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From the Trade Paperback edition.
Fletch's son Jack gets drawn into a deadly family drama by an old flame who's set to marry the son of billionaire inventor Chester Radliegh. Her future father-in-law has been the intended victim of several near-fatal accidents. When Jack goes undercover on the Radliegh eastate and finds a whole family of suspects, there's only one person he can turn to for help--Fletch.
“If you love Fletch, you’ll also love the young man who claims to be his sonÉ.they make a wild and witty pair, doubling the enjoyment.” —Ed McBain
"Faoni." In fact, he was answering the telephone at Andy Cyst's desk in the huge Global Cable News building in Virginia. He had no desk, or telephone, of his own.
The switchboard knew he was working with Andy Cyst.
"Who is this?"
The young woman's voice said, "Is this Fletch?"
"Yeah. Jack. Faoni. Fletch."
"I know your name is Jack Faoni. The weekend we spent together you had me call you Fletch."
"When was that?"
"Skiing. In Stowe, Vermont. A few years ago. We met there. At The Shed. You were with some other guys from a lumber camp. Playing your guitar. People were buying you beer to keep you playing. Well, I sort of kidnapped you. First, I kidnapped your guitar." Her voice was low, and warm. "When you pursued me to the parking lot to get your guitar back, I grabbed you. It was snowing. You were very hot. I ripped your shirt. I pulled it down off your shoulders. Do you remember the snowflakes falling on your sweating shoulders while we kissed? You sizzled."
"Good grief! Whoever you are, woman, you just elevated my temperature by more than a little. I'm hot now." Sticking a finger inside his shirt collar, Jack scanned the huge, brightly lit, colorful, air-conditioned room filled with journalists' workstations. "I wasn't a minute ago."
"You were very playful. Silly. You don't remember me?"
"I do." She had coal black hair, very wide-set coal-black eyes . . . And her name was? "I remember you weren't there when I woke up."
"I had to meet my father early for Belgian waffles. It really wasn't a weekend we spent together. Just a few lovely hours."
"I remember it was a cold morning and I had to run through the snow in a flannel shirt torn to shreds. Thanks for leaving me my guitar, anyway."
"You use your hands beautifully."
"Why didn't you come back? Leave a note? Something?"
"I had to ski with my father. Then he drove me back to Poughkeepsie."
"I waited." He had not waited long. The snow was pure powder, the skiing too good to miss. "I wasn't sure you weren't a dream."
"Anyway, I've been seeing your name on GCN the last few days. Those great stories about The Tribe."
"Thanks. I guess."
"You're working for GCN now?"
"I guess so. I'm here. They've used everything I've brought them."
"That's great. But they never showed your face on television. If it was your story, why didn't they use you on camera?"
"One doesn't do that."
"One doesn't? A lot do."
"People come to recognize you. Then you can't do the kind of stories I want to do."
"Oh. You must have been working on that story a long time."
"It took a long time to set up. Once it got going, it went quickly. Very quickly."
"So guess where I am."
"You like games, don't you?"
"Yeah. I do."
"Let me think . . . You're in jail?"
"You're in hospital with some horrible disease the doctor says you must tell me about?"
"I give up." Jack rearranged some papers on Andy Cyst's desk. "Why don't you remind me of your name, if you ever shared it with me in the first place, tell me where you are, if that's relevant to the conversation, then tell me why you called. You've talked so long I'm beginning to need a shower."
"We didn't do all that much talking, as I remember. We went at each other like bear cubs."
"I don't care who you are. I don't care where you are. I don't care why you're calling. Good bye."
"Is that a name, or an order?"
"Oh, yes. Shana. So where are you, Shana?"
"Vindemia. I've read that word somewhere. What is it, defunct coal mines in Appalachia, what?"
''One of the biggest estates in America."
"Oh, yeah. In Georgia? Owned by . . ."
"Actually, I'm calling you from a phone booth outside the Vindemia Gas Station and General Store. The estate has its own little village, complete with chapel, library, and many, many rent-a-cops."
"Cute. Owned by . . . the guy who invented uh . . ."
"Chester Radliegh. He invented the perfect mirror."
"Oh, yeah. The guy who straightened out our left from our right, right from left when we look at ourselves in a mirror."
"Right. Chester Radliegh. Massive implications for industry, science, space . . ."
"You sound like you're quoting from Business Digest."
"I am. I looked him up. Before I met him."
"Boxers appreciate his mirror, too."
