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).
A Trouble of Fools: Recently fired from the Beantown police force for insubordination, the part-time taxi driver lands her first case as a private eye. Searching for a missing Irish cabbie leads her into a nefarious scheme that puts her at odds with the FBI and a Mafia-connected former lover, in this award-winning debut.
The Snake Tattoo: A London Times outstanding book of the year, Carlotta Carlyle’s former boss, Lieutenant Mooney, gets into a scrap with a stranger in a bar. When the stranger winds up comatose, Mooney is suspended, and he needs Carlotta to find the one woman who can exonerate him: a blond hooker with a snake tattoo.
Coyote: An illegal immigrant is mistakenly pronounced dead when her ID card is found on the body of a murdered woman near Fenway Park. Now she needs Carlotta to get her ID—and her life—back. But this wasn’t an isolated crime. A murderer is targeting Boston’s immigrant community . . . and could easily add Carlotta to the kill list.
Steel Guitar: Carlotta is shocked to see blues superstar Dee Willis climb into her cab. They were friends in college—until Dee ran off with Carlotta’s husband. Now, Dee’s in town playing a concert and wants Carlotta’s help tracking down a mutual friend. But when a blackmail plot is uncovered and a corpse is found in Dee’s hotel room, Carlotta will have to work fast to keep Dee from becoming another casualty of the blues.
About the Author
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If Margaret Devens had told me the truth right off the bat, things might have turned out differently. Or as my mom used to say, in Yiddish or English depending on the situation, "If your grandmother had wheels, she would have been a truck."
I never met my bubbe, my grandma, the source of all my mother's Yiddish proverbs, but thinking about it now, I guess I wouldn't mind if she'd been a ringer for Margaret Devens — stubborn, smart, and crafty behind the sweet-old-lady facade.
"CONGRATULATIONS, Mr. & Mrs. Thomas C. Carlyle," the letter began cheerily. The stationery was thick and creamy, sharply creased, names typed in boldface, the way they are in those "personal" computer-generated mailings.
No such couple existed. I read on.
The vacuum cleaner hummed pleasantly. If you've never considered your Hoover's voice soothing, you've probably been shoving it across a high-pile carpet. From the right distance, propelled by other hands — in this case the paint-smeared hands of Roz, my tenant cum new-wave artist cum sometime assistant — vacuum cleaner buzz could make the lullaby obsolete.
Roz gets reduced rent in exchange for basic household chores. As a cleaner, she's a great artist. My spice rack is color-coded, my knickknacks adroitly arranged. Books and papers are stacked in tidy piles at attractive oblique angles. My floors have never been filthier, but then Roz doesn't have much time for nitty-gritty cleaning. She dyes her hair a new color every three days and that takes up the hours. I like Roz.
A firm of Omaha lawyers was pleased to inform me that the above-mentioned Mr. and Mrs. Carlyle were the lucky recipients in their GRAND GIVEAWAY. After a courteous tour of a "luxurious time-sharing condominium resort," located someplace I'd never want to visit, much less live, I — or rather Mr. and Mrs. Carlyle — could claim the GRAND GIVEAWAY FIRST PRIZE of, take your pick, a trip to Italy for the entire family, all expenses paid — or twenty thousand bucks.
I searched for the fine print that said "valid until yesterday," or "provided you make a thirty-thousand-dollar donation to the United Church of Holy Poverty." I didn't find it I read the whole thing again. It said trip to Italy, all expenses, twenty thousand dollars.
Claiming the prize was going to be a problem.
I know Mr. T.C. Carlyle pretty damn well. The T.C. stands for Thomas Cat, aka Tom Cat. Right. A good sort, Mr. Carlyle, but definitely of the feline persuasion. Sleek and black, with a right forepaw so white that it looks like he dipped it in a dish of cream, Thomas Cat has a disposition you could describe as independent, which I prefer, or surly, which is closer to the truth. He is not your eager three-piece-suit -and-tie type. I have trouble getting him to wear a bell around his neck, a necessary indignity that keeps him from dumping dead sparrows on my carpet, which in turn prevents the parakeet from going bonkers.
