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.
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.
KYLE WAS CARRYING a colorfully wrapped and ribboned present for the baby. And he had balloons! The gifts didn't fool me. Kyle is a good friend, possibly a great cop, but he isn't social and avoids parties as if they were viral diseases.
"Not tonight, Alex," Christine said, and she suddenly looked concerned, maybe even angry. "Don't get involved in some scary, terrible case. Please, Alex, don't do it. Not on the night of the christening."
I knew what she meant, and I took her advice, or warning, to heart. My mood had already darkened.
Goddamn Kyle Craig.
"No, no, and no," I said as I walked up to Kyle. I used my index fingers to make a cross. "Go away."
"I'm real happy to see you, too," Kyle said, and beamed. Then he gave me a hug. "Multiple homicide," he whispered.
"Sorry, call back tomorrow or the next day. This is my night off."
"I know it is, but this is particularly bad, Alex. This one has really struck a nerve."
While he was still holding on to me, Kyle told me he was in Washington only for the night and he badly needed my help. He was feeling a lot of pressure. I told him no again, but he wasn't listening, and we both knew it was part of my job to assist the FBI on important cases here. Also, I owed Kyle a favor or two. A few years back he'd let me into a kidnapping-and-murder case in North Carolina when my niece disappeared from Duke University.
Kyle knew Sampson and a few of my other detective friends. They came over and chatted with him as if this were a social visit. People tend to like Kyle. I do, too—but not now, not tonight. He said he had to peek in on little Alex before we talked business.
I WENT ALONG WITH KYLE. The two of us stood over the Boy, who was now asleep amid colorful stuffed bears and balls in a port-a-crib in Nana's room. He held on to his favorite bear, which was named Pinky.
"The poor little boy. What a bad, bad break," Kyle whispered as he looked down at Alex. "He looks like you instead of Christine. How are you two doing, anyway?"
"We're settling back into things okay," I said, which wasn't the truth, unfortunately. Christine had been gone from Washington for a year, and since she'd been back, we hadn't done as well as I would have hoped. I missed the intimacy more than I could say. It was killing me. But I wasn't able to tell anyone about it, not even Sampson or Nana.
"Please, Kyle. Just leave me alone for tonight."
"I wish this could wait, Alex. I'm afraid it can't. I'm on my way back to Quantico now. Where can we talk?"
I shook my head and felt anger building up inside. I led him to the sunporch, where I keep an old upright piano that still plays about as well as I do. I sat down on the creaky piano bench and tapped out a few notes of Gershwin's "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off."
Kyle recognized the tune and he grinned. "I am sorry about this."
"Not sorry enough, obviously. Go ahead."
"You heard about the Citibank-branch robbery out in Silver Spring? The murders at the bank manager's house?" he asked. "Manager's husband, their nanny, three-year-old son?"
"How could I not hear about it?" I said, and looked away from Kyle. The brutal, senseless murders had saddened me and knotted my stomach when I read about them. The story was all over the papers and TV. Even cops in D.C. were outraged.
"I didn't really understand what I heard so far. What the hell happened at the manager's house? The perps had the money, right? Why did they have to kill the hostages if they had the money? That's what you're here to tell me, right?"
Kyle nodded. "They were late getting out of the bank. The explicit order was that the crew member inside had to be out with the money by eight-ten exactly. Alex, the crew member at the bank was less than a minute late. Less than a minute! So they murdered the thirty-three-year-old father, the three-year-old boy, and the couple's nanny. The nanny was twenty-five, and she was pregnant. They executed the father, the three-year-old, the nanny. You see the murder scene, Alex?"
I rolled my shoulders, twisted my neck. I could feel the tension invading my body. I saw it, all right. How could they have murdered those people for no reason?
I really wasn't in the mood for police business, though, not even a bad case like this one. "Which brings you out to my house tonight? On my son's christening day?"
"Oh, hell." Kyle suddenly smiled and lightened his tone. "I had to come over to see the promised child, anyway. Unfortunately, this case is really intense. There's a possibility the crew is from D.C. Even if they're not from Washington, there's still a possibility somebody here might know them, Alex. I need you to look for the killers—before they do it again. We have the feeling this isn't a one-shot. Alex, your baby is a beauty, though."
"Yeah, you're a beauty, too," I said to Kyle. "You are truly beyond compare."
"Three-year-old boy, the father, a nanny," Kyle said one more time before he left the party. He was about to go through the door in the sunporch when he turned to me and said, "You're the right person for this. They murdered a family, Alex."
As soon as Kyle was gone, I went looking for Christine. My heart sank. She had taken Alex and left without saying good-bye, without a single word.
RELUCTANTLY, the Mastermind parked on the street, then walked toward an abandoned project within a stone's throw of the Anacostia River. A full moon cast a cold, hard, bone white light on half a dozen crumbling three-story row houses with open, screenless windows. He wondered if he had the stomach for this. "Into the valley of death," he whispered.
