“It’s none of my business, but—”

“You’re right,” Bill Dieckmann snapped. Sitting at the bar, he didn’t even look up from his beer.

“Just wondering if I can help.” The bartender brought Fletch a beer. “Does whatever happened to you on the bus today happen often?”

“None of your business.”

“Have you been to a doctor about it?”

“None of your business.”

“Agreed,” Fletch said. “Let me know if ever I can be of help.” He looked around the bar. All motel bars are interchangeable, too. Even the people in them are interchangeable: the morose, lonely businessmen, the keyed-up, long-haul truck drivers, the few locals who are there solely for the booze. “Where is everyone?” Fletch asked. There were only a few campaign types in the bar.

“In their rooms, I guess,” Bill answered. “Not getting anything to eat. At the mayor’s dinner, not getting anything to eat. Betsy is at the 4-H Club dinner, trailing Walsh. She’s probably getting something to eat. Solov’s in his room, watching cable television.” Bill grinned. “He’s not getting anything to eat, either.”

“Does that guy ever take off his overcoat?” Fletch asked.

“No, no. He was born in it. You can tell he grew up inside it. Each time Pravda sends him out of the country his managing editor just moves the buttons for him.”

“Time they moved the buttons again.”

Dr. Thom entered. He put his black bag on the bar beside Fletch.

“Here’s a doctor now,” Fletch said brightly.

“Best bedside manner in the country,” Bill said. “If you don’t have a temperature when Dr. Thom arrives, you will when he leaves. Good for business, right, Doc?”

“Journalists,” Dr. Thom said. “If any journalist ever spoke well of me, I’d instantly overdose on a purgative.”

“Looks like you already have,” Bill said.

“It’s a medical fact,” Dr. Thom said to Fletch, “that all journalists are born with congenital diarrhea. Double Scotch, no ice,” he said to the bartender.

“I’m a journalist,” Fletch said.

“I trust you vacated yourself before you entered the bar.”

“Mr. Fletcher?” A woman was standing at Fletch’s elbow.

“At least a journalist has to empty himself,” Bill Dieckmann burped. “Doctors are born vacuous, and vacuous they remain.”

“Yes?” Fletch had turned to the woman.

“Are you Mr. Fletcher?”

“Yes. But you can call me Mr. Jones.”

“If only,” Dr. Thom intoned ever so slowly, “journalists would vacate themselves privately.”

“I’m Judy Nadich,” the woman said. “Feature writer for Farming-dale Views.”

“Great stuff you’re writing,” Fletch said. And then laughed. “I’m sure.”

Judy grinned. “You liked my last piece? On how to repair cracked teacups?”

“Thought it was great,” Fletch laughed. “Read it several times.”

“I knew that one would get national attention,” Judy said.

“Sure,” Fletch said. “Everyone’s got cracked teacups.”

“Hey,” Judy said. “Seriously. I’m trying to get an interview with Doris Wheeler.”

“I think you’re supposed to see Ms Sullivan about that.”

“I’ve asked and asked and she says no.”


“She says there’s no time on Mrs. Wheeler’s schedule for a full, sit-down interview. What she means is that the readership of the Farmingdale Views isn’t worth an hour of Mrs. Wheeler’s time. She’s right, of course. But it’s important to me.”

“ ’Course it is.” Despite her brown hair tied in a knot behind her head, her thick sweater, her thick skirt, her thick stockings and shoes, Judy Nadich was sort of cute. “What do you want me to do?”

“Get me an interview with Mrs. Wheeler,” Judy said. “In return for my body.”

“Simple enough deal,” Fletch said. “Tit for tat.”

“Tits for that,” Judy said.

“I’ve never met Ms Sullivan. Never laid eyes on her.”

“You could try.”

“You want me to call her?”

“Yes, please. She’s in Room 940.”

“Would you be content with a follow-along?”

“What’s that?”

“You just follow along with Mrs. Wheeler for an hour or two, you know? Up close. You don’t really interview her. Report what she does and says to other people. ‘An hour in the life of Doris Wheeler’ sort of thing. Done right, makes damned good reading.”

“Sure. Anything.”

