“Hello, Ms. Arbuthnot?” Fletch said into his bedroom telephone.


“Glad I caught you in.”

“In what?”

“The shower?”

“Just got out of it.”

“And did you sing your ‘Hoo boy, now I wash my left knee. Hoo boy, now I wash my right knee’ song?”

“Oh, you know about that.”

“Used to hear you through the wall in Virginia. Key of C in the morning, F at night.”

“I take a cold shower in the morning.”

“I was just about to order up a sandwich and a bottle of milk to my room. I could order up two sandwiches.”

“Yes, you could, Fletch. If you want two sandwiches.”

“I only want one sandwich.”

“Then order only one.”

“You’re not getting the point.”

“I’m trying not to be as presumptuous as some people I know.”

“You see, I could order up one sandwich for me. And one for a friend. Who might come along and eat with me.”

“Entirely reasonable. Do you have a friend?”

“I was thinking you might be that friend, seeing you’ve taken a shower and all.”

“Nope. I wouldn’t be.”

“What makes you so certain?”

“I’m certain.”

“We could eat and slurp milk and maybe even we could sit around and sing ‘Great Green Globs of Greasy Grimy Gopher’s Guts.’”

“Nope. We couldn’t.”

“Aw, Freddie—”

“Look, Fletch, would you mind if I hung up now? I’m expecting a phone call from Chicago. Then I have to call Washington.”

“Okay,” Fletch said. “I’ll call you back after you change your mind.”

He called room service and ordered up two club sandwiches and a quart of milk.

His shoes were already off. He took off his shirt and fell on his back on the bed.

His bedroom was virtually identical to the room he’d had the night before, to the same centimeter of space, to the autumnal, nondirtying color scheme, to the wall mirror tilted to reflect the bed, to the heating system that wouldn’t cool off, to the number of too-small towels in the bathroom, to the television he had discovered produced only pink pictures. The painting on the wall was of mountaintops instead of a sailboat. For a moment Fletch thought of American standardization and the interchangeability of motel rooms, motels, airports, whole cities, national news telecasts, and presidential candidates.

The bedside phone rang. Fletch said into the phone: “Knew you’d change your mind. Ordered you a club sandwich.”

A man’s voice said: “Nice of you. Can you have it sent to Iowa?”

“I suppose so,” agreed Fletch. “But who’s in Iowa?”

“I am,” the man’s voice said. “Rondoll James.”

Fletch sat up on the bed. “I. M. Fletcher, Mr. James.”

“Call me James, please. My parents spotted me with a first name no one’s ever spelled right—Rondoll, you know? like nothing else you can think of—so early on I gave it back to the Registry of Births.”

“I know the problem.”

“No one ever spelled your first name right either?”

“Everyone did. You want your job back?”

“Not right away. I’m in Iowa for the funeral of Vic Robbins.”

“He died in Pennsylvania.”

“His home is in Iowa. His body’s being flown here tonight.”

“You good friends?”

“The best. Vic taught me much over the years. Who wrote Caxton’s remarks on Vic’s death? Walsh?”

“Yeah. The governor was in a factory when we got the news.”

“The statement would have been a hell of a lot warmer, if I had been there. Sometimes these guys forget who really runs American politics. So how do you like my job?”

“I’m not very good at it.”

“Hey, you got the lead on all the network news shows tonight. Not bad, first day.”

“Yeah, but didn’t the story do more harm than good?”

“Get the space, baby. Get the network time and the newspaper space. Builds familiarity. Recognition of the candidate, you know? What the candidate is actually saying or doing is of secondary importance, you know?”

“Did anything like what he was saying come across to the people, James, do you think?”

“I’m not sure. He said technology is tying us together, integrating us, maybe making us more sensitive to each other, maybe even increasing the sense of responsibility for each other. That about it?”

“Yeah. I think so.”

“Wonderful part of it was, I was sitting in an airport bar about a thousand miles away from where he was saying it, and I heard him and saw him say it. Sort of proves his point, don’t you think?”

“What did other people in the bar think of it?”

“Not much. One guy said, ‘There’s ol’ Caxton spouting off again. Why doesn’t he tell me where my wife can get a job?’ Gin drinker. The bartender? Typical. No good bartender ever takes sides. Costs him tips.”

“Guess it’ll be a day or two before anyone digests what the governor was trying to say.”

“Longer than that, I. M., longer than that. Something ol’ Vic taught me, and it’s always proved to be true: statesmanship has no place on a political campaign. A campaign is punch and duck, punch and duck. Fast footwork, you know? Always smiling. The voters want to see fast action. Their attention won’t hold for anything more. From day to day, give ’em happy film, and short, reassuring statements. If you really try to say anything, really ask them to stop and think, they’ll hate you for it. They can’t think, you know? Being asked makes us feel inferior. We don’t like to feel inferior to our candidates. Against the democratic ideal, you know? The candidate’s just got to keep giving the impression he’s a man of the people—no better than they are, just doin’ a different job. No one is ever elected in this country on the basis of what he really thinks. The candidate is elected on the basis of thousands of different, comfortable small impressions, not one of which really asks the voters to think.”

