Steel Guitar

Carlotta Carlyle Mysteries (Volume 4)

Linda Barnes

St. Martin's Paperbacks

One
Men darf lebn un lozn lebn,” my mother always used to tell me when I was a child. Now that I’m grown I know the words translate roughly to “Live and let live,” but for Mom it meant “Don’t mix in.”
Her warning didn’t take. That’s how I make my living, mixing in.
Amend that. It’s how I’d make my living if I could. But the investigations business is dicey: sometimes I turn away three clients in a single day; sometimes I go for weeks without hearing a knock at my door. Because I like to eat—and I prefer to say no to the occasional client who thinks he can buy what’s not for sale—I pilot a cab nights to make ends meet.
I enjoy night driving. I like the garish after-midnight world. Its clarity excites me—the glare of headlights, the flashing neon, the sharp edges. But sometimes, blinded by the glitter, I forget to pay attention to the shadows.
I was dozing at a cab stand, fanning myself with the travel section of the Globe. The air conditioner was going full blast; a faint stream of tepid air trickled through the vents, no match for the August heat. I was dreaming about my next fare, a well-built gentleman who’d drop miraculously into the backseat and say, “Cape Cod, please. A slow drive along the seashore, catch some ocean breeze.”
Even half asleep, I recognized her.
She wore dark glasses and a cape that looked like it was made of raincoat material. Just the thought of its weight made me shudder. But for the Boston cabbie dress code, I’d have been wearing shorts, a halter, and sandals. As it was, I had on my lightest-weight khaki slacks, a thin white cotton shirt, and sneakers.
Hesitating under the hotel canopy, she groped in her shoulder bag and slipped the doorman a bill. From the way he clicked his heels and raised his whistle to his lips, what he’d just palmed was no portrait of George Washington. I gunned the motor automatically. I was the next cab in line.
For a pulsebeat, I felt like flooring it, racing away without a backward glance. Then the sweating gold-braided attendant seized the door handle, and it was too late.
I’ve kept track of her through the years, my old buddy Dee Willis. Hauled my black-and-white TV out of the closet to watch her that time she appeared on Letterman. She was so drunk they only let her sing one song at the end, and then she forgot half the words. That must have been five years ago, and the fans have long since forgiven her. Lately her name crops up in the Globe every other day. Change Up, the album that went double platinum, or whatever they call the best there is in the record biz, in two days, or two weeks, or something incredible, had turned her into an overnight success after sixteen years.
I opened my mouth to say hello.
She didn’t even glance at me. “Take me to the library,” she demanded, her voice low and tense. “No. Forget it. Just cruise around Copley Square, okay? Into the South End.”
I closed my mouth and bit my lower lip, nodding to let her know I’d heard. My fares generally want to go from here to there, and heaven help the jockey who detours a block out of the way.
Two blocks passed. I cranked down the front window and enjoyed the breeze. She didn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything. I felt awkward. It’s hard to identify yourself right off the bat to an old friend who’s made better than good. Especially when you’re the one driving the hack.
I concentrated on squeezing through the yellow light at St. James, tailing a dark blue Mercedes. Maybe, even if she deigned to look, she wouldn’t recognize me. At night, especially when I’m wearing a slouch cap over my red hair, most of my fares hardly notice I’m a woman. And my best disguise isn’t the hat; it’s the job. Nobody notices cab drivers.
I sneaked a look in the rearview mirror. Dee had removed the sunglasses. She seemed absorbed in the study of a painted fingernail.
The South End wasn’t even a mile from her hotel, hardly a decent walk, much less a cab ride. I toyed with the idea of saying “Chintzy fare,” starting things rolling with a joke. The more I hesitated the harder it got, like chatting with somebody at a party, somebody you know pretty well, but whose name you’ve forgotten. If you confess right off, it’s not too bad. But the longer you talk, the harder it gets to ask for a name. You keep wondering who the hell you’re talking to, and hoping you won’t blow it.
