Fletch revolved through the hotel’s front door, saw the street in front of the hotel was empty, and revolved back into the lobby. He hurried across to the desk clerk.
“How do I get a taxi around here?”
“Just have to wait for one, I guess,” was the solution of the young man behind the desk. “They come by.”
“I’m in a big hurry,” Fletch said.
The young man shrugged. “There’s no one to call. This is a regular big city. Have to take your chances.”
“Where’s Public Auditorium?”
“Up eight blocks.” The young man waved north. “Over three blocks.” He waved east. “You need a taxi.”
Fletch hit the revolving door so hard it spun him into the street. The area was as devoid of taxis as a cemetery at midnight. He looked at his watch. With the side of his hand he chopped himself in the stomach. His muscles were tight. “I’ll race you,” he said to himself.
He began running north on the sidewalk. Jacob, make the horse go faster and faster If it ever stops, we won’t be able to sell it. Within three blocks of this “regular big city,” accumulations of snow caused him to run in the street. The surface of the street was wet and there were icy patches. It was a raw night. He was sweating. He was glad he didn’t have an overcoat. Five murders, not three … There were no taxis anywhere in the streets. An old car clanking tire chains came down the street behind him. Waving as he ran backward, Fletch tried to get the car to stop, pick him up. The driver swung wide of Fletch.
At the end of the eighth block, Fletch turned east. Ahead of him he could see a block brightly lit. “There is the possibility someone is doing this to sabotage the campaign,” the governor had said. At the corner, Fletch jumped over a mound of snow. His left foot slipped landing on the ice. His ankle twinged with pain. “Someone’s a nut,” Lee Allen Parke had said.
The brightly lit Public Auditorium entrance was bedecked with bunting.
CAXTON WHEELER FOR PRESIDENT.
Many, many people were standing on the sidewalk and street outside the auditorium.
Those standing nearest the door wore fire department and police department uniforms.
Fletch squeezed through the crowds on the steps to the main door.
As Fletch was reaching for the door handle, a man in a fire department suit grabbed his elbow. “You can’t go in there.”
“Got to,” Fletch panted.
“Fire marshal’s orders. The hall is beyond capacity now.”
“Matter of life and death,” Fletch said.
“That’s right,” said the fireman.
Taking a deep breath, Fletch reached for his wallet. “Name’s Fletcher. I’m Governor Wheeler’s press secretary. I’ve got to get in.”
The fireman did not look at Fletch’s identification. “Right now we wouldn’t let Wheeler himself in there.”
“Someone’s sick in there,” Fletch said. “A reporter. Dangerously sick. Let me go get him out. That way you’d be ahead in numbers by one.”
“Let someone else bring him out.” The fireman began to restrain an old lady with yellow berries on her black hat. “That way we’ll be ahead in numbers by two.”
There wasn’t much light in the alley beside the auditorium. Mounds of dirty snow and ice ran along the base of both walls. Through the old brick walls and the auditorium leaked the sounds of a brass band. People were cheering and stomping.
The humidity made Fletch’s breath cloud the air in front of his face.
Halfway down the alley was a fire escape. The bottom ladder of the fire escape was balanced with weights to keep its bottom step four meters off the ground. Stepped on from above, the bottom of the ladder would lower to the ground.
Fletch knew he couldn’t jump that high, but he knew he could try.
He ran on the uneven, slippery pavement as well as he could. He jumped not very high at all. He slipped. He lowered his hands toward the pavement. He skidded. His head smashed into an orange crate filled with garbage.
An empty tomato sauce can fell from the crate onto the alley. Fletch kicked the can away. It bounced off the opposite wall and landed noiselessly in the snow.
He picked up the crate and turned it over. Grapefruit skins, eggshells, bones poured over his shoes. He placed the crate upside down under the fire escape. He climbed onto the crate, jumped straight up from it, reaching his hand for the bottom rung. Coming down, his feet crashed through the orange crate. He found himself standing on the pavement again, his left ankle twinging again. He was wearing wood around the calves of his legs.
“Ummm,” Fletch said. “Man can’t fly.”
The alley at the side of the auditorium was broad enough for a truck to go through. It was clear that rubbish trucks sometimes, but not frequently, did go through.
