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    Original Essays | July 31, 2015

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4 Remote Warehouse Mystery- A to Z

This title in other editions

North of Montana (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)


North of Montana (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard) Cover






Opening day at Dodger Stadium and all I had to do was stop at California First Bank on Pico to pick up some surveillance film, then off to the cool breezes of Chavez Ravine, a pitching battle between Martinez and Drabek, a Dodger Dog, and definitely one of those malted ice milks in the giant cup that make you feel all bloated and content like a fat stupid balloon.

I am having the obligatory chat with the manager of the bank that was robbed the day before. We have already been there of course and done our initial investigation, but the manager is still in shock and needs to talk. He is about fifty, a marathon runner with pale hair, stoop-shouldered, wearing a blue madras jacket with nice deep purples in it and gray slacks. He keeps a laminated plaque of The Objectives of Kiwanis International on the wall above his desk.

In fact he runs a spotless organization. It is a brand-new branch with shiny oak floors and large watercolors of fields of flowers in brass frames. The girl tellers wear pretty dresses and costume pearls, the boys have slick haircuts and wide-shouldered suits, although I can't figure out how they can afford to look that way on their dog-meat salaries. Along with brochures for savings plans and loans there is even a pot of coffee and a plate of mini chocolate chip cookies on a table near the back door where the robber exited with $734 in cash.

The manager is touching my arm with bony, trembling fingertips. It is the sixth robbery of his banking career and after each one he gets an incapacitating migraine headache. It's seeing that gun, he tells me, starting to flush pink, so I give what support I can muster (while arguing with myself whether Juan Samuel or Brett Butler should be the lead-off batter), reminding him that we are living in the bank robbery capital of the United States, that at the Los Angeles field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation we work maybe ten robberies a day, so especially if your branch happens to be situated near two freeway off-ramps the odds are good that it will happen to you--but the odds are also that nobody will get hurt, that's why the bad guys take up this line of work, it is so astonishingly low risk.

I am wasting time and not making a dent in his anxiety; his spick-and-span little Swiss clock of a world has been skewed so dreadfully out of shape by the violent invasion of the barrel of a gun that it can no longer be trusted to tick along reliably. The FBI comes along after the fact, and now here is this five-foot, four-inch female agent, who on opening day is not even wearing the authoritative gray suit that falls to the knee but a T-shirt and jeans, and, I am sorry to say, a pair of pink high-top Keds. She is a long way from being a solid brother of the Kiwanis Club, and her petite frame and impatient attitude present not the slightest assurance that the whole damn thing won't happen to him all over again.

I have to get up on a ladder to remove the surveillance film. Half the time there isn't any film because the bozos have forgotten to reload the camera, but today is my lucky day. Also I am usually being harassed by my partner, Mike Donnato, who loves to make me go up on the ladder so he can allegedly look at my rear end, but it is just a joke because he is married and we have been together three years and once when I changed my hair from black to red it took him a week to notice. Today Donnato is on vacation and I am alone.

I have noticed that nothing good happens to you when you are alone.

I get the film, put a new roll in the camera, leave the manager at his desk unhappily pouring herbal tea from a thermos into a mug that says Captain, and go out and sit in my car, which I have parked in the shade. I am listening to the AM radio for a report on the traffic going to Dodger Stadium when I see a man get out of a car, put on sunglasses, and tug a baseball cap way down over his eyes, acting real hinky. He buttons a short-sleeved shirt over the one he's already wearing. And there is a bulge under the shirt.

I am trying to rationalize that he is probably an undercover cop assigned to the bank after the robbery when he looks dead at me. I stay neutral, not smiling. We hold eye contact until finally he looks down, shakes his head once, and gets back in his car.

All I know at this point is that the man is about six feet tall and white. I don't know if he got back into the car because he took me for some kind of a cop or if he just forgot his passbook--if that's a Walkman under his shirt or a Browning pistol. I decide to get his license number.