We hit a red light and I did some more rearview-mirror gazing. The backseat was pretty dark, but a streetlamp helped. Dee was staring into space, drumming her fingers on her thigh, clutching her big shoulder bag. She looked good, maybe a little hard, but good. She unbuttoned her cape, revealing a red shirt, embroidered with enough gold thread to catch the light. I couldn’t make out the pattern. She wore a long rope of gold beads and dangling, flashy earrings. Thick eyeliner, heavy-duty makeup. Maybe she’d played a gig tonight. I hadn’t noticed an ad in the newspaper, but some days I just skim it before taking it home to line the parakeet’s cage.
Her wild dark hair was permed into a halo. I knew she was older than I am, but you couldn’t prove it by her appearance.
We sped two blocks, got caught at another traffic light. She drew in a deep breath, held it, and let it out audibly. Then she closed her eyes and repeated the heavy-breathing business. She hadn’t cranked down the back window. In her cape, she was probably melting.
I wondered where she was heading, cruising the South End in the wee hours, wondered if the encounter might not be embarrassing for both of us.
I met Dee Willis my first year at U.Mass.-Boston, jamming at a party, her pure vocals rising over a flood of badly tuned instruments, making everybody sound twice as good. She wasn’t all that pretty, and she sure wasn’t school-smart—but she had that voice, and in my crowd we forgave her everything for a song.
I turned onto Pembroke Street. “You want me to circle the block?” I asked, my voice barely loud enough to penetrate the square porthole in the required-by-Boston-law bulletproof divider.
“Keep going. I’ll tell you where to stop.” She pressed her nose against the left rear window. Maybe she’d stopped looking at people in general, not just cabbies. I’ve heard celebrities get like that, pretending to wear blinders so they won’t have to answer stupid questions all the time, or get interrupted by autograph hounds during meals.
I tried the rearview mirror again, but this time edged a bit to my right, so my own reflection stared back at me. Dee looked like she was doing fine. And me? Not bad, thank you. If I pick up a couple more skip traces a year, I might be able to give up cabbing altogether.
My trouble-sensing radar blipped as we crossed Tremont and kept on traveling into one of the city’s less savory neighborhoods.
Dee rapped on the shield. “Hang a left,” she said. I obliged. She seemed to be navigating from memory.
“Stop here!” She shoved money through the little sliding window. A bill fluttered to the seat and I bent to get it. By the time I’d straightened up, she was slamming the door.
Where was she going? We hadn’t stopped near any restaurants that might be open this late. She raced across a lane of traffic into a small neighborhood park.
The park, sometimes called Blackstone Square, sometimes less pleasant names, is a pretty safe place to hang out during the day if you don’t mind winos bumming a dollar. At night, Bostonians give it a wide berth, frightened by the homeless with their grapes-of-wrath faces.
I started up, then slowed way down. If Dee was trying to score some coke solo, things were tighter in the music world than I expected.
It wasn’t hard to keep her in sight. She hurried across a deserted basketball court. The few scraggly trees hung limply in the heat. A triple-decker apartment briefly blocked my view as I turned the corner.
Dee seemed to be cruising the grassy center of the park, chatting with bench-squatters. I pulled the cab into a fireplug slot and watched, puzzled.
I was a cop for six years. I know what a drug buy looks like.
Dee held a level hand above her head as if she were describing something big. Moonlight caught the side of her face. She nodded, then pulled a crumpled bill out of her bag, gave it to the figure on the bench, and moved along.
That part looked familiar, the transfer of cash, but Dee didn’t seem to get what she wanted in exchange for the currency.
I yanked off my cap, lifted the heavy curls off the nape of my neck, and wished I’d brought along an elastic band and a few hairpins.
Dee repeated the performance at another bench. A ragtag guy with a week’s worth of beard started following her. She turned and spoke to him. I flicked off the air conditioner’s useless belch, but all I could hear was a babel of voices. The man’s carried farther, but I couldn’t understand the words.
Another guy lumbered over, and this one looked like major trouble. Drunk or stoned, he was big and unsteady on thick legs, and seemed to be wearing his entire wardrobe, shirts layered over shirts, pants over pants.
Heat alone can cause ugly moods. Add alcohol or drugs and you’ve got one of the reasons cops hate hot August nights.
I heard an angry cry and cut the ignition, shoving the keys into my pocket. The cry was followed by a scream. I was already out of the cab and racing toward the park.
I’d automatically grabbed the foot-long chunk of lead pipe I keep beneath the seat. It wasn’t as comforting as my service revolver used to be.
