Six-foot-tall, redheaded ex-cop and Boston-based private eye Carlotta Carlyle is “the genuine article: a straightforward, funny, thoroughly American mystery heroine” (New York Post).
Carlotta Carlyle knows all about urban survival. That’s why she’s happy to do her neighbor, Valentine, a favor like this one. The elderly recluse needs help burglar-proofing her rent-controlled apartment. But it seems Valentine’s fears are more immediate and threatening than she’s letting on. Because just twenty-four hours later, the old woman turns up dead in her ransacked home.
Finding out who’d want to kill a nice old lady lands Carlotta on the heels of a hotshot music executive claiming to be Valentine’s last living relative, a real-estate mogul with a knack for eviction, and Valentine’s terrified healthcare worker. But when Carlotta becomes the target of an arsonist, she knows she’s on to something hot: a city-wide conspiracy that Beantown’s top brass want dead and buried—along with the woman who knew too much.
Delivering a “twisty plot, colorful language, and even more colorful characters” (The Dallas Morning News), “Flashpoint further cements Carlotta’s place in the pantheon of contemporary P.I.s” (Chicago Tribune).
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"Es iz nit azoy gut mit gelt vi es iz shlekht on dem." The thought came to me even as my hand whacked the alarm clock, silencing a wail that cut through the stillness like a tenor sax.
Or as my grandmother, my mother's mother, used to say: "It's not that it's so good with money as it's bad without it."
Morning sunlight streamed through the flimsy bedroom curtains, illuminating a wedge of oak floorboards, an open guitar case stuffed with sheet music, and a once-white sock.
I do not habitually wake to thoughts of cash. I guess it's true: You think about things you haven't got.
I didn't have a steady paycheck. I didn't have a client. I didn't have much in the way of visible means of support. I did have an up-to-date private investigator's license authorizing me to stick my nose into the personal business of folks requesting same in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. I did own a house, an aged Victorian within spitting distance of Harvard Square. Real estate prices being what they are, I could sell it and retire.
I whispered a silent thank-you for the house, which my aunt Bea left me, mortgage paid, free and clear, except for monumental property taxes and upkeep costs I can't keep up with. I'll never sell, but knowing I could makes all the difference.
Scooting across the hall, I shivered in the autumn chill. You are not really cold, I told myself. Real cold holds off till Halloween, which is why the stingy landlord doesn't turn on the heat till November 1.
I checked the landlord's image in the mirror over the sink. The fluorescents picked up each freckle and magnified it, giving my red hair a greenish glow that spread to my skin, blending with my hazel eyes and achieving a sort of monochromatic, lizardlike effect. In the bedroom mirror, where I do makeup, I look human. Too tall, eyes too far apart, chin too narrow, broken-nosed, but hardly reptilian.
I yanked off my red chenille robe and hung it on the hook. The closed shower curtain brought me to a halt. I sniffed the air suspiciously. The tang of some spray-type ammonia product lingered, indicating that Roz, my third-floor tenant cum housekeeper, might have actually cleaned the bathroom. I studied the sink. It was difficult to tell whether she'd disturbed any dirt.
Had she left the water turned to shower or tub? I always push the knob down after showering so I don't inadvertently soak my head when not planning to shampoo. Roz seems to regard cleaning as an act of sabotage, hiding towels, moving the soap, diddling the knobs.
Why haven't I chucked her into a snowdrift and hired a reputable, bonded cleaning service? Because I'm cheap, but that's not the whole story. I don't know how I've grown accustomed to her, but it's a fact: I have. I need a tenant, to offset expenses, to help me avoid the dread specter of housework. With Roz I know where I am, sort of. Forewarned is often forearmed.
I ripped back the curtain and stood dumbstruck.
Transfixed by the body in my bathtub.
Body. Bathtub. Body in the bathtub. Body in my bathtub. My fingers seemed to have lost their power to grip. I couldn't even draw the curtain to make the apparition disappear. A fresh bar of soap nested in the tub's corner, and one large foot was splayed beneath it. The toenails needed clipping.
