SEALED IN BLOOD
by Margaret L. Carter
Amber Quill (www.amberquill.com)
In this group, a winged alien would hardly be noticed.
Standing in a corner of the hotel lobby, well away from the floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows, Nigel Jamison watched a vampire and a green-skinned Martian perform an "After you, Alphonse" dance at the main entrance. Finally the Martian came through first, and the vampire, following, caught the hem of his cloak in the door.
Nigel swirled his own crimson-lined black cape, reflecting that he’d chosen his costume well—striking enough to compel attention if he wanted to do so, but not distinctive enough to stand out. The general style could fit in with any literary milieu from high fantasy through pseudo-medieval to Gothic. Not that Nigel planned to enter the masquerade later that evening, of course; that would violate his low-profile strategy. Many of the attendees, however, wore costumes for the sheer fun of self-expression. Watching the rather fleshy vampire stride up the broad stairway to the second level, Nigel wondered what could induce such a man to envision himself as a cadaverous prowler of the night. Despite his doctorate in psychology, Nigel often found the human mind unfathomable.
He shrugged off the thought. This weekend, while not precisely a vacation, should at least be a break from his usual concerns. He shouldered his way between clots of loitering people, breathing shallowly to inhale as little as possible of their perfume, aftershave, and perspiration. The registration table stood at the far end of the lobby, beneath a banner proclaiming "Sequoiacon IV." A hand-lettered sign admonished: "We are sharing this hotel with mundanes. Please don’t freak the mundanes." Behind the table sat a slender woman with glossy black hair, whose bronze skin and aquiline profile suggested Amerindian genes. When she reached out to shake Nigel’s hand, silver bracelets inlaid with turquoise clinked on her arm. They matched a heavy pendant around her neck.
Nigel leaned over the table, not quite releasing her fingertips. He glanced at her name tag—Patricia Rainbow. "Tell me, Ms. Rainbow, how much is one membership at the door?"
Her brown eyes widened. "At almost six p.m. on Saturday evening? You sure you want to pay twenty-five dollars for less than half the con?"
"I didn’t know about it until last night," he said. "Just happened to notice a small article about it in the paper, and this evening’s program sounded entertaining."
The woman shrugged. "Your money. Welcome to Sequoiacon." Her eyes traveled up and down his black cape and lace-ruffled shirt. "You’re too late to sign up for the costume contest."
"I would rather just watch." Money changed hands, and Ms. Rainbow gave Nigel a name tag to fill out.
"Art show open until nine, when the masquerade starts," she said. "Auction tomorrow at noon. The dealers’ room closes at ten, and we have movies playing continuously all night in two different viewing rooms. Good place to sleep, for people who don’t want to pay the hotel for a bed—but you don’t look like that type."
"I was lucky," said Nigel. "They still had a few vacant rooms." While he didn’t plan to do any sleeping in his overpriced quarters, he needed somewhere to retreat when the crowd became insufferable.
"Oh, and before the costume show, the Mock Turtles will be playing," she added.
"You must not get to many SF cons," she said. "Mock Turtle Soup—folk and filk band." She handed him a program and a hotel floor map, waving her hand to indicate the stacks of promotional flyers covering the table.
Uninterested in fanzines or upcoming conventions, Nigel glanced around to make sure no one lingered near enough to take an interest in their conversation. He sat on the edge of the table—gingerly, to avoid toppling it—and captured Ms. Rainbow’s eyes with a steady gaze. "There’s one particular thing I wanted to ask about," he said in a low voice. "The newspaper piece mentioned—well, it’s almost too ridiculous to repeat, but I was intrigued." Reaching into his back pocket, he extracted and unfolded a clipping. The headline read "Sci-Fi Con Promises Out of This World Entertainment."
"Sci-fi." Ms. Rainbow snorted. "Sure, I saw that. Any publicity is better than none, or so they say."
"What about the winged alien?" he asked, his fingers again brushing hers.
She looked still more disgusted. "Oh, that nut—what’s his name, Brewster. Gives the rest of us a bad reputation."
