Book: Ask the Right Question

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4

First thing back in the office, I called Clinton Grillo. He’s one of my lawyers, the one I use for actual and possible criminal prosecution of my nearest and dearest. Me. His secretary asked me to hold on. Which I did, for nearly ten minutes.

The question I needed answering was whether I was legally free to take on a fifteen-year-old female client.

“You’ve come up with some interesting questions in your time Albert. Is this one hypothetical?” He is also the father of one of my closer high school friends.

“No, sir, it’s not.”

“I am presuming the young lady wishes to employ you without the knowledge of her parents.”

“That is correct.”

“Well, I know of no specific prohibitions, but there would seem to be many dangers. For instance, you would have no legal recourse should such a client decide to withhold payment of monies owed you. And were she to visit you alone in your office you would be particularly vulnerable should such a client take it into her head to make, sexual accusations. Especially, shall we say, if someone else had already done what the client decided to accuse you of.”

“You have a dirty mind, sir.”

“True, my boy. How true.”

“That’s it?”

“Isn’t it enough for you to think about?”

“Guess so.”

It all depends on just how much you trust the minor client. How serious you believe it is and how likely to turn sour.

Eloise Crystal arrived at my office ten minutes before four o’clock. By doing so she gave me a time measure of the hesitation which preceded her arrival at 4:25 the day before.

But the difference was more than one of time. Confidence declared itself in her walk, in the efficiency with which she took the chair. Today the chair was her own. The net impression was the inverse of her last visit. Today she dressed younger—skirt, blouse, sandals, no shades—but she radiated more maturity. An assured young woman. My fifteen-year-old chamelion.

“Well,” she said. “How are we doing? Found his name yet?”

She was joking, but I also suspected that she knew little of the tedium and irresolution of the world. Today’s joke might be a serious inquiry next week and I could easily have just as little to tell her.

“I did do a little work today, as a matter of fact. But we still haven’t settled whether I’m going to work for you or not.”

She dropped her head a little, and said, “I know. But I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m really glad that I decided to come yesterday. It’s a load off my mind somehow. That I’ve finally taken a positive step to get it all solved.”

“I thought you only found out about those blood types in the last couple of weeks.”

She nodded. “But I’ve always known something was wrong. Before I just didn’t know what.”

“Wrong with you?”

“Yeah. Something about me that made it bad between them. Like, I used to think I was an orphan.”

Almost everybody does. “And what do you think now?”

She paused and tried to get it right, the way she felt it. “I think, well, that Leander knows that I’m not his and that he’s sort of repressed my mother for it.”

Repressed? “Don’t they get along?”

“They don’t really not get along. But they don’t do anything together. They don’t smile at each other. He goes off to work in the morning and sometimes doesn’t come back till late. Mummy worries a lot that she’s sick. And they don’t have any friends.”

She resented it. Parents should have friends.

My cuckoo sounded off four times.

I leaned back in my chair and put my foot up on the bottom desk drawer edge. It’s one of my favorite thinking positions. “Eloise,” I said. It was the first time I had said her name.

“I’m listening,” she said. She wasn’t happy.

“You see, I’m in a difficult position. Basically that is because the particular problem you want me to solve is one which I can’t be sure I can solve. I could work for weeks and not have any information that would help you. And that runs into money, pretty big money.”

“I understand that. I have money. I have a trust fund that my grandfather made for me.”

“The problem is that you might be spending a lot for nothing.”

“I don’t care. I don’t have anything else I want that I can spend it on.”

Which seemed fair enough, as a matter of fact.

“Another thing is that you might be better off with one of the big agencies. I’m just one man.”

“I tried one of them,” she said. “One with a big ad in the yellow pages.”

“What did they tell you?”

“They wouldn’t take me seriously. They weren’t rude or anything, but they just said they couldn’t help me and that I should go to my parents and ask them.”

“That might not be bad advice.”

“Oh, I just couldn’t do that.” She shuddered. “The man at the agency just thought I was crazy.” She gave me a smile. “At least that’s some progress I’m making. You don’t think I’m crazy, do you?”

“No, I don’t,” I said honestly. “But I will have to check the blood typings you gave me.”

“But why?” she said heatedly. “They’re right. I did them myself.” Defending her handiwork. An attitude I like.

“That’s the point. I would have to check them myself. As you’ve outlined things the entire investigation would depend on the accuracy of those blood types. With any crucial facts it is essential to check them and cross-check them.”

“OK,” she said. “Will you do it?”

A question I hadn’t really answered in my mind. There was one more set of conditions that needed to be met, but I could hardly ask her for some way to prove her personal reliability. For one reason because she was not really competent to evaluate it.

“Let’s do it this way,” I said. “I will take your job, but with the following limitations. It will be on a day-to-day basis. I’ll keep working as long as I think I am finding out things that might be useful. But no longer.”

“So you’ll take it?”

“On those conditions.”

“Oh, I’m so glad. I was afraid there for a minute that you were going to send me away too.”

“I may.”

“But not for a while. I’m so glad. I just feel sure that you’re going to settle it all for me.

“I guess it’s time to undermine your confidence,” I said. “Here’s my first report. I’ve found out that you were conceived in Europe, probably France, during the winter of 1953–54.”

She was a little surprised. “I never thought—” She was silent.

“Your parents were traveling there during the winter and I counted backward from your exact birth date.”

She blushed. I just smiled and watched the color come to her cheeks and then go back to wherever it came from.

“I also saw a picture of your mother pregnant with you and a picture of you arriving in Indianapolis from New York when you were two weeks old.”

“I was born in New York,” she said, though it must have been obvious that I already knew.

“Do you know why your parents went there before you were born?”

“To get away, after my grandfather died. He died in that same summer.”

I nodded. And I was realizing that in my thinking about the case I had been working mostly on whether I should take it or not. Not on how I should go about it if I did take, it. Here I had my client all ready and willing to answer questions, and I didn’t really know what questions I wanted to ask her.

So I thought of one.

“I need to find some people who knew your parents around the time they were married and you were born. Can you think of any who go back that far?”

She thought. “There’s Mrs. Forebush. She used to be my grandfather’s maid or nurse or something. Until he died. She comes over to see me sometimes and she tells me what a man my grandfather was.” She made her eyes big on the word “man.” “Sometimes she brings me little presents, funny things like flowers or stones or old calendars she’s found. Mummy hates her. Mummy goes to her room whenever Mrs. Forebush comes around.”

“What do you think of her?”

“She’s OK. A little funny maybe, but she likes me.”

“Is there anybody else?”

“Well, Dr. Fishman. He’s my family doctor. I know he used to be my grandfather’s doctor and I know he knows Mummy and Leander because he asks me about them sometimes.”

I began to feel that she was tiring, but I plunged on. “Do you talk about old times with your mother?”

“Not really.”

“You must have asked her things like whether she had a lot of boyfriends when she was a girl, or how she did in school. Stuff like that.”

“Not really. Not a lot. That’s one of the things about our family. We don’t ever talk like that. The only real thing, Mummy used to take me up to the attic and read me letters she has there.” She thought. “But I don’t think she had real boyfriends before Leander. That’s my impression.”

She was pretty drained. There would be other times for other questions. Except for one. “Can you tell me what you will do with your biological father if I do find him?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe go and live with him. I don’t know for sure.”

I let it ride.

She didn’t know Mrs. Forebush’s address, but she gave me Dr. Fishman’s. The high school she attended was Central.

My assured young woman had become a tired girl.

After she left I realized that the emotional drain and fatigue had been mutual.

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