Book: Ask the Right Question

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With no money in pocket, I decided to walk home and let the car ride. I stopped at my bank and convinced them to let me use one of their checks to draw out a little of my own money.

I took a hundred. Car money, when I got around to it, plus a little mad money.

Then I bought the highest-power hand magnifying glass I could find quickly, and I picked up a whole chicken with a double order of french fries. In the office, I made a call to make an appointment with my “mouthpiece” for four.

I ate my chicken. But I just stuffed it in. I was eager to get to the pictures that I had braved the bedbugs for.

Thirteen and a half rolls. Thirty-six negatives to the roll. Two or more pages pictured on each negative. My manila envelope contained prints of four hundred and ninety-one negatives, images of more than twelve hundred sides of pieces of paper.

I cut the prints up, so I had each photographed item separate. I set about arranging them in piles.

By three I had ten stacks of surreptitious snaps.

Canceled checks
Tax records
Ladies’ names and phone numbers
Legal documents and bills
Accounting record book

I also had my first rewards. Four canceled checks dated from 1954 to 1956. Totaling twenty thousand dollars. Made out to a Jacques Chaulet; cashed, as well as I could make out, at a bank in Toulon.

I noticed the first one because of the French name. The others just followed. Not that I knew exactly what they meant, but they made me feel great.

Great enough to leave a note for Eloise:

Sorry to be gone today, but it’s a good sign: I am working. I think I have a key to your parentage. Will be back as soon as possible after four. Wait if you can.

I debated signing it “Love.” I mean I did feel good. But I decided to save it.

I paid for the car without a single crack, but couldn’t help noticing that it wouldn’t be hard to steal some of the cars the cops had in their emporium. It’s not that I steal cars all the time. But my father showed me how to start them without keys and five or six times in high school …

But not a single crack.

I headed for Clinton Grillo’s.

We didn’t spend very long on my position with the police. Only on the facts and essential strategy. None of the “Why did you do it?” stuff. That’s not really law—so Senior doesn’t bother much with it. In law, he says, you accept what appears to be the truth, combine it with what you want to be the truth and try to settle out of court. Besides I don’t think the old man wants to know too much about me. He still thinks of me as Junior’s disadvantaged friend.

Clinton Junior got pretty good grades when we were in high school and he went to Yale. But he never came back. I went to see his father when I first came back to Indianapolis; to tell him about his son who was selling computers in New York while I lived there. Now Clinton Senior is my lawyer and kind of a friend. And he doesn’t send me bills. I take him bottles of good booze.

In this case the strategy was to delay. The longer we could stall “this guy Ames” the less likely he was to be upset and want to take the trouble to keep up prosecution.

Fair enough.

I also used the meeting to find out that the statute of limitations on inheritance fraud is six years in Indiana.

Happiness is a relative thing, of course, but as I headed back to my office I was happier than I’d been in some time. In work like mine, in which so much is so dull, you become afraid that your mind becomes dull with it.

Having gotten an unusual job I was pleased to have made progress. To have beaten part of it, if my guesses were correct. To have earned the fee by a little application, and a little daring, however inept. I didn’t worry too much about being jailed. I have a fair number of friends in the city and they can help if you’re not too important. Which I’m not.

I whistled in the car as I drove back.

I walked up the stairs rather than wait for the elevator. And I almost never walk up the stairs.

My only shadow was that for some reason Eloise had not been able to hang around. I thought that the note would be enough to keep her. I was glad I’d left such a positive one. I’d hurried back, so I was approaching the office door by 4:45.

I could see the door ajar. When I saw that my heart fluttered a little, as hearts will. That surprised me. I was, after all, an old man who was supposed to have better self-control than that.

I shook my head in wonderment at myself. I smiled, I strode into my office.

Sitting on the corner of my desk, with my note to Eloise in his hand, was Leander Crystal.

The sight cut me dead. I just stood there and started to shake. I don’t know if he could see that.

After a minute’s silence, I mumbled, “I need a drink,” and tried to figure out how to get to my desk drawer. It shouldn’t have been hard—I can see that now. But the sight of him there, where my Eloise, my client, should have been, it frightened me.

It took me another full sixty seconds to realize that I was in no immediate physical danger; he had no gun and he wasn’t holding it on me. I was sure he knew I was shaking. I wanted him out. I wanted him away. We knew that we were enemies.

I said, “Get off my desk.”

He got off and stood by the chair. Eloise’s chair. I went behind my desk, sat down and did my thing. I went through three drawers before I found the bottle. The seal seemed inordinately strong. I can’t say I felt better after the belt. It’s just the only thing available to do. I don’t take surprises very well.

“You expected my daughter, I believe.” He spaced the words, enunciated clearly. Mr. Cool. “I sent her home. The poor child was very agitated. The surprise of seeing me. I must say I was surprised at seeing her here. But I decided to stay so that we could talk.”

“I’m not sure that we have much to say to one another,” I said, because it was my turn to talk and I am instinctively polite.

“I think this note you left for my daughter suggests the contrary.”

“Ah, the note.”

“Just what do you know about Eloise’s parentage, Mr. Samson?”

