Authors: Henry Carver
ALSO BY HENRY CARVER
THE BEST KIND of bank robbery is the one that never happened.
At exactly eleven twenty in the evening an unmarked van pulled up to the prearranged corner. The van had been white once. Time and hard use had crusted the outside with dust, had given it a powder coating of the reddish clay that made up the local soil. Now it was the color of rust. The van was stolen, but the Mexican police were notoriously slow to follow up on reports of stolen vehicles. The only thing that could speed up the process was a bribe, and the Catch-22 of it all was that the sort of person who owned an unwashed twenty-year-old van with three hundred thousand miles on the odometer was not the sort of person who could afford to bribe the police. Not at the prices they charged. The van had been selected for precisely that reason.
No one would give it a second glance.
Idling at the corner, the leader was supremely confident the van would not undo the plan. Certain parts of the plan were risky—what was life without risk?—but the van was not one of them.
A slight-looking Hispanic man emerged from between two buildings and walked across the street to the agreed upon corner before climbing up into the passenger seat. He wore an olive drab jumpsuit covered in pockets and zippers. Emblazoned across one breast was the name of a cleaning company. In his hand he carried a cheap ball cap, the kind with a stiff fabric front and a flaccid mesh back. It was identical in color to the jumpsuit. The same company name was stitched above the brim.
The leader said nothing. Neither did the slight man. The plan had been practiced and practiced until everyone knew their part perfectly, until there was nothing left to say.
The van clicked easily into gear and they rode together in silence through the narrow Mexican streets. They headed east, into the older part of the city. Asphalt gave way to concrete gave way to rough, untended cobblestones. The van rattled on its suspension.
At exactly eleven forty, they pulled up to the next designated stop outside a group of cheap apartment buildings. A door slammed behind them and to the left, and the leader and the slight Hispanic man craned their necks.
The van’s sliding side door opened and another man dressed in a matching uniform, hat in hand, climbed inside and shut the door behind him. He was enormous, well over six feet tall and two hundred pounds, none of it fat. The huge man fitted himself into bucket seat, the van’s dome light throwing his face into relief. An old scar ran down the side. He didn’t say a word.
Back the other way: cobble stones, concrete, asphalt, the asphalt getting smoother the closer they got to downtown. Rich people roads, the kind you had to pay extra for. The leader rolled down the window and let some fresh air into the humid interior. Air conditioning hadn’t been a priority in choosing the vehicle, and it was unseasonably hot even long after sunset.
At eleven fifty-five the leader backed the van into a narrow, abandoned alley. The alley had been scouted for at least a week, watched from early evening until morning to get a sense of the comings and goings, the traffic level. Several locations had been scouted, but this one had been chosen because the comings and goings were non-existent, the traffic level nil. Earlier today the single street light illuminating the area had had its bulb shattered.
The leader was nothing if not careful.
Creaking the door open carefully, the slight Hispanic man climbed out and went around back. From the rear he pulled a black canvas duffel. It clanked when he lifted it, the sound of metal on metal, and he carried it around to the side. From within he pulled a large, folded sheet of plastic. He unfolded it and went to work on the corners, his small fingers finding tiny imperfections in the edge.
Slowly he peeled the back of the plastic off. It was adhesive underneath, the whole thing like a giant band-aid, so he was careful not to let it bunch and crumple and stick to itself. Satisfied, he lifted it at two corners, stood, and pressed it to the side of the van. It covered almost half the side, and he smoothed it. Then he stood back and admired his handiwork.
The van’s new sign was the name and logo of a cleaning company, the same company name that was stitched onto his jumpsuit and hat. The sign looked wrong, though—it was too clean. Its whiteness shined out at him, glaring against the rust-colored background. He had prepared for that. From the duffel came a Ziploc bag of red soil. He opened it and grabbed a handful and rubbed it all over the sign.
Satisfied, he pulled another folded plastic sign out of the duffel and repeated the process on the other side of the van. Then he zipped up the bag, slid it into the foot well of the passenger seat, and climbed in after it. He nodded to the leader, and the big man in the back patted him on the shoulder.
None of them said a word.
At thirteen minutes after midnight, two minutes ahead of schedule, they pulled up outside the downtown headquarters of Banco United.
At twelve fifteen the leader’s phone buzzed lightly, the vibration muffled.
The leader flipped it open, read the message. “Marco’s part is done. The real cleaning crew will never make it in tonight.”
“I told you he could do it,” the slight man said. He had a Mexican accent, obviously a native Spanish-speaker, but his English was still easy to understand.
The leader put the phone away, said nothing.
This slight man looked at his watch. It glowed in the darkness. “Are you ready?”
“I’m not coming inside,” the leader said.
“That’s not the plan.”
“The plan has changed.”
The slight man and the big man exchanged a look.
“I had to go inside a few days ago. It was unavoidable. An hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon.”
“So you went in twice.” The slight man looked worried.
“Yes. I had to ensure everything was in place.”
“And who saw you? The manager? The backroom employees? Who saw your face?”
“Everyone,” the leader said. “Everyone saw me.”
The big man let out a breath. It whistled between his teeth.
“So you understand why I can’t go in.”
The slight man looked at his watch again. He closed his eyes, doing calculations on the fly.
