“Got to leave Mother’s schedule in her suite for her,” Walsh said as they walked down the corridor. His jaw was particularly tight.
“Does this Dr. Thom travel with the campaign?” Fletch asked.
The door to Suite 758 was unlocked. Walsh seemed to know it would be.
They entered a suite identical to the one they had just left. The chips on the gold paint seemed identical. The painting of the ship was oil on canvas. Even the bottles on the bar seemed identical, with identical quantities missing.
The lights in the room were low.
Walsh dropped a schedule on the coffee table. “Close the door,” he said to Fletch. “Let’s sit down a minute.”
Fletch closed the door.
Walsh did not brighten the lights. He sat in an armchair identical to the one he had just left in his father’s suite, at the side of the room next to a reading lamp turned low. “Mother isn’t due in on the plane from Cleveland until after one. We can talk a little.”
Carrying on at his regular pace, Walsh said: “Yes. Dr. Thom travels with the campaign. He is available to the candidate and his wife, the staff, members of the press, volunteers, bus drivers, pilots, whoever else. Have ringing in the ears? See Dr. Thom. Intestinal problems? Line forms at the rear.”
“That’s not what the question meant, Walsh.”
“No. That wasn’t what your question meant.” Walsh took a deep breath. “My parents are not separated. On the campaign trail mostly they stay in separate suites because their schedules are different. Their sleep is important. They have different staffs, for the most part.”
“Have you lost your sense of humor?” Fletch asked.
“I don’t like stupid questions in the corridor of a public hotel.”
“There was no one in the corridor, Walsh. It’s past midnight.”
“Don’t care. Someone could have heard you.”
Fletch noticed that across the dark living room, the door to the bedroom was closed.
“You either understand what I’m saying, Fletch, or you can go back to Ocala, Florida, and play the horses, or whatever you were doing.”
“So what are you saying, Lieutenant? Give it to me in small words, simple sentences.”
“Loyalty, Fletch. Absolute loyalty. We’re on a campaign to get my father, Governor Caxton Wheeler, elected President of the United States. I want you to be the campaign’s main press representative. As such, you will see things and know things you will question. When this happens, you are to ask me, but you are to ask me in private. You just saw Dr. Thom carry his little black bag into Dad’s room after midnight. And you were going to ask me about it in the corridor of a public hotel.”
“That’s a no-no,” Fletch said.
“That’s a no-no. Maybe you’re going to see and hear things that surprise you, things you don’t like. You don’t have to be very old in this world to lose your idealism. Nothing and no one is perfect. When that happens, you shut up about it.”
“You mean like when your mother cancels a visit to a children’s burn center to play indoor tennis with some old cronies—”
“Walsh, I hate to break your cadence, but I think I know all this. I even accept most of it.”
“And you watch the jokes you make. America wants to go to bed at night thinking of the candidate and his wife doing the same things they’re doing: vying with each other for the bathroom sink to brush their teeth, sharing a reading lamp in bed, saying little good-night words to each other. Their actually staying in separate suites is logistically necessary, but the public doesn’t want to know that. It disturbs the image. It gives certain sick minds the thought that having separate suites gives Dad the opportunity to have other ladies in his room, and therefore they leap to the conclusion that he does.”
“I made that joke to you. Privately.”
“You see, Fletch, there’s always the difference between the image and the reality.”
“We put out this image that the governor and his wife are campaigning for the presidency, and that they can take everything in stride, be everywhere at once, make speeches, give interviews, pat children on the head, travel constantly, stand up for hours at a time—yet live, eat, and sleep like normal people. Of course they don’t. Of course they can’t.”
“Dr. Thom is controlling your dad with pills. Or shots. Or something.”
“Dr. Thom puts my father to sleep at night, wakes him up in the morning, gives him one or two energy boosters during the day. This is a fact of a modern campaign. It’s being done with medical knowledge and medical control.”
“And it doesn’t affect him?”
“Sure it does. It keeps him going. It permits him to get more out of himself, over longer periods of time, than is humanly possible.”
“The world’s on a chemical binge.”
“Take your eighteenth-century man. Fly him through the air at nearly the speed of sound. Walk him through crowds of screaming, grabbing people, any one of whom might have a gun and the intent to use it. Have sirens going constantly in the ears. Put him in front of a television camera and have him talk to a quarter of a million people at the same time, his every word, his every facial expression being weighed, judged, criticized. Do this for weeks, months at a time. See what happens to him. The basic constitution of the human being hasn’t changed that much, you know.”
“What about you, Walsh?”
“What do you mean?”
“Your dad indicates to me you’re under even more stress than he is.”
“I’m a little younger than he is.”
“Is Dr. Thom helping you out, too?”
“No.” Walsh looked into his lap. “I just keep going. What else can’t you accept?”
“That young woman, Walsh.”
“What about her?”
“It’s entirely possible she was thrown from the balcony of your dad’s suite. The snow on the balcony had been messed up. Including on the railing. Apparently these principal suites—your parents’—are not locked.”
“What of it?”
“A death? A murder?”
“Do you know how many people in this world die every day because of bad governments?”
“I would say hundreds.”
“A conservative guess. Let’s not keep a potentially great president out of office because some insignificant woman hits a sidewalk too hard.”
“What about the local police? Aren’t they going to investigate?”
