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Authors: Linda Barnes

Steel Guitar





Steel Guitar

A Carlotta Carlyle Mystery

Linda Barnes

Remember old friends we've made along the way

The gifts they've given stay with us every day

“Old Friends”

Mary McCaslin


In loving memory of

Peter Haber

H. Wesley Brinkley

Dennis Schuetz

Singers come and go; the music business waxes and wanes. The blues are popular and unpopular, often at the same time. The blues artists who appear as characters in this book are creations of the author's imagination. I have surrounded them with names familiar to blues fans—names like Rory Block, Chris Smither, and the late Reverend Gary Davis—but no Dee Willis exists. Any resemblance between my characters and actual living persons is purely coincidental.

“She could put it all together on a real, on a steel guitar.”

“Steel Guitar”

Danny O'Keefe

“O chestnut tree, great-rooted blossomer,

Are you the leaf, the blossom, or the bole?

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

“Among School Children”

William Butler Yeats



“Men darf lebn un lozn lebn,” my mother always used to tell me when I was a child. Now that I'm grown I know the words translate roughly to “Live and let live,” but for Mom it meant “Don't mix in.”

Her warning didn't take. That's how I make my living, mixing in.

Amend that. It's how I'd make my living if I could. But the investigations business is dicey: sometimes I turn away three clients in a single day; sometimes I go for weeks without hearing a knock at my door. Because I like to eat—and I prefer to say no to the occasional client who thinks he can buy what's not for sale—I pilot a cab nights to make ends meet.

I enjoy night driving. I like the garish after-midnight world. Its clarity excites me—the glare of headlights, the flashing neon, the sharp edges. But sometimes, blinded by the glitter, I forget to pay attention to the shadows.

I was dozing at a cab stand, fanning myself with the travel section of the
. The air conditioner was going full blast; a faint stream of tepid air trickled through the vents, no match for the August heat. I was dreaming about my next fare, a well-built gentleman who'd drop miraculously into the backseat and say, “Cape Cod, please. A slow drive along the seashore, catch some ocean breeze.”

Even half asleep, I recognized her.

She wore dark glasses and a cape that looked like it was made of raincoat material. Just the thought of its weight made me shudder. But for the Boston cabbie dress code, I'd have been wearing shorts, a halter, and sandals. As it was, I had on my lightest-weight khaki slacks, a thin white cotton shirt, and sneakers.

Hesitating under the hotel canopy, she groped in her shoulder bag and slipped the doorman a bill. From the way he clicked his heels and raised his whistle to his lips, what he'd just palmed was no portrait of George Washington. I gunned the motor automatically. I was the next cab in line.

For a pulsebeat, I felt like flooring it, racing away without a backward glance. Then the sweating gold-braided attendant seized the door handle, and it was too late.

I've kept track of her through the years, my old buddy Dee Willis. Hauled my black-and-white TV out of the closet to watch her that time she appeared on
. She was so drunk they only let her sing one song at the end, and then she forgot half the words. That must have been five years ago, and the fans have long since forgiven her. Lately her name crops up in the
every other day.
Change Up
, the album that went double platinum, or whatever they call the best there is in the record biz, in two days, or two weeks, or something incredible, had turned her into an overnight success after sixteen years.

I opened my mouth to say hello.

She didn't even glance at me. “Take me to the library,” she demanded, her voice low and tense. “No. Forget it. Just cruise around Copley Square, okay? Into the South End.”

I closed my mouth and bit my lower lip, nodding to let her know I'd heard. My fares generally want to go from here to there, and heaven help the jockey who detours a block out of the way.

Two blocks passed. I cranked down the front window and enjoyed the breeze. She didn't say anything. I didn't say anything. I felt awkward. It's hard to identify yourself right off the bat to an old friend who's made better than good. Especially when you're the one driving the hack.

I concentrated on squeezing through the yellow light at St. James, tailing a dark blue Mercedes. Maybe, even if she deigned to look, she wouldn't recognize me. At night, especially when I'm wearing a slouch cap over my red hair, most of my fares hardly notice I'm a woman. And my best disguise isn't the hat; it's the job. Nobody notices cab drivers.

