorrow, if his wife’s tenacious memory had not recovered one additional, curious, and possibly crucial fact.
They had been discussing Lars Gleason’s death in a wandering, desultory manner, and the doctor had just mentioned Genie Galen’s possible status as a suspect. Anne mused for a while, obviously striving to fit fragments of recollection together.
“We saw her a few months ago, remember? At that little con in Florida where you and I were fan guests of honor.”
“Oh, yeah. I guess Genie was there. She’s not a person I like to pal around with.”
Anne nodded emphatically. “Me, neither. But she hung around after the filksing, and I was trapped into listening while she pontificated. She got to talking about medicine - I haven’t the foggiest notion why - and one of the subjects that came up was Nardil. I think she had just learned that Melisande takes it, and she was being malicious, planting the impression that it’s a drug for absolute loonies only.
“I didn’t want to get into a fight, so I just sat quietly. One of her assertions, I recall, was that an overdose was extremely dangerous. ‘Three or four tablets too many will take anybody right out’ - those were her words.”
The detectives who visited in response to Dr. Robertson’s telephone call found this memory quite as intriguing as the doctor’s precis of his amateur investigations. They asked the right number of follow-up questions, thanked both husband and wife with profuse politeness and exited into the night whispering like teenaged girls digesting especially succulent gossip.
“So the case is closed?” Anne asked as she started to get ready for bed.
“If I had to bet, I’d say so,” her spouse replied. “And a convenient way to close it, too.”
“You mean, because Melisande Thomas doesn’t turn out to be a murderess.”
“Oh, I never suspected Melisande. Nobody who knows her would. Actually, I don’t think that murder fits into the typical fannish profile. Some fen are ruthless, in a mild sort of way. They’ll cut lots of corners to get what they want, but they nevertheless have perspective. Genie was an exception.”
Anne meditated as she finished removing a light patina of makeup. “You’re right, honey. No fan I know of, except for Genie, would have killed him for reasons connected with fandom. And not many would have killed him for reasons not connected with fandom. Genie is the only suspect who makes sense - unless it was all a horrible accident.”
She heard a mumbled response from the bed. “What’s that, honey?” she asked.
But her husband was already asleep.
“Mr. Stavrakis, I want to hear either a very good explanation or a very abject apology.”
“Do you have a preference? I always aim to please.”
Deno’s comeback had bold intentions but, even to Harold’s prejudiced ears, weak execution.
Melisande sniffed. “What I really prefer can’t be said with an officer of the law in the vicinity.”
“Melisande, you’re not being reasonable.”
“Lucky for you. You’d hate to see what I’d do if I were a reasonable person.”
She turned abruptly to avoid hearing his reply. Deno’s mouth opened. Then he shrugged and took a place on the couch that the Assistant State’s Attorney had vacated, looking glum but not quite defeated.
“I’m going to get a soda. Would you like anything, Harold?” Melisande asked.
“I don’t think so.”
She moved away, leaving Harold standing awkwardly, in Deno’s vicinity but outside his horizon. He felt that he should speak reassuring words but found none in his vocabulary.
To his relief, a distraction appeared. Colin Satterlee came into the room and made straight for Harold. With him was a sixty-something man who looked like a warmup act at Grossinger’s.
Satterlee beamed. “Thank heaven you’re still at the con, Milos. I was terrified that you’d already left. This is Junius Weiss. Julie, Milos Savoy.”
Harold mechanically extended his right hand. Satterlee’s tone was that of an introducer of famous personages, but the name “Junius Weiss” roused no memories. His suspicion that the other had equally little knowledge of “Milos Savoy” was swiftly dispelled.
“Honored to make your acquaintance, Mr. Savoy. I’ve admired your work for years.”
Harold’s tongue stumbled over a phrase or two of thanks.
“For years. Read everything you’ve done, I think. So when young Colin informed me that you wanted to get back into comics, I threatened to do unmentionable things to him if he didn’t bring us together before Marvel got to you.”
He paused, but no pause would have been adequate to enable Harold to gather his thoughts. He gaped, knew that he was gaping and decided that gaping was the appropriate response.
