Here's a lovely little tale about togetherness, featuring P.I. Joe Angello, nobody's idea of a looker. But there's ugly, and then there's UGLY...


A Family Affair
A Joseph Angello Story

by Peter A. Parmantie


........He thrust open my office door as though he expected it would stick. He stood aside. In paraded two women, one a teen. The man almost slammed it shut. The three stared at me. The man hadn't knocked. I didn't care.

........My new office was in a sleazy warehouse section of town. Its only virtue was that the rent was about as cheap as I could find. But even so it would soon be more than I could afford. It consisted of a single room containing one desk, one filing cabinet, and three chairs, one a lawn chair. My phone didn't ring much. I am also my own secretary and my own receptionist, should I ever need one. It was after five and I was just about to go home, or to what I called home since Maude died, but no such luck. I licked my chops and decided to think money for a change.

........I remained seated and stared at the trio, a man, his wife and, I assumed, their daughter. I didn't want to toss them out; I needed the money. Something about them prodded me into yellow alert, and it wasn't their abrupt entrance.

........Instant dislike is a funny thing, and as old as I am I knew enough to be suspicious of facile reactions. More than once I'd been dead wrong. Once, almost literally. And from there my reputation and my income took a slide. So I sat and evaluated the three, trying to trace the origin of my repulsion. Well, for one thing, they were snake-like. They stared, three basilisks. Compared to them, a cat's fixed glare was homey, warm. I was being dissected.

........The three had dressed carefully, in studied artificiality. Atop the man, perched a garishly unobtrusive hairpiece. Fingernails manicured. Tanned and fit with the tiniest hint of a gut. Clothes tastelessly expensive, making him appear ten years younger than his obvious forty, or so he thought. Large, tanned military face. Seamed.

........No, not seamed. Ravaged. I knew what to look for.

........The woman to his right, about his age, was a hard enameled doll with pretensions to Barbiedom, expensively coifed, dress two sizes too small. Hair done as in undone, one of those fashionable hairdos that look as though she had risen from entertaining a john. Streetcorner chic. It must have taken her hours to apply the makeup that seemed so artless. Plastic surgery, around the neck and eyes. Possibly breast implants. She had bulges where bulges counted.

........The daughter--she had to be--illustrated the last three adolescent clothing fads simultaneously. Her round, puffy face fixed itself in a pout of boredom as she inspected her surroundings with eyes dead as boiled eggs. Heavy makeup couldn't hide the zits. She was homely, a walking example of recessive genetics.

........They stared at me. Since they had money and I wanted some, I stared back. No one spoke.

........They saw a balding, large-nosed man twenty-five pounds overweight. I am five-six when I stand but they could check my height later. I was too tired to display the amenities. I never did anyhow and my life was too far gone to begin. Besides, I had to pee, and if I stood the need would become urgent.

........They weren't used to such treatment.

........So what? I'm a misanthrope and about as far from a positive thinker as you're likely to find. What the hell else would anyone expect of a near-sixty uninsurable PI with a hundred dollars left in his bank account and rent to pay?

........And she'd died anyhow.

........The man decided to break the silence. Maybe he didn't like my stare. "You're Angello, Joseph Angello?" He pronounced it properly, with the hard g. It wanted to be a statement but emerged a question. I had just moved in and the name wasn't on the door and wouldn't be until I got ready money. Tomorrow I would put a 3x5 card on the door giving my name and occupation for anyone interested enough to walk down to the end of the hall then turn right into an alcove with two doors. One is mine, the other is a storeroom.

........How the hell had they found me, anyhow? I'd not had the money to advertise my move.

........The wife inspected me, an up-and-down hooker's stare. The daughter had examined me as they marched in, without interest or emotion. She looked away, bored, her plain-pudding face expressionless. The boiled-egg eyes calculated limits. Unbeautiful and aware of it, she would some day make someone suffer for her homeliness. But not me; I'm homelier.

........"It'll be on the door one of these days," I said. "What can I do for you in a hurry?" I felt gritty and I ached with inertia. Whether you sit or whether you stand, waiting, worrying and mourning are worse than doing nothing, and I'd been doing nothing but waiting, worrying and mourning.

........The wife spoke. "We've lost our son." Her voice was shrewish, nasal, with an saran-thin layer of breeding acquired far too late in life to make much difference.

........I knew about loss. "Sit and we can talk." I'd been sitting and could for a few more minutes.

........They sat, the daughter in the lawn chair, in the middle of the group. The father sat close to her, the wife a few feet away. She looked steadily at me, pointedly ignoring her family. Or they, her.

........"I'm De Land Marks." He nodded, "My wife Jessie and our daughter, Rhonda."

........I nodded, then waited long enough to let him understand that his name meant nothing to me. When he was about to speak I said, "Your son is gone, as in disappeared?"

