BRIANNE PARKER didn't look like a bank robber or a murderer her pleasantly plump baby face fooled everyone. But she knew that she was ready to kill if she had to this morning. She would find out for sure at ten minutes past eight.
The twenty-four-year-old woman wore khakis, a powder blue University of Maryland windbreaker, and scuffed white Nike sneakers. None of the early-morning commuters noticed her as she walked from her dented white Acura to a thick stand of evergreen trees, where she hid.
She was outside the Citibank in Silver Spring, Maryland, just before eight. The branch was scheduled to open in ninety seconds. She knew from her talks with the Mastermind that it was a freestanding bank with two drive-through lanes. It was surrounded by what he called big-box stores: Target, PETsMART, Home Depot, Circuit City.
At eight o'clock on the dot, Brianne approached the bank from her hiding place in the evergreens under a colorful billboard obnoxiously offering McDonald's breakfast to the public. From that angle she couldn't be seen by the female teller who was just opening the glass front door and had momentarily stepped outside.
A few strides from the teller, she slipped on a rubbery President Clinton mask, one of the most popular masks in America and probably the one hardest to trace. She knew the bank teller's name, and she spoke it clearly as she pulled out her gun and pressed it against the small of the woman's back.
"Inside, Ms. Jeanne Galetta. Then turn around and lock the front door again. We're going to see your boss, Mrs. Buccieri."
Her short speech at the entrance to the bank was scripted, word for word, even the pauses. The Mastermind said it was crucial that a bank robbery proceed in a specific order, almost by rote.
"I don't want to kill you, Jeanne. But I will if you don't do everything I say, when I say it. It's your turn to talk now, darling. Do you understand what I've just told you so far?"
Jeanne Galetta nodded her head of short brown hair so vigorously that her wire-rimmed glasses nearly fell off. "Yes, I do. Please don't hurt me," she gasped. She was in her late twenties, attractive in a suburban sort of way, but her blue polyester pantsuit and sensible stack-heeled shoes made her look older.
"The manager's office. Now, Ms. Jeanne. If I'm not out of here in eight minutes, you will die. I'm serious. If I'm not out of here in eight minutes, you and Mrs. Buccieri die. Don't think I won't do it because I'm a woman. I will shoot you both like dogs.
SHE LIKED THIS AURA OF POWER and she really liked the new respect she was suddenly getting at the bank. As she followed the trembling teller past the two Diebold ATMs and then through the meeter-greeter area of the lobby, Brianne thought about the precious seconds she had already taken. The Mastermind had been explicit about the tight schedule for the robbery. He had repeated over and over that everything depended on perfect execution.
Minutes matter, Brianne.
Seconds matter, Brianne.
It even matters that it's Citibank we've chosen to hit today, Brianne.
The robbery had to be exact, precise, perfect. She got it, she got it. The Mastermind had planned it on what he called "a numerical scale of 9.9999 out of 10."
With the heel of her left hand, Brianne shoved the teller into the manager's office. She heard the low hum of a computer coming from inside. Then she saw Betsy Buccieri sitting behind her big executive-style desk.
"You open up your safe every morning at five past eight, so open it for me," she screamed at the manager, who was wide-eyed with surprise and fear. "Open it. Now!"
"I can't open the vault," Mrs. Buccieri protested. "The vault is automatically opened by a computer signal from the main office in Manhattan. It never happens at the same time."
The bank robber pointed to her own left ear. She signaled with her finger for Mrs. Betsy Buccieri to listen. To listen to what, though? "Five, four, three, two -" Brianne said. Then she reached for the phone on the manager's desk. It rang. Perfect timing.
"It's for you," Brianne said, her voice slightly muffled by the rubbery President Clinton mask. "You listen carefully." She handed the phone to Mrs. Buccieri, but she knew the exact words the bank manager would hear, and who the speaker was.
The scariest voice of all for the bank manager to hear was not that of the Mastermind making very real but idle-sounding threats, but someone even better. Scarier.
"Betsy, it's Steve. There's a man here in our house. He has a gun pointed at me. He says that unless the woman in your office leaves the bank with the money by eight-ten exactly, Tommy, Anna, and I will be killed.
"It's eight-oh-four." The phone line suddenly went dead. Her husband's voice was gone.
"Steve? Steve!" Tears flowed into Betsy Buccieri's eyes and rolled down her cheeks. She stared at the masked woman and couldn't believe this was happening. "Don't hurt them. Please. I'll open the vault for you. I'll do it now. Don't hurt anyone."
Brianne repeated the message the bank manager had already heard. "Eight-ten exactly. Not one second later. And no stupid bank tricks. No silent alarms. No dye packs."
"Follow me. No alarms," Betsy Buccieri promised. She almost couldn't think. Steve, Tommy, Anna. The names rang loudly in her head.
They arrived at the door of the bank's Mosler vault. It was 8:05.
"Open the door, Betsy. We are on the clock. We're losing time. Your family is losing time. Steve, Anna, little Tommy, they could all die."
