Read Slow Dollar Online

Authors: Margaret Maron

Tags: #Women Detectives, #Knott; Deborah (Fictitious Character), #Mystery & Detective, #Women Lawyers, #North Carolina, #General, #Mystery Fiction, #Women Sleuths, #Large Type Books, #Fiction, #Legal

Slow Dollar

TABLE OF CONTENTS
Prologue
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Glossary
FORWARD

I was introduced to the carnival world by my cousin Brandy, with it and for it for twenty-five years, and I am forever grateful. The books she lent, the inside stories she told, and all the jackpots she cut up with me were invaluable. If I learned more from my independent research than she intended, if my totally fictional Ames Amusement Corporation doesn’t exactly conform to her own “Sunday schooler” standards, I hope she’ll forgive me and understand the needs of the story I wanted to tell.

As always, Judge Deborah Knott’s courtroom behavior owes much to the advice of District Court Judges John W. Smith, Shelly S. Holt, and Rebecca W. Blackmore of the 5th Judicial District Court (New Hanover and Pender Counties, North Carolina). Unfortunately, they have no influence at all on her
out
-of-courtroom behavior.

For the uninitiated, I have included a glossary of carny terms at the back of this book.

Carnivals arc pure Americana: the glitz and flash of colored lights, the fried-food-on-a-stick, the cotton candy, the “step right up-win a prize” pitches. If it’s summer, here’s probably one playing somewhere near you even as you read. Put down this book, turn off the television, load up any available kids, and go find one
now
. Build a memory for the children or for yourself before the carnival disappears into our past.

PROLOGUE
EARLY MAY
BRAZOS HARTLEY

The back door of the eighteen-wheeler had been pushed up about eight inches from the bottom and one of the side doors was open wide in an attempt at cross ventilation. An oscillating fan moved air around the cavernous interior, but the south Georgia night was so hot and muggy that the fan was having almost no effect.

Beyond odd pieces of furniture stacked on one side, Brazos Hartley hunched over a laptop computer screen at the rear of the trailer. The young man had stripped to the waist but sweat dripped down his back and arms. It turned the snake tattooed the length of his right arm into something glistening and alive as he tapped the keys.

Bare, low wattage light bulbs hung by both open doors to decoy night-flying insects. At the computer, a rusty gooseneck lamp illuminated the keyboard and spot-lighted the green marbleized fountain pen that lay across the top row of his function keys. As he typed, a stray moth fluttered up into the lamp, showering gray dust on the keys. He caught it and mashed it between his fingers, then wiped his fingers on his pant leg before picking up the pen by its slender barrel to examine it closely again. He scraped away a fleck of old, dried ink from the shining point, screwed the cap back on, and returned to the eBay listing he was composing:

. . . circa 1940. Pump filler. Solid 18K nib and trim. Beautiful condition. Original owner was killed in WWII.
Reserve price—

Braz hesitated while greed warred with reality, then confidently typed $350.

The fountain pen had been in the pocket of an old Navy jacket, part of a defaulted self-storage locker his stepfather Arn had bought last week down near Jacksonville. The locker had held a bent bicycle frame, a fairly new love seat with matching chairs upholstered in black leatherette, and a pair of tarnished and dented pole lamps. His eyes on the resale value of the furniture, Arn had been high bidder at one twenty-five. Only after he’d paid over the money could they enter the locker and check out what else was there. Usually it wasn’t much. This time, over behind the love seat, where no flashlight could reach, they’d found a boxy WWII vintage suitcase.

The old suitcase was locked, and they’d had to wait till they got back to their current base to open it with Arn’s set of picklocks. Vintage luggage in good condition brought decent money these days, and Arn was careful not to bust the catch.

Inside was pay dirt. A carefully folded American flag and a small gold-fringed banner with a gold star pinned to the middle lay atop the dark blue wool uniform of a Navy noncom.

American flags were always good sellers at Southern flea markets, and authentic uniforms moved briskly, too, around the military bases that dotted the South.

“Know what we got here?” Arn had said. “This must’ve been a kid got killed in the war and his folks just packed everything up when they sent his things home.”

Beneath the uniforms were yellowed letters with certain parts carefully razored out by a wartime censor. No envelopes, to Braz’s disappointment. Old envelopes were what collectors wanted.

But while Arn leafed through the letters, Braz shook out the clothes and surreptitiously felt the pockets. When his fingers discovered the pen, he’d palmed it slicker than an add-up agent working a razzle-dazzle.

Unless it was extremely old or immediately recognizable as valuable, his stepfather never had much patience with anything paper. He preferred hard goods that he could turn over quickly at a decent profit. “A quick dime’s better than a slow dollar,” Arn always said, and he’d tossed the packet of letters Braz’s way, along with a couple of Zane Grey books and a New Testament that had been in the bottom of the suitcase.

