Subway Swindle

Bruce Harris

“They were in it together!” I smacked the table. “Look at that,” I said, pointing to the photo. “You know what that is?”

Carl, of Carl's Cameras, gave it a cursory glance. "Nope."

“Bird crap. Right there on his coat. Either that or the worst case of dandruff this side of the Hudson. Look at his right shoulder. See it now?”

Carl just spent nearly an hour developing the contact print, and he wanted to be paid. He poured liquid into a separate film tank and gently shook the tank. "Pigeon excrement,” he said.

“What?”

 “That stain. It’s pigeon poop. There are no birds in New York City. That’ll be a dollar for the photo.”

I ignored him, stared closer at the photograph, at the visible cigar end protruding from the shorter man’s pocket. I recognized the cigar band, a Cuban-made Ernesto, retailing at half a sawbuck a smoke. High cotton, as they say down south. Only one New York tobacconist carried Ernestos, a fancy 5th Avenue shop.

I’d taken the photo in the subway of an underground juggler. Two men in conversation with each other were also captured in the picture. They stood next to the performer. One had thick black eyeglass frames and the Ernesto cigar in his pocket. The other exhibited the white-stained splotch on the shoulder of his trench coat, spoiling an otherwise pristine, sartorial appearance.

Carl walked back and forth among three tables, pouring fluids, shaking trays, agitating tanks, opening cameras, removing the negatives. “A dollar, bud.”

“I don’t have it,” I said.

***

Two hours prior, I sat in a crowded subway car wending my way toward Times Square and a morning appointment at the Broadway Smoke Shop. My first business trip to the big city since winning Albany’s 1948 Salesman of the Year honors. I felt like a big shot. I planned to demonstrate the new “Raleigh Dry Smoke” pipe, touted as the smoothest, driest, and sweetest smoke a man could ever experience. My brown leather briefcase packed with salesman samples of the Raleigh and several other pipe brands rubbed against my worn boots. Bulky winter overcoats added to the claustrophobic feeling in the cramped subway car. I glanced out the grimy window. A station-stop streaked by, followed by darkness, the overmatched lighting providing little illumination within the tunnel.

“He fainted!” came a shout from behind me. The man, wearing black-framed glasses, lay snake-like between the standing-room passengers. I stood to get a better look as the train slowed, preparing to stop. It didn’t take long. I looked down. My briefcase was gone! Instinctively I reached to my rear pocket. No wallet! I looked back, just in time to see a man running out of the car and onto the platform. I tried but couldn't make my way through the commotion. I pushed and shoved but made it only a few feet before the train started up again. I bent, looked out the window, and watched the man carrying my briefcase walk toward the subway’s exit. I saw a white stain on the shoulder of his coat. Looked like bird crap. Isn’t that supposed to bring good luck? I turned back toward my seat, now occupied. The man wearing eyeglasses, who had fainted, miraculously recovered, had exited the train from the other end.

A rube in the big city, that’s all I was. I cursed myself for being a sucker. I still had my camera. I walked into Carl’s Cameras. The thief hadn’t taken that. Thankfully, it was in my coat pocket.

***

“No money, no picture,” Carl declared. He tossed the photograph onto a table.

“I’ll pay you back as soon as I find my wallet,” I promised.

“I’m not running a pawnshop, bud. I’ve things to do.” Carl turned away and continued working.

“Keep the damn thing,” I said, ripping the photo in half. “It’s torn anyway.”

I grabbed the camera and beat it—the $100 in my wallet and my briefcase, gone. Nearly eight million people in the city, and I needed to find two, a pair of conmen. I worked my way toward 5th Avenue. Breckenridge Pipe and Cigar Emporium was nothing like the tobacco shops where I peddled my wares.

I made my way to the Ernesto cigars. “Good cigars,” I said. “Have many customers for them?”

The salesman’s eyebrows rose. “Beg pardon?”