“My company’s prepared to offer a top advance for War of the Cosmic Amoebas II, and we’ll get the best talent available to draw it. You want Foglio again, you’ve got him. That’s not good enough? Hell, we’ll get you Eggleton, Whelan - name your guy, any guy. You keep the subsidiary rights, too. We’ll do a limited series, then you can do your own deal for a trade paperback. So what d’you say, pal? Is this a deal?”
The word “deal” stirred the torpid neurons. “My agent handles deals. You can - you should speak to her.”
“Sure thing. You’re with Marj Carrollton, right? The Alvestone agency? I’ll call her first thing in the morning. Let her know we talked and see about firming up the details.”
“But I don’t really -”
Satterlee chimed in. “This is so wonderful, Milos. I’ve been waiting for - it must be ten years. And I have some ideas, like I told you, if you want to hear them. Like I’ve figured out what could have happened to the Paramecium Death Ship. And -”
Melisande was back again, hanging a few paces off like a bystander who is afraid to interrupt an important business discussion. Harold looked pleadingly in her direction. She responded to sidling over and taking his arm.
“Didn’t you promise to let me read a chapter from the book you’re working on?”
“Yes, I did, didn’t I? Umm, where did I put it?”
“It’s probably in your room. If you don’t mind walking there with me and fetching it.”
“That’s a good idea.”
Satterlee had abandoned his tirade in favor of ogling Melisande. She patted his sling. “Sorry to steal Mr. Savoy away, Colin. We’ll be back in a while.”
“Marj’ll be in touch with you,” Junius Weiss added gaily.
In the hall, safely beyond the range of prying ears, Harold spoke. “You saved my life - temporarily, at least. Now I have to pray that Marj won’t sell my talent for ten percent of a piece of silver.”
“You’ll enjoy it. Junie’s a great guy. He must really want you, too. He was concentrating so hard on business that he didn’t even make a pass at me. That’s not like him. Maybe I’m getting too old for him.”
She shook her head with mock remorse. “By the way, you saved my life, too. I desperately needed an excuse to get out of the line of Deno’s glare.”
“It seemed to me that you were the one doing most of the glaring.”
“But I have the right to glare. He doesn’t.”
“You’re pretty mad at him, aren’t you?”
“Furious. But at the same time, I’m worried about him.” She stopped in front of the elevators and did not resume speaking until a car, fortunately empty, stopped in front of them. They entered, and she punched what seemed to be a random button.
“Harold, do you think it’s possible that Deno killed Lars?” Her voice was barely audible over the elevator machinery.
“Of course not.”
“I wouldn’t have thought so, either, but now. . . .”
“Isn’t he pretty much in the clear?”
“You mean, because he says he didn’t know about Lars’ heart? Harold, I remember his exact words. He was not speaking metaphorically.”
“That did sound weak. But why should he lie?”
“That’s my biggest worry, I guess. To clear himself and - and frame another suspect. But I never thought he would pick me.”
The elevator door opened. People were waiting to get on. Harold and Melisande got off. Their new floor was quiet. Melisande sat down on the carpet. Harold took a nearby chair.
“Melisande, there’s a flaw in your suspicion. When Deno made his denial, he wasn’t aware that he we had an Assistant State’s Attorney among us.”
“I’m not so sure of that. I’ve seen that woman at cons before. It’s not a real clear memory, but I’m sure I recognize the face. If I know her hazily, Deno may know her well - at least, well enough to be aware of what she does for a living.”
“Okay, maybe. But the key point is, why should either Deno or you be a suspect, now that we know about what’s-his-name and Miss Corsi? The killer was either that fellow or Lars himself. I’m sure of it.”
Melisande shook her head. “No, no, no,” she chided. “You men are so naive. You believe anything you tell each other.
“And now we’d better get something that looks like a manuscript and head back. Else, people will start making up stories about us.”
Melisande Thomas had vanished, for which Jace was profoundly grateful to whatever Power guided the universe. If the woman had been present, there would have no choice but to slink away, but none of the others in the suite inspired the same sense of embarrassment, and she felt an obligation to let them know that the puzzle of Lars Gleason’s death had finally been solved, to the satisfaction of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office at least.
