Book excerpt

Hardware

Carlotta Carlyle Mysteries

Linda Barnes

St. Martin's Press

Hardware
ONEDrey kenen haltn a sod as tsvey zaynen meysim, my grandmother used to say. Translated from the Yiddish: "Three can keep a secret if two of them are corpses." I'm tempted to print it on my business cards.Every going concern needs a catchy slogan.The catch here is "going concern." I'm a private investigator. If people kept their secrets to themselves, I'd be out of a job. 
If I had a secret, the Green & White Cab Company is definitely not the place I'd choose to dump it. Too many shell-like ears, too many clackety-clack tongues. One thing about cabbies, they talk. Especially after working the graveyard shift.It's something about night driving; it revs, wires,gives me a rush. By morning I have tales to tell, of weird traffic and wacko fares.Bars are locked tight at 7 A.M., so I wind up at G&W with the rest of the graveyard jocks, swilling coffee, listening to bad jokes, bitching about meager tips. All of us on a talking-jag high. Maybe a survival high.It's a fact: More cabbies than cops get killed in the line of duty.When I first started driving for G&W, working my way through college, Gloria, dispatcher and co-owner, described her drivers as the Geezers and the Wheezers. To put it bluntly, they were old, the last of the Irish-American career cabbies and proud of it. Held no truck with these new immigrants who could hardly speak the mother tongue, God love 'em.Four Geezers had a poker game going in a dark corner, all the better to cheat you in, my dear."Make any dough?" Fred Fergus called in a quavery tenor. "Glad to take it off ya, darlin'.""You can deal your dirty seconds to somebody else," I said with a grin. Only one of the bunch still cabbed. The others seemed to have taken up residence, smoking and choking, enjoying the clubhouse ambiance.A guy I knew only as Bear, a diminutive soul with an outsize nickname, was giggling and whispering at a pimply youth, outlining obscene curves with both hands. I'd heard his routine before: Sports and tits, sports and tits, sports and tits. Endless variations on a theme.Beneath a bare lightbulb, a skinny, underemployed Ph.D. named Jerome Fleckman was earnestly discussing free-market economics and the Marxist socialdialectic with "Not My Fault" Ralph. Ralph, in tummy-bulging T-shirt and tight pants, had a miles-away expression on his face. Jerry might as well have been chatting with his refrigerator."Looking for Sam?" he asked as soon as he saw me.Green & White's other proprietor, Sam Gianelli, is also my on-again, off-again lover. In many ways he marks a turning point in my life. If he hadn't dumped me to marry "a suitable girl," who knows? I might never have married Cal on the rebound, never have become a cop. I might be a Mafia wife, instead of a divorcée currently sleeping with her first flame, a man as divorced as a Catholic can get, short of annulment.Everybody asks about Sam. It's irritating, near-strangers knowing my love life.I said, "You want to grab Ralph's attention, Jer, ask him how he feels about cab leases."Ralph began whining his signature tune. "Not my fault," he declared."Sweatshops on wheels," Jerry said dismissively. Then he got a panicky look in his eyes. "Sam's not planning to switch to leases, is he?"Anything bad happens at the garage, Sam's behind it. Anything good, it's Saint Gloria.I could see her behind the phone console, waving a meaty, beckoning arm. The dispatch area has few distractions--a rusty desk, a few cast-off plastic chairs, the kind you might find in a welfare office or an unsuccessful dentist's waiting room. A wheelchair-bound three-hundred-pound black woman wearing a scarlet dress stuck out."Relax," I said to Fleckman. "No leases as far as I know.""Don't drive another shift," he counseled. "You're tired. Bosses, man, they suck your blood."I find it hard to regard Gloria as a bloodsucking boss."Glad to see you, babe," she said, waving a Hostess Twinkie under my nose. "Want to eat?"Twinkies don't do it for me. I found a lone doughnut in a wrinkled sack."This spoken for?""Help yourself. Hardly stale."The phones lit up. She murmured, "Stick around."I plunked myself into a chair molded to someone else's contours, rose immediately, and ruefully rubbed my backside. Light filtered