FAMILY AFFAIR
By Michael Mardis

The blue-steel barrel of the S & W Police Special pointed its accusing two-inch finger in the general direction of the big man's gut. I'd carried the revolver for twelve years and hadn't ever used it for anything but target practice but this joker didn't know that and Mrs. Trent's boy, James wasn't about to reveal that little piece of information. I pulled the hammer back and the sharp click of the engaging action sounded loud and dangerous in the confines of the quiet room. The big guy's Adam's apple bobbed in his throat like a buoy in a storm.

"Look here, Trent," he stammered. "I wasn't gonna really hurt you, just maybe rough you up a little." His voice had risen an octave or two and the words started to come faster. "You were nosin' in business that didn't concern you, Trent." He glanced at the gun in my hand and cleared his throat. "Not that I don't understand, don't get me wrong. You being a private dick and all, you gotta do your job but what a man does between the sheets, hell, that's his own business."

The guy's name was Joe Blanton, a real Neanderthal type who owed his fancy clothes and fancier lifestyle to his wife's substantial bank account. Rich wife had hired your's truly to do a little routine surveillance and Joe wasn't one bit happy about it. He figured that if he could persuade me to turn over the evidence, namely a big stack of "Adults Only" pics, he could get out of divorce court with enough community property to avoid the unemployment office.

He stormed into my office like he owned the place, waved a knuckle sandwich in my face and expected me to fold like a bad poker hand. A guy like that can frost your whole day. Hell, I don't like divorce cases, no private detective really does but they pay the bills. Maybe some guys can turn down two-fifty a day on principles but I ain't one of them.

Well, I've dealt with bully boys before and like most of them, Big Joe underwent an attitude adjustment when I pulled the gun. Some guys don't scare. You stick a piece in the wrong face and you'd better be ready to pull the trigger or eat the damn thing. Joe didn't strike me as that type.

Laura, my secretary, stuck her pretty blonde head in the door.

"Want me to call the cops?"

I shook my head. "Naw, he didn't break anything."

She gave me a stern look. "Suit yourself, Hero." Laura was a peach and my right hand but sometimes she came down with a bad case of smart-mouth.

I walked slowly over to Blanton, uncocking the revolver on the way. Only idiots and T.V. detectives play fast and loose with loaded guns. In real life, a manslaughter charge is just one mistake away.

Joe's heavy jowls worked as if he wanted to say something but at the last minute, he thought better of it. I could smell his cheap aftershave mixed with the pungent odor of cheaper liquor. "I'm not going to have any more trouble out of you, am I, Sport?"

"You've got the gun, Trent," he said softly, displaying more backbone than I'd given him credit for. "Do me a favor, though." The big man leaned closer. I should have been ready for it but that's what happens when you think you've got a guy all figured out. I had filed Joe Blanton in that little box in my head that said `Not a problem' and I paid for it.

A ham-like fist shot out and caught me square in the gut, before I could even double over, his right knee shot upward, straight into the Trent family jewel-box. I would have puked right then but I was afraid of what I might've heaved out.

Joe just looked at me for a minute, a big grin spread across his face. My gun was out of reach and my hands were busy cradling what little was left of my manhood. He leaned down beside me, his voice was soft and threatening but that big grin never left his face. "Let me give you a little free advice, Mister High-Priced Private Eye. The next time that you want to play with your fancy cameras, you be damned sure that it's not me they're pointing at."

His lips were a pale slash, cut into his doughboy face. "Do you understand me, Sport?"

I grunted in reply, a really first-class achievement considering the pain I was experiencing.

"I thought so," he said, the smile never leaving his face.

"I'm not even going to take my file. You've probably got copies of everything anyway. I'm just gonna trust you not to turn it over to my wife and her barracuda lawyers." As he left the office, Joe turned and looked at my prone form once more. The pain in my groin was only unbearable now but it was nothing compared to the mental butt-kicking that I was giving myself.

