Murder at the Worldcon: A Science Fictional Roman a Clef
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by J. D. Crayne
Category: Science Fiction/Mystery/Crime
Description: Can You Guess Who's Who? In this murder mystery set at a 1960s World Science Fiction Convention, real-life authors and fans behind fictional names are mixed with fictional characters. Match wits with the book's author, J. D, Crayne, try to identify the real characters and their actual names in this unique roman a clef. It's a holiday weekend, and the World Science Fiction Convention is ready to roll. The first speaker for the first panel steps up onto the speaker's platform -- and finds a corpse under the table. Not only is it a corpse, it's the body of a writer/editor that no one liked, and he's been brained with one of science fiction's most prestigious awards -- the Hugo. Enter the FBI. The dead man had a day job as a biochemist and there seems to be a conspiracy afoot to murder American biochemists. Is there a link between Coubra's murder and those other deaths? Special Agent Noel Minden finds himself cast adrift on a sea of make-believe as he tries to make sense out of science fiction fandom. Lovely "Grub" Witchety and her grandfather, Dr. J. R. Derry (known as "Gramps"), introduce the bemused agent to amateur press publishing, monster movies, and the Mystic Water from the Well of St. Fanthony. You'll laugh out loud at the antics of this slightly cockeyed investigative trio as they cope with masquerade beauties, fan parties, filk song sessions, and those dog-eared, vintage copies of Astounding, Amazing, and Arkham House reprints in the huckster room. The luckless convention chairman is just beginning to get over the death of Coubra, when there's a second murder. This time the victim is a man that everybody liked! Is there a connection between the two killings? The convention ends on Monday, and time is running out. Meet mutated mice, big-headed aliens, and amiable drunks in the hotel lounge. It's a hoot, it's a yell, it's a blast! It's black jelly beans and wandering bagels! It's a sci-fi con! And while you're reading, test your knowledge of sixties and seventies science fiction writers and fans against the author's. Can you guess the real-life people behind these characters who you will meet in the novel: Gary Corneille, Brad O'Neill, Marshall Barrigan, Bill and Beth Krotz, Uncle Elmer, Frank and Dinah Kinder, Wes Dalvan, The Flash, Nate Levenson, Derryk Masters, Will Studley, or Big Hearted Howard. Or try an easier test. Fit the last name to these characters and their real-life first names you will encounter in the story: Drew, Owen, Kathy, Sylvia, Ted, Jayne.
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner, 2005
eBookwise Release Date: December 2005
8 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [183 KB]
Reading time: 116-163 min.
It was a little before nine o'clock in the morning. The audience was already starting to filter into the hotel's Regency Ballroom, but Dr. J. Ross Derry, known to his intimates as Gramps, was the first of the panelists to arrive. Stout and good-natured, with a shock of gray hair and plump apple cheeks, he ambled up the steps to the speakers' platform, leaning on the silver headed cane that he didn't actually need, and looked for a chair that combined good visibility with the opportunity for a fast getaway later on.
He glanced casually around the ballroom itself and saw nothing unusual. It was a typical hotel ballroom; large, impersonal, and reflective of maximum effect with minimum cost.
Gramps, still pondering, finally selected a chair second from the end of the speaker's table, hooked his cane over the table edge, and settled down, trying out his Mount Blanc fountain pen on a scratch pad.
With a sigh of resignation, Dr. Derry's granddaughter, "Grub" Witchety, saw that the kitchen hadn't provided the usual glasses and pitchers of ice water for the speakers.
Walking behind her grandfather, across the platform in the direction of the service area door, to look for a waiter, Grub noticed a man's shoe sticking out from under the dark red table cloth.
When she bent down and lifted the edge of the cloth to look at it, she realized that the shoe was still on a foot, the foot was attached to a leg, and the leg belonged to a corpse with a badly crushed skull that was lying under the table.
She straightened up, wondering if she looked as green as she felt.
"Gramps, there is a body under the table."
"Oh?" he said casually, shaking his pen. "Probably some poor sot who had a bit too much last night and crawled under there to sleep it off."
"I don't think so. It looks like he's dead."
"Pretty much. There's a sort of ... dent in his head."
"Anybody we know?" her grandfather asked, getting to his feet with the help of his cane.
