“Oooooo,” said Betsy Ginsberg when Fletch stopped at her aisle seat on the bus. “Is it now I get your attention?”
The bus went over a speed bump in the school driveway. Fletch grabbed on to the backs of the seats on either side of the aisle.
“Just wanted to ask you if you want a typewritten copy of the candidate’s profound remarks at Conroy Regional School.”
“Sure.” She smiled puckishly. “You got ’em?”
“Pity. Deathless remarks gone with the wind.”
“What kind of a story did some of you find to phone in? I saw you at the phone.”
“You don’t know?”
“Some press rep. you are. You ever been on a campaign before?”
“You’re cute, Fletcher. But I don’t think you should be on this one, either.”
“Tell me, what happened between you and Freddie in Virginia.”
“Nothing. That’s the trouble.”
“Just a case of mistaken identity. At the American Journalism Alliance Convention a year or two ago.”
“That the one where Walter March got killed?”
“So what happened, besides the old bastard’s getting killed?”
“I told you. Mistaken identity. Freddie thought she was Fredericka Arbuthnot, and I didn’t.”
“But She is Fredericka Arbuthnot.”
“So I was mistaken.”
Andrew Esty rose from his seat at the back of the bus and came forward in a procession of one. He stood next to Fletch. “Mr. Fletcher, that stop at the school raises several issues I’d like to talk to the candidate about.”
“Nice stuff you’re writing these days, Mr. Esty,” Fletch said. “Circulation of the Daily Gospel testifies to it.”
“Thank you,” Andrew Esty said sincerely. “About praying in the public schools.”
“I used to pray in school,” Roy Filby said from the seat behind Betsy. “Before every exam. Swear like hell afterward.”
“What about it?” Fletch asked Esty.
“Is the candidate against children being allowed to pray in school?”
“The candidate isn’t against anyone praying anytime anywhere.”
“You know what I mean: the teacher setting the example.”
“My teacher was a Satanist,” Filby said. “She corrected our papers with blood.”
Esty glared at him. “The issue of people praying together on federal property—”
“The governor has a position paper on this issue.” Standing on the bus swaying down the highway, Fletch’s legs and back muscles were beginning to remind him he hadn’t really slept in thirty hours.
“I’d like to point out to you, and to the candidate,” Esty said unctuously, “that prayer is led in federal prisons.”
“Jesus!” exclaimed Filby. “Esty’s got a whole new issue. Go for it, Esty! Go, man, go!”
“Officially sanctioned prayer,” Esty said precisely.
“Right,” said Betsy. “What have prisoners got to pray for?”
“Obviously,” Esty continued, “that’s a similar so-called violation of the principle of the separation of Church and State.”
“Right on,” said Betsy. “The last person seen by the condemned man was the Sanitation Department’s Joe Schmo. Looking at the sanitation worker’s green uniform, the condemned man’s final words were, ‘Please wrap my mortal remains in the Daily Gospel. Sunday edition, if possible.’”
“It’s a matter of public prayer on government property,” Esty said. “Either you can or you can’t.”
“Would you like an exclusive interview with the candidate?” Fletch asked.
“Yes. There are one or two things of this nature I’d like to ask him about.”
“Me too,” chirped Filby. “I want to ask him if he’ll permit Shubert’s ‘Ave Maria’ to be sung at the White House!”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Fletch said to Esty.
Down a few seats, seated at a window, Solov stared bug-eyed, blankly. Behind him, Fenella Baker was beckoning at Fletch.
To Betsy, Fletch said, “I have a question for you, okay?”
“The answer is yes,” she said. “Anytime. You don’t even have to bring a bottle of wine.”
Andrew Esty, fingering his Daily Gospel button, was glaring at Betsy Ginsberg. He had given up glaring at Roy Filby.
“Later,” Fletch said to Betsy.
Roy Filby said to Fletch, “Marvelous, the issues the press dreams up for itself, isn’t it?”
Fletch stepped around Esty and went down the aisle to Fenella Baker.
“Two or three questions,” she said busily. “First is, did you save the life of Walsh Wheeler while you were in the service together?”
“What is your relationship with Walsh Wheeler?”
“We were in the service together. He was my lieutenant.”
“People do make up stories,” she said.
“Don’t they just?”
“Have you been close friends ever since?”