"Don't disappoint me, Trent. The next time, I won't kick your balls, I'll cut `em off and feed `em to you." For some strange reason, I believed him.

I made it to the office about a half-hour late the next morning, pretty good, considering the fact that I was still walking funny. Laura greeted me with a cheerful smile as I stumbled through the front door.

"How're they hanging, Jim!"

"By a thread, like your job," I snarled.

She grinned. "Temper, temper." Her oval features became serious. "Listen, Jim. Angela Blanton's going to be here any minute. What are you going to do about her case?"

"I'm giving her the file, what else?"

A worried expression crossed her face. "Do you really think that's a good idea?"

"Look, Laura, I've been roughed up before and threatened more times than I'd like to think about. It goes with the territory."

"Yeah, I know but this guy seems different somehow. Inside of all that fat is one dangerous dude."

I grimaced. "Tell me about it. The word gets around quick, though. Who, in their right mind, would hire an agency that lets itself get scared away from a case?"

The door chime sounded and a tall brassy blonde breezed into the reception area. Angela Blanton was one well-put-together female and you could tell that she knew it. It kinda made me wonder why Big Joe was out lookin' for it on the side when he had this available at home. The babe in the pictures had nothing at all on the wife.

Her voice was strong and firm and she shook my hand with a the same kind of grip. That still surprises me, even in these liberated days and I could tell by the amusement in her green eyes that she knew it. "Mister Trent, I assume that you have the material I requested."

It wasn't a question. This was definitely a woman who was used to getting her way. For a moment, I felt a flash of sympathy for Joe Blanton. I got over it.

Laura had already retrieved the file and I studied Mrs. Blanton's face as she leafed through the glossies. Her mouth was set in a grim line and I could see the muscles of her slender neck working in suppressed fury. Her expression was ice-cold as she returned the pics to the folder and handed it back.

"You can keep it if you want," I said. "The motel receipts are in the file and I have a couple of audio tapes in the safe."

Angela Blanton pulled some bills out of her handbag and threw them on the counter.

"That won't be necessary, Mister Trent."

"Aren't you taking these to court?"

She glared at me. "Mister Trent, did you bother to find out who the woman in those photos really is?"

I sighed. "Usually, it serves no purpose but I can if it's really important."

"It's quite important but I don't need you to identify my own sister!"

I whistled softly. "So that's the story. I didn't really notice the resemblance."

"You wouldn't," she said sharply. "You strike me as the kind of man who would notice a woman's other attributes long before you ever looked at her face."

Hell, that was unfair. I noticed faces. Maybe a woman's face wasn't the first thing about her to catch my eye but I noticed. Laura chuckled in the background. After receiving my dirtiest look, she primly returned to her word-processor.

Angela snapped her purse shut. "I think that our business is completed, Mister Trent. For obvious reasons, I would appreciate your confidentiality in this matter." She laughed sarcastically. "I'll be sure to recommend you to all my friends."

Yeah, both of `em, I thought grumpily as her trim figure disappeared out the glass outer door. No wonder Blanton was so antsy about those pictures. A man could dig himself a real deep hole playing the kind of games he was into. Something was wrong about this whole deal though, Angela Blanton was taking it way too easy. My early-warning radar was going off and I had learned a long time ago not to ignore it. The next morning, I found out why.

I was barely into my second cup of coffee when Laura walked into my office carrying the morning edition. "Jim, you'd better take a look at this."

The usual stories of mayhem and mischief were spread across the front page. I scanned the headlines quickly and gave a low whistle. "Hell-O, what have we got here?"

Laura nodded. "I thought that might get your attention."

Yeah, it always gets my attention when the sister of a very recent client is found murdered in her apartment. Especially, when sis has been carrying on with that same client's husband. I scanned the article further. "Angela didn't tell us that her daddy had left such a big estate."

Laura shrugged. "Why should she? You knew she was loaded and she didn't exactly look like the type that would make it on her own."

She looked at me questioningly. "Are you going to call the police?"

