Book: Ask the Right Question

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It never occurred to me that I had visitors until I stepped into the outer office. I hadn’t seen their car; I hadn’t heard them jawing. Nothing.

Cops. Bags of cops, like three. Only they seemed like, more since I didn’t know any of them, neither the two uniformed gentlemen, nor the plain-clothes gentleman.

I said aloud, “As my father told my mother after I was born, it’s not at all what I expected.”

I was all ready to continue with a recital of my prices. I didn’t get the chance. The aliens were not entirely friendly.

“Where the hell have you been? We’ve been looking for you for an hour and a half,” said the plain-clothes gentleman.

“I would have baked a cake,” I said. I’m good at returning fast-growing free-blooming hostility. I hadn’t asked them in.

The plain-clothes gentleman continued to do the talking. That I approved of. I’ve long believed that patrolmen should be seen and not heard. And I much prefer talking to people whose guns are obscured by a layer of cheap suit. For me, out of sight helps out of mind.

He said, “All right, give us the story.”

With anybody else I would have started on Goldilocks and the Three Bears. But they wouldn’t have liked it.

I had had an active day, lots of driving and talking and strategizing. I didn’t feel like wasting my breath.

I went around to the business side of my desk and sat down. The patrolman sitting on the desk edge didn’t get the message, so I maneuvered my right foot so that it rested firmly but gently on his posterior.

“OK. You two bears go sit on the floor and enjoy some porridge. You, plain-clothes bear, identify yourself and then tell me just what the fuck is going on here.”

I must inspire confidence. They did what I told them. The plain-clothes cop showed me the ID for a Captain Wilson Gartland. The uniforms went by the door and sat on a bench I have there. I knew the name, Gartland. I was talking to Miller’s very own captain.

He was not exactly sweetness and light. After he repocketed his ID, he took my feet and threw them off my desk.

“Listen to me, Samson, and listen good. We got a murder here and we want to know where you fit.”

“A murder?” I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t that.

“You want I should spell it?”

All I said was no. Real people don’t get involved in murders, especially not nonviolent ones. It knocked my rosy little daydream notion of things askew.

Gartland was not considerate of my surprise. He shook his head and pursed his lips. “Believe me, Samson, you better not get cute with me.”

If I’d worked out any reason for their presence in my life I’d just thought Gartland didn’t like my getting information from Miller and had come to give me some trouble for it.”

“Please,” I said, “start at the beginning. Who?”

I guess cops don’t get asked “please” very often. Gartland said, “You get one of my men to put in a check of fingerprints with dead bodies and he comes up with a match. A dead body sitting around unidentified for sixteen years and you walk in one day and turn the key. Do you expect me to believe that you don’t know what’s going on?” So spill, shamus. You can to it here or downtown.”

In adversity he was getting trite. We were already downtown, for openers—just not at his house. And “shamus” went out with the bustle. But I forgave him. “Where’s Miller?” I said.

“I’m handling this now.”

That didn’t seem reasonable. “I don’t talk to anybody but Miller.”

“For crying out loud.” I guess I hurt his feelings, but I could tell what he was thinking. He was balancing the importance of giving Miller a sixteen-year-old murder case against the convenience of not having to break me.

I offered a sop. “I’ll tell Miller everything I know.” I was glad I’d played tough when I came in. I knew he could break me with a feather, but he didn’t. I break easy because I’m afraid of guns. Not that they go around shooting witnesses in murder cases in Indianapolis. Not usually anyway. Not white witnesses. Not before they get the information out of them.

“You take me to Miller,” I said, “and I’ll spill everything I know.” Shamus indeed.

Gartland sighed. He waved to his uniformed associates. “Take him in,” he said, in a tone which sounded like, he was carrying out a threat when he really was giving in to me. Subtle guys, these captains.

The ride from my office to cop center was less than two blocks, but they didn’t speak to me at all. I appreciated the silence. It gave me a little chance to reorient myself. Especially with respect to Leander Crystal. Either he had conned me a second time or even he hadn’t known everything that went on. I got a rudimentary notion of how I wanted to play it, and I was glad that Miller owed me for getting him back on the case.

At headquarters Miller was not hard to locate. There is nobody more present than a man who has been taken off a big case but who thinks there might be the slightest hope of getting back on it. I was his hope. Very touching, and I could always get additional leverage by reporting him for stealing cars as a kid.