“How about handing coins out to kids. Was that ‘comfortable’?” How did that come across?”

“Just fine.”


“You bet. Anytime you can get psychiatrists on television speaking against your candidate, immediately your boy is up three percentage points in the popularity polls. Psychiatrists shrink people, you know? People resent being shrunk.”

“You’re making me feel better.”

“Don’t intend to, particularly. And it’s not why I’m calling. But as long as we’re talking, take this advice: any time you see ol’ Caxton looking like he’s about to say something profound, stick a glove in his mouth.”

“Appreciate the advice. Why are you calling?”

“Why, sir, to tell you how much I love Caxton Wheeler. And explain to you what I’ve done for him lately.”

“What have you done for him lately?”

“Put myself out of a job, thank you. If not out of a whole career. Sacrificed myself on the altar of Athena. Wasn’t she the goddess of war?”

“Oh, yeah: the broad standing in her backyard with a frying pan. Great statue. Seen it dozens of times, as a kid. The governor told me—”

“To hell with what Caxton told you. I’ll tell you.” Suddenly whatever James had imbibed in that airport bar became audible in his voice. “I’ve been with Caxton twenty-three years. I’ve been his eyes and his ears and his legs and his mouth for twenty-three years, night and day, weekends included.”

“I know.”

“I want you to know I love that man. I admire him and love him above all others. I know more about him than his wife, his son, anybody. He’s a good guy. I’d do anything for him, including sacrificing myself, which I just did.”

Fletch waited. Eulogies to a relationship never need encouragement from the listener.

James continued: “Caxton ought to be President of the United States. I believe that more than I believe I’m sitting here talking to you. But Doris Wheeler, in case you haven’t discovered it, is his weak spot. She’s horrible. There’s no other way to say it. Horrible. She has no more regard for people than a crocodile. If anything around her moves, she lashes at it and bites it, bites deep. She’s been lashin’ at Caxton, bitin’ him for thirty years now.”

“James, a husband and wife—not our business.”

“Not our business unless one of them is running for public office. Then it becomes our business. You ever hear her talk to a volunteer, or a chartered pilot?”

“Not yet.”

“Or a junior reporter, or to her son, or to Caxton himself?” Fletch didn’t answer.

“The word is bitch. Doris Wheeler is an absolute bitch. Sometimes I’ve been convinced the woman is insane. She becomes violent. She’s Caxton’s biggest liability, and he won’t admit it.”

“He knows something—”

“He won’t admit it. Always covering up for her. Over the years I’ve talked to him a thousand times, trying to get him to restrain the bitch. Even divorce her, get rid of her. He never listened to me. And she’s getting worse, with all this pressure of the campaign on her. I couldn’t keep covering up for her, I. M. I just couldn’t. You understand that?”


“I couldn’t cover up for her anymore. Stories were beginning to get out about the way she bullies the governor, the staff, everybody. The way everything either has to go her way, or else she’ll kick everybody in the crotch. Her campaign. She’ll run it. And everybody better fall in behind her, or life won’t be worth living for anybody.”

“The visit to the children’s burn center—”

“Was just one of a hundred things. She knew what she was doing. Walsh told her she had to go. Her own secretary, Sully, told her she had to go. Barry and Willy arranged another time for her to meet her friends for indoor tennis. She just walked off and played tennis.”


“Because she always knows best.”

“Yeah, but why? In this particular instance, so obviously stupid—”

“First, she’s convinced she can get away with anything. Whatever happens, it’s someone else’s fault. Second: vanity. Wouldn’t you love to appear among your old cronies, your peers, and play tennis with them as the wife of a presidential candidate?”

“The way I play tennis—”


“Wait a minute. Wasn’t she also raising money for the campaign playing tennis? Badly needed money?”

“I said: we had already arranged for her to play tennis two days later. She didn’t even cancel the burn center. Just got in the car and went to play tennis. Look what happened. The nurses got all the kids into their wheelchairs, their roll-beds, into this special reception room. Photographers were there, reporters. The bitch never showed up. You realize the pain she caused? You don’t move kids with burns, and then go play tennis!”

“So why does the governor blame you for it?”

“He can’t blame his wife. He never blames his wife. Always before, I’ve covered up for her. Done a deal with the photographers, you know? Made some half-assed explanation, said, ‘If you don’t report this, I’ll provide you with photo opportunities you never dreamed of —the governor in the shower stark naked smoking a cigar, you’ll win the Pulitzer Prize,’ you know? This time I couldn’t do that, I. M. Wouldn’t.”


