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Authors: Linda Barnes

The Snake Tattoo

BOOK: The Snake Tattoo
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The Snake Tattoo

A Carlotta Carlyle Mystery

Linda Barnes

For Richard—

in memory of our daughter

The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness
.

—Joseph Conrad,
Under Western Eyes
, Part II (1911)

CHAPTER 1

I shouldn't have taken either case. I certainly shouldn't have taken both. As my mother used to say, in Yiddish more often than English: “You can't ride two horses with one behind.”

I was eating dinner—leftover takeout pizza I'd revived with a can of anchovies—when the doorbell rang. I waited, hoping it would ring three times for Roz, but it died after a single bleat. Seems like it only rings when I'm eating.

I grabbed another bite. I was hungry, but I couldn't afford to ignore the bell. Most of my clients make appointments, but I get my share of lost souls clutching the Yellow Pages.

The bell rang again.

“Coming!” I hollered, hoping the prospective client wouldn't mind anchovy-breath. I can't afford to alienate clients. Demand for a female private investigator is picking up, but I still moonlight as a cab driver to afford luxuries like FancyFeast, the only cat food T.C. will eat. I figured keeping the client waiting while I brushed my teeth would offend more than my breath might, so I went to the foyer and started the lengthy process of unlocking, unbarring, and unchaining while squinting through the peephole.

It was Mooney. Lieutenant Mooney of the Boston Police.

Cops on the doorstep don't faze me because I used to be one. In another life I worked for Mooney. Well, really I worked for the fine people of the city of Boston in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, protecting and defending. But the folks I came into contact with most often—burglars, drunks, druggies, hookers, and abusive spouses—were not the upright citizens who'd hired me. When I used the word “boss,” which I hardly ever did since it's a word I hate, I meant Mooney.

I yanked open the door.

“Took you long enough,” he said.

“Hey,” I said, “you should have flashed your badge. Want some pizza?”

“Anchovies?” he asked, displaying an encyclopedic memory of my eating habits or a good sense of smell.

I nodded.

“Nope,” he said.

“I could take the anchovies off,” I said, “but you can tell where they've been.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Looking good, Carlotta.”

I was wearing torn jeans and an old gray sweatshirt. My hair was in one of its totally-out-of-control and in-dire-need-of-a-haircut phases so I'd plunked it on top of my head and stuck in a few hairpins. My hair is bright red—natural—and I wished briefly that I'd combed it. I was barefoot, my usual state since size eleven women's shoes are hard to find and difficult to afford. I couldn't remember applying any makeup, and I smelled like an anchovy.

I suppose Mooney's seen me look worse, but he really wasn't paying attention. I probably could have answered the door in lace underwear and he'd have responded with the same preoccupied stare, the same, “Looking good,” followed quickly by, “I need to talk to you.”

I ushered him into my office, which is really the living room with a rolltop desk.

“Do you mind if—” I started.

“Why don't you bring the pizza in here?” he said.

We do that. Think of the same thing at the same time, I mean. It helped when I worked for him, and sometimes I think he's never forgiven me for leaving the force.

When I got back from the kitchen, balancing two beers and a cardboard round of pizza, I thought I'd see Mooney sprawled on the couch or maybe rocking in the rocking chair. I didn't expect to see him perched on the straightbacked chair next to my desk, the one I reserve for clients.

He minded the beers while I rolled up the desktop and set the pizza on a stack of file folders.

“Pepperoni, too,” he said, wrinkling his nose and shaking his head. “You must have Technicolor nightmares.”

I grew up in a kosher home, believe it or not. Not that my mom was religious—she was more union organizer than synagogue-goer—but the house we lived in had been my grandmother's, and Mom wouldn't profane her memory by mixing milk and meat there. Outside was a different story, especially at Chinese restaurants, where pork was mysteriously allowable. I don't keep kosher, wouldn't dream of it, but somehow the statute of limitation on kosher has not yet run its course. So
trayf
meat and cheese has the lure of doubly forbidden fruit. I love ham-and-cheese sandwiches and adore pepperoni pizza.

“I could make you a sandwich,” I offered.

“I already ate.”

