About the Author
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.
Read an Excerpt
A Carlotta Carlyle Mystery
By Linda Barnes
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1993 Linda Appelblatt Barnes
All rights reserved.
Every April my mother used to host her own version of the traditional Passover seder. A mishmash of Hebrew, Yiddish, English, and Russian, it involved all Mom's old union pals — Jews, Christians, Muslims, and pagans — who'd give rapid-fire thanks for the release of the ancient Hebrews from Egyptian bondage, and then launch into pre-chicken-soup tirades against General Motors, J. Edgar Hoover, and the FBI. I grew up thinking they were part of the religion.
I liked the Passover songs best. One of my favorites, "Dayenu," a lively, repetitive reminder that "It would have been enough" had God brought us out of Egypt but not given us the Torah, and "It would have been enough" had God given us the Torah but not given us the land of Israel, must have had about twenty-seven verses. Sung after the ritual consumption of four glasses of wine, sometimes it had forty-three.
Dayenu, I found myself thinking when the whole mess was over. It would have been enough to get the snapshots in the mail.
* * *
The first snapshot came on March 20, camouflaged by a sheaf of "urgent" political messages, market circulars, coupon giveaways, and appeals from various charities about to go belly-up unless I forked over twenty-five bucks. My cat and I have an arrangement that allows me to throw most of my mail directly into the wastebasket. It is he, T.C., Thomas C. Carlyle, aka Tom Cat, who subscribes to Mother Jones and The New York Times Book Review. It is he who fearlessly lists his full name in the phone directory, warding off the heavy-breathers that mere initials invite. When I scoop the mail off the foyer floor, I sort it into two piles, one for me, one for the cat. His stack is always twice as high as mine, but I hold my jealousy in check.
T.C. gets nothing but junk. I used to read it; I know.
Not that the mail with my name on it is such hot stuff. Most of it might as well be addressed to Occupant.
But on March 20 the mail included one hand-addressed envelope, which I suspiciously examined for the telltale return address of a famous person. Some marketing gurus out there genuinely believe I'll rip open a flap just to see what my old buddy Ed McMahon wants to tell me.
My tongue made an abrupt clicking noise, an involuntary response to the lack of a return address on the blue envelope — a shockingly misplaced statement of faith in the U.S. Postal Service as far as I was concerned.
Red Emma, my inherited parakeet, thinking I'd addressed her, began a stream of "pretty birds" and similar pap.
"Stick your head in a water dish," I suggested. I've been trying to rid myself of that bird ever since my aunt Bea died. Or at least teach it to swear.
The envelope was party-invitation size, a bit larger than three by five. Not dime-store stuff either; it had the feel of stationery from a fancy box instead of a banded pack. I allowed myself a brief moment of speculation before slitting the top fold. I don't know a lot of people who issue formal party invitations.
I might as well not have bothered to dredge up the few sociable names. Inside was no invitation, no letter, no card, just a color snapshot of a baby, an anonymous wrinkled raisin of a face swathed in a multicolored pastel thing the name of which I'd forgotten. My aunt used to knit them for the expected grandchildren of her mah-jongg ladies. They — the outfits, not the ladies — looked like little bags with zippers down the front and tiny hoods. I flipped the photo over, expecting some kind of birth announcement.
Just KODAK QUALITY PAPER repeated on a series of slanted lines from the upper-left-hand corner to the lower right.
A guessing game: Name that baby. On my desk I keep a magnifying glass, pencils, pens, scissors, and rubber bands in a coffee can. I polished the lens with spit and Kleenex. Under closer scrutiny, the baby's face looked like a wrinkled prune. Turning my attention to the envelope — specifically, to the postmark: Winchester, Massachusetts — I flipped through a mental Rolodex.
I don't know a soul in Winchester.
I slipped the photo under a corner of the blotter and proceeded with the bills. I study the phone statement like a hawk ever since Roz, my third-floor tenant, housecleaner, and sometime assistant, had a late-night vision and dialed a chatty Tibetan monk at my expense.
Exactly one week later, the second photo arrived. The envelope was the same sky-blue. No return address. Postmark: Winchester.
I'm no baby expert, nor do I wish to become one, but I pegged this tot for about a year old. Fair hair, light complexion, with wind-whipped crimson circles of excitement on her cheeks. I say "her" because the baby was wearing a frilly pink dress and tiny black patent Mary Janes so glossy they'd probably never touched the ground. The occasion could have been a first birthday party, although no cake was in evidence.
Nothing, as a matter of fact, was in evidence, just green grass and a couple of leafy elms.
I located last week's photo and got out my trusty magnifying lens. Could have been the same baby, a year older. Could have been another kid altogether.
I was in no mood for games and thought about tossing the snaps in the trash along with T.C.'s Sharper Image catalog and his invitation to use a $6,000 line of credit with Citibank MasterCard.
But I didn't.