"But he did actually claim to have authentic photographs of an alien?" Nigel persisted. "The newspaper wasn’t fabricating that part?"
"The man said it, all right." One hand toyed with her pendant. She hardly seemed to notice Nigel’s light touch on her other hand. "Announced he’d hold a discussion group tomorrow in his room and show off the pictures."
Nigel’s fingers crept up the woman’s arm. "Exactly where and when?"
Ms. Rainbow shook her head as if trying to throw off drowsiness. "I don’t know. Check the bulletin board." With her free hand she gestured toward the wide easel standing a few yards away.
"Did you see this man yourself?" asked Nigel. "What does he look like?"
"I did sell him a membership, but how the heck could I possibly remember what he looks like? One guy out of hundreds?"
"Of course you can remember." Nigel’s near-caress traveled from her arm to her shoulder. "The powers of the human mind are practically limitless. You just need to relax and concentrate." Maintaining eye contact, he continued in the same low, crooning tone, "Think. He walked up to the table and checked in. You recognized the name from somewhere, didn’t you? It wouldn’t be the first time he’s drawn attention to himself at a gathering like this. Describe him."
In a sleepy drawl, she said, "Around thirty, curly brown hair, balding in front, medium height, wears designer jeans and a denim jacket. And a crescent-shaped bronze pendant." She twitched her shoulders and added in a faintly surprised tone, "I did recall the name. He writes articles for a lot of little fanzines. Not very good ones—throws together whatever material he can scrape up and tries to come across as an instant expert."
Just the type, Nigel thought, who’d jump at the chance to publish something he thinks is real. "Anything else?"
"He came through the lobby a minute ago, now you mention it. You just missed him. He tacked up a note on the bulletin board." She rubbed her eyes like a drowsy little girl, her bracelets tinkling. "He walked off with some guy—the publicity rep from Lost Eon Books, I think."
Damn! He’s already spreading it around! Am I too late? Nigel’s hand involuntarily tightened on Ms. Rainbow’s shoulder, making her wince. He hastened to moderate his touch, gentling her into dreamy abstraction.
Glancing up again and noticing a group in silver wizards’ robes meandering their way, Nigel ran his fingers along the woman’s jawline and whispered, "Excellent. You’ve been a great help. You can forget what I asked you; it wasn’t important." As he stepped back from the table, Ms. Rainbow shook her head again, blinking.
Nigel grinned at her and, with a casual wave, tucked the clipping away and strolled over to the bulletin board, dodging a boy and girl of about ten who were dressed, respectively, as a hobbit and Maid Marian—though when had Robin Hood’s consort wandered the greenwood with a wyvern on her wrist? Staring, unseeing, at the clutter of flyers and index cards on the easel, Nigel shrugged his cape out of the way to stuff his hands in his pockets in a far from swashbuckling manner. The brief contact with a healthy, responsive female had shaken him more than he’d expected.
Keep your mind on the job, he admonished himself. You’re not really interested, anyway; it’s just blind instinct talking.
Also, he was tired, but he could stand losing one day of sleep in a good cause. He forced his attention to the posted announcements. At the top left corner of the board, Keith Brewster’s notice hung at a precarious slant. Block letters in red ink on an index card shouted "WINGED FEMALE ALIEN IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA—DISCUSSION AND PHOTO DISPLAY IN ROOM 318, ELEVEN A.M. SUNDAY." Brewster had scrawled his signature at the bottom, also in red. As Nigel committed the message to memory, a Wookie stepped up beside him to scan the board. Not wanting conversation, Nigel walked away, leafing through his program.
He crossed the forest-green lobby carpet to a side lounge, where drapes were shut against the declining sun. In a fake leather armchair beside a potted avocado tree, he read the evening’s schedule. He had no intention of waiting until eleven the next morning to carry out his task regarding the snapshots. By that hour he expected to have the whole unpleasant business behind him and, with luck, forgotten. As yet he had no clear plan, though, and he hoped for inspiration from the con schedule.