It took a little less than two minutes for Betsy Buccieri to get into the vault, which was a polished steel thing of beauty with pistons like a locomotive. Stacks of money were plainly visible on nearly all the shelves - more money than Brianne had ever seen in her life. She snapped open two canvas duffel bags and began filling them with the cash. Mrs. Buccieri and Jeanne Galetta watched her take the money in silence. She liked seeing the fear and respect for her on their faces.
As she'd been instructed to, Brianne counted off the minutes as she filled the duffel bags. "Eight-oh-seven . . . eight-oh-eight... " Finally, she was finished with her part in the vault.
"I'm locking you both inside the vault. Don't say one word or I'll shoot you, then lock your dead bodies up."
She hoisted the black duffel bags. "Don't hurt my husband or my baby," Betsy Buccieri begged. "We did what you -"
Brianne slammed the heavy metal door on Betsy Buccieri's desperate plea. She yanked her President Clinton mask from her sweaty face.
She was running late. She walked across the lobby, unlocked the front door with plastic-gloved hands, and went outside. She felt like running as fast as she could to her car, but she walked calmly, as if she didn't have a care in the world on this fine spring morning. She was tempted to pull out her six-shooter and put a hole into the big Egg McShit staring down on her. Yeah, she had an attitude, all right.
When she got to the Acura, she checked her watch: 52 seconds past 8:10. And counting. She was late - but that was the way it was supposed to be. She smiled.
She didn't call Errol at the Buccieri house where Steve, Tommy, and the nanny, Anna, were being held. She didn't tell him she had the money and she was safely in the Acura. She had been told not to by the Mastermind. The hostages were supposed to die.
THERE'S AN OLD SAYING that I've learned to believe in my time as a detective: Don't think there are no crocodiles because the water is calm.
The water was certainly lovely and calm that day. My young and irrepressible daughter, Jannie, had Rosie the Cat up on her hind legs and she was holding Rosie's front paws in her hands. She and "la chatte rouge" were dancing, as they often did.
"Roses are red, violets are blue," Jannie sang in a sweet, lilting voice. It was a moment and an image I wouldn't forget. Friends, relatives, and neighbors had begun to arrive for the christening party at our house on Fifth Street. I was in a hugely celebratory mood.
Nana Mama had prepared an amazing meal for the special occasion. There was cilantro-marinated shrimp, roasted mussels, fresh ham, Vidalia onions, and summer squash. The aroma of chicken with garlic, pork ribs, and four kinds of homemade bread filled the air. I'd even made my specialty that night, my contribution, a creamy cheesecake with fresh raspberries on top.
One of Nana's refrigerator notes was posted on the door of the GE. It read: "'There is an incredible amount of magic and feistiness in black men that nobody has been able to wipe out. But everybody has tried.' - Toni Morrison." I smiled at the magic and feistiness of my eightysomething-year-old grandmother.
This was so good. Jannie, Damon, little Alex, and I were greeting everybody on the front porch as they arrived. Alex was in my arms, and he was a very social little baby. He had happy smiles for everyone, even for my partner, John Sampson, who can scare little kids at first because he's mammoth - and scary.
"The boy obviously likes to party," Sampson observed, and grinned broadly.
Alex grinned right back at Two-John, who is six-nine and about two hundred fifty pounds.
Sampson reached out and took the baby from me. Alex nearly disappeared in his hands, which are the size of catcher's mitts. Then Sampson laughed and began to talk to the baby in total gibberish.
Christine appeared from the kitchen. She joined the three of us. So far, she and Alex Jr. were living apart from us. We hoped they would come join Nana, Damon, Jannie, and me in this house. Just one big family. I wanted Christine as my wife, not just as a girlfriend. I wanted to wake little Alex in the mornings, then put him to sleep at night.
"I'm going to walk around the party with little Alex. Shamelessly use him to pick up pretty women," Sampson said. He walked off with Alex cradled in his arms.
"You think he'll ever get married?" Christine asked.
"Little Alex? The Boy? Sure he will."
"No, your partner in crime, John Sampson. Will he ever get married, settle down?" It didn't sound like it bothered her that we weren't.
"I think he will - someday. John had a bad family model. His father walked out when John was a year old - eventually died of an overdose. John's mother was a drug addict. She lived in Southeast until a couple of years ago. Sampson was practically raised by my Aunt Tia, with help from Nana."
We watched Sampson cruise the party with little Alex in his arms. He hit on a pretty lady named De Shawn Hawkins, who worked with Christine. "He really is using the baby to hit on women," Christine said in amazement. "De Shawn, be careful," she called to her friend.
I laughed. "Says what he's going to do, does what he says."
The party had started around two in the afternoon. It was still going strong at nine-thirty. I had just sung a duet with Sampson, Joe Tex's "Skinny Legs and All." It was a howling success. We got a lot of laughs and playful jeers. Sampson was starting to sing "You're the First, the Last, My Everything."
That was when Kyle Craig from the FBI arrived. I should have told everybody to go home - the party was all but over.