"I think it's Bob Coubra," Grub said, her voice sounding a little shaky. "We'll have to call someone."
"Housekeeping?" he suggested amiably, lumbering over to take a look.
Dr. Derry, noted author of over fifty science fiction, fantasy, and mystery novels, and twice-winner of the Hugo award for the best science fiction novel of the year, puffed slightly as he bent down to peer under the hanging drape, muttered something unintelligible, and then straightened up again, nodding.
"It's Coubra all right; dead as the traditional doornail."
"I'm going to find a house phone and get Hotel Security," Grub said. "You head off the mob." She jerked her head toward the trickle of fans who were strolling in through the room's double doors.
Beyond the rear doors to the Regency Room, Grub looked both ways along the service corridor and finally spotted a wall phone next to the service elevator at the east end. She walked over to it, reminding herself that the deceased was in no particular need of any hurry.
Convincing the security staff that this wasn't a prank call was a little difficult, but once she'd given the woman on the other end of the line her name, room number, arrival date, and proposed length of stay, she was assured that someone would be there shortly.
By the time Grub got back to the Regency Room, the double doors were shut and the fans had been shunted back into the outside hall. The white plastic, stackable, chairs in the audience were empty and forlorn. The industrial designed off-white walls, golden cornices, and red drapes behind the speaker's platform looked like a stage set.
Gramps, four of his fellow authors, and the chairman of the convention, were standing around on the speakers' platform, next to the red-draped tables, staring down owlishly at the scene of the crime.
Someone had looped up the hanging portion of the red drape onto the table top and secured it with two of the heavy glass hotel ashtrays, giving a clear view of the space beneath the table and of the rear end of someone on his hands and knees in an exquisitely tailored gray suit.
"I called Security and they ought to be here in a couple of minutes," Grub said, stepping up onto the speakers platform and nearly tripping over a large black leather brief bag that was sitting on the floor.
Gramps, who was part of the standing group, nodded. "The sooner the better. The air conditioning in here is none too good, and like Polonius they may begin to nose him soon."
The figure under the table backed out; straightened up too soon; hit his head on the table edge; and swore loudly as he got to his feet.
"Well, Quent? Are you satisfied that he's dead?" Gramps asked mildly.
"Oh yes, he's dead all right. Never saw anyone deader," Quentin Rodessa, acclaimed author of the Nor Then series said, looking rather pale as he brushed back his white hair. "It looks like I'm short one co-writer. "I guess it's a good thing that we finished the book we were doing together," he added grimly, dusting off his hands.
Whether his pallor came from near proximity to the corpse, or hitting his head on the table wasn't immediately clear.
"I saw Coubra at the reception last night," Gary Corneille said, bending his lanky form and peering under the table through steel-rimmed bifocals. "He was pretty squiffed."
"He usually was," Brad O'Neill said mildly.
"That's going to mess up the awards ceremony real good!" Peter Hutton, the convention chairman, said bitterly, as he wiped his palms nervously on his gray slacks. "He's getting the Hugo for Best Novella!"
"Ah ... I think he's already got it," Rodessa said sounding a little apologetic as he stooped to open the black leather brief bag and took out a clean white handkerchief to wipe his face.
"What do you mean?" Hutton demanded.
"There's something lying on the floor next to him that sure looks like a Hugo."
"What!" Hutton squawked. "That's impossible! I've got them all locked up in my room." He pushed past Corneille, bent down to stare under the table, and straightened up again looking stunned.
"Maybe it's an old one that he brought along to show someone," Allison Reed said charitably, running fingers through her curly gray hair.
"Oh sure," Gary Corneille said. "Like he got one for Moss Men of Mars or Jewel Men of Jupiter or something. He's never been anything but a hack and I was surprised as hell that he even got a nomination this time around."
Quent Rodessa gave him a reproving look, and then picked a bit of lint off of his jacket lapel. "Bob had a long and well-regarded career as a writer!"
"Yeah, well, you have to stick up for him," Corneille muttered. "He was almost a relative, right?"
"Be charitable," Corneille's co-author, Brad O'Neill, interposed with a grin. He was a medium-sized man, with a neatly trimmed brown beard and mustache, and was wearing a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches. He dug his hands into his pockets and said, judiciously, "Some people actually liked Coubra's Rocketship Carbonides series." He paused and added, "even if it was a rip-off of Flash Gordon."
