Read an Excerpt
By Howard Fast
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1965 Doubleday & Company, Inc.
All rights reserved.
On January 14, 1964, a Tuesday, the newest, brightest branch of the City Federal Bank of New York was robbed. The robbery occurred at exactly 2:33 P.M., and the thief got away with $52,611 in United States currency.
This branch, at Madison Avenue and Seventy-fifth Street, was the thirteenth which the rapidly expanding City Federal Bank had opened in New York, and it had been functioning for only eighteen business days before the robbery took place. The bank had been planned from the beginning as part of the twenty-two-story, luxury apartment house that loomed over it. Its vaults were forty feet below street level, sunk in a mighty pocket of bedrock, and supposedly proof against anything less than a direct bull's-eye hit by an atomic bomb. No battery of men armed with acetylene torches could ever penetrate that vault, much less a burglar.
The street level of the bank was differently but no less effectively protected. Not only were there four burly, armed guards, but alarm buttons were everywhere. Let a teller so much as breathe uneasily and an alarm went off, simultaneously in the bank, the local police station, the local private protection agency, and in the manager's office. At the same time, 16 mm. cameras were activated which photographed every inch of the interior and exterior of the bank. Let a thief by some miracle manage an escape; still his image, from a dozen different angles, would be impressed on film to dog him to his fate.
In spite of all this, the bank was robbed. The thief entered the bank at exactly 2:28 P.M. She was a small, slow-moving old lady, seemingly somewhat more than seventy years old. Those who remembered her—and no one remarks too closely upon an old lady—seemed to feel that her face was gentle and sweet, and the glimpses of her recorded on the 16 mm. film displayed an acceptable twin sister of Whistler's mother. Her hair was pale gray to white, and she carried a large, old-fashioned purse, a cross between a shopping bag and a briefcase. Her walk was arthritic, wonderfully convincing, and her face proclaimed the fact that she bore the pain and indignity of old age with sweetness and fortitude. Such old people are admirable; and this admirable quality of courage was evident in the old lady thief. Her face was lined and wrinkled, seamed all over like a gallant relief map. Three witnesses swore that no makeup could supply that living, mobile network of wrinkles—only old age, and the vicissitudes to which most of us are subject. But deep among those wrinkles, her eyes shone pale and clear—shining blue eyes, open, honest, innocent; windows of a clean and forthright soul, if indeed the eyes are the windows of the soul.
This fine and brave old lady, who might have been your mother or mine, was evidently dissatisfied with Social Security or the carefully hoarded savings of a lifetime, for she proceeded directly and firmly to a paying teller's window—Miss Freda Sereno was the teller's name—opened her very large bag, and took from it an ugly and very efficient Luger automatic pistol. Laying this well-made Teutonic instrument of destruction on the counter, shielding it with her hand, her body, and a black-lace handkerchief, she spoke to the teller in a firm if aged voice:
"Young lady, this is a Luger pistol, loaded and deadly. You will do as I say, or I will kill you."
Unable to articulate, Miss Sereno nodded. Like most bank tellers, she had frequently speculated as to what her reaction would be in a situation of this kind; and while now and then she had dallied with the notion of heroic deeds, she had always come to the more sober conclusion that she who does a thief obey, gets to live another day. Under the counter, just inches from her foot, was a button that would send a clangor of alarm through the bank, and electronically to the police and the protection agency; but for the moment her foot was frozen and incapable of moving the necessary inches.
"Now, Miss Sereno," the old lady went on, reading the teller's name from the little plaque that proudly displayed it, "you will pass across to me that package of five-hundred-dollar bills there in your drawer, also that package of one-hundred-dollar bills, and those bills you were counting as well."
Miss Sereno did as directed, and the old lady scooped the money into her huge purse. Then she noticed a thin package of one-thousand-dollar bills in one corner of the drawer (a special order that the manager had asked Miss Sereno to hold for a few hours) and her blue eyes lit with delight.
"Those, too," she said. "I never saw a thousand-dollar bill. You do have an interesting position, Miss Sereno."
Miss Sereno surrendered the thousand-dollar bills, and the old lady thanked her politely. Then she returned the big Luger pistol to her purse, and walked directly to the ladies' room, which was about forty feet away from the teller's window. She entered the ladies' room, and as the door closed behind her, Miss Sereno, forgetful of the alarm button, began to scream. She screamed several times—until all four armed guards converged upon her window, followed closely by the manager, and two vice-managers. It took them at least forty seconds to subdue her hysteria, and another forty seconds to obtain from her the gist of what had transpired.
