Hard Cash Valley: Featured Excerpt
By Brian PanowichMarch 10, 2020
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Arnie Blackwell was sweating bullets.
He’d sweat so bad on the plane, he felt like he’d just stepped out of a shower fully dressed. When he’d boarded the plane in Atlanta, he’d had no idea that the suitcase he’d used to pack up the cash would be too big for him to carry on, and now Arnie was standing in front of the baggage-claim carousel on the bottom floor of the Jacksonville airport, shoulder to shoulder with all the other passengers, waiting on a little more than five hundred grand to magically appear on the conveyor belt.
He couldn’t breathe. Every time a suitcase that wasn’t his slid out from behind the black rubber curtain, his heart thundered in his rib cage hard enough to hurt. The baggage-claim area was massive and Arnie was surrounded by hundreds of people—every one of them he was sure knew something wasn’t right with him—but as each new unfamiliar piece of luggage came into sight, the blue and gray concrete walls of the wide-open expanse moved in closer and tighter until it began to feel less like an airport and more like another prison cell. He began to feel claustrophobic. When his phone rang it nearly sent Arnie into cardiac arrest. He flinched hard enough to bump both of the travelers flanking him as they waited for their own bags. One man, a big, tough-looking joker in a Carhartt sweatshirt, actually pushed him back. Normally, Arnie wouldn’t take that kind of shit from anyone—regardless of their size—but he kept himself in check. There was too much riding on his keeping his composure. He ignored the big redneck. Right now, he just wanted that light brown tweed suitcase with the Moosejaw bumper sticker plastered across the lid to appear on the conveyor so he could collect his payday and possibly get his hands to stop shaking. He fumbled the phone out of the pocket of his Adidas windbreaker and read the name on the display—Bobby Turo. Arnie wiped a sweaty palm on his pants and then held the phone to his ear.
“Bobby? Is everything all good? Did you get back safe?”
“Yeah, man. Smooth sailing.”
“Is William okay?”
“Sounds more like you’re the one freaking out. Take it easy. He’s fine. He knew more about what he was doing then I did. Calm down, bro.”
Arnie’s head started throbbing with a sudden rush of blood. His voice suddenly quiet. “Are you high right now?”
“Dude. Arnie. Relax. We did it. We’re home free and the kid is fine. We went over it a hundred times. I promise. It’s all good.”
“It better be all good, Bobby. If we lose that kid we lose even bigger scores.” Arnie glanced around him and kept his voice hushed. “Two hours. You stay put for two hours. Right where I told you to go, and then take him where I said to take him—right? Bobby? Are you listening to me?”
“Arnie, Jesus, will you chill out. Randy says wassup.”
“No, I won’t chill out, you fucking idiot, and why is Randy with you?”
“He’s not—he just texted me.”
Arnie shook it off. “Bobby, I just want to know my little brother is where he’s supposed to be.”
“Well, he is. Okay.”
Arnie took a deep breath. “Good. All right. Now try to pay attention, you pothead. I’m at the airport in Jacksonville. I just landed. I had a problem with my luggage. They wouldn’t let me carry it on—you should’ve checked into that before you gave me the damn thing to use—but as soon as I get it in my hands, I’m going to pick up the other package. You did send the other package, right?”
“Yes. Days ago. I told you that.”
“To PO Box 213. On Gaston Street.”
“Jesus, Arnie, yes—to PO Box 213 on Gaston Street.”
“Good. After I check into the motel and get a few hours’ sleep, I have to set everything up down here for me and William long term. When I’m done, I’ll be back for him, but you and I aren’t going to talk for a while after that—clear. Do not call me under any circumstances. It’s too dangerous—unless there’s a problem with my brother. And there better not be a problem with my brother, Bobby.”
“Just handle your business, Arnie. I got this.”
“You fucking better.”
Arnie heard the double beep of another call coming in on the line. He looked at the display again to see William’s name. He lifted the phone back to his ear. “That’s Willie calling me on the other line. I swear to God, Bobby, if you fucked this up. If he’s alone right now and you’re lying to me. If he’s in trouble—”
“I said he’s fine, man. You need to calm down.” Stoned or not, Bobby was getting tired of being scolded like a child. He got defensive. “Maybe you should remember who bankrolled this little adventure, Arnie. Without me there would be no—”
Arnie ended the call in mid-sentence. Little adventure? If that hippie had been standing in front of him right that second, he’d have knocked his fronts out. He couldn’t see what Bernadette saw in that idiot. He calmed himself and answered the other line. “William?”
“Where are you?”
Arnie switched the phone to his other ear. “What?” His hands were shaking so bad that he dropped his claim ticket in the process of moving the phone. He nearly dropped the phone, too, as he frantically tried to pick up the slip of paper as if he’d just dropped a winning lottery ticket, which was not far off. He bumped the man to his left again. This time the big boy acted even less pleased and shoved Arnie harder than he had the first time. Arnie barely noticed the nudge as his eyes followed the claim ticket to the floor. He bent over and snatched it up before it had even settled and managed to bump the big man a third time as he straightened back up.
“You got a problem, buddy?”
Arnie dropped the phone down by his side and squeezed it tight enough to turn his knuckles white. “Maybe. Maybe I got a big fucking problem. Maybe I’m just one mouthy asshole away from losing my shit.”
“Is that right?” Carhartt puffed his chest out, but his voice was timid. He couldn’t get a read on Arnie’s degree of crazy, and the lack of confidence made him sound weak. Arnie could smell the blood in the water. The big boy was soft.
“Yeah, that’s right. And if you put your fat hands on me again, I’ll shove this phone straight down your throat.” Arnie was still sweating like he’s been sitting in a sauna for the last six hours, and this time Carhartt could read every bit of the crazy in his eyes, so the big boy quickly found another place to stand. The small victory made Arnie feel a little better. He swiftly forgot about the man and shifted his focus back to the carousel. A security guard in a gray uniform stood several feet over to Arnie’s left. He’d been watching Arnie since he walked in—or maybe he wasn’t. Arnie’s paranoia made everyone around him suspect, but Arnie tried to avoid eye contact with the airport cop all the same. An Asian man pushed his way into the space vacated by the Carhartt redneck and made room for a young girl—his daughter, most likely—eleven or so—William’s age. Arnie smiled at her, but after one look at Arnie, the girl’s father immediately sheltered her and stood between them. Arnie couldn’t blame him. He was soaking wet. His clothes were sticking to him and he smelled like spoiled lunch meat. He was also shaking like a dope fiend. The Asian man grabbed a sleek black suitcase from the conveyor and quickly hustled away. Arnie was freaking out. Where was his fucking suitcase? How could he be so stupid to let this happen? Goddamn TSA.