“I’d had enough of it. The governor wouldn’t listen to me, all these years. The situation was getting more serious. She’s getting worse. His chances of getting to the White House are getting better and better, and she’s ruining them. So I let the situation get reported. I thought maybe if Caxton saw what all this looked like in the press, for once, he’d at least try to restrain the bitch.”

“What makes you think he can?”

“He has to. Somebody has to. Caxton Wheeler shouldn’t be President of the United States because his wife’s a nut?”

“They’ve come a long way together, James.”

“That they have—a long way to fall over a cliff.”

“If she’s so impossible, why has he stuck with her? Divorce wasn’t invented Sunday, you know.”

“Want three good reasons why he hasn’t divorced her?”

“Yeah. Gimme three.”

“First, divorce still doesn’t go over so big with the voters. Despite President Ronald Reagan. People can still be found to say, If a man can’t run his own house, how do you expect him to run the White House?’”

“That’s one.”

“Two, she’s got the money. She is a wealthy, wealthy lady in her own right. Her daddy horned in on the oil business and made a barrel of money. A politician’s life is risky and expensive, you know. Nothing lubricates a politician’s life better than oil.”

“That’s two.”

“Three, I deeply suspect Caxton loves the bitch. Can you believe that? Don’t ask me how or why. Sometimes people whom you’d think would know better actually do love the last person in the world they should love. I’ve known lots of jerks like that. Their wives are ruining them with every word and gesture and all these jerks say is, ‘Where would I be without sweet ol’ honey-pie?’ Love, I. M., is as blind as justice. Maybe you’ve noticed.”

“And just as elusive.”

“Boy, am I glad my wife ran away with her psychiatrist fifteen years ago. There was a broad who needed shrinking. What an inflammation she was.”

“I don’t know, James. What am I supposed to do?”

“Carry on, brother. Carry on. I just want you to know what’s between Caxton and me.”

“His wife.”

“I love him. I admire him. I want to see him President of the United States. I’d do anything to see that. Anything. What I’m saying is, feel free to call me anytime about anything.”

“Thank you.”

“They threw me over, but that doesn’t matter. I’ll still do anything I can for Caxton.”

Fletch soon discovered that all he need do to make his phone ring was to put the receiver down into the cradle.

Immediately after he hung up from trying to make clear things that were not at all clear to himself for a rewrite editor at Newsweek magazine, he found himself answering the phone to his old Marine buddy, Alston Chambers.

“Nice to hear a friendly voice,” Fletch said.

“What’s happening, Fletch?”

“Damned if I know.”

“Just heard on cable news you’ve been made acting press representative for Governor Wheeler’s campaign. I saw you on the tube.”

“‘Acting press secretary’? I guess so.”

“Why are you doing that? You gone establishment?”

“Walsh called me late at night. Said he needed help desperately. I mean, he convinced me he was desperate.”

“Wow, a presidential campaign. What’s it like, Fletch?”

“Unreal, man. Totally unreal.”

“I believe you. On television you were wearing a coat and tie.”

“Alston, there have been a couple of murders.”

“What do you mean, ‘murders’? Real murders?”

“A couple of women beaten to death. One of them was strangled. They weren’t really a part of the campaign, but I think somebody traveling with the campaign had something to do with it.”

“You’re kidding.”

“ ’Fraid not.”

“Caxton Wheeler as Jack the Ripper. You’re giving a whole new meaning to the phrase presidential assassin, Fletch.”

“Very funny.”

“Haven’t seen anything about this in the news.”

“We’re trying to keep it out of the news. At least, everybody’s telling me to keep it out of the news.”

“Having had opportunity to observe you for a long time, Fletcher, I can say you’re not good at keeping things out of the news. Especially concerning murder and other skullduggery.”

“You wouldn’t believe this situation, Alston. It’s like being on a fast train, and people keep falling off it, and no one will pull the emergency cord. Everytime someone falls off, everyone says, ‘Well, that’s behind us.’”

“You’re right. I don’t get it.”

“It’s just an unreal world. There’s so much power. So much prestige. Everything’s moving so fast. The cops are so much in awe of the candidate and his party.”

“Yeah, but murder’s murder.”

“Listen, Alston, a lady gets thrown off the motel roof right above the candidate’s room, right above where the press have their rooms. And in a half hour the mayor shows up and says to the highest-ranking member of the campaign he can get close to something like, ‘Now, don’t let my cops bother you.’ And he says to the press, ‘Please don’t besmirch the image of my city by making a big national story of this purely local, unfortunate incident.’”