Immediately, the guards went into action, drawing their revolvers and advancing upon the ladies' room. The customers of the bank, torn between fear and excitement, retreated to the other side of the lobby, leaving the space between the guards and the ladies' room ominously empty—not unlike that empty, sun-drenched street that stretches between the two gunmen in every western film, empty and lonely, and containing what some like to call "the moment of truth."
But this moment of truth lay within the shelter of that firm barrier to any American male's advance, the door of a ladies' toilet; and in tribute to this, the armed guards hesitated another twenty or thirty seconds. They knew that there was no other way out of the toilet than the door they faced; and one of them, Steve O'Conner by name, sought to maintain the proprieties by roaring:
"Come out, old lady—and with your hands up!"
Whereupon the door to the ladies' room opened, and a hysterical young woman emerged. This young woman was—according to the concensus of the many witnesses—about thirty, perhaps a few years younger. She was about five feet, four inches; jet-black hair cut short; small, tight figure; regular features. Good-looking. She wore a yellow suit, brown shoes, and carried a small, brown alligator purse. A woman of wealth and at ease with wealth—that too was the general opinion.
She came out of the door backward and cried out, "In there! That hideous old woman!"
"Did she have a gun?" one of the guards demanded.
The young woman nodded.
"She's in there?"
Throwing delicacy to the winds, the armed guards burst into the ladies' room. Meanwhile, Mr. Richard Shepson, the bank manager, always keenly aware of lawsuits, gave his arm to the young woman with the black hair, offered her the comforts of his private office, and directed one of the young lady comptometrists employed by the bank to lead her there. Simultaneously, the guards had occupied the ladies' room, which appeared to be empty. However, they were no longer deterred by modesty and they tried the toilet stalls. There were four of these. Three were open and unoccupied. The fourth was locked. They leveled their weapons at this locked stall and told the apparent occupant that she was covered and might as well come out. No reply. One of the guards then raised up on his toes and peered over the edge of the stall—and informed the others that the stall was empty of human presence, although locked on the inside.
A guard climbed in and opened the door. Four guards made a tight fit in the toilet stall, but they were all intrigued by the contents: a large purse, an old black coat, and a gray-white wig. In the purse, they found a rubber face mask and a Luger pistol that was put together out of one of those toy plastic kits that every toy and stationery store handles by the thousands.
While the guards were no brighter than bank guards usually are, it took no more than seconds to make the connection between this lifeless material and the young woman with the black hair. The guards rushed back into the bank, but the young lady was gone. She had informed the bank clerk that she was quite all right and had walked out of the front door and had disappeared.
It was four o'clock on that same day, and outside it had begun to snow lightly. In the shining, gleaming, unbreakable interior of the bank, three plainclothes detectives clung to their tempers and tried to display patient courtesy. It was the new image of the New York City cop; and the Nineteenth Squad, being in the very heart of what is known as the golden rectangle of New York City, was obviously in the vanguard of the "new image" movement. This was not so difficult for Sergeant Adrian Kelly, who was young, good-looking, possessed of excellent digestion, and reasonably flexible. It was far more difficult for Lieutenant Leonard Rothschild, whose age was forty-six, whose digestion was wretched, and whose flexibility had practically ceased. It was nigh onto impossible for Captain Harold Bixbee, who commanded the Fourth Detective District, who was past fifty, and who had developed into cynical manhood at a time when the word "image" meant something carved out of wood or stone, and not something carved out of Madison Avenue.
For example, Lieutenant Rothschild kept repeating that he did not believe it; and each time he stated his disbelief, the four burly bank guards who stood in front of him hung their heads a little more heavily.
"It is the fourteenth of January," Lieutenant Rothschild said. "Outside it is snowing. It is cold and miserable, and in January New Yprk can give the world lessons in the art of being cold and miserable. And yet a lady walks out of that ladies' John in a bright-yellow suit, and it doesn't mean one damn thing to you. Right?"
"It ain't that, it just don't make the full connection, Lieutenant," said one of the guards whose name was Krautman.
"I mean we are looking for an old lady. I mean, we see this old lady. I see her myself, Lieutenant. She comes over to me and says to me, 'Young man, I need money. So what window do I go to?' She's so nice and sweet—I mean, I got a mother. I feel about those things. So I don't send her to Mr. Kenelly, who is maybe a little impatient with old ladies. I send her over to Miss Sereno."
"Because Miss Sereno likes old ladies?"
"I don't believe it," said Lieutenant Rothschild.
"I believe it," said Captain Bixbee. "I have just never seen its equal. Not in a whole lifetime have I seen its equal." And to a guard, "You—what's your name?"
"I'm a captain, O'Conner," Bixbee told him. "It was not handed to me, either. I worked hard to be a captain, and now I am captain of the Fourth Detective Division. Do you think you can remember that?"
"Yes, Captain," O'Conner said firmly.