I list my home phone under Thomas C. It's okay with him. He loves getting calls from admirers of the late essayist, survey takers, anyone at all. I didn't want to put my name in the book, first because women get crank calls, and second because ex-cops get crank calls. So I listed Tom, since he's the only male I share the place with regularly. And what do you know, he started getting letters. Begging letters from charitable organizations and pleas from campaigning congressmen. Credit card offers and magazine subscriptions. He subscribes to the New York Times Book Review and Mother Jones.
As far as cats go, Tom's a prize, but I didn't see how I could get him married off in time to claim the trip to Italy or the cash.
The doorbell sounded over the vacuum hum, the way it does when you're wearing ratty sweatpants and have your mouth half-full of Swiss cheese and roast beef on rye. I waited, hoping for three rings. Three rings means Roz, the third-floor tenant.
The bell rang twice, stopped.
"Hang on!" I yelled, swallowing fast.
The bell rang again, twice in rapid succession.
It isn't that I have far to travel from the dining room to the hall. It's that I have about five locks on my crummy front door. Filing burglary reports has replaced baseball as my neighborhood's prime pastime.
It was slightly past noon on a late September Sunday that had no business being so cool, and I wasn't expecting anybody. I squinted my left eye shut and pressed my right one to the peephole. If I had been expecting someone, it wouldn't have been the cozy old lady who perched on my front stoop like an inquisitive bird. As I struggled with the last deadbolt, always sticky, she turned up the collar of her wooly pink coat, and got ready to hit the buzzer again. She wore white cotton gloves. I haven't seen a pair of white gloves in ages.
"Coming," I yelled, forestalling the buzzer.
She was too old for a Mormon missionary, so I steeled myself for the Jehovah's Witnesses pitch. Possibly Antiviv-section. I hoped she was antivivisection. I wondered if I could keep a straight face while I asked her where to donate the parakeet for lab research.
She had sparse white hair, like powdered sugar frosting on her pink scalp, and a round face that must have been cheerful when she smiled. Her skin was crosshatched with fine lines. Deeper ridges creased her forehead and carved channels from her broad nose to her small anxious mouth. Her gray eyes, unsettlingly steady, stared gravely at the peephole.
The lock gave, and I yanked open the screen, apologizing. She didn't respond like a proselytizer or a fund-raiser.
"Margaret Devens," she announced hopefully. "Miss," she added, "Miss Margaret Devens, spinster."
I smiled at the quick glint of humor in her eyes, at the outmoded term, at the clean white gloves, but the name meant nothing to me. She stretched her small mouth into a grin, and nodded as though it should.
"And you," she continued, giving me the once-over with a nice touch of disbelief, "are Miss Carlyle, the investigator?"
Now I admit I have looked better. My sweats had seen their heyday long ago, and most of my right knee was visible through a tear. My shirt was slightly more reputable, an oversized bright red pullover. I don't wear it much because, to tell the truth, it doesn't go well with my coloring. I've got red hair, really red hair, the kind that beggars adjectives like "flaming," and Mom always told me to wear blues and greens, but every once in a while I break loose. For the rest, I was barefoot, and hadn't even thought about makeup. I go barefoot a lot because I'm six one and I wear size 11 shoes. You may not realize this, but for all practical purposes, women's shoes stop dead at size 10. Much of my life is spent shoe shopping. I hoped I'd brushed my hair before I plunked it on top of my head and stuck in the hairpins.
Probably I had. I mean, I don't always remember brushing my teeth in the morning, but I do it. With my hair under control, I almost look my age, which is on a different side of thirty than most people suspect.
"I usually work by appointment only," I said, not so much to discourage her as to excuse my appearance.
"This is not a usual matter." Her voice was soft and quavery, with the hint of a brogue.
With a caseload so light I was reading the cat's mail, I figured I ought to welcome any nibble, so I ushered her inside and draped her coat on the rack in the foyer. My nose twitched with the smell of mothballs and lavender. Underneath, she wore a blue flower-print dress of such high- collared respectability that she must have come straight from church. The wooly coat had given her an illusion of bulk. Without it, she was so thin I could see the sharp shelf of bone between her shoulders.