“Matters not,” Fletch said. “Man has brain.”
Running back and forth, Fletch collected enough barrels, crates, boxes to stack into a stairway to the fire escape.
He climbed his stairway rapidly, as each stair gave way as he stepped on it.
He finally knelt on the bottom rung of the fire escape. Creaking, it lowered him back into the mess he had made in the alley.
It swayed as he ran up it.
“Man has brain,” Fletch said.
The fire escape rose from this central landing. Fletch ran up it.
At the top was a smaller landing and one window. Thick, frosted glass, veined with the wires of an alarm system. Locked, of course.
He kicked in the window with his heel. Eggshell went onto the broken window; glass onto his shoe.
The alarm bell went off. It sounded like a school bell, more angry than loud. Inside the building the brass band was playing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The crowd was chanting “Wheel along with Wheeler! Wheel along with Wheeler! Wheel along with Wheeler!” Under the circumstances, Fletch expected the alarm bell to attract as much attention as the usual school bell.
He kicked a big hole in the little window and pushed the wires aside with the sleeve of his jacket. Pointing one shoulder toward the sky, he stepped through the window onto its inside ledge.
When he had both feet inside the building, he jumped into the dark. The floor on which he landed was higher than he had calculated. His left ankle hurt him right up to the small of his back. He punched the pain in his back with his thumb.
More the sense of light than actual light itself emanated from his left. The band and the chanting had quieted now. A man’s amplified voice strided.
Sliding his feet along the floor so he wouldn’t fall down any steps that might be there, Fletch went to his left. After several steps he felt himself against a wall. He turned right, following the sound of the man’s voice—“Protect this great republic”—toward greater light, against another wall, right again, around a corner. He found himself at the top of a dimly lit, old, wooden staircase.
He could no longer hear the alarm bell.
His ankle and back not complaining too much, he ran down the stairs.
He pushed through the wide door to the corridor of the balcony. On the corridor’s side, the door was concealed as a mirror.
To orient himself, Fletch went onto the balcony.
Every seat in the balcony was taken. People were standing.
Onstage, Doris Wheeler and Governor Caxton Wheeler were sitting in the center of a half-moon of local dignitaries. Their plastic chairs were the sort designed to be uncomfortable in fast-food restaurants, to make people tip forward, eat fast, and get out. The speaker at the podium could have been Congressman Jack Snive.
In front of the stage, facing the audience, smirked a large band in high school marching uniforms. The uniforms might have been the right sizes for the band marching, but they were too big for them sitting down. All the drummers’ hands were in their sleeves.
The floor of the auditorium was filled. People clogging the aisles were urging other people to move. There was some movement, but it was more circular than directed.
Across the hall, nearer the stage than the balcony, was a separate box. In the box sat Freddie Arbuthnot, Roy Filby, Fenella Baker, Tony Rice, others. He could not see who was in the matching box, to his right.
Fletch left the balcony and ran down the stairs to the lobby of the auditorium.
To the left of the main door was a bank of three wall telephones. Bill Dieckmann was not there.
Fletch looked around what corners there were. No Bill Dieckmann.
There were no other phones along the back of the auditorium.
Even the foyer was crowded.
The fireman who had stopped Fletch outside the auditorium was now inside. He spotted Fletch. “Hey!” he shouted. He started toward Fletch.
Moving sideways very fast, Fletch kept the crowd between himself and the fireman.
Fletch ran back up the stairs to the balcony.
“Freddie?” Fletch sat down beside her. There was more room in the press box than there was anywhere else in the auditorium. “Have you seen Flash Grasselli?”
She shook her head no. “Something occurred to me,” she said.
“I need to find Flash.”
“Don’t you think it odd,” she asked, “that a few days after I join the campaign, Walsh hires you?”
Fletch said, “Help me find Bill Dieckmann.”
“I mean, you’re an investigative reporter. Like me.”
Her brown eyes were fully on Fletch’s face.
Fletch said, “It sounded like he was afraid of what he might do, or something.”
“How long ago was that?”
“God.” Fletch looked at his watch. “More than a half hour ago. Man can’t fly.”
“I haven’t seen Flash.” She started to get up. “I haven’t seen either of them.”