“Yeah, but Wheeler. What does the candidate himself say?”

“He shrugs and says, ‘There are sirens everywhere I go. I’m a walking police emergency.’”

“And Walsh?”

“Walsh says, ‘A local matter. We’ll be gone by morning.’”

“Taking the murderer with you. Is that what you think?”

“I’m trying to get the governor to permit an investigation. He’s convinced the investigation would become the story of the campaign, and ruin his chances for the presidency.”

“So ol’ Fletch, boy investigative reporter who took an early retirement somehow, is investigating all by himself.”

“My hands are tied. I can’t go around asking the who-what-where-when-why questions. If I did that, I’d find myself with an airplane ticket home in about ten minutes.”

“But you’re in there trying, right?”

“Subtly, yes. I’m trying to get to know these people. Besides Walsh, I really only know a couple: Fredericka Arbuthnot, Roy Filby—”

“You’d better hurry up. Two murders in a pattern usually mean a third, a fourth …”

“I’m doin’ my best, Mr. Persecutor. It’s like trying to put out a fire in a circus tent, you know? I can’t get anybody to admit there is a fire.”

“When I started trying to get you on the phone, Fletch, my intention was to congratulate you on your new job. By the time you answered the phone, I was saying to myself, ‘What’s the barefoot boy with cheek doin’ explaining the establishment to us peasants?’”

“I like Caxton Wheeler. I want to solve this damned thing.”

“What does he want to be President for anyway? If I had his wife’s money, I’d buy a whole country for myself.”

“A campaign sure looks different from the inside. On the outside it’s all charm and smiles and positive statements. On the inside, it’s all tension, arguments—”

“And murder?”

“In this case, yes.”

“Sometime, when you’re talking to Walsh, ask him why he left us so suddenly. I’ve always been curious about that.”

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t you remember? After we spent those three days tied to the tops of the trees like cuckoo birds, a few days after we got back to base camp, Lieutenant Wheeler suddenly went home.”

“He got sent stateside.”

“I know. But how and why? It wasn’t time for him to get rowed home. We all knew that.”

“How? Because his dad had political pull. Why? Because his dad had political pull. What’s the mystery? Walsh didn’t have to be in the front lines at all. His dad was a congressman.”

“We never knew what happened to Lieutenant Wheeler.”

“He had seen enough action.”

“We all had.”

“Alston, at that point any one of us would have pulled strings to get out of there. If we had strings. You know it. Our dads weren’t politicians.”

“With rich wives.”

“So tell me about yourself. How do you like being chief persecutor?”

“In California, Fletch, we call ourselves prosecutors. And I’m not chief.”

“Sent any woe-begones to jail lately?”

“Two yesterday. No outstanding warrants on you, though. I check first thing every morning.”

“Haven’t been in California lately.”

“Well, if you ever really get to be a member of the establishment, Fletch, come on back. California can always use a few more people who wear suits.”

The two-hundred-year-old man from room service apologized for being so slow, telling Fletch the hotel was full of reporters following the campaign of “that Caxton Wheeler. Sure wish he’d get elected. Got a cousin named Caxton. First name, too.”

“Hello, Freddie?” Fletch had picked up the phone before the man from room service was fully through the door.

“Who’s calling, please?”

“Dammit, Freddie.”

“Oh, hello, dammit.”

“I’m calling to tell you your sandwich is ready.”

“Ready for what?”

“Ready to be eaten.”

“So eat it.”

“Dammit, Freddie, you used to be a nice, aggressive woman.”

“Aggressive toward a sandwich?”

“Toward me! I’m not a sandwich! What happened?”

“Your job happened.”

“You don’t like my job? Neither do I.”

“Fletcher, what would you think of a journalist who became too friendly with the press representative of a presidential candidate, upon whose campaign she’s reporting?”


“What would you think?”

“Not much.”

“You mean plenty, but not good.”

“Gee, it’s lonely here at the top.”

“See? We agree on something.”

“I’ll quit! I’ll quit right now! I’ve been looking for an excuse.”

“What excuse have you got?”

“Wasting food, obviously. Can’t waste this good sandwich. Think of all the starving children in Beverly Hills with nothing to eat but Sweet Wheat.”

“Good night, Fletch. Sweet dreams.”


Fletch first ate one sandwich, and then the other, and drank the whole bottle of milk.

His phone rang continuously. Members of the press from around the world were calling him, asking for background to and interpretation of Caxton Wheeler’s Winslow speech. Through mouthfuls of ham and chicken and bacon and lettuce and tomato and mayonnaise, Fletch said again and again that there was no background to the governor’s speech; that the speech said exactly what it said, no more, no less.

The phone rang while he washed. It rang while he was putting on his shoes, his shirt, and his jacket.

It was ringing when he left the room.