Read an Excerpt
"C.I.A., Mister Fletcher."
"Um. Would you mind spelling that?"
Coming into the cool dark of the living room, blinded by the sun on the beach, Fletch had smelled cigar smoke and slowed at the French doors.
There were two forms, of men, sprawled on his living-room furniture, one in the middle of the divan, the other on a chair.
"The Central Intelligence Agency," one of the forms muttered.
Fletch's bare feet crossed the marble floor to the carpet.
"Sorry, old chaps. You've got the wrong bod. Fletch is away for a spell. Letting me use his digs." Fletch held out his hand to the form on the divan. "Always do feel silly introducing myself whilst adorned in swimming gear, but when on the Riviera, do as the sons of habitues doisn't that the motto? The name's Arbuthnot," Fletch said. "Freddy Arbuthnot."
The man on the divan had not shaken his hand. The man in the chair snorted.
"Arbuthnot it's not," said the man in the chair.
"Not?" said Fletch. "Not?"
"Not," said the man.
The patterns of their neckties had become visible to Fletch.
His nose was in a stream of cigar smoke.
There were two cigar butts and a live cigar in the ash tray on the coffee table.
Next to the ash tray, on the surface of the table, was a photograph, of Fletch, in United States Marine Corps uniform, smiling.
Fletch said, "Golly."
"Didn't want to disturb you on the beach with your girl friend," said the man in the chair. "The two of you looked too cute down there. Frisking on the sand."
"Adorable," uttered the man on the divan.
Both men were dressed in full suits, collars undone, ties pulled loose.
Both their faces were wet with perspiration.
"Let's see some identification," Fletch said.
This time he held his hand out to the man in the chair, palm up.
The man looked up at Fletch a moment, into his eyes, as if to gauge the exact degree of Fletch's seriousness, then rolled left on his hams and pulled his wallet from his right rear trouser pocket.
On the left flap was the man's photograph. On the right was a card which said: "CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY, United States of America," a few dates, a few numbers, and the man's nameEggers, Gordon.
"You, too." Fletch held out his hand to the man on the divan.
His name was Richard Fabens.
"Eggers and Fabens." Fletch handed them back their credentials. "Would you guys mind if I got out of these wet trunks and took a shower?"
"Not at all," said Eggers, standing up. "But let's talk first."
"If we wanted coffee," said Fabens, standing up, "we would have made it ourselves."
"Part of the C.I.A. training, I expect," Fletch said. "Trespass and Coffee-Making. A Bloody Mary? Something to raise the spirits on this Sunday noon?"
"Cool it, Fletcher," said Eggers. "You don't need time to think." He put the tip of his index finger against Fletch's chest, and pressed. "You're going to do what you're told. Get it?"
Fletch shouted into his face, "Yes, sir!"
Suddenly Eggers' right hand became a fist and smashed into precisely the right place in Fletch's stomach with incredible force, considering the shortness of the swing.
Fletch was hunched over, in a chair, trying to breathe.
"Enough of your bull, Fletcher."
"I caught a fish like him once." Fabens was relighting his cigar. "In the Gulf Stream. He was still wriggling and fighting even after I had him aboard. I had to beat the shit out of him to convince him he was caught. Even then." He blew a billow of cigar smoke at Fletch. "Mostly I beat him on the head."
"Yuck," said Fletch.
"Shall we beat you on the head, Fletcher?" Eggers asked.
Fletch said, "Anything's better than that cigar's smoke."
Eggers' voice turned gentle. "Are you going to listen to us, Irwin?"
Fletch said, "El Cheap-o."
Turning from the French doors, El Cheap-o in mouth, Fabens asked, "What happened to your girl friend? Where'd she go?"
"Home." Fletch squeezed out breath. "She lives next door." He sucked in breath. "With her husband."
He raised his head in time to see Eggers and Fabens glance at each other.
"He sleeps late," Fletch breathed. "Sundays."
"Jesus," said Eggers.
