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Hailed by Sue Grafton as “a true original,” ex-cop turned private eye Carlotta Carlyle risks her neck in Boston’s Combat Zone for two very different clients
Carlotta Carlyle is halfway through a pizza when her former boss, Lieutenant Mooney of the Boston Police, shows up at her door needing help even more than Carlotta needs a case. In a Combat Zone bar, Mooney got into a scrap with a stranger over a woman. Now the stranger is comatose, the woman has vanished, and Mooney has been suspended. He wants Carlotta to find the blond hooker with a snake tattoo who witnessed the brawl, and who can exonerate him.
Doing surveillance in the Zone, Carlotta gets a second case. A ritzy prep school kid with a bloody lip hires her to find his missing girlfriend. Drawn into two different yet equally dangerous worlds where dead bodies are showing up, Carlotta has only two weeks to save the most honest cop in Boston from going to jail, and to find a girl whose privileged parents don’t seem to care that she’s run away.
The Snake Tattoo was named an outstanding book of the year by the London Times.
The Snake Tattoo is the 2nd book in the Carlotta Carlyle Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Snake Tattoo
A Carlotta Carlyle Mystery
By Linda Barnes
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Linda Appleblatt Barnes
All rights reserved.
I shouldn't have taken either case. I certainly shouldn't have taken both. As my mother used to say, in Yiddish more often than English: "You can't ride two horses with one behind."
I was eating dinner — leftover takeout pizza I'd revived with a can of anchovies — when the doorbell rang. I waited, hoping it would ring three times for Roz, but it died after a single bleat. Seems like it only rings when I'm eating.
I grabbed another bite. I was hungry, but I couldn't afford to ignore the bell. Most of my clients make appointments, but I get my share of lost souls clutching the Yellow Pages.
The bell rang again.
"Coming!" I hollered, hoping the prospective client wouldn't mind anchovy-breath. I can't afford to alienate clients. Demand for a female private investigator is picking up, but I still moonlight as a cab driver to afford luxuries like FancyFeast, the only cat food T.C. will eat. I figured keeping the client waiting while I brushed my teeth would offend more than my breath might, so I went to the foyer and started the lengthy process of unlocking, unbarring, and unchaining while squinting through the peephole.
It was Mooney. Lieutenant Mooney of the Boston Police.
Cops on the doorstep don't faze me because I used to be one. In another life I worked for Mooney. Well, really I worked for the fine people of the city of Boston in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, protecting and defending. But the folks I came into contact with most often — burglars, drunks, druggies, hookers, and abusive spouses — were not the upright citizens who'd hired me. When I used the word "boss," which I hardly ever did since it's a word I hate, I meant Mooney.
I yanked open the door.
"Took you long enough," he said.
"Hey," I said, "you should have flashed your badge. Want some pizza?"
"Anchovies?" he asked, displaying an encyclopedic memory of my eating habits or a good sense of smell.
"Nope," he said.
"I could take the anchovies off," I said, "but you can tell where they've been."
"Yeah," he said. "Looking good, Carlotta."
I was wearing torn jeans and an old gray sweatshirt. My hair was in one of its totally-out-of-control and in-dire-need-of-a-haircut phases so I'd plunked it on top of my head and stuck in a few hairpins. My hair is bright red — natural — and I wished briefly that I'd combed it. I was barefoot, my usual state since size eleven women's shoes are hard to find and difficult to afford. I couldn't remember applying any makeup, and I smelled like an anchovy.
I suppose Mooney's seen me look worse, but he really wasn't paying attention. I probably could have answered the door in lace underwear and he'd have responded with the same preoccupied stare, the same, "Looking good," followed quickly by, "I need to talk to you."
I ushered him into my office, which is really the living room with a rolltop desk.
"Do you mind if —" I started.
"Why don't you bring the pizza in here?" he said.
We do that. Think of the same thing at the same time, I mean. It helped when I worked for him, and sometimes I think he's never forgiven me for leaving the force.
When I got back from the kitchen, balancing two beers and a cardboard round of pizza, I thought I'd see Mooney sprawled on the couch or maybe rocking in the rocking chair. I didn't expect to see him perched on the straightbacked chair next to my desk, the one I reserve for clients.
He minded the beers while I rolled up the desktop and set the pizza on a stack of file folders.
"Pepperoni, too," he said, wrinkling his nose and shaking his head. "You must have Technicolor nightmares."
I grew up in a kosher home, believe it or not. Not that my mom was religious — she was more union organizer than synagogue-goer — but the house we lived in had been my grandmother's, and Mom wouldn't profane her memory by mixing milk and meat there. Outside was a different story, especially at Chinese restaurants, where pork was mysteriously allowable. I don't keep kosher, wouldn't dream of it, but somehow the statute of limitation on kosher has not yet run its course. So trayf meat and cheese has the lure of doubly forbidden fruit. I love ham-and-cheese sandwiches and adore pepperoni pizza.
"I could make you a sandwich," I offered.
"I already ate."
