"What happened to Steve?" The woman in the canvas chair leaned forward. She had not looked around from the television screen since Fletch entered the pavillion. No one else was there. She was speaking to herself, or to the air. "For God's sake, what's wrong?" she said in a tight, low voice.
Even under the canopy on a sunless day, the screen of the television monitor was blanched by daylight from the beach.
From where Fletch was standing, he could see the pale images flickering on the screen. Across a few meters of beach, between the cameras, standing lights, reflectors, and sound booms, he could see the reality of what was on the screen, the set of The Dan Buckley Show, host and guests.
In the middle chair sat Dan Buckley wearing white trousers, loafers, and a light blue Palm Beach shirt. Even at a distance, amiability seemed stuck on his face like a decal. To his left, in a long, white bulky dressing gown sat Moxie Mooney--the gorgeous, perky, healthy, fresh-faced young film star called away from her make-up table to oblige an on location talk show. To Buckley's right sat Moxie's agent, manager, and executive producer, Steve Peterman in three-piece, pearl-gray suit, black shoes, and cravat.
Only Steve Peterman wasn't sitting properly in his chair. He was slumped sideways. His head was on his right shoulder.
Fletch looked at his watch.
At the back of the talk-show set a heavy, brightly colored, split curtain moved slightly in the breeze. Behind the set, down the beach the Gulf of Mexico was gray-blue in that light. On all sides of the set was the paraphernalia of a much bigger set, the location of the film-in-progress, Midsummer Night's Madness, starring Moxie Mooney and Gerry Littleford. Odd-shaped trailers were parked on the beach, each facing a different direction, as if dropped there. False palm-thatched huts were here and there. Thick black cables ran every which way over the sand. Low wooden platforms, like portable dance floors, were tilted on the beach. Strewn everywhere were the odd-shaped light rigs, reflectors, cameras, and sound cranes. The whole beach looked like a sandbox of toys abandoned by a giant, rich child. Among all these trappings moved the film crew of Midsummer Night's Madness, working, apparently oblivious of the taping going on in their midst.
"What happened?" the woman repeated in a hoarse whisper.
Fletch put his glass of orange juice back on the bar table. He stood quietly behind the woman in her canvas chair. She still hadn't looked around at him.
Closer, he could see the monitor more clearly. In a loose head-shot, Moxie was alone on screen, laughing. Then she looked to her right, as if seeking confirmation from Steve Peterman, as if turning the conversation over to him. Moxie stopped talking with a short, sharp inhale. Laughter left her face. One eyebrow rose.
The camera pulled back to include Buckley. He looked to his right, to see what had surprised Moxie. His eyes widened. His lips did not move.
The camera pulled back farther. Steve Peterman's eyes stared blankly into the camera. His head was at such an odd angle resting on his shoulder his neck seemed broken. Blood oozed from the lower, right corner of his mouth. It dribbled down his cheek past his ear and onto his cravat.
In the pavillion, the woman in the canvas chair screamed. She stood up. She screamed again. People everywhere on the beach, even on the talkshow set, were looking at her. She clasped her hands over her mouth.
Fletch took her arm. Gently, firmly, he turned her body toward him. Her eyes were affixed to the monitor.
"Come on," he said. "Time for a break."
"What's happening? What happened to Steve?"
"Coffee," he said. "They'll be right back."
He turned her away from the reality of what was happening on the set and away from the unreality of what was happening focused on the television screen.
"Steve!" she called.
He made her walk. She stumbled against the canvas chair. He pushed it out of her way with his bare foot.
"Come on," he said. "Let's see what the canteen has to offer."
"But, Steve.. ." she said.
She put her hands over her face. He put his arm around her shoulder and guided her along.
He walked with her off the pavillion and up the beach to the flat, hard-packed parking lot. There were many trailers parked there.
In a reasonable tone of voice Fletch said, "I don't think there's anything you can do just now."
"Is Steve Peterman your husband?" Fletch asked. He was careful to use the word is rather than was although he was sure the latter was appropriate.
In the metal folding chair, her drawn face nodded in the affirmative. "I'm Marge Peterman."
