“Listen to this.” Dr. Thom was stretched out on the bed in the candidate’s stateroom at the back of the bus. He was reading a book entitled The Darwinian Theory as Fossil. “‘For thousands of years, we have been told perfection is not attainable, but a worthy aspiration. In this post-Freudian era, we are told normalcy is not possible, but a worthy aspiration. In one scheme, we might achieve excellence; in the other, mediocrity. In one scheme, we fear despair; in the other, depression.’” The doctor put down the open book on his chest. “What can I do for you?”
“Need to ask you a couple of questions.” Fletch had knocked, entered the stateroom at Dr. Thom’s drawled “Enter if you must,” and sat in one of the two comfortable swivel chairs at the stateroom’s desk.
Dr. Thom spoke with extraordinary slowness. “Anyone trying to handle the press can have anything he wants from me: poisoned gas, flamethrowers, machine guns, hand grenades. If I don’t have such medical and surgical tools on hand, I shall secure them for you at greatly reduced rates.”
“The press ought to be an extinct species,” Dr. Thom drawled. “They never evolved to a very high level. You can tell by the way they go along the ground, sniffing it. I might suggest to the candidate that the press be handed over to the Department of the Interior. That way their extinction will be guaranteed.”
“Got to have the free press,” said Fletch.
“Do you really think so? Neither the substance of America’s favorite sport, politics, nor the substance of America’s favorite food, the hot dog, can bear too much analysis. If the innards of either American politics or the American hot dog were too fully revealed, the American would have to disavow and disgorge himself.”
“You against motherhood too?”
Dr. Thom clicked the nail of his index finger against the cover of the book on his chest. “On the evolutionary scale, Woman and The Bird, of course, are superior.” He cleared his throat. “Which is why, of course, Man invented the telephone wire.”
“I understand you were one of the first people to get to the body of Alice Elizabeth Shields last night.”
“Will you tell me about it?”
“Have you a morbid curiosity?”
“Fredericka Arbuthnot and Michael J. Hanrahan are not on the press bus to count the votes in congressional districts. They’re crime writers.”
“You mean the death of Ms. Shields might affect the campaign in some way?”
“They tell me two young women have been murdered on the fringes of this campaign just this last week.”
“Oh, dear. And the perpetrator might be one of us?”
“There’s a good possibility of it.”
“And you’d like to get the facts before they do, so you can put the right spin on them.”
“And do so very quietly. Without appearing to do so.”
Dr. Thom studied the roof a moment. “Don’t the police have anything to do with this? Or have they read their own statistical success-rates at solving murders and given up on them? Plan to limit their activities henceforth to placing parking tickets on stationary, nonargumentative cars, at which function they are very good?”
“The murders are too spread out. Different jurisdictions. We are blessed in this country by not having a national police force.”
“Ah, yes. Guaranteeing that only the smaller, narrower-visioned criminal gets caught.”
“Tell me what happened last night.”
“I was in the bar. A bellman came in—or the doorman, whatever he was. I’m not sure whether he was looking for a responsible person, a motel manager, a doctor, or for a drink. He said, sort of choking, so that his voice stood out in the tired, somber crowd anyway, ‘Someone jumped off the roof. She’s naked.’”
“I may not remember everything said in the bar last night, about Senator Upton, Senator Graves, the Middle East, and The Washington Post, but I do remember those words exactly. It took a moment for them to sink in.”
“Who was with you in the bar at that point?”
“I had been talking with Fenella Baker and Betsy Ginsberg. I had been talking with Bill Dieckmann earlier, but I think he’d left some time before. The usual faces in a motel bar. A few morose businessmen drinking themselves to sleep. A few long-haul, tongue-tied drivers desperate to talk with anybody about anything.”
“All I can remember. After the event, of course, after the ambulance had come and gone, the press were in the bar in force. Some had just thrown on coats over their pajamas.”
“Tell me about going out to the girl. Examining her.”
“Due to the high incidence of malpractice suits these days, you know doctors do not rush in where even fools fear to tread. Of course, if I ever come across a lawyer lying on the sidewalk, I’ll tread on his face.”