The security guard was moving in closer. At least, Arnie thought he was. His heart was pounding so hard he was sure everyone around him could hear it. He felt like the old man from “The Tell-Tale Heart,” except there wasn’t a body behind that steel wall. There was a box of money. It was Arnie’s first real lucky break, and, he hoped, the last he’d ever need.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Where is my damn bag? Arnie thought his head might spin right off his shoulders. Please, God, just let me have this one thing—just this one thing.
And then, like an answered prayer, there it was. The top of the tweed case slowly emerged through the curtain of thick rubber strips and inched into view until Arnie could see the red sticker his brother had stuck across the lid. William loved stickers. Arnie shoved his way past several other people, saying “Excuse me” all the way. He snaked his wiry frame through the crowd toward his luggage. “Excuse me. Sorry. Excuse me.” An older woman mumbled something as he pushed past her, but Arnie ignored her. He didn’t even see her. He stopped seeing people altogether, or security guards, or crushing prison cell walls. All he could see was that suitcase, and now he was only a few feet away. He nudged his way closer until he could get a grip on the leather handle and hoisted it off the conveyor belt with a renewed vigor. The act of lifting the bag made him feel stronger. He felt whole somehow, as if he’d just reconnected to a lost limb. As he turned to walk away, he could feel the excitement set in. He could feel the anxiety begin to melt away and he finally stopped sweating. Arnie homed in on the massive set of double doors leading outside. He navigated his way through the crowd and toward those doors with tunnel vision. All he could see was the sunshine on the other side of the sliding glass. He picked up the pace and slammed right into the airport security guard who may or may not have been standing there the whole time.
“Whoa—slow it down there, sir.”
“Sorry.” Arnie regrouped and kept walking. The young airport cop reached out for Arnie’s suitcase, but Arnie snatched it away and held it up to his chest.
“I’m going to need to see that, sir.”
Arnie just stared at the slim mocha face of the young man, unable to form any words. He tried to move to the left, but the guard sidestepped him and blocked his way. His voice stayed calm and smooth. “Sir, is everything all right?”
“What?” Arnie wasn’t sure what was happening. Stars were bursting in his peripheral vision. He felt sick, as if he might throw up.
“I said, is everything all right?” The guard’s eyes narrowed slightly with suspicion, but Arnie had trouble keeping eye contact. He couldn’t focus. The walls of the airport baggage claim began to breathe and warp.
“Yeah. Everything is fine.” Arnie struggled to stay in the moment—to focus. “What?” he said. “What do you want?” He stood as still as he could while he tried to form the right words but Arnie’s gut instinct was to run—to just bolt for the doors. He probably would have, too, but he couldn’t get his feet to move.
“I need to see your claim ticket?”
The young guard’s voice sounded like a distant, untuned car radio.
“Your claim ticket, sir. For your luggage.” That time Arnie made out the request through the static in his head. He relaxed a little—barely—and looked down at his hand. He was still holding the crumpled slip of paper—and his phone. He hadn’t ended the last call. William was still waiting on the line. That grounded Arnie in reality.
Why hadn’t the little weirdo hung up?
Still fighting the voice in his head telling him to just cut loose and run, but better equipped now to move his limbs, Arnie set the suitcase down at his feet, handed the airport security guard the claim ticket, and held the phone to his ear.
“Willie, are you still there?”
“I gotta go. I’m going to hang up now. Just stay put. When you’re done there, go with Bobby and wait. I’ll call you back.”
“I’m hungry, Arnie.”
“Well, eat something, then—shit,” Arnie blurted into the phone, before ending the call and slipping it into his back pocket. William might’ve been his meal ticket, but he drove Arnie crazy with all his weird shit. Arnie looked at the young black man in the uniform with all the disgust he felt his little brother and Bobby. He was feeling better, his paranoia subsiding, leaving his body like an apparition. He even smiled a little. “Are we good here or what?”
The security guard carefully inspected the sweat-soaked ticket and matched it to the sticker on the handle of Arnie’s suitcase. He handed the ticket back to him. His eyes were bright green. Arnie wasn’t sure why he noticed that.
“How about it, Smokey? Can I go now?”
That crack didn’t sit well with the young guard, but he was used to stupid white people at the airport. He took a slow breath and answered almost robotically. “Yes. You’re free to go. Is there anything I can help you with? Do you need directions to the cab stand or the car-rental area?”
Arnie ignored him and grabbed the suitcase. He was already making for the sliding glass doors leading to the sunlit outside world. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw the guard talking into his radio—or maybe he didn’t. He didn’t care. All Arnie Blackwell knew was that he wanted the hell out of that place—and now he was.
Arnie didn’t fully relax during the entire cab ride—even when he made a quick stop by the post office on Gaston Road to get the package Bobby had mailed to their prearranged PO box.
At least that pothead sack of shit didn’t screw that up.
Arnie’s anxiety melted away even further, like a layer of liquefied fat, once he tore open the package marked up with Bobby’s handwriting and saw the five disassembled pieces of the Sig Sauer—each component bundled neatly in bubble wrap and all perfectly surrounded by a small sea of foam packing peanuts. Potheads, he thought. Everything they do is like a high school science project. Arnie let loose a small giggle thinking about Bobby carefully premeasuring the tape, wrapping each piece, and tucking each one into the box along with one magazine and individually wrapped bullets. Arnie shook his head. He pictured Bobby standing at the counter of the post office carefully tapping NO to the questions listed on the keypad for the clerk.
Anything liquid, fragile, or combustible?
Any lithium batteries?
