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52

At Nellis Air Force Base, just a few miles northeast of Las Vegas, at some time in the evening hours of Monday, the twenty-second of May, somebody broke into a seldom-used storage building and removed a dozen cartons, all alike. The objects inside these cartons had never been used, and it was unlikely anyone in the Air Force would ever use them, so nobody noticed the theft right away, and in fact it would probably never have been noticed at all if it were not for the inventory the Air Force was required to take on this base every year at the end of September. By then, of course, the stolen objects had long since been used and discarded.

There were other thefts during the evening hours of that Monday night in May in the general Las Vegas area, all of which were discovered and reported to the authorities long before the end of September, but not soon enough to alter events. The Finest Fancy Linen Service, for example, of North Las Vegas, which provides cloth products for several of the Strip hotels, ranging from room-service napkins to croupiers pocketless trousers, was burglarized for eight freshly cleaned tan uniforms with shoulder patches and other markings to identify them as used by the security personnel at the Gaiety Hotel, Battle-Lake and Casino. Also, a large hydraulic-compacting garbage truck was liberated from Southern Nevada Disposal Service, a private trash contractor with several Strip hotels as its customers. In addition, five new cars, fresh from the factory, were boosted from a Honda dealer in the city, and equipped with license plates lifted from cars in McCarran Airports long-term parking lot.

One of these recently acquired Hondas was later that evening driven by Fred Lartz (Thelma at the wheel) with Stan Murch and Tiny Bulcher as passengers, both of them wearing dark blue coveralls, down to Henderson, where the Lartzes let them out next to General Manufacturing. There they found awaiting them the truck previously loaded to their specifications by Lester Vogel employees, with a lie freshly painted on both doors that read,


R & M

INDUSTRIAL

&

MEDICAL

GAS SUPPLIES


This misinformation was done in the style of the actual R&M, a legitimate outfit up in Las Vegas with a variety of regular customers ranging from hospitals and dentists to factories like General Manufacturing to Strip hotels. This truck was then driven north, back to Vegas, by Stan, with Tiny beside him.

The rear of the Gaiety, like all the hotels along the Strip, contains a loading dock where food and drink and other supplies are brought in, and access to this loading dock is controlled by a guard in a guard shack with a red-and-white bar which should always be kept down to block access, but which is almost always kept up instead because theres never been any reason to keep it down, and its an irritation to have to keep raising and lowering the damn bar every time the butcher arrives, the baker arrives, the linen service arrives, the vintner arrives, the oxygen supplier arrives, on and on.

Yes, the oxygen supplier. The casino part of each Strip hotel is widespread, but it is also low-ceilinged and windowless, so that its air supply, except out at the very edge of the slot machines near the check-in desk and the main entrance, is completely artificial. It is air-conditioned, of course, with temperature and quality controlled from an air room near the rear of the hotel, next to the kitchens and very close to the loading dock. But air-conditioning isnt all. Each night between midnight and 8:00 A . M ., the controlled air delivered from this room to the vast casino area is sweetened with just a little extra oxygen, to make it a richer air than human beings normally breathe on the planet Earth. This richer air makes people feel more awake, happier, more energized. Because of this, they dont feel like going to bed, not quite yet. They feel like staying up, playing at the tables just a little longer, trying just a little harder. Who knows? Luck might turn.

The Las Vegas casinos are vacuum cleaners, designed for only one specific purpose: to suck the money out of the customers pockets, purses, savings accounts, insurance policies and cookie jars. To this end, between midnight and eight every morning, just to squeeze a little extra out of the civilians, they sweeten the air.

At the Gaiety Hotel, Battle-Lake and Casino, the company that supplies the oxygen in the tall slender green canisters, like World War II torpedos, is R&M, which delivers once a week, usually on Tuesday. The fresh canisters are lined up at one end of the loading dock, from where hotel employees wheel them on dollies back to the air room. The empties are wheeled out and stood at attention near the full ones, to be taken away next time by R&M. When the R&M truck arrives at the guardshack every week, the driver waves a yellow manifest at the guard, which the guard doesnt bother to read, merely waving back, and the R&M truck drives through, to make its delivery and pick up the empties.

