“Who is it?” The voice through the door to Suite 748 was politely curious. Fletch was used to hearing that voice making somber pronouncements about supersonic bombers and the national budget.
“I. M. Fletcher. Walsh told me to come knock on your door.”
The door opened.
Keeping his hand on the doorknob, his arm extended either to embrace or restrain, Governor Caxton Wheeler grinned at Fletch while his eyes worked Fletch over like a football coach measuring a player for the line. Fletch fingered his collar and regretted having put back on the shirt he had been wearing all day.
Governor Caxton Wheeler’s face was huge, a map of all America, his forehead as wide as the plain states, his jaw as massive as all the South, his eyes as large and set apart as New York and Los Angeles, his nose as assertive as the skyscrapers of Chicago and Houston.
“Hello,” Fletch said. “I’m your new genius press representative.”
Smile growing stiff on his face, the presidential candidate stared at Fletch.
Fletch said: “Wanna buy a broom?”
“Well,” the governor said, “I want a clean sweep.”
“Were you ever one of them?” the governor asked.
Fletch looked around him in the motel corridor. “One of who?”
“The Press is The People, sir.”
“Funny,” said The Man Who. “I thought the government is. Come in.”
The governor took his hand off the doorknob and wandered in stockinged feet into the living room of the suite.
Fletch closed the door behind him.
The living room was decorated in Super Motel. There was a bad painting on the wall, oil on canvas, of a schooner under full sail. (In Fletch’s room there was a cardboard print of the same ship under full sail.) The four corners of the coffee table surface and the hands of the chair arms had chipped gold paint on them.
There were several liquor bottles on a side table.
The governor nodded to them. “Want a drink?”
“I was afraid you’d say that.”
“May I get you one?”
“No.” The governor sat on the divan. “My wife doesn’t approve. She says I have to get all my energy and all my relaxation from The People. I doubt if the sweet thing knows it, but what she is describing is a megalomaniac.”
The Man Who wore an open, washed-out, worn, sagging brown bathrobe. Over the breast pocket, in green, was CW. The robe draped his big, bare, white belly.
Fletch’s eyes moved back and forth from the deep tan of the governor’s face and the lily whiteness of the governor’s belly.
“You look like you just got home from summer camp,” the governor said. “Will the press accept you?” Fletch said nothing. The governor had not asked him to sit down. “A campaign is tough, and it’s exciting, and it’s boring. Not to worry.” On the coffee table in front of the governor, papers had spilled out of a briefcase. “By the end of this campaign—if we win this primary, that is—you’ll look as dissipated as a schoolchild in March.”
The other side of the room, beyond the governor, was a sliding glass door onto the balcony. The drapes were open.
“You win votes in a primary; you win contributions. You lose, and the contributions dry up. Motels and gas stations expect even presidential candidates to pay their bills. It’s the American way.”
Fletch snapped on the balcony light outside the glass doors. “Does the press know you’re short of funds?”
The governor did not turn around in the sofa to look at Fletch. “We don’t issue a financial report every day. But we have to get the message out through the press that we need money. If they ever thought our campaign was broke, they’d desert us faster than kittens leave a gully in the January thaw.”
On the balcony, the snow and ice, the slush, had been stirred up, walked on. A section of the railing had been scraped clean of snow.
“Have you been out on the balcony tonight?” Fletch asked.
Finally the governor turned around in his seat. “No. Why? At least, I don’t think so.”
“Somebody has been.”
“Some of the press were in earlier. For drinks. Some of the staff. Lots of cigarette smoke. I might have stepped out for some fresh air. I do things like that. Or a quiet word with someone. Must be slushy out there.”
Fletch turned off the balcony light and pulled the drapes closed. “Would there be people in your suite if you weren’t here? I mean, other than hotel staff?”
“Sure.” The governor turned around to face the coffee table again. “For traffic, my suite is second only to O’Hare International Airport. In fact, where is everyone now? Why isn’t the phone ringing?”
“Walsh had it turned off at the switchboard.” Fletch went through the living room and down the little corridor to the front door of the suite.
“Why did he do that?”
Fletch opened the door and tried the outside knob. “Your door is unlocked.”
“Sure. People come in and out all the time. What are you, a press agent or a security man?”
“Flash is all I need for now. He doesn’t bother anybody. So,” the governor said, “you and Walsh knew each other in the service. I remember hearing about you.”
“Yes, sir. He was my lieutenant.”
“Was he any good that way?”
“You mean your son? As a lieutenant?”
“Yeah. What kind of a lieutenant was he?”
“Pretty good. He’d show up once in a while.”
The governor chuckled. “But not too much, eh?”
“He was okay. Let us do our jobs. Didn’t care about much else.”
“That’s my boy. Run a hands-off administration. Walsh thinks you’d be just right for this job.” The governor wrinkled his eyebrows. “Insisted you be flown in immediately. Wants me to announce first thing in the morning that you’re my new press secretary.”
Fletch shrugged. “I was available.”
“Which means you were unemployed.”
“Working on a book,” Fletch said.
“On an American western artist. You know: Edgar Arthur Tharp, Junior.”
“Oh, yeah. Great stuff. But what’s that got to do with politics?”
“You used to work for newspapers?”
“A lot of them.” Fletch grinned. “One after another.”
“Are you saying you weren’t successful as a journalist?”
“Sometimes too successful. Depends on how you look at it.”
The governor sat back and sighed. “A kid who looks like he belongs on a tennis court with an interest in cowboy art: as a politician’s press agent, you’re not a dream.”
“Isn’t American politics a crusade of amateurs?”
“Who said that?”
“I did. I think.”