Somehow I remembered to close the lid before sinking onto the toilet. Resting elbows on knees, forehead in hands, I shut my eyes and vowed to get a normal life even if it meant ringing a cash register at the local Stop & Shop. Tentatively, I shook my head and ran my tongue around the inside of my mouth. No sign of a hangover. I'd never been a binge drinker. Never blacked out. Before. I couldn't recall bringing home a man, and now, here I was with a corpse.
The body grunted.
Instinctively, I snatched a hand towel, which turned out to be way too small to cover what ought to be covered. The phony corpse belched again, its head lolling lazily to one side while beer and dope fumes rose like mist from its hair. I grabbed a bigger towel, draped and tucked, and congratulated myself on not screaming.
He wasn't dead. I wouldn't need to dial 911 and listen to myself confess to a capital crime I couldn't recall committing. With my eyes shut, I counted slowly to five. When I bugged them wide, he remained stubbornly visible, definitely a man; stoned, soaked, stark naked, still lying in my tub.
He had a body honed by workouts, alternately flat and bulging in the right places. Pale, wispy hair clung to his skull. His neck was long and sinewy, his jaw bony, his face turned to the wall. I leaned in to get a better view. Bad skin, pitted by acne. Eyes shut under bristly, dark brows.
It was not a familiar face, not a face I'd seen before. He was breathing deeply now, noisy inhalations, greedy sucking sounds.
Call the cops?
Get dressed, wake him — whoever the hell he was — then call the cops?
His right hand, propped along the edge of the porcelain, caught my attention. At first I thought it might be bruised, but as I inched closer, I saw that the purple blob centered on the knuckle of his index finger was layered and thick. I sniffed at it and knew: paint. Purple paint! Roz might as well have signed her name across his chest.
Quickly, I examined the room's perimeter. My tenant is an artist of sorts, currently specializing in post-punk paint and performance. She's been known to mount rented video cams in her quest to document her bizarre life. If I found a surveillance unit in my bathroom, I'd call the police only after I finished disposing of her body.
My outrage soared. Granted, I was glad this wasn't some guy I'd met in a bar, glad I hadn't experienced totally unmemorable sex, but relief didn't go far toward loosening my clamped jaw. Not only did the paint scream "Roz," the man's body type incriminated her as well. She has appalling taste in the opposite sex, choosing boyfriends on the basis of muscles alone.
Very gently, I reached over, made contact with the shower curtain, and tugged it closed.
Shrugging into my robe, I pounded upstairs, letting the towel drop unheeded in mid-flight. Under normal conditions I don't enter Roz's lair. It scares me, with its black matte walls and ceilings, store dummies fixed in strikingly weird poses, black-and-white TVs flickering like lava lamps.
"Roz," I yelled into the darkness. The smell of paint was strong and sharp, and I wondered if she'd switched from her usual acrylics to a more potent medium.
She owns no bed, just mats that she strews haphazardly across the floor. For karate, sleeping, sex. Basics.
"Yo?" I heard her voice, but couldn't distinguish her shape. How did she keep it so dark? Had she bricked the windows?
"Get the hell downstairs."
"You left some trash in the tub."
"I mean it. Now. As in now!"
I timed her, counting one, one thousand, two, one thousand, as I retraced my steps to the bathroom, clinging to my indignation. If I allowed myself a single laugh, I knew Roz would squeal like a puppy and assume I thought the whole business was way cool.
My cheek twitched. I got it under control.
She took eighteen seconds. Didn't bother to dress. Wrapped in a black sheet — where in hell do you buy black sheets? — she looked like a terrorist from a small Middle Eastern country.
"The tub," I said.
She yanked the curtain, froze for a moment, then roared with laughter.
"Yuck it up."
"Carlotta, I'm sorry! I'm so sorry! I'm really —" She gave up her feeble attempt at apology and whooped until her sheet fell off, flapping to the floor like a strange dark bird.