What he needed was an ally—or, to be honest, at least with himself, a tool. Someone to provide a diversion, so Nigel could avoid a direct confrontation with Brewster. The less likelihood of that meddling amateur photographer guessing how or why his pictures had vanished, the better. Nigel suspected the small group presentations would offer him the best chance of ensnaring an assistant. Three panel discussions were scheduled for seven: Writing and Selling High Fantasy, New Trends in Urban Horror, and The Search for Nonhuman Intelligence. Nigel immediately pounced on the third. If he couldn’t find a sympathetic listener in that group, his technique needed polishing.
Meanwhile, he might as well get the feel of the gathering and, if luck was with him, get an unobtrusive look at Brewster. He strode across the lobby to the main auditorium, where a petite blonde sat on the edge of the stage, cradling a Celtic harp. Listeners filled the front three rows, with other people dotted at irregular intervals throughout the room. They read, munched candy bars, or whispered together. At least one, a bearded man in a T-shirt captioned "Miskatonic University Alumni Association—Ia, Team, Ia!" slept, his head lolling on the back of the wooden folding chair.
Nigel followed the harp’s music to the front of the auditorium, taking the vacant seat nearest to the stage. The pain between his eyes, aftermath of the drive up from Berkeley, eased as the sound flowed over him. The relief didn’t spring from the music alone, but from the concentrated attention of the audience. For the first time since entering the hotel, Nigel didn’t feel bombarded by a crossfire of conflicting emotions, like a constant barrage of BB shot. With the thoughts of everyone around him focused on the singer, Nigel felt he could stretch and breathe. She switched tunes and began accompanying herself in Gaelic. Nigel listened for several minutes before reluctantly tiptoeing away. This self-indulgence wasn’t accomplishing anything.
Next he followed the hotel map down a corridor to the dealers’ room. Before entering, he drew a deep breath and mentally braced himself. From his slight acquaintance with similar conventions, he knew he could expect the sales room to be overcrowded and noisy. Just as he was about to pass the bearded con official guarding the door, Nigel heard a familiar voice call, "Hey, Professor Jamison!"
No use pretending not to hear that stridently cheerful greeting. With an inward groan, Nigel turned to face the lanky young man walking toward him. "Hello, Steve. Fancy meeting you here."
"So you decided to try the con after all! Incredible, isn’t it?" Steve Klein possessed unruly russet hair, brown puppy-dog eyes behind tortoiseshell glasses, a T-shirt adorned with a star map, and the unquestioning belief that professors loved socializing with graduate students.
"I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the newspaper item you showed me." Since he knew he might run into Steve at this affair, Nigel had registered under his real name, a decision for which he now congratulated himself.
"Going to get an article out of it, maybe? I could introduce you to some interesting people."
"Who knows?" Nigel said, wishing the young man elsewhere—preferably in an alternate space-time continuum. The last thing he needed was a self-appointed guide dogging his heels. Much as he’d enjoy putting a violent end to Steve’s attentions, that wasn’t an option in so public a setting.
"Say, I was just about to grab some dinner. Why don’t we go together?"
"I had a late lunch," Nigel lied, "and I expect to be too busy for the rest of the evening." He edged toward the dealers’ room, wondering if he’d have to resort to open rudeness. Not that Steve would recognize a brush-off if it hit him squarely in the jaw.
To Nigel’s relief, the young man said, "Okay, see you later, then."
"No doubt," said Nigel. As soon as Steve turned his back, Nigel slipped through the doorway.
The crowding fulfilled his gloomiest expectations. Tables were jammed together for maximum profit per square foot. Potential customers milled in the narrow aisles like ants deprived of their homing instinct. Nigel threaded his way among them, glancing from one display to the next, keeping an eye out for someone fitting Brewster’s description. A dusty rack of Renaissance-style gowns and cloaks didn’t attract him, nor did glass cases of jewelry comprised mostly of unicorn and dragon motifs.