"They don't get blindsided so much these days. Haven't you noticed?"
"Guess I haven't."
"More fights go the whole ten, fifteen rounds now."
"Is that good?"
"Think of the philosophical, psychological, to say nothing of poetic ramifications of the perfect mirror. I mean, for centuries we were seeing ourselves wrong, weren't we? Not as others saw us, as they say."
"Do we ever, anyway?"
"I'd like to meet him. Radliegh must have an interesting mind. To take a thing as ancient and simple as the mirror and realize it was wrong; it was backward . . . 'In the clear mirror of thy ruling star/ I saw, alas!, some dread event depend.'"
"Who said that?"
"Before I did? A guy named Pope."
"I'm going to marry Chet."
"What's a Chet?"
"Chester Radliegh, Jr."
"Oh. You called to invite me to your wedding? I'll send a present. Shreds of my flannel shirt, as a keepsake, or a dustcloth, whichever you need the more."
"To invite you here."
"You need someone to speak up for you? A playmate reference, maybe?"
"This is the first time I've ever been here. I've come to meet the family."
"I don't get it. Why would you need me? Even want me in the same state?"
"You're an investigative reporter."
"There's something real weird about this place. These people."
"Sure. They got very, very rich, very, very fast. Who said, 'Wealth doesn't corrupt as much as it reveals'?"
"I don't think so."
"I want you to come here. I can say you're my cousin."
"As I remember, we look nothing alike."
"Sometimes cousins don't. You could just be passing by and drop in for a few days."
"Sure. You're marrying into a maxi-wealthy family, get brought home by Chet ditto to meet Mama, Papa and the Borzoi hound, and your distant relatives start landing on them asking directions to their larder. What kind of an impression would that make?"
"This place is so big, there are so many people wandering around, you wouldn't even be noticed."
"Yeah, I do a pretty good imitation of a potted palm. You telling me you think there's a story for me here somewhere? What is it? The guy's been profiled a million times. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of physics invents the perfect mirror, makes zillions of dollars between a Tuesday and Friday, buys half the state of Georgia) builds a fifty room mansion--"
"Seventy two. Seventy two rooms."
"Really? I thought I was exaggerating."
"The roof is five acres."
"Lor' love a duck! I've been on farms smaller than that."
"Five acres, they tell me. It looks it."
"--has a gorgeous, well-behaved family--"
"That's where the profile goes awry."
"They are not a gorgeous, well-behaved family?"
"They're gorgeous." She hesitated.
"I think they want to kill him."
"Chester Radliegh. I think his family wants to murder him. His friends. The people who work for him. Everybody around him. I'm afraid one of them will succeed."
"What on earth makes you say a thing like that? Is he that much of a bastard?"
"He's a wonderful man."
"Then why do you say such a thing?"
"I don't know, exactly. Things are weird here. Little things. Everything is so tight, you know? Security. Yet, these weird little things keep happening. I think Chester, Mister Radliegh, thinks he has invented the perfect mirror in his family, all the people he has collected around him, except they're not perfect, they seem to want to leap at him. . . ."
Andy Cyst was walking from the administration offices toward his desk. The room was so big Jack thought there was a need for conveyer belts on the floor. It was not a city room; it was a world room; a cosmic room.
Jack took his feet off the edge of Andy's console desk.
". . . That's why I want you to come here," Shana continued. "Investigate this. There's so much tension. I'm afraid of what's going to happen."
Jack stretched the muscles of his upper back. He had had an exciting but exhausting few weeks. "Well, I'd like to meet Mister Radliegh, as I said," Jack said into the phone, "but I do have a job, I think, and you understand I can't drop everything and come to some Valhalla in the sky, pass myself off as some itinerant relation to the daughter-in-law to be, just in case the butler spits in Daddy's mock turtle soup. You do understand that, don't you?"
"What can I do to persuade you?"
"Make me believe there's a story here."
"Is 'story' all that matters to you? I've heard you play the guitar. I've had you in bed. The whole world has just seen this wonderful expose of The Tribe you've done. You mean to tell me you don't care about people?"
"Get some evidence. Find me a plan to collapse those five acres of roof on Chester Radliegh."
"I was hoping you'd do that. Find evidence, I mean."
"I have a life, lady."
"Give me your phone number, just in case old Chester gets carted off to the hospital with a case of botulism, or something."
She recited the main number of the estate. "There's a switchboard," she said. "I'm in the American Girl Rose Suite."
