Book: Ask the Right Question

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On a hunch I arrived at Crystal’s house early, about nine o’clock. I’m not sure what I hoped to find—frenzied packing up and people running away—but it didn’t pan out. I didn’t see anything untoward.

On the other hand what I had simultaneously feared didn’t take place either. That Crystal would spot my car down the street and come out and say, “If you insist on arriving early, then at least come in and wait where it’s a bit warmer.”

That happened to me once. One of the virtues of being small-time is that you don’t have to have the same ethics that the big outfits have. You don’t have to take every case that comes in, every old lady who wants her “boy” of thirty followed so she can get her hooks into the woman leading him astray this time.

And you don’t have to play each case exactly straight. You can give personal service. The time I am thinking of, a wife hired me to get some divorcing evidence, if there was any, on her husband.

It was winter and I’d been sitting outside his girlfriend’s house all night. By seven I was almost asleep and almost frozen when I looked up and the guy was tapping on my window. I didn’t see him come out of the house. Maybe he saved me from freezing to death. I rolled down the window and he said to me, just like that, “If you’re going to wait for me, you might as well come in where it’s warm and have a cup of coffee.”

So I did. We got to talking. And I failed to find evidence of any transgression for his wife. I told her how hardworking he was—he sells auto parts on Illinois Avenue—all those late nights alone at the store. I made it good. She almost believed me. I let her pay me, of course. After all, it was his money.

I still get my auto parts at cost.

Now an operative for a big agency couldn’t work like that, couldn’t afford to jeopardize the outfit’s reputation.

But I’ve got no reputation that that sort of thing can hurt. Being small-time makes it much easier to play God, if you’re so inclined.

Much easier to get your ego stomped too, but that’s the other side of the coin.

At eleven o’clock, promptly, I rang the Crystal bell.

At eleven o’clock, promptly, Leander Crystal opened the door and ushered me into the living room from which he had so expertly ushered me in the recent past.

Eloise was there, sitting on a chair by the French doors. She was not the Eloise I had come to know. She was pale and tired and carried two bloodshot eyes. But her face was fixed in a kind of placid expression that it had never borne in my presence before.

Her father was a contrast. Ever the well-cared-for man of fifty, his eyes were clear and his voice was strong. Still Mr. Cool. He stood. I sat on the couch, the same place I’d sat when I talked to Fleur. He faced me and made a speech.

“I have talked to the other principals in this business and we have decided that the proper thing is that you be told the whole story.”

I just listened. Skeptical, of course, but no longer surprised by anything.

“We aren’t happy to have to bring you into our confidence—endow you with the family secrets, as it were—but Eloise assures us that you are honest and, we trust, discreet. We know that you are reasonably capable.” Gracious concession. It made me a little proud.

“You know that Fleur and I married in 1949. You may not know that it was a love match and still is. Not perfect, but human. Part of the imperfection was through the agency of Fleur’s father. While he lived he tried to control Fleur’s mind and spirit.”

A former bouncer speaking ill of the dead? I shifted my position. I crossed my legs. He continued.

“After he was dead, he asserted his values through the terms of his will. As you know Fleur’s inheritance was conditional on our marriage producing a child.” I nodded gratuitously, as if in time to the rhythm of his enunciation.

“He spoke of this condition on the will frequently while he was alive. In my opinion, he tried to cause trouble with it.” One correct guess: they had known about the will before Estes’ death.

“Then, in 1952, I found out that I could not have children.” Another one right.

“Learning this, Fleur and I arranged a trip to Europe. There a friend I made during the war contacted a French doctor, who impregnated Fleur by artificial insemination.

“Fleur became pregnant at the end of January. When all appeared normal, we returned to Indianapolis, and announced the good news.

“So there it is. You have uncovered an impropriety. But surely the moral questions involved are not simplistic. Of course avarice was involved, but it’s not Fleur’s fault that I am sterile, and any other course of action would have made her suffer a life-style much diminished from what her father had accustomed her to.

“A larger mistake remains, our lies about Eloise’s parentage. But we love her; she is our daughter in every real sense of the term. There can be no question that we wanted her, and that we hated the deception. We thought it best not to tell her, but we were wrong. Our greatest sin was that we underestimated our daughter and overestimated our ability to hide things from her, things about which our emotions were very strong. We won’t underestimate her again. I just hope it’s not too late. She thinks not; we hope not.

“There remains then only one basic problem: you. I don’t know what you would intend to do with this information. There is not much you could do with it. ‘Justice’ cannot be further served; you have uncovered our skeleton and satisfied your client’s requirements. All you could do with the information is cause us some social trouble. But the onus of the gossip would fall on Eloise, and not on us. And that would be doing her a grave injustice.”

“I’ve thought the problem over. What I propose is this. We, as a family, would very much like to obtain your silence. I will drop all legal charges pending against you, and give you a check for fifty thousand dollars. Both should be more than you would expect under other circumstances. In return, you will give back to me all records pertaining to this case, both those held by you and those which the police will return to you when I drop charges. And, naturally, we would expect your silence.” At last he was silent; he was tired too. The whole business was costing him emotionally.

And it was a lot of money.

“May I ask you a question?”

“Of course.”

“How does what you’ve told me square against your wife’s recent miscarriage?” I’d thought it would hit him a little—I mean I didn’t think he knew about that.