I reached for my wallet that wasn’t there. I felt around, smiled, and plucked a business card from my shirt pocket. “Bill Ballentine, Albany. I’m doing advanced market research for the Ernesto Cigar Company.”

The salesman looked from the card to me. “Says here you’re in sales, Mr. Ballentine.”

“Bill. Call me Bill.” I hesitated. “I was in sales, past tense. Haven’t received the new cards yet.” I waited, still had the man’s attention. “So, how many customers for these beauties would you say you have, mister…?” I let the last word hang, hoping for a name.

“Phillips. We record that number and report it to the company, Mr. Ballentine. I really do not think it proper for me to divulge that information.”

Phillips looked up. A large smile creased his face. He extended an arm. He and the customer shook hands. Phillips pointed toward the pipe section. I noticed the letters CS monogrammed on the customer’s shirt cuff.

“Dr. Southern. Good to see you,” began Phillips. “Here for a new pipe? We just got in some really nice pieces. Come, let’s take a look.” Phillips gave me a disgusted sideways glance. He was finished with me.

The rotund Dr. Southern nodded. The two walked over to a well-lit floor display. The strained buttons on the doctor’s vest looked ready to pop off in machine gun-like rapidity. I sauntered over. The good doctor placed his black doctor’s bag down and examined some finely grained briars.

“I could use a book and a good pipe tonight,” Southern said.

“Tough day?” Phillips asked. “You don’t look yourself.”

The doctor pulled out reading glasses and rested them on the tip of his nose. He brought a long, slender straight-stemmed pipe nearer to his eyes for closer examination. In my professional opinion, the pipe didn't fit his face. "I'll say. I'm transporting Sux to the hospital. Nerve-racking."

“What is that?” Phillips asked, feigning interest.

“Sux is short for Succinylcholine. The labs are in the midst of doing clinical trials on the drug. Under the wrong use, it’s a death sentence. Sux causes paralysis.” Satisfied with the pipe, he added, “I’ll take it. What else do you have that’s new?”

Phillips said something, but I didn't hear him. My eyes focused on the doctor's black bag.

“Just a minute!” yelled the guard. “You can’t just come in here and—"

Everyone looked up. Black eyeglass-frame-man, the subway train fainter, waved a twenty-dollar bill, no doubt my twenty-dollar bill, shouting, “Four Ernestos! Can I get some service around here?”

I asked myself how someone could have such a luck swing in one day. First, my briefcase and wallet are stolen, then one half of the team that stole them practically walks into my hands. I checked my shoulders to see if maybe a bird dumped a gift on me.

From a back room emerged another salesman. I wondered if he and Phillips coordinated which custom-made suit they’d wear. He held up a hand, displayed manicured, polished fingernails. He addressed the conman. “If you please, sir. I am more than happy to assist you. There is no need for shouting.”

I needed to act fast. The fainter guy with the black eyeglasses would be gone with the four cigars in a matter of seconds. I grabbed a matchbook off a counter, lit one, and ignited the lacey curtain near the front door.

“Fire!” I screamed, pointing. “Fire! Run for it!”

I watched as the doctor made his way toward the exit. I raced over to his black bag, opened it, and yanked out a hypodermic needle and a small bottle of fluid. I shut the bag and scrambled after the black-eyeglass-frame man. He ran out the door, stuffing the four cigars into his pocket. I told the guard to call the fire department as black eyeglasses crossed the street. I followed him several blocks to Broadway. He vanished down the subway stop's stairway entrance. I kept a safe distance. The platform was crowded with commuters, shoppers, tourists, transit workers, and one cop. To my surprise, a policeman exchanged words with black eyeglasses and then disappeared. “What was that all about?” I wondered. I steadied myself against a graffiti-covered metal support beam when the cop re-emerged, now dressed in street clothes and an overcoat. He met again with black eyeglass man. My eyes keyed in on the copper’s trench coat. The same white stain visible on his right shoulder! The cop and the second man in the photo were one and the same! For a flatfoot, he had expensive tastes in clothing! I figured my briefcase was stuffed in a nearby subway locker along with who knows what other stolen merchandise. A number 2 train squealed to a stop. Eyeglasses and Bird Crap got in. I let several people in ahead of me and then boarded the train. It took the duo two stops before beginning their act. I watched eyeglasses collapse and heard, “He fainted!”

