“A slight change of plans,” The Man Who announced to his staff. “I’ve decided that Mrs. Wheeler, who is to be on the platform with me tonight at the big rally anyway, will say a few words.” Everyone in the room remained expressionless. “She’ll speak just ahead of me. In fact, after she says what she wants to say, she’ll be the one to introduce me. Walsh, make sure that the local dignitary, whoever it is, understands he is to introduce your mother, not me.”

“Congressman Jack Snive.”

“Ah!” The governor grinned. “We finally made it into his district.”

Walsh hitched forward in his chair. “The congressman wants to introduce you, Dad. Not introduce Mother. It’s important to him.”

“Well, he’s going to introduce your mother,” the governor said coldly. “Who else is to be on the platform?”

“The mayor of Melville, a judge—”

“Have I got briefing papers on all of them?”

Walsh handed his father a sheaf of papers.

The staff was meeting in the living room of the candidate’s suite at Melville’s First Hotel. The standardization of hotel rooms in middle America was beginning to give Fletch a homey feeling.

“Barry?” The governor glanced through the papers. “Anything to report?”

“Yes, sir,” Barry Hines said briskly. “You’re down four points in the Harris poll, three points in the Gallup.”

The governor looked up, mildly surprised. “I thought we were doing well.”

“The current statewide polls,” Barry continued, “put Upton eight percentage points ahead of you, Graves four points behind you.”

The governor’s index finger went over the scar on his cheek.

“Upton,” Lee Allen Parke said. “He hasn’t even been here. He’s been in Pennsylvania and Iowa.”

“Absence must make the heart grow fonder,” Phil Nolting said.

“That’s not so good,” the governor said. “I guess some of the things I said in Winslow …”

“… hurt.” Paul Dobson finished the sentence for him.

“Doris was right,” the governor admitted.

“We were all right,” Dobson said.

“Maybe it’s that green suit Walsh is wearing,” Lee Allen Parke said. “Makes the voters see us as ‘a crusade of amateurs.’”

“More to the point,” Walsh said, “the President seems to have taken the best part of your issue and run away with it.”

“Not exactly,” said the governor. “He’s done what he can do— trivialized it, named a White House panel. Paul and Phil, I want you to work up a first-class speech for me. I’ll deliver it Monday night. Is television guaranteed Monday night?”

“Yeah,” said Barry. “We bought it.”

“This is to be a major speech,” the governor said. “The theme is to be that I want to promote international meetings, most definitely including all the nations of the Third World, to reach international agreements for further, universal development and control of the new technology of communications.” The governor was speaking extremely slowly. Nolting was writing down his instructions word for word. “My point being not to control the new technology, but to draw up a sort of international constitution guaranteeing that no one—no nation, no political party, no group—gets to control too large a share of the new technology.”

“Isn’t that all rather statesmanlike?” Dobson asked.

The governor glowered at him. “Do your best, Paul.”

In a lighter tone, Nolting asked, “Shall we use such phrases as ‘to encourage the peace, and increase the prosperity of all nations’?”

“Has a nice ring to it,” the governor said wryly. “I’m afraid you’ll have to try coming up with a phrase or two of my own.”

“Dad,” Walsh said, “you’re on ‘Q. & A.’ from New York in the morning. That’s national television exposure. Plus an intelligent, more than usually thoughtful Sunday morning audience. If you want to hit a big idea like this, wouldn’t you be better off hitting it on ‘Q. & A.’ than at a noisy rally at the state capital the night before election?”

“Maybe.” The governor thought. “Always a good idea to save the big guns until last. The ‘Q. & A.’ audience is a good audience.”

“For statesmanlike statements,” Dobson said.

“So telegraph your punch,” Fletch said.

“Yeah,” the governor said. “On ‘Q. & A.’ I’ll indicate I’m not through with that topic, that Upton, Graves, the President didn’t respond fully or accurately, and that I’ll have something more to say on it Monday night.”

Barry Hines nodded. “People should listen.”

“Speaking of full and accurate response to the Winslow speech,” Walsh said, ” Q. & A.’ goes on the air at eleven o’clock. We have you scheduled to attend service at the Thirty-sixth Street Church at nine o’clock. While you and Fletch were doing that talk show this afternoon, Barry and I rigged up press coverage for your appearance at the church. By the way, Fletch,” Walsh said, “do not go to church with Dad.”

“You’re telling me not to go to church?”

“Don’t want anything like a press representative escorting Dad into church. You get the idea.”

“I’m being told not to go to church.”

“When do I sleep?” the governor asked.

“The pilot’s been told to expect to take off for New York from Melville Airport at about twelve-thirty tonight,” Walsh answered. “You’ll be asleep by two-thirty.”

“Who’s going with me?” the governor asked.

“Fletch and Barry will be with you. And Flash.”

“And Bob,” the governor said.

“And Dr. Thom,” Walsh confirmed.

“You don’t have to worry about drinking New York water,” Paul Dobson said.

Walsh turned his head to look at Dobson. The muscles in Walsh’s neck were visibly tight through his unbuttoned collar.

The governor said to Nolting and Dobson, “Have the Monday speech pretty well roughed out for me by the time I get back tomorrow.”

“We expect you in the state capital tomorrow around four, fourthirty,” Walsh said. “We’ll try to have a hoopla at the airport for you, but it won’t be easy on Sunday afternoon. The N.F.L. game will be on.”

