Book: Ask the Right Question

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The Fishman Clinic turned out to be a modern, rather small one-story building on Route 100 near the Nora Shopping Center. Nora is now just part of the sprawling north-side suburbs of Indianapolis.

I drove past the clinic going west and turned into the shopping center.

At night the problem was not to get a parking space, but to get one in the midst of enough cars that mine would not be left unshielded when the stores started closing. If I was delayed too long inside, my car would be sitting naked on the field of asphalt. Patrol cops are suspicious of that, especially if they have been on the patrol for a while and know which cars belong to shop staff. Cops get promotion brownie points for their arrests. I very much preferred not to become the night’s brownie point. Although getting caught would not be disastrous. I do have some friends who can get me out of small-time trouble. It’s just life is so much easier if you don’t get caught at your illegal doings. Cops—except the few I knew fairly well, like Jerry Miller who I went to high school with—are just strangers carrying guns.

And I don’t like guns. I don’t carry them.

I shot a man once while I was working for the Tomgrove Security Company in 1957. It was near the end of my tether with them—I spent three and a half years—and I was still young and foolish. They told me to carry a gun, so I did.

I was assigned to catch a man who had been pilfering things at night from a construction site. When I did, he smacked me in the face with a board. Only not hard enough because it didn’t knock me out. So I plugged him. Not dead, but just dead enough to kill something in me.

Of the various stores in the Nora Shopping Center I decided the drugstore was the most likely to stay open late. I waited ten minutes just to get a space right in front of it. When I had parked, I took the equipment out of the car. Camera, electronic flash, gloves, penlight, a few simple picks and my little tripod stool with a string on it. I walked through the parking lot’s shadows to the nearby clinic.

I headed for the back, I was fairly confident. It was not the type of clinic I figured would do a large business with addicts of various sorts, so probably it didn’t keep any sizable store of exciting drugs.

The key was the kind of security arrangements Fishman felt appropriate. My knowledge of alarms was solid, but a little out-of-date. I knew them pretty well when I was a security man, but if he was one of those device-oriented suburban doctors, I was in trouble.

As I waxed cowardly, I examined the windows on the back side of the building. I picked what I thought was a bathroom window—higher than the others.

I had one thing going for me, the place had lots of windows. The installation cost of covering them all electrically, plus doors and cabinets, would be huge. I just hoped Fishman hadn’t had lots of money when he built the joint. All I needed now was a doctor in business for his health.

I opened the tripod stool underneath the high window. I took the free end of the string tied to its leg and I attached it to my belt. I examined the window with my penlight. I saw no traces of devices. I went at it.

One of my picks and a little muscle slipped the window catch. I was inside. I pulled the stool up to the window ledge by its string and carefully knocked off the dirt clinging to its legs. Then I brought it inside.

If I had tripped an alarm, it was silent. I closed the window. A quick pan with the penlight showed me the details of a women’s rest room. Not my first visit to such a place. I found the door and tried it. It was locked. He locked the ladies’. Wonderment set in, as I worked at the lock. Maybe it was a good omen. Maybe he was a locker, and not a bugger.

I stepped into the hall and looked around. Within a few minutes I found the receptionist’s office. I went in. I was looking for files but I didn’t find them.

Two doors led out of the room. Both locked. Soon both unlocked. One was the doctor’s office. In the other I found the files.

A special file room, accessible from both the doctor’s and receptionist’s offices. There was a bank of filing cabinets in the middle of the room. They were on a rotating base, so with a little effort you could get to the front of four sides of files. Very modern.

I hesitated before I started on the file cabinet’s locks. This might be the biggest gamble so far. If, by some chance, special papers or drugs were kept in the room, the odds of electric reprisals were considerable. My time would be short. So before I started on them I prepared my camera in case a few seconds would make a difference.

Most detectives who photograph records have special equipment for it. I don’t get much call for industrial spying, so I have to make do with the equipment I have. The electronic flash, for instance, is prohibitively bright for this sort of close-up work. Rather than get another I have rigged a filter for the flash which cuts out about 70 percent of the light. Makes it more suitable for close-ups. I also use a relatively slow film.

I opened the files. As far as I knew I had triggered no alarms.

Busy hands are tools of the Lord. I located “Crystal” in the front file. There was a folder for each of them. Fleur, Leander, and Eloise. I took them out one by one. Spread the sheets on the floor and took pictures of each side of each pair of pages.

