A Speedy Exchange
By Norris Steel
Bert had lots of practice packing methamphetamine pills. First he would wrap them in tissue paper, and then use a half-roll of duct tape to tighten the bundle down to the size, and half the weight, of a brick--tight and smooth enough that he could throw it around like a football if the mood suited him. Once it was wrapped, Bert slipped it into a corduroy purse he’d bought.
“Who’s got the speed?” Katie asked as she gazed into her compact, examining her face three square inches at a time. She was wearing a ribbed white tank top that cropped just above a pair of tight blue jeans with raised stripes down the front.
“Talk to Carl,” Bert said.
The three of them were standing in the parking lot of the Flamingo Hilton Hotel in Laughlin, Nevada. Carl was leaning up against the polished side of a black 4-wheel-drive pickup. The driver’s-side door was open, and quiet rock music was emanating from external speakers mounted in the bed of the truck.
Carl reached under the driver’s seat and withdrew a plastic grocery bag containing the small purse. He took hold of the body of the purse through the plastic and allowed the strap to dangle down, so Katie could place her arm through without touching anything with her hands, avoiding fingerprints. After she did, Carl folded the plastic bag and set it neatly back under the seat.
“Tell me again where you’re supposed to take it,” Carl said.
“I know, I know.” Katie snapped her compact shut. “The far-back trashcan outside the Micky D’s on Mountain Ave.”
“Good,” Carl said. “It’s about a twenty-minute walk. I told our friend I’d call him half an hour from now, so you have that long to clear off the scene.”
“Got my new shoes,” Katie said, pointing to her glaring white sneakers. “Anything else?”
“Yeah,” Carl said. “Next time, don’t look so good. Remember, it’s a bad thing to draw attention.”
“You know, you ask a lot.”
“See you in a couple hours.” Carl slapped her on her bottom and she turned on her heel and started walking towards Mountain Avenue.
Bert unwrapped a piece of sugar-free gum and placed it in his mouth. He was wearing a tan baseball cap decorated with a giant eagle perched upon an anchor-impaled planet Earth--the emblem of United States Marine Corps. The bill of the cap pointed out at an aggressive right angle, and was steeply arched around his narrow face. His shoulders were back, his chin squared, and his lips tightly shut. He offered Carl a piece of gum, and the two quietly chewed while the time slipped away.
When half an hour had passed, Bert tapped his watch and said, “It’s time for the call, boss.”
Carl reached into the truck’s cab and removed an electronic voice scrambler along with a small gray duffle bag, which he handed to Bert. The scrambler looked like a walkie-talkie with speakers on both the front and back. Carl could talk into one side and a robotic-sounding voice would come out the other. He and Bert walked a short distance across the parking lot to a payphone. Carl dropped in thirty-five cents and dialed the number of another payphone, this one in the parking lot of the Sands casino a half-mile down Laughlin’s Strip. Someone answered after two rings.
“Nice timing,” said an electronically distorted voice on the other end.
“Our drop-off’s done,” Chris said, speaking into one side of his scrambler. What came out the other side, and went into the telephone receiver, sounded like an old phonograph record with the voice warped beyond recognition. “Look for a purse in the far-back trashcan, McDonald’s on Mountain Avenue. Garbage pickup isn’t for two days, but I recommend you swing by as soon as possible. It’d be a shame for some trash-picking bum to hit the jackpot.”
“Thanks,” the voice said.
“How ’bout our pickup?”
“Done and done.”
“Since the phone’s secure, I want to double check on where. Say it back to me.”
Bert leaned in to get his ear within listening range of the receiver.
“Second floor of Treasure Island, men’s room by the racing window, toilet tank in the stall closest the door.”
Bert nodded at Carl to confirm the instructions.
“That’s good,” Carl said. “Thank you. Same thing next month?”
“I’ll call five days in advance with the new drop-off sites.”
Carl hung up and he and Bert turned away from the truck and walked down the strip towards Treasure Island. Carl held out his wrist and Bert checked the time on Carl’s digital watch: 11:43 PM. Bert reset his own watch to match.
“I’ll be ready for your call at twelve o’five,” Bert said.
“That’s fine,” Carl answered. His curly blond hair bounced slightly around his shoulders as he walked. He turned to look at his friend. “Always remember, Bert, if it doesn’t look right, just walk away, OK? It’s only money.”