“I’ve already handled that. The mayor found me downstairs in the bar. He said he hoped this unfortunate incident was not disturbing to the candidate or his party. Asked me to let him know if any of his police pestered us about it.”
“Told him if anybody had any questions, they should be referred to Barry Hines.”
Fletch rolled his eyes. “Things sure are different on a presidential campaign.”
“Frankly, I think His Honor, the Mayor, was chiefly worried,” Walsh said with mock solemnity, “that with all the national press crawling around, a murder in his fair city might get national attention. Spoil his image of Homeland, America, if the once-his-city gets national attention it’s for murder.”
“These political reporters wouldn’t know how to report a murder anyway,” Fletch said. “They’re specialists. They have no more interest in murder than they do a boxing match. Beneath them.”
“I suppose so.”
“Even if there were a murder on the press bus, they’d have to call in police reporters. They have no more ability to report a murder than your average citizen on the street. Which is why I’m so curious as to why we do, in fact, have one crime writer with us.”
“Do we?” Walsh asked absently.
“Fredericka Arbuthnot. Newsworld.”
Walsh said, “Tomorrow at dawn, this campaign rolls out of this town, probably never to come back. Good luck to the local police. I hope they solve their problems. But I don’t want any investigation of this death to touch the campaign. It’s just a public relations problem—one you’ve got to manage.” Walsh relaxed more in his chair. “Enough of this. Not important. In general, all I’m saying is, if you’re going to be with us, you’re going to be with us all the way.”
“Why do you want me with you?”
“You’ve had a lot of experience with the press, Fletch.”
“I’ve worked for a lot of newspapers.”
“You ought to know how the press works.”
“How they think.”
“Slowly but tenaciously.”
“Hill 1918, Fletch.”
Walsh’s eyes focused on the dark carpet. Despite the slight smile on his Ups, his hairline seemed to pull back and his face turned even more white. “Twelve of us left. Surrounded by the enemy. Who knew we’d had it and were coming in to wipe us out.”
“Are you about to tell me a war story?”
“Hundreds of ’em. Either we dug in and got killed. Or tried to blast our way out and got killed.”
“War stories …”
“Never could handle authority very well.”
“You had us move out of the obvious position, climb the trees, and tie ourselves to the branches. We disappeared. Three days we hung in those goddamned trees.”
“Must’ve gotten hungry.”
“It was better than being dead with our parts in our mouths.”
“You were big enough to take the suggestion, Walsh.”
“I was scared shitless. I couldn’t think. The enemy rummaged around below us. They even shot each other. Carried off their dead. They never thought Americans would do such a thing.”
“I was saving my own life, hombre.”
“Your buddy—what’s his name? Chambers? You ever see him anymore?”
“Alston Chambers. Yeah. We talk frequently. He’s a prosecutor in California.”
“You know how to make the best of a bad situation, Fletch. And a presidential campaign is one bad situation after another.”
Fletch glanced at his watch. “It’s getting late.”
“I’ve got lots of files to give you tonight. Anyway, what would you be doing if you were home now?”
“Listening to Sergio Juevos, probably.”
“Oh, yeah. The Cuban drummer.”
“A harpist, actually. From Paraguay.”
“A Paraguayan harpist?”
“You’ve never heard him?”
“You mean, he plays the harmonica?”
“He plays the harp.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone play the harp.”
Across the dark living room, the door to the bedroom opened.
“You haven’t lived,” Fletch said.
Walsh sighed. “Just like the old days, Fletch.”
“What old days? I thought all days are twenty-four hours. Do some get to be older?”
“Bending my brain,” Walsh said.
Doris Wheeler was much bigger than Fletch expected. Her true size had not come across to him on television or still pictures, maybe because she was usually seen standing next to the governor, who was also a big person. She was tall with extraordinarily big shoulders for a woman.
Fletch stood up.
“Walsh? What are you doing at this hour of the night?”
“Dropping off your schedule for tomorrow.” Walsh shot his thumb toward the piece of paper on the coffee table. “Why are you back from Cleveland so early?”
“Had Sully make me an earlier plane reservation. Left the symphony benefit at intermission. I’ve heard Schönberg.” Walsh had not stood up. Doris Wheeler’s eyes fastened on Fletch’s shirt collar. “Who’s this?”
“Fletcher,” Walsh said. “Here to help handle the press. Just making sure he’s housebroken.”
“Why are you up talking so late?”
“War stories,” Walsh answered. “Haven’t seen each other since the Texas-Oklahoma game. That right, Fletch?”
Doris leaned over her son. She kissed him on the mouth.
“Walsh, you’ve been drinking.” She stood up only partway.
“Had to spend some time in the bar, Mother. Something happened. This girl—”
Doris Wheeler slapped her son, hard. Her hand going down to his face looked as big and as solid as a shovel.
“I don’t care about any girl, Walsh. I care about you walking around with liquor on your breath.” Walsh did not move. He did not look up at her. “I care about getting your father elected President of the United States.”
Fully, stiffly erect, she walked back across the living room. “Now, go to bed,” she said.
The door to the bedroom closed.
Fletch stood there quietly.
Walsh kept his eyes on the papers in his lap.
“Well,” Walsh finally said, “I’m glad I gave you my lecture on loyalty, before you saw that.”