After finishing the three Crystals I checked the file for Graham and found nothing. That disturbed me momentarily. I was interested in Estes Graham’s medical history, so I started checking the contents of the various trays in the rest of the cabinets. Visions of a separate file or an archives room or microfilmed records flitted through my mind. But when I had rotated the bank of files to bring its back to front I found an entire cabinet marked “Wilmer Fishman, Sr.,” and from these I extracted files on six Grahams. A husband, a wife and four children. The pages were densely covered and the decaying paper made for poorer contrast. I prayed for legible pictures and snapped away. One by one, side by side.

By the end I was sweating and my batteries were taking longer and longer to get up the oomph for a flash. They had had a rough night.

I paused after my last Graham, only to think if there was anyone else I wanted information on. I looked under Olian and found nothing. I was glad, and more quickly than I had opened them, I closed the files and relocked their trays.

My next problem was getting out. I contemplated retracing my steps. The conservative exit. But slipping out the ladies’ room window didn’t appeal to me. I felt too good for that. Too successful. I was swept by a premature feeling of elation. I chose the honorable way out. I left by the front door. When I finally found it.

It was latched. Two latches, one door. He was a locker. I saw no wires or other danger signs. I was in a hurry to be out of there, to be home. I threw the latches, and stepped out the door.

On the top step I looked briefly into the sky. A clear, fall night. It felt cool, because of the moisture still beaded on my forehead. Cool and good. It felt clean. I felt springy. I felt I belonged on a top step.

To add an elegant touch for unpresent eyes I turned to the door and made as if to lock it.

I was flooded by light.

I froze. The light stayed on me. React! Think fast!

“Charlie?” I asked, turning, bluffing, knees shaking.

“No,” said the voice. “This is Eddie.”

“Well, good night, Eddie,” I said and tripped down the steps, toward the light. It stayed on me for a moment and then dropped, illuminating the sidewalk in front of me.

“Good night, sir,” The voice said. Recognizably old. More recognizable than that. Generic voice of the aging security guard. Bless him.

I turned into the empty parking lot at the right end of the clinic. I walked as surely as I could. I was still shaking but I had made it.

I glanced back and saw Eddie continuing on his rounds. Probably hired by the shopping center and paid extra by Fishman to extend his patrol. My look back took impart of the back of the clinic. I had an impulse to run back and wipe out the marks the stool must have made in the dirt below the window. My only incriminating marks.

I controlled myself. Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Tonight I had a big mind. I was back at the car, almost home free. Despite my precautions it stood alone in the lot. But I didn’t care. I would let the marks be. I just wanted to get out. Get away. Who could prove that the marks were left by my stool?

My stool.

I did not have my stool.

I collapsed on the front right fender. In my mind, I could see the stool sitting by the wall in the file room. Plain as it could be. I had walked right by it on my way out.

On the very long drive home I had to pull over to the curb twice. My knees and hands were shaking so much I could not get them to drive.

I did make it home and up the stairs. By that time the self-protecting forces had begun to exert themselves in my mind. There were no identifiable markings on the stool, and I had left nothing which characterized me uniquely. No fingerprints. Probably Eddie wouldn’t be able to recognize me again; probably he hadn’t even noticed the camera on its strap by my side. Fishman, at the worst, would suspect me by association and warn Leander. But warn him of what? Someone asking questions about the family for some article? I hadn’t given him Maude’s name. He had no details except my name. He could find out I am a PI and what then?

The notion intrigued me a little—it might be interesting to see if anything did come of it all. Leander Crystal had not occupied much of my attention. He certainly was relevant, present at the scene. As close to the scene as I had got so far.

Would he think Fleur was starting divorce action? What could he think?

And, for it all, I was at home now and not arrested or otherwise interfered with. I had obtained film with the information I wanted. The only task was to obtain the information from the film.

I set about developing it.

When I first started working with photographic equipment I would have had to take this film to be professionally developed. Developing film, especially if it is important not to damage any part of it, is a fairly difficult business. But I’m pretty good at it now. With a routine established over the years I get pretty good negatives.

My big decision was whether to let the film dry overnight or try to rush it to get the prints right away. But that would have made waiting for the prints to dry a thing too. I would want to start reading them.

I decided to let the films dry in peace overnight. I hung them up in my closet cum darkroom. And then I hung myself out to dry; still shaking. I watched a late movie. Or two.

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