“You’re wrong. But it has a nice ring to it.” Leaning over, the governor made a note on one of the papers on the coffee table. “See? You’re working already. Displaying talent as a phrasemaker.” He sat back and smiled. “That line might be worth thousands of dollars in contributions. You sure no one said it?”
“I’ll say it. Then it will have been said.”
“I thought you said the statement is wrong.”
“I don’t qualify as an amateur. Elected to Congress twice, the governorship three times. But every new campaign is a starting over.” The governor flipped the pen onto the table. “Anyway, Walsh says you’re smart, resourceful, and willing to work cheap. Workin’ cheap doesn’t sound so smart to me.”
“Then make me smarter,” Fletch said. “Pay me more. If it would make you happier. I don’t mind.”
The governor chuckled. “Guess it’s time Walsh had a real pal somewhere in this campaign. All the pressure has been comin’ down on him. Hasn’t had a day off, an hour off, since I don’t know when. He’s got a much harder job than the one I’ve got. He does all the logistics: who goes where, when, why, says what to whom. My firing James last night didn’t make it any easier for him. Or me. You heard about all that, I suppose?”
“Walsh told me something about it last night when he phoned. Read the press reports at the airport.”
The governor’s face looked truly sad. “I knew James for twenty years. No: twenty-two, to be exact. Political reporter for the down-home newspaper. The newspaper that endorsed me for both Congress and the governorship. James was a personal advisor, a good one, totally honest. Even had Washington experience. I thought if I ever ran for President, he sure would be with me. To the end. Then he screwed up. Brother, did he ever screw up.”
“The newspapers said he resigned over a policy dispute with you. Something about South Africa.”
“The press was kind to us on that one. The policy dispute was not about South Africa. It was about Mrs. Wheeler.” The governor took a deep breath. “The first incident wasn’t so important. I was able to get people to laugh it off. He mentioned to some reporters in the bar that Mrs. Wheeler spends two and a half hours each and every morning getting up and putting on her face.”
“No. She spends time making herself beautiful, of course. Every woman does. It’s damned hard on a woman, living out of suitcases, going from motel to motel, making public appearances all day, damned near all night. She always looks nice. Anyway, the newspapers reported it.”
“It was reported with a vengeance.”
“Made her look like a very superficial, self-indulgent woman. I turned it into a joke, saying that’s why we had to have two bathrooms on the second floor of the governor’s mansion. I said that on the road I’m apt to spend two hours every morning just trying to find my razor.”
“Yeah, that was good.”
“It was just this week that James really screwed up. It was in the newspapers yesterday. He told the press Mrs. Wheeler canceled—at the last minute, mind you—a visit to the Children’s Burn Center so she could play indoor tennis with three rich old lady friends.”
“Look—what does Walsh call you, Fletch?—she made time to play tennis with some friends she hadn’t seen in years, wives of some influential fat cats around this state, who would never have forgiven her if she didn’t make time for them. She raised some badly needed money for this campaign.”
“Schedule conflicts must happen all the time.”
“You bet. And it’s the press representative’s job to shag a foul ball like that, not pitch it to the press. I’m convinced James went out of his way to make sure the press got the wrong slant on that story.”
“Yeah, but why would he do that?”
“God knows. He’s not the world’s greatest admirer of my wife. They’ve had a few disagreements over the years. But liking people has nothing to do with politics. In this life, if you stay with only people you like, the normal person would have to move every ten days. Politics is advantageous loyalty, son. Loyalty is what you buy, with every word out of your mouth; loyalty is what you sell, with every choice you make. And when you sell loyalty, you’d better make sure your choice is to your own advantage. James sold out twenty-two years of loyalty to me for the dubious twelve-hour pleasure of embarrassing my wife in public.”
Listening, Fletch had wandered to every part of the living room. The governor’s shoes were not anywhere in the room.
“If Mrs. Wheeler had to cancel an appointment, she had to cancel an appointment, and that’s all there is to it. If you don’t know what our daily schedule looks like, feels like yet, you will within a few days.” The governor lowered his voice. “If you stay with us, that is.”
“What do you understand?”
“I understand the job of press secretary is to keep paintin’ the picket fence around the main house. Just keep paintin’ it. Whatever’s goin’ on inside, the outside is to look pretty.”
The governor smiled. “The question is, Mr. I. M. Fletcher …” The governor took a cigar stub from the pocket of his robe and lit it. “By the way, what does I.M. stand for?”
“No wonder you choose to be called Fletch. The question is, Mr. Irwin Maurice ‘Fletch’ Fletcher—have I got it all right?”
“Tough on the tongue, isn’t it?”
“The question is”—the governor brushed tobacco off a lower tooth —“what do you believe in?”
“You,” Fletch said with alacrity. “And your wife. And your campaign. Is that the answer you want?”
“Not bad.” The governor squinted at him over the cigar smoke. “For a start. Why do you want to work on this campaign?”
“Because Walsh asked me. He said you need me.”
“And you were between jobs …”
“Working on a book.”
“You got the money to take time off and work on a book?”
“Where’d you get the money?”
“You can save a lot of money by not smoking.”
“What do you think of my domestic policy?”
“What do you think of my foreign policy?”
“Needs a few good ideas.”
The governor’s grin was like seeing a chasm open in the earth. “I’ll be damned,” he said. “You’re an idealist. You mean to be a good influence on me.”
“Just one, for now.”
“And what would that be?”
“To be loyal to you.” Fletch grinned. “Until I get a better offer. Isn’t that what you just said politics is all about?”
Scraping the ash off his cigar onto a tray, the governor said, “You learn fast enough. . . .”