Gartland was not gracious about turning me over to him. And he was even less gracious when he found out I wanted to talk to Miller alone. But finally we shooed the surplus uniforms away and had a friendly chat.

“Where was it?” I asked him.

“Your alien’s prints matched a body in New York.”

I nodded as if I already knew. He picked up some paper.

“A previously unidentified female body discovered in Central Park, New York, November 23, 1954. Caucasian. Aged twenty to thirty. 5 feet 3. Brown hair. Hazel eyes. Dead a few days. Skull fracture and mutilations. She was probably knocked out, strangled and then cut to ribbons in the area between her waist and her knees.

It chilled and shocked me. I rocked back and forth in my seat.

“New York covered the match with a note. They say they never checked the corpse’s prints with the FBI—that’s where they file aliens’ prints—because they didn’t have any reason to believe she was foreign. In the park, in the condition she was in, they figured her for a whore cut up by some kind of maniac. When nobody came looking for her they closed it unsolved.”

I nodded grimly. People get killed every minute somewhere in the world. It doesn’t bother you because you don’t know about it. This killing sixteen years ago bothered me terribly. I did know things about it, things other people didn’t know. Like why she was killed, who she had been, and why she had been killed in that particular way at that particular time.

“Al, New York wants to know how we matched it with Annie Lombard. So does the Justice Department.”

“So does everybody, if I judge the look in your eyes correctly.”

“I can’t help it, Al. You know what this could mean to me. You know probably better than anyone.”

I wished I could shut him up at that moment. I knew what it meant to him all right. But I wished that I could have been there in 1954 to stop it, because it can’t have been nice. I wished I could keep the billions of people who get pushed around every day from having to take it anymore. I wished I wasn’t unimportant to everybody except me, and I wished I wasn’t going to die someday.

I said, “Yeah, I know. I’ve just been figuring out how to go about it. There are people I don’t want to have to hurt.”

“That girl, Annie Lombard, she got hurt in the worst way, Al.”

The platitude made me mad. Who the hell knew that better than I did? Who knew better about the pictures of the girl in the progessing stages of pregnancy, and who knew better about her daughter?

“Don’t play the cop ploys with me, Jerry. Don’t do it. You are going to get credit for this, but it goes my way or not at all. It’s hung around for sixteen years, and, by God, if you don’t watch out it’s going to hang around for another sixteen.”

When I said it I meant it, but it didn’t take long for me to remember all the records and files I had around, not to mention my notebook. Laid out like that even Gartland could figure out enough of it.

Miller felt my passion, but he was evaluating his own situation. “It’s hard. You know that.”

“Bull. I had to con you into getting the things for me in the first place and now you’re acting like it was all your idea. Just because I stumbled on it doesn’t mean that you’re any dumber than anybody else or any less fit to be a lieutenant.”

We had communicated at last. It’s one of the facts of life that friends are not perfect. But you learn to patch up the breaches. A little booze. A few reminiscences.

There was a knock on the door. Gartland stuck his face in. It seemed only seconds since we’d seen it last. If Miller had been in doubt about our understanding, Gartland’s frowning mug resolved it.

“Get out,” Miller addressed his captain. “We’ll let you know.”

The face withdrew and we got down to business. I gave it all to him, in essence as Leander had told it to me. In chronological order, not the way I’d found it.

Then I told him that I wanted us to go and visit Leander Crystal.

“But he lied to you till it was coming out of your ears,” he said.

I shrugged. It’s not that I had any bigger master plan which would identify all the guilty and clear all the innocent. But I wanted to talk to Crystal again before we pulled the rug out. I had to have a chance to find out whether my gut reaction—to trust the man—had really been as far off base as it seemed it was. One of the things which distinguishes children from adults is the confidence to make and trust one’s own value judgments. When I decide to trust someone it’s disorienting to find out he’s not trustworthy.

Miller thought we should just go pick them all up and then straighten everything out later.

But he acceded to my wishes. That was the deal.

We went out and told Gartland. If Miller didn’t like, it, Gartland hated it. But since he still didn’t know the details all he could do was rant about what would happen to Miller if something went wrong.

Miller played cool. What else could he do but go along with me, he told Gartland. Little as they both liked it I was calling the shots. And in his opinion if they didn’t act fast they might lose the killer.

It was all a subtle reminder that Gartland had opted to bring Miller back in, and that the consequences were ultimately still his.

We requested and got four patrolmen and two cars.

We left, Gartland hated it.

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