“You don’t like lawyers either?”
“Even lawyers’ mothers don’t like lawyers. If you do a survey, I think you’ll find that lawyers’ mothers are the strongest advocates of legal abortions in the land.”
“No. No, I did not. I didn’t see the governor at all last night until I went to his suite.”
“To put him to sleep.”
“To put him to sleep. A middle-aged couple, nicely dressed, was standing over the girl. The man was just taking off his overcoat to cover the body. I asked him not to do that. I wanted to examine her.”
“Was she still alive at that point?”
“No. I would say death was nearly instantaneous the moment she hit the pavement.”
“I don’t think so. My guess is that she landed on the back of her head, breaking her neck, then crashed on her back.”
“What evidence did you see that the girl had been beaten before she fell or was pushed?”
“Her face was badly bruised. Banged eye—her left, I think—blood from her nose, blood from lips, two broken front teeth, two or three badly fractured ribs on her left side. Compound fractures, I mean.”
“The coroner announced this morning she had not been raped.”
“So what motive? Robbery? Who’d want to steal her clothes? Certainly a beaten, naked female suggests rape.”
“Would you say she was a good-looking woman?”
Again Dr. Thom studied the ceiling. “Not beautified, in any way. Not much makeup, if any. A slim build, well-proportioned body, good muscle tone. A plain woman, I’d say.”
“While you were examining the girl, a crowd collected?”
“A small crowd. Mostly the press.”
“Do you remember who was in the crowd?”
“I did glance through the crowd, to make sure no small children were there. That Arbuthnot woman was there. Now, there’s a handsome woman. Fenella Baker had followed me out from the bar. I will not comment on her beauty, or lack thereof. One or two others, I’m not sure who. A truck driver from the bar was the only one who really tried to be helpful.”
“I understand you had seen the Shields woman before.”
“Yes. I had noticed her the last few days—in the hotel elevators, lobbies.”
“I noticed her because she was one place one day and the next place the next day. She didn’t appear to have anything to do with the campaign. Although I did see her breakfasting with Betsy Ginsberg one morning.”
“Did you ever see her with any men?”
“Not that I remember. I think she drove herself in a little two-door Volkswagen.”
“Why do you think a woman like that would traipse after a political campaign the way she did?”
“It’s a candidate’s job to be attractive, isn’t it? That’s why they wear those glue-on tans. Power attracts. They attract all sorts of creatures. Even you and me.”
The engine of the bus roared. Immediately the bus began to move.
“Hey!” Fletch stood up. “I’m supposed to be on the other bus.”
With his finger holding his reading place, Dr. Thom closed his book. “Guess I should let the patient use the bed.” He sat up on the bunk, swinging his legs over the side.
Fletch was rubbing the steam off the window.
Taking off his red-and-black checked hunting jacket, Governor Wheeler opened the stateroom door.
“How do,” he said to the two men using his stateroom.
“How many cups of coffee did you have, Caxton?” Dr. Thom asked.
“Just two. But they were black.” The candidate smiled as if he had gotten away with something.
“Don’t blame me if you jitter.”
“What am I supposed to do, ask for skim milk everywhere I go? Caffeine’s important to these guys.”
In the door behind the governor, Walsh said, “Vic Robbins drove himself off a bridge this morning in Pennsylvania. Dead.”
“Yeah?” The governor was putting his hunting jacket on a hanger, and the hanger back in the closet. “He was a real weasel. Have I made a statement?”
“Sent a wreath?”
“Yeah. Like what?”
“Phil and Paul are trying to come up with something.”
“What have they got so far?”
“Hell, anything anybody says about that has smelled of hypocrisy since Eisenhower. And he saved his complaints for his farewell address. Get something with a little pizzazz.”
Dr. Thom said, “You want anything, Caxton?”
“Yeah. A brain transplant. Go away. Don’t come back until you can do one.”
Fletch tried to follow Dr. Thom through the stateroom door.
“Hang on, Fletch,” The Man Who said. “I think it’s time you and I got to know each other a little better.”