Authors: Mackenzie Morgan
When the door opened, Pallor saw Mr. Blalock seated at the head of a large table with a stack of folders in front of him.
“Would you like something to drink?” Marcy asked.
“No, thank you.”
Mr. Blalock motioned for Pallor to have a seat as Marcy quietly left and shut the door. “I’ve found six couples who meet your requirements and who are willing to agree to the stipulations that you want included in the contract. I won’t pretend that they’re all the cream of the crop as far as parents go though.”
“I understand. I’m just glad you were able to find so many who would agree to the terms.”
Mr. Blalock nodded and pointed to the folders. “Do you want to go over the files here, or do you want to take them with you?”
“What’s in them?”
“Mainly background checks and financial statements. Each of these couples has approached a lawyer who handles private adoptions. That’s how I got their names. Some said they were tired of waiting for a child; some said they didn’t want the hassle of dealing with an adoption agency. Truthfully, most of them have probably been turned down for one reason or another. Anyway, their lawyers provided us with some basic information based on their interviews with their clients. I have to tell you, it’s going to take you some time to go through all this.”
“Then I’d rather take them with me. Do you have a box or something?”
Mr. Blalock got up to get one. “I know you’re planning to go to their homes to interview them, so I had their lawyers provide directions. I hope they’re accurate, but I wouldn’t guarantee it.”
Mr. Blalock packed the folders in a box, handed it to Pallor, and opened the door for him. “Let me know what you want me to do next. If she’s happy with one of these, we’ll get started on the paperwork. If not, we’ll go back and search some more, although I can’t promise that we’ll find anyone she’ll like any better.”
~ ~ ~ ~
As soon as Pallor got home, he went through the six sets of folders to find the addresses. He jotted down the names of the towns, picked up the phone, and called his travel agent. When he got her on the line, he said, “Cynthia, I’ve got a challenging problem for you. If you can get it all worked out, I’ll take you out to dinner, anywhere you want to go.”
“Right. I’ll just add that to the list of what you already owe me,” she said with a chuckle. Then she got serious. “Okay. Where are you off to now?”
“Los Angeles, Key Biscayne, New York City, Memphis, Aspen, and Ottumwa, Iowa.”
“What are you doing? A book tour?”
“No, interviews. Look, I don’t care what order I go in, but I’ve got to get in and out of all these cities and be back here by Friday, September 12. Oh, and if you can arrange it, I’d like to be in New York at some point over the weekend.”
“When can you leave?”
“Okay. Since you’re doing interviews, you’ll need at least twenty-four hours in each of the cities, right?”
“Yes, and a rental car.”
“And a hotel room. Got it. I’ll call you back in a couple of hours. Wish me luck!”
But before he could do that, she’d hung up the phone.
The Search Begins
By lunchtime on Wednesday, Pallor was flying towards Aspen, Colorado. Once again, Cynthia had come through. He was booked into a hotel less than a mile from the airport and a rental car was supposed to be waiting for him when he landed.
After he had picked up his itinerary Tuesday afternoon, he’d called Mr. and Mrs. Haverston and made an appointment for Wednesday evening at 7:00 at their condo. He figured he’d get back to the hotel sometime around 10:00, which would give him plenty of time to get a good night’s sleep. His flight out of Aspen wasn’t until Thursday afternoon.
While he was in flight, Pallor went back over the background and financial statements on the Haverstons. The background checks listed Marvin Haverston’s age as thirty-eight and Clarissa’s as thirty-five, and although he had attended Dartmouth, there was no record that he’d graduated, and there was no indication that she’d even graduated from high school. They had been married for ten years, but had been engaged for more than three years before they got married, and had been seeing each other for a couple of years before that. There was a note from the private investigator that it seemed to be common knowledge that the reason they’d had such a long engagement was that his mother disapproved of her and had threatened to cut her son off if he married her. Although his mother eventually relented, she still felt that her son had married beneath him.
According to the investigator, their only income was a monthly allowance from his mother. The title to the condo was in her name, as were the titles to the cars registered to that address, and she was the one who paid the maid, cook, and chauffeur.
Pallor checked into the hotel, ate dinner, and drove out to their condo. As he approached the area, he could tell the price of real estate was going up. The housing developments were farther and farther from the main road, and when he reached theirs, he found a manned security gate. After he had shown his ID and the guard had called the Haverstons to verify that they were expecting him, the guard gave him explicit directions as to where to park and then opened the gate to let him through.
A woman in her early twenties opened the door when he rang the bell and asked him to follow her. She was dressed in a dark gray maid’s uniform and led him down an entrance hall lined with expensive paintings. The floor was covered with various-sized oriental rugs, and although she walked on them as if they were nothing, he felt guilty stepping on them. They were of museum quality. When they reached an arched opening, she stepped to the side and waved him through.