She saw several open seats. One was on the couch next to Deno Stavrakis. She slipped into it.
Wispy recollections, unearthing themselves after years of burial, drew her to him. In that life before her current one, she now recalled, he had been a Presence, distant and Olympian and enviable. In the last few hours, particularly the last few minutes, as her self-satisfaction had dwindled, the ancient wisps had coalesced and once again become alive.
“Hi!” said Stavrakis, with unexpected vim. He scrutinized her expression. “Anything gone wrong? You look like the ceiling fell on you.”
“Quite the contrary. I talked to my boss. New evidence has come to light. The office has concluded that Genie Galen was responsible for Mr. Gleason’s death. They’re closing the file.”
Stavrakis whistled through his teeth. “Whew. I suppose that ‘I’m glad to hear it’ would be the wrong thing to say. Still, if Lars had to die, God’s taken care of punishing the murderer. That saves you a lot of work, doesn’t it?”
“An immense amount. At the very least, I don’t have to get into the office early tomorrow.”
“Stay around and party, then. By the way, I’m positive I’ve seen you at cons before. Years ago, maybe?”
“Years ago. I used to be quite a fan, but then I gamb - garf - oh, I can’t recall the word.”
“Gafiated - Got Away From It All. Happens to the best of fen. I hope we can welcome you back now.”
Before the rational part of her mind could politely demur, a long-suppressed impulse took control of her tongue and said, “Yes, indeed. I’d forgotten how cozy fandom is.”
“Want a beer?”
“Deno, I’ve been out of touch, but I’m not a neo.” She lowered her voice and tried out her most dazzling smile. “Would you get me a bheer -“ - she put an emphatic puff of air behind the h - “please?”
They had both left the party by the time that Harold and Melisande returned.
Jody refuses to scream.
For centuries she has peregrinated the maze, running, swimming, flying, leaping, dodging evil-toothed demons, pulling her legs out of quicksand grapples, swatting red-eyed mosquitoes, pushing aside entangling, prehensile vines.
She floats now, her feet bobbing inches above snake-infested topsoil that sprouts yellow and purple mushrooms. She propels herself with quick motions of her hands.
She senses the exit before she sees it. Free air whirls in little zephyrs that tease and cool her toes. She clasps the treasure more tightly in her hand. It purrs reassuringly.
Seconds to go until freedom.
A mushroom swells, blocking her path. She recoils.
“Let me look at your treasure,” the mushroom says. Its voice is warm and insinuating. It extends its fleshy arms.
Urgent desires cascade over Jody: to accept, to yield, to embrace those arms and surrender her treasure. She struggles against desire.
“You cannot leave,” the mushroom mocks. “If you try to pass, I shall take your treasure and read it and scatter it among the demons.”
She floats higher and swivels her head, surveying continents, seeking help.
“Melisande,” she whispers. But Melisande lies imprisoned inside the treasure and cannot be set free. Not until the maze comes to an end.
“Give!” intones the imperious voice. It looms nearer. Its bulk sinks upon her, lying astride, and she despairs of keeping desire in check.
Still, she will not scream.
She must find the creature’s mouth. Stuff its mouth with chocolate, and it will fall asleep. Melisande’s purse levitates from within the treasure, and Jody snatches handfuls of chocolate out of it.
The mushroom’s lips close around her as she slathers chocolate across its tongue. She has almost lost now. Her body, maddening under warm, rhythmic pressure, begins to heave and contort.
Chocolate trickles down the assailant’s throat. It shudders. She feels its grip loosen, its deformed pseudo-tentacles withdraw. She clings to the treasure and hurtles toward the exit. Her legs kick frantically against the heavy air, propelling her the last few yards. Light and color return to the world. She is free!
Glancing backward, she perceives that the mushroom is dying. Its heart enlarges and explodes, showering yellow and purple blood through the far reaches of the maze. A twinge of sorrow momentarily chokes her. She drives the feeling away. Better him than me, she recites, better him than me.
She passed from the dream to full wakefulness without a transition. The sheets of her bed were damp, and she knew that she had been terrified. Once conscious, however, she put aside terror.