Within seconds I knelt down at eyeglass man’s side. “I’m a doctor,” I shouted. “Give me space.” The curious backed up. I tore open faker’s shirt, sat on him so he couldn’t move, filled the hypodermic, and stabbed his chest. I shot the entire contents into him. If the doctor at Breckenridge Pipe and Cigar Emporium knew what he was talking about, my little friend, looking so comfortable on the floor of a number 2 downtown-bound train, wouldn't be moving a muscle for the rest of his life. I reached into his pocket, took the four Ernesto cigars, and pocketed them. I then felt for a wallet, found it. My wallet! It contained only one twenty-dollar bill. Twenty-percent of my cash recovered. More work to do.

“I’ve been robbed,” a woman screamed in the subway car. “Someone took my purse!”

I got off at the next stop and walked back toward Canal Street. The woman victim located a cop and began filling him in. He listened. I stood to the side, overhearing everything. Several minutes later, the crooked cop joined us. He’d exchanged the stained trench coat for his uniform.

I addressed him. “I was robbed, too. Earlier today.” I pulled out two Ernestos. “Cigar?”

His eyes narrowed. “Get lost.”

I shrugged, put one cigar away, bit off the end of the other, and lit up. "Nice. Ernestos. Expensive, but worth the money. I know some guys that'd do crazy things to get their mitts on these cigars.”

“I told you to beat it.”

“Actually, you told me to get lost. There’s a difference.”

I had his attention. His face had a stupid quizzical expression. He looked like he didn’t know if he should stand there, run for it, or slug me. He tried the latter. I ducked; hit him with a right cross.

The punch had little impact. “I’ll handle this,” he told the other policeman. Then to me, “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll take my advice and scram,” he said, “before you’re a very sorry tourist.”

“As soon as I get my briefcase and the eighty-dollars stolen from me.” I checked his nameplate, added, “Officer T. Rollins.” As a third policeman approached, the cop taking the woman’s statement escorted her away.

“There’s a stiff in one of the subway cars, Rollins. Guess who?” the newly arrived policeman said.

Despite the cold weather, sweat beads formed on Rollins’ forehead. He tried ignoring the approaching cop. Rollins flipped a thumb in my direction. “This guy’s a nuisance. I’m running him in.”

The other officer waved me off. “Forget him. It’s Smelling Salts Stan Stanley. Looks like he was in the middle of one of his scams and must of had a heart attack or something. One of the M.E.’s happened to be nearby, and he said Stanley is stiff as a board."

“Any sign of his partner?” I asked.

“This is police business,” Rollins scowled.

“So’s this!” I placed my boot behind Rollins and shoved him. He dropped like Santa Claus down a greased chimney.

The other officer handcuffed me. Before taking me downtown, I pleaded with him to let me prove that Rollins had been working with Smelling Salts Stan Stanley, aka eyeglasses man. I told him about the photo. He agreed to accompany me back to Carl’s Cameras.

“Remember me?” I asked the camera shop owner.

“What he do, officer?” Carl asked the cop.

“Says you got a picture he wants me to see.”

“I’ve got money now…the dollar…and more…for that picture you developed earlier. Where is it?”

Carl disappeared into the back room. He emerged, holding half a photo. "This is what's left of it."

Shocked, I had forgotten that I’d torn the picture in half. “Where’s the rest of it?”

Carl shrugged. “Don’t know, don’t care. I took out the garbage a while back. Might be in that stack.”

“Can we look? It’s really important.”

