Book: Ask the Right Question

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As I walked down the hall toward my office I realized that my door was open. Wide open, not just ajar.

My heart started to pound. I hate surprises, especially when I know one is coming but don’t know what, or in this case, who it is. Whether to man my defenses, or trot out my sweets.

I considered just heading back out, going over to cop center and talking to Miller there. Reluctantly I decided not to. I didn’t want to put the extra pressure of a personal appearance on Miller after the night’s foolish call.

But I couldn’t go straight into the office.

So I paid a call to my neighborly vacancy next door. I tripped the lock, and skipped in. It is a pair of dirty empty rooms, except for the improvements I have made in the neighborhood of the bathtub. I picked the least growth-ridden corner and put my notebook down in it. Then the set of Crystal photos I’d been carrying around in a manila envelope. Then my jacket with its pockets of in and outcomes.

I wondered, for the several steps back to the firetrap I call home, just who or what was waiting for me.

When I peeked around the edge of the open doorway, I began to suspect a what. My office was empty.

After making one quick move to see if anyone was behind the door, I went in as quietly as I could. I tiptoed to my living-room door. It too was open. Before looking in I stopped to listen. I heard nothing. Maybe I had just left it all open as I went out in the morning. Though I try to be careful about such things, it could happen. I framed a mental picture of myself tippy-toeing around my own empty living quarters. A shadower afraid of his own shadow.

But how does a man live if he doesn’t take himself seriously?

I tiptoed to my back room.

My dining-room chair was turned around, facing my window. On one of its broad elm arms I saw a slouched walnut-colored head.

It didn’t move. I stood there for what seemed like an eternity, and it didn’t move.

I glanced around the room. No other people, otherwise apparently unchanged. I looked back at the back of my former client’s head.

I didn’t have the faintest idea of what to do.

I went to her, still tiptoeing. I looked at her face. Eyes closed, pale. Unmoving.

I took her hand. It was warm.

She opened her eyes and looked into mine. Leaving her hand in mine she stretched slowly. And slowly woke up.

“I’ve been waiting quite awhile,” she said. The sleep left a fuzz on her ordinarily sleek speech. I let go her hand and rocked back gently and sat on the floor in front of her. Inadvertently it left me looking up her skirt. That made me uncomfortable, so I got up and sat on the windowsill instead. From there I got preoccupied with the low cut of her dress. She was sporting a fair share of teen-age cleavage.

That made me uncomfortable too. I went and got my telephone chair and pulled it up in front of her. Neither above nor below. The third time was a charm. My attention fixed on her baggy eyes and her pallidness.

She sat up. “I wanted to know what you are doing. And why,” she said.

“I can see you’ve been going through a hard time. Problems at home?”

“Yes,” she said, “Ever since you started messing around.” She fell silent, as we both pondered the fact that it had been she who originally started my messing around.

“I want you to stop,” she said with an air of finality.

“Stop what?” I said. And she started to cry. She continued to cry.

I’m sure it was sincere and all that. But I am not one of those whose hearts of stone are cracked by tears. If she had been in my family I would have told her to shut up or go cry in the hall. Being as she was a guest of sorts, I just let her go on, since it wasn’t loud enough to disturb the neighbors. Not that they disturb in this cruddy building. Not that I have any neighbors. One of the things I might have done with that fifty thou would have been to lease myself a foothold in a “nicer” joint.

While she cried it out I made us a pot of tea.

The making lasted just long enough. I poured a mug of tea for myself and a cup for her. I put her cup on a little tray, put a little glass of milk, a box of sugar, and a spoon alongside it on the tray, and put it on the arm of the chair. It was just the right amount of time. I know, because she snuffled a “Thank you.” If I’d got it to her much earlier she wouldn’t have said anything and might have knocked the tray off with her twistings and agonies.

Maybe not though. It’s a pretty big arm on the chair and trays sit firmly.

I sat down again on my telephone chair.