And then walking out of the post office with his sunglasses pushed close to his face to hide his bloodshot eyes, smiling that dopey smile of his. “Good job, Bobby,” Arnie whispered to himself, and eased back into the seat of the cab. The tension in his muscles had loosened but allowed a fresh new ache to set in, like a runner would experience after a 10k race, and despite the feeling of safety that having a gun gave him, Arnie was still so spun out from the airport that his leg wouldn’t stop bouncing up and down in the back of the yellow Corolla. He discreetly unwrapped each piece and put the gun together down low behind the side passenger seat, using the speed loader Bobby had included to fill the magazine with 9mm hollow points. If the Iranian cab driver saw him do any of it, he was either accustomed to having people with guns in the back of his car or he didn’t care. When the cab finally pulled in at the Days Inn, Arnie had already stuffed the gun in his pants and handed the driver two twenties for the eighteen-dollar ride. Arnie was finally feeling good. This was how he was going to be living from now on—large and in charge. The driver wanted to get chatty due to the big tip, but Arnie slipped out of the car, holding the suitcase tight against his chest, and bumped the car door shut with his hip while the driver was still talking. He left the open cardboard box filled with packing foam and bubble wrap on the floorboard of the car for someone else to clean up. He was done cleaning up messes. By the time he’d entered the lobby of the motel, he couldn’t have even remembered what the man driving the cab looked like, or if it was even a man. He only knew he had gotten away with it. He did it. He finally did it. It was easy-peasy from here on out—nothing but high-dollar bourbon and uptown pussy from this day forward. First class all the way. The receptionist behind the counter, however, was quick to stick a pin in Arnie’s inflated ego balloon.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Blackwell, your room is still being cleaned. Check-in isn’t until four o’clock.” The receptionist was a redhead who wore too much makeup to cover up her acne scars, and her monotone speech conveyed a clear hatred for her job—maybe people in general. Arnie couldn’t be sure. He looked at the clock on the wall behind the desk. He liked redheads, and this one wasn’t that bad-looking either, aside from the craters in her face. She was the kind of flawed tail Arnie would throw some game at under normal circumstances. But these weren’t normal circumstances—so he was an asshole. “It’s fucking three thirty.”
The redhead stiffened in her chair as the stick up her ass expanded to its full length. “Yes, it is, sir, and like I said, check-in is at four o’clock.” She pointed a rigid finger to a plastic gold-colored sign on the counter reiterating that point. Arnie read it and then read her name tag. Again, this is where his charm should’ve kicked in to help him get his way, but Arnie didn’t need charm—not anymore. He had cash. Money talks. Everybody knows that.
“Look, Abby?” He said her name like a question. “I’ll give you a hundred bucks on top of what I owe for the reservation—right here, right now—if you just take one of those key cards and swipe the damn thing so I can get myself settled in my room.”
Abby just stared at him blankly. The room itself was only eighty dollars.
“Seriously,” he said. “A hundred bucks. Cash. Just for you.”
“We’re not allowed to accept tips, sir.”
Arnie leaned on the counter, never letting the suitcase touch the floor, and took a deep breath through his nose. If he didn’t get himself behind a locked door with a fat joint soon, he felt like he might literally explode. He reached into his windbreaker and pulled out a wad of cash. He counted out two hundred dollars in twenties with his thumb and laid it on the counter. “I know you’ve got cameras on you right now. I know you don’t want to lose your job, but there’s a way around that. Trust me. We can make it look like I’m just paying for the room. Take the extra out later when you’re counting your drawer down. It’ll be the easiest hundred and twenty bucks you’ve ever made. Just please, break the rule and let me check in to my room. Please.”
Abby stared at the money for what seemed like forever before she picked up the motel phone. Arnie’s heart sank, and he suddenly became aware of the gun tucked into the waistband of his track pants.
If this bitch calls the cops, I’m screwed. Stop being a dick, Arnie. You can hold out in the lobby for thirty minutes. Don’t blow everything now over a motel room.
He started backpedaling. “Look, Abby. I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be a prick here. I’m just really tired from my flight and need to lie down. I’m running on fumes here.”
Abby ignored him and pressed some buttons on the phone.
Arnie reached around to the small of his back. “C’mon, Abby. I said I was sorry.”
“Mario?” Abby said into the phone. “Is room 1108 ready yet?”
Arnie took his hand off the grip of the gun. He hadn’t even realized he was going for it.
“I have a guest in the lobby that would like an early check-in.”
Arnie mouthed the words “Bless you.”
Abby nodded and offered him a whatever half smile. Arnie smiled back and tipped his chin. He thought he might even invite her up to his room later. When she saw his bankroll, she must’ve started to understand she was dealing with a baller—a baller, baby. After Mario finished talking, she held the phone against her chest. “He says the room is clean but he hasn’t had a chance to restock the towels.”
“Not a problem. I’ll take it. Bring the towels whenever. I can drip dry.”
“Um, okay.” Abby held the phone back to her ear. “He said that’s fine. You can bring them up later.”
Arnie blew out another deep breath as Abby hung up the phone. She laid out some paperwork on the counter and Arnie grabbed a pen with a huge plastic daisy duct-taped to it out of a jar. He filled out the papers as best he could with one hand, still refusing to put down the case, and then handed over his Georgia ID. The state had taken his driver’s license after his fourth DUI in 2010, so the state-issued ID was all he had. Abby took it, raised an eyebrow at him, and typed something into her computer. It took her forever. Long enough for Arnie to start thinking again about shooting her.
“All right, Mr. Blackwell. You’re all done.” She handed him back his ID. “You’re in room 1108. That’s right outside the doors you came in and to the left around the building.” She tucked a set of key cards and his receipt in an envelope and laid it next to the cash. It felt to Arnie as if she was moving underwater.
“Yes. That’s on the bottom floor. Out the door to the left.”
“What part of Atlanta are you from?” Abby said, suddenly friendly. “I’ve got a friend who lives in Midtown. It’s not really the middle of the city so I don’t know why they call it that. It’s more north than anything else.” Arnie looked at her, confused. He could feel his inner dickhead beginning to surface but decided instead to just ignore her. He blew through his nose and snatched up the envelope, and Abby with the friend in Midtown ceased to exist. He made for the front door.
After stopping at a vending machine to buy a can of Dr Pepper, Arnie soon found himself inside a locked double room, sitting on the bed, crumbling one of the fat green buds he’d pulled from one of Bobby’s “special travel bags” he’d stuffed into the liner of the suitcase. Bobby promised the bags kept anything in them “undetectable, dude.” And fuckin’ A, he was right. Bobby was rarely wrong when it came to weed or weed-related accessories. He had that going for him at least. Arnie rolled the sticky kush in a torn-out page of a Gideon Bible he found in the end-table drawer. He’d make a proper pipe out of the Dr Pepper can when he was done drinking it. When Mario finally knocked on the door with the towels, he slid the case under the bed, feeling no pain and grinning like a damn fool. Maybe he’d get Mario high. The guy’s name was Mario. He had to partake. He had to. And, man, a shower was going to feel damn good after the past three days of dust and grime at the farm, but on the upside, this was the last shitty motel room he’d ever stay in. He’d be laying down the rent on something oceanside by this time tomorrow. Arnie had already stripped out of his sweaty tracksuit and unlocked the door wearing nothing but a pair of boxers and a T-shirt.
