Strachey's Folly (Donald Strachey Series #7)by Richard Stevenson
Violence interrupts quiet reflection on tragedy when Donald and Timmy visit Washington to view the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Unexpected stories about a disgraced, conservative congresswoman, and a gay Lothario with designs on Strachey are catalysts for Donald's investigation into a memorial to a man who isn't quite as dead as he seems.(Originally published 1998.)
"A gripping, fast-paced mystery." --Booklist on Strachey's Folly
"Stevenson takes a familiar whodunit formula and imbues it with new life. The action is lively and the plotting honest and non-explotative." --Chicago Tribune on Third Man Out
"Stevenson makes his way deftly though Chain of Fools, with a strong sense of plot and a good ear for diialogue." --The Boston Globe
"Richard Stevenson's mysteries are among the wittiest and most politically motivated around today." --The Washington Post
"A lively book. Skillful plotting carries the reader straight along. Highly recommended." --The New York Times Book Review on On the Other Hand, Death
"Literate...skillfully plotted...Stevenson keeps the action on an even keel and the characters believable. Throughout it all the author imbues his characters with a keen sense of humor."
--Ft. Lauderdale Sun Sentinel on Chain of Fools
Read an Excerpt
"This is screwy. This is nuts. This has to be some kind of pathetic, sick joke!" Maynard Sudbury unexpectedly blurted out.
Timothy Callahan and I stared at Maynard as he stared down with a look of shocked bewilderment at one particular panel in the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
"Jim Suter is not dead," Maynard said, gawking. "I don't think he's even sick. I saw him in Mexico not more than two weeks ago."
Maynard brushed away the shock of sandy-colored hair that had flopped across his ever-youthful Midwestern farmboy's face. It seemed as if he needed the clearest vision possible in order to take in and try to comprehend this shocking sight.
Just a few cottony clouds were strung out across a pale sky, and the sun was surprisingly warm for DC in October. At midday the Washington Monument cast a short shadow, none of it touching any of the forty thousand-plus panels of the Names Project quilt. The tens of thousands of visitors to the Columbus Day Weekend Quilt Display were silent or spoke to one another in low voices as loudspeakers broadcast a solemn recitation by grieving survivors of the names of the AIDS dead. Every two or three minutes a jet en route to National Airport screeched down an electronic flight path above the nearby Potomac, but no one seemed to mind the noise. Most of the people were too absorbed in remembering--lovers, pals, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, parents--or too caught up in one or another of the life stories, depicted or sketched, of people cut down by the plague.
A tanned, middle-aged woman with a bandage across the bridge of her nose and two younger women who bore what looked like a family resemblance to each other and tothe older woman turned and peered at Maynard. They saw a short, muscularly lean, fifty-year-old man with a thick head of unruly hair, an open, expressive face, and intense brown eyes that were now full of angry perplexity.
Again, Maynard said disgustedly, "This is just so screwy. I can't figure out what the heck this panel could possibly be doing here."
Timmy and I, along with the three nearby women, looked down at the panel and then back at Maynard, whose outburst was not just out of sync with the sweet melancholy of the occasion but out of character for Maynard, one of the most subdued and even-tempered men I had ever known. Timmy had been Maynard's friend since their Peace Corps days in India in the late sixties, and, during our twenty years together, Timmy had often spoken, when Peace Corps stories were told, of Maynard's famous sangfroid.
Maynard Sudbury was a man who had once talked a small mob, one man at a time, out of beating an Andhra Pradesh taxi driver to death after the driver had struck and badly injured a cow. Maynard had accomplished this feat while employing no fewer than three languages: English, Hindi, and Telugu. The regional Peace Corps director had later admonished Maynard, telling him he had been lucky the mob hadn't left him broken and bloody as well--or, if the mob hadn't, then the police.
