Book: Ask the Right Question

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8

When I got back to the office, I had a surprise waiting for me in her chair. Eloise Crystal, client. My outside office door has no lock, except for a bolt when I’m inside. It’s one of the ways my slumlord tries to get me to move to the suite next door. I just keep the room to my inner life secured and try to leave nothing of value in the office. It’s more friendly that way. Clients have a place to rest their beleaguered bones when they show up and their ever-workin’ PI ain’t home.

She smiled as I came in. For some reason that touched me. You get so little that is personal, human in this business. Either you are serving legal papers to unsuspecting merchants or your client is trying to get you to seduce his wife so he can charge adultery. Her smile made me feel good.

“I didn’t know whether I should come today,” she said. “You didn’t say.”

“I guess I forgot. It’s nice to see you. I hope it wasn’t trouble.”

“The only thing was that I didn’t know whether you were coming back or not. It’s nearly five. I have to go at five.”

By this time I was sitting on my side of the desk feeling rather relaxed. Inappropriately so, perhaps, but it was the first conversation I’d had all day with someone I was not trying to con.

“How do you get around?” I asked. “By bus all the time?”

“Oh, no. Sometimes by cab. Sometimes I even walk.”

I smiled a little embarrassedly. I was making small talk, but had implicitly been attacking her age again. In this city kids who are really sixteen have drivers’ licenses. It wasn’t her fault she’d paid me to find out her real age.

I think she realized what I was thinking. She said, “Is it important?”

I said, “No.”

“Well, I know something about you too. I know that you’ve only been in Indianapolis for seven years and that you’re not crooked.”

“Oh?”

“I called the Better Business Bureau. They haven’t had any complaints on you.”

I grinned.

“I called before I came the first time. I picked your name out of the yellow pages because all you had in it was your name. Nothing about ‘marital investigations’ or stuff like that. Then I called to find out if you were crooked.”

Before me was a girl who could get blood out of her environmental father.

“Maybe I’m just too small to specialize, and so crooked that I pay them off.” I tried to look crooked.

“Oh, I don’t think so.” She smiled again. We smiled at each other. I began to get uncomfortable. I am not accustomed to confidence freely offered. It made me realize that I had not been very aggressive about getting information that would be of use to her. I mean, how much use was the knowledge that her mother got incompletes in nursing school?

For the moment I bore the guilt of the ungrateful employee.

I decided to give her a chance to assuage my sensitivities.

“I don’t have a lot I can tell you today,” I said.

She didn’t assuage. “Haven’t you at least checked my blood typings yet?”

“Not yet,” I said. “Only indirectly.”

She continued nipping at my heels. Hound and hare. “But isn’t that the first thing you have to do? To make sure that I’m not, well, that I’m not just crazy or something.”

To make sure that I was not just the kid’s equivalent of a hypochondriac’s doctor.

“It’s not all that easy a thing to check,” I said.

“Didn’t you see Dr. Fishman?”

“He wouldn’t talk to me.”

“But he’s so nice!” Maybe to rich girls. “Why didn’t he talk to you?”

“He said nothing he knows is any of my business. I could hardly tell him what my real business is.”

“I guess not,” she said. “Still …”

I knew she was disappointed. She had realized that little things could stop me. That I would take no for an answer.

I was a little disappointed myself.

For self-protection I said, “You can’t expect this to go fast. It’s a difficult problem.” It sounded flimsy even to me.

“I know,” she said. “It’s just that I’ve been thinking so much. It’s just that I’d hoped—” She paused because we both knew what she’d hoped. Forty-eight-hour service. “Can you tell me what you have done?”

“I talked to your biology teacher, to the registrar of the Butler Nursing College, and to Mrs. Forebush. I think I have a better idea of what your mother and your grandfather are like. Were like.”

“I never knew him.”

“I know. His time ended before yours began.”

“My mother still thinks about him a lot. Sometimes she accidentally calls Leander Daddy. A mistake like, you know? Leander hates it.”

“Does it bother you?” Not the world’s least ambiguous question, but a proper grunt to keep her talking.

“I’m sort of used to it. To her. When she isn’t unhappy we get along OK. When I was little we used to play out where she used to play with her brothers. But since she had the miscarriage she’s been miserable and when she’s unhappy it’s awful. She thinks she’s dying, and it’s too bad because she was so happy while she was pregnant.”

“Why?”

“I guess just being pregnant and going to have babies.” A cunning look came over my client’s face. “Say, you don’t think my real father has been around, do you?”

I shrugged. “What do you think about my talking to your mother?”

“Talking about what?”

“I’m not quite at the point of asking her what we want to know, but it might help in indirect ways.”

“You can tell her you are the truant officer. I cut school a lot.” I suppose it’s the modern thing to do.

“When time comes I’ll work out something that will keep me out of trouble.”

“Are you afraid of trouble?”

“Yes, definitely.” No, not really. I just don’t go looking for it unless there is a reason.

“I didn’t think private detectives were supposed to be like that.”

Which I responded to by facial expression only.

“I’m being childish, aren’t I?”

“Yes.”

“I have to go home now anyway. I was being childish with you to prepare for my role at home.” She stood up. “I think the money I gave you runs out tomorrow. Here’s some more. I saw my trust man at the bank and told him I needed a new winter outfit.”

I reached forward and took the envelope she proffered and put it on the desk. “Thanks,” I said.

“Don’t you want to look and see how much there is?”

“I’m sure there is enough for me to get a new winter outfit.”

“I guess.”

“We need a way that I can get in touch with you so you don’t have to come here every day.”

“I don’t mind coming here.”

“It’s just that I don’t always get back here by five.”

“Oh, I don’t mind. I can just sit and think of all the good things you are finding out for me.”

“We’ll see.”

“OK. Bye.”

And she byed.

While the cuckoo counted the fingers on one of its wings, I opened the envelope and counted out ten hundred-dollar bills. At thirty-five plus, that made for a fair stretch of employment. An amazing girl, my child client. I was learning a little more about her every day.

For instance, that of the two of us, she was the more spontaneously aggressive. Not that I cannot be aggressive, but I tend to hold back unless there is something very specific that I want. That’s why she had made me feel bad about Wilmer Fishman, Jr., MD. She made me realize that he had some specific things that I wanted.

The early hour I’d talked to him was my excuse. I gathered my belongings and visited my inner chamber. At a few minutes after five, the morning seemed a long, long time ago.

I gathered some equipment, divested myself of identification, and stuffed my winter outfit into my back pocket. And went home to eat.

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