A Family Matter is available for pre-order right now and will be released September 13, 2022, but in the meantime here’s the first chapter to whet your appetite.
I glanced over my shoulder to make sure Hardley was keeping up. We were already running behind and there he was flirting with the new secretary at the insurance company down the hall from our office. “Did you lock the door?” I said it loud enough that Miss Long Lashes and Pouty Lips got the hint that batting those eyelashes of hers at my partner was interrupting his work. She took one look at me, scowled, and flounced away.
Disappointed, Hardley hung his head and grumbled. “I thought you did.” Tall and lanky, he was the spitting image of Hollywood actor, Dan Duryea. Hardley had a mix of toughness and charm about him, but mostly Hardley was, I hated to say it, a little on the goofy side.
“Look, fella, your name is on the door.”
“Fine. Hold the elevator.”
It was wrong to play tricks on him when he was chasing all the skirts in the building, but I got a good laugh out of it. It kept him on his toes and us on time for our appointments. Mostly. Deep down, even if he wouldn’t admit it, he enjoyed it too.
Starting Hardley A. Witt Detective Agency was my idea. I had wanted to be a cop ever since I was little, just like my father and my two brothers, but good ol’ Dad wouldn’t stand for his only daughter putting her life in danger on the streets of Chicago. So, after he passed away, I moved to the Pittsburgh area and became a secretary for Standard City Bank where I met Hardley. In his police uniform. Standing in the lobby. Looking bored out of his mind. We became friends and soon found ourselves in compromising situations that usually involved thugs, thieves, guns, Hardley getting a black eye, and me calling on the police to help him out. I suggested going legit and after getting our license we started our own agency. Unfortunately, without his name on the door, no one took me seriously as a private detective.
“The door was locked,” Hardley said, out of breath from racing down the hall. “But I bet you knew that.”
I pretended to be offended. “Whatever do you mean?”
“Fresh. Don’t think you can keep using the your name is on the door line either. It’s not funny anymore.”
“Aw, come on. Where’s your sense of humor?”
“Back in my bed where I left it. Now, are you going to tell me what this is all about?”
“In the elevator. The hallway has ears.” Lois, the nosy switchboard operator, walked by with her morning cup of coffee, watching Hardley and me talking. It was bad enough that she listened in on our phone calls but there she was doing it openly. One of the girls from the steno pool told me that Lois could read lips and that she might have been a code-breaker during the war. It seemed a bit far-fetched about her being a code-breaker but the lip-reading thing? I’d put money on that. I glowered at her. “How’s the old switchboard? Learn any government secrets yet?”
“Hi, Lois.” Hardley winked at her. “How’s your cat?”
Thankfully, the elevator door slammed shut before she could answer. I turned to Hardley. “Why don’t you ask her out and get it over with?”
“Lois?” He scrunched up his nose in a mix of disgust and fascination. “She’s old enough to be my…” He counted on his fingers. “Older sister. You know sometimes I think you’re jealous of me flirting with other girls.”
I laughed. “Why would I be jealous?”
“Because deep down you love me.” He sighed in a love-sick way.
The elevator suddenly got smaller and warmer. I shifted my weight so that I wasn’t standing so close to him. I stared up at the dial as it moved down from one number to the next, hoping he’d take my silence as a hint that I didn’t want to talk about this. He said things like this every once in a while and politely changed the subject when I didn’t take the bait.
“Anyway,” he said. “What’s going on?”
I quietly exhaled in relief. “After you left last night, I got a call from the local wine king himself, Mr. Edwin McMasters, demanding we help him. Not asking, demanding.”
“With all the money he has he could hire any detective agency in the city or the state or the world even. Why us?”
“I was getting to that.” I fished my compact and lipstick out of my purse and began touching up my face. “He doesn’t want a big name. Wants a small racket. His words, not mine.”
“If I could afford it, I’d be offended. What else did he say?”
“Get this. He thinks one of his kids wants to kill him.”
Hardley took hold of my compact and smiled in the mirror, checking for food in his teeth.
