“I. M.? This is James.”
Arriving back at his room, Fletch found a vase with twelve red carnations in it. The note accompanying the flowers read: Fletcher— Glad to have you with us—Doris Wheeler.
Waiting for his sandwich from room service, he had returned phone calls, except those from Rondoll James.
After his supper arrived, he took a shower and then sat naked on his bed, cross-legged, munching and going through the stack of newspaper articles Walsh had given him.
He tried ignoring the phone while he ate, but it rang incessantly.
“Sorry,” Fletch said. “My mouth is full.”
“You’ve got to do something. Fast.”
“I’ve got to fast?”
“A reporter traveling with you called me this afternoon. Told me about the murders. Why didn’t you tell me about them? The three women who were murdered.”
“Who called you?”
“A woman named Arbuthnot.”
“Figures. Are you still in Iowa?”
“What did you say to her?”
“I. M., I know who the murderer is. So, incidentally, does Caxton.”
Fletch pushed his sandwich plate aside with his shin.
“Have you talked with Caxton about this at all?” James asked.
“What has he said?”
“Suppose you tell me what you know, James.”
“I can’t understand the guy. Why hasn’t he done something?”
“No question about it.”
“You don’t know who he is? Everybody forgets.”
In Flash’s personnel folder had been just a photo and identification sheet. “So who’s Flash Grasselli?”
“He’s a murderer. A convicted murderer, for God’s sake. He beat a guy to death. With his fists. A professional boxer. His hands are lethal weapons. He served time for it—almost fifteen years.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Late one night, this guy happened to be walking his dog. Big dog. Flash Grasselli was coming down the street. As the dog passed Flash, the dog nipped Flash in the leg. Bit him. Flash yelled at the guy, told him he was going to report the dog, demanded the guy give him his name. So the guy sicced the dog on Grasselli. Grasselli knocked the dog out somehow, I don’t know how, kicked the dog’s head against a wall or something. And then went after the man. He beat the guy to death. In front of a half dozen screaming witnesses.”
“My God, James.”
“The dog was out cold. No longer a threat. You don’t beat someone to death after an incident is over. It was not self-defense.”
“ol’ Flash did that?”
“Why did the governor pardon him?”
“Big Italian family that kept up the campaign to let their man go. A boxing association kept up the campaign, got the state boxing commissioner into it. Grasselli served good time. He was never any problem in prison. Once maybe he saved the life of an old guy in prison who was choking to death on some food, but that sort of thing can always be arranged.”
“Had the governor known him before?”
“No. After he was pardoned, Grasselli and his mother went to the mansion to thank the governor. Caxton offered him the job.”
“It’s a different kind of murder, James. Beatin’ up a guy in the street in bad temper is different from beating women to death.”
“Beating a human being to death is beating a human being to death. Very few people are capable of it. Are you?” James continued in a rush: “Let me ask you something. When you have forty, fifty people together and people keep gettin’ beaten to death, and we know one member of the group has already done this extraordinary, vicious thing before, has found it possible in himself to beat a human being to death—what are the chances of his being the guilty party?”
“It’s Flash, all right.”
“I believe the governor has talked to me frankly enough about other matters. Why wouldn’t he have mentioned this to me?”
“Because he knows Flash is guilty. Tell me this: has Caxton vigorously been trying to find the murderer?”
“That doesn’t make sense. Covering up for Flash would make the governor a party to the crime. I can’t believe he’d do that.”
“Think again, my boy. Think of all that Flash has on Caxton.”
“God! Everything! Flash is Caxton’s driver, valet, bodyguard. He’s always with him. Flash accompanies Caxton on all those damned secret vacations, disappearances, that Caxton’s been taking all these years. The booze. The broads. God knows what else.”
“You believe about the booze, the broads?”
“Listen, I’ve known Caxton more than twenty years. And I’ve never known a plaster saint. Caxton’s a man. All that energy. Think about it. Screwing Doris must be like screwing a Buick.”
“Flash told me about those trips.”
“Sure he did. I suppose he said they go to the mountains to pray.”
