"Fletch, my man! Good! You got here!"
Shirtless and shoeless, Fletch was standing in a midtown motel room in a middle-sized town in a middle-sized state in Middle America. He had turned on the shower just before the phone rang.
"I want you to go to Dad's suite," Walsh Wheeler said. "Immediately. 748."
"Why don't you say 'Hello,' Walsh?"
"Hello." The sounds behind Walsh were of several people talking, men and women, the clink of glasses, and, at a distance, heavy beat music--bar noises.
"Why don't you ask me if I had a nice flight?"
"Stuff it. Isn't time for all that."
"Are we enjoying a crisis already?"
"There's always a crisis on a political campaign, Fletch. On a presidential campaign, all the crises are biggies. You've only got a few minutes to learn that." Despite the background noises, Walsh was speaking quietly into the phone. "Wait a minute," he said. At the other end of the phone someone was speaking to Walsh. Fletch could not make out what the other person was saying. His mouth away from the phone, Walsh said. "Any idea who she is?" There was more conversation wrapped in cotton. "Is she dead?" Walsh asked.
Steam was coming through the door of Fletch's bathroom.
"Who's dead?" Fletch asked.
"That's what we're trying to find out," Walsh said. "Your plane was late? You're late."
"Landed unexpectedly in Little Rock. Guess the pilot had to drop off some laundry."
"You were supposed to be here at six o'clock."
"Your dad's very popular in Little Rock. Took a survey of an airport security cop. He said, 'If Wheeler doesn't become our next President, guess I'll have to run for office myself.' What a threat!"
Speaking away from the phone again, Walsh Wheeler said, "Whoever she is, she has nothing to do with us. Nothing to do with the campaign."
Fletch said, "I wish I knew the topic of this conversation."
"I'm downstairs in the lounge, Fletch," Walsh said. "I'll handle things here, but you get yourself to Dad's suite tout."
"It's ten-thirty at night, isn't it?"
"About that. So what?"
"I've never met the candidate. Your esteemed pa. The governor."
"Just knock on the door. He doesn't bite."
"And then what do I say to the next President of These United States? 'Wanna buy a new broom?"'
"Never known you to be at a loss for words. Say, 'Hello, I'm your new genius press representative.'"
"Barging in on The Man Who at ten-thirty at night without even a glass of warm milk--"
"He won't be in bed, yet. Doctor Thom's still down here in the bar."
"Now, look, Lieutenant, a little clarification of orders would make the troops a little more lighthearted in their marching."
"This could be damned serious, Fletch. Someone just said the girl is dead."
"Death is one of the more serious things that happen to people. Now, tell me, Walsh, what girl? Who's dead?"
Walsh coughed. "Don't know."
"A girl jumped off the motel's roof. Five minutes ago, ten minutes ago."
"And she's dead?"
"So they say."
"Terrible! But what's that got to do with your father? With you? With me?"
"Nothing," Walsh said firmly. "That's the point."
"Oh. Then why don't I take a nice shower, climb into my footy pajamas, and meet your dad at a respectable hour in the morning? Like between coffees number one and two?"
"Because," said Walsh.
"Oh, that's why! Walsh, a death in the motel where the candidate is staying shouldn't even be commented on by the candidate. People die in motels more often than they get warm soup from room service. I'm not saying one thing has to do with another--"
"I agree with you."
"I mean, you don't want to make a story by overreacting, by having me rush to your dad's suite in the middle of the night when I don't even know the man."
Walsh coughed again. His voice lowered. "Apparently she jumped, Fletch. They're saying from the roof right over Dad's suite. Over his balcony. Photographs have already been taken of the building. Arrows will be drawn."
"Arrows that swoop downward."
"The bored press, Fletch. Starving for any new story. Any new angle."
"Yeah. Implication being the young lady might have used the balcony of the candidate's room as a diving board to oblivion. Certain newspapers would make something of that. Newsbill."
"I knew you had something other than pretzels between the ears."
"Go to Dad's suite. Answer the phone if it rings. Say you're new on the job and don't know what anybody's talking about."
"Easy enough. True, too."
"I'll try to have his phone turned off at the switchboard. But not all switchboards are incorruptible."
"I seem to remember having corrupted one or two myself. Suite number what?"
