FROM across the men's room Flynn aimed his gun at the President of the United States.
The President had said, "I don't need you guys to help me do what I'm about to do," and closed the door on the crowd of Secret Service agents and other aides in the hotel corridor. He nodded to the agent stationed in the men's room, who smiled and nodded back and left. Believing himself alone, taking a small plastic vial of eyedrops from his pocket, the President stepped to a washbasin. It was while he was using the mirror, applying the eyedrops, that he saw Flynn appear through the wall behind him.
"Oh, Lord." The President dropped the plastic vial into the washbasin. He turned around. "I'm dead."
"That you are," agreed Flynn. "Deader than a campaign promise."
Through a peephole, Flynn had watched the President enter the men's room. As soon as the President busied himself at the washbasin, Flynn slid aside the panel he had built into the false wall and stepped out, gun in hand.
The President glanced at the door to the corridor. "What if I yell?"
"It will come out a whistle," Flynn assured him, raising his aim, "through the wee hole in your throat."
The President nodded at the front of Flynn's handgun. "That's a silencer."
"It is," confirmed Flynn. "It permits me to empty the gun into you without threat of interference."
The President was trying to look around Flynn, at the wall behind him, a section of which was missing. "How did you do it? How did you get in here?"
"I didn't get in here. I was in here."
"You couldn't have been. There was a Secret Service agent in here."
"A man with the unfortunate habit of suckin' his teeth when he's nervous. I was here before him."
"You couldn't have been here while they were checking the room. They would have put you out."
"I was here," said Flynn, "watching them. They checked the room twice, they did. They even opened the cabinet door and flushed the toilet. And, in fact, they did ask an old man to leave, an hour ago, sayin' they were securin' the room. He'd been here a dreadful long time. I think he was tryin' to pass a stone. Sure, they could have given him another ten minutes." Flynn continued in his soft, rapid lilt. "The Secret Service made the same presumption I did, you see, that most likely you'd use the bathroom nearest the speaker's platform here at the Waldorf-Astoria, to straighten your tie, clear your eyes, pat your hair, practice your smile in the mirror, whatever, before being introduced to . . . who is it? Who's waiting to hear you speak?"
"The Brotherhood of Christians and Jews."
"Ach," said Flynn, "a noble group. Won't they be surprised to hear you've been shot right in the middle of their salad? They'll know the right prayers to say over you, that group will."
"I want to know how--"
"Are you really interested? Or are you merely stallin' for time, Mister President, thinkin' that one of your Secret Service agents--good lads that they are--might get curious and come through that door, lookin' to see how things came out?"
"You're standing there with a gun on me. If one does come through that door, you're deader than--than--"
"Deader than last year's pain?"
"You mean to torture me with your humor--"
"I mean to shoot you. The locked-door mystery, Mister President. Do you read mysteries?"
The President blushed. "I don't read anything else--voluntarily."
"Then you know all about the locked-door mystery. You might consider this room locked, in that it has been searched, everyone's been put out of it--except you, the victim--there is no window, there is no way in, except through that door, which has rows of guards outside it. And yet here you are, about to be found shot."
"How did you get in?"
"You keep asking that. I didn't get in. I was in. False wall." Flynn kicked the wall behind him with his heel. "See how the panels fit together?"
The President nodded.
"I finished putting it up yesterday noon. In my Johnny Strong overalls and Black and Decker cap. The hotel staff was very helpful to me. They kept out of my way and let me do my work. Of course people always cooperate with people doin' work they might be asked to do themselves."
"You've been behind the wall--the false wall--all night?''
"With thermoses of tea, a dozen sandwiches, and, of course, access to a perfectly fine men's room. There have been times I've had it worse." Flynn waved his gun impatiently. "If you don't mind, Mister President, it's been nice chattin' with you and all that, but let's get on with it. Any last words for the library wall?"
"You're not going to--"
"I am. Would you mind opening your suit jacket a wee bit, so I won't miss the heart?"
"People are waiting for me to give a speech--"
"Aren't they always, though?"
"The Brotherhood of Christians and Jews--"
"Open your jacket, please, Mister President. You don't want to spoil my aim, do you?"
The President flapped open his suit jacket.
Flynn shot the President of the United States in the heart.