Fletch had found two metal chairs and placed them behind a trailer in the parking lot, out of the way of the traffic he knew would be passing to and from the beach. He sat Marge Peterman in one and went to the canteen. He brought back two cups of coffee, one black, the other with cream and sugar. He offered her both. She chose the black. He put the other coffee on the sand near her feet, and sat quietly in the other chair.
Fletch had arrived at the location of Midsummer Night's Madness on Bonita Beach only a half hour before. His credentials from Global Cable News had gained him entry onto location. The security guard told him Moxie was taping The Dan Buckley Show and enjoined Fletch to silence. He directed Fletch to the hospitality pavillion where a courtesy bar had been set up to host the television crew and other press after the taping.
There he had found a woman sitting alone on a canvas chair watching her husband on a television monitor.
Now they were sitting together behind a trailer at the edge of a parking lot.
She had sipped her coffee cup dry and then picked the Styrofoam cup to little pieces. Bits of Styrofoam were in her lap and on the sand around her feet like crumbs.
"When are they going to tell me what happened?" she asked.
She could have rebelled from Fletch's ministrations and found out for herself; She didn't. She had understood enough of what she had seen to prefer acute anxiety to dead certainty.
"Breathe deeply," Fletch said.
She took a deep breath and choked off a sob.
The Rescue Squad ambulance was the first to arrive. Blue lights flashing on the gray day, it threaded its way slowly and carefully down onto the beach. A police car arrived next, its siren and lights on, but seemingly in no great hurry. Some local police had already been assigned to the film location. Then two more police cars came screaming, skidding in as if their drivers hoped the cameras were on. Out of the passenger seat of one emerged a middle-aged woman in uniform.
Marge Peterman said, "If they take Steve to the hospital, I want to go with him."
Fletch nodded. The ambulance had not returned from the beach, as it would have if there were any necessity to go to the hospital.
"I mean, I want to go with him in the ambulance."
Fletch nodded again.
Most of the people, the film crew, the television crew, the press, had gone down to the beach like pieces of metal being drawn by a magnet. Now a few were returning. As they returned, they walked with their chins down. Their shoulders seemed higher than normal. And the skin beneath their tans seemed touched by bleach. None was talking.
Fletch could not hear the murmur of the Gulf or even the chatter of the birds among the palm trees.
An airplane taking off from Fort Myers passed overhead.
A young woman in shorts, a halter, and sandals appeared around the corner of the trailer and stopped. She looked back toward the beach, wondering what to do, looking for support. A man with a large stomach extending a dark blue T-shirt, with dark curly hair, a light meter dangling from a string around his neck arrived and stood next to the young woman. He kept looking at Marge Peterman's back. A young policeman joined them. He shoved his hat back off his sweaty forehead and looked toward the road, probably wishing there were traffic to direct. One or two other people came to stand with them.
Dan Buckley came around the corner of the trailer and looked at each of the people standing there. He, too, hesitated. Then he slowly came forward and put his hand on Marge Peterman' s shoulder.
She looked up at him.
"Dan . . ."
Fletch gave Buckley his chair and stood aside.
"Mrs. Peterman . . ." Dan Buckley said. "Marge, is it?"
"Marge." He leaned forward in the chair, forearms on his thighs. "It seems your husband... It seems Steve is dead. I'm sorry, but . . .
Buckley's face lost none of its confident amiability in its seriousness, its sadness. Watching him, Fletch wished that if he ever had to take such bad news, it be broken to him by such a professional face as Dan Buckley's. In Buckley's face there was the built-in assurance that no matter how bad the present facts, there would be a world tomorrow, a show tomorrow, a laugh tomorrow.
Marge Peterman stared at Buckley. "What do you mean 'seems to be'?" Her chin quivered. "'Seems to be dead'?"
Buckley's hands cupped hers. "Is dead. Steve is dead, uh, Marge."
Her face rejected the news, then crumpled in tears. She took her hands from him and put them to her face. "What happened?" she choked. "What happened to Steve?"
Buckley looked up at Fletch. Then he sat back in the chair. His eyes ran along a heavy-duty cable strung over the parking lot.
He said nothing.
The young woman in the halter came forward and put both her hands on Marge Peterman's shoulders. "Come on," she said.
Marge stood up and staggered on the flat ground.
The man in the blue T-shirt took her arm.
Together, the man and the young woman walked Marge Peterman through the trailers to the front of the parking lot.
"What did happen?" Fletch asked Buckley.
