“Here I am.” Freddie Arbuthnot announced her presence at Fletch’s elbow.
Actually, using one of the hotel’s house telephones, Fletch had been trying to find Walsh Wheeler. His room didn’t answer. Barry Hines wasn’t sure where Walsh was. He thought Walsh was meeting with Farmingdale’s Young Professionals Association. Lee Allen Parke thought Walsh was visiting an agronomy exhibit about fifty miles from Farmingdale. (Fletch was to discover Walsh breakfasted with the Young Professionals Association, then visited the agronomy exhibit.)
“You are looking for me, aren’t you?” Freddie asked.
“Always.” Fletch gave up on the phone. “Have you packed yet?”
“I never really unpack.”
“Neither do I. But I ought to go up and throw things together. Come with me?”
“Sir! To your hotel room?”
Judy Nadich burst off the elevator.
“Hey!” Fletch said to her.
“What’s the matter?” Fletch asked.
“That bitch!” Judy said.
“Your Ms Sullivan.” She stepped closer to Fletch. “And your Doris Wheeler!”
“What did they do?”
“Nothing. Threw me out. Called me a squirrel.”
Fletch couldn’t help smiling.
“Told me to go cover the flower show!” Fresh tears poured from her eyes. “That’s not for a month yet!”
“So screw ’em,” Fletch said.
Judy tried to collect herself in front of Freddie. “How?”
“Screw ’em in what you write.” Fletch realized James had been right: Mrs. Presidential Candidate Doris Wheeler badly needed a lesson in manners. The realization made him hot.
“I don’t have anything to write!” Judy almost wailed. “I didn’t even see what the inside of her suite looked like!”
“Oh,” he said lamely.
“This story was important to me.” Judy Nadich walked away, head down, her tote bag banging against her knees, back to do stories about flower shows and cracked teacups and the funds needed to clean the statues in the park.
“Poor local press,” Freddie sighed. “I was one once.”
Fletch pressed the elevator button. “Where?”
“New York City.”
“New York City is not local. Even in New York City, New York City is not local.”
“On a national campaign like this,” Freddie said, stepping into the elevator, “local press is seduced with a weak drink, and granted a kiss on the cheek.”
“So this is how you live.” Freddie looked around his hotel room. “Your suitcase is dark brown. Mine is light blue.”
“Yeah,” Fletch said. “That’s the difference between boys and girls.” He went into the bathroom to collect his shaving gear. “You know anything in particular about the woman who was murdered this morning?”
“Mary Cantor, age thirty-four, widowed, mother of three. Her husband was a Navy navigator killed in an accident over Lake Erie three years ago.”
Fletch tried to visualize the three children, then decided not to. “Has the woman in Chicago been identified yet? The one found in a closet off the press room?”
“Wife of an obstetrician. Member of the League of Women Voters. Highly respectable. Just not carrying identification that night. Maybe she left her purse somewhere and someone walked off with it.”
Fletch came back into the bedroom. Freddie was stretched out on the unmade bed. “I don’t see what the women have in common,” he said. “A society woman in Chicago—”
“A socially useful woman, you mean.”
“Alice Elizabeth Shields, a bookish woman with her own mind, two nights ago. And last night, a mother, Air Force widow, a night chambermaid.”
“They all have something in common.”
“They’re all women.”
“Was the woman found last night raped?”
“Haven’t talked with the coroner himself yet. A lab assistant says she believes the woman was not raped. There’s something very rape-like about these murders, though.”
Fletch was rolling up his dirty shirts. He hadn’t been in any hotel long enough to get his laundry done. “What do you mean?”
“Rape isn’t a sexual thing,” Freddie said. “Not really. The main element in rape is to dominate a woman, subject her, mortify her. Degrade her. Sexually victimizing her is secondary to victimizing her.”
“I understand that. But without the element of actual rape, Freddie, there is no absolute proof that the murderer is a male. The murderer could be a strong woman.”
“Yeah,” Freddie said from the bed. “Fenella Baker. She tears off her blouse and turns into a muscle-bulging Amazon.”
“How was the woman last night murdered?”
“The lack of sexual rape bothers me.” Fletch took a jacket from the closet, folded it quickly, and put it in the suitcase. “A strong woman …”
“Terrible.” Freddie got up, took the jacket out of the suitcase, and folded it properly. “Got to make clothes last on a trip like this.”
“I never wear that jacket.”
“Then why do you carry it?”
“That’s the jacket I carry.” He pointed to one on the unmade bed. “That’s the jacket I wear.”
Freddie tossed the clothes in his suitcase like someone tossing a salad with her fingers. “Fletcher, this suitcase is full of nothing but laundry.”
“You’ve got to do something about that.”