The President said, "Ouch."
"Stings a little?"
The President looked down at himself. "Thank God," he said. "The suitcoat will cover it."
"That's what I was thinkin'," said Flynn. "You about to make a speech and all."
"What is it?" The President was still looking at the goo on his chest.
"Ketchup and soy sauce. I've been ordered to provide evidence you've been assassinated," Flynn said, "without actually doin' the deed, that is."
"You were given a week to assassinate me." The President was breathing a little heavily. "And you did it within three days."
"The point is proven?"
"You and that little guy--"
"Yeah--said you could break through security within any given week."
"Three days, Mister President."
"And knowing you were trying, security around me was tripled this week. What did the Secret Service do wrong?"
"They failed to see something that wasn't there." Flynn placed his handgun on the sandwich wrappers behind the false wall. "I'm sure there are bathrooms without windows, but they're rare. Any bathroom without either a window or an air-conditioning system, I wouldn't want to use. Do you see either a window or an air-conditioning system in this bathroom, Mister President?"
The President's eyes surveyed the room quickly. "No."
"Yet on the outside of this building, there is a window for this room. Therefore, in this room, there had to be a false wall." Flynn smiled at the President. "Behind that false wall lurked an assassin. And in you sauntered, believin' you were as alone as if you'd lost the New Hampshire Primary."
The President buttoned his coat. "You've proven your point."
"Have we indeed?" Flynn answered easily. "The Secret Service agents, good lads that they are, Mister President, are prone to obey your wishes, because you're the President of the United States. The agent you just sent out of this room with a nod of your head should never have left." Without having washed his hands, Flynn dried them on a towel. "You have no right to endanger yourself, Mister President. Every time you think everything's been thought of, think again." Flynn dropped the towel into a bucket. "Excuse me for not stayin' for lunch. I'm full of sandwiches and tea."
Just as Flynn reached the men's room door, the President said his name.
"Yes, Mister President?"
"I have a message for you," the President said laconically. "Call your office."
"Thank you, Mister President."
"The little guy called this morning. N.N. Zero. Asked me to give you the message. Said I'd be seeing you before he would. Thought he was kidding."
"That particular little guy," said Flynn, "never kids."
Flynn came through the men's room door showing everyone in the corridor his most beguiling smile.
The Secret Service agents, good lads that they are, gasped and reached for their guns.
"Is there another men's room nearby?" Flynn asked innocently. "This one's occupied."
"N. N. 13," Flynn said into the telephone.
In the lobby of the Hotel Waldorf-Astoria, Flynn had dialed the Pittsburgh number and given the operator his credit-card number.
The man who answered drawled, "Are you free?"
"Yes. I'm in New York."
"One moment, please."
In the lobby Flynn watched a man and a woman greet each other. He guessed her clothes cost thousands of dollars. The man's suit and shoes, too, looked as if they cost plenty. Nearby stood a little girl. Dressing her had probably cost hundreds of dollars. Scanning everyone in the lobby, Flynn wondered what the total value of their clothes was. Probably more dollars than it took to dress the entire Continental Army.
"Yes," Flynn answered.
"Zero. 1600. Lions' cage, the zoo."
"Rightio," said Flynn. "Rightio."
DOWN the path the little man stood near the lions' cage. Three tall men were standing around him.
Flynn knew N.N. Zero--John Roy Priddy--liked places where there were apt to be other small human beings--playgrounds, circuses, zoos. N.N. Zero was three feet ten inches high.
Flynn had bought two bags of peanuts.
"Hello, Frank." N.N. Zero reached up to shake hands.
"Hello, sir." Flynn did not stoop. From all the years working with N.N. Zero, Flynn knew well it was no kindness to stoop to him. It was a cruelty.
N.N. Zero was a little person, and he spoke softly.
Flynn maintained his posture and was grateful for his acute hearing.
N.N. Zero looked absently around at the three men with him.
They absented themselves.
There was calliope music, Octopus's Garden.
"How's Elsbeth?" N.N. Zero asked.
Flynn handed N.N. Zero a bag of peanuts.
N.N. Zero handed Flynn a fifty-dollar bill.
Flynn glanced at it and put it in his pocket.
