Book: Ask the Right Question

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It was still raining. The wet stuff made me move to my car faster than I wanted to. I got in, and drove away from the front of the house. I took a right at Central and drove for a while heading vaguely for the center of town. I stopped at a nondescript luncheonette. When you have time for lunch, it’s lunchtime. I had tea and a piece of squishy chocolate cake.

Through the window next to my table I watched some construction men watching the rain from inside the shell of an extension to a public school. Why they were just standing inside and watching the rain I finally figured out. They had built the frames for concrete steps up to the new wing’s door, but they didn’t want to pour the cement while the rain was heavy.

I had a wave of strong feeling that I didn’t want them to pour the steps ever. I appreciated the rain for stopping them. The headlines would read “Samson’s Rain Prevents Cement.”

Tires cutting through water on the street make just about the same sound as a fork cutting through squishy chocolate cake. Minds wander.

I had some time. My notebook bore two instructions that I decided to get done: “Check will”; “check death certificate.”

I decided to be bold and do the hard one first; the death certificate.

Records of deaths in Indianapolis are kept at the Board of Health on West Michigan Street. The certificates are hard to see because only a little of the information they record is treated as a public record. To be precise, “name and sex, age, place of death, and residence of the deceased.” That is specified in Section 1227, Chapter 157, of the Acts of 1949 of the State of Indiana. I know. I have had run-ins with Miss Moleman before. Miss Moleman, guardian of the death certificates of Marion County.

“Estes Graham. Male. Eighty-three. Graham House, North Meridian Street. Same,” said Miss Moleman. I call her Moose. Not because of any physical similarities—it’s just the things she says to me are as sweet as a hunter’s moosecall.

“Come on, honey,” I said. “It’s not going to hurt to let me have a look at that little old green piece of paper.”

“No,” she said.

“I’ll take you out for a piece of chocolate cake.”

“My instructions are to provide the information I have given you and nothing more. To see the original death record you have to have a court order. Do you have a court order?”

I sighed. I had tried.

Miss Moleman is a locked door. The key to Miss Moleman is Miss Fitch, her supervisor. The key to Miss Fitch is Maude Simmons. The key to Maude Simmons is money. One prefers to save a client’s bread, but it can’t be done with Miss Moleman. One of many things that can’t be done.

I took a left in the corridor outside Miss Moleman’s domain. I headed for the nearest available public phone. It was downstairs next to a window in the Health Department lobby. I could see the parking meter I’d parked my car at. I’d thought I was going to be lucky this time. Here it was raining and I’d found a meter with half an hour on it right in front of the office. But, no. Miss Moleman was not at home in bed with the flu. And I was on the phone to the Indianapolis Star.

I called Maude. Maude called Miss Fitch. Miss Fitch walked from her office into the record room, and withdrew a file. She had it in her office by the time I made my way up from the phone. I crossed her palm with five dollars—ten more later to Maude.

I had my wicked way.

You may never see a death certificate, crammed though it is with useful information. Estes Graham had died August 20, 1954. Coronary occlusion. No autopsy. He was a “businessman.” He did not live on a farm. His mother’s maiden name was Graham. The last attending physician was a Henry Chivian. He was buried by the Happy Hoosier Funeral Parlor on August 24, 1954.

OK. Duly noted.

I thanked Miss Fitch and handed her the file. She got up and returned it to Miss Moleman. As I left I walked by Miss Moleman’s room. I thought I heard sobbing.

The rain had let up a little. I drove happily back downtown.

The City-County Building is a block from my house, but because of the rain I decided to try to get a parking place closer to it. I was lucky again. A metered spot within a stone’s throw. I gave the machine a dime and threw myself across the street.

Probated wills are public records. But for no good reason it took me longer to get the one I was looking for than it had taken me to see the death certificate. But I persisted, and was rewarded.

It was a clean old document, dated December 12, 1937. It had stood as written since that date, a testament to Estes Graham’s single-mindedness. The only changes were the deletion of the names of the three sons. A single inked line through each name. Initialed, dated, witnessed. When you finally got to names and disposition of funds, after several pages.

It was not what I would call your will in the street. It had been written following the death of Estes’ wife, and it began with a long tribute describing her and their marriage.

Apparently the marriage had been accompanied by a complete change in Estes’ life-style. Through his labored, God-fearing prose it was very clear that he loved the lady and attributed all the virtues and values of his life to her. His pre-Irene life was summed up as “worthless dissipations of life’s energies.” From what I could make, out, reading fast, Estes’ marriage to the lady had been something akin to a religious conversion.

Of the estate, a third had gone to something called the Billy Lee Olian Foundation. I checked my notes. Billy Lee was Irene’s preacher father.

The remaining assets were to be held in trust for Estes’ heirs. Half to his children. Half of the remaining half to their children. Half of that half to their children. And from what I could make out, so on till Judgment Day.

But there was a most peculiar catch. The heirs could draw the trust income as it occurred, but “… the capital of the trusts shall be available to an heir, in the proscribed proportion, only on first birthday of the first healthy child born in wedlock to the heir.”