The third came on April 3, one week later, right on schedule. I almost expected it. The little girl was wearing bibbed pink overalls and a matching pink-and-white-striped shirt. Same girl as in the second photo; I could see that now. She'd changed, maybe aged another year, but the eyes were the same shape, the mouth had the identical bow.
Same amount of information, too. Zero. I thought about missing kid cases, wondered whether I'd seen the girl on the back of a milk carton.
It was the briefest of thoughts. I shoved the three photos underneath the blotter. I guess I don't feel right about tossing photographs. I keep them around, the way I save leftovers in the refrigerator.
The fourth photo arrived on the tenth of April. My Winchester correspondent had the U.S. mail figured better than I did. When I drop something in the blue box, sometimes it gets delivered the next day. Then I mail a letter from the same place and it takes a full week to make it to the same destination.
Number five, when it appeared, was definitely a birthday photo. A cone-shaped hat was tilted to one side of the girl's head, secured by an elastic band under her chin. Was I going to get a new picture of this child every Friday for the rest of my life?
Kid was a heartbreaker, no doubt about it. It wasn't any one of the features; it wasn't the features at all. The eyes were too close together, the nose small and unformed. It was the grin, a light-up-the-eyes squint that could have melted polar ice caps. Maybe somebody was sending them to cheer me up at the end of each week.
They stayed on my mind, like a measure of half-forgotten music, a melody tantalizingly out of reach. Almost a week later, on Thursday, I spread the photos across my desk and went over the lot with the magnifying lens, speculating about relatives. My mother had no family, except for Aunt Bea, and she was dead. Aunt Bea had never married. I'd lost touch with my father's kin even before his death. He'd never had much use for them. Was some long-lost cousin trying to slowly acquaint me with his or her offspring? Was this the opening salvo of a charity touch?
I do have a little sister, not a blood relation, but a sister from the Big Sisters Organization. Because of a sticky situation with her mom, I haven't seen Paolina for over four months. Could the Big Sisters be trying to soften me up to accept a replacement child?
I put away the magnifying glass with a sigh, sarcastically congratulating myself on some truly momentous discoveries: The child's face had thinned out as she'd turned from baby to toddler to little girl. Her hair had grown. The anonymous photographer had managed well-composed, centered shots with no chairs or lamps growing out of the kid's head.
Brilliant detective work. With the photos laid out like a hand of solitaire, I could watch little raisin-face begin her transformation into a curly-haired, blue-eyed, blond American princess.
Paolina, my little sister, is Colombian, with chocolate eyes and shiny dark hair. Her face is too round for perfection, and will probably stay that way even after her cheeks lose their baby-fat chubbiness.
So who wants perfection?
I gathered the snapshots together like a pack of cards and aimed them at the wastebasket's gaping mouth. At the last minute, I held the shot. Not that I figured they'd lead anywhere, but I found myself more intrigued than irritated by their presence.
After that night, I no longer thought about tossing them. I don't trust anything to the trash.
Not since the attack of the garbage thief.CHAPTER 2
Yes. The garbage thief.
I know it's hard to credit. If I hadn't been leaning out the window, I wouldn't have seen it. If I hadn't seen it — if, say, Roz had reported it to me the next morning — I wouldn't have believed it. And if I'd been wearing any clothes, I'd have stopped it.
"If" is one of my least favorite words.
As it happened, I was bare-ass naked, seated cross-legged on a doubled-up futon that serves as a couch, my elbows propped on the windowsill, my face turned to a flickering sliver of moon. All the lights in my second-floor bedroom were off and my modesty, such as it is, was further protected by some twenty inches of wall separating the low futon and the sill.
A night-chilled breeze brushed my hair. If I closed the window, the screech of badly joined wood would break the silence and send a shiver up my neck. Instead of the deep sky, the barely budding elm tree, the moon, I'd catch a reflection of my sleepy face in the glass. Wide-set hazel eyes that I call green. Pointy chin. A nose broken often enough to acquire either "character" or a bump and a tilt, depending on the relative merits of flattery and honesty.
I left the window open. If I stared hard, I could see the full circle of the moon, the dark part defined by the silver crescent.
I'm an insomniac, a card-carrying member of the club. Since enrollment is secret, I'm the president of my own chapter and I make up the rules. Number one: "Don't lie there. If you can't sleep, get up and do something else."
I recited the other commandments in my head.
"Get plenty of exercise." Well, I sure do. I play killer volleyball three mornings a week. I swim laps at the YWCA pool.
"Eat right." Definitely a failing. I'm a junk-food addict, and the thought of a nice warm glass of milk before bedtime makes me want to puke.
"Always go to sleep at the same time." Sure. I'm a full-time private investigator, but when I can't pay my bills, I drive a cab nights. There is no soothing regularity to my schedule.
"Don't nap." Who has time to nap?
"Cut out the caffeine." Pepsi is a way of life to me.
I did quit smoking. I give myself extra credit for that.