“No, ma’am. Last time I saw Walsh was at a football game more than a year ago.”
“Were you surprised when you were asked to take on the job of press rep. on this campaign?”
“I agree,” she said. “I do hope they find someone who can spell.”
Fletch too wondered why Fenella Baker’s face didn’t itch. Surely some of that powder had been on it since the days of Jimmy Carter.
“Now about this Shields woman—”
“The girl who was murdered last night.”
“Was her name Shields?”
“You know perfectly well what I mean.”
“I saw your report on it in the newspaper this morning. Great piece.”
“I didn’t write on it this morning, mister.”
“Oh yeah. You did a think-piece on the hockey riot.”
“Are you crazy?”
“I must be. I’m here.”
“I wouldn’t have written on the Shields murder this morning. It isn’t a story yet.”
“It’s not a national story until some connection is made between the girl and the campaign.”
“Oh. I see.”
“What is the connection between the girl and the campaign?”
On a seat at the rear of the bus, Michael J. Hanrahan appeared to be asleep. His head lolled back on a cushion. His jaw was slack. While Fletch watched, Hanrahan lifted a whiskey pint to his lips and poured down two swallows. He did so without opening his eyes or changing the position of his head.
“What girl?” Fletch asked.
“Next you’re going to ask me, ‘What campaign?’ Are you stupid as well as crazy?”
“I’m trying to follow you, Miss Baker, Apples and bananas—”
“Add up to fruit.”
“Someone said she had been traveling with someone on the campaign. Now, who was it?”
“News to me.”
Lansing Sayer, standing in the aisle, touched Fletch on the waist.
Fletch stood straight and turned around. “Are you rescuing me?”
“Great stuff you’re writing, Mr. Sayer,” Fletch said.
“Want to warn you, ol’ boy. Your man is going to be attacked on the so-called welfare shambles in his state. Incidents of people committing welfare fraud.”
“As soon as he gets back up over thirty percent in the national polls.”
In his seat forward in the bus, Bill Dieckmann was doubled over in pain. Eyes squeezed closed, he held his head in both hands. His white skin glistened with sweat.
Going forward in the aisle, Fletch leaned over and whispered to Freddie, “Do you know what’s wrong with Bill Dieckmann?”
Freddie craned her neck to see him. “He does that.”
“Suffers terrible pain. He even whimpers. I think he blacks out sometimes. I mean, I think there are times he doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
Fletch watched him from where he stood. “Isn’t there anything we can do for him?”
Fletch looked forward and aft. “This bus is full of loonies.”
“Pressures of the campaign,” Freddie said. She continued reading Jay Daly’s Walls.
Fletch put his hand on Dieckmann’s shoulder. “You going to be all right, Bill?” Dieckmann looked up at him with wet eyes. “Want me to stop the bus? Get Dr. Thom?”
With both hands, Dieckmann squeezed his head tighter. “No.”
“I will, if you want. What’s the matter?”
Eyes squeezed closed again, rocking forward and back in his seat, Dieckmann said in a hoarse whisper, “Leave me alone.”
Dieckmann didn’t answer. He suffered.
“Okay,” Fletch said. “If you say so.”
He went back up the aisle to where Betsy was sitting. She was reading Justin Kaplan’s Walt Whitman.
“That’s right. I did. The breakfast room was filled. People were waiting. The hostess seated us together. Two single women.”
“Did you talk?”
“Sure. Civilities over toast.”
“You’re a reporter, Betsy. I suspect you found out one or two things about her.”
“Like not-really what?”
“She was an ordinary, nice person. She’d been working as a sales clerk in a store in Chicago. Mason’s, I think, mostly in the bookshop.”
“Is that all?”
“She liked to read; said she read three or four books a week. Asked me if I’d read certain people, such as Antonia White, William Maxwell, Jean Rhys, Juan Alonzo. She said Saul Bellow once came up to her counter and asked her for something, some book they didn’t have, and he was very courteous about it. She recommended Antonia White’s Frost in May in particular because, she said, she had gone through parochial schools in Chicago. A Catholic high school; I think she said Saint Mary Margaret’s.”
“That was the extent of your conversation?”
“No.” Betsy was dredging her memory. “Her father had been killed in an accident when she was nine years old. He worked for the Chicago Waterworks or something. When he was in a ditch, a pipe landed on his head. So she could never think of going to college, you see.”