He did pause at one of many tables of used paperbacks, half of them still boxed. Shuffling through the books, he reached across the chest of a weedy young man unconsciously blocking the center of the table as he read a Lensman novel.
A black woman in a scarlet dress and cape met Nigel’s eyes from behind the display. "Lots of out of print stuff here," she said.
Nigel gave her tight bodice a leisurely once-over. She wore several lapel buttons, the two most prominent announcing "Blood Is Thicker Than Water—and Much Tastier" and "Vampire Victim, Be Nice To Me Today." Nigel pigeonholed her as what his friend Claude Darvell, star of what Claude himself cheerfully labeled second-rate horror films, called a vampire groupie. Unfortunately, this one smoked heavily; the suffocating odor of stale tobacco clung to her clothes and hair.
Nigel flashed her a smile. "May I take a look at that Stoker, please?" She passed him a fifteen-year-old paperback reprint of Dracula’s Guest. Finding the copy in fair condition and priced under five dollars, he bought it and moved on.
Music emanated from a tape cassette display—a pleasant but undistinguished alto singing about a homosexual vampire stalking San Francisco. The singer’s voice was overlaid in jarring counterpoint by that of a teenage boy dickering with a dealer over the price of a vintage Eerie comic.
Two tables down, Nigel came face to face with a button reading "To Hell with the Prime Directive—Let’s Kill Something." Though he put little faith in psychological analysis by lapel pin, he didn’t find this sentiment encouraging. Alongside it on the denim jacket hung a name tag for Keith Brewster. Studying the jacket’s nondescript owner, who looked more like a salesman than an alien-invasion fanatic, Nigel wondered whether his search for Brewster might have been a waste of time. If the photos really were what Nigel suspected, how had someone like Brewster acquired them?
Don’t jump to facile conclusions, Nigel chided himself. You’ve read enough case histories of psychotic killers to know that appearances mean nothing.
Nigel filed the man’s face in his memory, then let his gaze slide without apparent pause to a row of computer games on the table before him.
When he looked up, Brewster had drifted to the other side of the room. In his place stood a young woman with honey-colored hair that struggled to escape from the red band holding it back from her face. She wore a low-cut peasant dress more suggestive of the sixties than the eighties. A costume, or simply her normal attire? Here, it was hard to tell. Trying to juggle three boxes at once, she let the third slip out of her hand. Before she could react, Nigel stooped to pick it up. He noted the title before handing it back—a fantasy role-playing game set in an enchanted forest.
"You wouldn’t want that one," he said. "Badly written and maddeningly frustrating. The creatures you meet don’t understand most of your questions and give the same two or three replies to everything."
She turned over the box to read a few lines of the blurb. "Never mind, it’s not compatible with my computer anyway," she sighed. "And I haven’t seen one yet that’s compatible with my checkbook."
"At those prices, it does pay to choose carefully," said Nigel. The subject held minimal interest for him; he simply wanted to keep her attention for a few seconds longer. This woman, too, belonged to the button persuasion, and hers carried somewhat more encouraging messages. How could one mistrust a person who held that "Any Sufficiently Advanced Magic Is Indistinguishable from Technology"? He skimmed over the rest of her pins and returned to her face. When their eyes met, she blushed. Of course—she must have attributed his lingering at chest level to other than literary motives. She pointedly turned back to the game display.
Nigel circled the room to the exit. He had lost interest in the merchandise and wanted only to get out of these close quarters. After a quick survey of the hall to make sure Steve Klein wasn’t around, he headed for the lobby again. How he wished he could forget the probably apocryphal photos and pursue a closer acquaintance with that girl, or someone like her. Her natural fragrance had reached him untainted by smoke or cologne, and he’d felt the heat rising to the surface of her skin—
Building a full-blown fantasy out of a thirty second conversation? Jamison, what in blazes is the matter with you?
