Book: Ask the Right Question

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2

Eloise Crystal had left my office a little after five. By eight I had finished dinner and my daily housecleaning. It was evening project time and tonight had been assigned to work on crossword puzzles. Writing puzzles is one of the ways I supplement my income a little. Not that it is really lucrative, but if you have to pass the time anyway you might as well pick up a buck or two.

I do a number of things besides detecting which bring in a little money from time to time. I’m a bit of a photographer, a bit of a carpenter, a bit of a gambler, and I sometimes do odd jobs for odd friends. But I am primarily a private investigator—that’s what my passport says. I’ve been at if for seven years and I’m proud.

Seven whole years, a record.

And in the whole time I’d never had a little girl come in and ask me for her biological pa.

I chewed on my crossword pencil and thought about her for a while. What were the odds she wouldn’t show up again?

Hard to tell. Maybe evens.

And if she remembered to appear?

Hmmmm. Tell her to take her problem elsewhere? I thought about the “problem.” Just how the hell would I set about finding a long-lost biological father anyway?

She’s sixteen. So we would be looking for a human male known to have committed a brief act sixteen years ago with the mother of Eloise Crystal. That would be Fleur Crystal. That would be about seventeen years ago, nine months for gestation.

And this human male is not the one most readily available, Leander Crystal.

So what else is there?

Nothing. We know nothing about the man. Not even that he is still alive. Not even that Fleur ever really knew him other than in the Biblical sense.

No more facts at all.

So add probability. Probably Fleur was extensively acquainted with the father of her child. Probably somebody somewhere knew of Fleur and the man and of the essence of their relationship, if not necessarily of the conception.

Probability gave way to possibility. Possibly it all took place in Indianapolis. Possibly the man is still around, maybe someone client Eloise already knows. Like a friend of the family’s. Like a good friend …

My speculations flickered and were blown out by the same breath that uttered the word “conceivably.”

Replaced by more practical thoughts. What would one do to get a lead?

Check friends of the mother to get an idea of what sort of woman she is, and was. What sort of things she did, where she went, the important periods in her life. And what she was doing about seventeen years ago.

Replaced by more practical thoughts yet. The whole business would rest on the validity of Eloise’s blood test reports.

But how do you check a family’s blood types? Send a nurse to the house to collect blood before breakfast?

I went back to my crossword puzzle.

Half an hour later, having reminded myself of the hundred dollars resting in the generous confines of my wallet, I decided to give Eloise the tentative benefit of the doubt. The benefit of a little simple background work, since I didn’t exactly have a whole lot else to do. Maybe by tomorrow if I was really sure I knew exactly what it was that she wanted me to do and why she wanted it done, maybe tomorrow if I could reassure myself about those blood tests, maybe tomorrow I would take the case, formally.

Tonight, tentative, I hit the phone to Maude Simmons, the Sunday editor of the Indianapolis Star. I dialed her private line there, the one she uses for her private business.

“Simmons.”

I identified myself.

“Berrtie! How the hell are you?” Rolling the r: I hate that. She knows it.

“I’m down at police headquarters. They’re holding me for assaulting an editrix. I need somebody to keep the other prisoners from picking on me.”

“Oh,” she said. “That’s nice. Pity I haven’t time. Can I help you with something else?”

“Yeah. A little information.”

“Surprise, surprise.”

“On some people named Crystal.”

“The rich Crystals? Leander and Fleur Graham?” She was ahead of me already.

“I guess so, if they have a daughter named Eloise and live on Jefferson Boulevard.”

“That’s them. How deep and when?”

“How about whatever you know off the top of your head and now?”

“Poor Berrtie. Don’t you ever get real jobs?” She paused. I thought she was waiting for me to answer that. I ignored the silence. I make my own bed and I lie in it.

But instead she said, “You wouldn’t believe it.”

“What?”

“The pneumatic tube contraption here just presented me with today’s livestock report. Did you know that calves closed unchanged in Chicago? Eight hundred thousand dollars for a tube system and it brings me the livestock report. It’s enough to make you cry.”

We gave it a few moments’ silence. Maude hates wastes of money.

“You got your notebook?”

“I have it.”

“Well, first off they’re rich. I mean real millions, plural, rich. I can find out how rich if you want.”

“No, thanks, little fella, not just now. What are they like?”

“Well, pretty quiet.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning no current gossip pertaining to behavior the Star would consider immoral. And no past gossip that I remember. Is it a divorce gig? If so you’re in pretty big money.”

I was ashamed to tell her that I was on the verge of being hired by the kid. “No divorce. Not sure what this is going to be yet.”

“Poor Berrrtie.”

“Tell me something interesting. Anything.”

Well, I remember stories about Fleur’s old man. That was Estes Graham, and that’s where the money came from by the way. He died ’53 or ’54, but for years he gave big birthday bashes, and everyone in town would turn out for them. The only problem was that there wasn’t a drop of anything alcoholic at them. There’s a guy still on the paper who went to one, I think it was in ’50. He took his own hip flask. Old Estes Graham spotted it and he got his son-in-law, that would be Leander Crystal, he got Crystal to toss this guy out personally. But that’s about the only thing I have offhand. I can tell you that the Crystals, both of them, live very quiet lives. None of the usual society, charity stuff most folks with their kind of cash get roped into.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s all I have off the top of my head. I can put my staff on it and give you a lot more detail. We have quite a research organization, if you can give us a little help on whatever it is you really want.”

“I’m afraid that for the moment I’ll have to leave it at that. How much?”

“Oh, just a token. Whatever you think is fair. Generous, but fair.”

We hung up.

I went to my living-room desk and got an envelope. I thought about putting a dime in it, but for the future’s sake I decided not to fun around. I wrote out a check for five dollars and sent it to Miss Simmons, care of the Indianapolis Star.

Maude is quite a gal. Ancient, profane, hard-drinking and avaricious. She’s also a boon to the thirty or so private-detective offices in Indianapolis. From her nerve center as Sunday features editor at the Star her real business is supplying news to private parties. The stuff that’s not fit to print: personal backgrounds, credit information, household secrets. She has a network of people with ears and talents. And she makes money with it. Not usually from two-bitters like me, though I’ve done some real business with her too. She says the police have used her services; I am not accustomed to disbelieve.

I left my notebook at the phone table, but my mind was just not on the crossword wavelength. I wished it were Thursday, instead of Wednesday. Not so much because I would know better where I stood with Eloise et al., but because the Pacers would be playing. First game of the season as defending champs of the American Basketball Association. I am a basketball fan and the Pacers’ radio broadcasts come in very handy for passing the long winter nights. Sometimes, when I am lucky and the sports photographers are indisposed, I get a call to take some basketball pics. I develop black and white in my office closet, and apart from spot free-lancing, the camera stuff helps in the PI work too. Bits of a life can dovetail.

I tried to put aside my thoughts of Crystals. But there weren’t too many concrete thoughts to put aside. From what Maude had given me it seemed that Fleur was a quiet one. And therefore, perhaps, dangerous?

And Eloise? A girl-woman. Adolescence makes for a biologically based dual personality. Perhaps the real question was: Which half was the one that wanted to hire me? And how much chance there was that the blood typings turned out to be exactly as advertised. But mine was not to weep and wonder. I could wait until the morrow.

I set aside my crossword puzzle for the last time and wrote a letter to my daughter. I told her about some rabbits and bears I talked to recently. Very nice, unsymbolic rabbits and bears who got along well and slapped their knees after they told jokes. My daughter is nine now. Maybe a little old to talk to rabbits and bears. Fathers can’t be expected to know everything.

Taking the book I’d used in the afternoon, I went to bed.

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