Fletch stood up. “I told him to stay by the phones at the back of the auditorium. He’s not there.”
Fletch’s eyes were running over the audience below him. The aisles had been pretty well cleared, except for firemen and policemen.
Freddie leaned to her left and spoke with Roy Filby and Tony Rice.
Below Fletch, Betsy Ginsberg was sitting in about the middle of the audience.
Roy and Tony were standing, too.
“They’ll help,” Freddie said. “I told them about Bill.”
Fletch stood aside to let the three of them out the row of seats. “Just fan out and look for him anywhere,” he said. “Check the rest rooms, I guess. He sounded real bad.”
“Could the police have taken him out?” Roy asked.
“I don’t think they had by the time I came in.”
As they were leaving the box, Fletch took one more fast look at the audience seated on the floor of the auditorium.
Betsy had risen from her seat and was working her way along the row to the aisle.
Shit! Fletch said to himself. Betsy!
Fletch ran out of the press box so fast he tripped against Tony Rice.
“Fletch!” Freddie called after him. “Did you see him?”
He ran down the corridor behind the balcony and down the stairs to the auditorium lobby.
There was a bigger crowd of people in the lobby, grumbling about having been removed from the aisles. Some were angrily refusing to leave the building.
Fletch pushed through them. Some shoved back.
Fletch glowered at the big stomach of a policeman standing in the main doorway to the auditorium.
“Get out of my way, please,” Fletch said. He pushed past the policeman.
“Trying to start a riot?”
“Sorry,” Fletch said over his shoulder.
The fireman who had stopped him outside the auditorium and yelled at him inside the auditorium saw Fletch push past the policeman from the lobby. “Stop him!” he yelled. “Hey! Get that guy!”
He pushed past the policeman, too.
Over the heads of the people seated in the auditorium, Fletch saw Betsy at the right of the auditorium, near the stage, going through a door marked EXIT.
Moving as fast as he could, dodging people standing at the back of the auditorium, Fletch went to his right along the wall at the rear of the audience. He was passing behind Hanrahan.
Hands grabbed both of Fletch’s shoulders and turned him around.
“Wait one minute,” the fireman said. He was crouched a little, as if to swing. “You’re causin’ one hell of a lot of trouble.”
“Sorry,” Fletch said, taking a step backward.
Michael J. Hanrahan had turned around.
The fireman grabbed Fletch’s arm.
Fletch did not resist.
“You’re comin’ with me,” the fireman said.
With his grin/grimace, Hanrahan said, “Trouble, Fletcher?”
“I’m in an awful hurry, Michael.”
“That’s fine.” Hanrahan lurched forward onto his right foot, and sent his left fist into the fireman’s coat.
The fireman dropped his grip on Fletch.
In a second, he had twisted Hanrahan into a half-Nelson wrestling hold.
Fletch said, “Thank you, Michael.”
Hanrahan’s face quickly turned crimson. “That’s all right, Fletcher. Always glad to slug a cop.”
“Michael!” Fletch said, backing away. More uniforms were appearing in the dark at the back of the auditorium. “You slugged a fireman!”
Fletch walked fast down the aisle under the balcony. He pressed his weight against the metal bar-release of the door marked EXIT and found himself in a bright, empty corridor.
To his left was a door that obviously led to the stage area.
To his right the corridor had to run back to the lobby of the auditorium.
Down a short corridor straight ahead was a sign: EXHIBITION HALL, TUESDAY-SATURDAY, 10-4.
In the auditorium, the speaker roared at the audience, “The man who will be the next President of the United States,” and the audience was roaring its approval.
Fletch went down the short corridor and turned right into the entrance to the Exhibition Hall. Massive, double, polished wooden doors. Locked, of course.
He turned around.
Across the corridor, in the reciprocal alcove, was a small service door. The sign on it said: STAFF ONLY. Over it a sign said: NOT A FIRE EXIT.
He crossed to the door and tried the ordinary doorknob. Not locked. He pushed the door open.
Overamplified, the voice of Doris Wheeler was bursting from the auditorium. “My husband, son, and I are glad to be in Melville. Years ago, when we were first married …”
On the other side of the door were stairs falling to a basement. The small landing was lit by an overhead light. The stairs themselves were lit by occasional, dim, baseboard safety lights. The basement itself was dark.