So I roll the Ford behind his car just as he's backing out and we almost crash. I get the number, put on my turn signal, and move slowly out of the parking lot like I'm going to go left and be gone, watching all the while in the rearview mirror without moving my head, just the eyes.

As soon as he sees me turn, he zips back into the parking space, cuts the engine, gets out of the car, and heads for the bank on the run.

This is when I get seriously annoyed with Donnato for being in Catalina with his wife while I am confronting a robbery suspect alone. In seven years as a street agent I have had to draw my weapon maybe a dozen times, always with a partner or heavy-duty backup. We are not local cops. We cannot arrest someone on suspicion. We have to present evidence to the Assistant U. S. Attorney before we then make the bust unless it is a felony in progress. Our operations are carefully controlled. I have never been in a free-floating situation like this in my life. As if words of wisdom from Mom and Dad, two principles from training school flash repeatedly in my mind: Keep a clear head . . . and go by the rules.

If I call in a "211 in progress request assistance," LAPD will pick it up and send in six screaming cruisers while the radio room at the Bureau contacts the bank to verify that a robbery is happening. If I am right and it is a robbery, springing all that firepower on the man inside could precipitate a bloody disaster. If I'm wrong and he's just another slob in a baseball cap, the rest of my squad will be royally pissed for having been called back from a relaxing afternoon at Dodger Stadium.

I wheel back into the lot, park the G-ride behind a dumpster, and try for that clear head: my job at this moment is to make sure nothing goes wrong inside the bank. I am going to let him rob it and let him come out. That way everyone will be happy, except the bank manager, who is probably dead of a heart attack by now despite his undoubtedly low cholesterol. The bank will be insured, the customers safe, and when I do call it in, I'll know I have probable cause.

I am listening to the police scanner in my car, waiting to hear the LAPD dispatcher say, "211 silent, California First, 11712 Pico," which would mean one of those well-groomed, well-trained young tellers had tripped the silent alarm, but all I am hearing is the sharp squawk of routine police business over the roar of two nearby freeways and meanwhile my anxiety level is going sky-high. What do I do when the dirtbag comes out? He's probably on dope and can run faster than I can--then a new flush of dread as it dawns on me that my bulletproof vest and shotgun are in the trunk.

Incidentally, real time elapsed since the guy went into the bank is probably less than ninety seconds, but by now I am frankly scared, convinced that something went horribly wrong inside, that the nice new oak flooring is splattered with civilian blood--and just as I am finally reaching for the radio here he comes, running with a fistful of cash, looking around, throwing away his baseball hat and tearing off the second shirt.

I still haven't actually seen a gun, nor have I been alerted to any crime, but a reasonable and prudent person does not race out of a bank discarding clothing, which seems to me at that moment of hyperreality to be a legal principle of exceptional solidity and more than enough justification to roll my car in front of his, block his exit as soon as he has closed his door, draw down on him, and ascertain if he would like to meet God.

I am carrying a .357 Magnum which I point against the driver's window inches from the guy's ear.

"Freeze--or I'll blow your head off like a ripe watermelon."

He stops trying to jam the keys into the ignition and stares up at me with runny eyes.

"I'm really nervous right now, so don't make me use this because I probably won't kill you, I'll just maim you for life."

The old cliches really work when you want someone to get a very clear, very quick picture of the consequences of his actions.

He seems hypnotized by the barrel of the gun, which must look like a cannon from his point of view, with a blurry, indistinct but clearly assertive person at arm's length behind it.

"I want both hands on the windshield, real, real, slow."

He puts the palms out and they cleave against the glass with a moist suction. Graying hair flies around his head in sweaty wisps. A soft belly presses up against the wheel. Somewhere it registers that the subject seems down. Irritated. Sad.

"Don't move or I'll blow your face right off." He doesn't move. "Now open the door and back out."

As soon as the door is opened I jam the gun into the base of the skull and remove the bulge from his belt. It is a starter pistol.

"On the ground. Hands behind your back."