........"Jonathan refuses to come home."

........"You know where he is, then."

........The wife cut in, "He's away at college, going into the second semester of his freshman year, and I" She hesitated and glanced at her husband before refastening her Velcro stare on me, "We think he has fallen under some bad influence. He hasn't communicated with us since he left."

........The daughter whined, "And we've been there twice." Briefly her eyes came alive. She'd been insulted, put upon. It was personal, unforgivable.

........The mother continued to look me over, either a streetcorner stare or uncomfortable contact lenses. I opted for the former.

........De Land Marks sat close to his daughter. More than distance separated him from his wife. More distance needed between him and his daughter.

........Speculation like that only fuzzes the mind. I needed mental clarity, first to get money from these people, second, to trace my visceral dislike of them.

........I dropped my receptionist role. Money first. I said, "You need a family counselor. I'm a private investigator. If you know where he is, go pick him up, take him home. You say you know where he is."

........The husband nodded. "Yes."

........"If he's not kidnapped or lost, what do you want me to do?"

........"We want you to report on him."

........"Have you written him, phoned him, faxed him, e-mailed him?" I was getting impatient.

........"He won't answer."

........"Letters mainly?"

........"Yes."

........"Does he receive them? Is he at the address you send them to?"

........The daughter said, "Jonathan sends them back. He refuses them. They aren't even opened." The refusal was another personal insult.

........I ignored her. "Does his signature appear on the refusals," I asked him, "on the envelopes?"

........The mother said, "Yes. And the date." She refused to take her eyes off me. Her stare had intensified.

........I ignored her. "Look, Mister... "

........He smiled ingratiatingly, "Please, call me De Land."

........Carefully I repeated, "Mister Marks, you need a family counselor, not a private detective."

........The daughter's hand had crept up his inner thigh. When she saw my glance she removed it with insolent slowness. I held her stare but could not break it. I shifted my gaze to the father, whose face was a mask of solemn attentiveness. His leg had not moved, or his hands. They were folded placidly in his lap. The mother saw nothing.

........Marks said, "He must have known his regular allowance checks were inside."

........"Does he have a job, another source of income?"

........"He's never needed to work."

........I said again, snapping off the words, "Does he have a job?"

........The wife smiled. "Of course not." They were successful parents, after all.

........"Have you tried visiting him?"

........The daughter said, "He's never in, always away."

........"Any idea why he won't communicate with you?"

........As if in reply, Marks stood. From an inside coat pocket he extracted an envelope. Slowly, deliberately, he liberated bills, large bills, one after the other. Superb attention-getters. Who needs to answer questions when one has civilization's grease?

........"You want what, exactly?" I asked. He was not about to answer my previous question until after he dealt out the persuaders.

........At last he said, "Find out why he won't see us." He held the bills loose in one hand. Slowly he returned them to the envelope and placed it in the center of my desk. "Consider this an advance."

........"And after I find your son?"

........"Persuade him to come home," the wife broke in, nervously.

........"Or not, " sniffed the daughter.

........Mrs. Marks glared at her. "He's a part of the family." She mouthed the family, as if she were naming a rock group, as if it had some sacred connotation.

........I rose. "I'll do what you asked first, Mr. Marks. You want a report and I'll supply a report. I will report on his health and on his general condition. I will try to discover if he's in any trouble. But I won't try to talk him into returning home. I'm not much at persuasion." I wondered if he would also want to know why he wouldn't communicate with his family.

........He nodded quick agreement to my conditions. He did not approach the question of why his son was shunning them. The family rose. The wife was at least three inches taller than I, and she wasn't wearing heels. Her glance grew less sultry as her line of sight dipped. Thank God for short people.

........The bills on my desk, fifties all, made a respectable pile. I took them out and checked them quickly. He'd bought me for a month, fees and reasonable expenses both. A four thousand dollar retainer is a lot of grease, more than I'd been used to, much more than he needed to spend. If he'd heard of me, he would have known that too.

........He did not ask for a receipt and I did not offer one. The IRS had pretty much lost interest in me over the years.

........On the way out Marks handed me a complete list of the particulars I would require, neatly written out in fountain pen on expensive parchment paper the color of old ivory. He was thorough enough to have included a note of permission for me to act in his place, as his deputy, so to speak. The engraved letterhead screamed that De Land Marks was a stockbroker.

........Everything about the family screamed. Any more of them and I'dbe deveoping a headache. That on top of having to pee.

........For the advance he'd given me, he must have assumed that if he directed me to hog-tie his son and ship him home air freight I would have complied. With my bank balance, it was an equal chance. Clipped to the papers was a candid Polaroid of Jonathan Marks taken at a picnic. I looked at almost a copy of his sister. He redeemed his plainness by his eyes, alert and questioning. He smiled at the camera as if he, the camera, and the viewer of his photo shared a secret. His face was free of the discoloring zits, and, I was ready to bet, so was his mind.

