The dam of emotions collapsed, and the horrific images from the deepest recesses flooded my mind. Blood-curdling screams roared in my head, extinguished by the rattle of automatic gunfire. I am lost, trying to figure out what happened. Who am I? What am I doing here? Why is my face on fire? And then a foggy puzzle of memories slowly started piecing itself together. Casino. Tunnel. The heist. The bag full of cash. And right now I am the hunted animal.
My heart thundered as the numerous chopper blades whirled ominously above. The fluorescent light flickered and the reek of an unpleasant sanitizer filled my nostrils. The fire ate away the flesh on my face, and as I gazed in the mirror of the deserted restroom, the creature in the reflection wasn’t me. Through my blurred vision, I stared at the identical image of the monster I saw years ago in the reflection of the Vrbas River.
I knew I didn’t have much time, and I had to act fast. My survival instincts kicked in, and I had to escape from here by any means necessary. Any moment, bloodhounds could be storming in to kill their prey. I quickly washed my pepper spray- sprinkled face while my mind tried to calculate all the money in the big duffel bag. The money belonging to people who took from me.
I dried my battered face with paper towels. A deep breath saturated my brain with oxygen, and my mind cleared. There were no windows here, so I stepped toward the only exit–the door. Please let it be over. Get it done. No! It’s not over! Never give up!
Ready to face my destiny, I grabbed the door handle, when a tremendous crash on the other side made my heart stutter. Thousands of thoughts flooded my mind, all of them bad. I was inside long enough to give my hunters sufficient time to organize and prepare an attack. Are they breaching the doors to see if I’m in one of those rooms? Would they shoot me on the spot? Can I outrun them? I opened the door and waited a second, half-expecting a shoot-out. As I stepped onto the carpeted hallway, I realized the source of the loud crash.
The squeaky, plastic wheels of the housekeeping cart wiggled over the worn-out carpet as the cleaning lady struggled to control it down the deserted hallway. She stopped in front of one of the rooms, took her master key out, and disappeared inside. Passing by, I threw an inconspicuous glance inside as she performed her regular housekeeping chores. Business seemed to be as usual. The place looked like some kind of hotel, but each door I passed had a name plate under the numbers. A couple of old residents crawled by me.
The stale air was mixed with the smell of the synthetic air refresher, and the whole place seemed deadly quiet. Two more centurions chatted in front of the room. As I inhaled the surroundings around me, the lyrics of the song, Hotel California came to my mind–“you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
Another housekeeping lady closed the door and went on with her business.
“Can you tell me where I could find the house phone,” I asked in my most polite tone.
She directed me toward the lobby which was in the same direction I was already headed.
The lobby was decorated with either thrift-store or antique furniture–I couldn’t really tell-and it was filled with the old residents who excitingly gazed out the window.
“There is more of them!” an old, hunched-back lady exclaimed.
“What do you think, who’re they looking for?” a tall, pencil- thin, spectacle-wearing resident asked.
I saw the phone in the corner and confidently strolled toward it. Nobody seemed to pay attention to me. I sat in the worn-out chair and dialed the number. As I talked on the phone, I scanned the room, memorizing the layout. A moment later, I stood and glided toward the elevator. More residents crowded the lobby, and I knew I couldn’t stay here much longer without somebody noticing me. I realized this was some kind of a retirement home, and the youngest person seemed to be seventy years old.
Stepping into the elevator, I joined another red-faced resident. I exited on the desolate third floor and headed toward the window. There was a large gathering of spectators to the right of the building. Further down, a few Scottsdale police cars blocked the street. To the left, two uniformed cops guarded the perimeter. A few more of them walked down the parking lot. The self-preservation kicked in–the same feeling I had a long time ago during the war. I realize I was in the middle of the police ant-hill. The only way out is to pass right in front of them. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
I turned around and headed back toward the elevator when a balding man in his early forties approached me. The name tag on his shirt indicated he was a manager, and right away I saw a suspicion in his eyes.
In times like this, there is no time for panic. I learned that a long time ago. You have to be calm, cool, and collected. You think; you plan; you observe.
“Do you know what’s happening outside?” I asked courteously before he could say anything. “I’m about to take my grandma out, but now with all those people outside, I don’t know…“
I could see his defenses breaking down.
“The police are looking for some people who just robbed the Casino Arizona.” He gave me a few more details of information when apprehension painted his face. “Who are you here to see, anyway?”
“I’m visiting my grandma, Ms. Shafner,” I lied confidently, remembering the name on one of the doors. “In fact, I should be meeting her in the lobby right now.”
“Oh, okay. We can never be too careful.”
Turning around, I disappeared into the elevator. I was a clean-cut white boy, and I would never fit a description for any kind of criminal. But looks can sometimes be deceiving.
I stepped back into the lobby, and it was boiling with activity: people on crutches, in wheelchairs, crawling and walking, raced with purpose toward the windows in hope to see the action. But they didn’t know that the action was only a few yards away from them. The outside noise grew louder as more choppers joined in. Everything seemed unreal, like one of my bad dreams, but the burning of the pepper-spray made it more than real. Just relax. You were in far worse situations than this.
One of the residents threw a white shirt on a worn-out couch, and then crept toward the window. I calmly strode forward, snatched up the shirt, and within seconds, I was outside.
The shirt was a bit long and reeked of a cheap cologne. I rolled up the sleeves while absorbing my surroundings. The epicenter of activity was a few hundred feet to the right. A large group of people assembled in the parking lot and watched the show as a swarm of SWAT officers geared up for action. A hundred feet to my left was a Scottsdale police officer guarding the perimeter. His eyes trailed a guy who strolled toward the gathering of spectators.