"Wriggle, wriggle," said Fabens.
Fletch straightened his back in the chair. He ignored the tears on his cheeks.
"Okay, guys. What's the big deal?"
"No big deal." Eggers rubbed his hands together. "Easy."
"You're just the right man for the job," said Fabens.
"You know the American Journalism Alliance?" Eggers asked.
"They're having a convention," Fabens said.
"Hell, I'm not a working journalist anymore. I'm unemployed. I haven't worked as a journalist in over a year."
"What do you mean?" said Eggers. "You had a piece in Bronson's just last month."
"That was on the paintings of Cappoletti."
"So? It's journalism."
"Once a shithead, always a shithead," said Fabens.
"May your cigar kill you," said Fletch.
"You're going," said Eggers.
"I'm not even a member of the A.J.A."
"You are," said Eggers.
"I used to be."
"I haven't paid my dues in years. In fact, I never paid my dues."
"We paid your dues. You're a member."
"You paid my dues?"
"We paid your dues."
"Very thoughtful of you," Fletch said.
"Think nothing of it," said Fabens. "Anything for a shithead."
Fletch said, "You could have spent the money on a better grade of cigars. Preferably Cuban."
"I'm a government employee." Fabens looked at the tip of his cigar. "What do you expect?"
"The convention starts tomorrow," Eggers said. "Outside of Washington. In Virginia."
"We didn't want you to have too long to think about it."
"Tomorrow," Fabens said. "You're going to be there."
"I'm having lunch with this guy in Genoa tomorrow. Tuesday, I'm flying down to Rome for an exhibition."
"Tomorrow," said Fabens.
"I don't have a ticket. I haven't packed."
"We have your ticket." Eggers waved his hand. "You can do your own packing."
Fletch sat forward, placing his forearms on his thighs.
"Okay," he said. "What's this about?"
"At the airport in Washington, near the Trans World Airlines' main counters, you will go to a baggage locker." Fabens took a key from his jacket pocket and looked at it. "Locker Number 719. In that locker you will find a reasonably heavy brown suitcase."
"Full of bugging equipment," said Eggers.
Fletch said, "Shit, no!"
Fabens flipped the key onto the coffee table.
"No way!" said Fletch.
"Absolutely," said Fabens. "You will then take another airplane to Hendricks, Virginia, to the old Hendricks Plantation, where the convention is being held, and you will immediately set out planting listening devices in the rooms of all your colleagues, if I may use such a term for you shitheads of the fourth estate."
"It's not going to happen," said Fletch.
"It's going to happen," said Fabens. "In the brown suitcaseand forgive us, we had trouble matching your luggage exactlythere is also a recording machine and plenty of tape. You are going to tape the most private, bedroom conversations of the most important people in American journalism."
Eggers shook his head. "Not crazy.
"You are crazy." Fletch stood up. "You've told me more than you should have. Bunglers! You've given me a story." Fletch grabbed the key from the coffee table. "One phone call, and this story is going to be all over the world in thirty-six hours."
Fletch backed off the carpet onto the marble floor.
"Blow smoke in my face. You're not going to get this key from me."
Fabens smiled, holding his cigar chest-height.
"We haven't told you too much. We've told you too little."
"What haven't you told me?"
Eggers shook his head, seemingly in embarrassment.
"We've got something on you."
"What have you got on me? I'm not a priest or a politician. There's no way you can spoil my reputation."
"Taxes, Mister Fletcher."
Fabens said again. "Taxes."
Fletch blinked. "What about 'em?"
"You haven't paid any."
"Nonsense. Of course I pay taxes."
"Not nonsense, Mister Fletcher." Fabens used the ash tray. "Look at it our way. Your parents lived in the state of Washington, neither of them well-to-do nor from well-to-do families."
"They were nice people."
"I'm sure. Nice, yes. Rich, no. Yet here you are, living in a villa in Cagna, Italy, the Mediterranean sparkling through your windows, driving a Porsche . . . unemployed."