It continued to the effect that healthy children were a “God sign”; that they showed that a marriage was “approved of from above”; and that his own marriage had been proof of it.

Which could only mean that prior to his marriage in 1916 at the age of forty-five he hadn’t fathered any healthy children who’d lived to be a year old.

In the same package as the will were the details of probate. The estate was worth a little under six million smackers, after inheritance taxes.

I went back over the operative clause. It meant that on the first of November, 1955—Eloise’s first birthday—Fleur Graham Crystal had picked up a little less than two million dollars.

It meant that my client was in line for the same amount when she got married and started to breed.

It meant that the miscarried twins had saved my client a million dollars plus.

That’s a lot of dollars. Eloise was right. She had money.

I finished my notes and checked my watch. It was pushing five, much later than I’d thought. Research has a way of eating up time.

On my car I discovered a parking ticket.

And a soaking wet parking ticket at that.

How can you take a soaking wet ticket into your car and put it in your notebook to deal with later? There’s no way to handle a wet parking ticket reasonably.

Except to throw it away.

I whistled as I drove the block home.

Home held a note from Eloise. “I wish you’d been here today. They had a fight after you left last night. I’ll come tomorrow.” It was unsigned.

I didn’t much like the note. Especially the implicit instruction, “be here tomorrow.” No, I didn’t fancy that. So I put aside the digestion of the details I had picked up during the day and concentrated on preparing to digest some food.

Food can clean the slate and provide a break for a fresh start on something. That evening it was trying to rehash some of the information that had managed to confuse me all day. I came up with two new conclusions.

The first was that I might be working both for my client and against her. If I found the information that would satisfy her psychologically—the information I had been hired to find—I might be cutting her out of her grand-daddy’s dough. This depended on legal things—whether the will was valid in its terms for requiring an “in-wedlock child,” whether she was such a child, and whether the lapse of time might void any circumstances that would have been a problem before.

But I was being premature. I was presuming that there ever would be a time when the choice was available. So where was the father I was supposed to be finding?

Which led to the second point. Mrs. Forebush seemed to rule out all the possible ways for Fleur to become pregnant with Eloise.

Odds against a consenting affair were a million to one.

And if raped, odds very much that she’d have told Leander, who in turn would not be likely just to accept a rape-conceived child.

It didn’t leave me much. I would be hard-pressed to believe that Fleur became pregnant without knowing it, that is to say, without being conscious of the act at the time or shortly afterward. Fleur is knocked unconscious or drugged somehow, somewhere (by accident or on purpose) and is raped, gently. She then wakes up and her head hurts so much that she doesn’t notice any other symptoms.

But these conceivabilities were strictly out of context. Specifically, the context of Leander. Where’s hubby while this is going on? Off gadding? Knocked out by her side?

Altogether much too fantastic for me just to assume it by excluding other possibilities.

Which left me where I started: an affair or a conscious rape.

The affair—a million to one; odds established by Florence the Hoosier. I believed them myself, having met Fleur. Not unattractive, but motivated by nonsensual things. Looking for love, but not a kind sex had anything to do with.

So rape. Of course any lady can get raped, I suppose. The key here was not whether it could have happened, but the reaction of Leander.

So what did I know about Leander Crystal? Would he raise as his own a child he knew could be another man’s?

The Ames, Iowa, said no. The Army hero said no. The “son-in-law” of Estes Graham tossing a booze-bearing reporter out of a party said no. Mrs. Forebush said no. The man who worked Fleur’s share of the old man’s money back to the ten-million-dollar bracket said “not unless there was a profit in it.”

A profit. Like the million and a half to play with. It was true that Eloise had been worth a couple of million to the man.

The thought fascinated me. The bald man with a wrinkly forehead ushering me out of his house in the suavest of manners. The great protective father. Flesh peddler of his wife for the good old American profit motive.

Dates jumped from my notebook. Married 1949. First child 1954. Did that mean four years finding out they didn’t hit it? Fleur’s last, uncompleted appointment series with Fishman was a test for sterility. Maybe there was a similar intention to test Leander. And he, afraid of the results, had jumped from the family doctor, from Estes’ doctor, to someone else, to a doctor with whom they could more easily keep the secret.

And then? After some unknown tests, off to Europe on the purported purpose of “visiting Joshie’s grave.” How long would that have taken? Nearly seven months?

And there? Leander arranges for someone to father his wife’s child. Not exactly middle-class Protestant ethic, but good solid profit motive.

And it required one simple presumption. That Leander and Fleur knew about the terms of Estes’ will. The rest would follow. No rape at all. Fleur’s utter devotion to her husband could be asexual enough for her to allow anything sexual.

I took a pause from the day’s occupation. I was leaping ahead. Too far ahead and too fast.

My theory was untenable. The basic fact which supported it destroyed it. Fleur’s recent miscarriage. Surely the presumption must be that Leander was the father of those twins. Yet that fact was not established either.

One thing was becoming abundantly clear to me. I didn’t know much about Leander Crystal, and it was time to correct the situation.

Before bed I made preparations to do just that.

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