“I know it,” Bert said.
Carl touched Bert gently on the arm. Bert quickened his pace and soon left Carl behind.
Treasure Island was two casinos over. Bert made the walk in ten minutes and quickly got on the escalator to the second floor. As he rode up, he pulled his cap down as far as he could to obscure his face from any ceiling surveillance cameras. He broke a twenty in one of the change machines and moved to an island of dollar slot machines across from the racing window. He set the gray duffle at his feet, dropped ten tokens into a machine, and absentmindedly pressed the spin button. He came up dry and lightly slapped the machine as if he were disappointed.
Directly across from the men’s room door--about ten yards away from Bert--stood an aluminum palm tree next to a payphone. Bert kept eyeing the phone between hits on the slot machine. His ten dollars vanished inside of five minutes, so he dropped in the other ten.
Five spins later, Carl appeared next to the payphone holding a hotdog.
Bert’s next to last token proved lucky. A red siren went off on top of his machine and thirty dollars rattled down into the chrome tray. Bert took it as a good omen. He pressed the spin button to burn his last token and reached for one of the free plastic buckets stacked next to the machine to scoop up his winnings.
Bert watched as Carl finished his hotdog and took a disposable phone card out of his wallet. Bert reached into his pocket for a cell phone he’d stolen earlier that day. He attached a headset, which he stuck in his ear just as the phone started vibrating in his hand. Bert pulled opened the cover just enough to make the phone pick up, and then closed it again.
“Hey there,” Bert said to Carl over the headset. “I just won ten bucks.”
“So you’re lucky tonight,” Carl answered. “That’s good to know.”
“Yup, good to know.” Bert took his duffle bag in one hand and his winnings in the other, and walked to the men’s room by the racing window.
Bert opened the door and made a beeline for the closest stall. Every now and then, Carl spoke a few words of nonsense into Bert’s ear, just wagging his mouth, trying to look like an average guy talking into a payphone. Bert listened with a quarter of his brain, just enough to know if Carl brought up professional wrestling, which was their code to alert him to trouble.
Luckily, the first stall was empty. Bert got in, locked the door, and sat down on the seat. In theory, the ceramic tank pressed up against Bert’s back contained a double-layered Ziploc bag filled with bundles of hundred-dollar bills, just floating in toilet water. Only Carl knew the exact amount, but Bert had eyeballed pickups in the past, and his best guess put it somewhere around twenty thousand dollars. The question was, had the Drug Enforcement Agency reached it before he had? If so, the money was probably still in the tank, but somewhere they would’ve left one of their dime-sized surveillance gadgets, the kind that could make James Bond sweat with envy. Plus, there would be a dozen plainclothes agents lounging by the racing window, waiting for the device to set off an alarm.
Bert turned around to examine the toilet. It was one of the only public ones left in Laughlin that had an actual tank with a lid. First, he checked the base for hidden microphones. Then he felt around the lip of the lid, looking for sensors. When he was satisfied, he seized the lid in both hands and slowly edged it upward. As he brought it away from the tank, he crouched low and used the lid as a shield, just in case any agents had tossed in one of their light-activated exploding ink packets. Nothing happened.
Finally, he set the lid on the seat and stared down at the bag of money floating in the water. Now for the final inspection. Bert flushed and watched the bag sink to the bottom and rise back to the top as the tank refilled. He flushed again and watched again. Once he was satisfied that the bag wasn’t attached to any tripwires, he pulled it out and stuffed it into his duffle bag.
Bert placed the lid back on the tank, flushed one more time, and exited the stall. He didn’t want the bother of cashing slot-machine tokens on the way out, so he left his cup full of winnings next to the toilet.
As Bert emerged from the men’s room, he took the headset out of his ear and switched off the cell phone. With the duffle bag swinging from his shoulder, he walked casually across the casino floor. He knew that Carl would pretend to talk on the payphone for another couple minutes before following after him.
Bert left Treasure Island and started walking back to the Flamingo parking lot. As he passed a trashcan on the street, he took the cell phone from his pocket, wiped it on his shirt to clear any fingerprints, and tossed it in. It landed on a half-eaten pile of nachos swirled together with warm, spilled Coca Cola.