Book: Ask the Right Question

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I woke up low and impatient. I had my tax man to see. I didn’t want to wait until the afternoon for something Crystalish to do. But there was nothing. Tax man in the afternoon, phone call to Miller in the evening. But what in the morning?

A leisurely breakfast?

Serving papers.

At one forty-five, I pulled up in front of 4552 North Park Avenue. Not Park Avenue in New York, but a rather classy, big Georgian house, with pillars. I didn’t know if I could afford it. In fact I knew I couldn’t afford it.

I rang the bell. A man about 6 feet 6 and very thin opened the door and waved me in. “I’ve been expecting you, Mr. Samson. Very interesting documents you’ve left me with.” He led me down the hall across the width of a long room to a sun porch, which was next to a screened porch. I’ve served papers on people in houses like these but I’ve never hired one before. I am a better employee than an employer. And perhaps best neither.

But the guy, for all his heights, was understanding of us little fellows. “You are not quite comfortable here, Mr. Samson? Don’t worry, you don’t have to pay for it. I inherited the house and some money to keep it up. I do work like yours for my health. Sit down.” He proffered a deep wicker chair next to a low round wicker table which was covered with yellow lined paper and my photographs.

“I’m Andrew Elmitt.” We strained, from the depths of our chairs, to shake hands.

“I can see why you were not able to give me a good idea of what is going on here. Primarily because there is a good deal going on. Though I am surprised that you are most interested in the period you mentioned.”

“Why?” I said, my first nongrunted utterance.

“Why, because it is precisely before about 1956 that there is absolutely nothing going on. Oh, a little, but there is so much less money to be played with then. It’s all the little gettings and spendings. A few things which seem out of place, like these checks to a man called Chaulet, but otherwise fairly routine.” He dragged out the word “fairly” as if he were a lawyer and didn’t want to be held to it.

“But since 1956, beautiful. Whoever owns the original records inherited a lot of money, I take it. And he was not altogether used to handling it, I take it. But the man has a gift. Caution and daring. It’s really a beautiful story. I mean”—he paused, once again aware of my presence—“beautiful in money terms. Financial world stuff. You know.”

I knew. I also knew that Maude had got me just the kind of man I needed, much more of the world of money than the world of the people who had the money.

“OK,” I said, “give me a rundown. You can start after he got his cash and we’ll work backwards.”

“A rundown,” he said. “Well, it’s a little hard to put in terms a layman can understand.…”

He wasn’t kidding. It was about an hour before I felt that I had the gist. Leander inherited money. Leander wasn’t used to having big money. Leaner learned about having big money. Leander made the big money grow bigger, very cleverly, and after a while very fast. Leander had guts. Leander had guts worth about ten or twelve million, before the 1970 recession.

Leander was a poor boy with latent talent he had been lucky enough to get a chance to develop. Lucky enough? Or made his own luck. It interested me that the man who emphasized to me that Fleur should not have to suffer from not having enough money to indulge her hypochondria had taken chances that at some times could have ruined them, had they soured.

But of course they had flowered, and everyone was in clover. Especially Leander.

“And,” said Elmitt with a coup de grâce kind of tone, “there is the little matter of his Swiss bank account.”


“Ah.” He laughed. “I thought that might get your interest.”

“Mr. Elmitt,” I said, “I am interested in everything you have to say. It’s just that I have more than a little difficulty understanding it. Maybe I should take a course.”

“Maybe you should, maybe you should. The study of finance can be a fascinating hobby, or business, as the case may be.”

“The Swiss thing?”

“Yes. Now I can’t guarantee it, but this page and this page”—he waved, economically, two pages—“have the distinct smell of a Swiss bank account.”

“How distinct?”

“Oh, pretty distinct. It seems to have about a million and a quarter in it, and it is identified only by a number.” It was the straightest sentence I had gotten out of him. I wondered if he was tiring.

“I can’t be certain, of course, but they usually imply a certain amount of tax fraud. Would that be of any use to you?”

“I think it would,” I said.

“Oh, good,” he said, and started gathering papers. I stopped him.

“There are a couple of things we have yet to settle, Mr. Elmitt. The other material. And I’m not sure that I can afford your going on with these.”

“Well, what are we set at so far?”

“A hundred,” I said. As if it were thousands.

“Up to a hundred and a half and I’ll give you the works on this stuff.”

“OK.” I said. “Consider it upped.”

“Good. I said you wouldn’t have to pay to support this place. But you can help my daughter to get a new dress. I would have hated to be teased and then not be given the chance to run through all the calculations.” There was a large adding machine on a desk in the corner of the room. I mean, what was a sun-room supposed to be for? Why not add in the sun?

“About the years before 1956?”

He sighed, and waved at two small piles. “Outcome,” he said as he patted the first pile. “Income,” and he patted the next, a couple of sheets. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure them out.”

I let it go at that. I wasn’t a genius. I put one pile in each of my jacket pockets, and let him show me his toys on the way out. He even had a little computer in the basement. But I didn’t rue my investment, or incipient investment, because he also had a pinball machine sitting right next to the computer. “For my son,” he said when he saw me looking at it, and smiling.

I bet. I would almost have bet that he didn’t even have a son. But after his hundred and fifty, I didn’t have much betting money left.

I shoved off and agreed to wait for his call.

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