The room he entered was done completely in white: white furniture, white walls, white carpet, white curtains, and white throw pillows. The only color was provided by the ornate collection of blown glass that was scattered about on every flat surface in the room.
Clarissa Haverston was draped over one of the long white couches in a flimsy dressing gown that was probably advertised as a hostess gown and sold for hundreds of dollars. She was smoking a cigarette in an eight-inch holder and drinking champagne out of a flute. Marvin Haverston stood next to the fireplace in a red velvet smoking jacket, complete with ascot. He had a pipe in one hand and a shot glass with an amber liquid in it in the other.
As Pallor entered, Mr. Haverston raised his glass in greeting and said, “Would you care for a shot of thirty-year-old Laphroaig? Sorry I can’t offer you anything older, but the last time we were in London, they were out of the forty-year-old.”
Pallor shook his head and said, “No, thank you. I’m driving, and I’m not familiar with the area, but I do appreciate the offer.” He had an incredible urge to laugh. The whole thing looked so staged. Surely these people didn’t live like this. No one did.
Mr. Haverston waved with his pipe towards one of the chairs. “Have a seat, my good man. Are you sure there’s nothing we can get you?”
“No, really, I’m fine,” Pallor said as he sat on the edge of the chair Mr. Haverston had indicated. “If you don’t mind, I’m a little pressed for time. I just arrived in Aspen a couple of hours ago, and I have to catch a plane out of here tomorrow, and I do have a few questions that I’d like to ask.”
“Anything,” Mrs. Haverston said, “and please, call me Clarissa.”
Pallor thanked her and said, “ It’s obvious that you’re well off, and I feel sure that you would qualify for a child with the regular adoption agencies. Could you tell me why you’re interested in a private adoption?”
Clarissa fluttered her eyes and said, “I have a feeling we can trust Mr. Stewart. Don’t you, dear?”
Mr. Haverston grunted. “I guess so, but we can’t take any chances that anything we tell you will get back to Mummy.”
Pallor had the urge to laugh again, but he stifled it and nodded. “Anything you tell me will be kept in strictest confidence.”
Clarissa and her husband looked at each other for a moment, and then he nodded, so she said, “When I was younger, about seventeen, I made a little boo-boo and had to have it taken care of. Only the doctor wasn’t that good a doctor, and I ended up unable to have babies.”
When Pallor didn’t say anything, Haverston cleared his throat and added, “You see, Mummy considers it my duty to provide her with a grandchild, preferably a grandson, to carry on the family name. She’s been after us to get pregnant ever since the wedding, and lately she’s started threatening to cut us off if we don’t. Only Clarissa can’t and we can’t tell her why. If Mummy knew about Clarissa’s past, she’d have our marriage annulled.”
Clarissa nodded. “We’ll have to pretend that I’m pregnant and tell her that the child is ours. She can’t ever know that it’s adopted.”
“You do understand that if you were to adopt my friend’s son, I’ll have to have free access to everything, don’t you?” Pallor asked.
“Certainly. That’s no problem,” Mr. Haverston said. “We just have to insist that Mummy never find out that he’s not ours. She’d cut me off in a heartbeat, and then where would we be?”
Pallor thought. “Where would you raise your son? Here, in Aspen?”
“Sometimes,” Clarissa said. “We have this condo, a house in Boston, the condo in Palm Springs, and a house in Bermuda. We find that things go better if we stay wherever my husband’s mother isn’t.”
“I see,” Pallor said. “What about school?”
Mr. Haverston spoke up. “When the time comes for school, you can help us pick out a good boarding school, maybe something overseas.”
Pallor nodded and stood up. “Well, I guess that about covers everything I had. Do you have any questions?”
Clarissa nodded. “Just a couple. Is the mother all right? And do you know anything about the father? I mean, we don’t want a child who’s going to be handicapped or crazy or anything.”
How about a sorcerer? Or a seer?
Pallor thought. “I assure you, she’s intelligent, sane, and healthy, and so is he. She just can’t keep the child. She has a career that’s very important to her and it takes all of her time.”
“Well, not quite all of her time,” Clarissa giggled.
“When will you be bringing us the child?” Mr. Haverston asked.
Pallor hesitated and then said, “I’m afraid there might have been a miscommunication. I’m interviewing several couples for the mother. She has the final say. I’ll get back with you in about a month, one way or the other. And if she decides that she’d like for you to raise her son, we’ll sort out all the details then.”
“Well, should I go ahead and announce my pregnancy?” Clarissa asked.
“No, not yet,” Pallor said, thinking never, if it were up to him. “The baby isn’t due until mid-March. There’ll be plenty of time to make announcements later.” Then Pallor thanked them for their time and left.