"I retired young."
"In your lifetime, you have paid almost no federal taxes."
"I had expenses."
"You haven't even filed a return. Ever."
"I have a very slow accountant."
"I should think he would be slow," continued Fabens, "seeing you have money in Rio, in the Bahamas, here in Italy, probably in Switzerland. . . ."
"I also have a very big sense of insecurity," Fletch said.
"I should think you would have," Fabens said. "Under the circumstances."
"All right. I haven't paid my taxes. I'll pay my taxes, pay the penaltiesbut after I phone in the story that you guys are bugging the convention of the American Journalism Alliance."
"It's the not filing the tax reports that's the crime, Mister Fletcher. Punishable by jail sentences."
"So what? Let 'em catch me."
Eggers was sitting in a chair, hands behind his head, staring at Fletch.
"Peek-a-boo," Fabens said. "We have caught you."
"Bull. I can outrun you two tubs anytime."
"Mister Fletcher, do you want to know why you haven't filed any tax returns?"
"Why haven't I filed any tax returns?"
"Because you can't say where the money came from."
"I found it at the foot of my bed one morning."
Eggers laughed, turned his head to Fabens, and said, "Maybe he did."
"You should have reported it," said Fabens.
"I'll report it."
"You have never earned more than a reporter's salaryabout the price of that Porsche in your drivewayin any one year... legally."
"Who reports gambling earnings?"
"Where did you get the money? Over two million dollars, possibly three, maybe more."
"I went scuba diving off the Bahamas and found a Spanish galleon loaded with trading stamps."
"Crime on top of crime." Fabens put his cigar stub in the ash tray. "Ten, twenty, thirty years in prison."
"Maybe by the time you get out," laughed Eggers, "the girl next door will be divorced."
"Oh, Gordon," Fabens said. "We forgot to tell Mister Irwin Maurice Fletcher that in one of my pockets I have his T.W.A. ticket to Hendricks, Virginia. In my other pocket I have his extradition papers."
Eggers slapped his kidney. "And I, Richard, have a warm pair of Italian handcuffs."
Fletch sat down.
"Gee, guys, these are my friends. You're asking me to bug my friends."
Fabens said, "I thought a good journalist didn't have any friends."
Fletch muttered, "Just other journalists."
Eggers said, "You don't have a choice, Fletcher."
"Damn." Fletch was turning the baggage locker key over in his hands. "I thought you C.I.A. guys stopped all this: domestic spying, bugging journalists. . . ."
"Who's spying?" said Eggers.
"You've got us all wrong," said Fabens. "This is simply a public relations effort. We're permitted to do public relations. All we want are a few friends in the American press."
"You never know," said Eggers. "If we know what some of their personal problems are, we might even be able to help them out."
"All we want is to be friendly," said Fabens. "Especially do we want to be friendly with Walter March. You know him?"
"Publisher. March Newspapers. I used to work for him."
"That's right. A very powerful man. I don't suppose you happen to know what goes on in his bedroom?"
"Christ," said Fletch. "He must be over seventy."
"So what," said Eggers. "I've been reading a book. . . ."
"Walter March," repeated Fabens. "We wish to make good friends with Walter March."
"So I do this thing for you, and what then?" Fletch asked. "Then I go to jail?"
"No, no. Then your tax problems disappear as if by magic. They fall in the Potomac River, never to surface again."
"We take care of it," answered Eggers.
"Can I have that in writing?"
"Can I have anything in writing?"
Fabens put the Trans World Airlines ticket folder on the coffee table.
"Genoa, London, Washington, Hendricks, Virginia. Your plane leaves at four o'clock."
Fletch looked at his sunburned arm.
"I need a shower."
Eggers laughed. "Putting on a pair of pants wouldn't hurt any, either."
Fabens said, "I take it you choose to go home without handcuffs?"
Fletch said, "Does Pruella the pig pucker her pussy when she poops in the woods?"