He still had the makeshift joint burning between his teeth when he opened the door, swinging it wide without so much as a glance through the peephole. He quickly lost his grin. Pot might make you feel good but it also made you dumb. The joint fell from his mouth and burned his chin before it hit the floor.
“Hello, Arnold.” A short Filipino man with a stiff wave of black hair and a shiny electric blue suit pushed his way past Arnie and entered the room. He wasn’t alone. Another man—another Filipino bruiser about twice the first man’s size with a similar spiked haircut—followed the shorter man in.
“What the hell—Smoke?” Arnie’s mind raced as he smacked at the fresh burn on his chin. He quickly—well, as quickly as his freshly stoned brain would let him—shifted gears to remember where he’d put the gun. The gun he and Bobby had taken such a huge risk for him to have in case something like this happened. Arnie didn’t even know where he’d put it. Again, pot—it made you dumb. His mind started to twist around the absurdity of it. Maybe he was imagining them. He shook his head and blinked a few times. No, they were real, and they were here—in Florida—with him. Arnie’s heart nearly stopped again as the smaller Filipino man cased the room, taking it in as if he’d never seen the inside of a cheap motel before. He looked at the lousy mass-produced painting of a boardwalk-lined beach on the wall and then poked his head into the bathroom. He was pleased to see it vacant. He nodded to his partner, who nodded back, and then reached through the bathroom door and produced Arnie’s gun.
That’s where it was, Arnie thought almost matter-of-factly, but then nearly collapsed under his own weight right there.
“Nice piece, Arnold.” The small man ejected the magazine from the Sig Sauer and tucked it into the pocket of his suit. “I bet you wish you hadn’t left this sitting in the bathroom right about now, huh?” He pulled back the slide. A single bullet popped out of the chamber and landed on the floor, and then the man in the flashy suit laid the empty gun on the bed. The small man looked pensive. “How did you get a gun, Arnold? Is this what was in the package? At the post office?” Smoke laughed. The other man did not.
Arnie stared at the useless weapon. Jesus, he thought. How had they tailed him so fast? He’d been careful. Maybe they were guessing. He tried to turn on the charm, but really had none to offer. “Shit, Smoke. I got ways, you know? A man can’t be too careful, if you know what I’m saying. But it’s not like I had it for someone like you or nothing. I mean, look where I left it. I saw you out there before I let you in. Um, I mean, I’m a little surprised to see you, but we’re all friends here, right? He looked at the beast next to him. The giant man hadn’t missed a workout in decades and looked as if he’d been raised on raw meat and gunpowder. The veins in his exposed biceps looked like they were about to burst. When Arnie followed the length of the man’s massive arms down to his hands he noticed the Kali baston for the first time. The brute had flipped it out from behind his girth like a magic trick and only now allowed Arnie to see it. A baston was nothing more than a length of oiled bamboo about three feet long, but Arnie had seen one before. He’s seen how, in the right hands, it could be used to tear a man to pieces. This man obviously had the right hands. The sight of the weapon diminished the small amount of confidence Arnie had in his voice. He began to sound like a child. “What’s going on here, Smoke? Buddy. I mean, like, what are y’all doing here?” Arnie’s eyes were glued to the baston.
Smoke held a finger to Arnie’s lips as if to hush the child Arnie had suddenly become and spoke to him as if he were one. “No—no, Arnold. We are not buddies. We are not friends like you say.”
“But Smoke, I . . .”
Smoke pressed his finger harder into Arnie’s lips, contorting his entire mouth. He hushed Arnie again. Arnie shut up.
“Do you want to know why we are not friends, Arnold?”
Arnie tried to step away from Smoke, but the giant man with the baston snaked in behind him, grabbed his shoulder, and held him in place. Arnie tried to spin some more bullshit about not understanding what was happening, but Smoke hushed him a third time and answered his own question. “Because friends don’t steal from each other. That’s why. We come to this country to have fun. We come here to make money, not lose it. And you—you ruined our fun. You stole our money, Arnold. You stole a lot of people’s money, and we want it back. I want it back. Then do you know what I want, Arnold. Can you guess? Or do I need to explain that to you, too?”
Arnie said nothing. Smoke looked disappointed.
“I want to know who else was involved and I want to know how you did it.”
Arnie still said nothing. He couldn’t take his eyes off the length of bamboo. The edge was sharpened. He’d never seen that before.
Smoke finally took his hand away from Arnie’s face and snapped his fingers. He raised his voice to get Arnie’s attention and his eyes back on him and off the bruiser to his left. “Did you hear me, you hillbilly?”
Arnie was too scared to speak. He looked back and forth from Smoke to the huge hand still holding on to his shoulder, as if he needed to be released to answer. Smoke nodded at his partner, and the man let Arnie go. Arnie slid away from both Smoke and the big man but made no sudden moves. He didn’t want to give that mean-looking bastard another reason to put his hands on him. “C’mon, Smoke. It’s not like that. I didn’t steal anything. I just won is all. I got lucky, man. It happens like that sometimes, you know?”
Smoke dropped his head and shook it. He motioned to his companion again. This time the silent man didn’t use his hand to make contact. He drew back and cracked Arnie in the face with the blunt end of the baston. The hit spun Arnie in a complete circle before he eventually collided with a small table. He and the table both slammed into the wall. He slid down into a heap on the carpet, drenched in the open Dr Pepper that had been sitting on the table. Arnie threw up on the carpet and then sat there in a daze, sticky and wet, as he struggled to keep from blacking out. The silent man with the bamboo stick crossed his arms and went back to his place in front of the door.