"748. I'll be right up. As soon as I ace the switchboard and do my casual act in the bar. Convince the press we're not reacting to the girl's death."
"Walsh? Give it to me straight. Does the girl have anything to do with us? I mean, the campaign? The presidential candidate?"
Walsh's voice dropped even lower. "It's your job, Fletch, to make damned sure she didn't."2
She was alone in the elevator when the door opened.
In the corridor, Fletch was pulling on his jacket. For a moment, he thought his eyes were playing a joke on him: the girl with the honey-colored hair and the brown eyes.
"Freddie!" he exclaimed. "As I live and breathe! The one and only Freddie Arbuthnot."
"Fletch," she said. "It is true."
"Going my way?" he asked.
"No," she answered. "I'm on my way up."
He scooted through the closing doors. In the elevator, the button had been pushed for the eighth floor.
"I'm glad to see you," he said.
"You never have been before."
"Listen, Freddie, about that time in Virginia. What can I say? I was wrong. That journalism convention--you know, where we met?--was full of spooks, and I had every reason to think you were one of them."
"I'm an honest journalist, Mr. Fletcher." Freddie tightened her nostrils. "Unlike some people I don't care to know."
"Honest," he agreed. "As honest as fried chicken."
"Well known, too."
"Famous!" he said. "Everybody knows the superb work Fredericka Arbuthnot turns in."
"Then, why didn't you know who I was in Virginia?"
"Everybody knew except me. I was just stupid. I had been out of the country."
"You don't read Newsworld?"
"My dentist doesn't subscribe."
"You don't read the Newsworld Syndicate?"
"Not on crime. Gross stuff, crime. Reports on what the coroner found in the victim's lower intestine. I don't even want to know what's in my own lower intestine."
"I make my living writing crime for Newsworld."
"You're the best. Everyone says so. The scourge of defense attorneys everywhere."
"Is it true Governor Wheeler is making you his press representative?"
"Haven't met the old wheez yet."
The elevator door opened.
"One look at you," she said, "and he'll send you back to playschool."
He followed her off the elevator onto the eighth floor. "What are you doing in whatever town we're in, Freddie? Interesting trial going on?"
Walking down the corridor, she said, "I've joined the campaign."
"Oh? Given up journalism? Become a volunteer?"
"Not likely," she said. "I'm still a member of the honest, working press."
"I don't quite get that, Freddie," Fletch said a little louder than he meant to. "You're a crime reporter. This is a political campaign."
She took her room key from the pocket of her skirt. "Isn't a political campaign somewhat like a trial by jury?"
"Only somewhat. When you lose a political campaign in this country, you don't usually go to the slammer."
She turned the key in the lock. "Do I make you nervous, Fletcher?"
"You always have."
"You're going to tell me you don't know anything about the girl who was murdered in this motel tonight."
"You don't know anything about it?"
"She was naked and beaten. Brutally beaten. Don't need a coroner to tell me that. I saw that much with my own eyes. I would guess also raped. And further, I would guess she was either thrown off a balcony of this motel, or, virtually the same, driven to jump."
Fletch's eyes were round. "That only happened a half hour ago, Freddie. You couldn't have gotten here that fast from New York or Los Angeles or--or from wherever you hang your suspicions."
"Oh, you do know something about it."
"I know a girl fell to her death from the roof of this motel about a half hour ago."
"Dear Fletch. Always the last with the story."
"Not always. Just when there's Freddie Arbuthnot around."
"I'd invite you into my room," Freddie said, "but times I've tried that in the past I've been wickedly rebuffed."
"What else do you know about this girl?"
"Not as much as I will know."
"Good night, Fletcher darling."
Fletch stood foursquare to the door which was about to close in his face.
"Freddie! What is a crime reporter doing covering a presidential primary campaign?"
Door in hand, she stood on one tiptoed foot and kissed him on the nose.
"What's a newspaper delivery boy doing passing himself off as a presidential candidate's press secretary?"3
"Who is it?" The voice through the door to Suite 748 was politely curious. Fletch was used to hearing that voice making somber pronouncements about supersonic bombers and the national budget.
"I. M. Fletcher. Walsh told me to come knock on your door."
The door opened.
Keeping his hand on the doorknob, his arm extended either to embrace or restrain, Governor Caxton Wheeler grinned at Fletch while his eyes worked Fletch over like a football coach measuring a player for the line. Fletch fingered his collar and regretted having put back on the shirt he had been wearing all day.