Mooney leads a well-regulated life. Aside from a stint in the army and a brief, unsuccessful marriage, he hasn't spent that many nights away from his mom. It's not his fault. His dad died maybe four years ago, and Mom moved straight into Mooney's apartment. That's the way they do it here, the Boston Irish. No personal sacrifice too great. Selfless and charming. Ma probably had meat, potatoes, and two veggies on the table at six sharp every evening.

“When you were a cop,” Mooney said carefully, as if he were still deciding how to end the sentence, “did you know a blonde hooker with a snake tattoo?”

“A snake?” I repeated. “Where?”

“Left leg.”

“Doesn't ring bells.”

“You sure?”

“I'm not up to date on the hooker scene, Mooney. Why do you want this lady?”

“I thought I ought to tell you.” He downed most of his beer and then continued reluctantly, “Before you read it in the papers.”

I stopped eating, more because of his tone than his words.

“I've been suspended,” he said.

I made a noise, said “huh,” or “come on,” or something. I couldn't believe I'd heard him right. Mooney is the best cop I know. He's sharp enough to make it all the way to police commissioner and decent enough not to want the job. I went to work for him right out of the police academy, and we stuck together for most of my cop career.

“With pay,” he said. “Pending investigation.”

“Shit,” I said.

“I never thought it would happen.” He spoke so softly I had to lean forward to hear him. “I thought it would get cleared up right away. They kept it quiet, but it's been three days now so they're giving it to the press. I understand. I mean, if they don't, it'll just leak and look worse than it is.” He stared at the beer can logo like he was memorizing it.

“What'll look worse?” I said. “What the hell happened?”

“I thought the department would take care of it, but now I—Shit, I don't know. I think I want to hire you.”

I hope my mouth was empty because it must have dropped open. Yours would have too if you knew what Mooney said about private investigators and other sleazy operators.

The man must have been desperate.

He didn't look desperate. He looked tired. Mooney's eight years older than I am, catching sight of the big four-oh as he puts it, but usually I don't think about his age because his vitality shoves the issue aside. He's a big man, six-four, line-backer weight, with a round face, dark hair, and smart seen-it-all brown eyes. In his button-down shirts and tweed jackets, he could pass for a college professor, except for his arms and shoulders. He's got the kind of biceps you don't get from lecturing.

Tonight he had dark smudges under his eyes. His shirt was wrinkled, like he'd slept in it. Part of that was the sag in his shoulders, but I wondered if he'd been ignoring Ma's meals.

I took a bite of pizza and chewed. I never miss a meal if I can help it. Of course my definition of
meal
is loose. Mooney contemplated his Rolling Rock can.

“Want another?” I asked.

“No.”

“You gonna tell me about it?”

He studied his fingernails, then the desk, then the room. He's been at my place before, but this time he took stock, registering the worn velvet sofa, the stain on Aunt Bea's favorite rocker, the faint cat-scratches on the mahogany end tables. I'd seen him give crime scenes the same intense once-over. He stood and walked as far as the parakeet's cage, then paced like he was testing the padding under the oriental rug. Finally, he lifted a silver-framed photo off the coffee table.

“How's Paolina?” he asked.

Mention of Paolina makes me smile. It's a reflex action. Mooney knows that, and if he wanted to distract me, he'd found the way. Paolina is my little sister. Not my blood sister; I'm an only child. When I was a cop, I joined this organization, the Big Sisters. They assign you to a girl who needs an older friend, a substitute sister. I got lucky. I got Paolina. She's ten and a half now. It's been more than three years since I fell for that scared skinny face and those huge dark eyes.

“Good picture,” he said.

“I got a letter yesterday,” I said. “I was starting to worry.”

Starting to worry, hah. I was close to panic by the time the letter arrived from Bogotá. It had plenty of stamps on it, not to mention a boldly printed E
NTREGA
I
NMEDIATA
, which made me think the post office should have taken less than three weeks to deliver it. I didn't have to take it out of my pocket to remember what it said.

Dear Carlotta
,

Paolina's bilingual, but she sticks to English with me. Her handwriting is messy and her spelling is often unusual. She'd made a real effort, drawn lines on the paper to keep her sentences straight, and then tried to erase them, blurring some of the words.

The airplane was fun and scary. Bogotá is crowded. There are cows that walk in the street, and chickens. The man they call my grandfather is very sick. I miss you
.

BOOK: The Snake Tattoo
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