I sneaked a look in the rearview mirror. Dee had removed the sunglasses. She seemed absorbed in the study of a painted fingernail.

The South End wasn't even a mile from her hotel, hardly a decent walk, much less a cab ride. I toyed with the idea of saying “Chintzy fare,” starting things rolling with a joke. The more I hesitated the harder it got, like chatting with somebody at a party, somebody you know pretty well, but whose name you've forgotten. If you confess right off, it's not too bad. But the longer you talk, the harder it gets to ask for a name. You keep wondering who the hell you're talking to, and hoping you won't blow it.

We hit a red light and I did some more rearview-mirror gazing. The backseat was pretty dark, but a streetlamp helped. Dee was staring into space, drumming her fingers on her thigh, clutching her big shoulder bag. She looked good, maybe a little hard, but good. She unbuttoned her cape, revealing a red shirt, embroidered with enough gold thread to catch the light. I couldn't make out the pattern. She wore a long rope of gold beads and dangling, flashy earrings. Thick eyeliner, heavy-duty makeup. Maybe she'd played a gig tonight. I hadn't noticed an ad in the newspaper, but some days I just skim it before taking it home to line the parakeet's cage.

Her wild dark hair was permed into a halo. I knew she was older than I am, but you couldn't prove it by her appearance.

We sped two blocks, got caught at another traffic light. She drew in a deep breath, held it, and let it out audibly. Then she closed her eyes and repeated the heavy-breathing business. She hadn't cranked down the back window. In her cape, she was probably melting.

I wondered where she was heading, cruising the South End in the wee hours, wondered if the encounter might not be embarrassing for both of us.

I met Dee Willis my first year at U.Mass.-Boston, jamming at a party, her pure vocals rising over a flood of badly tuned instruments, making everybody sound twice as good. She wasn't all that pretty, and she sure wasn't school-smart—but she had that voice, and in my crowd we forgave her everything for a song.

I turned onto Pembroke Street. “You want me to circle the block?” I asked, my voice barely loud enough to penetrate the square porthole in the required-by-Boston-law bulletproof divider.

“Keep going. I'll tell you where to stop.” She pressed her nose against the left rear window. Maybe she'd stopped looking at people in general, not just cabbies. I've heard celebrities get like that, pretending to wear blinders so they won't have to answer stupid questions all the time, or get interrupted by autograph hounds during meals.

I tried the rearview mirror again, but this time edged a bit to my right, so my own reflection stared back at me. Dee looked like she was doing fine. And me? Not bad, thank you. If I pick up a couple more skip traces a year, I might be able to give up cabbing altogether.

My trouble-sensing radar blipped as we crossed Tremont and kept on traveling into one of the city's less savory neighborhoods.

Dee rapped on the shield. “Hang a left,” she said. I obliged. She seemed to be navigating from memory.

“Stop here!” She shoved money through the little sliding window. A bill fluttered to the seat and I bent to get it. By the time I'd straightened up, she was slamming the door.

Where was she going? We hadn't stopped near any restaurants that might be open this late. She raced across a lane of traffic into a small neighborhood park.

The park, sometimes called Blackstone Square, sometimes less pleasant names, is a pretty safe place to hang out during the day if you don't mind winos bumming a dollar. At night, Bostonians give it a wide berth, frightened by the homeless with their grapes-of-wrath faces.

I started up, then slowed way down. If Dee was trying to score some coke solo, things were tighter in the music world than I expected.

It wasn't hard to keep her in sight. She hurried across a deserted basketball court. The few scraggly trees hung limply in the heat. A triple-decker apartment briefly blocked my view as I turned the corner.

Dee seemed to be cruising the grassy center of the park, chatting with bench-squatters. I pulled the cab into a fireplug slot and watched, puzzled.

I was a cop for six years. I know what a drug buy looks like.

Dee held a level hand above her head as if she were describing something big. Moonlight caught the side of her face. She nodded, then pulled a crumpled bill out of her bag, gave it to the figure on the bench, and moved along.

That part looked familiar, the transfer of cash, but Dee didn't seem to get what she wanted in exchange for the currency.

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