A half-dozen tiny black-and-white snapshots slid out of the Bible. Uniformed boys younger then than he was now stood on the deck of a ship, and in the background was another ship with big white numbers on its bow. It would take some detective work, but if he could figure out what ship it was, he could write an ad to put on the Internet auction site that would bring in a few bucks for the pictures. World War Two memorabilia always sold. Let Arn go for the quick dime. He’d take the slow dollar any day.

Like this fountain pen. Arn would’ve put it out to auction with no reserve price, happy to take the high bid of whoever happened to be online that day. Ten dollars or a hundred, Arn wouldn’t care, Braz thought scornfully. He was like any other carny. All he cared about was the quick profit. And yeah, Ames Amusement Corporation was growing, but it was never going to be big-time. And even if it grew big as Strates, wasn’t like his mother and Arn would ever cut him a major piece of it. Not while baby brother Val was around.

He completed the ad, using an e-identity that neither Arn nor Val knew about, then exited from the program and turned off the laptop. As the screen went dark, he closed the lid, neatened the makeshift desktop, switched off his lamp, and stood up to stretch his cramped muscles. It was a little past two A.M. and time to hit the hay, hay being a mattress on the floor by the rear door. He’d quit sleeping in the family’s two-bedroom trailer four years ago, preferring to stake out his own private space here in the back of the eighteen-wheeler’s van rather than share a pop-out with his younger half-brother when they were on the road.

Most of the trailers around him were dark and silent. Somewhere, though, a radio was playing soft jazz, and when he stepped out into the airless night, he heard a burst of laughter that sounded like his mother. She and Polly and some of the others were probably over there sipping ice-cold beers and cutting up jackpots. Arn and Val would already be asleep inside the trailer. Neither of them were the night owls he and Mom were.

He thought about going over and scoring a cold one himself, but on second thought, after what happened last night, maybe not, he decided.

A shower would feel good, but hot as it was, might as well wait and take one when he woke up. Be fresh for if that little blond townie came by tomorrow like she said she would when she was flirting with him at the Dozer tonight.

What couldn’t wait was the need to empty his bladder. Portable donnikers were down near the Tilt-A-Whirl, convenient to the midway. Quicker and easier was to go around back to the bushes that grew at the edge of the field where they were parked.

It was dark back there and he’d just finished his business and was zipping up when someone came around the corner.

Male.

Big.

Moving with purpose.

Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw a second figure by the truck’s front fender.

Before he could speak, an iron fist to his midriff bent him double with pain. Another to his chest spun him around so hard that the third punch landed bruisingly on his right shoulder blade as he crumpled to the ground.

“This is from Polly,” the man grunted as he gave a bone jarring kick to Braz’s left buttock and another to his ribs. Not enough to break one, just enough to hurt like hell.

Instinctively, Braz drew up his legs and covered his head with his arms in a fetal position as the punishing blows and kicks continued. Pain blossomed through his body, and he cried out.

At that, someone called in a low voice, “That’s enough, Sam! Let him alone!”

The attacker gave Braz another halfhearted kick. “Try to mess over Polly again, you little shithead, and you won’t get off this easy. And you better not go running to Arnie or Tal, either. You and Skee keep your mouths shut. They hear about this, I’ll beat the crap out of both of you. You got that?”

“He’s got it,” said the newcomer, a small elderly man. “Now get the hell away before somebody comes.”

Despite the venomous words, both men kept their voices down.

The one called Sam stomped off and Skee Matusik bent over Braz, who still writhed in agony on the ground.

“Come on, kid,” he said. “Let ol’ Skee help you back inside.”

He pulled the younger man to his feet and guided him around to the back of the trailer, where he pushed up the retractable rear door and pulled down the folding steps. Braz climbed them shakily and collapsed onto the mattress, half crying in his pain and anger. “The bastard!” 

“You got any aspirin?” Skee asked practically.

Braz pointed toward the black zippered bag that held his toothbrush, razor, and other toiletries.

The older man found the bottle, shook out three in his hand. There was a water bottle next to the pillow, and he handed both to Braz.

“Thanks,” he muttered, and lay back on the makeshift bed, drained and exhausted and hurting all over. 

“Anything broken?”

Braz shook his head wearily.

“Didn’t think so. And he stayed away from your face, too,” said Skee. In this light, his missing teeth left dark holes in his tight smile. “Smart. Your shirt’ll cover all the bruises you’re going to have tomorrow, but Tally would’ve noticed a black eye or cuts on your chin.”

“How come you didn’t pull him off me quicker?” Braz asked resentfully, wincing as he pushed the pillow into a more comfortable position.

“Like Sam wouldn’t make two of me? You’re just lucky I could stop him when I did. What’d you do to piss him off like that?”

“None of your business. But I’ll tell you one thing: This is my last time out. Come October, I’m finished with the carnival for good and all.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Skee, who’d heard it before. He went over and pulled the side door nearly shut and turned the fan full on Braz. “Want me to turn out these lights?”

“I mean it,” Braz said drowsily. “Who needs this fuckin’ life?”

“Some of us, kid,” sighed the old carny. “Some of us.”

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