........We nodded short good-byes. I exited last, briefly looking back at my office hole in the wall, then snapped off the light and turned the key. Jessie Marks was last in line going down the stairs. She turned to glance at me, then away, uninterested.

........Overdressed and subtly out of synch, all three. But money there, and here. I patted the envelope in my breast pocket. And no receipt.

........The toilet was three doors down. I used it.

........Out in the corridor again, I leaned against the wall and briefly closed my eyes. I was at rock-bottom, professionally and emotionally. Why had the Marks family sought me out, all three together when they could have hired other investigators with better reputations and for less money? And how did they get my name to begin with?

........Then I patted the envelope. Who the hell cares? For now.

........The office corridor--third floor of a sleazy office building in a seedy section of town--was grimy in the evening light. Dust bunnies and scraps of paper. Dirty windows. And the cheapest of cheap rent.

........I walked down the stairs. Nowhere to go but home.

Beardsley College was a plane flight away, a medium distance to the east. It was a commuter hop the family could have made together for less money than Daddy Marks had spent to hire me.

........Beardsley was one of those small, homey places that costs thousands per month, and, for the fees, give their grads a freshly-pressed school tie and entrance into the upper world of finance and influence, no waiting.

........The campus was out of the nineteenth century. The buildings faced inward, as college buildings have done since time immemorial, turning their backs on the hurly-burly of the world outside. They formed a rectangle, the long sides roughly three times the length of the short, each side crammed with red brick buildings that murmured among themselves of age and tradition. Autumn colors tinted the grounds. Ancient trees bowed overhead, announcing their coming hibernation in a riot of reds, yellows and browns. Evergreen bushes stood sentinel duty around doorways. Climbing ivy enhanced the mellow red brickwork, which complemented the autumn-red of the trees. The atmosphere alone justified the tuition.

........The grounds were manicured to perfection. Leaves hadn't yet begun making their journey to compost. When they did, I figured being on this campus they'd fall in orderly rows. As I gazed over the rectangle I could imagine an army of groundskeepers hustling to rake them almost as soon as they hit.

........Autumn light shone through the branches. The morning chill had lifted.

........It was class break time. Students hustled across the quad, keeping to the sidewalks. Domesticated squirrels darted on their errands. One hurrying student drained a coffee container and walked to an unobtrusive trash bin out of his way to discard it. The remaining inch of a sweet roll he shied at a squirrel, which took chattering charge, flicking its tail like a bushy whip. Male or female, I wondered. Did it have pups at home? Would they charge if you got in the way of their babies? I didn't like De Land Marks and his hooker wife and their world-weary daughter, but even De Land Marks was concerned about the welfare of his son. I assume the mother was also concerned.
At the intersection of two sidewalks the roll-tosser met a girl. I liked the way they looked at one another. They were happy, even with armloads of books.

........If Maude and I had kids and the cash, they'd go here, to Beardsley, where students assumed they owned the grounds. We'd been denied both.

........I'd left the administration building with all I needed, a copy of Jonathan Marks' class schedule. The registrar supplied me with it after inspecting De Land Marks' letter. She read through the authorization, her nose wrinkling. She sat at her computer and called up a file. She printed it out and rose with a smile. All very efficient and friendly.

........She creased the schedule and handed it to me, Marks' letter of permission folded inside. Unconsciously, she wiped her hands on her skirt, a quick down-up movement.

........"Jonathan is a fine boy, you know," she said, "a superb mathematician. He is a marketing major."

........I didn't know and I hadn't asked.

........"Do you know him that well?" She was about my age and an inch taller in heels, with short, salt-and-pepper hair and clear brown eyes. Long since she must have substituted a smile, a helpful manner, and clean grooming for the beauty she knew could never be hers. But she had interesting features, and she smiled with mouth and eyes, no look of cold calculation, as if wondering if the effort of the smile would pay off in some future favor. No wedding band graced her finger.

........"He's been in to talk with Virginia Davies." She smiled maternally. "Virginia works here three days a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Jonathan comes in to talk and to pick her up a few minutes before closing. They are engaged to be married." She paused. "You represent his parents." She loaded a lot into those last two words. I've heard scumbag pronounced with the same intonation.

........"Yes. They want me to check up on him."

........"He hasn't been home and won't return there, I guarantee that. Is that what they're worried about?"

........"Wouldn't you be, if he were your son?" She'd been volunteering more than she should have. In my experience people seldom give freebies of any sort unless they know something too dirty not to share and expect something in return.

........But she didn't fit the mold. She looked responsible, like a person you'd trust with a secret.