And so it happened tonight. Monday instead of Tuesday; not a big deal. Stan slowed as he approached the guardshack and waved a yellow sheet of paper that looked a lot like a manifest, unless you were to actually hold it in your hand and read it, when it would turn out to be an advertising flyer from a local SavMor Drug Store. If the guard behaved as he always did, merely waving them through, fine. If he decided, either because he was a new guy on this job or because Monday after all is not Tuesday, to look at the manifest, then Stan would show him the other thing he had with him, which was a Gl"ock machine pistol. Stan would flash the truck lights twice while he and the guard discussed the fine points of the Gl"ock, and then Jim OHara, in a crisply dry-cleaned Gaiety security service uniform exactly like the guards, would emerge from the nearby parking lot to take over the guards duties for the rest of the night, while the guard would spend a no-doubt restful period of time under Tinys feet on the passenger side of the truck before being tied up and left in a location where he would most likely be found by kindly people before anything really bad happened.

Fortunately for the guards blood pressure, however, none of that was necessary. The familiar name on the side of the familiarly shaped slat-sided truck, the familiar green canisters strapped upright in the back, the familiar yellow sheet of paper waved in the familiar fashion, were enough; the guard waved them through.

At one end of the loading dock there was a small office with a window facing out over the concrete platform where goods were unloaded from the trucks. The older heavier security guard at the small desk inside that office was there to receive deliveries, to call the right employees in the hotel to come sign for stuff and pick up stuff, and also generally to discourage pilferage. This guard saw the normal R&M truck make a U-turn and back up against the loading dock. He saw the driver and the drivers extremely burly assistant get out of the truck, hike themselves up onto the platform, and wave in his direction. He waved back, and phoned the air room: The oxygen guys here.

What? Tonight? Its Monday!

Theyre here, said the guard in the office. Theyre unloading now.

Shit, said the guy in the air room. Nobody tells me anything. Okay, be right out.

Meanwhile, Tiny and Stan used the dolly in the truck and one of the ones on the platform to offload the new canisters and then to load onto the truck last weeks empties. But then they went even further, loading onto the truck the unused oxygen canisters from last week as well.

Toward the end of this operation, a fussy-looking guy in shirtsleeves came out onto the dock from inside the hotel and crossed to the R&M truck, where he said, How come youre here tonight?

Stan said, We just do what they tell us.

Well, lemme see the manifest.

Let us just finish this, Stan said, as he and Tiny continued to move yesterdays full canisters onto the truck.

The fussy-looking guy frowned. Arent those full?

We just do what they tell us, Stan said.

But why take away full ones? the guy asked, as two uniformed security men, being Jim OHara and Gus Brock, joined them on the platform.

Listen, Tiny said, lemme show you something. Come over here.

He gestured for the guy to come onto the truck, which the guy did, frowning at all the canisters, saying, Nobody tells me anything.

Well, Im gonna tell you something, Tiny promised. This place is being robbed.

The guy continued to frown for a couple seconds, and then he stared at Tiny in horrified understanding. He spun around to the two security men, as though for aid, but when he looked at their faces his understanding grew and became even more horrifying.

Tiny said, Comere, look at me, were the ones having a little talk here.

The guy turned back to Tiny. Through his fright, he now looked confidential, as though he wanted to convince Tiny, and only Tiny, about some important fact. I cant get into the money room, he whispered. Honest to God.

Dont you worry about it, Tiny told him. Im here to help, see? My pals gonna drive this truck away, and Im gonna wheel one of them tanks inside, with you and those two guys in uniform over there, and were all gonna go to the air room. You with me so far?

I dont know what you

You with me?

The guy gulped and nodded. Yes, sir, he whispered.