“Okay. I’ll call Ms Sullivan. Watch my beer, will you?”

“Sure thing.”

Dr. Thom was saying “… journalists are the only people on earth asked not to donate their remains to science. It’s been discovered that journalists’ hearts are so small, they can be transplanted only into their brethren mice.”

“Keep these guys separated, will you?” Fletch asked Judy.

“Sure.” She climbed onto Fletch’s barstool. “Bet you guys don’t know how to repair a cracked teacup …”

“Ms Sullivan? This is Fletcher.”

The first few times Fletch had tried Room 940 he had gotten a busy signal.

“What do you want?” Her voice was surprisingly deep.

“Hello,” said Fletch. “We haven’t met.”

“Let’s keep it that way. As long as we can.”

“What?” Fletch said. “No camaraderie? No esprit de corps? No we’re-all-in-this-spaceship-together sort of attitude?”

“Get to it.” Her voice was almost a growl.

“No simple cooperation?”

“Yeah, I’ll cooperate with you,” she said. “You stay on your side of the fence and I’ll stay on my side. Okay?”

“Not okay. There’s a young lady here, a reporter from the Farmingdale Views. She’s spending tomorrow morning with Mrs. Wheeler. Just observing.”

“Over my dead body.”

“That can be arranged.”

“She’s a stupid, soft, little local bitch. Who are you to make arrangements for Doris?”

“I’m giving her a press pass to spend tomorrow morning with Doris Wheeler, close up, with photos. You don’t like it, you can stuff it up your nose.”

“Fuck you, Fletcher.”

“Yeah, you say that,” Fletch said, “but what are you going to do?”

Dr. Thom and Bill Dieckmann were gone from the bar. Judy Nadich sat over an empty glass.

“What happened to my beer?” Fletch asked.

“I drank it,” Judy said.

“Was it good?”


He handed her the press pass he had written out and signed on a piece of note paper. “Here,” he said. “You’re spending tomorrow morning observing Mrs. Wheeler close up. Don’t get too much in the way.”

“Thanks.” Judy looked dubiously at the handwritten note. “Sullivan was nice about it, huh?”

“Sure. Why not? Mrs. Wheeler will be very glad to have you with her.”

Flash Grasselli had come over from a table at the back of the bar and was standing behind Fletch.

“Do I get to give you my body, now?” Judy asked.

“What town am I in?” Fletch asked.

“Farmingdale, dummy.”

“Next time I come through Farmingdale,” Fletch said.

“You rejecting me?”

“No,” Fletch said. “Just don’t believe in prepayment.”

“Mr. Fletcher, may I buy you a beer?” Flash asked.

“Sure,” Fletch said. “Hope it’s better than the last one. Judy here says my last beer wasn’t very good.”

“Why are you called Flash?”

Flash Grasselli and Fletch had taken two fresh beers to Flash’s small table at the back of the dark motel bar. Judy Nadich had left with her tote bag to prepare herself for her morning observing Doris Wheeler.

“From boxing.”

“Were you fast?”

Flash seemed to be chewing his beer. “I’m not sure.”

Flash had the eyebrow cuts of a boxer, but his eyes were steady and his nose had been born pug.

“They’re always kidding me, the reporters,” Flash said. “They come to me for real information about the Wheelers, and I never give them any. I just talk about the old days.”

“What kind of things do they ask you?” Fletch asked.

“Oh, you know. The governor’s life.” Flash looked directly at Fletch. “His disappearances.”

Fletch knew he was being handed a line of inquiry. “He disappears? What do you mean, he disappears?”

“His fishing trips. Sometimes they’re called that. He doesn’t know anything about fishing. So they call them hunting trips. The governor wouldn’t shoot a rabbit if he was starving. You know.” Flash smiled. “The trips the governor takes with those prostitutes he hires. His week-long sex orgies. You know about them. His drunken benders. He spends them in the mob’s hideaways.”

Fletch felt a sudden chill. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Everybody knows.” Flash grinned. “All the press. His drunken benders. He goes to consult with the mob. Sometimes they supply him all the women he wants. He disappears for days at a time. Everybody knows that. I go with him.”

“The governor can’t just disappear.”