She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out except a small dry cough, so she closed it again and spent some time fiddling with her gloves, rolling them together in a tight ball and depositing them in the pocket of her coat. My clients are a nervous lot, on the whole. Most of them would rather have root canals without novocaine than discuss their troubles with a stranger. I offered coffee to break the uneasy silence.
She nodded gratefully, and took her time crossing the living room. I couldn't tell if she moved slowly because of her age, which I put in the high sixties, or because she was checking out the decor. Her eyes lingered on the furnishings and she clucked and murmured as if she approved.
If she was using the living room furniture as a clue to my character, she was making a big mistake. Mostly it's the way Aunt Bea left it when she died. I even kept her dumb parakeet, but I moved the cage to one side of the bay window so it didn't block the light. Old Fluffy squawked indignantly for a week. The living room's not my style, but I don't mind it. The oriental rug's a little threadbare, but it looks terrific when the sunlight pours in, like some glistening ruby-and-sapphire brooch. The sofa velvet is worn around the wood scrollwork, and I don't polish the mahogany the way my aunt did. Neither does Roz. Her idea of cleaning is a half-hearted flick of the feather duster here and there, but then she's got her thoughts on higher things.
Margaret Devens went unerringly for Aunt Bea's favorite rocker, and settled her narrow backside against the embroidered cushion with a satisfied sigh. She fit the chair like the missing piece of a puzzle. I half expected her to yank out her knitting and clatter away. I hadn't realized how much I missed that sound.
I fetched coffee, a cup for myself, too — cream and two sugars — and crammed a quick bite of sandwich into my mouth. Chewing steadily, I rolled a few chocolate chip cookies onto a plate. By the time I got back to the living room, Miss Devens was rocking steadily, staring straight ahead, chin high. She looked like a woman who'd made up her mind, bitten the bullet, and disliked the taste.
I sat on the sofa, which creaked to let me know that while it hadn't collapsed under my weight, it was only a matter of time. I steer plump clients away from the couch. No danger with Miss Devens. She touched her coffee cup to her lips, and gave the cookie plate a welcoming reception.
"You know, I'm only here because my brother's gone," she said between bites, as if we were continuing a conversation instead of starting one.
"Gone?" I wasn't sure if she was using a euphemism for "dead" or what.
"You handle that kind of thing, do you?"
I don't handle communication with the dead, so I assumed she meant just what she said. Gone, as in vanished. I wondered if she'd seen my ad in the Yellow Pages. I wondered if anyone did. I paid extra for fancy red print. "If you're talking about a missing persons investigation," I said gently, "the police are the place to start. More personnel, more clout. Step number one: file a missing persons report." She bit her lower lip, and looked helpless. "I wouldn't like to involve the police."
"Any particular reason why not?"
She examined her hands as if she expected to see the right answer written on them. "Well, you see, I'd hate to embarrass my brother, you know. He's younger than I am, and a bit foolhardy still. But a good man, you understand, a good man." There was something almost defiant in her insistence. She started another sentence, gave it up. Her hands fluttered.
I eyed the pile of past-due bills next to the cat's mail on the dining room table. Had to keep T.C. in Tender Vittles until I could figure out how to collect his twenty grand. Of course, I could always take in more tenants. I've got rooms galore, and students will kill to be within walking distance of Harvard Square.
"What's your brother's name?" I asked.
"Bless you," she said, "bless you."
"Whoa. I haven't decided anything yet, Miss Devens."
"Oh, of course." More fluttering of hands. "Well, you haven't decided against it, have you?"
"I need a little information. Like your brother's name."
My tone must have gotten sarcastic. The lady's lower lip trembled, and I felt like I'd kicked my unknown grandmother down the stairs. My tour of duty as a cop did not do much for my manners or my vocabulary. The sleazebag bastards I dealt with did not go in for "please" and "thank you."
"Take your time, Miss Devens," I muttered. "More coffee?"