........Her lips pressed together, "Of course I would worry, but the Marks family isn't really worried, not from what I have heard of them. They are not normal, not one of them. Jonathan is better off here."

........"Gossip," I needled.

........Her eyebrows rose a fraction. She pointed to the name bar on the counter and the matching I.D. tag on her blouse, Alma Rittenhouse, Registrar. "I do not gossip. I have given you information, supplying it freely to a private detective."

........"How did you know?"

........"What?"

........"Than I'm a private detective? I am."

........"If you were a lawyer, you'd be a failure dressed like that and Marks would not touch you. And I am unable to think of another occupation that would investigate a boy's refusal to go home." She paused and her eyes wandered over her domain. "Those creatures have money."

........"Lawyers?"

........"No, I'm sorry. I meant De Land Marks and that wife of his." She paused. "And that daughter." Her voice was tight, the word daughter pronounced with venom.

........"And with their money, they could hire better, lawyers and detectives."

........"Yes," she said seriously, "they could. They bought you, you know."

........She was almost right. I had their money; what they had I was not yet certain. I let the remark pass.

........I asked, "Did you ever meet them?"

........She frowned, "Twice. They seemed put out that they could not find their son. Once they returned to this office asking if the schedule was correct. I went to the computer and printed out another schedule." Quite by accident she saw them another time, waiting in the lobby of their son's dormitory. Of course he wasn't there, she said. When I asked her did you know where he was, "Of course," she said shortly.

........A student came in hurriedly and Ms Rittenhouse moved down the counter. With a few deft questions and one trip to a floor-to-ceiling file in the back and another to her computer, she had taken care of business and the student was on his way. She was worth watching. In aiding the student, she had not wasted a motion.

........She returned her attention to me. I asked, "Why do you think they hired me? They paid me plenty."

........"They're salving their consciences." She shook her head. "No. They don't have consciences, not those people. For some reason they are protecting their legal and financial buttocks. Jonathan won't return home and they are afraid of the legal ramifications." She paused, thinking. She smiled at me suddenly, "They have a great deal to hide."

........"Says Jonathan."

........"And Virginia."

........"So they hired me to pretend to search out an answer and file a report with them that they could use if someone inquires as to why their son will not return home?"

........"I think so." She placed her hand briefly on mine. "Please, I didn't mean it when I said"

........I shrugged. "Yes you did, but I'm used to it. And it's so." I told her briefly about Maude and the medical bills and one or two mistakes in judgment I made while trying to pay those bills. As I spoke she softened. I did not ask her how she knew so much about the Markses. From Jonathan himself, I assumed, if he came into the registrar's office regularly. And she had met his family. Women can read more than men into postures and glances and words. And she had volunteered more than she should have. She was worried about Virginia Davies and Jonathan Marks.

........"You're not here to return him to his family?"

........"Not my job. I said I would confer with Jonathan Marks and file a report and that's all I intend to do. I don't like them either."

........"You'll find out why."

........"And you won't tell me."

........"No. You're the detective." She smiled in dismissal and sat at her desk, heavy with computer, folders, and embossed documents.

........"Thanks," I said.

........She looked up. This smile was warmer. I smiled back.

The campus map I obtained in the lobby of the administration building located Feeney Dorms. The building, outside the Nineteenth Century rectangle and on the edge of the commercial district, was a modern steel building with the construction beams visible, not fit to associate with the red brick aristocracy.

........"Marks?" The studious young man at the desk adjusted thick glasses and looked up from a roster attached to a clipboard. "Jon signed out yesterday on an overnight."

........"Where could I find him?"

........He looked at me closely. I told him my name. "I represent his father." I flipped open the wallet with my PI license. He scanned it carefully.

........"He's wherever Vi Davies is."

........"Virginia Davies?"

........"Yes."

........"Where might I find Jonathan Marks when he isn't in class or here?" He should be in class now, according to his schedule.

........"Either in church or at The Outreach."

........"And this Outreach is a?"

........"Coffee shop." I handed him my map and he x-ed the location.

........"Think Virginia will be there now?"

........"Good chance."

........"Thanks." I turned away.

........"Don't get religion."

........I turned back. "Is it easy to catch from them?"

........He nodded. "They probably spent the night praying, fasting and praying. Nothing else, not with her." He sounded envious.

........"Thanks, I'll try not to get converted."

........Fat chance of that.

The Outreach projected a trendy religious atmosphere. Some campus religious group or groups had taken a storefront location near the campus and painted it with gaudy colours, the in your face reds and yellows of autumn outside. Easter greens and yellows inside, with its burden of hope and resurrection. Pastoral murals decorated the walls. On the far wall facing the door a skillfully executed mural depicted a bearded man dressed in leisure clothing and carrying a Bible. He shepherded a flock. The artist conceived them walking down a gentle mountain slope directly into the coffee shop, the next area in which to graze his sheep. I assumed the Bible-carrier was ready to search for more sheep among the patrons here. The sky was an almost invisible Highlighter yellow. The sun was a warm red.