All was well, the nightmare no more than an old encrustation now safely shucked off. She calmed herself, cuddled her pillow and smiled. All is well, she repeated, addressing those organs and glands that did not yet seem entirely convinced.
A nurse’s head looked in. Jody waved.
“Any problem here?” the nurse asked. “I heard a disturbance.”
“Just a bad dream. Everything’s okay.”
“Would you like a sedative?”
“No, thanks. I used to be worried about something, but it’s out of my system now.”
Sergeant Bronkowski took charge of summarizing the solution to the mystery for Harold and Melisande and the few others who lingered at the dead dog party. He fleshed out the facts conveyed by the Assistant State’s Attorney with information gleaned from buddies in various offices at various levels of responsibility.
Harold listened and became less satisfied as he did so. The solution had a certain moral appeal, and it neatly exonerated the persons whose guilt he was least anxious to contemplate. On the other hand -
Melisande gave him the opening to articulate his doubts. “You don’t look very satisfied, Mr. Savoy. Would you prefer a tidy answer, like in your uncle’s novels?”
“Not tidy. Just credible.”
“Well, let me try to put it into words. Nobody thinks this was a crime of passion, do they?”
“Depends on what you mean by ‘passion’,” Bronkowski replied. “Genie was pretty passionate about her own interests.”
“But her decision to commit murder was based on rational calculation, right? Not on the impulse of the moment.”
“And her calculation was that, without Lars Gleason on the Seattle Worldcon bid, her own bid for Las Vegas would be a sure winner?”
“But wasn’t Gleason’s co-leadership of the Seattle bid the impetus for the bid from Portland?”
“Sure, but that was just a nuisance candidacy. It didn’t affect the big picture.”
“It was going to attract votes from natural Seattle supporters who disliked Gleason, wasn’t it?”
“Right. But that was fewer than the number who’d be wary of a Seattle bid chaired only by Deno.”
“I’ll take your word for the psephology of the situation. The weakness of the whole theory is, though, that Melisande and I had dinner with Miss Galen a few hours before she allegedly fed the Nardil to Gleason. And while we were eating, Melisande spun a story about how Deno was moving to Tampa and wouldn’t be involved with the Seattle bid any more.
“Now, am I right to suppose that the Seattle bid would have gone on even if it had lost both Gleason and Deno?”
“Sure,” said Melisande. “Pam Brauer would’ve taken over. To be frank, the bid would have been stronger if she’d chaired it in the first place - and I just realized what you’re saying.”
Realization flashed across Bronkowski’s face at the same moment. “She had to get rid of one of them, not both.”
“She might not have believed my tale,” Melisande interjected. “It was pretty farfetched.”
“She looked like she was swallowing it. In any event, a rational calculator would have delayed the murder in order to see what was going to happen. She’d already had the chance to raid your purse, so she had her weapon. She could have saved it for another convention.”
“Less suspicious to wait,” Bronkowski added. “She and Gleason were bound to run into each other at plenty of other cons.”
“And so,” said Harold, putting a solemn note into his voice, “the jury agrees that Genie Galen is Not Guilty. Tell me, does anybody believe my suicide theory?”
Like marionettes on a common string, Melisande and Sergeant Bronkowski shook their heads.
“What would your Uncle Howard do to untangle this?” Melisande asked. “I don’t want to be arrested a third time.”
“Does Savoy have an Uncle Howard?”
“He writes mystery novels, Bronc. Why do your ask?”
“Oh, I just remembered an odd little fact. Savoy, does anybody ever mix you up with your uncle, call you by each other’s names, I mean.”
“Not too likely. He’s lived abroad since before I was born.”
“Jody got the names confused this evening, but that was a coincidence.”
“Tell me about it.”
“What does it matter?” In a couple of sentences, Melisande explained how a convalescing Jody had garbled Harold’s name.
After receiving this information, the policeman fell into a kind of trance. When he emerged, he said simply, “Savoy, your office has a backup of the Tampa data disk, the one Melisande and Jody prepared?”
“I think so.”
“The woman who took that disk from the hotel clerk asked for Howard Bramwing. Savoy, can you get an accountant to look at those financials? Tonight?”