Fred East called Ben on a Monday Morning. There was worry in his voice. Ben figured it must be bad health news because Fred had too much money to worry about anything else. Fred didn’t say what was bothering him, just asked for an appointment. Ben said come in this afternoon at two. Fred said I’ll be there.
“I never dreamed this could happen. My son Fred Jr. wants to marry Mary Heath. She’s my daughter — I think, I’m not sure. What the hell should I do?”
Mary Heath’s mother, Alice, was and had been when Mary was conceived and ever since married to Bill Heath, a real estate salesman known for moving big rural properties. His was a boom or bust occupation, but Bill had survived in it many years.
“Well, first figure out if Mary is in fact your child, if you can. Have you asked Alice?”
“Have not talked to her in twenty years. But I have sent her by wire transfer, supposedly untraceable to me, three thousand a month since before Mary was born.”
Ben at first thought this odd, then he didn’t.
“DNA — Mary’s and yours — has the answer,” Ben said.
“How do we get Mary’s DNA ?” Fred asked.
“Do not know. Mind if I talk to an expert?” Ben said.
“Go ahead,” Fred said, and rushed out of Ben’s office. Ben did not blame him.
Next morning at Millie’s, Ben offered to hire Sam as his expert and explained the problem. Sam listened silently and unbelieving. He nodded that he understood. “Let me think about whether I should take this on.”
He did not have to think about whether Fred was Mary’s father. He knew, but ethically he could not tell Ben. That would violate a confidence with Alice, who when DNA parental identification first became available had come to Sam for advice. Sam had arranged through a private detective to get DNA from Fred East (the detective picked up Fred’s fork after he breakfasted at Millie’s and slipped it into a plastic bag, somehow without being seen). Sam had it checked against Mary’s which her mother had supplied via a tooth brush. Sam knew for certain Mary was not Fred East’s child. He knew also that Alice had been collecting $3,000 a month on the possibility, which she knew since the DNA test was not a fact. He had advised Alice to get legal advice about that which she had done from an Atlanta lawyer. He had said that since Alice had not asked Fred for money or represented to Fred that Mary was his child she could lawfully continue to accept the money. Fred presumably knew about DNA tests and had never asked Alice to supply Mary’s DNA for a test.
Sam knew he had to talk to Alice, but how about the ethics of that? Of course if Alice did not oppose the marriage that would be the same as telling Fred he was not Mary’s father. So long, $3000 a month. Sam called Alice, but did not tell her of Ben’s attempt to hire him as an expert, just that he had heard Mary and Fred Jr. were engaged, the truth as far as it went. She came to Sam’s office that afternoon.
“I’ve been telling Bill the money was from an inheritance from a non-existent aunt all these years. Told him it was a tax free annuity out of a trust. When it stops he will ask why. If I say the trust is used up he is going to ask to see the Trustee’s correspondence telling me that.” Sam just nodded. “Talk to your Atlanta lawyer,” Sam advised. “He’s dead,” said Alice.
“I am going to talk to Fred and tell him everything, the whole truth.” Sam nodded again, but offered no advice. “Good luck,” was all he could think to say.
Alice called Fred and he proposed they meet at Ben’s office. He called Ben who offered use of his library-conference room. Joanne ushered Alice in where Fred was waiting, drinking coffee Joanne had served him. She offered some to Alice who instead asked for a Coca-Cola — “I am an Atlanta girl,” her attempt at a light touch.
“Fred, Mary is not your child. I have known it ten years now. Got your DNA through a private detective and had it tested against Mary’s. I wanted to tell you but had a dilemma. If and when your payments stopped I did not know what to tell Bill. I had told him the money was coming as an annuity from an aunt’s trust and it the money stopped I knew that lie would unravel just like it is going to unravel now. I am sorry.”
Fred’s emotions bounced around the room like a cue ball off the rails on a good nine-ball break. First relief, then anger, then fear of what Bill Heath might do to him when he learned of his wife’s affair of a quarter century ago. After three minutes of silence he said, “Let’s get Ben Reach’s advice.”
Alice knew Ben only by reputation, but his easy uncritical smile put her at ease. Fred explained what Alice had just told him. “I need to think about this a while, and so do you two,” Ben said after a few minutes reflection. “Fred, I’ll call you. Alice, check back with me day after tomorrow.”
Next morning at breakfast in Millie’s, Ben told Sam what had happened, and Sam revealed his involvement with Alice which she had mentioned to Ben yesterday.
“What do they do,” Ben asked. Sam said, “I’ve thought about that a lot. Seems to me the only safe way out is for Fred to keep paying. He apparently hasn’t missed the $36,000 a year thus far.”
“I figure it the same way,” Ben said. “Wages of sin pretty high.”
They flipped for the check and Sam lost.
Back at the office Ben called Fred East. Before Ben could offer any advice Fred said, “I do not see any solution but to continue the payments to Alice. And I don’t really mind. It’s such a relief not to have to say anything to Fred Jr. And truth be known I still love Alice. It’s easy for me to see how he wants to marry her daughter.”
That afternoon at 4:30 the curmudgeons sipped their Macallan in silence in Ben’s library-conference room. “Life is so strange, and so often tragic, it’s sweet when a train wreck is avoided,” Sam said. “I’ll drink to that,” Ben said, and reached for the bottle to pour them a dividend.