"But what am I going to do?" Hutton asked, almost wringing his hands. "What is the convention going to do?"
"Get the Hugo back and award it to him posthumously," O'Neill said, calmly filling his pipe-a meerschaum carved to look like an extraterrestrial sailor--from a leather tobacco pouch.
"Good idea!" Hutton said, bending to scramble under the table.
"Not now, you twit!" Gramps roared, reaching out to grab him by the back of his collar and drag him back. "It's evidence and it will have to stay there until the police see it. Besides, you don't even know whose it is."
"Police! Ohmigod," Hutton said, sinking into a chair; throwing back his head; and staring at the ceiling. "I wish we'd never bid for this damned convention. Or, since we did, I wish we hadn't won!"
"Too bad," Gramps said, patting him on the shoulder. "This will probably go down in fan history as Murdervention One."
"Campbell can accept the Hugo for Coubra," O'Neill went on. "Wasn't Coubra his pet author for a while, doing all those things about robots under Mount Rainier?"
"That was aliens under Mount Shasta, and you're confusing him with Shaver," Allison Reed said, pushing her glasses back up on her pert nose. "Morlocks and all that."
"Morlocks were H. G. Wells, for pity sakes!" Gramps said testily. "Morlocks and eloi. Haven't you ever read The Time Machine?"
"Why should I read science fiction?" Allison said with a shrug. "I write the stuff."
"Anyway, it wasn't Campbell who was lobbying for Coubra," O'Neill began.
His remarks were cut short by the entrance of a blue-suited, rather short man, who introduced himself as Mr. Cameron, head of Hotel Security, and demanded to know what was going on. They told him, and they showed him, and he backed away hurriedly.
"I'll have to call the police," he said, heading for the service door. "Don't touch anything!"
"So much for local control," Quentin Rodessa said, dusting off the knees of his gray trousers with his handkerchief and straightening his jacket and tie.
"He's just a hotel dick, Quent," Allison Reed said. "He's probably more used to nudes in the pool, drunks in the halls, and sex orgies on the roof."
"On the roof? Damn, I missed that!" O'Neill said, brown eyes twinkling. "Which convention was that, Tricon?"
Peter Hutton grimaced. "This is a real mess! The whole hall is full of fans and everyone wants to know what's going on." He looked down at the corpse's foot with loathing. "Why couldn't he get himself killed at some other convention!"
"Yeah, Deep South Con," Gary Corneille suggested cheerfully. "They're always desperate for a few good program items."
"Is there any reason why we have to stand around here?" O'Neill asked, lighting his meerschaum and puffing Whiskey Cavendish smoke into the air. "We weren't the ones who found him."
He glanced at Gramps and Grub, who both shrugged.
"I don't suppose so," Rodessa said, hands in the pockets of his tailored suit pants. "If the police want us, they can certainly find us."
"But the program schedule!" Peter Hutton moaned.
"Couldn't we just move the panel to another room?" Allison suggested.
Hutton brightened up. "Yeah, great idea! We can move it to the Stuart Room. That's empty until the Build a Better Monster panel at one o'clock. Let's go out and see if we can get the crowd moving in that direction. Doctor Derry, you'll stay here and wait for the police, right?"
With that, he bounded to his feet and trotted toward the double doors.
Quent Rodessa bent to pick up his brief bag, and the panelists followed Hutton toward the main door of the meeting room.
"We'll just make your apologies, okay?" Gary Corneille called back over his shoulder.
"Tell them that I'm sitting in a back room with a stiff one," Gramps said gravely, sitting down in one of the chairs behind the table. "Let the audience decide if my reference is anatomic, alcoholic, or cadaveric."
The doors closed behind Hutton and his flock of panelists.
"So, we're incarcerated with a corpse," Gramps said, blowing out a great gusty sigh that ruffled the mop of iron-gray hair falling down over his forehead. "I'd much rather be in the bar."
"That sounds like W. C. Fields," Grub said, with a reluctant grin. "Didn't he say he'd rather be in Philadelphia?"
"Only as an alternative to being dead."