"I thought he went home," she said. "He was helping me with the murals. I thought he'd spend the night, you know, but he kept sucking a bottle of tequila and got hopelessly drunk, useless, so I told him to go. I honestly thought he'd left."
"In his birthday suit?"
I studied the body's face.
"Roz," I said quietly, "how old is this boy?"
"What's the diff?"
"Length of your jail sentence, for a start." My mind backtracked abruptly. "Murals? What did you ... What was that stuff about murals?"
"Hey, it's cool. He's like a bouncer, but he paints, too, and with his bod, I can model the central —"
"The last time I heard the word murals it referred to wall paintings."
"You didn't say anything when I painted the attic black," she protested in a small voice.
"What the hell could I say? It was done by the time I knew."
"You're gonna love it. Murals are like total commentary. First, I thought nude guys, but then I thought earth-moving machinery, bulldozers and cranes and heavy trucks, and wham! I had this wipeout idea, an absolute brainstorm —"
Roz once did a series featuring Smurfs attacking Russian icons. More recently she'd tried her hand at acrylic veggies and sexually enhanced stick figures. Then there was "found art," which she found around my house when she was supposed to be dusting. Like I said, I'm not planning to sell the house, but if I do, the presence of Roz's wall art will not be a major selling point.
I interrupted her flow. "First, I want this guy out of here."
"He'll wake up."
"Not good enough. I want him out now. I never wish to encounter him again, asleep or awake, even by chance. Is that clear?"
"Hey, just 'cause you're the landlord, you can't, like, dictate my life."
"Get this straight: Ditch him, or move out with him. Up to you. If you choose not to leave, invest in some paint. Heavy-duty latex. Beige. Today."
"Two coats, maybe three, ought to cover whatever misguided project you've begun —"
Neither of us had been paying much attention to the body. He chose that moment to stir and groan ominously. As he tried to sit, the skin on his face turned yellowy white. His features twisted. His mouth gaped, displaying the tip — I swear — of a purple-flecked tongue. He was going to be sick.
I was outta there.CHAPTER 2
Scooping an armload of clothes off the hamper lid, I hustled downstairs to the tiny half bath, where I attempted to shower in the sink. After banging my left elbow on the door twice, I gave up. Icy rivulets ran down my torso, dripping on the rugless tile. The towel rod was bare, so I dried myself on the T-shirt I'd rescued from the washing machine.
I wanted a shower, felt a longing for water I can only compare to intense hunger. Thirst I knew I could quench with a cool drink, but my hunger was the kind that required immersion. Water's my element; I swim whenever I can, luxuriate in hot, soapy tubs and pulsing showers.
Groans and grumbles issued nonstop from the bathroom above.
I finished swabbing wet spots, checked the T-shirt's armpits for undesirable fragrance, pulled it over my head, and shook out my hair. The worn jeans had rips at both knees. Strapping on my watch, I eyed the time and decided to head for a place where ripped jeans would provoke no derogatory comments. With my gym bag already in the trunk, there was no need to trot upstairs and risk an encounter with the vomiting hulk. I'd shower at the Cambridge Y, where my early arrival would sit well with Kirsten, our earnest captain, who'd been looking at me askance ever since I'd missed three consecutive weeks of volleyball practice in August. The morning's disastrous opening could be saved and converted into an opportunity to impress her.
I could tell by the record-breaking pace at which I sped the mile and a half to the Y and stomped from car to locker room that I was still pissed at Roz, but I let the anger slip away as I swam twenty laps, then rinsed off the chlorine as lavishly as possible within the confines of a moldy-smelling, plastic-curtained cubicle. By 8 A.M. volleyball time, my fingertips were shriveled and pink.
Next to swimming, I'll take volleyball. Give me two teams on opposite sides of a tall net, the smell of gym socks and sweat, a firm, white ball. Plenty of coed squads exist, but for day-to-day play, I prefer teaming with women, because there are few showboats, and even fewer who'll go out of their way to deck you, although the number seems to be increasing. I imagined Roz across the net and angled a shot at her solar plexus. A middle blocker with a deep southern accent stared at me hard.