“Who gets to run the nation,” the governor commented, “takes second place to who gets to run with a football.” He looked up at his staff. “Anything else?”

Walsh said, “Fletch, come to my room with me while I change. I’ve got a stack of recent press clippings for you. Particularly from Wisconsin. Got to start learning the Wisconsin journalists.”

“Yeah,” Fletch said to the room at large. “There is something else we’ve got to discuss.”

Everyone resettled in his chair.

“A chambermaid named Mary Cantor, widow of a Navy navigator, was murdered in the hotel we were in last night. A woman named Alice Elizabeth Shields, a store clerk, was murdered in the motel we were in two nights ago.”

“Jeez,” said Walsh.

“And a woman named Elaine Ramsey, wife of an obstetrician, was found murdered in a closet next to the press reception room at the Hotel Harris in Chicago while you were staying there.”

“Do you think the New York Cosmos will win the cup this year?” Barry Hines asked.

“I saw Newsbill,” Phil Nolting said. “I think you should have done whatever you had to do to contain this story through the election Tuesday.”

“Okay,” said Fletch. “I never said I’m very good at this job.”

“Your sympathies are still with the press,” Dobson said simply. “You don’t care what a story is. Instinctively, you want it reported. The sleazier, the better.”

“Hang on,” the governor said. “There is a worrisome point here. There have been these murders. There is the possibility someone is doing this to sabotage the campaign.”

“Like who?” asked Lee Allen Parke.

“Bushwa,” said Walsh. “Simon Upton may have a fifth column in this campaign, but he isn’t murdering women to get himself to the White House.”

“Of course not,” said the governor. “But given the axiom that someone is doing this, the first question is why?”

“Someone’s a nut,” Lee Allen Parke said simply.

“Any suspects, Fletch?” Barry asked.

“Too many of them.”

“Solov,” nodded Barry Hines. “You should see his phone bill.”

“Why?” asked Fletch.

“He almost doesn’t have one. He hardly ever calls anywhere. He must file with Pravda by carrier pigeon.”

“Actually, that is significant,” Nolting said.

“Floats his reports across the North Atlantic in vodka bottles,” Parke said.

“What’s your point, Fletch?” Walsh asked.

Fletch waited until all eyes were on him. “I think it would be helpful if every member of the staff sat down with me—soon—and established a perfect alibi for at least one of each of these murders.”

“Hell,” said Walsh.

“I won’t do it,” said Dobson.

“It would give me some quiet ammunition,” Fletch said.

The governor stood up. “I’ve got to get ready. It’s seven-twenty. Is my watch right?”

“Yeah,” said Walsh.

Phil Nolting said, “Fletch, in trying to develop defensive evidence for us, you’re going to give the impression we have some reason to defend ourselves.”

“I think we do,” Fletch said.

Everyone else was standing up.

“Looks like you lost your audience, Fletch,” Walsh said.

Then Fletch stood up. “What the hell else do you expect me to do?” he asked. “This is a time bomb, ticking away—”

“So throw yourself on it,” Dobson said, leaving the room.

“Wait a minute,” Fletch said.

“Fletcher,” the governor said, “why don’t you stop playing boy detective?”

“Come with me, Fletch.” Walsh stood at the door. “On the way to my room, I’ll buy you a copy of True Crime Tales.”

“Guess I’d better drop that topic,” Fletch said.

“Guess so.” In his own room, Walsh took off his shirt and grabbed a fresh one from his suitcase.

“This is like trying to put out a fire at a three-ring circus.”

“No,” said Walsh, “it’s more like trying to unclog a pipe in one of the bathrooms at a three-ring circus.”

“Local police everywhere are too in awe of the candidate, too busy trying to protect him, to run any kind of an investigation as to what’s going on. The national political writers are too sophisticated to count the number of murders on their fingers, and say, ‘Hey, maybe there’s a story here.’”

“It’s perfectly irrelevant.” Walsh took a suit from the suitcase, frowned at it, slapped it with the flat of his hand, and proceeded to change into it. “The clippings you should go through are over there.” He nodded at the table where his briefcases were.

“So you’re changing from a reasonably pressed suit into a wrinkled suit?”

“Only have one tie that goes with that suit. Must have left it in a car. There are a couple of articles in that stack by Fenella Baker you’re not going to like. One hits us on defense spending; the other on our lack of clarity regarding Social Security. She’s right, of course.”

Standing by the table, Fletch was scanning an article by Andrew Esty: Governor Caxton Wheeler terms abortion “essentially a moral issue.” Does he imply politics is amoral?

“By the way,” Walsh said, knotting his tie. “Lansing Sayer. Don’t trust Lansing Sayer. Brightest, most sophisticated member of the press we have traveling with us. And I’m glad he’s with us. But as far as I’m concerned, he’s a straight pipeline to Senator Simon Upton. Capable of anything.”

“He just knows how to play both sides of the street,” Fletch said.

“Got to get going.” Walsh pulled on his dark suit coat. “Barry and I are going to check out the sound system at Public Auditorium ourselves. Don’t want a repeat of what happened this afternoon at the shopping plaza.”

“That was a disaster,” Fletch said.

“No need for you to come now.” Walsh opened the door. “Get some supper. Dad won’t be speaking until at least nine-thirty, quarter to ten.”