Authors: Dan J. Marlowe
a division of F+W Media, Inc.
“When are we going to Nassau to get Erikson out of that jail?” asked Hazel.
Hazel is my girl friend, all redheaded six feet of her. And she knew everything about me. Everything.
“When are we WHAT?” I said it so vehemently I blew a shower of sparks from my cigarette. We both batted at them furiously to keep the bed from catching fire. “What the hell did you say?”
“You know you can’t leave him there,” Hazel said calmly. “If you can’t get anyone in Washington to act, that leaves you… .” Then she added softly, “And I won’t have you running out on me. We’re going together.”
was on the ground floor of a four-story downtown Nassau office building. My watch said ten minutes past midnight when we started up the rust-encrusted fire escape at the rear of the department store next to the bank. I could feel the perspiration breaking out on the back of my neck in the humidity of the Bahamian night as we lugged our equipment up to the roof. With anyone less strong than Karl Erikson for a pack-horse partner it would have taken more than one trip.
The building was on Shirley Street, a block away from Barclay’s, Sassoon’s, Chase Manhattan, and the other large banks on Bay Street in the financial district. This bank advertised a complete trust and investment service. We were interested in neither.
I paused for a breather on the roof. At that height the cool shore breeze was both noticeable and welcome. The scars from my plastic surgery itch when I perspire, especially under my wig. During the next few hours I was due to itch a good deal, and I didn’t mind postponing it momentarily.
When Karl Erikson placed one of his rare phone calls to Washington just before sunset that evening and began talking about changes in a banana shipment, I guessed even before he came away from the telephone that something had gone off the rails. His guarded conversation translated into the fact that we had to move the operation up twenty-four hours because what we were after inside the bank might not be there the next day.
It put a definite squeeze on my carefully timed plan. For one thing, we wouldn’t be able to get clear of the island immediately after we completed the job. The getaway arrangements set up by Erikson involved a lot of governmental red tape, and the system was too rigid to react to sudden changes. So now we were committed to playing cat-and-mouse with the British-trained Bahamian police force for a day and a night until the prearranged transportation showed up. I didn’t like it, but there was nothing I could do about it.
The department store roof was high enough so I could see, against the blackness of the night, a portion of the crescent of pink sand beach near the tourist hotels. Muted phosphoresence sequined the small wavelets lapping the shore. There was almost no surf. The air around us was heavy with the fragrance of frangipani and mimosa growing in every open space and in the numerous window boxes in front of the stores in the Bay Street business district.
“What’s the hangup, Earl?” Erikson demanded impatiently. He kept his voice down. Sound travels widely in the tropical night.
“Nothing,” I said. “Let’s move to the other roof.”
We were wearing dark business suits and dress shoes. Erikson had suggested black coveralls and tennis shoes, but I pointed out that two men so attired would have difficulty blending into the local scenery if anything went wrong.
Erikson scooped up the heavier of our two canvas bags and walked to the roof edge I had marked on our diagram. He made it look easy as he leaped across the intervening space to the next building. I picked up the other bag and set my teeth as I confronted the eight-foot space with a litter-filled alley below. I’m not fond of heights, but I backed off, took a run at it, and jumped without giving myself time to think.
I jumped too far, of course, skidded, then righted myself. The bank building was closed after nine in the evening, and no watchman was on duty except on the ground floor premises the bank occupied. There were several alarms scattered throughout the building, a system sophisticated enough to insure that even a good technician would be almost sure to trigger an alarm at some point during his trespassing.
When I first studied the wiring diagrams webbing the building, I thought we might have to import an expert to knock out the alarm system. Then I studied the schematic further and realized it wouldn’t be necessary. The alarms were a handicap only if they kept us from getting into the vault and escaping afterward. The more I studied the circuits, the more sure I became that it was going to take more than flashing lights or ringing bells to stop us.
I’d obtained the wiring diagrams of the bank our first night in Nassau by burglarizing the blueprint room in the office of the bank’s architect. Erikson carried a portable copier, and we made duplicates of the bank plans. I was pleased to find that the architect was the meticulous type who made notes and amplified drawings on the original prints of all bank reconstruction, even of the cosmetic face-lifting kind.