“He does as governor. He did as congressman. He’s always done it. A few days at a time.”

“Nuts. The governor just can’t disappear. Be too easy to follow him.”

“Impossible to follow him. He sees to that. I see to that. Trick is, there is no clue as to when it’s going to happen. In the middle of the night, two or three in the morning, he rings my phone over the garage and says, ‘Time to go, Flash.’ I say, ‘Yes, sir,’ get the car out, and he’s waiting by the back door. Once he even excused himself from a University Board of Governors meeting to go to the bathroom, see? And came out to me in the car and said, ‘Time to go, Flash.’ I always know what he means.”

“And the press knows about this?”

“The great untold story. They don’t dare report it, because they don’t know what to report. Nobody can get any evidence. Am I saying that right? Nobody can get any evidence as to where he goes on these trips, or what he does. I’m the only one who knows.” Flash sucked on his beer.

“Am I supposed to ask?”

“Governor had a girl friend, before he ever married. Barbara some-thing-or-other. She was a designer of some kind—hats or clothes or something. I guess she had this cabin from her father. Inherited it from him. She and the governor used to spend time there, a long time ago, when they were kids, their early twenties, when he was in law school, I guess. She died. She left it to him. I guess it wasn’t a sudden death. They knew she was going to die. No one has ever known he owns this cabin. Big secret of his life.”

“So when he disappears he goes to this cabin? Alone?”

“I go with him. I know every route in and out of that place, east, north, south, and west. Every timber road. I could drive to that place blindfolded. And no one has ever succeeded in following me.”

“You’re talking about a cabin over thirty years old.”

“Older than that. A lot older than that. It really rots. Rickety. Wet, cold. Falling apart. I try to do a few things when I’m there, keep it propped up. He never notices. Roof leaks. Fireplace smokes. Pipes are rotted. I bring water up in buckets from the lake. No real work has been done on it in over thirty years. I can’t do much. What do I know? I’m a city kid.”

Fletch watched the governor’s driver-valet without saying anything.

Flash sat forward. “And you know what he does when he gets there? No broads, no booze. No mobsters. Just me. There’s a picture of this girl, Barbara, on the bureau in the bedroom.”

“Is she beautiful?”

Flash shrugged. “Not especially. She looks like a nice lady. Nice smile.”

“So what does he do?”

“He goes to bed. He sleeps. He goes on a sleep orgy. We get there, immediately he goes to bed. It’s a big, soft bed, usually a little damp. He never seems to mind the damp. I try to air out the little bed in the other room. He sleeps fifteen, sixteen hours. When he wakes up I bring food to him. Steak and eggs. Always steak and eggs. There’s a phone, still listed in her name, I think, Barbara’s name, after thirty years, if you’d believe it. What does the telephone company care? The bill gets paid. And he’ll phone his secretary and maybe the lieutenant governor, and his wife, and maybe Walsh; do a little business, see that everything’s all right. Then he’ll go back to sleep. He doesn’t even take a walk. Spends no energy at all. He’s like a bear. Hibernates a few days. In all my years of doin’ this with him, he’s never gone down to the lake. He’s never seen the outside of the cabin, except goin’ in and comin’ out, and that’s usually in the dark. I don’t think he even knows what a shambles it is.”

“Flash, does he take pills to sleep so much?”

“No. Steak and eggs. Water from the lake. I’ve never even seen an aspirin bottle at the cabin. He just sleeps. Fifteen, sixteen hours at first. Then eight hours. Then like twelve hours. There are some old books in the cabin—Ellery Queen, S.S. van Dyne. He reads them sometimes, in bed. Never seems to finish them.”

“You mean, his wife doesn’t know about this?”

“Nobody does.”

“When he calls them, where does he say he is?”

“He doesn’t say. He’s been doing this a long time. I know what they think. They think he’s with some woman. In a way, maybe he is. The governor’s out of town, they say. Private trip. Most of the press would give their left arms to know where the governor goes. I’ve been offered quite a lot.”

“I bet you have.”

“Until they know something, they can’t report anything. Right?”

“Right. Did James know about this?”