“Why didn’t you tell us earlier?” he asked.
The leader twisted around in his seat and looked directly at him. “Frankly, I didn’t think you’d still have the balls to go through with it.”
No one said anything.
The slight man stiffened up. He rolled back the cuff of his jumpsuit, pressed the mode button on his watch until the stop watch function appeared.
“Or maybe I was wrong,” the leader said.
The slight man punched the start button and the watch began ticking up. Then he jammed the hat on his head, pulled the brim down to obscure his face, climbed out of the van and slung the canvas duffel over his shoulder. He started walking, never looking back. The revolving door at the front of Banco United swallowed him up without a sound.
The big man counted under his breath: one second…two seconds…three seconds.
One of the leader’s hands reached into a jacket pocket and came out with an electronic key card, similar to the ones used in hotels, but thicker. Heavier, like it contained more than a magnetic strip. The leader held it out.
The big man took it and stuffed it onto one of the zippered pockets on his jumpsuit. He climbed out of the van, disappeared through the door.
Now came the waiting.
The leader made sure to breathe evenly, not to let the tension of inaction force a stupid mistake. Tried to stop listening for the wail of siren that wouldn’t come.
the leader thought.
Even if they do make a mistake, bank alarms are silent.
Down under the steering wheel, one leg jittered around, bouncing up and down.
A police cruiser turned the corner up ahead, red and blue light bar bolted across the top, the body painted white and green. The leader was American, and despite a long stay in Mexico, the white/green colors never screamed “police.” The leader didn’t react right away. It cost a few key seconds.
The leader stared directly at the police, something that should generally be avoiding during a bank robbery.
Banco United and the surrounding neighborhood and been watched for much longer than the alley. Logs were kept, traffic patterns were noted, people were followed. Special interest had been paid to police patrols, to the frequency and density of their appointed rounds. All of them had been mapped and timed and dissected until everything that could be known about them was laid out on paper.
So it was very worrisome when the cruiser turned the corner, because the leader knew this was not a scheduled patrol.
The cruiser was moving slowly, the two men inside sweeping their heads from side to side: a bad sign. It had its headlights off, which was worse. The two men studiously avoided looking at the van as they passed. It gave the leader a sinking feeling.
The cruiser was watched in the rear view mirror. It kept driving. Twenty yards away. Fifty yards away. A hundred. The cruiser turned a corner and a vanished.
The leader let out a breath. But not too far. Kept watching the rear view.
As if on cue, the cruiser reappeared from the side street and turned toward the van. Now it was on the same side of the street. It pulled up right behind the van and parked.
Keep it together,
the leader thought.
Both doors opened on the cruiser, and two men got out wearing all black uniforms with black ball caps on their heads. They had flared pants tucked into shined black combat boots, an urban paramilitary style of uniform. One of them carried an M16.
the leader thought. Not ordinary cops. The Mexican national police.
Every bone in the leader’s body screamed for the van to be put into gear, the gas pressed, an escape made. But the M16 made any kind of quick escape a very dicey proposition. The
carried armor-piercing rounds in those things sometimes, the kind that could go straight though an engine block. You couldn’t be sure.
They were approaching the van slowly, examining the details, but they were close. They would be at the window in another second.
Either the two men inside the bank had tripped the silent alarm, leaving the low-hanging fruit sitting outside in the van. Or this was something else. A coincidence.
The leader didn’t believe in coincidence, but also had some other rules to live by, like: don’t get shot by an armor-piercing M16 round.
Decided to risk it—what’s life without a little risk?—and let the situation play itself out, one way or the other. The leader made the offending leg be still on the floor mat and put on an expression of good-natured confusion.
A knock on the window.
The leader looked up, smiled, rolled down the window. It took a second. The van had no power windows, so it had to be cranked down the old-fashioned way.
“Buenas noches,” the officer at the driver’s side said.
“Oh, hey there y’all,” the leader said, putting on a Southern accent.
“Papeles. Por favor.”
“Papeles…I’m sorry sir, I don’t speak Spanish. I know por favor, but that’s about it.”
The Federale examined the leader’s face.
The leader shrugged. “No hablo espanol.”
“Your passport,” the officer said.
“Oh, I have it here somewhere.” The leader made a show of digging through pockets before finally finding it in the glove compartment and handing it over.
The officer turned on a small flashlight and examined it. Turned the flashlight onto the leader and compared the two faces.
“What is your business here?” the officer asked.
“Oh, I’m meeting a friend.”
“Here? At this time of night?”
“Is this not a good neighborhood?” the leader asked.
The two officers exchanged a look over the top of the van. “Not at this time, no.”
“Well, thank y’all for telling me. I’m just visiting and my friend—he’s a local—told me to meet him here at Juanita and Alameda.”
The officer’s eyebrows raised. “This is Juarez and Alameda.”
“Oh shoot, it is?”
“Yes, you are perhaps forty blocks away from there. A much nicer neighborhood.”
“Gosh, it’s a good thing you came along. I might have waited here all night. Thank you, Officer.”
The Federale looked at the passport one more time, and then at his partner. “Vamos a salir de aqui. Otro turista tonto a punto de ser asaltado,” he said.
Just another dumb tourist about to get mugged.
The leader, who spoke very passable Spanish, relaxed a fraction of an inch.