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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Hard Cash Valley

A Novel

Brian Panowich

Minotaur Books



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?”

“Yeah, we went right where you asked me to.”

Arnie’s heart slowed a beat. “And you walked him in, right? You gotta walk him in. And you gotta stay there with him, Bobby. Don’t you fucking leave him. You can’t just break him from his routine. He’ll freak out.”

“Sounds more like you’re the one freaking out. Take it easy. He’s fine. He knew more about what he was doing than 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?”

“I’m hungry.”

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’d 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.

Copyright © 2020 by Brian Panowich