“Nope. He used to get pretty mad about it sometimes. Yell at the governor. James saw some kind of danger in it. He’d say, ‘Some day you’re gonna get caught, Caxton, and then it will blow up in all of our faces.’”

“And what would the governor say?”

“Nothing. James was pretty smart. He played every trick in the book to get me to tell him where the governor goes, what he does. I don’t know much, Mr. Fletcher, but what I know I shut up about.”

“Flash, what’s the big secret about this? If it’s so innocent, if all the guy does is sleep—”

“I don’t know. Maybe it shows he’s human. What’s the word? Vulnerable. He doesn’t have all the energy in the world. He needs sleep. Maybe he’s ashamed of it. Maybe it’s because this woman was involved. Is involved.”

“Maybe it’s just because it’s an eccentric thing to do.”

“It’s been goin’ on a long time. As long as I’ve known him. That’s how secrets begin, isn’t it? At first you don’t say nothin’, and after a while you find you can’t say nothin’. Maybe the ol’ boy just enjoys puttin’ one over on everybody. Here everybody thinks he’s off boozin’ with broads, and he’s really asleep in a big soft bed up at the lake. Sleepin’ like a baby. Readin’ the same books over and over again, never finishin’ them.”

“Then what happens?”

“After three, four days of this, sometimes five, he gets up, gets dressed, says, ‘Time to go home, Flash,’ we get in the car and go back to the mansion.”

“He never says where he was.”

“He says he was away. Only once there was some crisis, some vote that had to be taken. I guess he miscalculated, things moved faster than he expected, we had to come back earlier than he wanted to.”

“How often does he do this?”

“Three, four times a year.”

“Sounds pretty boring for you.”

“Oh, no. I like looking at the lake. I keep sweaters up there, you know, and a big down jacket. It’s quiet. I talk to the birds. I chirp back at them. You can get a real conversation going with the birds, if you really try. I like helping out the chipmunks.”

Fletch gave this big, ex-boxer a long look. “How do you help out a chipmunk?”

“The place is so rotten. There’s a stone wall under the cabin, a foundation, and then another between the cabin and the lake. The chipmunks live in the walls. They come in and out. The walls keep fallen down, blockin’ up their doors. I move the big rocks for them. And I find nuts and leave them outside their doors for them. It’s easier for me to find nuts than it is for them.” The man said sincerely, “I can carry more nuts than a chipmunk can.”

“Sure,” said Fletch, “but do they thank you?”

“They take the nuts inside the walls. I think they do. They go somewhere.” Fletch said nothing. “Why shouldn’t I help them out?” Flash Grasselli asked reasonably. “I’m bigger than they are.”


“Sure. Haven’t anything better to do.”

“Don’t see how he gets away with this. I don’t see how he gets away without making any kind of an explanation to Doris and Walsh.”

“Why? The guy’s a success in every other way. Jeez, he’s a presidential candidate. What more do you want? They put up with it. They mention it to me every once in a while. You know, thank me for takin’ care of him when he disappears. They’re fishin’, too. I never say nothin’. God knows what they think. Sure it worries them, but so what? The guy lives in a glass suit. He has a right to some privacy.”

“He doesn’t really trust them, does he?”

“He has a right to some privacy.”

“Flash, if the governor were off boozin’ with broads, would you put up with it?”

“I dunno. Sure. I expect so. I like broads better’n I like chipmunks.”

“Would you tell the truth about it?”

Flash’s eyes narrowed. “I’d shut up about it, if that’s what you mean. The way I figure, everybody’s gotta blow off steam in his own way. Everybody’s gotta have a piece of hisself to hisself. Me, I go to my room over the garage at the mansion and I can do what I want. I never bring girls there, though. Not to the governor’s mansion. I can do what I want. The governor, he wears a glass suit all the time. Except when he’s at the lake. Just me and him. Then he zonks out. That’s his thing.”

“And, Flash, drugs have nothing to do with it?”

“Nothin’. Absolutely nothin’. He doesn’t even drink coffee there. If that shithead Dr. Thom and his little black bag ever showed up at the cabin, I’d drown ’em faster than he can insult me.”

“That’s pretty fast.”

“Dr. Thom is an insult to the human race.”

