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"Feel the gun?"
Danielle Sweet froze in the doorway.
Earlier that morning the old familiar feeling of unease had shot up her spine. She would pick today to ignore it. She had figured, "what could happen here in lazy old Ellerton, Safety City itself?" Well, hey, now she knew.
But even now, caught in the act of pushing open the bank door with a gunman behind her, the feeling didn't seem quite sharp enough to warrant panic. She could handle this. More than fear, she felt anger at herself for having lowered her alert level.
Assess the threat. Make a plan.
This man behind her had parked next to her, greeted her as she got out of her car, and asked politely if it was nine o'clock yet. She had sensed him walking nearby as they reached the portico of the small Beresford First National Bank.
He looked to be in his early thirties, weighed around two hundred, moved with confidence, no hesitancy. He spoke with a slight accent, looked professional, unremarkable. Even with their contact she hadn't thought much about him at first.
At least he wasn't some scruffy, unpredictable druggie hell-bent on grabbing some fast cash and ending it with a killing spree. There had been no flashes of imminent bloodshed along with the niggling little premonition she had shoved aside earlier. Of course, that might or might not be reliable.
The pistol prodded her spine. She imagined she could feel the roundness of the barrel right through her coat. "Go in. Smile," he ordered. "Act normal. Behave as though we are a couple, if you wish to survive."
Okay, survive was a good word. As soon as they entered the front door, he halted. "Removeyour coat," he ordered.
Dani shrugged out of it when he released her arm. Hurriedly, she tugged off her gloves to free her hands for combat if that became necessary.
She would have already risked taking him down if it were just the two of them, but there were others in the bank. Better wait to see how it played out. He immediately clutched her again, his ungloved fingers and thumb biting painfully into her bicep.
Her service revolver lay locked in her briefcase in the trunk of her car for the duration of her visit with her sister. There was nothing she could do at the moment but comply and silently curse the fact that she was unarmed.
She had decided to stop at the local bank to set up a savings account for her brand-new nephew and present the parents with it as one of her baby gifts. The decision, almost a compulsion, had been with her since she'd woken up this morning: insure that baby's future. God, she wished she'd bought the little fellow a teddy bear instead.
But maybe it was better that she had come here. Maybe she'd been meant to be in the bank for this.
The barrel of the weapon nudged her again and she heard the man's satisfied grunt. No wonder he was pleased. There were only three other people inside.
One young woman was humming along with the soft lobby music while she worked on the bins of deposit slips, forms and pamphlets at the counter in the middle of the room. A teller, Dani guessed.
A skinny, older man of around sixty lounged in the doorway to one of the two glass-fronted offices within the lobby. He wore a mud-brown off-the-rack suit and black patent shoes. Not exactly the type who would be meeting the public much. She would guess accountant. He chatted with a younger man who stood propped against the desk. Now this one looked the part. They were both sipping from coffee cups. Smiling. Shooting the breeze.
In a small town like Ellerton, Virginia, even with traffic severely curtailed by ice and snow, surely there ought to be more people minding the store. Of course, anyone with good sense would be home today, snuggled by their fires. The streets were a mess. The guy had chosen the perfect time for a bank heist.
She shifted position and even tucked her shoulders in a little, hoping the hand that clutched her arm would ease its grip.
"Interfere and I will shoot you first," her captor whispered. He squeezed her arm harder, hugging her closer as he led her farther into the lobby.
The blonde turned to them, smiling. "Good morning. What can we do for y'all?" The men across the room continued talking, drinking their coffee, offering only a cursory glance.
Suddenly a hard twisting motion almost cracked the bone in Dani's arm. She cried out sharply, trying to jerk away, but the pain nearly sent her to her knees.
She sagged against him to keep from falling. She dropped her coat and purse.
At her cry, the men rushed out of the office to see what had happened and the blonde hurried over ahead of them.
The man's gun hand flew up, the weapon near the side of Dani's face. "Stop! Move and she dies."
They stopped in their tracks, all three now within six feet of Dani and the man who held her, well away from any alarm buttons. That was the point to the distraction, she figured.