“Hell, you can afford it, lady,” a man’s voice shouted as I approached.
Dee’s hand was tight on the strap of her shoulder bag. She was staring down a guy a foot taller than she was, and she didn’t look half as frightened as she should have been. Maybe she didn’t see the people gathering on the asphalt playground.
“Get lost,” I heard her say, arrogant as ever. “It’s none of your business.”
“Throw the bag here, bitch,” the overdressed drunk yelled. He was leaning on the edge of a trash bin, too soused to move, and for that I was grateful. He egged the others on, their self-appointed cheerleader.
From the direction of the playground a steady stream of hungry, shaky, drunken souls moved toward Dee like sharks closing on a bleeding fish. Her cape swung open and her shirt glittered in a car’s passing beams.
I called her name.
She didn’t hear me. Another guy, mid-fifties with a tuft of white hair, made a swipe at her bag and connected. They started playing tug-of-war, and the shoulder strap broke. Dee got a corner of the purse and yanked, but the bag upended and spilled with a soft cascade of thuds and clunks. The man hit the ground with a grunt, grasping for change, bills, pawnable trinkets.
I pushed my way between two women muttering at the edge of the pack and shoved in close enough to grab Dee’s shoulder.
“Leave me alone,” she said, fighting me, clinging to her handbag. Then she looked up at me for the first time. I saw the shock of recognition in her eyes.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said firmly.
“She’s gonna give us ten bucks apiece,” a man hollered.
“Shit,” I muttered under my breath. Passing out free cash on the ritziest corner in Boston will get you a guaranteed unpleasant situation. Playing Santa where ten bucks will buy a lot of wine or a lid of dope is just plain stupid. Before my eyes, the promise of free money was changing a handful of unfortunates into a mob.
As I started hauling Dee toward the cab, I could feel sweat trickle down my back. I heard a bottle break behind me.
“Move it,” I urged. She was hanging back, staring over her shoulder. Somebody made a dive for her beads.
“I know him,” a deep voice yelled from the dark. “Gimme the ten.”
“Me too.”
“Where’s the money, lady?”
“I see the bastard all the time.”
“I seen him, lady.”
There were at least ten of them circling, four blocking us from the cab. Another bottle broke and this time it was no accident. The jagged lip of a beer bottle caught the sleeve of Dee’s shirt. She gasped. I struck out with my pipe and heard an answering growl of surprise and pain.
“Toss your bag over their heads,” I ordered Dee, “and run for the cab. I’ll hold them off.”
She grabbed at her arm and I wondered if the glass had cut her badly. The handbag fell in front of her, its broken strap snaking toward the crowd. Her beads got another tug and broke, spilling on the patchy grass. I kept her from diving after them. I was afraid if I knelt to retrieve the handbag, the pack would pile on top of me.
I swung the pipe in a circle to clear some space. A bottle glanced off my shoulder and I whirled to face a nonexistent antagonist.
I was breathing hard. With effort, I slowed it down.
“Okay,” I said loudly, using my cop voice. “Clear a path. Me and the lady are walking away. Whatever you find on the ground, you keep. Fair deal, okay?” I had Dee by the wrist. She struggled feebly. I had forgotten how small she was. My right hand clutched the chunk of pipe. It had felt cool when I’d first grabbed it; now it felt as sticky and damp as my palm.
“What about my ten bucks?” the drunk leaning on the trash can said loudly.
“On the ground,” I said. “Party’s over.”
“Don’t let ’em go till you see money,” somebody advised with sodden wisdom. “They got jewelry? Diamonds?”
“You been watching too much TV,” I said, edging closer to the cab, waving the pipe. “Everybody’s rich on TV. Me, I drive a hack.”
“Yeah, what about rich bitch here?”
“She dropped her jewelry. You’re stepping on it.”
A couple of the truly stoned sank to all fours, but the rest weren’t fooled. I ran my tongue over my dry upper lip. I wasn’t sure I could talk my way out without cracking somebody hard with the pipe—and I didn’t know who might have a knife, or a cheap gun. I was scanning the crowd at hand level, looking for the flash of metal, when the cruiser turned the corner.
There’s a time for self-reliance and a time to yell for help.
I screamed my lungs out, and the siren’s answering wail never sounded so good.