"You betcha, I don't owe either one of the Blantons a damn thing and I don't exactly relish the idea of going to jail for suppression of evidence." With Laura close behind, I trotted into the outer office and picked up the phone. I hadn't punched the first number when the outside door burst open and Angela Blanton stormed into the room.

"Trent, I've got to talk to you."

Laura rolled her eyes but my curiosity had just gone into over-drive. "Come on back to the office."

As soon as the door clicked shut, Angela plopped down into one of the comfortable leather chairs that I keep around for clients. Her hands were trembling and her breath was coming in short, ragged gasps. "Have you got a cigarette?"

"Sorry, I quit a few months ago."

"Great timing, who ever heard of a private detective who didn't smoke?"

"So, I'm a health nut." My voice took on a hard edge. "Look, Mrs. Blanton. Cut the bullshit. You didn't come here to bum a smoke, make small talk, or discuss my personal habits. Spill it and quit wasting my time, I've got a phone call to make."

Hope flashed in her green eyes. "You mean you haven't called the police yet?"

"Not yet but don't get any funny ideas. I'm going to tell them all I know about your little love triangle."

She crossed her legs and her short skirt rode up the smooth nylon of her stockings. She caught my gaze and smiled. "Don't you have a code of ethics, Mister Trent? What about client confidentiality?"

I grunted. "Hey, I'm not a lawyer or a priest, Mrs. Blanton, just a small businessman trying to get by and in my business, the goodwill of the local blue-suit crowd is an important commodity. We're talking murder here, not a traffic ticket."

"I need your help, Trent and I don't know where else to turn."

"You need a lawyer, Mrs. Blanton."

She shook her head impatiently. "I've got lawyers, Mister Trent but I also need a trained investigator. You know how the police operate, once they find a likely suspect, they quit looking for anything else and I simply can't take that chance."

"And the fact that you stand to inherit all of Daddy's money makes you suspect number one."

"Exactly. And if the police find out that Joe and my sister were fooling around...Well, that won't help matters at all."

The haze started to clear slowly from my head. "That was your scarf, wasn't it? The one the cops found wrapped around your sister's neck."

"Dammit, Trent, I didn't kill her! There wasn't any love lost between us, I'll admit that but I wouldn't kill her!" Her voice was passionate and here eyes were alight with green fire. Maybe I was crazy but I believed her. My instincts had been wrong before but it was all that I had to go on.

"So what do you want me to do, Mrs. Blanton?"

"I need you to keep quiet about the work you did for me, at least for a few days. I also need you to find out who really killed Maria. I don't expect you to keep quiet forever, if you haven't found anything out in a day or two, tell the police what you know. Tell them you didn't hear about the murder until then."

Sure, they'd believe that. She shifted in the leather chair and her skirt rose a few more interesting inches. This gal knew her stuff all right. "I can make it worth your while, Mister Trent."

"Look, Mrs. Blanton. You're some kind of dish and I'm not saying that I'm not tempted. But, no offense, you ain't worth going to jail for."

Her green eyes went ice-cold and she pulled the skirt down in the direction of her knees. The skirt wasn't quite up to the job but at least the atmosphere was clearing up a little. "Okay, Mister Trent," she said cooly. "Perhaps this will be more to your liking. She reached into her purse and pulled out a wad of dead presidents big enough to choke a horse. She tossed the bundle at my desk and all that I could do was stare.

"Ten thousand dollars for two days work, Mister Trent. Cash. Surely, even your high standards can bend for that kind of money."

Bend? Hell, she'd just broke `em all to pieces. I picked up the bundle of loot and resisted the urge to leaf through it.

"Okay, Mrs. Blanton. You've just hired yourself a private investigator. Two days and that's it, I'll do what I can."

She rose from the chair and smoothed her clothes. "That's all I ask." She moved to the door. "Mister Trent?"

"What is it?"

She smiled and flashed her perfectly formed front teeth. "Call me Angela."