Smoke gave himself a once-over to make sure none of the soda had splashed on his expensive suit, then started to search the room. He slid open the folding doors of the closet and then closed them. “Don’t treat me like I’m stupid, Arnold.” He opened the bathroom door again and pulled back the shower curtain. “I’m not stupid, and you are not lucky. Finding a wallet with fifty dollars in it is lucky.” He opened and closed all the drawers in the dresser. “Not catching crabs after fucking your mother—that is lucky.” He checked the nightstand. “But what you did? That is not lucky. No one is that lucky. That is called stupid. It is also called stealing. So, like I said already, me and the people you stole that money from want it back.” Smoke looked at the bed and then at Arnie. He lifted a manicured eyebrow and pointed under the bed. Arnie wiped a trickle of blood off his chin, oozing from the freshly split lip, and let his head drop.
Smoke smiled and then motioned to his enforcer. “Move this, Fenn.” Smoke got out of the way and the man Smoke had just called Fenn used one arm to slide the entire queen-sized bed across the floor. It sat diagonally in the center of the room to reveal the tweed suitcase that had been tucked underneath. Smoke smiled wider and his sharklike grin matched the sheen of his sharkskin suit. It was an effect that made him seem otherworldly to Arnie—something other than human—or maybe that was just the weed. More blood poured down his broken fat lip as he watched Smoke pick up the suitcase and set it on the bed. He shook it to hear the contents. “This sounds like progress, Arnold.”
Arnie began to beg. “C’mon, Smoke, please. I won. I didn’t do whatever you think I did. I swear to God, man. This time I really just won.”
Fenn moved toward him, and Arnie held up his hands to cover his face. Smoke snapped his fingers and Fenn stopped. Arnie slowly lowered his arms and opened his eyes. Smoke was sitting on the bed next to the case.
“I believe you, Arnold.” Smoke used his thumbs to work the latches on the case. “I didn’t say you were lying. I didn’t call you a liar. I called you a thief—a stupid thief.” He lifted the lid on the case and his grin evaporated. He saw the bundles of cash inside—tens, twenties, hundreds—all US currency, but he didn’t see all of what he wanted to see. He estimated the amount in the case to be about half of the 1.2 million he was expecting to find. Still, the sight of that much money was hypnotic. Fenn even broke from his blank indifference to glance over at the contents of the case. It was a lot of money, even if it wasn’t all of it. And Smoke did want to see all of it. His recovery wasn’t yet complete. That meant there would be angry people back home. That meant more time in this stupid country. He closed his eyes and let out a long, whistling exhale.
Arnie started to cry.
Smoke closed the lid of the case and fastened the latches. He walked calmly across the room to where Arnie was sprawled on the floor. He picked up the small table and set it upright where it belonged, then lifted at his pants legs and crouched down to face Arnie. He reached out and Arnie flinched, but Smoke merely wiped at the tears on Arnie’s cheek with his thumbs.
“Don’t cry, stupid American. Not yet. Let me tell you something that will make you laugh instead. A joke, I suppose. Is that okay, Arnold? To tell you a joke? Shake your head okay, Arnold.”
“Do you know how Fenn and I found you so quickly?”
Arnie didn’t say anything. He didn’t even look up to meet Smoke’s eyes.
“We never even had to look, dummy. We never lost you. All the way from that farm. There were other people on you, too. Some Mexicans. More Americans. Everybody angry. But you lost them all by the time you got to the airport. Not us, though. And get this, Arnie. We were sitting behind you on the plane, too. All the way from Atlanta. Isn’t that funny?”
Arnie looked up and used the back of his hand to wipe at his eyes.
“Yes, that’s right. We planned to kill you in the airport parking lot, but there were too many people around, so we followed you inside. You’d already checked the suitcase before we could scoop you up, so we had to buy shitty tickets on the same shitty plane you did so we could wait for you to claim the bag here in the Sunshine State.” Smoke looked up at Fenn. “We thought you were going to run away when that guard stopped you at the airport, didn’t we, Fenn?”
“Yes, we did,” Fenn said with a calm and almost feminine-sounding voice.
“You gave us a pretty good scare there, Arnold, but you did good. We were proud of you. Right, Fenn?”
“Yes. Real proud.”
“So here we are, giving you a good scare, too. You know, to even things out. Are you scared, Arnold?”
Arnie didn’t move. Smoke grabbed his face and squeezed his jaw. Blood leaked from the broken lip and stained the neck of the white T-shirt. “I asked you a question, Arnold. Are you scared?”
“Good. So now we are almost done here, and everything is as it should be. You are scared and stupid and I am smart and lucky. You see the difference, now?” Arnie cradled his head in his hands. He did see the difference. He’d been seeing it his whole life.
Smoke let go of Arnie and stood up. “Now tell me who else has the rest of our money.”
Arnie was barely aware of the question. All he knew was that everything he’d done had been in vain. The whole year. All the practice. The escape route to the airport. All the small details. All the months of planning. All the risks. Mailing himself a gun. It was all for nothing. It always was. This was never going to end up any other way than this. Just like everything else he’d ever done in his whole miserable life. He should’ve known better.
“If you don’t start answering my questions the first time I ask you, Arnold, I’m going to let Fenn start asking them. Is that what you want?”
Arnie looked up at the thick Filipino man behind Smoke. “Please, Smoke, I’ll do whatever you want. Take the money. Just please don’t hurt me. Don’t hurt my friends. I’m begging you.”
Smoke rubbed at his baby-smooth, hairless chin as if he was seriously taking the request under consideration. “That’s a good start, Arnold.” He narrowed his eyes at Arnie. “Be clear and precise with your next words, Arnold. If you are honest with me, no lies, then I give you my word that no one else needs to get hurt. Are you ready to be honest with me, Arnold?”
“Yes,” Arnie said, but he knew Smoke was lying. Arnie knew this man’s word meant nothing. In this game involving life-changing amounts of money, no one’s did. They were going to kill him. He’d already said they were going to kill him at the airport back home. They’d kill Bobby, too. Arnie knew that. He hoped it would be quick, but he knew that was a fantasy, too. He’s seen what a baston could do. He knew it wouldn’t be a quick or painless death for either of them, but he also knew they didn’t know anything about William and he wasn’t going to give him up. He’d at least get that much right. He offered up one last defiant stare at Smoke as the small Asian man repeated himself for a final time. “Where is my damn money?”