“I’m still working on how you got here.”

He shifted impatiently, and then decided to sit down. “You did break into my office last night. I have an unlisted phone number which I gave the night watchman to use in case anything suspicious goes on at the office. Your activities were deemed suspicious. I got your name from the police. I must say, I’m fascinated by the lengths to which you go for an article. But we’ll drop that little fiction for the moment, shall we? You are a private detective, thirty-seven years old, originally of this city. You went away to college but dropped out when your father died. He was a guard at Marion County Jail. After some security work you went back to college, flunked out, wrote a book about your “experience” which was something of a cause célèbre. You married above you, had a daughter and dropped out of that because the pressure was more than you could take. Seven years ago you came back here, took out a detective license and have been living off that and other varied ventures. Your mother is alive and runs Bud’s Dugout. She owns it outright. I presume on money you had left from your better days. I came here today to find out what you were doing in my office last night.”

“Your secret office,” I said, and then felt petty.

“My secret office. But I think your note told me that. I also wanted to know who put you up to it, and Eloise told me that. Now I want to know what you know. You can tell me that.”

“Can I?” I was trying desperately to regroup.

“Don’t try to play with the privacy of your client. Eloise gives you her permission to speak. Quite apart from the fact that she is a minor and I am her father. What, I repeat, what is it that you presume to know?” He was losing patience. I decided to give him one of the versions which fit the things I knew.

“I know that you are not her real father. I know she was conceived in France, and I believe her father was a man called Jacques Chaulet to whom you payed twenty thousand dollars for the service.”

It stunned him slightly, but he was quick.

“Why would I do that?”

“In order that you and your wife inherit under the terms of Estes Graham’s will, which required you to have a healthy child in wedlock. I believe you found out that you were sterile.” It was worth a try, under the circumstances.

We paused together, studied each other intently. It was the kind of moment which someone interrupting us would have found comical. We did not find it comical.

I was waiting for him to speak. He, it turned out, for me. “Go on,” he said.

Go on? I wished I could. He was only telling me what I already knew—that there was more. But I figured what I had given him was enough to get some attention. It had to be. Didn’t it? I was almost glad he’d come.

I played it cool. “What else do I need? All I can add is that a copy of this information and instructions on how to use it are in a safe place, so don’t get any ideas.”

At this his eyebrows went up, creating seven wrinkles across his extensive forehead. He sighed the sigh of a rich man for dumb hired help. “If you think that I would harm you over a question of silence or a matter of money, you are the victim of delusions about your profession.”

A put-down, but it worked. He made me feel foolish for feeling danger. But what the hell, it was my office and my chair.

There was another, though shorter, pause, after which he got up. “OK,” he said, “please give this project a rest for the day. You will hear from me.” And he walked out. With the walk of an assured man who knew what he wanted, knew how to get it and knew how to hang onto it. Everything I lacked.

Two hours of sitting later, and no booze, I had some idea of what happened. Of why I felt near death.

I had been futzing around in my own delusionary little world. I had accidentally locked bumpers with the real world, and the kind gentleman had come around to help straighten me out.

I had thought I was pretty big stuff. I had thought I was on the verge of the big time. Now I didn’t feel I was anything.

I had met the enemy head on and I was his. I had accepted his terms. I had told him what I thought I knew; I had tacitly agreed to await his bidding.

He had said there was no danger for me. All he had done was say it, and I had accepted it.

I mean, what kind of turn of events was this for a self-respecting man?

Which brought up the larger question of whether I was, in fact, a self-respecting man.

The only thing that I wasn’t sure of was that just because he said so, I had Eloise’s permission to tell him the things I had already told him. That worried me too. That I had, with no hesitation, abandoned the discretion my client was entitled to. The discretion that I am legally obliged to give a client according to the Detective Laws of the State of Indiana which prohibit us from telling anything to anybody without authorization of client—except to police about crimes.

There was some excuse. It had been after the very first shock of his presence. But I didn’t feel right about it. Two hours later, I decided to take some wild action. Strike back.

I dialed the Crystals’ number. A man answered. I didn’t recognize the voice. I asked for Eloise. There was a pause, some muffled talk and I was speaking again to Leander Crystal. I was sorely tempted to hang up on him, but that seemed unduly childish, even to me.

“Is that you, Samson?”

“It is I,” said I.

“I’m sorry, but Eloise can’t come to the phone at the moment. I was going to call you. Can you come to the house tomorrow morning around eleven? I’d like to straighten this situation out.”

“I can be there. Will Eloise be there?”

“You will be able to talk to her then.” And then he asked a question. “Your relationship with my daughter, it isn’t anything that it, well shouldn’t be, is it?” Downright fatherly.

I drew myself up to my full telephone height. “Mr. Crystal. My relationship with Eloise is that of client and detective. I call her now because I am not convinced that I should have told you today what I did and I wanted to explain to her why I spoke to you. However if tomorrow we are to receive a full explication of this grimy situation then I believe her best interests will be served, and I will be satisfied. I shall be present tomorrow. Good-bye.”

The thud of my hanging up reverberated through the hallowed halls of my office.

I felt rotten.

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