“Or we’ll put you off the press bus. There are enough stinkers on the press bus as it is. You notice no one will sit next to Hanrahan?”
“I notice he’s always stretched out over two seats.”
“He smells bad.” She resettled his shaving kit so the suitcase could close.
“Will you leave my damned laundry alone?”
She dropped the suitcase lid and stared at it. “Relationships between men and women can be nice. I guess.”
He watched her from the chair where he was sitting. “Can’t say you never had one, Freddie.”
“I live out of a suitcase, Fletcher. All the time. Anything that doesn’t fit in the suitcase can’t come with me.”
“Why? Why do you live this way?”
She was running the tips of her fingers along the top edge of Fletch’s suitcase. “Why am I Fredericka Arbuthnot? Because I have the chance to be. I’d be a fool to pass it up. Enough women get the chance to be girl friends, wives, and mothers.” She sat in the hotel room’s other chair. “Where would the world be without my sterling reporting?”
“Want me to order up coffee?”
“We’d never get it.”
Not giving any neighborhood snail a good race, Flash driving, Fletch had gone to the television studio and sat through the governor’s taped interview. Deftly, The Man Who had turned the interview to the high incidence of crime in this country. He even referred to having heard about the chambermaid murdered in his hotel that morning. The interview with the candidate was to be shown on the noon news.
“You saw Hanrahan’s shit this morning?” Fletch asked.
“So now you’ll have to write something.”
“Already have,” Freddie answered. “I was fair. Reported that the murders have happened on the fringe of the campaign, no connection with the campaign has been made, the police so far don’t even think the murders are connected.”
“You indicated it could all be coincidence.”
“Do you believe that?”
Freddie shrugged. “If I did, I wouldn’t be here. Also I had to say, as did Hanrahan, that the candidate has not made himself available for questioning on this matter.”
“Truly, he hasn’t anything to say.”
“Truly …” Freddie was stretched out in her chair, her head against the chair back. “Fletch, what does Wheeler really say about these murders?”
“He treats them like flies on his porridge. He keeps trying to brush them away. To him, this story is the story of the campaign itself. He doesn’t want it turned into a murder story.”
“It would ruin the campaign.”
“He’s talking about organizing the new technology to gather and disperse information, goods, and service for the betterment of people worldwide, and someone keeps dropping corpses on him.”
“Would he have any other reason for avoiding our questions? Inquiry? Investigation?”
“Isn’t the ruination of his campaign enough of a reason?”
“I suppose so.”
“You mean, like his own guilt?”
“Sally Shields was found on the sidewalk beneath his windows. As Hanrahan reported, and I didn’t, Doris and Caxton Wheeler have separate suites. Doris is a rich bitch. People tell me she can be real nasty. Who says he has to love her?”
“You think the candidate is using disposable women?”
“I don’t think he’d throw one out his own window.”
“Things get out of hand,” she mused. “Things can get out of hand.”
“There is an idea …” Fletch hesitated.
“Lay it on me. I can take it, whatever it is.”
“… that whoever, or whatever is doing this, is doing so to torpedo the campaign of Caxton Wheeler. To destroy him as a presidential candidate.”
“Whose idea is that?”
Again Fletch hesitated. “Caxton Wheeler’s.”
“I thought so. Even to you he tries to steer inquiry away from himself. Was he in his suite at the time Alice Elizabeth Shields landed on the sidewalk, or wasn’t he?”
Fletch shifted in his chair. “The timing doesn’t work out. He says he got out of a car, didn’t see anything like a crowd on the sidewalk, didn’t see the people leaving the bar, and yet when he got to his hotel room he says he saw the lights from the police cars and ambulance.”
“All that can’t be so,” Freddie said.
Fletch didn’t say anything.
“Is Wheeler pointing his finger at anyone else?”
“He’s mentioned Andrew Esty.”
“Esty?” Freddie laughed. “I don’t think his religion condones murder.”
“He’s been with the campaign three weeks. He left yesterday, came back, there was another murder. I saw him in the elevator last night. He was frustrated, angry—”
“Esty wouldn’t want to be caught as a murderer.” Freddie smiled. “The Supreme Court might prohibit prisoners from praying.”
“Bill Dieckmann,” Fletch said.
“Bill’s pretty sick, I guess.”
“Last night I found him in the corridor of the fifth floor of this hotel. He was having one of his seizures. When I came across him, he was leaning against the wall. He didn’t recognize me. He didn’t know where he was or what he was doing. He collapsed. I carried him to his own room on the ninth floor. When he came to, he didn’t know how he got there.”
“What was he doing on the fifth floor?”
“Who knows? But this morning I realized he was standing between the main elevators and the service elevators. The chambermaid was found in a service elevator, right?”