"Did you know him well, Gramps?" Grub asked, nodding toward the stiff corpse under the table.
"Bob Coubra? Not really. We've had a few drinks together over the years. He's been a pulp writer for as long as I can remember. I think he started out writing for Thrilling Wonder Stories. Never quite made the big time, poor devil. When he ran out of story ideas himself, he turned to publishing anthologies of other writers' work." Gramps dug the ferrule of his cane into the carpeted surface of the speakers' platform. "He's only gone back to writing in the past few years. A Hugo would have been the biggest thing in his professional career. Sad, that he didn't live long enough to get one officially."
The front doors opened again and two men in conservative suits and sincere ties strode in, followed by Mr. Cameron, the hotel security man, who was looking flustered and sweaty.
"It's up there on the platform, under the table," he said.
"And you two?" the man in the lead asked Gramps and Grub.
"They reported, that is, they found..."
"I think they can speak for themselves," the man in the lead said abruptly. He was thin and middle-aged, a little over average height, with gray hair and bland gray eyes.
"He's right," Gramps said, getting to his feet and bowing genially. "My granddaughter here," he gestured toward Grub with the end of his cane, "spotted an errant foot sticking out from under the table and it turned out to belong to a corpse. You're the police, I trust?"
The newcomer's lips twitched slightly. "As opposed to tourists checking out a new city attraction? Yeah, I'm Detective Grayson, and this is Sergeant Sterlington. City police."
The two men stepped up on the platform, walked along behind the table, and looked down at the body huddled on the floor. Grayson hitched up his trousers and squatted down for a better look.
"Was the tablecloth like that?" Sgt. Sterlington asked, nodding at the ashtrays holding the cloth in place.
"No," Gramps said. "One of my fellow panelists, Quentin Rodessa, hiked it up to get a better look."
"Panelists?" Grayson asked, straightening up from his look at the corpse and turning his bland gray eyes on the writer.
"There were five of us," Gramps explained. "We were scheduled to discuss Heroism and Modern Horror before an audience at nine o'clock. After this ... ah, unfortunate discovery, the convention chairman decided to move the rest of the panel to another room, to carry the banner forward, so to speak."
"And you are?"
"Doctor J. R. Derry. They call me Gramps."
"And you, Miss?"
"Julia Witchety." She paused and then added, "They call me Grub."
Grayson considered this for a moment, his bland gray eyes traveling over the pretty black-haired girl with the big blue eyes, and her bright red sweater and miniskirt.
Gramps coughed slightly. "Her mother--my daughter--married an architect from Melbourne. It was inevitable."
"I see. You were on the panel too, Miss Witchety?"
"Oh no, I'm not a writer. I just came along with Gramps to see if everything was set up like it's supposed to be. It wasn't, of course. The hotel was supposed to put glasses and pitchers of water on the table for the speakers, and they didn't. That's how I found it ... him." She wrinkled her nose at the memory. "I was walking across the platform to go through the service doors and look for a waiter."
"And saw a foot sticking out," Grayson said. "Okay. Well, unless the medical examiner says otherwise, we'll have to treat this as a homicide."
He turned around and called out to his sergeant, who was still on the platform, making notes. "Sterlington, call it in and say that we need the usual site crew."
The sergeant nodded and exited through the front doors.
"I'll just go along and report to the Hotel Manager," the Head of Security said, sidling toward the door and making a rapid exit.
"Now then, let's just move down here," Grayson said, stepping off of the speakers platform and pulling one of the plastic chairs in the front row around to face the back of the hall. "I find that people talk a little easier when they're not looking at a corpse." He sat down and gestured affably at the chairs in front of him.
"Do either of you know who the dead man is?"
"Yes," Gramps said promptly, sitting down next to Grub and resting his hands in front of him, on the head of his cane. "His name is Robert Coubra."
"That's not what the name tag on his shirt says," Grayson observed.
"That's his pen name. He is ... that is, he was ... a part-time science fiction writer under the pen name 'Dennis Bleuchine'; a play on denim and blue-jean, I believe. His day job, if I may call it that, was as a biochemist. I don't recall the name of his firm. Someone else here at the convention might know."
"Any relatives?" Grayson continued, taking a small notebook and a pencil out of his pocket and jotting down a few lines.