........Somehow the whole thing fitted nicely. Even the makeshift coffee bar to the right with its wire holder filled with religious tracts seemed a part of the scheme. In one corner a raised platform with a lectern looked out over the assembled students. It was unoccupied.

........The air was smoke-free. Of course.

........Jonathan Marks sat just to the left of the mural. With him, seated across the table, could only have been Virginia Davies. They held hands over the small table and devoured one another with their eyes. Beside his chair crouched an overstrained book bag. On the table to her left lay a spiral notebook and a ballpoint pen. A Bible lay under their clasped hands, propping them up.

........The Outreach hummed with tranquil conversation. I stood aside for a moment to let others shoulder in and out the narrow entrance. Jonathan Marks and Virginia Davies. I could see why they were in love.

........He was homely, but with a masculine ruggedness that women would find appealing. Virginia Davies was beautiful, an olive skinned brunette. She radiated an exotic aura that was hard to pin down. It wasn't any one feature. Thick hair hung over her shoulders. Her nose was long, curved over full lips and flanked by prominent cheekbones. Her slim frame was intense and coiled, a spring wound down tightly.

........A slim gold cross hung around her neck, an engagement ring graced her left hand. She was innocent of any other jewelry or makeup. Either the lack of ornament was a religious thing, or here was a girl secure with herself. What she didn't need she didn't use.

........Full coffee cups sat by the wall. I'd bet the coffee was cold.

........Jonathan Marks should have been in class directly across campus. He wouldn't last long at Beardsley if he cut classes. He didn't seem in any hurry, though.

........I moved through the press and pulled up a chair that stood against the wall. "You ought to be in class, Jonathan Marks."

........With a start they came to. They stared at me, newly awakened to the low-key hum and reality of the people surrounding them.

........I sat. "You're Jonathan Marks and you are Virginia Davies." I turned to each as I spoke.

........Their hands slid apart. He nodded, watchful. Virginia Davies stared at me through wide-set dark eyes, cataloging me. Her eyes traveled back to Jonathan.

........"I'm a private investigator. My name is Angello, Joseph Angello," I began. I reached for my license and his father's note. "Jonathan, your parents"

........Dark, intense eyes snapped back to me. She said, "The answer is no."

........In that moment I had become her enemy.

........"Hon, let me, please," Jonathan Marks said.

........Her voice was low, intense, "Those damned, disgusting"

........"Please, hon," he said.

........She sat back, eyes smoldering, feral. She'd used damned in its literal sense. Her hands were clenched into fists. For once, the gilt-edged book on the table comforted me. I did not associate the Bible with sudden assault. I had last seen one in Maude's hospital room after she eased into the merciful coma that took her from me. It hadn't been there when I'd fallen asleep. I remember awakening to place a box of Kleenex on it. I'd needed the Kleenex.

........"Look," I addressed them both, "I'm not here to do anything except write a report. All I leave here with is a report, okay? That's what I said I'd do when I accepted this case and that's all I'm doing."

........Jonathan Marks nodded. Virginia Davies sat upright as if prepared to spring. She placed her right palm on her clenched left fist. From the position of notebook, pen and fist I made her out a lefty.

........She sat to my right. To attack me she'd have to swivel in my direction, giving me a few seconds. If she was a clawer she'd open both fists and use the nails, going for my eyes. Or she'd punch me. Either way, I'd have just sufficient time to duck or, better yet, throw myself backward.

........I turned to Jonathan Marks. "You're in good health."

........"Yes. Now."

........"Before?"

........"I was soul-sick." He shuddered, as involuntary a reaction as I'd ever seen. His face reddened. For a moment I thought he might cry. His hand reached for Virginia's. She relaxed her fist and grasped it. He winced at the force of her grip.

........I waited. Whatever he had told Alma Rittenhouse through Virginia Davies--or had he told her firsthand?--would come out eventually, if I were patient. And it had something to do with my first impression of the Marks family. I might even be aiding in some sort of catharsis begun by Virginia Davies' religious beliefs.

........The Outreach continued to murmur along in the background. Three students in the corner linked hands over coffee and bowed their heads.

........"You're not returning home, and that's of your own free will?" Virginia Davies was about to reply but I stopped her with a gesture. I said to Jonathan Marks, "Is that correct?"

........"Yes," he said firmly. Color had returned to his face but they still held hands.