Freddie’s face was sad. “Poor old Bill. He’s got five kids.” Then she laughed. “Did you see Filby’s face yesterday when he realized he had missed the whole ‘New Reality’ speech? You’d think the doctor had just told him he’d have to have his whole stomach amputated.”
“That would be hard to swallow.”
“Joe Hall has an uncontrollable temper,” Freddie said. “I saw him lose it once. At a trial in Nashville. A courtroom marshal wouldn’t let him in. Said his press credentials were no good. Joe went berserk. He began swinging at people.”
“And you can’t tell me,” Fletch said, “that Solov is your normal Russian boy-next-door. If what you all say is true, he sits there watching pornography all night. He must build up a hell of a head of steam. Goin’ out and beatin’ women to death might be his way of fighting off a night of such entertainment.”
“Poor Russians,” Freddie sighed. “They have so little experience handling smut.”
“Are you listening to me?”
“He bears watching.”
“I think he’s a very good candidate. Might even oblige Wheeler’s theory of someone wanting to sabotage the campaign.”
“So where does Wheeler go when he disappears?” Freddie asked.
“You keep bringing the conversation back to Wheeler.”
“You keep steering me away from Wheeler. And his staff. You keep pushing it on the press. Have you forgotten yourself so easily? Really, how quickly one becomes a member of the establishment.”
“I’m trying to be honest with you. I trust you.”
“Now that you know I really am Freddie Arbuthnot.”
“Yes. Now that we both agree you’re Fredericka Arbuthnot.”
“There are plenty of kooks on staff. Dr. Thom, who clearly got his medical degree from Bother U.”
“He has his hatreds.”
“—has the body of a brute, and the brain of a newt. Barry Hines is twitching so fast you can’t even see him.”
“I guess we’ve got kooks on this campaign.”
“Fletcher, dear, you’re almost beginning to seem normal to me.”
“You mean, next to Solov?”
“Next to Solov, Maxim Gorky would seem a fun date.”
Fletch glanced at his watch. It was twenty to twelve. “We’ve got a press bus to catch.” He went to the bed and closed his suitcase. “The rally at the shopping mall is at one o’clock. Tonight in Melville is the last big rally of this campaign.”
She hadn’t moved from her chair. “So where does the governor go when he disappears?”
“Oh, Flash gave me some cock-and-bull story about his going to some unnamed mountain cabin on some unnamed lake and going on a sleep orgy.”
“A sleep orgy?”
“He reads and sleeps for a few days.”
“I’m not sure I believe it.”
Freddie stood up. “Fletch, let’s keep talking about this to each other, okay?”
She crossed the room to the door. “There must be things we’re not noticing, not hearing, not seeing. You know—like that Ms Sullivan, the way she just treated that woman reporter from a local newspaper. She’s a tough, vicious broad.”
Fletch had put his suitcase on the floor. He had not opened the door. “Promise me something else, Freddie?”
“Keep your eyes and ears open for your own sake. Someone traveling with us likes to maul women. You’re a woman.”
“I’ve never proven that to you.”
“I watched you fold my jacket.”
“Going to kiss me on the nose again?”
She kissed him warmly on the mouth.
Fletch let Freddie out and went back to answer his phone.
“More of the same tomorrow,” a whiskey voice grated in Fletch’s ear.
“Am I supposed to know who this is?”
“This is Newsbill’s star writer, you jackass.”
“Gee, Hanrahan. I thought you’d dashed to New York to catch your Pulitzer Prize.”
“More tomorrow,” Hanrahan said, “of specifically who refuses to talk to me about the murdered broads. I’m going to publish a list of questions I’m not getting answered. Like where was Caxton Wheeler when Alice Elizabeth Shields got exited through his bedroom window? In whose bedroom had she spent the previous four nights? Why was Barry Hines thrown out of the University of Idaho? While Walsh Wheeler was in the Marines, did he machine-gun a bunch of kids?”
“Questions don’t matter, sonny. Just the answers or lack thereof.”
“Barry Hines flunked out of the University of Idaho. Chemistry. Many do.”
“Who cares? You got my point?”
“You’re doin’ fine, Hanrahan. If I actually let you talk to someone, will you really write down what he says and print it, like a reporter? Or just use the opportunity to write fiction?”
“Guess you got to take that chance, jackass. If I can’t print something that looks like answers, I’m going to print something that looks like questions.”
“Oh, I see,” Fletch said brilliantly. “That’s why people refer to what you write as questionable. ’Bye, Mike.”
Using his hotel room phone, Fletch then communicated with Barry Hines and told him to find Walsh and tell Walsh he must plan to see Michael J. Hanrahan and Fredericka Arbuthnot.