"No close ones. He's got a cousin who lives up in the hills. He wasn't married, I do know that."
"Did he live around here?"
"No, somewhere in Los Angeles."
"He was a friend of yours?"
Gramps tapped his fingers on the silver wolf's head of his cane. "Not really. For the past decade or so I've only seen him a couple of times a year; at conventions and at a few writers' dinners. That sort of thing. We were not intimate friends, in any case."
"How about the cousin?"
"Her name is Adele Galliano, and she lives here in the hills above town, at 731 Colusa Drive. She's an old friend, in both senses of the word." Gramps frowned slightly before adding, "I don't know how well Adele and Bob have kept in touch, actually. They were close once upon a time, but that was many years ago."
"There's a metal statue of a space ship lying next to the body," Grayson said. "Do you know anything about that?"
"Well, sort of," Gramps said shifting in his seat and brushing back the iron gray hair that had fallen over his forehead. "It's a Hugo; an award like the Oscar for motion pictures. They are given out for the best science fiction written in the preceding year, and the convention hands them out at the annual awards banquet, as part of the program. They were named for an early twentieth-century writer named Hugo Gernsbach, but I suppose that's not pertinent to your investigation. Where that particular one came from, I can't tell you."
"You live around here?" Grayson asked, gesturing at Gramps and Grub with the point of his pencil.
"No," Gramps said again. "We're both from Oakland."
"How long have you been in the hotel?"
"We checked in yesterday afternoon. Rooms 407 and 409."
"Did you see the deceased yesterday?"
Gramps thought for a moment. "I believe he was at the reception last night. I didn't talk to him myself, but I seem to remember seeing him there, talking to some fans."
"What reception was this?" Grayson asked.
"Just an informal gathering last night," Gramps said. "The convention didn't officially start until this morning, with that infernal panel I was supposed to join, but the convention committee scheduled a reception from seven to nine, for any early birds who checked into the hotel."
Grayson turned his attention to Grub. "What about you, Miss? Do you remember seeing Coubra there?"
She shook her head, the room lights making blue bars move across her smooth black hair. "Sorry, I didn't notice him. The convention suite was pretty crowded by the time we got there, so I suppose he could have been in another room."
Grayson rubbed his nose. "Doctor Derry, do you happen to remember what Coubra was wearing at the reception?"
"No. I'm sure it was nothing out of the ordinary. That, I would have noticed. I don't think I ever saw him in anything but a sports jacket and dark slacks, usually over a white shirt and a sweater vest."
"In short, the same thing he's wearing now?"
"Yes. It was almost a uniform with him. If you're wondering whether he was killed last night or this morning, I have no idea."
Grayson rubbed his nose again and thought for a moment, then continued. "About this morning; you came into this room at nine o'clock?"
"Before nine. I can't tell you more than that because I don't wear a watch," Gramps said. "I refuse to be dictated to by a chunk of tin pot clockwork."
"It was about ten minutes to nine," Grub inserted. "I do wear a watch," she held out her hand to show the Bulova on her left wrist, "and I checked the time against the lobby clock when we got off of the elevator."
"And you were the first ones here?"
"No," she said. "A few fans had already come in, but they were down here in the audience. There wasn't anyone up on the platform. I remember that, because I followed Gramps up there, and noticed about the water."
Grayson nodded. "So the other panelists came in after you and Doctor Derry did?"
"After I went to phone Hotel Security, yes. They were here when I got back, but I can't have been gone more than three or four minutes."
"I explained to the people who came to hear the panel that there had been a hitch," Gramps added, "and shooed them back out of the room."
"But you let your fellow panelists come in?"
"Well, certainly!" Gramps said, his blue eyes wide with surprise. "They're all writers and one of them might want to use the event in a book!"
Grayson blinked at this practical aspect of murder, but merely said, "Okay. I may need to talk to you again, but for the time being, you can just give me your home addresses and go about your business. You'll be here in the hotel, I assume?"
"Until Tuesday morning," Gramps assured him.
He and Grub left the Regency Room, passing a gurney and two white-suited medical technicians who were coming down the hall, and excusing their way through a large group of goggling fans.
...Only one person at the hotel suspected that this colorful con scene would soon be the site of a ruthless murder.