“… and the friends we made around here then …”
From the basement came a woman’s shout: “No!”
The sound sent a pain searing from Fletch’s left ankle through his back to his neck.
As he started down the stairs he heard what sounded like a slap of skin against skin, a hard slap. A scuffling of feet on cement.
There was the sound of a light piece of wood falling on the cement floor.
There was then the sound of a woman’s outraged, frightened scream. “Stop!”
“Betsy!” Fletch shouted toward his right.
A few safety lights were on here and there throughout the vast space of the basement. Everywhere in the basement were large, bulky objects, crates and counters and stands from the Exhibition Hall, he guessed, and scenery flats from amateur productions in Public Auditorium. Facing him was the tranquil scene of an English garden.
“… my husband and I listen to you, have known your problems …”
Fletch moved forward toward the center of the basement, around the English garden scene.
Doris Wheeler’s amplified voice was coming through the ceiling like so many nails. “We know what you have paid into your schools, your farms, your stores, your families, your lives.” Each phrase came through the ceiling hard, bright, penetrating, scratchy.
In the basement there was a flubbery cry.
“Betsy!” Fletch bellowed.
Again there was the sound of feet scuffling on cement.
Fletch’s eyes finally were adjusting to the dim light.
And then there was what sounded like a hard punch.
There was an explosion of air from lungs, a gasp, a shrill, hysterical scream.
“Walsh!” Fletch yelled.
He threw his weight against a huge packing crate, which must have been empty. Lightly it skidded across the floor.
Fletch fell. He rolled over on the floor and looked up.
His back to Fletch, a man had a woman pinned into a corner of the basement.
Sitting on the floor, quietly Fletch said, “Walsh.”
Walsh twisted his neck around to look at Fletch. Walsh’s face was wild.
Her fingers were against his biceps. She was trying to push him away. Her eyes were bulging.
“Hey, Walsh,” Fletch said. “You’re out of your mind. You don’t know what you’re doing.”
“… you will have a friend in the White House, a man who …”
Walsh looked up at the ceiling of the basement. The low safety lights lit the whites of his eyes.
Fletch stood up. “I’m here, Walsh. There’s nothing more you can do.”
After a moment of applause, Doris Wheeler’s voice again penetrated the ceiling. “Someone in the White House …”
Walsh’s left hand pushed Betsy’s head forward from the wall. He looked her in the face. He raised his left hand from behind her head.
Walsh’s right fist slammed into Betsy’s face.
Her head banged into the corner of the walls and bounced out. Her eyes became entirely white.
“Walsh! Let go!”
Standing behind Walsh, Fletch raised his own arms as high as they would go, and brought the sides of his hands down full strength onto the muscles between Walsh’s neck and shoulders.
Walsh dropped his arms.
Betsy’s knees jerked forward. Bleeding from her nose, chin on her chest, Betsy slumped forward.
Fletch tried to catch her.
Walsh staggered into him.
Betsy fell into the corner on the floor.
Walsh backed along the wall. His head was lowered. He was trying to raise his hands.
“Take it easy, Walsh. Just stay still.”
Walsh turned. He stumbled along the wall.
Fletch grabbed him by a shoulder. Spun him around. Hit him hard, once, in the face. Once in the stomach.
Walsh fell. He could not raise his arms to protect himself as he fell. He landed flat.
He gasped for air. He brought one hand, slowly, to his bleeding face.
Betsy was unconscious. Her nose was broken and pouring blood. Her left cheekbone was bruised blue. There was a bleeding gash at the back of her head.
Gently, Fletch pulled her out of the corner. He put her on her side on the floor, against the wall. He put his suit jacket under her head. Some blood ran out of her mouth.
Walsh had rolled over and was lying on his back.
Fletch stood over him. “It’s over now, Walsh.”
Walsh was breathing hard. His face was bloody, too.
“… Caxton Wheeler, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue …”
“Can you walk, Walsh? Betsy’s hurt. We’ve got to get an ambulance for her.”
Walsh’s glazed eyes were staring at the ceiling.
Through the ceiling Doris Wheeler’s voice came, insistent, demanding: “… the White House … the White House … the White House …”
Walsh said: “God, damn Mother.”