Fletch opened the back door of the rented black sedan. “Walsh said I should drive with you to the shopping plaza.” Doris Wheeler gave him a friendly nod. “Fine.” He had found Walsh, without topcoat or tie, standing on the sidewalk outside the hotel. Coldly, Walsh said he had agreed to meet with Fredericka Arbuthnot and Michael J. Hanrahan, if Fletch thought it so necessary.
“Shall I sit in front?” The two women, Doris Wheeler and Ms Sullivan, pretty well filled up the backseat. Fletch did not recognize the car’s rented driver.
“No, no,” Doris Wheeler said. “Plenty of room back here. Go around and get in the other side.”
Fletch went around the back of the car and got in the other side. Which pushed the tall, short-haired, big-nosed Ms Sullivan onto the middle of the seat, her feet onto the high gasline bump. Which made her look like a large dog in a small box. “We haven’t met,” Fletch said to her. “I. M. Fletcher.” Ms Sullivan raised her upper lip in greeting. “Sully.” The campaign bus was pulling away from the curb in front of the hotel, followed by the press bus. Around the area, other cars—those of volunteers and station wagons filled with television equipment— were rolling forward to form a caravan.
“Get behind the second bus,” Doris Wheeler ordered the driver.
In the road was slow confusion. The hotel’s doorman was trying to stop traffic so the caravan could assemble itself, but Farmingdale drivers were not impressed by his green-and-gold suit, or his brown derby hat. They honked their horns at him and insisted upon going directly about their own business.
A volunteer’s green van and a blue pickup truck ended up between the press bus and Doris Wheeler’s sedan. The bumper sticker on the pickup truck read: HONK FOR UPTON.
The rented driver honked his horn.
“Stop that,” Doris Wheeler said.
“I hear you had some difficulty with a local reporter this morning,” Fletch ventured.
“Cow,” said Sully.
“Was she rude or something?”
Doris said to the driver, “I told you to get directly behind the second bus.”
All the vehicles were jammed together at a red light. The driver looked at Doris through the rearview mirror and did nothing. There was nothing he could do.
“How did she offend you?” Fletch asked.
“I make appointments for Mrs. Wheeler,” Sully said.
“She didn’t need a real appointment. All she wanted to do was hang around and watch, listen.”
“We didn’t have time for any such person this morning,” Sully said. “Furthermore, you are not to force people upon us, Fletcher. All this is none of your affair.”
“My ‘affair,’ as you call it,” Fletch said, “is the whole campaign. We’re supposed to be working together.”
“Now, now.” Doris Wheeler patted Sully’s knee. “Mr. Fletcher is working for this campaign. We’re looking forward to his help. You’re going to start being a great help to us, aren’t you, Mr. Fletcher?”
Doris Wheeler’s voice was abrasive even in dulcet tones in the back of the car.
“Pass those two vehicles,” Doris Wheeler said.
“We won’t lose the buses, ma’am,” the driver said.
“Pass them, I said!”
Again the driver glanced through the rearview mirror. On the main street of Farmingdale he swung the car out into oncoming traffic. An approaching yellow Cadillac screeched on its brakes. A Honda smashed into its rear end. The rented driver got back into the right lane ahead of the pickup truck, but still behind the volunteer’s car.
“Imbecile,” Doris Wheeler said. She pronounced it imbeseal “Get ahead of this car.”
“When I have room,” the driver muttered.
“Don’t you speak to me that way,” Doris Wheeler said. “Do as you’re told!”
They were far enough away from the center of Farmingdale so that the traffic had lightened. The driver swung out, waved the volunteer’s car back, and pulled up snug behind the press bus.
“Ought to be nice to the local press,” Fletch said. “Judy Nadich may be a feature writer for the Farmingdale Views this year. But three years from now she may be a columnist for the Washington Post.”
“Three years from now,” Sally said, “she’ll be up to her nose in diapers and burning meatloaf for a beery husband.”
“I don’t know what you two are talking about,” Doris Wheeler said.
“That stupid cow who appeared at the door this morning.”
“The smiling one. She thought she had permission from this Fletcher here. She showed me some scribble on a piece of notepaper.” Sully sniffed. “She thought it meant something.”
“Did you send her up, Fletcher?”
“You could have made a friend for life. She’s a young woman reporter and this story would have set her up.”
“Have you been on a political campaign before, Fletcher?” Doris Wheeler asked.
“I have no idea why Caxton took you on.”
“To make mistakes, ma’am,” Fletch answered evenly. “To create an aura of youth and amateurism about the campaign.” There was a surprised hard gleam in Doris’s eyes as she stared sideways at him. “To be blamed for everything and get fired, probably just before the Pennsylvania and California primaries. To warm the seat for Graham Kidwell.” Even Sully was looking at him as if he were a kitten messing with her dinner bowl. “To get sent home on a bus.”
They were entering the highway. There was another snow squall.
Doris said, “I don’t know why Walsh happened to think of you.”
“I know how to run a copying machine.”
“What you did for my son while you were in the service together was nice.” Doris Wheeler settled her coat more comfortably around her shoulder. “But really, I don’t think he needs that kind of help now.”