through the front window. I walked over and lifted the corner of a broken venetian blind. Its slats were thick with dust.G & W, where I moonlight to afford such luxuries as Fancy Feast cat food and quarterly tax payments, is wedged behind Cambridge Street on an ugly commercial strip in Boston's Allston-Brighton area. Neither Allston nor Brighton is eager to claim it. Understandably so: the exhaust fumes from the nearby Mass. Pike are less than a draw. A huge rug store dominates a nearby corner. There's a food co-op, a cleaning plant, another rug wholesaler, and a restaurant that advertises itself as the pinnacle of casual dining, which means they keep a squadron of large-screen TVs blaring all hours of the day and night."Green and White," Gloria sang over the line. "Where are you now, and where do you wanna go?"She has one of the world's great voices, a deep Gospel-touched melody that speaks to my Motown roots.I consider G & W an endearing eyesore, a semi-remodeled warehouse resembling a vandalized Taco Bell. Gloria insists the stucco started out white, but turned grit-gray so quickly there was no point swimming against the tide. Busted wooden garage doors--no excuse from Gloria, just a fact of life--add to the general air of dilapidation."You think I'm losing weight?" Gloria, off the phone, smoothed the red tent over her massive contours. "You seen Sam lately?""No," I said, "and no. In that order."Gloria sighed. "Diet place my brothers signed me up for this time does packaged meals. Frozen gunk-in-a-box. Supposed to be healthy.""Huh?" I said, gazing out the window, wondering if the glass was frosted or filthy.Gloria ordered a Green & White to 700 Comm. Ave. "Careful 'bout those B.U. kids racing across the street," she admonished the driver. "Dummies run smack into traffic.""I'm talking diet here," she said to me, sticking the handset back in the cradle. "Healthy food."Gloria's brothers are concerned about her weight. Someone ought to be.Gloria works full-time and three quarters. She lives in the back room. A hard worker before the auto accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down at nineteen, a hard worker she remains.She used her insurance settlement to buy into SamGianelli's latest failing business venture. Together they form an unlikely team--African American and Italian, street-raised and Mafia bred--and run one of the few successful small cab companies in town. Dispatching is Gloria's vocation, but by preference and inclination she is an information trader, and what she doesn't know about city politics and the cab scene in particular is not worth knowing. Sam handles the money side. He rarely hangs out at the garage.Gloria doesn't miss the company; she substitutes food. Bags of Chee tos, boxes of Mallomars. Cold Pop-Tarts. Nothing remotely nutritious crosses her lips. Junk food is her chosen comfort and solace."You mentioned Sam," I said, dropping the blind back into place. "Do you know where he is?""Nope," Gloria said cagily."You eat the diet stuff?" I asked. On her desk, within gobbling distance, an enormous jar of Bacon Bits dwarfed a box of double-cream-filled Oreos and a can of ready-made Betty Crocker chocolate frosting. As I watched, spellbound, she dipped an unresisting Oreo into the frosting, coating it liberally."Can hardly choke it down," she said, admiring her creation before engulfing it in a single bite."You eat it--and only it--you ought to lose something," I ventured."I'm losing patience is what. Eating cardboard lasagna's bad enough, but I won't listen to another 'motivational' tape, and if I have to go to one more crappy seminar, I'm gonna call the Better Business Bureau, close 'em the hell down. These folks have probablykilled half a dozen people. You should taste what they call tuna casserole. Bean sprouts in it.""You don't follow the diet, you don't listen to the tapes, you don't go to the seminars, why are your brothers doing this?""Makes 'em feel useful."Another Oreo smeared with Betty Crocker's best went down the hatch."I bring Tootsie Rolls to class, chew 'em in front of the other fat folks. Counselor's gonna toss me out, give the boys their money back."You'd have to be a first-class fool to quibble over a refund with Gloria's three enormous brothers.She motioned me closer, lowered her voice to a