"Thank you," she said, beaming as if I'd given her a present The smile faded quickly from her eyes and she pressed her lips together, as if embarrassed that they'd been caught tilting up. "My brother is Eugene Paul Mark Devens." Again, I had the feeling that she expected more of a reaction from me than she got I wondered if she always gave his full baptismal name.
"How long has he been missing?"
"All of ten days," she said, not trying to keep the worry out of her voice. "And he's lived with me for sixteen years, ever since his wife passed on."
"That's it It's hard to imagine, much less say, but one day he was there, and the next day he wasn't."
"You, uh, had some kind of quarrel?"
"I'm not much of a fighter, Miss Carlyle." She patted her white hair, and rocked gently back and forth. "Truly, I'm at my wit's end."
"What about work?" I asked. "Does your brother work?"
"Sure, he's a driver, nights mostly, for the Green and White Cab Company. That's why we don't talk as much as a brother and sister should. The hours, you know. I'm a busy woman myself, with my volunteer work and all, and our hours didn't — our hours don't coincide."
Green & White. Bingo. Light bulbs lit over my head. That's where the name Devens came from. I had only the faintest recollection of the guy's face, but I remembered those smelly cigars of his. His term at G&W had overlapped mine on both ends, but the part-time drivers, especially the ones labeled "college kid" like me, didn't mix much with the lifers.
Green & White. That answered the referral question. G&W's dispatcher, the formidable Gloria, was always good for a boost. Someday one of my old cop buddies would tip someone off to my existence. I wasn't holding my breath.
"A cabdriver." Miss Devens pursed her lips and shook her head sadly. "He could have done better for himself, no doubt about that. If ever there was a boy with all the advantages, well, that was Eugene. I can't say he was lazy, but he had a mind of his own always, and no will to follow the plans of others. Not his mother, not his wife, not his big sister, surely ... But that's no matter now, is it? I saw my brother last on Wednesday, September tenth, before he went off to work. And then I haven't seen him since." Her hands clutched each other for support. "Should I write that down for you, now?"
"I'll remember. I have a good memory." Once it's jogged.
"I did, too," she said, "once upon a time."
I said, "What do you think happened to him?"
"I don't know."
"You said he was married ..."
"Could have done better for himself there, too. The story of his life. Could have, should have, might have. But he married the first girl ... his wife, Betty ... well, she wasn't our kind of people."
"Oh, she was Irish all right, I'll give her that." Miss Devens used the word "Irish" the same way my Dad's relatives, lace-curtain Irish all, used it when they talked about the folks they called shanty Irish. "It wasn't what you'd call a happy marriage. I think, when she died, it was a release for him. But who am I to judge? What do I know about it, love and marriage, happy or not?" She smiled ruefully. "I could have joined the convent for all I know about it."
"Your brother have children?"
She sighed, and the smile faded. "The union wasn't blessed. In many ways."
"Could your brother be staying with a friend?"
"I'm afraid I — I don't know his friends as well as I might."
"Does he drink?" Considering cabdrivers I have known, I thought I'd better get that one out of the way.
"Some. At an Irish pub."
Ah, now I knew where to look. There are two hundred Irish pubs in Boston. Maybe another hundred in Cambridge.
"To excess?" I inquired, putting it as politely as I knew how.
"At times," she answered cautiously. "You know what men are."
I ignored that one. "Has he gone off on benders?" I asked. "At times?"
"Well, I can't say no. After Betty died, he'd go off once in a while. He'd get, well, bleak-looking, and then he'd be out a night or two. But it's been years now. And he never stayed away so long. Never."
I bit into a cookie. "Did he take things with him?"
"Did you check his room? Did he pack a bag?"
"If he had I wouldn't be here, would I? If he'd taken a trip, I'd know where he was. My brother and I are close, truly we are." She fumbled in her lumpy handbag. "I brought his picture," she said, and when she looked at her brother's photograph, her face melted. She tried to smile, but the corners of her mouth quivered, and tears welled up in her eyes.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Carlotta Carlyle Mysteries Volume One"
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