Out of his sight, I observed the cop for a few moments. His eyes were now focused like a hawk on its prey—the guy in blue shorts who strode down the long walkway toward the brown-brick building. His back was turned to the cop, and he couldn’t see he was being observed. The guy saw three more Scottsdale police officers scanning across the parking lot, and he instantly turned around and retraced his steps. He obviously had a dislike for cops, I thought. The hawk-eyed cop behind him immediately got on his shoulder radio, and the cops in the parking lot switched into alert mode.
At that precise moment, I stepped on the empty street and casually strolled toward the large group of spectators. The late morning sun spilled fire on my face, as a flock of metal birds rumbled in the clear sky. Fifty yards from the target:
I began to feel my beating heart. Thirty yards away: I could hear the chatter of the people in front of me.
This is going to be the longest walk in my life. The adrenaline poisoned my blood, and as I inched closer, a team of fullygeared SWAT officers sneaked toward a single-story building. A FOX 10 news van screeched in and joined cars from other TV stations, and began hoisting its satellite dish so they could broadcast live, in their Phoenix studio. Fifteen yards: the beeping and crackling voices of police radios chirped all around me. Spectators were gathered in the parking lot of some kind of medical-office building with news reporters in the front rows.
Scanning the ocean of wide-eyed faces, I kept a mental check on every stray glance and lingering gaze. I approached the crowd, and the short, mocha-colored Telemundo TV reporter jumped on me and stuck the microphone under my mouth. My heart did a somersault in my chest before I realized what had happened.
“I have no idea what’s happening there,” I fired off. “That’s why I came here.”
The reporter immediately lost interest and turned around. If you really knew who I was, you’d have an exclusive story right now. I pushed my way toward the center of the crowd and quickly befriended a few people.
“It seems like they got the guys that just robbed the Casino Arizona,” a young Hispanic in a baseball cap told me.
“I heard it turned into a hostage negotiations,” an attractive lady in her forties added.
In times of panic, I found that people open up and are capable of telling you their innermost secrets. They also like to exaggerate during the times like this. SWAT teams are ghost hunting. I hung around for a couple of minutes and watched the SWAT officers’ every move. Deadly, serious frowns covered their faces as they crept toward the single-story office building on the other side of the road. Seconds later, they joined another group that left minutes earlier, and they all disappeared from my view. I turned around and strolled toward the medical office building. Inside, I was greeted by the frosty air conditioning and sour looks from the employees.
“Can I get a cup of water?” I asked the cute, young receptionist across the counter.
She walked to the water cooler, and came back shortly after with a disposable cup filled with clear liquid.
“What’s happening outside?” I asked curiously.
She gave me a thirty-second version of Casino Arizona saga, slightly different than I had heard outside.
“We have a pizza guy waiting outside to deliver us our lunch, but the police won’t let him in,” she added bitterly. “And they won’t let us leave from here to eat out. We are basically locked in here.”
My bad, I thought. But you’ll survive. I thanked her and exited. I thought I was safe, but I had just found out otherwise. The whole block was sealed, and I needed to get as far away from this place as possible. I was surrounded by the army of heavily-armed law enforcement, SWAT team, and FBI. If I get questioned here, I could give no rational explanation as to why I was here. I had no ID, no car, no friends, or any business being here.
There was a wall behind the crowd, and that was my way out. It separated the parking lot and the apartment building behind it. All eyes were directed toward the epicenter of the action—the building across the street where all those SWAT team officers disappeared. I separated myself from the group while still facing the building. There was a muffled explosion —a flashbang or a shotgun blast—and everybody held their breath. The only noise was a distant traffic behind the apartment building. I took that chance and strode toward the back wall. In a flash, I scaled over it and found myself in the apartment parking lot.
The silence was broken with shouting and yelling on the other side of the wall, and I hoped it wasn’t because of me. I walked by the young couple who just exited their truck, but they didn’t pay any attention to me. There were more people in the parking lot, so I blended in easily. Shortly after cutting through the apartments, I faced a small street with minimal traffic. There was a sidewalk, but no pedestrians on it. To my right, there was another police cruiser holding the perimeter. I turned around hoping to find another way out of here, but after fifteen minutes, I was back at the same place. This time I saw a young Hispanic strolling worry-free straight toward the cop. A moment later, he was stopped and the interrogation began. As the cop was busy with his new friend, I stepped onto the empty sidewalk and walked away. A patrol car raced past me, and I froze. After a hundred feet, I made a first left, and then another right. A few moments later, I saw another pedestrian in front of me. The farther I went, the more people strolled around me. I felt safe. The air smelled like freedom.
Ten minutes later, I marched inside the Scottsdale Memorial Hospital, passing a uniformed cop who watched breaking news on TV: “BREAKING NEWS! CASINO ARIZONA HEIST! THE SEARCH FOR THE SUSPECTS STILL IN PROGRESS!”
I found a spot in the waiting room next to the phone and dialed my ride. After giving him my location, I hung up. I felt all eyes were on me, my stained sweat pants, my disheveled hair, mismatched shirt. A few minutes later, I passed by the same cop, and this time our eyes locked. My heart stuttered, but there was no emotion on my face.
The waves of heat lingered above the scorching asphalt as the sun rays continually pounded on it. Cars paraded in and out of the parking lot, and everybody minded their own business.
Forty-five minutes after the phone call, the white Mazda pulled over, and sixty minutes later, I was sitting in my living room. On TV, there was breaking news on almost every channel: “GUNMAN BARRICADED HIMSELF WITH THE HOSTAGES AFTER THE CASINO ARIZONA ROBBERY— NEGOTIATIONS IN PROCESS!” The screen flickered with a dozen of fully-geared SWAT officers as they prepared to hunt for me. They are looking for a ghost. At that moment I realized how dangerous I really am.