~ ~ ~ ~
His flight from Aspen to Des Moines didn’t leave until 4:00 Thursday afternoon, so Thursday morning, before checking out of his hotel, he reviewed the folder on the Peters. They were both in their early forties and had grown up on adjoining farms. After they married, their parents had sold them both of the farms for nominal amounts, so while on paper they were worth quite a bit, as far as working capital was concerned, they were living season to season. A bad year would pretty much wipe them out. Their only fallback was a couple hundred acres of woodlands that could either be sold outright or cut for lumber. They had used lumber from a few of the acres to pay the initial fees with their lawyer. Neither of them had gone to college, but both had finished high school, and Mr. Peters had taken several extension courses through a local community college.
By the time he had arrived in Des Moines, picked up his rental car, grabbed a bite to eat, and driven to Ottumwa, he was bushed. All he wanted was a shower and a bed.
After he checked into his motel, he pulled out the directions to the Peters’s farm and compared them to the area map that had been left for him in the rental car. He had told them to expect him at 9:00 Friday morning, so he figured he’d need to leave Ottumwa by 8:00, giving himself an hour to find the place. He set his travel alarm clock for 6:30 and went to bed.
At ten minutes till nine the next morning, he pulled off the narrow country highway onto a dirt track that served as the Peters’s driveway. As he drove toward the house, he looked around him. The barns all seemed to be in good shape: good roofs, fresh paint, yards clear of debris. The few pieces of farm equipment that were out and about showed signs of use but also signs of care and attention. He could see a mixture of crops, cow pastures, and woods from the road, but he had no idea how much belonged to the Peters. The farmhouse was a two-story frame house with wide porches, several chimneys poking out of the roof, and huge trees in the yard. It looked like it had been standing there for at least fifty years, probably longer.
Several dogs came out from under the porch when he pulled up in front of the house and parked the car. As he stepped out of the car, one of them approached, sniffed, and gave his hand a quick lick. Then, seeing the lead dog’s sign of approval, the rest of the pack came towards him, wagging their tails.
While he was petting the dogs, the front door opened and a woman stepped outside. She was wearing a plain dress, an apron, ankle socks, and cheap tennis shoes. Her hair had been pulled back in a ponytail, but a few strands had escaped the rubber band and were hanging down around her face. As she wiped her hands on her apron, she cocked her head to one side and asked, “Mr. Stewart?”
Pallor nodded, still petting the dogs.
“We’ve been expecting you. Mr. Peters is out at the barn seeing to the one of the cows. He’ll be in directly. Come on in.”
Pallor nodded and followed her into the house. She led him through the living room into the kitchen where a big pot of something was steaming on the stove.
“I’m canning vegetables today, so we’ll have to sit in here and talk so I can keep an eye on things. Can’t afford to waste a pot full of beans.” She picked up a big wooden spoon and stirred the pot a couple of times. Then she turned away from the stove and waved Pallor towards a chair at the kitchen table. After he set down, she asked, “Care for some coffee? I perked it about 4:30 this morning for breakfast, but there’s still a little left in the pot. I’ve been keeping it hot just in case.”
Pallor pictured the thick black sludge that would be left in the bottom of the pot after hours of sitting on a hot stove and said, “No, thank you. I’m fine.”
Mrs. Peters nodded and turned back to the stove.
A few minutes later, a man walked through the back door. He was wearing a pair of dirty coveralls, a short-sleeve tee shirt, and work boots. He wiped his feet on the little rug in front of the door and nodded towards Pallor. “Mr. Stewart, right?” Again Pallor nodded. Mr. Peters pulled out the chair opposite Pallor and said, “Well, let’s get this over with. I’ve got work to do. Don’t have time to be sitting in here jawing all day.”
“I’ll try to be as brief as possible,” Pallor said. “First of all, why are you using a private adoption lawyer? Why not go through the state agency?”
“They take up too much of your time,” Mr. Peters said. “Want you to come in for interviews with all kinds of people and take classes in how to raise a kid. People been doing it for thousands of years without no classes. Our parents sure didn’t take any. No, we don’t have the time to waste on all their mess.”
“I see,” Pallor said slowly. “Why do you want a child if you’re so busy already?”
“To help out,” Mr. Peters said as if that was the most stupid question he’d ever heard. “Everyone knows that farm families depend on their children to keep the farm going. We can’t have none ourselves. My fault. Some kind of sickness when I was a kid. Anyway, we figure that we can count on maybe another twelve, fourteen years before I start needing some real help around here, help that we don’t have to pay for that is. And if we get a boy now, he’ll be ready to pull his share of the load about then.”
Pallor nodded as if the man’s explanations were the most logical in the world. “How do you feel about school?”
“Law says they have to go, they go. We finished school. Expect he will too, but most of what he needs to know, he’ll learn right here.”
“What if he wants to go to college?”
“No need of that,” Mr. Peters said.
“Well, if he really wants to, we might let him, if we can find someone else to help out around here while he’s gone,” Mrs. Peters said, laying her hand on her husband’s shoulder. “Wouldn’t hurt to learn some of the things that they teach over at the college. We’ll have to see how things are going.”