A door led down from the roof into the interior of the building. I checked it automatically, but it was locked as I expected. My penlight disclosed the tiny, silvered wires of the alarm system. I turned to the small adjoining structure housing the mechanism for the building’s elevators. The prints indicated it was neither locked nor bugged, and it represented the one major weakness I had found in the bank’s security arrangements.
Karl Erikson crowded inside behind me when I tugged open the door gently and entered the small building. I reached inside my jacket, dug under the chamois holster containing a compact Smith & Wesson .38 special, and removed a screwdriver from the multipocketed vest I was wearing. Four salt-corroded screws on a section of the elevator shaft’s tin roof finally yielded, enabling me to lift away a section large enough to admit us. I flashed my light downward until I located the metal ladder leading down into the shaft exactly where it was on the blueprint.
Three elevators rode side by side in the shaft. All three were now parked at ground level. Examination of the wiring diagrams had shown me that if any of them were moved, an alarm would be set off. Similarly, if any of the elevator doors on each floor leading to the shaft were opened, the result would be the same. To avoid setting off an alarm, we had to confine our activities to the shaft itself.
This was no handicap. The architect’s plans had revealed that the back wall of the elevator shaft at street level was also the rear wall of the bank vault. It could never have happened in the US, but evidently the Bahamians were more casual about that sort of thing. It meant we wouldn’t have to leave the elevator shaft until we were ready to enter the bank vault.
I hadn’t explained any of this to Erikson. Sometimes a deviation from set plans is required in an emergency, and if a participant recognizes the deviation but not the emergency, nervousness results. Erikson didn’t know how I proposed to do the job he had coaxed me to do for him when he had flown out to Hazel Andrews’ ranch near Ely, Nevada.
Hazel is my girl friend, all redheaded six feet of her, and Karl Erikson was no stranger to us. He was a government agent linked to an unnamed Washington operation that had seemingly limitless latitude in its maneuverings. He had moved into my life obliquely at a time when I was engaged in masterminding the quiet removal of a large chunk of charming money cached in a museum in Castro’s Havana.
The man who set up the deal presented Karl Erikson to me as part of a four-man team of cons and ex-cons brought together specifically to abstract the cash. By the time I found out Erikson was intent upon recovering the same cash for the Treasury Department (to whom in a roundabout way it belonged), he and Hazel and I were in the drink somewhere between Havana and Key West, choking on briny sea water and ducking cannon fire from angry Cuban MIGs.
The resultant mutual rescue operation cemented the three-sided acquaintance, and Erikson didn’t hesitate to call upon me again to utilize skills I hadn’t developed in a monastery. I never knew how he explained his employment of me to his unnamed bosses. Perhaps he didn’t try, since he was a Viking-style pragmatist who relied on letting results speak for themselves. He was also the strongest man I had ever known.
The task of moving all our equipment down the shaft and depositing it on top of one of the elevator cabs was almost as much work as it had been to get it up to the roof. Erikson served as chief loadbearer again. I followed him down the narrow steel ladder after replacing the removed tin section of floor above my head. Standing on the ladder, I fastened it from below with a single sheet metal screw.
We were sealed inside the elevator shaft now until the job was done. Or until something went wrong, and they came looking for us.
Erikson stared at me expectantly when we were standing together on the top of the elevator that operated adjacent to the back wall of the vault. “What happens now?” he wanted to know. His voice echoed hollowly in the shaft.
“We go to work,” I informed him.
Elevators always have an emergency door in their roofs. I raised the door, wriggled through the opening, and dropped down inside. Erikson handed our bulky equipment down to me before thudding down onto the carpeted floor beside me. “Shall I close the door in the top of the elevator?” he asked in a half-whisper.
“No,” I said in a normal tone. “We’ll need the ventilation.” Erikson was going to have to get used to hearing a lot more noise before he heard less.
I located the light switch on the car’s control panel and turned on the overhead light. Then I unloaded our canvas sacks and spread their contents in a semicircle on the floor of the cab. I picked up a magnetized screwdriver and removed the screws from one of the three-by-seven-foot metal panels making up the back of the car. I lifted it out of the way, thereby exposing the reinforced concrete wall of the vault just a foot away.
Next I cut the heads from the screws I’d taken from the panel and glued them back in place on the face of the panel with contact cement. Erikson watched me with a puzzled look.