Buckley focused on Fletch. "Who are you?" he asked. Fletch was wearing sailcloth shorts, a tennis shirt, and no shoes. "The Ambassador from Bermuda?"
"Sometimes I get coffee for people," Fletch said.
Buckley looked over the bits of Styrofoam on the sand. "He got stabbed." He shook his head. "He got a knife stuck in his back. Right on the set. Right on camera."
"He was quiet about it," Fletch commented.
Buckley was looking at his fingers in his lap as if he had never seen them before. "It could not have happened. It absolutely could not have happened."
"But it did though, huh?"
Buckley looked up. "Get me a cup of coffee, willya, kid? Black, no sugar.
"Black no sugar," Fletch repeated.
Fletch walked toward the canteen, past it, through the security gate, got into his rented car and drove off.
The first phone call Fletch made was to Global Cable News in Washington, D.C. His call got through to that hour's producer quickly. It was, 'Yes, sir, Mister Fletcher', 'Yes, sir, Mister Fletcher' all the way through the switchboard and production staff.
Recently Fletch had bought a block of stock in Global Cable News. Just ten days before he had toured their offices and studios in Washington.
He had allowed everyone to know he was a journalist and they might be hearing from him from time to time.
"Yes, sir, Mister Fletcher," said that hour's producer.
Fletch looked down at his bare feet on the rotten, sand-studded floorboards of the porch outside the mini-mart. When he was working full time as a journalist, no one in power had ever called him sir. They had called him many other things. He had always known, of course, that behind the power of the free press was the power of the buck. He had never felt the sensation of the power of the buck before. He decided he liked the sensation and that he must work to deprive himself, and others, of any such sensation. A barefoot boy with cheek should be listened to because he's got a story, not because he was able to buy a few shares in the company.
"'Sir'?" Fletch said. "To whom am I speaking, please?"
"Jim Fennelli, Mister Fletcher. We met last week when you were here. I'm the bald guy with the big side whiskers."
"Oh, yeah," Fletch said. Jim Fennelli looked like a stepped-on cotton pod. "The gumdrop fetishist."
"That's me," Fennelli chuckled. "A box a day keeps the dentist healthy, wealthy, and sadistic."
"You know The Dan Buckley Show?"
"Sure. My mother-in-law fantasizes she's married to the creep."
"They were taping down here on Bonita Beach this afternoon. On location for a movie called Midsummer Night's Madness."
"Cute. Prospero's Island in Florida."
Fletch said nothing. No matter how long he lived, he would be amazed at the great mish-mash of information, and misinformation, all journalists carry around in their heads.
"Have I got it right?" Fennelli asked.
"Sure, sure. On the set of the television show were Buckley, Moxie Mooney, and her manager, Steve Peterman."
"So? Mister Fletcher, are you trying to get a publicity shot for somebody? I mean, are you invested in the film, or something? I mean, anything regarding Moxie Mooney will fly, she's gorgeous, but where's Bonita Beach, anyway, north of Naples?"
"Yeah. More south of Fort Myers. Call me Fletch. Makes me feel more like me."
"That's a hike. We'd have to send people over from Miami. You stockholders, you know. Like us to keep our expenses down."
"Send people over from Miami. Steve Peterman was murdered."
"Peterman. Steven Peterman. Not sure if Steven is spelled with a v or a ph. On television, it doesn't matter how his name is spelled anyway, right?"
"Who is he again?"
"Some sort of a manager, a friend, of Moxie Mooney. Some kind of a producer of Midsummer Night's Madness."
"Yeah, but So what? Nobody knows who he is."
"You haven't got the point yet."
"My father lives in Naples. It's nice down there."
"He was stabbed to death on the set of The Dan Buckley Show while they were taping. While the cameras were running."
There was a pause on the other end of the line. "Yeah, that's good," Fennelli said. "You mean they don't know who did it yet? They will as soon as they look at the tapes. Fast story. A six-hour wonder. I'm not saying it's a bad story."
"Someone was murdered on camera."
"Yeah, but it wasn't a live show. It should be reported, of course."
"Obviously, both Moxie Mooney and Dan Buckley are suspects. They were the only ones within reach."
Excerpted from Fletch's Moxie by Gregory Mcdonald. Copyright © 2005 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.