The condo was called "The Sands." I have no idea why since the only sand to be found for miles was in the cigarette urns flanking the lobby doors. The whole place smelled like money, if you know what I mean. Just the type of digs that you'd expect a rich, single, young heiress to inhabit and probably the last place you'd expect them to be murdered.

It was a security building but that's mostly a joke. Somebody is always expecting somebody and I only had to push five intercom buttons before the lobby doors buzzed open. The elevator was a key job but just as I'd expected, the door to the stair well was unlocked. According to the nameplate in the lobby, Maria Reynold's apartment was on the fourth floor and I made the climb quickly.

The hallway was dim and fortunately for me, deserted. The door to the apartment was sealed, of course. That didn't worry me any. The police supply houses sold sealing tape by the running mile and I'd brought along a roll to re-seal the place after I was finished. I carefully broke the seal and opened the door. It wasn't locked. The blue-suits have mucho faith that Average Joe Citizen won't mess with a police barrier.

I slipped on a pair of latex gloves and went inside. The room was a wreck. Furniture scattered all over the place, drawers hanging open and every cabinet door was standing ajar. Kinda reminded me of my nephew's room on a good day.

Something was wrong, really wrong and I couldn't put my finger on just what it was. With a nice pad like this available, why had Joe Blanton and sexy sis-in-law used a bunch of seedy motels for their little get togethers? It just didn't make sense. At least not until I saw the picture.

It was a nice little framed job, sitting on the coffee table in front of the sofa. Two very attractive females who bore a striking resemblance to each other. One of the ladies was my client, Angela Blanton and the other was obviously her sister. There was just one problem. The sister was definitely not the babe that I had made surveillance photos of with Randy Hubby.

I'd been had big-time. While it wasn't exactly a brand-new experience, what hurt was that it was all my fault. I'd been in this business long enough to know that you've gotta do your homework. Instead, just like a dumb jackass, I'd accepted things at face value without checking the facts. I guess that wad of bills had numbed the few brain cells that I had left.

Grimacing, I put the picture down and shook my head slowly. The whole thing smelled like a set-up and I started to back out of that room real fast. That's when the lights came on the blue-suits shoved me against the wall.

The cops played rough and it was touch and go for a while. They searched my office and you'd better believe that ten-grand in my safe raised some eyebrows. They didn't have a real case. The only motive I could have had for killing Maria would have been robbery. They played with that theory for awhile but I was clean, no record, no priors and had a fairly prosperous agency, not to mention a damn good lawyer.

I told my story and turned over my files on the Blanton Case but Angela had been two steps ahead of me all the way. The only proof I had of my association with her were the pics of her husband with, what turned out to be, a local prostitute. Joe Blanton was a big help, he accused me of using the pics for a shakedown scheme. I suppose he was ready at this point to do anything that Angela told him to do. The fact that he had little love to spare for me was icing on the cake.

Laura's testimony saved my ass with the Grand Jury. My files and her back-up put just enough doubt in their collective heads to get me off the hook, for murder, anyway. I was going to be doing a lot of community service in the near future to pay off the charges that did stick.

Like the Lady herself had said, once the cops have a likely suspect, they forget everything else. Angela Trent's little red-herring, namely, Mrs. Trent's boy, James, had occupied their collective attention giving Angela plenty of time to collect the other half of her father's considerable estate. As her sister's only living relative, Angela naturally received everything, especially since a will never turned up.

Convenient, huh? You'd have thought that somebody would have put two and two together, besides me, of course. I sang like a canary but as you can well imagine, my credibility wasn't exactly aces.

The last I heard, Angela Blanton was spending her considerable windfall on a sunny beach in a country with very lax extradition laws.

Roving hubby didn't make the trip with her. She had really thought things out and I admired her in a begrudging sort of way. I know that sounds crazy but I just can't help it. I've even made plans for my next vacation. I think I'll visit that sunny beach. Angela and I have some things to discuss.


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