Mooney leads a well-regulated life. Aside from a stint in the army and a brief, unsuccessful marriage, he hasn't spent that many nights away from his mom. It's not his fault. His dad died maybe four years ago, and Mom moved straight into Mooney's apartment. That's the way they do it here, the Boston Irish. No personal sacrifice too great. Selfless and charming. Ma probably had meat, potatoes, and two veggies on the table at six sharp every evening.
"When you were a cop," Mooney said carefully, as if he were still deciding how to end the sentence, "did you know a blonde hooker with a snake tattoo?"
"A snake?" I repeated. "Where?"
"Doesn't ring bells."
"I'm not up to date on the hooker scene, Mooney. Why do you want this lady?"
"I thought I ought to tell you." He downed most of his beer and then continued reluctantly, "Before you read it in the papers."
I stopped eating, more because of his tone than his words.
"I've been suspended," he said.
I made a noise, said "huh," or "come on," or something. I couldn't believe I'd heard him right. Mooney is the best cop I know. He's sharp enough to make it all the way to police commissioner and decent enough not to want the job. I went to work for him right out of the police academy, and we stuck together for most of my cop career.
"With pay," he said. "Pending investigation."
"Shit," I said.
"I never thought it would happen." He spoke so softly I had to lean forward to hear him. "I thought it would get cleared up right away. They kept it quiet, but it's been three days now so they're giving it to the press. I understand. I mean, if they don't, it'll just leak and look worse than it is." He stared at the beer can logo like he was memorizing it.
"What'll look worse?" I said. "What the hell happened?"
"I thought the department would take care of it, but now I — Shit, I don't know. I think I want to hire you."
I hope my mouth was empty because it must have dropped open. Yours would have too if you knew what Mooney said about private investigators and other sleazy operators.
The man must have been desperate.
He didn't look desperate. He looked tired. Mooney's eight years older than I am, catching sight of the big four-oh as he puts it, but usually I don't think about his age because his vitality shoves the issue aside. He's a big man, six-four, line-backer weight, with a round face, dark hair, and smart seen-it-all brown eyes. In his button-down shirts and tweed jackets, he could pass for a college professor, except for his arms and shoulders. He's got the kind of biceps you don't get from lecturing.
Tonight he had dark smudges under his eyes. His shirt was wrinkled, like he'd slept in it. Part of that was the sag in his shoulders, but I wondered if he'd been ignoring Ma's meals.
I took a bite of pizza and chewed. I never miss a meal if I can help it. Of course my definition of meal is loose. Mooney contemplated his Rolling Rock can.
"Want another?" I asked.
"You gonna tell me about it?"
He studied his fingernails, then the desk, then the room. He's been at my place before, but this time he took stock, registering the worn velvet sofa, the stain on Aunt Bea's favorite rocker, the faint cat-scratches on the mahogany end tables. I'd seen him give crime scenes the same intense once-over. He stood and walked as far as the parakeet's cage, then paced like he was testing the padding under the oriental rug. Finally, he lifted a silver-framed photo off the coffee table.
"How's Paolina?" he asked.
Mention of Paolina makes me smile. It's a reflex action. Mooney knows that, and if he wanted to distract me, he'd found the way. Paolina is my little sister. Not my blood sister; I'm an only child. When I was a cop, I joined this organization, the Big Sisters. They assign you to a girl who needs an older friend, a substitute sister. I got lucky. I got Paolina. She's ten and a half now. It's been more than three years since I fell for that scared skinny face and those huge dark eyes.
"Good picture," he said.
"I got a letter yesterday," I said. "I was starting to worry."
Starting to worry, hah. I was close to panic by the time the letter arrived from Bogotá. It had plenty of stamps on it, not to mention a boldly printed ENTREGA INMEDIATA, which made me think the post office should have taken less than three weeks to deliver it. I didn't have to take it out of my pocket to remember what it said.
Paolina's bilingual, but she sticks to English with me. Her handwriting is messy and her spelling is often unusual. She'd made a real effort, drawn lines on the paper to keep her sentences straight, and then tried to erase them, blurring some of the words.
The airplane was fun and scary. Bogotá is crowded. There are cows that walk in the street, and chickens. The man they call my grandfather is very sick. I miss you.
Love ya, Paolina
"She's okay," I said to Mooney. "But I don't know when she'll be back."
Marta, Paolina's crazy Colombian mother, had called me five weeks ago. Her father was sick in Bogotá and she needed to see him before he died. And she had to take Paolina, her oldest, because Popi would remember Paolina. I didn't get more detail because Marta doesn't speak much English and my Spanish is poor.
I've spent a lot of time replaying that conversation. As far as I know, Marta and her family don't get along. She hasn't spoken to or about them for as long as I've known her. Maybe money was involved, an inheritance. That would account for Marta's insistence on bringing Paolina. One look at that kid and I'd sign my millions over to her, if I had them. I'm prejudiced, I admit.
Paolina exacted two promises before she left. One: that I'd continue to drill the parakeet in Spanish. Paolina and I have an ongoing argument about the bird. She belonged to my late Aunt Bea, who named her Fluffy in some lapse of creative spirit. When I inherited house and bird, I renamed the budgie immediately. She is now Red Emma, after the infamous anarchist of the twenties. Emma Goldman was one of my mom's heroes, one of mine, too. Paolina doesn't like the name because, as she rightly points out, Red Emma is not red, but green. So Paolina calls her Esmeralda.