She studied the tea, and then with a little sigh she poured some sugar from the box into the spoon. Two spoonfuls, then milk. I take milk; I can’t stand sugar in hot tea. But each to his own. She also spilled some sugar on the tray which she would have avoided if she had poured the sugar into the spoon over the cup. Not a child of tidy habits. Men who live alone get picky that way. I can’t go on much longer living alone. It’s eroding what is left of my charming and delicate personality.

She stirred her tea and the social action made her into a woman/girl again. As such she tried a gambit. “I thought that once you liked me.” She looked up at me with big wet brown eyes. The crying had brought color to her face. She didn’t look half bad, but I could hardly keep from laughing. When I am really in the middle of some business, and excited about it. I am one coldhearted bastard.

“I did. I do. You were a good boss.”

She played it to the hilt, turned away, snuffled, the works. “I didn’t mean like that.”

“I know,” I said. But though I never kick animals, I am not always nice to children. “You want me to stop. What do you want me to stop?”

“Whatever you’re doing.”

“Are you having a hard time at home?”

“I don’t know what is going on, but everybody is just horrible. Mummy has had all kinds of fits and her doctor says she has to stay in and that he will be coming down from Lafayette to see her every couple of days. And Daddy just doesn’t know what to do.”

“And you think that it is all your fault because you put me on this thing.”

“That day that you came over and talked to him I thought it was all over. And all better. I mean Daddy talked to me that day, for the first time like I wasn’t a little girl. And he said it was going to be all better, and that he was really going to look after Mummy, and everything. And after all, you did find out what I wanted you to find. I just don’t understand why you keep on messing around.”

And I would have been hard put to tell her. I didn’t want to monkey prematurely with the story she had been told. Before I had a complete story to replace it with. But she pressed me.

“Why are you doing it?” she asked.

“I don’t like being lied to.” I said.

“Who lied to you?” she said sharply.

“I didn’t say someone did.”

“Who lied to you?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Not my father! He didn’t lie to you.” I noted that she had gotten her problems of terminology straightened out with respect to Leander Crystal.

She was getting on my nerves. “I didn’t say anybody had lied to me, I said I don’t like being lied to, and that means that when I am told a story I will check it out to make sure that I am not being lied to, and that’s what I am doing, and that’s what I shall continue to do. And besides,” I added, because I felt bloody self-priggy-righteous, “I don’t like my office being broken into.”

“Who broke into your office?”

I sighed, but spoke carefully. “Somebody interested only in a file marked ‘Crystal.’ Who do you think it was?”

She was clearly startled. “And that’s when you sent the check back?”

Why complicate matters; it was technically the truth even though I had made the resolution beforehand. “That’s when I sent the check back.” I said.

“And you think he did it?”

I felt out of place as a teacher in elementary detectiveness. “I figured that it was Santa Claus because he forgot the address of your chimney.”

“You don’t have to be snotty about it.”

“I know. I’m just tired.”

“I must bore you,” she said with a burst of feeling, “something awful.”

I just can’t understand how it is that older men get mixed up with teen-age girls. They’re so damn unreliable. Unless maybe it’s because they are changeable, and not the same, day after day, minute after minute. But she was wearing me out.

“Don’t worry about it, little lady,” I said with as much kindness as I could muster. “I am sorry if I am making waves in the Crystal home, but at this point it is certainly not your fault. Blame it on me. I am certainly perverse about such matters, if you know the word. It’s why I’m not rich.” How true! “I will try to make it as painless as I can. Try to trust me if you can. And if you can’t, then I just hope you realize that there is nothing you can do about it.”

“Nothing?” she said. I knew what she was thinking. I thought I knew what she was thinking.

“Absolutely nothing.”

“OK,” she said. She got up and turned for the door and then turned back. “I feel better. I don’t know why, but I feel a lot better.” I nodded beneficently. At the door she turned again and said, “Thanks for the tea. It was good.” She left.

I felt better too. I knew why. Not virtue rewarded, but the fact that no matter how it was settled, I liked this as a last meeting much better than the tense bitter little girl I had talked to at the Crystal house. I had disliked her enough then that I had virtually forgotten about her altogether. Though I wished I had told her to keep her trap shut when she got home, I had a more sympathetic taste in my mouth for my little lady client. Former client.

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