whisper. "Lee Cochran called an hour before you drove in."It took me a moment to place the name. "Head of the Small Taxi Association.""Seemed real eager to talk to you, asked me if you were any good.""And you told him ... ?""That I wasn't your secretary, thank you very much. He's planning to drop by in half an hour, if you're interested. You want to make tracks, feel free.""I'm interested," I said."You can use my room." Gloria repeated the cookie maneuver, her fingers plump as sausages. "For privacy.""Thanks," I said.Lee Cochran ... As I inhaled chocolate fumes, I pondered. I'd never warmed to Lee. He wouldn't pay me a special visit to collect dues for the organizationhe'd run as a personal fiefdom for years. A job, perchance. The morning seemed suddenly brighter. I'd rather poke my nose into other people's business than battle Boston traffic any day.I racked my brain for information concerning Lee. There was a wife somewhere. Kids. Maybe a runaway. Lot of that going around.I gave up speculation in favor of a stroll. Two more minutes and I'd be cramming Oreos in my mouth, just to keep them safe from Gloria.Not a lot of space to stretch your legs at Green & White. It's compact, with enough room to park all eight cabs inside as long as you don't intend to open any doors. The two mechanics' bays were occupied, cabs hoisted side by side on hydraulic lifts. The grease boys were sharing a joke in a language I couldn't identify, much less understand.The narrow passway near the back wall is lined with twelve battered metal lockers that look like they were stolen from my old high school. Full-timers get to claim one, and fasten it with a combination lock if they so desire. Sometimes I crack the combos for practice.As a part-timer, I don't rate my own locker. I drive when I need cash. I drive when I can't sleep. Considering my P.I. income, sporadic insomnia's a blessing in disguise.To get to the toilet, you need to walk through locker central. I make every effort to avoid G&W's rest room, stopping at hotels to use their infinitely more attractive facilities. This morning, nature and coffee had caught me off guard.I ran the locker gauntlet quickly, nervously. A friendof mine, a cop at the Dudley Street station, had recently been attacked by a rare-in-these-parts brown recluse spider. The venom had ballooned his foot to twice its normal size, turning it purple and black before a specialist recognized the symptoms. The guy almost lost his foot.If I were a brown recluse spider, I couldn't think of a cozier nest than G&W's back corridor. Except the bathroom itself.I knocked on the wooden door, got no response, and entered. It's a unisex cesspool. I normally inspect the corners for cockroaches and mice. This time I surveyed the rafters as well. No webs. After spraying the seat with Lysol, I used the toilet, and exited fast, leaving the light on and the door closed. That's protocol. Scares the roaches out of sight, keeps the mice in one place.I'd forgotten all about brown recluses till I saw the spider scamper across the floor.I'm no spider stomper. No spider lover, either. We've got a deal: I leave them alone; they leave me alone. But my friend at Dudley Street had described the little so-and-so who'd caused him so much pain: a small brown three-eighths-inch-long sucker with black markings. Much like the critter who'd just scooted by the lockers.I had a mop in my hand before I consciously thought about it. I couldn't locate the spider and panicked momentarily, feeling itchy. There. It had moved fast, reeling in line, making for the ceiling.I thought I'd better wait till it hit a hard surface before I whacked it. I watched it rise through the air, and the more I observed it the more innocuous it seemed. Iwasn't sure it had black markings at all. It seemed larger than half an inch. I'd decided to smack it with the mop handle after all, for scaring me half to death, when I noticed something more intriguing.A tiny microphone hanging from the ceiling, where no microphone should have been.Copyright © 1995 by Linda Appelblatt Barnes. Excerpt from Cold Case copyright © 1997 by Linda Appelblatt Barnes. LINDA BARNES is the author of ten previous Carlotta Carlyle mysteries and winner of the Anthony and American Mystery Awards. She lives in the Boston area with her husband and son.