Carl smiled. "Must be. Earlier today, it wasn't worth a dollar to you. Guess what? Now, it's going cost you ten dollars for this," he said, holding up half the photo. It showed the juggler and Smelling Salts Stanley.

I wanted to simultaneously curse and slug him, but I held my tongue. The handcuffs did the rest. “Okay, ten dollars. I have it. We need to find the rest of the picture.”

“Can’t. Garbage men collected it already,” Carl said with some degree of glee.

The cop looked at the photo half. "That's Stanley, alright. Don't know the juggler next to him.”

“He’s not part of this,” I said.

“Looks like your proof went poof,” Carl said. I detected joy in his voice.

The cop walked me out of the store. “We’ve got to find that garbage truck,” I pleaded, “Before the other half of that picture is destroyed.”

“You’re sure you saw Officer Rollins in that subway car wearing street clothes?”

I looked at the copper. Was this for real? What was his angle? "Sure, I'm sure. I also seen him make like Houdini and change from uniform to fancy duds and back. Why?"

“Hold out your hands.” To my surprise, the cop unlocked the cuffs. “My name’s Battaglia. I’m with internal affairs.” He must have seen the blank look on my face. “We’ve been wondering why we haven’t been able to make an arrest in this subway pickpocket racket. We suspected that maybe one of our own was involved. Unfortunately, that appears to be the case. But your word isn’t good enough,” the cop said. “We’ll need the other half of that picture.” He thought for a moment. “We’ve got to track down that garbage truck. Tell you what, you check the streets south and east of the camera shop, I’ll check north and west. We meet back here at this spot in say…” he checked his wristwatch, “…45-minutes.”

I hesitated. “Do you guys have lockers or storage at the Broadway subway station?”

“Yeah. Why?” Battaglia asked, his voice heavy with suspicion.

“Because I think that’s where our friend Rollins stashed my briefcase. I really need to get it back. Can we meet at the Broadway station?”

"Sure. We'll check on it following our garbage truck search. I'm warning you, though, don't think of double-crossing me."

It cost me two bits to look through the back of the first garbage truck I came across. After cutting my finger on an empty sardine can, I thanked the driver and asked him where the nearest truck to his might be. For another two bits, he directed me to 28th Street. “Probably see Hal and Ernie there ‘bout now. Good luck,” the garbage man said. He flipped one of the quarters I’d given him. “And thanks,” he said, smiling.

Turns out Hal and Ernie were better businessmen than the first sanitation guy I came across. They pinched me for a buck, each for the privilege of immersing myself in their messy haul. I emerged from the back of their truck grease-stained and stinking like last week's fish. I had coffee grinds in my pockets and potato skin pieces in my ears. What I didn't have was my dignity or the other half of the photo.

Forty-five minutes were up, so I bee-lined back to the Broadway subway station. There was Battaglia, a smile on his face and half a photo in his hand. He took one look at me and held his nose. He said, “You stink!”

"Yeah, well, you would too if you had just spent the last forty-five minutes…say wait…where did you find that?" Battaglia was clean, his uniform still pressed.

His grin widened. "This?" He examined the photo, pulled the other half from his pocket. "Perfect fit." He inspected it more closely. "And what do you know? It’s Patrolman Rollins. You were right, bub.”

But, where did you--”

“A cop is entitled to his secrets, ya know?”

I took a couple of deep breaths, shook my head. “If it’s okay with you, can we go to that storage location and find my briefcase now? Or, do you already have that, too?”

He retrieved the briefcase. We opened it. With Battaglia looking over my shoulder, I went through the pipe stock. Everything was there.

“Nothing’s missing,” I said, relieved. “All’s well that ends well.”

“Not so fast,” Battaglia said. “I’ll see to it Officer Rollins gets his comeuppance, but his partner in crime, Smelling Salts Stanley is dead. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you?”

"I know one thing," I said. His eyebrows rose. "I know pipe salesmen from Albany are entitled to their secrets, too."


About the Author

Bruce Harris writes crime and mystery stories.