“Has the governor done this lately? Disappeared?”

“No.” Flash frowned. “Not since the campaign started. But we went up to the lake the day after Christmas. When no one was lookin’. A long rest. Back by New Year’s Eve.”

“Okay. Flash, the question is obvious.”

The look on Flash’s face indicated the question wasn’t obvious.

“Why are you telling me this?” Fletch asked.

Simply, Flash answered, “The governor told me to.”

“I guessed as much. The answer’s obvious too. But why? Why did he tell you to tell me?”

Flash shrugged. “Dunno. I have a guess.”

“What’s your guess?”

“Maybe because he knows you don’t like Dr. Thom and his little black bag any better’n I do. I heard Walsh tell him that.”

Fletch shook his head. “So now I know something Walsh doesn’t know? I don’t get it.”

“You see, Mr. Fletcher, the people around the governor don’t care much about him, as long as he keeps movin’, keeps walkin’ and talkin’, keeps bein’ Caxton Wheeler, keeps winning. Including his wife and son. They remind me of a football team or somethin’. They work together beautifully, always slappin’ each other on the ass and everything. But one of them breaks his back, like James, or like that guy who got killed today—what’s his name? Victor Somethin’—no longer useful anymore, and they find they can play without him. They never really think of him again. There’s that goal up the field there, and the point is to get that ball through that goal. That’s the only point there is. The governor’s the ball. They’ll kick the shit out of him, throw him to the ground, land on him. He’s just got to keep lookin’ like a ball.” Flash waggled his head. “You’ve been with the campaign what? Like twenty-four hours? And the governor wanted you to know this about him. I don’t know what those friggin’ pills are Dr. Thom feeds him. The governor wants you to know he’s all right.”

“I’m not sure you’re right about Walsh.”

“He cares?” Flash sat back. “Yeah, he cares. Too much. To him his dad is Mr. Magical Marvelous.” Flash laughed. “I think the governor maybe almost wants his son to think he’s up there somewhere burnin’ up more energy with booze and broads. I think it would kill him if Walsh ever discovered the ol’ man’s just up at a rickety old cabin takin’ a nap. You know what I mean?”

“Hell of a lot of pressure,” Fletch said.

“Yeah, and this is the old man’s way of beatin’ it off. He’s right. It’s against his image. What could be worse for him than to have the National Nose, as he calls it, print that he’s asleep? Jeez, it would ruin him. Better they think he’s gettin’ his rocks off—as long as they can’t prove it.”

“Well, well,” Fletch said. “My daddy always said you can learn a lot in a bar, if you listen.”

Walsh stuck his head in the bar, looked around, but did not come in.

Fletch said, “The governor wanted me to know he’s not hooked on anything but sleep. Is that it?”

Flash shrugged. “The governor’s a very intelligent man. I don’t have any brains. Never did have. I’m just smart enough to know I should do what he tells me and everything will be fine.”

“What did he tell you to say to me about Mrs. Wheeler?”


Fletch waited. He sipped his beer. He waited again. “What are you going to tell me about Mrs. Wheeler?”

“Nothin’. She’s one tough, smart person. As strong as steel.”

“Smarter and tougher than the governor?”


“Tonight, when she yelled at the governor—”

“I didn’t hear it. I was in the bathroom.”

“You were in the bathroom on purpose. You knew she was going to do some such thing.”

Flash said, “Yes.”

“You call that smart and tough? You don’t call that being out of control?”

“Mrs. Wheeler’s kept things going all these years. She was probably right in everything she said tonight. I didn’t hear her.”

“You must have been trying pretty hard not to hear her.”

“That’s my business. She uses her tongue like a whip. She whips Walsh, yells at the governor, calls me a goon.”

“Not just her tongue, Flash. She uses her hands.”

“You know, you don’t get to be a presidential candidate just by standin’ out in the rain. Someone has to push you, and push you damned hard. You see, I know the governor’s secret: he’s a nice guy. If it weren’t for her, the governor would have gone to sleep years ago. Read novels. Play with little kids. You know what I mean?”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Someone’s got to be President of the United States,” Flash said simply. “Why not a smart, honest, good man like Caxton Wheeler?”