“Oh. Anything else?”
“Her mother never recovered from her father’s death, got stranger and stranger, and finally five years ago committed herself to a state home.”
“Well, she lived alone in a studio apartment. Married sister, living in Toronto, four children. Her husband owns a gun shop. Sally—that is, Alice Elizabeth Shields; she called herself Sally—had been engaged a couple of times, once to a Chicago policeman who got another girl pregnant and decided he’d better go marry her. Sally never married.”
“Is that all you’ve got?”
“You didn’t get much out of her.”
“Just civilities over toast.”
“What was her Social Security number?”
“You think I’m nosy?”
“You are a reporter, after all.”
“I wasn’t interviewing her.”
“Why was she following the campaign?”
“Didn’t know she was, at that point.”
“While you were having breakfast with her, did she mention anyone who is traveling with the campaign by name?”
Betsy thought. “No. But she did seem to know I’m a reporter.”
“I wonder if it was something you said.”
The bus, at high speed, was climbing a left-curved hill. Fletch had to push off the seat backs not to land on Betsy.
“I mean, she didn’t ask me anything about myself.”
“You think she had a chance?”
“We were just talking.”
“While you were at breakfast with her, did anyone from the campaign say hello to her, nod to her as he went by, wave from across the breakfast room?”
“Not that I remember. She seemed a lonely person.”
“Eager to talk.”
“As long as she didn’t have to be assertive about it.”
“You were in the motel bar last night.”
“Yes. Drinking rum toffs.”
“What’s a rum toff?”
“At any time did you see this girl—Sally, you called her—in the bar with anybody, or leave the bar with anybody, anything?”
“I’m not aware of ever having seen her again since I had breakfast with her in Springfield.”
“But you saw her Volkswagen trailing the caravan.”
“No. I don’t know a Volkswagen from an aircraft carrier.”
“I expect so.”
“Sea gulls seldom follow a Volkswagen.”
“There isn’t one. At least, as far as you can find out. So I won’t worry about it. As a story. Yet. Will you tell me if you discover there is a connection?”
“After all I just told you?”
“Not much. You said so yourself.”
“Now I have a question for you.”
“You just asked one.”
“Walsh has never married, has he?”
“Yes, he likes girls.”
“Oh, I can see that. Why don’t you introduce me to him? You’re his friend.”
“You don’t know him?”
“Not really. I mean, I’ve never been introduced as a woman to a man. As a reporter I know him.”
“He looks like he might go for the homebody type.”
“You’re a homebody?”
“I could be. If the home had a nice address on Pennsylvania Avenue.”
“Lots of rooms to clean.”
“You’ve never seen me with a mop.”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Pink lightning. Flushed with excitement. Ecstasy. You ought to introduce us.”
“Somebody in a presidential family ought to marry a Ginsberg. We do nice table settings.”
“Tell him you and I worked together in Atlanta.”
The bus slowed. The bus driver was looking through the rearview mirror at Fletch.
“I never worked in Atlanta.”
“Irwin!” the bus driver shouted.
“Irwin!” Roy Filby echoed. “I’d rather see one than be one!”
“Telephone!” the bus driver shouted. In fact, a black wire led from the dashboard onto his lap.
Fletch said, “We have a telephone?”
“Not for the use of reporters,” Betsy said. “Staff only. Want to hear what James said about the duplicating machine?”
Fletch went forward. The bus driver handed him the phone from his lap.
“Hello?” Fletch said. “Nice of you to call.”
Barry Hines said, “You’d better come forward, Fletcher.”
“I’ve always been forward.”
“I mean into this bus. Watch the noon news with us.”
“Just heard from a friendly at U.B.C. New York that something unsavory is coming across the airwaves at us.”
The phone went dead.
Brake lights went on at the rear of the campaign bus. It headed for the soft shoulder of the highway.
Fletch looked for a place to hang up the phone.
“Guess we’re stopping for a second. Got to go to the other bus.”
The press bus was following the campaign bus onto the soft shoulder.
“Just put the phone back in my lap,” the driver said. “I’m not expecting any calls at the moment.”
Fletch put the phone in the bus driver’s lap.
“How did you know my name is Irwin?” Fletch asked.
The bus driver said: “Just guessed.”