The man did rub his eyes. But he said, “Mr. Samson, my wife is not a well woman.”

“Which means?”

“Which means there was no miscarriage.”

“She’s pregnant?”

“There was no pregnancy.”

For the first time since he had begun to speak I shot a look at Eloise. Still pale but placid.

He said, “Eloise didn’t know. Clearly there has been a great deal about us Eloise hasn’t known.” He sighed. “My wife has recently been obsessed with a fear that we are going to leave her. She has wanted to be pregnant again very badly. I have had treatments but.… Well, a few months ago she decided she was pregnant. She told Eloise. Her doctor and I cooperated. For as long as we could.”

We stared at each other, man to man. I was feeling more and more out of place. The guy was either a great actor or.…

But why be charitable? So maybe he was a great actor.

He made a rueful face, not exactly a smile. “You note that the ‘miscarriage’ was of ‘twins’?”

I nodded.

“Well, I believe that was meant to represent the fertility treatments I underwent for her. A little mixed up but not without method, wouldn’t you say?”

I didn’t say.

“Welcome to the family, Mr. Samson. I know this is a lot to absorb all at once. You will need time to decide. I suggest this. I give you the check and drop charges. When you deposit the check we will assume you have accepted these terms and will return the films the police will give you when the charges are dropped?”

“You would want no other guarantee?”

He shrugged. “What guarantee can I have? A piece of paper signed by you does riot seal your mouth. Eloise says you are trustworthy. We will have to trust her judgment. Just what we failed to trust before.” He looked at her tenderly. I looked too and her expression seemed not to have changed from fatigued placidity.

“I’ve made some commitments—it may take a little time to get out of them.”

“Mr. Samson, a beggar cannot choose. I am begging you to spare us the social upset of a scandal. I cannot force you to keep silence. Avoidance of scandal is worth a good deal to us. But nobody cares fifty thousand dollars’ worth about us, except us.”

“It’s not a matter of the money.”

“Then all I can say is that I would appreciate your making up your mind and dispatching this business promptly.”

“May I speak to Eloise alone?”

“Of course.” He turned on his heel and left the room. Eloise, my client, my pale frail client. Former client. “Did you really get put in jail?” she asked.

“Yes.” I appreciated her sympathy.

“I didn’t expect you to do that.” Her sympathy wasn’t sympathy. It was a degree of revulsion. It hurt me. I do not consider myself sordid.

“You’re not responsible for what I did or do. And if I hadn’t, you would never have been treated to this explanation, you mustn’t forget that.”

“I won’t. I’m sorry.” We sat in silence.

Finally I said, “What about all this? Are you satisfied?”

“Yes,” she said.

“No other information you want?”

“Not that I can think of.”

“The other side of the coin, would you object if I went on a little longer? Object not as a client but as a person.” She didn’t accept the compromise.

“Yes,” she said hotly. “Why should you go on? It’s not your family, it’s mine. I’m happy now, happier than I’ve been in … ever!” Then she added gratuitously, one might say childishly, “If it had been me, it would have been more like five thousand dollars. You better take it before he changes his mind.”

“Perhaps you will be a better businessman than your father.”

“Maybe I will.” She turned away. I left before she turned back. I was afraid of seeing dollar signs in her eyes.

I went to the hall door and opened it for Leander Crystal. He was waiting for me, sitting on the stairs to the second floor. He smiled self-consciously and got up. It was the first time he had smiled at me. I liked it; it was human.

We went back into the living room where Eloise still sat. From his pocket he pulled a small piece of paper with blue lines on it.

“I said I’d give you this,” he said, and the voice was noticeably tired.

I put it in my pocket without reading the numbers. I didn’t want to look crass.

“If there are any more questions I can answer for you, things you feel you must know—”

He was interrupted as the door across the living room flew open and Fleur Crystal appeared. The door through which she had disappeared in fear the last time I’d seen her.

No fear now. She balanced herself carefully, holding onto the door frame with one hand and surrounding a little glass with the other. The glass’s contents might have been iced tea, but I didn’t see any lemon.

“So there your are,” she screamed. “You mother-fucking bastard!” She laughed. “Did he tell you? Did he tell you?

Crystal went to her and tried to lead her back to wherever she had come from. She was not docile, but with his hands on her she did not quite resist.

“Please,” she whined, “let me tell him!” Crystal shot a look at me and I recognized my cue. I headed for the living-room door and beyond it, the front door. I mastered the intricacies, but not before hearing another piercing screech. I left with the words “artificial insemination” ringing in my ears.

I was still glad Crystal had smiled at me. I understand him better now, and I knew he was tired, very tired.

So was I. I went home.

But I couldn’t stay inside. It was a decent day. I carefully took my jacket off and without looking in the pocket put it at the very back of my closet. I took out some sneakers and spent the afternoon shooting baskets in Brookside Park. Later I concentrated very hard on not thinking about Crystals. I succeeded pretty well until about 2 a.m. One of those thinking nights, not a sleeping night. Everything I had suppressed came back at once, deep dark ramblings. They were fierce. They gave me an ache in my stomach, which, though not hunger, I tried to quieten with milk. I didn’t have enough in. It took me quite a while to find an all-night grocery. Then I drank too much.

When I got back I threw up. Then I slept like a baby. Till one in the afternoon. Why not? I was rich. Wasn’t I?

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