Governor Caxton Wheeler's face was huge, a map of all America, his forehead as wide as the plain states, his jaw as massive as all the South, his eyes as large and set apart as New York and Los Angeles, his nose as assertive as the skyscrapers of Chicago and Houston.
"Hello," Fletch said. "I'm your new genius press representative."
Smile growing stiff on his face, the presidential candidate stared at Fletch.
Fletch said: "Wanna buy a broom?"
"Well," the governor said, "I want a clean sweep."
"And I'll bet you want to sweep clean," Fletch said.
"Were you ever one of them?" the governor asked.
Fletch looked around him in the motel corridor. "One of who?"
"The Press is The People, sir."
"Funny," said The Man Who. "I thought the government is. Come in.
The governor took his hand off the doorknob and wandered in stockinged feet into the living room of the suite.
Fletch closed the door behind him.
The living room was decorated in Super Motel. There was a bad painting on the wall, oil on canvas, of a schooner under full sail. (In Fletch's room there was a cardboard print of the same ship under full sail.) The four corners of the coffee table surface and the hands of the chair arms had chipped gold paint on them.
There were several liquor bottles on a side table.
The governor nodded to them. "Want a drink?"
"I was afraid you'd say that."
"May I get you one?"
"No." The governor sat on the divan. "My wife doesn't approve. She says I have to get all my energy and all my relaxation from The People. I doubt if the sweet thing knows it, but what she is describing is a megalomaniac."
The Man Who wore an open, washed-out, worn, sagging brown bathrobe. Over the breast pocket, in green, was CW. The robe draped his big, bare, white belly.
Fletch's eyes moved back and forth from the deep tan of the governor's face and the lily whiteness of the governor's belly.
"You look like you just got home from summer camp," the governor said. "Will the press accept you?" Fletch said nothing. The governor had not asked him to sit down. "A campaign is tough, and it's exciting, and it's boring. Not to worry." On the coffee table in front of the governor, papers had spilled out of a briefcase. "By the end of this campaign--if we win this primary, that is--you'll look as dissipated as a schoolchild in March."
The other side of the room, beyond the governor, was a sliding glass door onto the balcony. The drapes were open.
Slowly, as if wandering aimlessly, Fletch crossed the room to the balcony doors. Trying to make the question sound conversational, he asked, "If you lose this primary, is the campaign over?"
"You win votes in a primary; you win contributions. You lose, and the contributions dry up. Motels and gas stations expect even presidential candidates to pay their bills. It's the American way."
Fletch snapped on the balcony light outside the glass doors. "Does the press know you're short of funds?"
The governor did not turn around in the sofa to look at Fletch. "We don't issue a financial report every day. But we have to get the message out through the press that we need money. If they ever thought our campaign was broke, they'd desert us faster than kittens leave a gully in the January thaw."
On the balcony, the snow and ice, the slush, had been stirred up, walked on. A section of the railing had been scraped clean of snow.
"Have you been out on the balcony tonight?" Fletch asked.
Finally the governor turned around in his seat. "No. Why? At least, I don't think so."
"Somebody has been."
"Some of the press were in earlier. For drinks. Some of the staff. Lots of cigarette smoke. I might have stepped out for some fresh air. I do things like that. Or a quiet word with someone. Must be slushy out there."
Fletch turned off the balcony light and pulled the drapes closed. "Would there be people in your suite if you weren't here? I mean, other than hotel staff?"
"Sure." The governor turned around to face the coffee table again. "For traffic, my suite is second only to O'Hare International Airport. In fact, where is everyone now? Why isn't the phone ringing?"
"Walsh had it turned off at the switchboard." Fletch went through the living room and down the little corridor to the front door of the suite.
"Why did he do that?"
Fletch opened the door and tried the outside knob. "Your door is unlocked."
"Sure. People come in and out all the time. What are you, a press agent or a security man?"
Fletch closed the door and came back into the living room. "Looks like you need a good security agent."
"Flash is all I need for now. He doesn't bother anybody. So," the governor said, "you and Walsh knew each other in the service. I remember hearing about you."
Excerpted from Fletch and the Man Who by Gregory Mcdonald. Copyright © 2004 by Gregory McDonald. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.