I reached up and removed the light bulb in the roof of the car. Erikson held my penlight so I could see what I was doing while I installed a two-socket fixture. I put the bulb in one socket and a female plug in the other. Now that I had both light and a source of power, I plugged in my masonry drill and attacked the wall of the vault.
The concrete was fourteen inches thick, but the drill chewed through it like a run in a fat girl’s pantyhose. I soon had the wall honeycombed with holes. Erikson watched intently. “It can’t be this easy,” he said.
“It’s not,” I told him. “There’s quarter-inch steel plate behind that concrete.”
From the floor of the cab I selected three lengths of steel pipe, which I screwed together to make a handle. To this I attached a solid twelve-pound weight that completed the birth of a heavy striking implement. I handed the sledge to Erikson. “Go ahead, muscles,” I invited him. “Bust up that concrete.”
“What about noise?”
“The watchman will hear it, but if it’s done quickly enough, he won’t be able to get a fix on it. Then he’ll rationalize that it came from outside.”
Erikson went at it with long-armed, gorillalike swings of the sledge and soon had the air laden with powdery dust. Even before I removed the panel, there was a one-foot space between the vault wall and the back of the elevator cab. Most of the concrete chunks and chips from Erikson’s sledging operation fell into this gap and ended up at the bottom of the shaft, but some debris was sprayed around the floor of the cab.
Erikson worked so rapidly and to such good effect that he soon exposed the latticework of reinforcing rods, which was all that separated us from the steel vault liner. I stopped him while I disconnected the masonry drill we wouldn’t need again. I plugged in a miniature hand-held vacuum cleaner and began to clean up some of the mess we’d made in the cab.
Anything too large to be sucked into the cleaner we kicked over the edge into the bottom of the shaft. I turned the cleaner onto our clothing to remove the clinging dust, paying special attention to the welt of our shoes. I had made sure that our trousers were cuffless.
I laid the vacuum aside and picked up my acetylene outfit. Like all my tools except the masonry drill, it was both lightweight and compact. The hose was only six feet long, the gauges were miniature, the acetylene was carried in a small propane tank, and the oxygen was contained in a pair of skin-diving tanks. The outfit was big enough to do the required job but without much to spare.
I took up a knitted ski mask and slipped it over my head. I checked pressure gauges and cutting torch size before lighting the torch. It had a hot, violet flame that in seconds turned the reinforcement rods to water. When I heated them up and squeezed the oxygen handle, the metal grew red, then yellow, then ruptured, and ran before the invisible jet of oxygen.
The barrier of rods separating us from the vault liner was soon just short lengths of twisted scrap metal at the bottom of the elevator shaft. I inspected the final obstacle, the steel liner. From outside it looked like any other piece of steel plate, but I knew from my study of the architect’s drawings there was no way I could cut through it without setting off an alarm.
“When I burn this and climb down inside there,” I told Erikson, “clean up everything in the cab again after you pass the equipment inside to me. The cab has to look as though it hasn’t been used for anything. Get set to go. When we move now, we move fast.”
Erikson stacked the equipment to one side of the removed cab panel. I connected the second oxygen tank, readjusted the torch, took a deep breath, and sliced through the steel vault liner plate in one long cut, following the edges of the sledged-away concrete.
When the outline was completed, I kicked hard at the center portion of the vault liner. The torched section fell inside the vault with a sound like a Chinese gong. “Quick now!” I said to Erikson. Bells were ringing all over town. I didn’t know how many minutes we had before watchmen, security guards, and police would be crawling all over the building.
Erikson had the vacuum going again feverishly while I grabbed up a can of air freshener. I closed the emergency exit in the cab’s roof and sprayed the inside of the car with the aerosol bomb before dropping the can into the pit and jumping down through the hole we’d made into the vault’s interior. The aerosol spray would remove the last traces of torch heat and cement dust from the elevator.
Erikson began handing the equipment in to me over the hot edge of the gaping hole in the vault liner. When I had it all, he scrambled down into the vault. I reached back up and fitted the previously unscrewed back wall panel from the cab into place again, working from inside the vault and outside the elevator. I fastened the panel into place firmly using half a dozen powerful Alnico magnets. From inside the cab there was nothing to show the panel had ever been removed, since I’d glued the cut-off screw heads back in place, and the panel was almost as securely attached from the rear by the magnets as it would have been by the original screws.