........I turned to the girl. Time to get down and dirty and hope she didn't go for my eyes. I had visions of the ballpoint sticking out of one of my eye sockets. "And you're not knocked up?" Her mouth opened. Shock. Jonathan Marks pulled in a sudden breath. They released their grip on one another. I drawled sarcastically, watching first her hands then her eyes, "De Land Marks and his wife are worth lots of money, you know. With a bun in your oven you could get a nice piece of that." She went white, and that you can't fake. "Even if you'd been screwed by someone else whose daddy had less money, and even if the Marks family knew it, at a posh college like this who'd want to pile publicity on top of an easily hushed-up pregnancy?" It wasn't that much of a long shot. Any college that signed out dorm residents on overnights in this day and age had to be strait-laced.

........I paused again. "Or maybe get the cash for an abortion?"

........Being twenty-five years or more out of date, my argument might be weak at another college. Today a girl would be a heroine if she did not abort the baby but brought it to term and gave it up for adoption. Morals have advanced since I was young.

........Virginia Davies grasped the edges of the table with both hands as if trying to break off a chunk. A tear crept down her face.

........So. That was that. I sat back, still on yellow alert.

........"I'm sorry," I said to her, then to them both, "I apologize, but I had to know, or at least have a good idea."

........Jonathan Marks was shaken. "We're Christians," he said.

........"Meaning what?" I'd had dealings with people who called themselves religious. Faith waited on action, as far as my experiences went.

........"We've found Jesus," she said softly.

........I offered her a handkerchief. "It's clean," I said. She took it, a good sign. She wiped her eyes and handed it back. I essayed a smile. Again, "I'm sorry, Virginia." She smiled back.

........I glanced at the mural. If that was Jesus, he looked like a man one could confide in, one who would never betray a confidence. "And Jesus says?"

........As if he expected some anti-religious slur, Jonathan Marks said, "We're engaged. And Ginny is a virgin."

........"And you?"

........He blushed again. The young man had one hell of a load on his conscience. Virginia said, "Jonathan is a virgin now; he's reborn. He will never return to that Sodom, never."

........Confessional time, I assumed. "Meaning what?" I said again. Christian I could figure out. Sodom I needed help with.

........They told me, alternating the telling, slowly, in cathedral voices and in clinical detail, of the Marks family, of incest and perversions with appliances and without, in every conceivable physical combination among the four of them, before select and appreciative audiences, no cameras permitted. We leaned across the table, but not in prayer. We did not clasp hands. When Virginia took over the telling from her fiancé she continued in the same dry voice. She knew all the words for the appliances, the names of all the positions.

........The Marks family was liberated.

........I listned.

........As Jonathan and Virginia spoke, I wondered at the strength of the adhesive De Land used to secure his hairpiece. Did he worry about its falling off as The Family gyrated? They were a rock group, some hellish collective from the excesses of the seventies. I could envision them as nothing else. I thought of the lines etched in De Land Marks' face and the jaded eyes of the daughter. Did those eyes come alive during their sessions, or did she rely on porno grimaces to mask their stagnation? And the mother, a naked, siliconed Barbie, getting it on with her own son, who now was considered a virgin by his fiancée, who was herself a virgin.

........I imagined things were less interesting as a trio and they wanted to resume as a quartet, at least on holidays.

........I'm no prude, but I felt ill. The quiet, clinical narration was horrifying.

........"Okay," I said at last, straightening up, "confession over." The prayer group in the corner was now sipping coffee and meditating.

........I had a good idea now of why I'd been hired. I was at the bottom of the heap, professionally and financially. I had no reputation worth mentioning. What would be my word against the word of De Land Marks should anything come out, now that their act was broken up? Apparently they hadn't given much thought to Jonathan's leaving for college, escaping from the menagerie, so to speak. Liberated people were not accustomed to dealing in long-range consequences. Might Jonathan be prompted to tell someone of their circus act while away at college? Joe Angello was a card to play should word of their sexual proclivities somehow emerge. De Land Marks could flourish my report--I was apparently paid handsomely to inform the family that all was well--and say he was a good father. Having bought what he needed--me--dutiful dad had done his bit. Everything else he could deny, using me to write fake reports, I supposed. He could worm out of me in private what I knew about their private club act. Money would silence anything, especially if the man you've hired is a detective down on his financial luck. He probably figured I'd be easy to buy off.

........I assumed I was meant to be a pawn and resolved to be a pain.

........"You have," I said to Virginia, "a quick temper." I'd wondered at her remark that Jonathan was a virgin. In my line of work, once it was gone it was gone. Her belief took more than a faith in Jesus. It took something else, a sword of strength that only a woman could lift, let alone wield. I had no name for the sword.

........"Yes, but Jesus has" she began.

........I waved her remark aside. I was forming a plan. "Listen to me," I said, "both of you. Forget about Jesus, just for a moment. Virginia, you have a fiery temper, isn't that so?" I stared at them both, first at Virginia then at Jonathan.