I raised an eyebrow. “Now who’s being fresh?”
“It sounds like he needs a bodyguard, not a detective.”
“Being the ditzy secretary I pretend to be, he didn’t tell me everything, but the family is gathering this weekend for their annual memorial service honoring Adele McMasters, the matriarch of the family. Nothing like a little patricide to liven up a family get-together.”
“My, what big words you have, grandma. Inheritance?”
“He’s no Rockefeller, but he’s never stood in a bread line, that’s for sure. Money would be the most obvious motivation for snuffing him out. Or maybe he’s just a nasty person. He sounds like a cantankerous old coot over the phone.”
“Kinda how I feel right now.” He yawned and stretched. “But what I don’t get is why so early and why are we being forced against our will? Couldn’t you have said no?”
“He didn’t give me any room to say no. Like I said, it wasn’t a request; it was a command. Besides, we need the money or they’re going to shut the lights off.”
“It almost feels like we’re being kidnapped.”
“I don’t know about you, chum, but I like having a roof over my head.” Fighting off a contagious yawn, I checked the time on my watch. “Besides, nine o’clock isn’t early.”
“It is when I wake up at four and can’t go back to sleep.”
“He’s sending a car to whisk us away. He kept telling me how lucky we are that he’s letting us visit him and his family at his very private estate.”
“Private estate? Well, la-di-da. I could use a vacation.”
The elevator doors slid open, dropping us into the lobby. My heart raced in anticipation. Despite the circumstances, I was excited about meeting the family. When you live in the shadow of one of the richest families in western Pennsylvania, you can’t help but want a glimpse into their lives. I grew up in a cramped apartment and had to share a room with my brothers. Of course I was curious to see how the other half lived, but add a suspicion of murder into the mix and I was ready to get this job started.
“Don’t expect poolside drinks, okay. We have to help a man figure out which one of his kids wants to bump him off.” As I stepped out onto the sidewalk, I shielded my eyes against the morning sun and began searching for our ride. I had seen the McMasters Family of Wine emblem on the side of a black car around town a few times before, but I didn’t see a black car or a gold emblem anywhere. “Do you see him?”
“I wonder if he’ll send the Bentley.”
“Is Bentley his chauffeur?”
“It’s a car, brainless. Do you know how much one of those things cost?”
“If it’s more than bus fare, then no. And how do you know so much about Edwin McMasters’ car?”
“I saw it in a magazine once.”
We stood outside our building, scanning the street for an expensive car, but mostly the road was filled with taxis and buses rushing people off to work. It was hard to hear anything out in the busy street, but if I had, I would have been prepared for the footsteps that belonged to the gun now making an imprint on my left kidney.
“Don’t turn around. Don’t make a sound. Got me?” A man with a deep, nasally voice stood so close to me that I felt he should have bought me dinner first. But I did what I was told, especially since my gun was in my handbag and my hands weren’t working very well at that moment. Hardley glanced over his shoulder, looking like he was ready to pounce on the man.
“Eyes front if you know what’s good for you. The car’s in the alley. Any wrong moves and I pull this trigger.” He shoved Hardley, nearly knocking him over.
“Don’t easy pal me,” the brute said. “Move it.”
“Shut up,” I whispered to Hardley.
The gorilla of a man pushed us along the street into the alley next to our building. I turned my head quickly to get a glimpse of his face in case I needed to identify him later. His fedora covered most of his face, leaving only his impressively wide chin visible. A plain black car sat parked with the back door open. Before I could react, another hulk of a man spun me around and put a blindfold over my eyes.
“What’s going on?” I demanded.
“Quiet! Get in.”
With the help of the brute, I slid across the back seat. Hardley jostled in next to me, bumping my shoulder.
“Hey, take it easy, chum.”
“Not a peep, hear me? Keep your eyes covered. I can see you in the mirror, got me?”
The car drove off. Hardley wasn’t kidding when he said it, except this was more than like being kidnapped. We were being kidnapped.