“If the trips are innocent, why the secret? Why are they a mystery, hanging out there tantalizing every journalist in the state, now the country?”
“Maybe Flash wouldn’t talk.”
“All right. Even if that were so, which I doubt, think what it means about the governor’s judgment. He picks as a bodyguard-valet a guy who beats women to death every night after dessert. What would the public think of that? Who would he pick for secretary of state? they’d ask. Himmler?”
“James, I don’t know what to do. Everyone’s over at the Public Auditorium.”
“Pin Grasselli. However you can. I don’t know. Do something.”
“James, I don’t see myself going ten rounds with Flash Grasselli. He’s old and he’s slow but he’s practiced.”
“Find him. Don’t take your eyes off him. Buy him a one-way ticket to Tashkent. Get him committed. Quietly. Do something. Jeez, I wish I were there. If I were there, all this would have been settled yesterday, if not sooner. That bitch, Doris Wheeler. If it weren’t for her—”
“Yeah. Get movin’.”
It was while Fletch hurriedly was getting dressed that he noticed some of the articles in the stack Walsh had given him were separate from the loose pile. Five had been pinned together. They were at the foot of the bed.
He leaned over and looked closely at the one on top.
The first was from the Chicago Sun-Times.
Chicago—The body of a woman was found by hotel employees this morning in a service closet off a reception room at the Hotel Harris. Police say the woman apparently had been strangled.
The night before, the reception room had been used by the press covering the presidential campaign of Governor Caxton Wheeler.
Chicago police report the woman, about thirty, wearing a green cocktail dress and high-heeled shoes, was carrying no identification.
The second was from the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.
Cleveland—A woman known on the street as Helen Troy, with a Cleveland police record of more than forty arrests for open solicitation over a ten-year period, was found beaten to death early this morning in a doorway on Cassel Street.
Police speculate Troy was drawn to the area by the crowds who had gathered the previous night to see presidential candidate Caxton Wheeler, who was staying at the nearby Hotel Stearn.
“Oh, God,” Fletch said aloud.
The third was from the Wichita Eagle and Beacon.
Wichita—A resident of California, Susan Stratford, 26, was found beaten to death in a room at Cason’s Hotel early yesterday afternoon. The medical examiner reports she had been dead some hours.
The hotel employee, Jane Poltrow, who discovered the body, said she was later than usual cleaning that room because of the extra work caused by the campaign staff and press traveling with presidential candidate Caxton Wheeler, who had stayed in the hotel the night before.
Ms Straford, a computer engineer, was in Wichita on business. Police say apparently she was traveling alone.
“God, God.” Fletch looked at the remains of his sandwich on the bed and felt nauseous.
The fourth article reported the death of Alice Elizabeth Shields, “believed to have been pushed or thrown from the hotel’s roof, a few floors above the suite of presidential candidate Caxton Wheeler.”
The fifth article was from the Farmingdale Views.
Farmingdale—Mary Cantor, 34, who has worked as a chambermaid since shortly after the death of her husband, a Navy navigator, three years ago, was found strangled in a service elevator of the Farmingdale Hotel early yesterday morning …
Turning, Fletch steadied himself with his fingertips on the bureau. “God.” He saw himself start to sway in the mirror and closed his eyes. “And there are five….”
Numbly, Fletch answered the phone.
“Can’t talk now,” Fletch said. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have answered.”
Fletch shook his head to clear it. “Yes, Bill?”
“What’s the matter, Bill?”
“You said … you’d help me.”
“Fletch, my head. My head. It’s happening again. Worse. I’m scared. I don’t know what …”
“Bill, where are you?”
“Where in the auditorium, Bill?”
“Phones. At the back. By the phones.”
“Bill, look around you. Do you see anyone you know? Bill, is there a cop there?”
“Can’t see. It’s awful. What …?”
“Bill, stay there. I’ll be right there.”
“I’m about to … I don’t know …”
“I’ll be right there, Bill. Don’t do anything. Just stand there. I’ll be there as quick as I can.”