........He said, "I guess so, but we never"

........I said, "No, of course not. And you never will. You've both found Jesus, correct?" It was not meant as sarcasm, and neither took it as such. "Virginia does not approve of your former life." I turned to her. "Do you?"

........"No," she said. Jonathan smiled at her.

........"You could," stressing the could, "do anything to keep your fiancé from returning to that Sodom?"

........"Yes," she said, "but not"

........"Anything," I said slowly. She turned to me. Our gazes locked. I nodded slowly. I saw the light of understanding. Maude was like that. She had been a great reader between the lines. Virginia was weighing consequences.

........"Yes," she whispered. She had shared Jonathan's hell and here they sat. She had not deserted him. She even considered him a virgin.

........I'd asked her indirectly to estimate her own potentiality for violence. Virginia Davies nodded ever so slowly. In spite of Jesus, she could and would defend her own. Her fists, relaxed briefly before, were again clenched on the table. Her face had paled during her part of the telling of Jonathan's bondage and reddened now when she realized what she could do--would do--if she believed her family threatened by the aliens from Sodom.

........As they alternated their dispassionate telling of his former life, she'd even corrected one small lapse of memory on his part. She loved him and even considered him virgin--one hell of a jump as far as I was concerned, but I'm not particularly religious.

........The muttering around us grew as students prepared to leave for class. I looked at my watch. My sense of time had deserted me.

........The important thing now, was that Virginia understood. I would bet all of Daddy's retainer that she was the stronger of the two.

........I said to Jonathan, "You start cashing those checks when they come. Don't send them back. The money you returned I'll get back and send to you." I avoided the word father.

........He began an objection.

........I cut him off. "And get a job."

........"I have one."

........"And get married."

........"What? We'd planned to wait until I graduate."

........I shook my head, a strong negative. "No, as soon as you can." I looked at Virginia Davies. "And a soon as you can after the ceremony, start a family. You intended to, right?"

........Virginia nodded and a smile crossed her lips. She took my meaning instantly. Never mess with the cubs of a mother tiger, or come anywhere near them. Virginia Davies could become a dangerous woman, capable of anything to protect her own. She understood that now. She and I had come to a tacit agreement. I doubted that Jonathan, as young as he was, could understand. He would when their first child was born. Virginia would become a lioness where her husband and children were concerned. Any attempt to harm the family she would meet, head-on. And heaven help the agressor.

........I nodded to them both and stood. To Jonathan Marks I said, "Legally, he's your father, but not morally, okay?" He nodded without enthusiasm. "De Land Marks owes you support until you're twenty-one. That's the law, okay?" I waited until he nodded again. To Virginia Davies, "Make Jonathan yours, Virginia. Soon." She nodded, her face radiant. I was an enemy no longer.

........I envied Jonathan Marks.

........"Goodbye," I said, "and don't cut any more classes." A few tables away I paused and turned back to them. "And cash those checks, hear?" I waited. Reluctantly, he nodded.

........I waved goodbye.

There was a great deal of plastic veneer in the office of De Land Marks. Even the potted plants were plastic. Looked quite natural, considering.

........De Land Marks finished my report. He prodded it with a forefinger. "You say she's dangerous and my son is too?"

........"Yes," I said. Then I lied, "but not as dangerous as your son. Lots of hostility there. You know why. Jonathan told me about the family act. He wants to go public, or worse." He appraised me, his face carefully blank. I smiled blandly, informing him that I was in on their little secret, which he realized was now our little secret. "Surprisingly enough, she has been restraining him. He's the one you really want to avoid, you and yourfamily." He noted my hesitation, as I'd meant him to. "Virginia Davies was the one who kept your son away from you when you visited Beardsley. If she hadn't," I let solemnity creep into my voice, "he would have attacked you, your wife and your daughter. Lots of hostility there, in both of them, but she's a civilizing influence on him, a restraining influence, if you will. They are now more interested in one another than in your family. I warn you that you interfere at your peril. You don't want either of them to refocus on you."

........He frowned, a billiards professional estimating angles.

........I handed him my second report. As he read it he turned white.

........I continued, "And another person who wishes to remain anonymous knows. Everything." I smiled politely at his growing discomfort and realized I would have to invent that person. Alma Rittenhouse? She knew some of the story. Maybe she knew it all. But I didn't want to drag her into it. "Is my report accurate?"

........He looked at the Xerox again.

........I had not spared the clinical detail of what Jonathan and Virginia, between them, told me. I omitted the location of our interview and the fact of Jonathan's religious conversion.

........Marks must have suspected his son might spread family secrets. There could have been some friction among them before he left for college. His first choice when we met--never stated in so many words--was to return him to the family menagerie. Since I did not seem immediately agreeable to the first, he opted for the second, a report to demonstrate--to whom I wondered?--that all was well.

