Scarlett Undercover (Excerpt)

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Exclusive Excerpt from Scarlett Undercover

Text of Scarlett Undercover (Excerpt)

  • LITTLE, BROWN AND COMPANYNew York Boston

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  • 6A dim floor lamp cast shadows in the waiting area of Calamus Tattoos. It was a small space, par-titioned off from the church sanctuary by a cascade of chipped wooden beads that hung in an arched doorway. Chairs covered in faded silk cushions lined the wall. A coffee table with curling legs and an inlaid top stood in front of one of the couches, stacked with ashtrays and old copies of Inked magazine. There was no rack of pre- drawn tattoo designs for customers to flip through, no cash register. Other than a few faded travel posters with pictures of sand dunes and Arabic writing, the walls were bare as toy store shelves the day after Christmas.

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    Hello? I said. Anybody here?Footsteps answered.The man who came through the beads was some-

    where between short and tall, with skin the color of weak tea. Wavy silver hair fell loose from his widows peak to his shoulders. His mustache and goatee were just so, his faded jeans, leather vest, and long- sleeved black T-shirt hung easy from his lean frame. The faded logo of a thrash metal band peeked out between the buttons of the vest.

    Assalaamu alaikum, he said. Peace be upon you. He gave me a once- over and crossed his arms in front of his chest. Youre too young for a tattoo.

    Wa alaikum assalaam, I answered. I dont want a tattoo.

    He stared at me with uncomfortably intelligent eyes. They were brown. And gold- free.

    My names Scarlett, I said. Im trying to help a friend.

    It was my standard introduction, since telling adults I was a private detective usually made them treat me like a toddler playing dress-up.

    He kept staring.This is an interesting place, I said. You the owner?

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    He tilted his head. It wasnt much of an answer. I reached into my bag and took out one of the rubbings.

    Could you tell me about this design? A friend of mine from the East Side has it tattooed over his heart. He said he got it done here.

    I held up the paper and waited, ready to be just as quiet as the old man, and for just as long. Thirty sec-onds clicked by, feeling like a thousand.

    Its just a design I do, he finally said. Nothing special. And as I told you, youd be too young for me to ink even if it wasnt haraam. His deep voice seemed to come from the earth under his feet. Each consonant bounced off the top of his palate, each vowel echoed.

    I know tattoos are forbidden for Muslims, I said, but as I told you, thats not why Im here.

    He smiled faintly.Anyway, I said, I dont think this is just a design.

    I think theres a lot more to it than that.The smile disappeared. If this knot is so important

    to your friend, why doesnt he come ask me about it himself?

    Because shes only nine.He lifted his hand and smoothed his goatee, pon-

    dering. Exactly what, I couldnt say, but the whole

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    process ended with a blink and a wave of his hand. As Ive pointed out, my dear, he said, you yourself are not of an age to be in this establishment. I suggest you leave now if you want to catch the next bus. Good day.

    He turned and walked out. Beads clacked in his wake. I gave the waiting area one last look and made peace with the fact that my bus fare across town hadnt bought me any new info about Solomons knot.

    Buck up, buttercup, I told myself. Because new questions could be better than old answers, and Id just gotten plenty. Like why a Middle Eastern, sharia law spouting grampa would hang out in a tattoo parlor church. And how the hell hed known I was a Muslim in the first place.

    The street outside Calamus was empty except for the rag guy. The dog was gone. There were no tails or bogey-men waiting for me in the fading evening light. I tucked a clump of curls back into my tam, took my blackjack out of my bag, and slid it up my right sleeve. Its smooth wood was cold comfort against my skin.

    The bus stop was a block past the rag man, and on the

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    same side of the street. If I crossed the road, hed know I was trying to avoid him, and Id just have to cross back anyway. Besides, I knew how to defend myself. Dont move, creep, I thought. Dont freakin move.

    I started toward him at a steady clip. The figures sway didnt change. As the distance between us shrank, I could make out a long, dingy scarf wrapped around his neck and up over his nose. A brimmed hat with earflaps covered his brow. His gloves were filthy. Not an inch of flesh was visible. My hand tightened around the blackjack.

    At first, the sound coming out of him was so quiet I assumed he was telling himself a tale. But the closer I got, the more it took on a musical drone. The rag man was singing.

    Little fingers of caution skittered up my spine.I kept walking.The sound changed.Stay away, he hissed, dragging his S through the

    rest of the phrase like a dying mans last breath. Stay away. . . .

    I gave the blackjack another squeeze, kept my feet moving, and didnt stop until Id reached the broken- down bus kiosk.

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    From the corner of my eye, I could see the rag man, still swaying. I knew he wasnt going to come after me, knew it in my bones. Still, it wasnt until I heard the whine of a bus engine that my grip on the blackjack loosened and my heart eased down out of my throat.

    Gettin dark, the fleshy driver said when I climbed aboard. She glanced up into her rearview mirror at the empty bus. Glad to have your company.

    Amen to that, I said, and settled into the seat behind her.

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