The man who telephoned him implied he wants to do business with amusement ride rep Andy Zartanian, and Andy seriously needs to do some business. When they meet, it is clear within moments that the man doesn’t know Chance’s Aviator from the Log Flume. Annoyed at having his time wasted, Andy turns to go. The man hurries to explain he’s there on behalf of a wealthy Bostonian whose granddaughter was last seen with a carnie on a Virginia midway. His employer, the man says, is offering a handsome compensation package to Andy. All he has to do is track down the young woman and bring her home. Suspicious, but drawn to the financial upside, Andy signs on and starts refreshing his carnie contacts. But as Andy suspected from the get-go, it’s much more complex than simply extracting young Emily from her newfound companions. As he fights his way through the seamy backside of sparkling midways and festive crowds, Andy is reminded why his grandfather always said carnie life was the devil’s sandbox.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Possum Belly Queen by Robert O’Hanneson, Andy Zartanian is a carnival ride salesman who is hired by a wealthy grandfather to find his granddaughter who was last seen with some “carnies” before she disappeared. Andy doesn’t want to take the job, but he is desperate for cash to save his business, and the grandfather makes him an offer that is too good to refuse. But as Andy starts looking for the granddaughter, he uncovers a darker side of carnie life that he had no idea existed and is soon in over his head. And as he suspected from the beginning, things are not what they seem.
O’Hanneson is an excellent storyteller, crafting an unusual plot in a fascinating setting. His characters are involved and very well developed. You’ll be riveted from the very first word.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Possum Belly Queen by Robert O’Hanneson is the story of missing girls associated with carnivals. The unlikely hero, Andy Zartanian, is asked to help find one of these girls for her grandfather. Andy is suspicious, but he’s also in need of cash, so against his better judgment, he accepts the commission. It doesn’t take him long to find out that he should have listened to his instincts, but by that time, he is committed to finding not one but several missing girls—even at the risk of his own life.
Possum Belly Queen is a superbly crafted story. The unique setting, fast-paced action, and plot surprises will keep you turning pages from beginning to end. This one’s a keeper.
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 way.
Amusement parks turned silent and eerie when the lights were off. Standing among the metal beasts, Andy got the same feeling in the pit of his stomach he had in the army when he was 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 Gs that would save his sorry ass. Wood groaned above him. The Giant Dipper. Steel coasters didn’t make that sound. He stopped and looked up. A maintenance man maneuvered across the top of the structure.
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,” the man said and shook his hand. “Stephen Beyer. I’m glad you agreed to meet with me.”
Andy 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.”
“Rides.” Damn, the dukmar didn’t even know the jargon. “You must not be in the business.”
“Right, the rides,” Beyer said with a wide 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,” Andy said. “What type of pieces are you looking for? Chance’s Aviator is an incredible ride. Their Revolution 32 is kicking butt. 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?” Andy repeated. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
Beyer’s 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.”
Andy should have known the minute he saw him. His head felt like it was about to explode. Had he driven over the hill for nothing? “Look,” he 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.”
Beyer’s 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.” Andy 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 Kennedys. 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.” Beyer’s tone hardened. “Mr. Carlyle wants to engage your services to help find his granddaughter Emily.”
Andy 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 Andy’s attention. “Divorced. A daughter, Julie, who lives with your ex, Marie, in Virginia Beach.”
Beyer’s unflinching gaze and steel-blue eyes made Andy 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.” Beyer paused long enough to 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. Andy hadn’t seen her in months, only talked to her a few times on the phone. 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. “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.”
“When did she disappear?”
“A week ago. The last time her friends saw her, she was with a carnival worker.”
“A carnie?” Andy couldn’t help thinking how he’d feel if it were Julie who was missing.
Beyer 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 Andy off. “Most are honest, hardworking people, blue collar. 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 know 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 know the whole story. Images flooded in like a bad dream. Women and children laying in pools of blood surrounded by body parts. Rarely a night passed when Andy didn’t awaken soaked in perspiration.
Beyer didn’t answer. “You recently sold Joey Conner a giant wheel in Gibtown. The man paid a million dollars for it. Right?”
“Close enough.” Andy 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,” he told him. “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 for her. 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 Andy’s neck stood up. “Leave her out of this.”
“Julie’s a gifted child.” Beyer’s thin smile seemed to underline the words. “Good education can be expensive.”
Andy shoved his hands into his pants pockets. “You think I don’t know that?”
“You Armenians are a stubborn lot, aren’t you?” Beyer 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 Andy 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 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.
© 2011 by Robert O’Hanneson