........"Where is the original?" The Xerox was as smeary as I could make it. I assumed he did not quarrel with the contents. If I'd had any doubt as to the story Jonathan and Virgina told me, his silence screamed confirmation. I smiled.

........"You piece of shit."

........I smiled some more and a trifle wider. "Yes, and you will kindly not forget to send Jonathan his allowance. He will not return your checks. He will cash them. I assure you he will not approach you or your wife or your daughter, but if you attempt to contact him, he will not be responsible for his actions and his fiancée may not wish to intervene. She also has a temper, and a violent one. She despises you. But you've read that in my first report. Remember, you son hates you, but he has a woman he loves now, and they both despise you, your wife and your daughter. I told Jonathan I would give you fair warning. Your money delivered regularly will buy his silence." I smiled. "He also told me that he would not reveal family secrets, as long as the cash kept coming. I believe he means it."

........I stretched and sat down. I love improvisation, especially when the victim is a man like Marks. The other report I was still working on I particularly liked, the one by the counselor whose name I had taken from the catalog, a report on Jonathan and his explosive proclivities. In a day or so I would have it completed, larded with enough psychobabble to confound a layman and warn away a stockbroker. In a few days I would return to the college and Alma would edit it and type it up on official Beardsley stationery, after which I would mail it. She was willing to help once I explained my plan. She'd also agreed to a date.

........In the week since we'd met, Marks' tan had faded. Perhaps he had begun to worry about consequences. I had laid it on thick in the first report, making his son a near-psycho when it came to the Marks family. The chances Marks himself would investigate the truth of my creation were slim. To do so would reveal his activities, which the second report confirmed. And I had the fictitious third person, whom I would be obliged to clothe in flesh sometime soon. That third person would mail the letters with copies of the Xerox if he or she did not hear from me and so on and so on.

........I was having a good time, now.

........He said, "I am not to contact my son?"

........"Everything goes through me."

........"Even his allowance?"

........"Especially that. You will mail his checks to me. I will inspect them. They must not be less than the amount I specified there." I gestured at the second report, to an addendum clipped to the back.

........He flipped over the report, removed the paper clip. He read the note. "That's outrageous."

........"Yes, but you'll pay, of course. Never send less than that amount, which will remain constant, unless you choose to send more. Check only, no cash. They won't bounce, naturally." My eyes widened innocently. I rose, leaned over the desk, and tapped the report. De Land Marks moved back.

........I sat. I rubbed my right thumb and forefinger together.

........His eyes narrowed. "You're exacting a fee for this service, of course?"

........"Of course. My fee for transmittal, and for silence naturally, will come monthly, in cash, clipped to each allowance check." I told him the amount. He gaped. "If you don't send the checks with my fee attached, and send them each month without fail including the summer months, I make a phone call, my associate slips a few letters in the mail and the Marks financial empire is ended." Sunlight glowed on the potted plants behind him. They'd been dusted carefully. "Also the family." I paused dramatically. "You think you're paying now? Miss a payment to either of us and you really pay. In spades." What I meant by that I would work out later. It would be more than just mailing a few letters, but what more I wasn't certain, yet.

........I stood in dismissal.

........Jonathan and I would have three and a half years in which to build up our respective nest eggs. He needed the money if he were to marry Virginia so far ahead of schedule. The job he had was barely adequate to cover a college student's expenses, even if he were wedging himself in the door of some prestigious financial firm by doing their scut work, and it wasn't nearly enough to marry on. I wanted John and Virginia to have a good start in life.

........Daddy would feather both our nests. I had shown him consequences.

........De Land's hairpiece was still immaculately real, like the potted plants. I wanted to reach over and tug it off, look for a manufacturer's label. Instead, I studied his face.

........He reddened. As I nodded in dismissal, he said, "My son is a shit."

........The family must have made a wonderful quartet. I assumed they could still function as a trio as long as De Land remained in shape and worked harder at his tan.

........I turned to the door, then back. I liked Jon and Vi. In a sense, I'd adopted them. This was too good to pass up.

........"Yes," I smiled, "but one way or the other, keep those checks coming. And the cash." I began to ease the door closed then thought of something else. Poking my head back in I said, "Comes by it naturally, doesn't he?"

........I left, holding my smile for the secretaries in the outer office.

Copyright (c) 1999 Peter A. Parmantie



Peter A. Parmantie is a retired teacher who has decided to write. He is a compulsive reader, starting almost from birth. He cut his teeth on thrillers as an adolescent, kicking his regular studies overboard and educating himself by reading what adults then considered trash. They were wrong. Now he wants to try his hand at the genre. He promises more stories of Joseph Angello for the future...

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"And I'll tell you right out that I'm a man who likes talking to a man that likes to talk."

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