The Fly on the Wallby Tony Hillerman
Ace reporter John Cotton is a fly on the wall -- seeing all, hearing all, and keeping out of sight. But the game changes when he finds his best friend's corpse sprawled on the marble floor of the central rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Suddenly Cotton knows too much about a scandal centered around a senatorial candidate, a million-dollar scam, and a murder. And he… See more details below
Ace reporter John Cotton is a fly on the wall -- seeing all, hearing all, and keeping out of sight. But the game changes when he finds his best friend's corpse sprawled on the marble floor of the central rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Suddenly Cotton knows too much about a scandal centered around a senatorial candidate, a million-dollar scam, and a murder. And he hears the pursuing footsteps of powerful people who have something to hide ... and a willingness to kill to keep their secrets hidden.
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John Cotton had been in the pressroom almost an hour when Merrill McDaniels came in. He had written a five-hundred-word overnighter wrapping up the abortion-bill hearings in the House Public Affairs Committee. He had teletyped that -- and a shorter item on a gubernatorial appointment -- to the state desk of the Tribune. Then Cotton had stood at the window -- a tall, wiry man with a longish, freckled, somber face. He had thought first about what he would write for his political column, about how badly he wanted a smoke, and then had drifted into other thoughts. He had considered the dust on the old-fashioned window panes, and the lights -- the phosphorescent glow of the city surrounding the semidarkness of the state capitol grounds. In the clear, dry air of Santa Fe there wouldn't be this glow. Each light would be an individual glitter without this defraction of cold, misty humidity. Twenty blocks away, by the river below Statehouse Hill, the glow was faintly pink with the neon of the downtown business district. It outlined vaguely the blunt, irregular skyline: the square tower of Federal Citybank, the black glass monolith of the Hefron Building, the dingy granite of the Commodity Exchange -- the seats of money and power rising out of a moderately dirty middle-aged Midwestern city, clustered beside a polluted Midwestern river. Not very large and not very small. About 480,900 people, the Chamber of Commerce said. Exactly 412,318 by the last federal census, not counting the satellite towns and not counting those who farmed the infinity of cornfields and the hilltops of wheat that surrounded it all.
Farm-beltlandscape. Rich. Nine-hundred-dollar-an-acre country. Beautiful if you liked it and Cotton had thought again that he didn't like it. The humid low-level sky oppressed him. He missed the immense skyscapes of the mountains and the deserts. And he thought, as he had thought many times before, that one day he would write Ernie Danilov a letter and tell the managing editor he was quitting. He would enjoy writing that letter.
And then, just a few minutes before McDaniels walked in, he sat down again at his desk. He typed "At the Capitol" and his byline on a sheet of copy paper and wrote rapidly.
Governor Paul Roark remains coy about the U.S. Senate race upcoming next year. But if you make political bets, consider these facts:
1. The tax-reform package the Governor and his supporters are now trying to ram through the legislature would make an excellent plank for a campaign in the Democratic senatorial primary.
2. Friends of incumbent U.S. Senator Eugene Clark say privately that they're dead certain Roark will fight Clark for the nomination. They see Roark's campaign as a last-gasp effort of the once-dominant liberal-labor-populist-small-farmer coalition to retain its slipping control over the Democratic party machinery.
3. Roger Boyden, Senator Clark's press secretary and hatchet man, has moved back from Washington. Boyden isn't talking, but those he has been contacting say he's mobilizing Clark's supporters for a primary battle against Roark.
4. An "Effective Senate Committee" has been registered with the Secretary of State as a repository for senatorial campaign funds. The listed directors include an aide of Congressman William Jennings Gavin and two longtime allies of National Committeeman Joseph Korolenko. The veteran Congressman and Korolenko -- himself a former Governor and ex-Congressman -- are close friends of Roark and supported his race for Governor four years ago.
It was exactly at this point that McDaniels came through the pressroom doorway. Cotton was leaning back in his chair, looking at his note pad. Halfway up the empty room, the Associated Press teletype said, "Ding, ding, ding," and typed out a message in a brief flurry of clicking sounds. And there was McDaniels wobbling into the room, fat, rumpled and obviously drunk.
"Johnny," McDaniels said, "you're working late." McDaniels's smile was a joyous, drunken smile.
"Yeah," Cotton said. His voice was curt. Cotton didn't like drunkenness. It made him nervous. When he drank seriously himself, he drank in the safety of solitude. He didn't know exactly why he didn't like drunks, any more than he knew why he didn't like people putting their hands on him, why he always shrugged the hand off his shoulder even when it was a friendly hand. He recognized it as a weakness and he had tried once or twice -- without success -- to understand this quirk.
McDaniels tossed a stenographer's notebook onto his desk, sending an avalanche of papers cascading to the floor. He sat down heavily and fumbled with copy paper. Cotton felt himself relaxing, relieved that McDaniels was not in the mood for alcoholic soul baring. The Western Union clock above the pressroom door showed 9:29, which meant Cotton had thirty-one minutes to write four or five more brief items to complete his column, punch it into perforated tape and teletype it three hundred miles across the state to the Tribune newsroom before the overnight desk shut down. Plenty of time. Cotton wasted a few moments of it wondering where the Capitol-Press reporter had been doing his drinking. Probably down the hall in the suite of the Speaker of the House. Bruce Ulrich always had a bottle open.
Across the room, the UPI telephone rang. It rang four times, loud in the stillness. Two page boys, working late for some committee, walked past the open door, arguing about something. Their voices diminished down the corridor, trailing angry echoes. McDaniels started typing, an erratic clacking. Cotton inspected him, regretting his curtness. It hadn't been necessary. Mac's drunkenness was past the stage at which it would threaten the arm-around-the-shoulder, the maudlin, all-guards-down indecent exposure of the private spirit. And since the snub hadn't been necessary it had been simply rude. Cotton looked at the humped figure of McDaniels and felt penitent.The Fly on the Wall. Copyright © by Tony Hillerman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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