Maynard, Timmy said, had displayed the same equanimity with the Peace Corps staff man that he had with the street mob. He explained that it was not his rationality that had saved the driver, and certainly not his Peace Corps training, but that it had been his naïveté. He had been living in rural India only a few weeks when the incident took place, he said, and--having spent his entire life up until then in small-town Southern Illinois--he had acted on impulse, and at the moment of Maynard's intervention the villagers had looked upon him as some kind of holy fool, and they let the driver go. Later, Maynard once told me, some of the same people came to regard him as an unholy fool, but that was another story.
"Maybe," Timmy said to Maynard tentatively, "this panel is for another Jim Suter, not the one you know. Who is Jim Suter, anyway?"
As the quiet throngs continued to circulate among the maze of quilt sections, the three nearby women stood and watched us, and a burly young man in a University of Tennessee T-shirt, who had paused by the Suter panel, seemed also to be interested in our small drama.
"Suter's a Washington freelance writer and conservative political operative," Maynard said. "Jim and I had a brief, torrid romance about fifteen years ago that didn't last. Jim was in his mid twenties at the time and still in his caveman mode of spreading his sperm around. I was old enough by then to want to start nest-building, and anyway, we had some serious political differences. It was a real Carville-Matalin match, except there was no way this one was ever going to last."
The three women next to us walked on now, quietly murmuring to one another, and they were replaced by a young, whiffle-haired, apparently lesbian couple in huge farm overalls and with rings in their noses. The beefy Tennessean stayed on and gazed down at the Jim Suter quilt panel along with Maynard, Timmy, and me.
I said, "It does look, Maynard, as if this Jim Suter was a writer--like the one you knew."
"Is a writer," Maynard said flatly, "like the one I know. Jim sure wasn't dead when this panel was sewn into the quilt--the panel submission deadline for the main part of the display was last spring sometime. Jim wasn't dead two weeks ago, and I'll bet you he isn't dead now."
"And those look like his dates?" Timmy said. "Or date?"
"I think they are," Maynard said. "The birth date anyway."
The standard coffin-shaped, four-by-six-foot cloth panel with Jim Suter's name and the dates "1956-1996" on it was a plain black fabric with white Gothic lettering. Unlike so many of the colorful and even affectionately whimsical quilt panels spreading for acres around us, Suter's panel was stark and funereal except for a sketch of a typewriter, encased in clear plastic and sewn on, with typed pages streaming out of the typewriter and up toward Suter's name and dates.
Timmy got down on his hands and knees for a closer inspection and reported up to us, "These look like manuscript pages, but I don't recognize what they're from. What kind of writer was Jim Suter? Is."
"He's a freelance, right-wing political hack," Maynard said, as if this were a standard inside-the-Beltway job classification.
Maynard got down beside Timmy--we were all wearing khakis and light sport shirts--and I joined them as they examined the manuscript pages stitched to the panel and appearing to fly out of the picture of a typewriter. At the top of each page was the slug "Suter/Krumfutz" and a page number.
"This looks like Jim's campaign bio of Betty Krumfutz," Maynard said. "Jeez, what a cruel thing to do to a writer. We've all written things for money that we'd rather forget about. But congressional campaign biographies commissioned by a candidate represent about as low a form of literary endeavor as exists in the English-speaking world. Dead or alive, I don't think Jim ever did anything bad enough to deserve to be remembered this way. Although I know from experience that Jim was what I would call ethically challenged in some areas of life, and I know there are people around Washington, mostly gay men, whose opinion of Jim is rather low, mainly for personal reasons."
Maynard sprang back upright, and Timmy and I climbed back to our feet with more effort. He was the fittest of the three of us, although Maynard had joked the night before, when he met our train from Albany, that he maintained his youthful, lean physique with the aid of the intestinal parasites he picked up while writing the sixteen travel pieces that had been collected in Around the World by Yak and Kayak. Maynard had been doing more conventional, less adventurous travel writing over the past year, but he'd been unable to shake the bugs he'd picked up in--he thought--Zambia, Burkina Faso, or possibly Kyrgyzstan. He said he'd gladly learn to live with a nice set of love handles if he could rid himself of a persistent queasiness and regain his appetite for food that was spicier than New England boiled dinners or Congolese fufu.