The four of us and one tank, Tiny went on, were gonna go back to the air room, and nobodys gonna get hurt or bothered or not a thing like that. Or, plan two, I hit you with a hammer here, and you lay down in the truck, and my partner drives the truck away with you in it, and the two uniforms and me go to the air room without you. Up to you.

The guy stared at Tiny, fish-eyed. He didnt seem to know what he was supposed to say.

So Tiny helped: This is called an option situation, he explained. Option one, you cooperate. Option two, you get hit on the head with a hammer. Up to you.

Cooperate, the guy whispered.

Option one. Very good.

It was excellent, in fact, and the option theyd been hoping for, since Dortmunders research had never managed to show them exactly where the air room was. Certainly, theyd have been able to find it eventually, knowing it couldnt be far from either the kitchens or the loading dock, but it certainly did make life easier to have cooperation from this bird dog, who obediently preceded Tiny and Jim and Gus into the building and along the maze of basement corridors, Tiny wheeling the canister.

The air room looked a lot like a television studios control room, being a long narrow space with a lot of equipment along one wall and a few chairs at tables facing the equipment. The four people in the room barely looked up when their fellow worker and the two security guards and the burly guy in the blue coveralls with the canister on the dolly joined them, but then Jim OHara said, Gents, could I have your attention for a second?

They all turned away from their dials and meters, eyebrows raised, polite.

Thanks, gents, Jim said. What I have to tell you is, the hotel is being robbed.

They all reacted. One of them even jumped to his feet. A different one cried, Robbed! Where? Who?

Jim showed them his sidearm. Us, he said.

Gus showed them his sidearm. Calmly, he said, We are dangerous and desperate criminals here, and almost anything is likely to set us off into a frenzy of bloodletting, so Id keep a tight asshole if I was you boys.

One by one, the techniciansfor thats what they were, technicians, not cops or commandos or kamikaze pilotsraised their hands. One by one, Tiny had them lower their hands to be cuffed behind their backs. Then Tiny helped them into seated positions along the rear wall, and stood over them to say, I dont see any reason to tie up your ankles or put gags on you or shoot you dead or give you concussions or nothing like that, do you?

They all shook their heads, and Tiny gave them an approving smile, which they didnt seem to find all that encouraging.

There was an oxygen canister hooked up to the equipment at the far end of the room, but since it was now barely 11:30 at night, that part of the equipment wasnt switched on. So Jim made sure the valve on that canister was screwed down shut and then he unscrewed the connector from the hose to the canister, and he and Gus wrestled the canister out of the way so Tiny could put the new one in its place.

One of the technicians, sounding very scared, said, What is that? Is that oxygen? What is that?

Gus looked at him, briefly. What do you care?

The technician couldnt think of an answer, so Gus went back to what he was doing, which was putting the old canister on the dolly.

Be back, Tiny said, and wheeled the old canister out, planning to return with another of the new ones.

Gus looked up at the clock on the wall above the dials and meters; still not 11:30. What the heck, he said. Lets give everybody an early treat. Then, having learned all about this stuff in a heating and air-conditioning course in prison, he turned on the oxygen equipment, adding it to the mix. A special treat, he said, and turned the regulator all the way up.

Through the system the new mix began to make its way. Through the ducts, the pipes, inside the walls, silently breezing out of the modest registers and inhaling just as silently through the returns, circulating through all the sections of the casino, circulating through the cashiers cage and the counting room behind the cashiers cage and the money room behind the counting room, not circulating through managements offices or securitys offices or the kitchens or the lobby or any of the basement areas, but certainly circulating through the rest rooms off the casino, and through the lounge, and even moving upstairs to circulate in the dark room where the spotters sit, hired to look down through the one-way glass in the casino ceiling, to watch for cheats, for larcenous employees and card counters and all those other misguided individuals who have not grasped the central concept that the casino is supposed to take it all.

Through all those spaces the new richer mix of air circulated, silent and persistent. Richer now, not with the oxygen normally laced into the mix, but with something chemically not that much different, a combination of oxygen and nitrogen called nitrous oxide. Or, to give it its familiar name, laughing gas.


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