The driver was keeping the car so close behind the press bus that the car was being sprayed by slush and sand from the highway. He had the windshield wipers going full speed. The whole car, even the rear windows, was being covered with mud.
“Imbecile!” Doris shouted at him. “Slow down! Let the bus get ahead of us!”
“Don’t want anybody to pass us, ma’am,” the driver drawled.
“Imbecile! Where did Barry find this man?” Doris asked Fletch loudly. “The local games arcade?”
“In my spare time—when I’m not driving idiots—I’m a fireman.”
Doris’s eyes bulged. “Well, my man. You just lost both jobs.”
Sully took pad and pen from her purse and made a note.
Through the rearview mirror the driver looked at Fletch.
“Now,” said Doris Wheeler, again settling her coat over her big shoulders, “let’s talk about what you can do to be helpful.”
Fletch put on his listening expression. He had learned to do that in junior high school.
“My husband, Fletcher, is a dependent man. Very bright, very energetic—all that is true. But he’s always going around asking people what they think. You see, he’s not really confident in what he himself thinks.”
“He listens to advisors?” Fletch speculated.
“He listens to everybody. Caxton,” Doris Wheeler confided, “is very impressed by the last idea he hears.”
“Whatever it is,” Sully added.
“He’s impressionable?” Fletch conjectured.
“Ever since Barbara died?”
She stared at him as if he had burped resoundingly in public. “Who’s Barbara?”
“Oh,” he said.
“I dare say,” she continued, “he flattered you by asking you what you thought.”
“And you came up with that whole ‘New Reality’ nonsense.”
“Young people always think it’s clever to disparage our institutions.”
“Politically, it’s suicide. As I said last night. You can knock the institutions on their goddamned asses,” her voice grated, “as long as you always give them lip service. That’s the only reality.”
“The governor gave an interview on all this to Lansing Sayer this morning,” Fletch said. “It was pretty good. It sounded to me like he’s actually coming up with a program.”
The driver had slowed down so much that the buses were way ahead of them. Clearly the volunteers did not dare pass Doris Wheeler’s car.
“The trouble with Caxton,” Doris Wheeler said, “is that he doesn’t always think. Even if he really were saying something here, he doesn’t always stop to think of the effect of his saying it. I spent a long time with Andrew Esty this morning.”
Sully vigorously nodded yes.
“Told him all about my grandfather, who was a fundamentalist preacher in Nebraska….” Doris Wheeler then proceeded to tell Fletch all about her grandfather who was a fundamentalist preacher in Nebraska. It was his son, Doris’s father, who had discovered oil.
Fletch put on his not-listening expression. He had learned that in junior high school, too.
The NBC Television News station wagon pulled out of the caravan and began to pass Doris Wheeler’s car.
“Speed up!” she shouted at the driver. “You’re losing them.”
The driver began racing with the news wagon.
“Imbecile,” said Doris Wheeler.
Close behind the NBC wagon was the CBS wagon. The ABC news wagon appeared on the right side of the car. Doris Wheeler’s car was getting pelted with slush from both sides.
“You must be careful what you say around Caxton,” Doris Wheeler concluded. “It’s your job to protect him—from himself, when necessary. Not to walk him down the garden path.”
Up ahead, the buses had disappeared altogether.
“What do you ladies think of these murders?” Fletch asked.
“You mean, the women?” Doris Wheeler asked.
“You’re aware of them.”
“Any theories?” asked Fletch.
The turnoff to the shopping mall was at the top of a small rise. By then all the vehicles in the caravan were going so fast that slowing down properly and turning was problematical. There was some skidding. The volunteer’s green van missed the turn altogether and had to go miles west and then east and then west again to get back to the right turnoff.
“No. No theories,” Doris Wheeler said. “Why should we have theories? It’s a police matter.”
The campaign bus and the press bus were in the middle of the shopping plaza’s parking lot. A crowd of two or three thousand people was standing around in the cold slush, waiting for the candidate.
“We don’t have any police traveling with us,” Fletch commented.
“What this campaign doesn’t need,” Sully said, “is a police investigation.”
“Don’t believe in law and order, huh?” Fletch asked.
Sully’s look told him she thought him something not to be stepped in.
The driver parked far away from the buses. He parked in the middle of the biggest puddle in the parking lot. Then he sat there. He did not get out to open doors.
“This car is filthy,” Doris Wheeler told him as she opened her own door.
“Don’t worry,” the driver muttered. “You’ll never see it again.”
“You may be Mrs. President of the United States!” the driver shouted at her through the open door. “But in Farmingdale, you’re just a big old bag!”
Sully had followed Doris Wheeler out of the car. Fletch got out his own side.
“I wouldn’t vote for your husband for dogcatcher!” the driver shouted. “He doesn’t know a bitch when he sees one!”
The driver accelerated, splashing all of them.
“My God.” Doris Wheeler looked at her splattered skirt. At the size of the puddle they were all standing in. At the back of the rapidly disappearing car. “That car was hired for all day. He can’t just leave me here.”
Fletch watched the filthy rented car climb back onto the highway. “Actually, he can,” Fletch said. “He just did.”