N.N. Zero was always solicitous about Flynn's wife and children, asking for them each in order. He actually knew each of their characteristics as well, even to twelve-year-old Jenny not yet knowing she was gorgeous and nine-year-old Winny not yet knowing his compulsion to be a wit.
"Well, Frank. Did you knock off the President?"
"Was he appreciative?"
"He seemed mostly appreciative I didn't mess up his shirt. He had to give a speech."
"Running a private organization like N.N., Frank, we'll always need funds, and we'll always need access to the President of the United States. And as long as there is a K., there's a need for N.N. Yet no President, once he's told about us, believes in us much. We have to prove ourselves to every President, in some personal way . . ."
N.N. Zero opened his bag and threw a peanut into the lions' cage.
At the back of the cage lay a lion and a lioness. They were flea-bitten and fat but pretty together.
N.N. Zero asked, "Are you ready for an odd story, Frank?"
"The Irish love a story," said Francis Xavier Flynn, N.N. 13. "Don't we just?"
"Trouble is," said N.N. Zero, "we don't know the beginning of this story. Nor do we know the end of it. Maybe we're putting three things together that don't belong together. I don't know. Odd things have happened at three different places on the map. And I think they may have something in common. And even if they do, I'm not sure what it is, or what to make of it. The most recent event--if these are events--concerns us."
Flynn shelled a peanut and tossed it into the lions' cage.
Neither lion moved.
"About twelve weeks ago," N.N. Zero said, "there were one thousand eight hundred and fifty-six people, men, women, and children, living in the town of Ada, Texas. Today, as far as we know, there are two.
"One day the minister in that town, a Reverend Sandy Fraiman, called the office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Austin, and said that everyone in the town, except himself and his wife, had disappeared."
"Disappeared?" Flynn rubbed his ear. "This isn't a flying-saucer story, is it? I don't like flying-saucer stories. They upset my equilibrium."
"Everyone had left town except the minister and his wife."
" 'Left town.' Of their own volition, I take it. Tell me, sir. Do you think the man's sermons had been runnin' overlong? Were the people fleein' them, do you think?"
"The minister watched them leave. He called the F.B.I. on a Thursday. He said people had begun to leave town on the previous Saturday. More than half the town had left by Sunday night. The rest were gone by Wednesday. They simply packed up their cars and pickup trucks with personal belongings, and left. The minister stopped some of them and asked where they were going. Some said Dallas. Some said Oklahoma. Some said Las Vegas. Some said California."
"And none said the Promised Land? No wonder the minister was upset."
"The F.B.I. agent drove to Ada next day. He confirmed there appeared to be no one in town except the minister and his wife. He reported the minister appeared 'shaky.' "
"No wonder. He was the shepherd whose flock had escaped up the glen, waggin' their tails behind 'em."
"Get this, Flynn. After some questioning, the minister told the agent that on the previous Saturday morning he had found two large manila envelopes on his front porch, one with his name on it, one with his wife's name on it. In each envelope was one hundred thousand dollars in cash. Mostly fifty-dollar bills, some one hundreds, some twenties."
"Manna from Heaven."
"Exactly. The minister was delighted. He believes it's a gift to the church. It's a poor town, and apparently the church is in great disrepair. The F.B.I. agent filed his report, of course."
"The next week."
"A copy came to us in the pouch. A week after that."
Flynn tossed some peanuts he had shelled into the lions' cage.
"This made us mildly curious," N.N. Zero continued, "to see if any such similar incident had happened to any other small town in the United States. We discovered that in a small town in New England, the ministers left, and the townspeople stayed. East Frampton, Massachusetts--"
"I know the old place. Took my kids there summer before last. We ate at a--"
"A small island community, utterly dependent upon the tourist trade and a little fishing. Nothing more to worry about, if you'd believe it, than squashing rumors a shark with a yen for human flesh basted in suntan oil is prowling their waters."
"Not a refined taste, I think."
"The captain of the ferryboat, who lives on the mainland, mentioned to a fellow member of Kiwanis, who is a policeman in New Bedford, who told his chief, who mentioned it to the local F.B.I. agent--"
"Not a direct source comin' straight at us," commented Flynn.
Excerpted from The Buck Passes Flynn by Gregory Mcdonald. Copyright © 1981 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.