Now he's proned out on the concrete and I get the handcuffs on him.

"Back into the car. On the front seat. Face down."

He's in. He's down. And the adrenaline rush sweeps through. Suddenly I'm becoming sensory perceptive, feeling things I wasn't feeling before, like the intense heat of the noon sun, the fact that I can't catch my breath, sweat coursing under my arms and between my breasts.

And I still haven't called the damn thing in.

Someone's loping through the parking lot, past people who have frozen in place like odd statues all facing the same way.

"I can't believe you're still here." It's the bank manager, also breathing hard. "We've just been robbed again . . . and"--then, incredulously--"you got him!"

"That's why they pay me the big bucks."

I pick up the radio. At this moment I want to be very cool: "This is sigual 345. A good 211 just occurred at California First Bank, 11712 Pico, I am 10-15 with one male subject. Would appreciate assistance to handle additional inside investigation."

There is silence on the other end. "Say again?"

Well, that's about as cool as I get. "I got the sucker coming out of the bank!"

Another pause. Then: "You gotta be shitting me."

I hear the information echoed on the police scanner as the emboldened bank manager, my deputy and new best friend, rescued from despair after seven robberies and bursting now with hope for civilization, scurries around the parking lot telling people to "stand away from the crime scene and suddenly here comes the chopper and all faces turn toward the sky.

An LAPD officer hovering above us bellows through a bullhorn, "Are you okay?"

I give him the international okay sign--a tap to the top of the head--and he banks away as the crazy Latvian cop who has this beat skids through the parking lot with sirens screaming, along with about a dozen other boys from the Wilshire Division who want to see how their brakes and tires really work. It was beautiful.

The next morning is party time. My squad has a tradition of coffee and donuts at eight am. and they are ready for me when I drag myself in after staying at the office until almost midnight the night before pushing the paperwork through.

I get a round of applause and one of those three-foot-long green foam-rubber hands with the fingers forming "number one" and another thoughtful souvenir from the ballpark: a cardboard tray with a Dodger Dog still wrapped in the authentic aluminum foil bag, a double sack of peanuts, and my favorite malted ice milk melted to a fine lukewarm puree.

"We thought about you all nine innings," says Kyle Vernon. "Of course, damned if we were gonna leave!"

The others laugh. They didn't have to leave because I had it all tied down.

"Our supervisor's out jerking them off in Washington, why should we miss Sciosca's dramatic run in the bottom of the ninth?" says Frank Chang with a sly smile.

"His what? Oh shit!"

Meanwhile Mike Donnato has been lying back in a chair, with tasseled loafers crossed up on his desk, and stroking his blond beard, which is on the way to gray. It is natural to be gathered around him; ten years older than me, he is the senior squad member and spiritual leader.

"So, Donnato," I smirk, "how was Catalina Island? Nice and peaceful? Go scuba diving?"

He wrinkles his nose. "You got lucky."

"You're jealous!"

"You wait your whole career for a break like that. There is no justice."

"But you and Pumpkin got to see some really neat fish."

"If you don't buzz off I'll make you drive," Donnato threatens lazily.

"Hey, I'm out of here."

"You think this bust is your ticket to the C-1 squad?"

"I'm writing my request for transfer today."

"Get in line, baby. Duane Carter's really pushing for that transfer to headquarters," says Kyle.

Duane Carter is the squad supervisor and not much liked.

"Carter's pissed too many people off," says Barbara Sullivan, our robbery coordinator, aka The Human Computer. "They'll never assign him to headquarters, they'll leave him here to rot."

"You wish."

"No, I don't wish," says Barbara, whipping the pearl she always wears back and forth on its gold chain. "If he's going to rot, let him rot in hell."

Product Details

Smith, April
Vintage Books USA
Mystery & Detective - Women Sleuths
Los angeles (calif.)
Mystery fiction
Mystery-A to Z
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
8 x 5.2 x 0.63 in 0.59 lb

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