She looked up at the bank employees, expecting expressions of shock. Only the younger man showed none. No fear, either. His glare rivaled the ice on the streets outside. He looked seriously ticked off.
Don't be a hero, she prayed.
For a minute, Hero looked like he might give it a shot. He and the perp were about the same size, both over six feet tall, both built like they worked out religiously. If not for the gun, a 9 mm holding fifteen rounds, they would probably be pretty evenly matched.
Dani had to let the scene unfold without attempting to interfere, and she hoped the banker had come to the same conclusion. She could take the gunman by surprise and probably disarm him, but the situation called for prudence. She wasn't the only one at risk here, and above all, she didn't want anyone hurt. The money was insured. Bank robbers got caught.
She glanced up and could plainly see two cameras. There would be a couple more stationed somewhere behind her. This entire escapade would be recorded, so knowing what the perp looked like didn't put them at further risk. There was no reason for him to kill them if they kept calm.
"Where's the vault?" he demanded.
The older man pointed to the hallway around and behind the counters.
"Go there. All of you. Single file," he demanded. Whew, he was just going to lock them up, Dani thought with relief. They would sack up some money for him and he'd simply lock them inside and leave. A few hours later they would be watching his arrest on the evening news.
He snapped out another order. "You and you, go inside!" He motioned with the weapon for the older man and the girl to enter the vault. "Lock the door," he said to the younger guy.
The girl began to wail and plead like a four-year-old. The sound cut off the instant the thick steel door clicked shut. At least this narrowed the list of potential casualties. Those two should be safe enough.
Dani's arm throbbed, still caught in a viselike grip. "Back into your office," the robber instructed. "Remain on the front side of your desk."
She met Hero's gaze and raised her eyebrows. He was red in the face, his strong jaw and fists clenched.
Don't try anything! Dani tried to communicate the thought to him without words. He shot her an exasperated look, exhaled sharply, then turned with military precision and led the way. Message received, she guessed.
When they reached the office, the robber forced her into the chair to the side of the desk, he stood behind her, placing the muzzle of the gun to her right temple.
"You. Stand," he ordered the banker. His accent became more pronounced and his breathing grew more rapid. "Keep both of your hands in my sight at all times. No silent alarms or she dies. First, turn the monitor around so that I can see it clearly. Move the keyboard to this side," he demanded. The hero eyed him, but complied.
"Now, send this fax," he instructed the man, placing a document on the desk. "Be certain to dial correctly." Dani watched the process as closely as her captor did.
When the fax machine whirred, the perp tossed an index card down in front of the keyboard. "In the left column there are account numbers. From these accounts, I wish the amounts listed in the middle column transferred to the account on the right."
"To the Caymans?" Dani heard a barely concealed scoff in his voice.
"I need the code to access the program used for transfers of this nature," the banker insisted. "It's in the vault."
"You know the codes," the robber growled. "I kept you out of the vault because you are the manager. Do it now or she dies. Then you die. Make no mistakes."
The banker's lips firmed. Dani watched the muscles in his jaw clench while he did as he was told.
This took a while since there were quite a few transactions involved. From her view of the monitor, Dani noted that none of the amounts were too enormous. She didn't bother to keep a running total, but figured it at around three million.
The robber picked up the notes. "I wish to see confirmation when it is complete."
The banker paused to await one of the steps of the transfer to go through. "I see you've kept the amounts under a hundred thousand, but the transfers will send up red flags anyway."
"I know," the robber said, an evil smile in his voice. "But these will be your red flags."
Survival seemed a lot less likely now, Dani thought with a belated surge of adrenaline. There was something in the man's voice and movements, a subtle, higher pitch, an increased tension and a slight tremor in the hand holding the gun. He was building up to something, getting himself psyched.
She remained motionless except for her gaze, which settled immediately on an engraved name plate that read Benjamin R. Michaels. The name suited him. Strong, no-nonsense, bankerly.
Dani watched the banker's long, tapered fingers fly over the keyboard and listened to the soft whir of the computer as it completed its functions. Meanwhile, she smelled the sweaty wool and scent of anxiety that cloaked her captor.