“I agreed to meet with you two against my better judgment,” Walsh said.

They sat at a small round table in a dark corner of a bar a block from Melville’s First Hotel. Peanuts glistened in a bowl in the center of the table. A glass of beer had been placed in front of each of them: Walsh, Fletch, Michael J. Hanrahan, and Fredericka Arbuthnot. Hanrahan had been served a shot of rye as well.

The jukebox was playing “Limpin’ Home to Jesus.”

Hanrahan downed his rye.

“Fletch, here, insisted upon it, apparently because of the shit you published in Newsbill this morning, Hanrahan,” Walsh continued in a low tone. “A few hours after you join the campaign, apparently you can make headlines in your rag by writing no one would talk to you about some murders or something that happened sometime, somewhere.” Walsh rolled his eyes upward and shook his head. “I expect there are a few examples of breaking and entering that have happened around us you also might ask us about. And don’t forget sodomy. A lot of sodomy goes on in these motels.” His voice was almost a tired drone. “What we’re really meeting about is very simple. You’re not political writers, either of you. Fletcher tells me you’re crime writers. There’s no reason I can think of why we should make room for you on the press bus. You’ve asked for this meeting, and I’m going to give it to you. But at the moment, I can’t think of any reason why I shouldn’t ask Fletch to deny press credentials to you both.”

“Speech over?” Hanrahan asked.

Freddie had glanced at Fletch. “Denying us press credentials wouldn’t do you much good. Riding the press bus isn’t the most pleasurable experience of my life.”

“Yeah,” Hanrahan said. “Newsworld would supply Arbuthnot with a limousine and driver. Me, I’d get a helicopter. In other words, stuff it, Wheeler.”

Walsh popped some peanuts into his mouth. “Fletch and I have to be at a staff meeting in a few minutes.” Chewing, Walsh’s neck muscles were visibly tight through his opened shirt collar. “If you’ve got any questions, you’d better roll ’em out.”

Hanrahan had downed his beer. For a moment, his eyes sparkled. “How long had you known Alice Elizabeth Shields?”

“I never knew her,” Walsh answered.

“You met her in Chicago?”

“I did not know her.”

“Who did—your dad?”

“My father did not know her.”

“Then, how come she ended up dead outside his motel room window?”

Walsh snorted. He didn’t answer.

“Walsh,” Freddie said. “It might help matters if we had a list of the people who were in your father’s suite the night Alice Elizabeth Shields was murdered.”

“A specific list would be impossible, Ms. Arbuthnot. There were some of the local press. I do not know their names. A couple of local political coordinators. One was named William Burke, the other something-or-other Blackstone. There was national press: Fenella Baker, Lansing Sayer, your own Mary Rice”—he nodded to Hanrahan—“Dieckmann, O’Brien, a few others.”

“Were you there?” Hanrahan asked.

“I was there. In and out.”

“Was Solov there?” Fletch asked.

“I don’t remember.”

“Was Dr. Thom there?” Freddie asked.

“I don’t remember. I doubt it. He avoids the press, for the most part.”

“Back home,” Hanrahan announced, “your Dr. Robert Thom is known as a Dr. Feelgood. Writes more prescriptions than anyone in the county. How come he’s your dad’s private physician?”

“Dr. Thom is the physician traveling with the campaign, available to all.”

“How much of a drug addict is your dad?” Hanrahan asked. He reached over and took Freddie’s beer.

“My father is not addicted to anything,” Walsh answered. “Never has been.”

“Then how come they have to cart him away three or four times a year to clean out his head?”

Walsh said, “I’m not going to dignify that with an answer.”

“Where does your father go?” Freddie asked. “You know, when he suddenly disappears.”

“He doesn’t ‘suddenly disappear.’ He takes advantage of breaks in his schedule, when they occur. He goes fishing. He reads history. Even Caxton Wheeler gets to take a few days off, now and again. During last calendar year, my father took exactly fifteen days away from his desk. Make a scandal of that, if you can.”

“Specifically, where does he go?” Hanrahan asked.

“None of your business.”

“He always goes alone,” Freddie said.

“No,” Walsh answered. “A staff member always goes with him.”

“Flash Grasselli,” Hanrahan scoffed. “A packing case on wheels.”

“A packing case with a computer inside,” Fletch said.

“Again, it might help put questions to rest,” Freddie said, “if we could work out your father’s timetable the night Alice Elizabeth Shields died. When, precisely, he got back to the hotel… that sort of thing.”

“I doubt he knows,” Walsh said. “There are four time zones in this country. On a campaign, we’re back and forth across time zones all the time. Living this way, one loses a sense of time, you know. Precise time.”

“I doubt you do, Walsh,” Freddie said.

“Oh, stuff it, stocking-mouth.” Hanrahan finished the rest of her beer. “Just ’cause Newsworld let you have their telephone number, don’t think you’re a real journalist.”

Freddie smiled at Fletch.

“This broad in Chicago,” Hanrahan said. “This Mrs. Gynecologist—”

“Elaine Ramsey,” Freddie giggled. “Wife of an obstetrician. Want to make a note of that, Michael? Or should I phone Newsbill for you?”

“You and your dad both knew her.”