Walking briskly upstairs, he reflected that he knew precisely what ailed him. He still missed Denise, couldn’t have her, and wouldn’t allow himself to look for a substitute. Granted, their separation had followed inevitably upon their respective career choices, and granted, the impossibility of frequent meetings was ultimately for the best. The less often Nigel flew back East to visit her, the more Denise sought out other companions—men who could give her the normal life Nigel never would. Last time he’d seen her, over four months ago, she had enjoyed their weekend together, yet had shown clear signs of being practically cured. Nigel wished he could say the same for himself. Drawing her back into the net of mutual dependence wouldn’t be fair. If he couldn’t stay with her, the only course, in friendship, was to let her go. Why couldn’t he accept that truth emotionally as well as intellectually?
Because addiction is irrational, you over-educated idiot, he snarled at himself.
His headache was returning. He suppressed such futile thoughts and turned into the art room to kill the time remaining until seven. Aside from the Frazetta paintings, priced beyond even his comfortable financial status, he saw nothing he’d bother to bid on, even if he’d decided to stay for the auction. In the seminar room a couple of doors down, he took a seat at the back and watched the panelists gathering at the long table up front. When he scanned the rest of the audience, his jaw tightened with irritation. He recognized the back of Steve Klein’s head in the front row, and Keith Brewster sat a few seats down from Steve. Luckily, neither had glanced around and noticed Nigel. He was glad he’d chosen an inconspicuous position.
Checking the program, he discovered that the subject of nonhuman intelligence was divided into several categories, including animal communication, Bigfoot and his relatives, artificial intelligence, and extraterrestrial intelligence. One of the guests of honor, a science fiction writer from Los Angeles, had the last topic. In spite of the hour, when many con attendees might be ducking out to snatch supper, the room filled quickly. Just as the chairman started introducing the panel members, a woman entered the room and slipped into the chair beside Nigel. The girl he’d run into at the computer game table.
He sneaked a look at her name tag. Sherri Hudson. In the past twenty minutes she’d acquired a new lapel pin, which read "Reality Is Just a Crutch for People Who Can’t Handle Science Fiction." Good God, she was practically inviting a certain kind of seduction!
Nigel shifted his attention to the panel before she could catch him staring again. Introductions completed, the science fiction writer spoke first. Most of his material offered no surprises to people acquainted with OZMA and other attempts to coax a response out of the silent void. Someone provoked a livelier discussion by challenging the plausibility of the alien civilization in the author’s latest novel. When the discussion degenerated into wrangling, the panel chairman tried to cut it short and pass on to the next speaker.
Brewster, breaking his silence for the first time, interrupted to fling a new question at the guest of honor. "What about real-life alien contact? If we could do it, should we? Is it even moral?"
The author gave him a puzzled frown. "Would you clarify that?"
"Look what’s happened throughout history on Earth, every time two different cultures clash. The more advanced one makes a mess of the primitive one. Conquest, disease, missionaries, and all that crap."
Nigel noticed Sherri Hudson leaning forward to listen with new interest, her lips parted as if eager to throw in her own comments. This time she did feel Nigel’s eyes on her, and she turned toward him to whisper, "How would the missionaries feel about that list?"
"Some of us believe," said the author with a touch of pomposity, his goatee twitching, "that by the time humanity reaches the planets encircling other stars, we will have outgrown our propensity for violence and exploitation."
"Tell that to the citizens of Hiroshima," Brewster retorted. "And what if we turned out to be the inferiors? I can just see us as slaves or cattle for some super-civilization."
"Good grief, he’s stuck in War of the Worlds!" Sherri muttered. She sprang to her feet and waved for attention. "I think you’re exaggerating, up there, but you do have a point. I see Bigfoot on the list of topics. Would the panel please address the question of what we should do about other intelligent species who may already be here."
The chairman stopped trying to confine the discussion to the printed program and left the panelists to answer questions hurled at them in a free-for-all. Nigel didn’t speak, not wanting to draw attention to himself. Instead, he watched the girl beside him. Her impassioned defense of the problematic Sasquatch was no act. Her heartbeat and breathing quickened, and her body temperature rose. Her cheeks flushed with blood racing through dilated capillaries. Nigel decided he couldn’t ask for a more pliable ally—or tool.