The budgie, less than clever on its best days, has stopped speaking entirely in its confusion.
The other promise was that I wouldn't get another little sister while she was gone. The thought never entered my head. Paolina's my little sister no matter where she is.
"She'll be back," Mooney said softly.
"Hey, sorry," I said.
"I think I'd better tell you now."
While I'd been dreaming of Paolina, he must have tossed some kind of mental coin. It had teetered on its edge, then come down in my favor. He replaced Paolina's photo on the coffee table, strolled back, and sat down.
"It was Saturday night," he began, shifting into the voice he used for reading reports and giving orders. "I stopped off for a drink on the way home. At the Blue Note."
He glanced at me, but I kept my face carefully blank. The Note is a Combat Zone bar, a fleabag pickup joint where hookers congregate.
Not that he owed me any explanation. Mooney and I have never been an item. We've gotten damn close, but I always back off. I've been married, I've played the field, and I consider myself retired from the man-woman business. To tell you the truth, I can't figure it out at all.
"I had a drink," Mooney continued. "A draft beer, and I ordered another. This woman — well, she came on to me. I wasn't on duty or anything. I hadn't seen her around. I figure she's new talent. Young. Runaway. Vietnamese, so I'm trying to remember words and phrases I picked up over there, but I can't remember much. Hell, who wants to remember? She didn't push it, didn't make any hard offers. The comeon was like a dating bar or something. If she'd gone any further, I would have had to identify myself, but I don't think I'd have busted her. I'd have warned her not to cozy up to men who wear shiny black lace-up shoes."
I grinned at his description of cop footwear, but I didn't say anything because Mooney seemed to be giving his report to the mantel clock. I chewed softly, not wanting to remind him I was in the room.
"I was talking with her," he went on, "just talking, and some guy grabs me by the shoulder and tosses me halfway across the room. When I got myself sorted out, the next thing I know the guy is yelling at the woman, and I figure it's her pimp, and he's made me for a cop, and he's mad at her. I should have realized if he'd known I was cop, he wouldn't have yanked me off her like that. ..."
He reached over and took a slice of pizza, carefully removing the anchovies and resettling them on an adjacent piece. I nodded to show it was okay. Double anchovies would be fine with me, and there was plenty of pizza for both of us. For two minutes, chewing was the loudest sound in the room.
"He starts shaking the girl around," Mooney said. "Not hitting, but threatening her. So I get in the middle and he pulls a blade. I identify myself as a cop. I mean, I definitely remember saying, in the middle of all this crap, 'Boston Police, put down your weapon,' and feeling like a total jerk. He doesn't act like he hears me. I lose any Vietnamese I ever had. I draw my gun, but no way I'm gonna shoot. Too tight, other people around. The bastard comes at me. We move around a lot, knock some glasses off the bar. People are hollering and racing around, but all I can focus on is that damn hand and that knife. He gets in close, but he's not a good fighter. Still, he keeps coming. He misses me by a mile and I smack him with the gun butt. He goes down. I cuff him and read Miranda. And the rest goes by the book."
"Sounds okay," I ventured after a long pause. I wondered if Mooney hadn't come to me earlier because it was about picking up a woman. "Sounds like a good bust."
Mooney made a sound that should have been a laugh but there wasn't any humor in it. "The guy's skull cracked. He's in New England Medical Center and he's in bad shape. He's a goddamn leader of the Dorchester Vietnamese community. The woman, the girl I thought was the runaway hooker, that's his wife. She swears he didn't have a blade. Nobody saw a knife except me, and there wasn't one on him when they took him to the hospital, and nobody found one in the bar. They say he hardly speaks English. And nobody in the bar saw a freaking thing. Not the bartender, not the drunks. They're calling it excessive brutality right now, but it could get worse if he ..."
"Dies?" I said, when Mooney's voice trailed off.
"Yeah," he said. "Dies."
I eased out of my chair, went to the kitchen, and popped the tops off two cans: one beer, one Pepsi. I put the beer on the desk. Mooney took a long drink.
"You know, Carlotta," he said, "I've run through this thing in my mind so often, sometimes I think I must be going nuts. I go over it and over it and it never seems to change, but then when BPS asks me about it, I feel like I'm on the other side of a mirror or something, or I'm speaking another language."
BPS is the Bureau of Professional Standards. Also known as Internal Affairs.
"I'm sorry," I said, because I didn't know what else to say.
"I keep thinking about the newspapers, Carlotta. I mean, with all the troubles the department's been having lately, they'll rip my hide. It won't be my case in particular. Hell, I'll get to represent all the rotten cops in this rotten city. Everybody on the goddamn city council will have an opinion on this. The mayor. Every goddamn candidate for public office. I'll be a racist and a fascist and God knows what the hell else."
Excerpted from The Snake Tattoo by Linda Barnes. Copyright © 1989 Linda Appleblatt Barnes. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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