Chapter One

Even though Pop loved the carnie life, he used to call it the devil’s sandbox. He could never understand why Andy didn’t feel the same.

Amusement parks turned silent and eerie when the lights were out. Standing among the metal beasts, he got the same wrenching feeling in the pit of his stomach as he did in the Army when he’d been on a mission and hit a blind spot. No way out until it was finished. Couldn’t discuss it then, couldn’t forget it now.

He made his way down the Santa Cruz boardwalk past the Roundup and Paratrooper, then headed toward the Log Flume and a potential 90 G’s that would save his business.

Wood groaned above. He stopped and looked up. The Giant Dipper. Steel coasters didn’t make that sound. A maintenance man maneuvered across the top of the structure, a task he did daily.

“Hit it,” the man shouted. A motor whined, then the chain-dogs engaged. A steady mechanical drone of metal against metal grew louder. The test run for the day. The coaster hesitated at the top of the lift, then plunged down the drop and whipped around the first turn.

“Would you ever get on that ride?” A clipped, almost British accent startled him from behind.

He recognized that ninety-thousand-dollar voice, turned and extended his hand. “I’ve ridden every coaster in the country but wouldn’t step foot on a round ride,” Andy said. “Stomach can’t take it.”

The man was a couple of inches taller than him, maybe six-two, lean and wore tailored threads. This wasn’t amusement business attire. Hell, his shoes probably cost more than one of Andy’s suits.

“Mr. Zartanian I take it,” he said and shook his hand. “Stephen Beyer. I’m glad you agreed to meet with me.”
He tried not to look as wary as he felt about this guy. “You said you wanted to talk about a Mack Himalaya and some other pieces of iron.”

“Iron?”

“Rides.” Damn, the dukmar didn’t even know the jargon. “You must not be in the business.”

“Right, the rides,” he said with a widened grin.

“I know most of the equipment on the market,” Andy said. “No one can get you a better deal.”

“That’s what I’ve been told.” He tugged on his French cuffs.

“Unfortunately, the exchange rate has made everything a little tight with foreign equipment,” he said. “What type of pieces are you looking for? Chance’s Aviator is an incredible ride. Their Revolution 32 is kicking butt as well. Both have great rider capacity.”

When the coaster entered the station, a blast of air and the screech of metal erupted.

Beyer glanced around, then looked back at him.

“Brake system,” he said.

“Well, I’m not exactly interested in any rides.”

“Not exactly?” he repeated. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

His body stiffened. “I apologize if I misled you in any way, Mr. Zartanian, but the reason for our meeting isn’t about purchasing amusement equipment.”

He should have known the minute he saw him. His head felt like it was about to explode. It appeared he’d driven over the hill for nothing, and he didn’t like it. Didn’t like this phony bastard either.

“Look,” Andy said. “I sell rides to parks and carnivals for big-ticket money. You’re wasting my time if you’re not here to purchase a piece.” He pulled the pack of Marlboros out of his jacket pocket, tapped out a cigarette, then lit it with Pop’s old Zippo.

Beyer wrinkled his nose. “I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t do that,” he said.

“You’ve got some pretty big ones, getting me out here on the pretense of doing business, then asking me not to smoke,” Andy said. “I don’t like being jerked around.”

His face flushed, and his jaw tightened like a pitcher ready throw his best fastball. “Mr. Zartanian, the reason I’m here is worth considerably more than what you would have made selling me a ride.”

“Keep talking.” He took a long drag, trying to decide whether he should believe him, his words as sharp as his facial features.

Beyer moved around to his other side, upwind from the smoke. “I represent Jonathan Carlyle. You may have heard of him.”

“Not that I recall. And when I’m finished with this cigarette, I’m out of here.”

“Mr. Carlyle is head of Carlyle Precious Metals out of Boston,” he said. “Fifth generation.”

“You want me to be impressed?” Andy saw ninety grand and his life drifting away like the smoke he exhaled. “Yeah, and he’s probably personal friends with the Kennedy’s. If this guy is interested in developing an amusement park somewhere, you’ve got my attention. If not, we’re through talking.”

“I think not.” His tone hardened. “Mr. Carlyle wants to engage your services to help find his granddaughter Emily.”
He flicked the cigarette butt on the damp boards and snuffed it out with the sole of his Topsider.

“You’re kidding, right? Why would I want to do that?” he asked. “Hell, I wouldn’t do it if you paid me the ninety thousand I would have made selling you a ride. Either you’re out of your mind, or you have me confused with someone else.”

“Oh, I have the right person,” Beyer said. “Andy Zartanian, forty-one, currently living in Los Gatos. Grew up in San Francisco, raised by your Armenian grandmother.” He knew he had his attention. “Divorced. A daughter, Julie, who lives with your ex, Marie, in Virginia Beach.” His unflinching gaze and steel-blue eyes made him as nervous as the personal information he was spewing out. What else did this cocky son-of-a-bitch know?