"Watch it," she drawled, flashing a disarming smile. "You're gonna lose teeth you keep that up."
"Sorry," I said.
Loretta tipped me an easy crosscourt floater. I smashed it over the net, aiming for floor this time.
"Side out," Kirsten yelled.
My serve sailed too high, way too shallow, turned into an easy dig for a quick woman with dark hair. A small Hispanic woman set it center net for the middle blocker I'd antagonized, but quiet Gwen Taymore, beaded braids bouncing on my side of the net, anticipated her perfectly and saved the point by scooping a dig so gorgeous I wanted to stop and applaud.
Concentrate, I ordered myself. Go for the set. I hate playing the back row. I grit my teeth and do it for the good of my soul, so I'll remember that cooperation is essential. Most of the time I prefer playing Lone Ranger, but sometimes group effort is the key. And I know I won't get stuck in the back row forever. That's consolation.
I've been playing with the Y-Birds too long to remember. Members come and go but a hard-core element stays loyal, addicted to the movement of ball over net, the give of the wooden floorboards, the smash of fist and ball, the satisfying smack of the victorious point, the kill.
It's fun, it's exercise, and I don't have to interact with machines. I don't have to jog an endless treadmill to nowhere. I do have to put up with non- spa-quality surroundings, but the dues are affordable, and the company's good. For women who've played together a long time, we Y-Birds know almost nothing about each other. It's a restful ignorance, and in our gym shorts and tank tops we all look as if we could hail from the same economic background.
I served five points, which for me is superlative. I don't take full credit: Gwen made three more great digs, reading the opposition's placement like a clairvoyant. After the game, the quick shower, the usual locker-room jive and chat, I thanked her, earning a wide smile and a nod. She turned left out the front door and tagged along with me as far as the corner, hesitating while I stuck five dimes in the slot to buy a Globe from a vending machine. She crossed the street beside me, against the light, held the door as I entered Dunkin' Donuts, her eyes fixed on the ground. No single member of the team is as dedicated a doughnut muncher as I am, although each has been known to celebrate a crucial victory with Honey-Dipped or Jelly-Filled.
Gwen was sticking with me like a just-patted pup. I eyeballed the area for a reason, such as a large and angry boyfriend. Some of my teammates know I'm an ex-cop. Relieved that I could see no apparent stalker, I ordered my usual — glazed and coffee with cream and sugar — sat, and cracked the paper.
Drug lords had seized a remote mountain prison in Colombia. Two conflicting conspiracy theories had surfaced concerning the death of Martin Luther King Jr. An outfit called the Jewish Reclamation League had declared a "legal" right to seize artwork looted from Holocaust victims, bang off the walls of museums if necessary. In the Fenway, rats feasted on garbage while the Department of Sanitation denied any appreciable rodent infestation. This on the front page alone.
Across from me, Gwen lowered her coffee cup with sufficient force to set the contents quivering. A chair protested squeakily as she dragged it over the tile. If she'd wanted to be alone there were plenty of other tables. Four seats were empty along the orange Formica counter. I glanced up and smiled encouragingly. Gwen, a silent young woman of color with a sweet, round face and a grin that lifted the corners of a generous mouth, was a team fixture. I say "woman of color" because my friend Gloria, who used to call herself black, now prefers "woman of color," declaring it hip enough to acknowledge the rainbow of shades between Argentine tan and African noir, yet aware that "African American" might be presumptuous.
Gwen's skin was the color of polished teak, flawless except for the splash of freckles on her nose. She gnawed her lower lip uneasily, opened her mouth several times, then squeezed her left hand into a fist and blurted, "Do you think there's an age at which you — you — you know, l–lose it?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Flashpoint"
Copyright © 1999 Linda 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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Great author, good female PI protag. Fun series with lovable characters.
I can't say enough about how much I enjoy reading these books. The story within the story is always mind provoking. The story flows smoothly.. I never feel lost or confused. Linda Barnes knows how to write. Carlotta is terrific!!