Andy stepped into his workstation.
"What does that mean?" Jack asked.
"The suites don't have numbers. Each is named after a particular flower, or plant. My suite is called the American Girl Rose Suite."
"Ah. I see. Sounds homey enough. Does it come complete with pricks?"
"Homey enough if your last name is Windsor. Will you at least think about it?"
"I don't see how I can."
Shana Staufel sighed. "Okay. Well, it was nice meeting you. Nice talking to you."
"Best wishes," Jack said, "on your marriage."
"A story?" Andy asked.
Jack stood up.
"Alex Blair asked me to tell you to come to his office right away."
"His office is down the Central Corridor, right next to the C.E.O.'s." Andy sat in his chair. "He's waiting for you now."
"You know, one of my assignments here is to answer the phone to Mister Fletcher. He's a stockholder. A director. He has a past in this business, at least print journalism, I don't know, was a respected journalist, I guess: I've heard he was; I've heard he wasn't. Sometimes he calls me three and four times a day. Then weeks will go by when I don't hear from him at all. When he has story ideas, needs some research done."
"Sounds like a tough assignment."
"No," Andy said. "It's interesting. I try to figure out what he's doing, thinking, what he's working on by the questions he asks. He's very oblique. Almost never do his questions mean nothing. Usually something interesting results; sometimes something sensational. I'm learning a lot from him. I think I am. It was that way regarding The Tribe story. There were little questions about The Tribe I could have ignored, about a jailbreak in Kentucky, about a woman named Faoni. One huge story developed, and one very good story."
"This guy Blair is waiting for me."
"How did you meet Mister Fletcher, Jack? How did your paths cross?"
Jack said, "Ask him."
"Jack!" Rising from behind his massive mahogany desk, the slim, graying man in the form fitting blue suit seemed genuinely glad to see him. Smiling, he came around the desk and shook Jack's hand with both of his. "I've been seeing you around the office all week, of course, but I haven't had the chance to stop and say hello."
His gray eyes were not smiling.
"Are you Mister Blair?" The smiling secretary had nodded Jack through the office door without speaking.
"Alex." The man continued to hold Jack's hand. "Call me Alex."
Returning to his desk, Blair nearly sang, "What a wonderful story! So glad to nail those racist bastards! Wish we could rid the world of that scum for all time! We're so damned pleased you brought the story to Global Cable News!" He sat in the tall leather swivel chair behind his desk. "Sit down, Jack, sit down!"
Sitting, Jack looked around the office. All the wood was mahogany, or appeared to be. Everything else Jack had seen in the GCN building was glass, steel, plastic--very good plastic, of course. In the mahogany bookcases were television screens, rows of them.
"So," Jack said, "you're the guy who fixes the t.v.'s?"
"What?" Blair followed Jack's eyes to the rows of t.v. sets. "Oh!" He chuckled. "A little joke."
Jack smiled his agreement with Blair's assessment.
Blair stirred some papers around on the glass surface of his desk. "We need your Social Security number."
Jack reached for his wallet. "I thought you'd never ask. Where are you going to assign me?"
"Where what?" The man kept his eyes on his desk.
"I'm free to take a foreign assignment," Jack said. "Not married. Not entangled."
"We have your name as John Faoni." He spelled Faoni. "Have we been right about that?"
"Yes," Jack answered. "J-0-H-N."
"You know, we don't even have your address."
"I don't have one here in Washington, yet. Will I need one? You've been putting me up in a motel down the highway."
"Oh, yes. Is it comfortable?"
"I don't know. I've been spending day and night in this building, getting these stories out. This is the first morning I've had nothing to do."
"I had lunch in that motel once."
"Was it good?"
Blair's cheeks colored slightly. "Brunch, actually."
"Oh," Jack said. "You slept late."
Jack handed his Social Security card to Blair and recited his mother's address in Indiana.
Blair asked, "How did you happen to come across Mister Fletcher?" At Jack's lack of response, Blair continued. "Very fortunate for us you did. Mister Fletcher is a great friend to all of us here at GCN. On the Board of Directors, a Consulting/Contributing Editor, but working as he does in his own unorthodox ways, well outside, away from the network, he brings great freshness to us. Keeps us honest, in some ways. However it happened, you were very lucky to cross paths with him."
"Yes," Jack said. "Lucky."
"He worked with you on the Tribe stories, yet accepted no credit for them."
Jack said nothing.
From the Trade Paperback edition.