Arnie opened his mouth to speak right before he was interrupted by the sound of Billy Idol singing “Rebel Yell” from somewhere behind them. All three men looked toward the bathroom. It was Arnie’s cell phone. His favorite song played as its ringtone. “Ooh,” Smoke said, almost giddy, as he crossed the room and entered the bathroom again. “Maybe I don’t need your help, Arnold. Maybe I can simply ask whoever this is for the information I need. Now,” he said as he scooped up the phone from the counter. “Who could this be?” He looked at the display, grinned, and then held it out for Arnie to see. “William Blackwell?” Smoke said with mild surprise. That is your last name, too, yes, Arnold? Is this your family calling? Is the rest of my money with someone who shares your blood? Maybe this William doesn’t share your stupid as well.”
Arnie’s heart raced as he found enough of a second wind to sit up and beg again. “He’s my little brother, Smoke. He’s not involved. He’s just a kid—and he’s retarded, too. He doesn’t know shit about any of this. I swear to you.”
“Oh, yeah?” Smoke tapped the phone and held it to his ear. “Hello? William?”
There was a brief pause as Smoke listened to the voice of a child ask for his brother. “No,” Smoke said. “I’m a friend of Arnie’s. He can’t come to the phone right now.” He squatted back down to face Arnie. The left side of Arnie’s face was now all swollen and puffy, matching his lip, from the hit he’d taken. Vomit mixed in with the blood and formed an elastic string from his broken mouth to his belly. He pleaded in a whisper. “Please, Smoke, just hang it up. He’s a kid. He won’t understand.”
Smoke nodded but ignored him. “Yes,” he said into the phone. “Your brother is here, William. It is William, right? Good. Now tell me where you are and I’ll come get you. I’ll bring you to your brother. Yes—that is what he wants you to do.”
Arnie squeezed his eyes shut and straightened up against the wall. He knew he’d be punished for what he was about to do, but he had no choice. It was William. He wouldn’t sell out the kid—but Bobby would, Arnie thought in a panic. If he gave them Bobby, then they would get to William. Unless he did something right now. Arnie yelled. He yelled loud enough for his brother to hear him clearly through the phone in Smoke’s hand. “Hang up, Willie! He’s lying! Hang up right now, and go to our safe place. Forget what I told you before and get out of there. Wait at our safe place. You hang up right this minute and wait—” That was all he was able to get out before Fenn swung the bamboo baston and hit Arnie hard enough to almost disconnect his jaw completely from his skull.
Arnie saw nothing but white bursts of light—fireworks in his peripheral vision—just seconds before the pain set in, and when the force of the blow did begin to manifest as pain, he nearly blacked out again. He didn’t try to stop it. He invited it. He wanted everything to go black before the next hit came. His lower jaw gaped open and hung from the right of his face only by the skin of his cheek. Bright red blood filled his mouth and poured down his throat like a river of salted motor oil. The choking kept him awake. Blood splattered onto the carpet, speckling the pool of vomit with shiny red pearls. Arnie’s blood peppered Smoke’s face as well, leaving him covered with red freckles, but the sudden burst of blood him didn’t bother him at all. He barely reacted to it, as if having another man’s blood hitting his face was part of his daily routine—like brushing his teeth. Smoke only seemed to show disappointment when he took the phone away from his ear and realized that Arnie’s brother had heard the outburst and ended the call. That bothered him, and his annoyance turned to a slow-burning rage as he tucked the phone in his pocket and glared up at Fenn. “You broke his jaw. How is he supposed to talk now, you idiot?”
Fenn just shrugged, his eyes glazed over with pitch-black indifference. Smoke redirected the heat of his stare at Arnie. This was all about to come to an end and Arnie knew it, but his brother was safe. At least his little brother had a chance—he hoped. Someone would find him. Someone would help him. More tears streaked his ruined face. Smoke shook his head as if flies had begun to swarm around him. “That was very stupid, Arnold. Very stupid. Now you have just killed your own family. You know this, because you know me. I will find this boy and I will kill him. I will kill him with no mercy. I’ll also keep him alive to feel all of it. I want you to know that. He will die like a animal and it will be your fault—yours.”
Arnie fought through the pain in his face and turned his head slightly to look at the side table next to the bed. Smoke kept ranting. “You have killed your own family today, Arnold—not me—you. I offered you hope and you spit it back in my face.” He wiped at some of the blood on his cheek and rubbed it between his fingers. “I want you to remember that and take it with you wherever you go from here. Let that be your final thought. You killed them all. This is all your fault.”
Arnie had almost no strength in him, but he lifted his arm and pointed to the end table. He was barely conscious as he listened to Smoke drone on, but he kept his hand in the air and continued to point at the table. Smoke finally stopped talking and took notice. He stood up. “What, Arnold? Is there something over there you want me to see?” Smoke walked over to the side table and pointed to the drawer. “In here?”
Arnie tried to nod but he couldn’t. His head just hung against his chest as if the only thing holding it to his body was an invisible length of string. He curled his fingers a few times in a give me gesture before letting his arm collapse back down to his side. Smoke studied the table, seeing nothing on it but the laminated TV channel guide and the motel’s green binder of amenities. He looked at Arnie, who couldn’t look back, and then slid open the side table’s drawer. Inside he saw a green bible embossed with gold lettering across the cover. At first he wanted to laugh, thinking that Arnie was asking for help from his American Jesus, but then he saw what he thought Arnie was asking for—a small unlined notepad of stationery with the motel logo printed at the top of each page and a matching ink pen. Smoke removed the notepad from the drawer. “This, Arnold? Is this what you want?”
Arnie still couldn’t move his head to confirm, but he tapped his fingers on the carpet as a response. Smoke slid the notepad under Arnie’s hand. He removed the pen and allowed Arnie to take it. It took some doing, but Arnie was able to write on the top page.
Dont hurt Willie
Smoke read it and asked calmly for a third time. “I will not hurt the child if you tell me where my money is.”
Arnie wrote again.
“Yes. Yes, of course, Arnold. You have my word. Unless you lie. Then the child dies.”
Arnie wrote one more thing on the page. The sting of betrayal should’ve been something he was used to by now, considering all the people he’d sold out throughout the years, but it wasn’t. It felt like the claws of a stray cat scratching down his spine as he wrote the name and address of his friend and condemned him to death.
313 Regan Drive GA
Arnie laid the pen down on the carpet. Smoke picked up the notepad. He studied Arnie’s eyes for any sign of a lie and saw nothing but blank shame. He stood and slipped the entire notepad into the inner pocket of his suit jacket, then lifted the suitcase holding Arnie’s take of the money—over five hundred thousand dollars in cash—and walked to the door. “You can finish him now, Fenn. Take as long as you want, but keep in mind that we have a long ride ahead of us. You will drive.”