“So you’ve done your homework.”

“Mr. Carlyle is extremely thorough.” He paused long enough and let the words sink in. “As I said, he wants to find his granddaughter. She’s around the same age as Julie.”

Hearing him mention his daughter’s name again hit a raw nerve. He hadn’t seen her in months, only talked to her a few times on the phone because his ex’s festering rage. He reached for the pack again, then felt Beyer’s hand clasp onto his wrist.

“Smoke really bothers me, Mr. Zartanian. Have all the cigarettes you want once we’re done.”
Andy shook free and said, “What have the police or FBI dug up?”

“We haven’t called them because she ran away and wasn’t kidnapped,” he said. “Mr. Carlyle doesn’t want his granddaughter’s picture smeared on the front page of newspapers and tabloids. It’s her future he’s thinking about.”
No police or FBI? “When and where did she disappear?”

“A week ago in Virginia. The last time her friends saw her, she was with a carnival worker.”

“A carnie?” He couldn’t help thinking how he’d feel if it was Julie who was missing.

He nodded. “No one has seen her since. I’m sure you know what those carnival people are like.”

This guy had a way of pissing him off. “Most are honest, hardworking people, blue collar,” he said. “It’s probably hard for you to believe, but some are close friends. Boston’s a big city. Go find your boss a high-priced PI.”

“I’m talking to you because we need someone with a faster inside track,” Beyer said. “Someone the carnies will talk to.”
“There’s dozens of guys out there with the same background.”

“But not all of them spent six years in the army involved in what you were and knows the business the way you do.”
“Years I’d like to forget,” Andy said. “What’s the army got to do with it?” This guy didn’t have the whole story. Images flooded in like a bad dream. Dismembered women and children lay in pools. Rarely a night passed when he didn’t awaken soaked in perspiration.

“Your records stop at a remote facility deep inside Fort Bragg,” he said. “That aside, let’s fast-forward to the present. You recently sold Joey Conner a giant wheel in Gibtown. The man paid a million dollars for it. Right?”

“Close enough.” He was no longer shocked at anything he or his minions had dug up on him.

“Your commission was a hundred thousand,” he said, “but that’s not why I’m here. I’ve made a reservation for you in first class on United Flight 172, leaving SFO at 8:45 tomorrow morning. I’ll meet you in the Red Carpet Club at 7:15. Mr. Carlyle will provide you with the details tomorrow night over dinner.”

Andy’s patience was gone. “I’m not interested,” he said and started to leave. Beyer grabbed him by the arm. He shook loose. “Don’t ever do that again. I don’t do business with people I can’t trust. Find someone else.”

“I have no doubt you’ll be on that flight,” Beyer said. “No one is asking you to do this gratis. If my information is accurate, and it usually is, you earned just under one hundred fifty thousand last year.” He said it without expression, as if he reeled off financial histories of strangers every day. “You need more than that to bail yourself out and keep the business going. On top of that, your ex-wife is bleeding you dry.”

“No amount of money is enough to satisfy her greed. She’ll do the same to the next guy.”

“And then there’s the matter of your daughter’s education.”

The hair on the back of his neck stood up. “Leave her out of this.”

“Julie’s a gifted child.” His thin smile seemed to underline the words. “Good education can be expensive.”

“You think I don’t know that?” He shoved his hands into his pants pockets.

“You Armenians are a stubborn lot, aren’t you?” He pulled out an envelope and held it up. “This will change your mind. Inside, there’s information on a wire transfer being deposited into your account the day after tomorrow. One hundred fifty thousand. You’ll receive a matching amount when Mr. Carlyle’s granddaughter is safely returned.”

The offer stopped him cold. “You’re telling me this guy, Carlyle, is willing to pay me three hundred grand to find his kid? A runaway?”

“Plus expenses,” he said. “She’s not just any kid. Emily’s his life. Do we have a deal?” Beyer looked at him. Didn’t blink.
Andy said nothing, walked over to the wall, then stared down at the waves lapping onto the sand below. His gaze swung right toward Steamer Lane, waters he’d surfed as a teenager.

Turning back, he swallowed hard, then took the envelope. Trying to salvage what was left of his self-esteem, he said, “One last thing.”

“What’s that?”

“What happens if I don’t find her?”

“We both know that’s not going to happen.” Beyer’s amused indifference widened into a grin. “Wear a suit and tie and lose the Topsiders,” he said as he scanned Andy’s clothes. “Mr. Carlyle is extremely fastidious.”

And with that he turned and walked down the midway. Son of a bitch, Andy thought. In spite of what he’d promised himself, he was back in the game.


click here
to purchase Possum Belly Queen