Timmy said, "I suppose it would have been okay to be doing Republican campaign bios for, say, Abraham Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt. But having worked for Betty Krumfutz certainly isn't what you'd want in your hometown obituary. I mean, if you were actually dead. Which you say Jim Suter isn't."
"Are the Krumfutzes behind bars yet?" I asked. Betty Krumfutz had been a Pennsylvania Republican congresswoman who had run on a "pro-family, pro-gun" platform in 1992, and even as Bill Clinton carried the state, she had easily replaced the retiring incumbent in her conservative upstate district. It came out, though, a year after her reelection in 1994 that both Mrs. Krumfutz's first- and second-term campaigns had been financed by illegal contributions from a Central Pennsylvania construction magnate, among others, and ineffectually laundered by the candidate's husband and campaign manager, Nelson--who had in any case, secreted half the five hundred and sixty thousand dollars in donations in an account he kept under his mistress's name, Tammy Pam Jameson, in a bank in Log Heaven, Pennsylvania, the Krumfutzes' hometown.
"Both Krumfutzes are out walking the streets right now," Maynard said. "Nelson was convicted in May but is free on bond while his conviction is appealed, and Betty was never charged with anything. She surprised everybody and resigned her congressional seat after she swore at a three-hour news conference last year that she'd been grievously wronged along with her constituents and she would never give up her seat. Then, when Betty quit abruptly, the speculation around town was that somebody had gotten the goods on her, too, and an indictment was imminent. None ever came, but people I know on the Hill are still waiting for the other Krumfutz shoe to drop. Nelson's a crook and Betty could well be. It's really an indication of how unprincipled Jim Suter could be--not just reactionary, but unprincipled--that he ever got mixed up with the god-awful Krumfutzes."
"But maybe he didn't know," Timmy said, "that they were crooks--or Nelson was--when he signed on with them. Didn't that all come out later?"
"Timothy, you're as charitable as ever," Maynard said. Then he went on gravely, "Jim didn't know the Krumfutzes were crooks, but he knew they had won an election partly by smearing the moderate-Republican fish-and-game official who ran against Betty in the 1992 spring primary. I ran into Jim in a bar right after he signed up with Betty and Nelson, and he said one of the tactics they'd used against this hapless fellow was, the guy had accepted a campaign donation from a Penn State gay group, and Betty and Nelson ran television ads showing two male officers of the group chastely kissing at the end of a gay-pride parade in Pittsburgh. The ad asked if this was what parents wanted taught to their children in local schools--as if Betty's opponent had come out for same-sex kissing instruction to be added to Pennsylvania's public school curricula. Jim knew the Krumfutzes had done this, and he still went to work for them."
Timmy said, "That does reflect poorly."
The crowds viewing the quilt continued to move by and around us. Some people stopped at quilt panels nearby and spoke quietly. Some pointed, some gazed with fierce concentration, some people hugged one another and wept. The two young lesbians beside us moved on, as did the man from Tennessee. The recitation of the thousands of names went on and on.
I asked Maynard, "If Jim Suter was such a creep, what attracted you to him fifteen years ago? Or was he less of a reprehensible character back then?"
Maynard blushed faintly. "The attraction was mainly physical. I mean, it wasn't just that. Jim is smart and knowledgeable and, despite a cynicism I eventually got pretty tired of, Jim can be fascinating on American political history and Washington history. He actually grew up here in the District. But I realize now that the attraction was mostly sexual. He had a great athlete's body--he'd been a wrestling star at Maryland--and he has a wonderful face, bright and handsome and with radiant skin, and with piles of blond ringlets all over his head, like a kind of sensual Harpo Marx. It's what's inside Jim's big, gorgeous head that sooner or later turns a lot of people off. It did me, anyway. And I've run into a couple of other people--or maybe it's a couple of hundred--whose experience with Jim was similar, or worse."