Fenn nodded. First, he removed a small plastic bottle of lighter fluid and a Zippo from a baggy pocket on his left thigh. He tossed them on the bed. “For later,” he said, seemingly to himself in his unusual high tenor, and with his back still turned to Arnie, he twirled the baston like a propeller between both hands. When he turned to face the broken man on the floor, it was the first time Fenn had let any real emotion play out across his face. He looked pleased. The talking was over. The screaming would begin.
Smoke turned to leave and opened the motel door. He didn’t flinch or show any reaction at all when he found himself standing face to face with a young Cuban kid in a janitorial uniform. His nametag said MARIO, and he stood there holding a stack of fresh towels in one hand and a fist still held up in front of him mid-knock. Without any hesitation at all, Smoke lifted a towel from the top of the stack and used it to wipe the spatter of Arnie’s blood off his face. “Thank you—Mario,” he said, as if he’d called for the towel service himself. The young custodian dropped the rest of the towels on the cement and burst into a full sprint. Smoke stepped out of the room and onto the sidewalk. He watched Mario disappear around the corner of the building and then, using the towel in his hands, he eased the motel-room door closed behind him to quell some of the sickening sounds coming from inside. Fenn would not be happy about having to work faster, but Smoke didn’t care as long as Fenn made sure to burn it clean. Smoke tossed the suitcase into the trunk of the stolen car, climbed into the passenger side, and waited impatiently. The drive would be long and they had more stupid to deal with.
Dane stared out across the rushing water of Bear Creek. His head was all over the place this morning, but still it remained stuffed full of ghosts. Soon enough he was talking to himself again. Or, rather, talking to her. “I love you, Mrs. Kirby.”
The wind answered him. It always did. After all these years, he’d still never forgotten the sound of her voice. “I love you back, Chief Kirby.”
Dane closed his eyes and let the rich smell of moist dirt and grass take him back to his favorite memory. “Whoa,” Dane said, this time in his mind. “Don’t jinx it. I’m not wearing the white helmet yet.”
Gwen smirked. He smiled wider. He knew he had the job. The commission had already told him so. He was just waiting on the vote to be ratified—a formality. Gwen knew it, too. That’s why she’d asked him to meet her out here at the same park where he’d proposed few years back—to celebrate this new chapter in their life. He lay back on a huge chunk of rock and allowed himself to soak in the memory of his wife. The way she lay in the green grassy ocean of Noble Park. The warm sunlight dancing off her skin and how she glowed. She wore a sleeveless yellow sundress with a paisley lace print on it that day. The one she wore at her sister’s wedding. Dane loved that dress and she knew it. She really poured it on that day to make it a special one for him and it was fair to say that in that moment, lying in that great wide open, Dane Kirby felt like the luckiest man alive. He finally had the job he wanted. He had good friends—real friends. He lived in the place he’d grown up—the place he loved. But even without all that—he had the girl. Not just a girl, but the girl. Gwen was, at that moment, as she always had been since high school, the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. He was in awe of her. He was even more in awe of the fact that she had chosen him to spend the rest of her life with. He thought about a Rod Stewart song he’d always hated, but it fit the moment. The lyrics rushed his brain.
You’re right, Rod, Dane thought to himself and nodded. Some guys do have all the luck.
Gwen had brought a picnic basket with her to the park and it sat in the grass above their heads. When she reached up to open the wicker lid, Dane took his index finger and poked her lightly, right above the dimple in her hip.
“Stop,” she said with a coy smile, drawing her arm back. “That tickles.”
“I can’t help it. Your freckles are out today like crazy and they’re killing me.” Gwen’s shoulders and back were covered in light sun spots that Dane read his future in every night, like old mystics would do with tea leaves. Gwen loved astrology. Dane thought it was all a bunch of nonsense, but those freckles—those freckles were as close as he’d ever gotten to the stars. Those freckles were Dane’s own private constellations and he couldn’t imagine his life without being able to see them—to touch them—so he did, every chance he could. He was positive that The Beatles wrote “Across The Universe” about those freckles.
“Well, keep your hands to yourself for just a minute, please.” Gwen reached over to the basket for a second time and pulled out a bottle of wine and a corkscrew.
“Baby,” Dane said, and sat up abruptly. He looked around the park. There was no one in the field other than them. But it was midday, and although he wasn’t on duty, he was in his McFalls County Fire Department uniform. “I can’t drink that. I’m wearing my badge. Are you trying to get me fired before my first day as chief?”
She ignored him, pulled off the silver foil covering the cork, tossed it in the grass next to the basket, and then used the corkscrew to open the bottle. “Hand me those cups in the basket,” she said.
“I’m serious, Gwen. I’m not going to kill a bottle of vino with you in the middle of the day while I’m wearing my uniform.”
“Suit yourself.” She reached into the basket and pulled out two red Solo cups. She sat one in the grass next to the curl of foil and poured two fingers of red wine into the other. She recorked the bottle, took a long sip, and lay back down, careful not to spill. Dane had to laugh. This woman did whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted to do it—and it drove him absolutely crazy. In fact, everything about his wife made him crazy. She lit him up like a firefly in a jar. Her hair, so brown it could be black if not for the highlights that spilled like streams of honey onto the grass. That made him crazy. The way she smelled like honeysuckle and fresh-cut sugarcane at all times of day. That made him crazy. The way she’d been setting his senses on fire since the first day they met. That made him crazy. He had to physically force himself to break his high-school lovestruck stare from the curves of her yellow dress so he could lay back down in the grass next to her and hope no one gave them any static about having an open bottle of wine in public. Hell, he honestly didn’t care. Noble Park was far enough from town. It wasn’t a big deal. He reached over and felt for her hand. When he found it, she took it and squeezed. She spoke to Dane while they both looked straight up at the spun-cotton cloud formations. “You can’t see it right now, but we are lying directly under Orion, the hunter. We’ll be able to see it tonight. It’s supposed to be really clear.”
He turned his head to her. “Do you plan on lying here in the middle of this park long enough for the sun to go down?”