"I'm glad. What else can you remember?"
"They all remember," Rothschild said sourly. "Only when a dame in a yellow suit and no coat walks out of a can in midwinter, they figure it is par for the course. What about you, O'Conner? Did it strike you as peculiar?"
"No—of course not. You are a guard in a bank. Did you see any dame in a yellow suit go into the john?"
"Honesty, integrity," Bixbee sighed. "Get them the hell out of here before I kill one of them."
Miss Sereno, the teller, was emotional, and she began to cry.
"Naturally she is going to react," said Mr. Shepson, the manager. "She has just been through a major emotional experience."
"She supplied all the emotion," Rothschild commented, his face sadly expressionless. "What about it, Miss Sereno? We are your friends. Can you pull yourself together?"
"Suppose someone pointed a gun at you and threatened to kill you?"
"It wasn't a gun. It was a kid's toy."
"But just tell me, did I know it was a toy? Just suppose you tell me that? Cops always know all the answers. Well, I am not a cop. I am just a teller in a bank."
"Please, Miss Sereno," Captain Bixbee said softly, "we understand the natural fear you must have felt. No one enjoys having a gun pointed at him; and in such a moment, no one is going to be coolheaded enough to decide whether a gun is real or not real. I am more interested to know why you never stepped on the alarm button?"
"Because I never thought of it. I was too scared to think about anything."
"And you had no doubts about this old lady being an old lady?"
"No. She walked like an old lady and she talked like an old lady."
"Did you see the yellow suit come out of the johnny?" Rothschild demanded indelicately.
"And it never occurred to you that such an outfit was an odd outfit for midwinter?"
"No, of course not."
"It never occurred to you that the lady in the yellow suit and the old lady who robbed you were one and the same person?"
"You mean it never occurred to you. We know now that they were one and the same person."
"I don't," Miss Sereno said firmly. She had dried her tears, and now she was tired of being pushed around. She had her own mind, and it was made up. "The old lady was an old lady."
"Oh, now, do be reasonable, Miss Sereno," said Mr. Shepson, the manager. "We found the wig, the latex mask, and the toy gun—so we do know that she was not an old woman."
"I only know what I saw," Miss Sereno replied.
"That's understandable," Lieutenant Rothschild said. "I am more interested in the thousand-dollar bills."
"The thousand-dollar bills," Mr. Shepson said, his face tightening with pain. "Would you believe it, Lieutenant, I spent sixteen years in the Fortieth Street branch of our bank, and in those sixteen years I never saw a thousand-dollar bill? I mean, banks just don't have them. They are curiosities, not useful coin of the realm."
"Yet you had a package of thirty of them sitting there in Miss Sereno's drawer—and another package of thirty five-hundred-dollar bills. Are five-hundred-dollar bills considered useful coin of the realm, as you put it, Mr. Shepson?"
"No, not really," Mr. Shepson replied. He was a portly, nervous man, nervous by disposition and doubly nervous now, sweating, wiping his brow, and glancing at the door constantly—a door through which, momentarily, a number of high personages of the enormous bank which employed him would enter; and these high personages would hardly exempt Mr. Shepson from blame in this very successful robbery.
"What do you mean—not really?"
"One doesn't see five-hundred-dollar bills very often these days. This is not an age of cash, Lieutenant. I understand that, in the nineteen twenties, it was a common thing for a bank to handle hundreds of five-hundred-dollar bills in a business day. But today we operate differently—certified checks, cashier's checks—we are just not cash-minded."
"Then suppose you tell me why those bills were there?"
"I'll be happy to, Lieutenant—and then I wonder whether you will tell me why any thief in his right mind would steal them. They can't be changed or spent. We have the numbers listed, and every bank in the country will be alert for such bills. Personally, I would not give you five dollars for the lot of them. They are not money in any natural sense; they are curiosities—expensive toys."
"Then would you mind telling me why you had them?"
"Certainly," Mr. Shepson answered, sure of his ground now. "My having them was, in a sense, a mark of the bank's esteem. We have thirty branches, including this one, and next week we were to have an exhibition in each one of the thirty branches—bills from one dollar to one thousand dollars. I was given the task of collecting the larger denominations. These came in today. I asked Miss Sereno to hold them in her drawer until closing, when we would open the main vault and store the cash there."
"How come the old lady knew about them?"
"She didn't," Miss Sereno said boldly, causing Mr. Shepson to flash her a look which combined new respect with a certain amount of gratitude. But when Lieutenant Rothschild asked her exactly what she meant, and how she knew that the old lady had not expected the bills to be there, Miss Sereno's courage disappeared and she shook her head hopelessly.
Excerpted from Penelope by Howard Fast. Copyright © 1965 Doubleday & Company, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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