"When you saw Jim in Mexico recently," I asked, "what was he doing down there?"
"I only wish I knew," Maynard said, and pondered the question. "Here's what happened. I'd gone down to the Yucatán for a quick go-round for a piece I did for the L.A. Times on touring some of the lesser-known Mayan ruins. None of it was terribly exotic, but I hadn't been to the Yucatán for several years, so I went down mainly to update the hotel, restaurant, and other nuts-and-bolts stuff. I was in Merida walking across the zocalo one day when all of a sudden here comes Jim Suter, of all people, walking towards me. I said, 'Hey, Jim!' and I stopped. And what does he do? He pretends not to see me, and he walks right by me, eyes straight ahead. I stood there flabbergasted and watched him walk away, and he never looked back.
"I thought about running after him," Maynard said, "but it was obvious he recognized me--or that he'd been aware that somebody had called his name--and he had been careful not to look my way and to hurry away from there as fast as he could without breaking into a full trot. I had an appointment to keep with a hotel marketing director a few minutes later, so there was no time for me to go chasing after somebody who--it soon occurred to me--probably didn't want me to know he was in Mexico.
"Anyway, I couldn't think of any other explanation for Jim's behavior. When we broke up after our three-week fling back in eighty-one or eighty-two, we'd parted on basically friendly terms, and we always talked and caught up with each other whenever our paths crossed--which in gay Washington happens fairly often, especially if you're both writers. Washington, this supposed great world capital, is more like Moline in that regard--very small-towny. Or so it seems, anyway, to gay New Yorkers who live here and tend to talk as if they've been exiled to Ouagadougou. As for me, the only other city I'd ever spent much time in was Vijayawada, so Washington has always seemed to me to be a pretty exciting place."
A sturdy-looking woman in a trench coat, shades, and a golf-cart-motif silk scarf tied tightly around her head had stopped in front of the quilt panel with Jim Suter's name and was looking down at it.
Timmy said, "Maynard, how can you be sure the guy you saw in Merida was actually Jim Suter? Couldn't it have been some other gorgeous, beringleted, blond North American?"
"Timmy," Maynard said, sounding faintly irritated in the casual and familiar way old friends can sound with each other without suffering any huffy consequences, "this is a very beautiful man whose very beautiful face I slurped on and chewed at rapturously nearly every night for three weeks. This was not an experience I repeated frequently in my life, it pains me to have to remind you. Do you think I might fail to recognize such a face if I saw it again?"
Timmy said, "You put it so vividly, Maynard, I can't fail to see what you mean."
"Anyway," Maynard said, "it was plain that the man I called out to in the zocalo was determined not to acknowledge my presence. All he wanted was to get out of there as fast as he could. And if it wasn't Jim Suter, then why would he? And, of course, if it was Jim--which I'm positive it was--why would he want to run away from me?"
We all puzzled over Maynard's question, but none of us had an answer to it.
The woman in the trench coat and golf-cart scarf had gone down on her hands and knees and had been examining the manuscript pages on the Jim Suter quilt panel. She quickly got to her feet now and moved toward us as Maynard pronounced Jim Suter's name aloud. We were unable to see her eyes behind the shades, but the woman's round mouth was open and her face frozen, as if in fear.
The woman stared hard at us for a brief moment. Then suddenly she turned and moved quickly away, running almost. She jostled one knot of five or six middle-aged men in jeans and plaid shirts who were spread across the walkway between the quilt sections twelve or fifteen feet from Maynard, Timmy, and me.
Maynard said, "Hey, what the heck was she doing here!"
"The woman in the trench coat?" Timmy said.
"Who was she?"
Maynard said, "I've never actually met the woman, but a friend pointed her out to me in the lobby of the Rayburn building one time. And I'm reasonably certain that that rattled woman who looked like she was scared to death by Jim Suter's quilt panel, or by something on it, was the unindicted former congresswoman from Pennsylvania, Betty Krumfutz."
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