She turned to look at him now. Their faces were close enough for their noses to touch, their cheeks itchy from the grass. Dane didn’t look away. He could feel himself fall even deeper into her eyes. Eyes so dark he could never see her pupils. But he could today. Her irises seemed lighter. As if someone had added cream to black coffee. Maybe it was the sun. After all, it was a beautiful day.
“If you lie here with me, I will.”
“I’m not going anywhere, woman.”
“You better not.”
Dane remembered the way he kissed her that day. The way he just couldn’t help himself. Gwen closed her eyes and kissed him back—hard—and her tongue found the back of his throat as if the fate of the world depended on it. He could taste the wine on her lips, sweet and waxy like lip gloss. When he found the courage to finally break away from her, he reached for the empty cup in the grass beside him. It was what she wanted him to do—and she’d always been able to get him to do what she wanted—so he decided he didn’t care about the consequences of her little wine in the park scenario.
Well, maybe he cared a little. He was about to be sworn in as the new fire chief, so he lifted his head slightly and gave the park a good once-over. Still not seeing a soul, he caved in to her—like always. “Okay,” he said. “Pour me some. Just a sip.”
Gwen got giddy and sat up on her elbows. She took the bottle and poured a small nip of wine into Dane’s cup. They toasted to freckles they could see and stars they couldn’t. Dane lifted the cup to his lips, swirled the red wine around in his mouth, and almost spit it back out. “Gwen?” he said with a gag, then forced himself to swallow. “Um—I think this wine is corked or something. It’s horrible. How are you drinking that?”
She returned the bottle to the basket and then lay back down, flat in the grass. She stared directly into the sun through a break in the clouds. “It’s the best I could do—for something nonalcoholic, anyway.”
“What?” Dane perched himself on one arm and stared at her as she lay there, her eyes closed now, a sly smile on her thin lips. He’d never known his wife to drink anything nonalcoholic—ever. In fact, he’d never seen her go without a cigarette this long, either. Something was off. And he hadn’t noticed until right then. Her sense of calm was palpable. “Gwen?” Dane spoke her name as a question.
She kept her eyes closed and said, “Did you know that right now is the Year of the Rooster according to the Chinese zodiac?”
Dane didn’t give one damn about the zodiac. He sat straight up and repeated her name with a little more intensity. His heart began to race. He stared at her, feeling completely confused. Gwen couldn’t look any more content or relaxed if she tried as she lay there in the thick blanket of grass of the most secluded park in town. The rush of what she wasn’t saying hit Dane like a wrecking ball. He felt winded. He was suddenly aware of the Georgia sun heating the back of his neck. The glow she had—her eyes—it wasn’t just the sunlight.
“The Chinese,” she said, “say that children born during the Year of the Rooster bring great intelligence and great joy to the world.”
“Gwen,” Dane said a third time, in a more subdued choke of a whisper.
She opened her eyes slowly and caught his stare. “Yes, Dane?”
“Are you—are we—” He stumbled over his words.
“Yes,” she said. “We are.” And she rubbed his free hand over the flat surface of her belly. “Does that make you happy?” She already knew the answer by the tears lining his cheeks and that ridiculous grin on his face that only she was capable of bringing out of him. They held each other for a long time. Her wine spilled onto the grass. Dane hoped she’d never let go.
“I love you, Mrs. Kirby.”
“I know,” she said. “And I love you right back.”
Dane wanted to remember this moment forever. He never wanted to forget. How perfect it all could’ve been, but somewhere in the thick of this moment Dane knew what was coming next. He could never just remember the good parts. He had to remember everything that came after. Just like he’d never been able to forget Gwen’s voice, he also couldn’t forget the sound of that shot. It sounded like a .30-30. He didn’t want to, but like always, his mind drifted to the accident, to the blood. So much of it. Blood, cold and congealed, sticking to his clothes and his face. Blood mixing in with his tears, causing a slick, watery film to smear over his face. This is the part where he wants to scream.
So he did. Dane opened his eyes and screamed out over the water as the bright sun violently attacked his vision. For a moment Dane couldn’t see, and he was grateful for the temporary blindness. The bursts of white replacing the pools of red. Dane looked down at the rock he was sitting on. Not just to avoid the sunlight, but because he no longer possessed the ability to look at the sky. He just couldn’t do it. There wasn’t anything up there for him to see anyway. Not anymore. Just cold fire and a host of raging stars camouflaged by the brightest blue. The sun shining down through the trees cast a spider web of shadows across Dane’s cargo pants, boots, and skin. He focused on the patterns as his vision returned. He didn’t look at the treetops anymore, either. They only held thoughts of carrion birds, more blood, and the broken bones of children. Dane could feel a chill rush through him although he’d been sitting in the warm morning sun for hours. The lab report papers from Dr. McKenzie’s office, which Dane had spread out on the flat rock beside him before he dozed off, caught the breeze and started to lift into the air. Dane scrambled before he lost them to the wind and refolded them all, stuffed them back into the tattered envelope, and then pushed the whole mess deep into the utility pocket of his pants. He looked down at his leg and laughed a humorless laugh. It didn’t matter where he looked—up, down—it just didn’t matter. His future wasn’t written in the stars the way Gwen had always said. It was written in faded printer ink on those goddamn papers—right there in black and white. He decided to stare straight ahead instead, out at the roaring water of Bear Creek. The creek itself reminded him of nothing. Nothing was something he could handle. Nothing was good. After a while, he closed his eyes again and filled his lungs the best he could with the fishy smell of dirt and wild water. It helped. He didn’t want to come out here just to get lost in the black parts of his memory, or the big neon parts that refused to go away. He just wanted to catch a damn fish. Or maybe, for once, remember something good, something pure, something that pushed the stars and treetops and paperwork out of his brain, if only for a while. He leaned farther back and rested his head on the massive rock just in time to feel a buzzing on his leg. He reached into his pocket and yanked out the phone only to drop it. It slid down the smooth rock into the dirt. Unbalanced, Dane tried to grab for it and slid right down after it. He landed hard on his shoulder and left hip. He lay there in the grass and mossy earth until the pain subsided and he sat up slowly and looked for his phone. One missed call from a number he didn’t recognize. The phone chirped in his hand—voicemail. He held the phone to his ear and listened to a message from the new sheriff of McFalls County. There’d been a killing up the mountain. The sheriff was asking for his assistance. “Thank God,” Dane said. “Something to do.”
Copyright © 2020 Brian Panowich.
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