“I don’t think either of us knew her,” Walsh answered.

“You were seen talking to her at that press reception at the Hotel Harris.” Hanrahan picked up Fletch’s beer. “So was your dad.”

“Hanrahan, we talk to a lot of people. A lot of people talk to us. That’s what a political campaign is all about.”

“And some of them end up dead.” Beer sprayed through Hanrahan’s teeth.

Now the jukebox was playing “I’m Rushin’ to Coke High.”

“Okay,” Freddie said. “You state neither you nor your father knew Mrs. Ramsey.”

“I can’t speak for my father. I certainly don’t believe he knew her. I don’t see how he could have. I did not know her.”

“You can’t speak for your old man,” Hanrahan said. “Why don’t you wheel the old boy out here, give me a shot at him? Dr. Thom can pop him up for the occasion.”

Pointedly, Walsh looked at his watch.

“Maybe you can answer some questions about last night,” Hanrahan said. “Does your memory go back that far?”

“What questions?” Walsh asked patiently.

“Coroner places the death of Mary Cantor, the hotel maid, at between eleven P.M. and two-thirty A.M. You weren’t in your room at twelve midnight.”

“Were you there?” Walsh asked easily. With a tighter jaw, Walsh said, “You’d better not violate the privacy of myself or my family ever again, Hanrahan. Or staff members.”

“Where were you?” Hanrahan asked.

“After I came in, Fletch and I had a brief meeting in my room. That was about eleven-thirty, wasn’t it, Fletch? Then I went to my mother’s suite. We had a few things to discuss. Then I went back to my room to clear up a few papers.”

“That doesn’t account for three and a half hours,” Hanrahan said.

Walsh shrugged. “What can I say?”

“Can you tell me where you were at the time Alice Elizabeth Shields tried to dent the sidewalk?”

“I don’t remember. I was in the bar. Before that I had been in my room.”

“Using the telephone?” Hanrahan asked.

“I suppose so.”

“The hotel operator says your room’s telephone didn’t answer from eight o’clock on that night.”

“Sometimes I don’t answer the phone when I’ve got work to do. I had a meeting with Barry Hines. Phil Nolting and I were trying to work out the South Africa thing. I was in the bar, waiting for Fletch to arrive. People were calling about Rondoll James, friends of his on the press, so I wasn’t answering the phone. Sorry I can’t give you a perfect alibi.”

“Wheeler, when you were in the Marines overseas, you were almost court-martialed.”

The muscles in Walsh’s jaw tightened.

The jukebox was playing “Give Me the Land of the Free.”

“What do you mean?” Walsh asked.

“You refused to lead a patrol one night. The patrol that did go out got slaughtered.”

“He didn’t refuse,” put in Fletch. “We were all too stoned to go. Everyone was too stoned. Everyone except the lieutenant.”

“You’re fishing for minnows, Hanrahan,” Walsh said. “I wasn’t court-martialed.”

“No. Your dad prevented it.”

“My dad had nothing to do with my service record.”

“And he arranged to get you home ahead of schedule.”

“I was ordered to Washington,” Walsh admitted. “And my father did have something to do with that. I studied statistics in college. I was assigned to a bureau of statistics at the Department of Defense to serve out the remainder of my time. Make of that what you will.”

“You were assigned for just two months?” Hanrahan exclaimed.

“There was a statistical mess,” Walsh answered. “My father wanted to see if the statistics being published by the Pentagon had any particular reality to a young officer who had been in the field.”

Hanrahan said: “Bullshit.”

“While we’re speaking of statistics, let me say this.” Walsh leaned forward in his chair and crossed his forearms on the table. “Over twenty thousand Americans get murdered a year. Over thirty percent of American families get touched by crime one way or another every year. In this interview, I’m not going to spout a lot of sociological reasons for these figures, or how Caxton Wheeler’s administration might bring these figures down. I wouldn’t so insult Ms. Arbuthnot. It’s an epidemic. But I will point out to you, statistically, that right now, none of us—presidential candidate or not—can go anywhere, be anywhere, without a violent crime happening somewhere up the block, down the street, in the park across from the hotel. That’s all the news I have for you crime writers. I have no personal knowledge of these crimes. Neither has my father. If you think they’re connected with this campaign somehow, then I suggest you take a close look at your colleagues on the press bus. Frankly, I think it’s just a fact of contemporary American life.”

“Broads aren’t gettin’ knocked off on the Upton campaign,” Hanrahan said. “We haven’t been assigned to travel with the Graves campaign.”

“So be it,” Walsh said. “Be careful what you write. This is a political campaign you’re covering, not a Halloween parade.”

Fletch followed Walsh’s lead in getting up to go. Only Walsh’s beer had not been consumed by Hanrahan.

“Hey, Wheeler,” Hanrahan asked. “How come you never married?”

Looking back from the door, Fletch saw Hanrahan alone at the table. Walsh’s beer was now in front of him. On Hanrahan’s face was the grin/grimace.

Freddie followed them back to the hotel at a discreet distance.

“Filthy, foul-smelling, crude bastard,” Walsh grinned. “Do you think I did much good with him?”

“Sure,” said Fletch. “You prevented him from printing a lot.”