Not for the first time, I considered sleeping pills, the scattering of Dalmanes and Halcions I'd inherited along with Aunt Bea's house. I rejected them, as usual. Live with an addict and you grow wary of medication. Marry and divorce one, you practically convert to Christian Science.
"Exercise." I went back to the second commandment because I thought I'd read somewhere that you shouldn't try any strenuous activity within four hours of going to sleep. I glanced at my bed, shadowy in the moonlight, at the sheet-draped form of Sam Gianelli. Maybe he was my problem. Making love isn't supposed to count as late-night exercise. It relaxes you, right? Makes you sleepy.
Hah. It makes me feel loose, slippery, and warm. But not sleepy.
I considered tossing a pillow at Sam's head. Why should he sleep? Specifically, why should he sleep at my place when he could go back to his Charles River Park apartment? I padded over and kneeled down to reach for my guitar case. I'd ease it out quietly, go downstairs, and practice some finger picking.
The guitar was beyond my reach, centered under the queen-size mattress. Dear God in heaven, Roz must have vacuumed under the bed.
I crawled back to the futon and watched the moon disappear behind a sea of brightening clouds.
The car didn't have its headlights on.
I heard it before I saw it, the closest streetlamp being twenty-five yards away. The motor sputtered to a stop near my driveway. The carburetor needed work.
A car door opened, but the dome light didn't flash. The next sound puzzled me until I realized it was the creak of the trunk. Maybe the driver needed a jack to change a flat tire.
In pitch blackness?
By this time the car had my full attention.
I craned my neck, realized the limitations of my nakedness, and wondered where my clothes were. I felt like yelling "What the hell are you doing down there?" I kept quiet, realizing that the fast-moving moon would soon tell the tale.
It reappeared in a V-shaped break of cloud cover.
A heavyset guy was lifting one of my garbage cans into the gaping trunk of his car. I blinked and shook my head. When I opened my eyes, he was still there.
In my Cambridge neighborhood, barreling is an old and time-honored tradition. The rules are clear. Residents put out big items — old chairs and rickety tables and clunky washing machines — the last Thursday of the month.
It was the third Thursday of April. No one would expect to mine gold in a third Thursday trash collection. And who would rummage for the odd unreturned five-cent-deposit soda can in the middle of the night?
"Stop!" I hollered as loudly as I could. I didn't want the sucker to get away with the trash can. I have only two of them, big wheeled ones that cost $39.95 apiece at the local hardware store. He turned his face and I ducked instinctively. I didn't want to turn the lights on till I found a robe.
I scrabbled around on the floor until I touched cloth. Sam's shirt — hardly long enough, but something to shroud me while I searched more diligently.
I snapped on the light. "Sam!"
"Huh?" He didn't even roll over.
I grabbed my red chenille bathrobe, the one that clashes with my hair, out of the closet. How'd it get in the closet? Roz must have really gone on a cleaning binge.
"Wha'?" I heard Sam mutter as I ran barefoot down the steps.
I have three good locks on my front door. You can't even get out of my house without a key for the deadbolt. My purse, with keys inside, was probably on the kitchen counter. Might as well have been on the moon. I ran to the living room and snatched the extra key from the top drawer of my desk. Then I raced back and let myself out in time to see the car two-wheel the corner and disappear.
With both my trash cans.
I stood at the edge of the driveway, in the same spot the cans had occupied a moment before, cursing under my breath, staring at empty darkness but seeing the speeding car, the screeching turn, the mud-smeared license plate. Four. Eight. The last two digits: a four and an eight. Definitely.
My gut reaction: Why me? I'm no rocket scientist. I have nothing to hide. And then I thought, goddammit, yes I do! I have plenty to hide. I don't want anyone to know how much mocha almond ice cream I eat in a week, much less a single detail of my correspondence. I particularly don't want the names of my clients spread around. They hire me for confidential reasons, and, within the law, I do my damnedest to preserve their anonymity.
I did a quick inventory of what I'd been tossing besides the cat's junk mail. Had I received any checks lately? What cases was I still trying to collect on?
A missing husband whose wife should have thrown a farewell party for the bum instead of paying good money to find him living with her stepdaughter. A runaway son-in-law. A habitual bail jumper every private eye in New England has taken a run at ...
I tried to catalog the trash, but my mind blanked at the scope of the task. And maybe the garbage thief wasn't even after me. Maybe some garbologist was doing a study of Roz's reject artwork. To me, it always looks like Roz frames and attempts to sell every botched endeavor, but what do I know about postpunk art?
Hell. I didn't care if the target was Roz or me. I didn't care if some grad student was doing a thesis on banana-peel disposal in the 02138 zip code. Whoever it was, the garbologist was going to have to research somebody else's garbage.
Excerpted from Snapshot by Linda Barnes. Copyright © 1993 Linda Appelblatt Barnes. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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.
Table of Contents