To his further dismay, he found the Parkers' hideout was in the row house farthest from the street. They were ensconced on the third floor. Their lovely little lodging was furnished with a grimy, stained mattress and a rusted lawn chair. Greasy wrappings from KFC and Mickey D's were scattered on the floor.
As he entered their room, he held up a couple of oven-warm pizza boxes as well as a brown paper bag. "Chianti and pizza! This is a celebration, isn't it?"
Brianne and Errol were evidently hungry and dug into the pizza pies immediately. They barely greeted him, which he took as disrespect. The Mastermind busied himself pouring Chianti into plastic cups he had brought for the occasion. He passed around the cups and then made a toast.
"To perfect crimes," he said.
"Yeah, right. Perfect crimes." Errol Parker frowned as he took two big sips of Chianti. "If that's what you call what happened in Silver Spring. Three murders that could have been avoided."
"That's what I call it," said the Mastermind. "Absolutely perfect. You'll see."
They ate and drank in silence. The Parkers seemed moody, even defiant. Brianne kept sneaking looks at him. Suddenly, Errol Parker began to rub his throat. He coughed repeatedly. Then he gasped loudly, "Aaagh! Aaagh!" His throat and his chest were burning. He couldn't breathe. He tried to stand, but he immediately toppled over.
"What is it? What's wrong, Errol? Errol?" Brianne asked, alarmed and afraid.
Then she grabbed at her throat, too. It was on fire. So was her chest. She shot up from the mattress. She dropped the cup of wine and held her throat with both hands.
"What the hell is happening? What's happening to us?" she screamed at the Mastermind. "What did you do?"
"Isn't it obvious?" he answered in the coldest, most remote voice she had ever heard.
The tenement room seemed to be whirling out of control. Errol went into spasms, then fell to the floor in a seizure. Brianne bit a gash in her tongue. Both of them were still clutching at their throats. They were choking, gagging, unable to breathe. Their faces had taken on a dusky hue.
The Mastermind stood across the room and watched. The paralysis from the poison they had imbibed was progressive and extremely painful. It started with the facial muscles, then moved to the glottis in the back of the throat. The Parkers obviously couldn't swallow. Finally, it affected the respiratory organs. A high enough dose of Anectine led to cardiac arrest.
It took less than fifteen minutes for the two of them to die, as mercilessly as those murdered in Silver Spring, Maryland. They lay motionless, spread-eagled on the floor. He was quite sure that they were dead, but he checked the vital signs, anyway. Their features were unbearably contorted and their bodies twisted. They looked as if they had fallen from a great height.
"To perfect crimes," the Mastermind intoned over the grotesquely sprawled bodies.
I TRIED TO CALL CHRISTINE early the next morning, but she was screening her calls and wouldn't pick up. She'd never done that to me, and it stung. I couldn't get it out of my head as I showered and dressed. Finally, I went to work. I was hurt, but I was also a little angry.
Sampson and I were out on the streets before nine. The more I read and thought about the Citibank robbery in Silver Spring, the more troubled and confused I was about the exact sequence of events. It didn't make sense. Three innocent people had been murdered—for what reason? The bank robbers already had their money. What kind of cruel and twisted sickos were they? Why kill father and child and the family's nanny?
It turned out to be a long and consistently frustrating day. Sampson and I were still on the job at nine that night. I tried calling Christine at home again. She still wasn't picking up, or maybe she wasn't there.
I have a couple of tattered black notebooks filled with names of street contacts. Sampson and I had already talked to more than two dozen of the prime ones. That still left plenty for tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. I was pretty well hooked into the case already. Why kill three people at the bank manager's house? Why destroy an innocent family?
"We're dancing around something," Sampson said as we drove through Southeast in my old car. We had just finished talking to a small-time hustler named Nomar Martinez. He knew about the bank robbery in Maryland, but not who did it. The late, great Marvin Gaye was singing on the car radio. I thought of Christine. She didn't want me out here on these streets anymore. She was serious about it. I wasn't sure if I could quit being a detective. I liked my job.
"I had that same feeling with Nomar. Maybe we should have brought his ass in. He was edgy, afraid of something," I said.
"Who's not afraid of something in Southeast?" Sampson asked. "The question remains. Who's gonna talk to us?"
"How about that ugly mutt there?" I said, and pointed toward the street corner we were approaching. "He knows everything happening around here."
"He spotted us," Sampson said. "Shit, there he goes!"
I SPUN THE STEERING WHEEL hard to my left. The Porsche skidded toward a stop, then hopped the curb with a jolting thud. Sampson and I jumped out and started to run after Cedric Montgomery.
"Stop! Police!" I yelled at him.
We shot down a narrow, twisted alley behind the small-time enforcer and all-around tough guy. Montgomery was a source of information, but he wasn't a snitch. He just knew things. He was in his early twenties; Sampson and I were both a whisker past forty. We worked out and we were still fast— at least in our minds.
Montgomery could really move, though. He was a blur up ahead of us.
"He's just a sprinter, sugar," Sampson huffed. He was at my side, matching me stride for stride. "We're good for the long haul."