Prologue: “Don’t Be A Hero.”
M Street NW
October 17, 4:30pm
“How come I’m always zebra?”
“What’s wrong with zebras?”
“It’s not intimidating. It’s not scary. I’m just a weird horse.”
The four passengers in the white Ford van all fixed hard, angry glares at the driver. Tense silence reigned for a minute; the only sounds filtering through the tinted windows were the occasional honking horn, the smooth hum of the van’s tires over pavement, and the muted throaty growl of the new Ford’s 16 liter engine. Finally the front passenger, a hulking brute of a man with short cropped brown hair and a boxer’s jaw, glanced out the window to hide his frustration and spoke through grit teeth.
“It’s just a goddamn mask.”
The driver threw up his hands in exasperation, his pale face starting to glisten with a sheen of nervous sweat. “Then you wear it! Let me be lion for once!”
“Enough!” The front passenger yelled, slamming a clenched fist into the door and causing the three others spread across two bench seats to jump. “It’s doesn’t matter what animal you are! You can’t change because as soon as you do one of you retards is going to somehow get confused and mess this whole job up! Just shut up! Shut! Up!”
Another few moments of silence passed and the fidgeting men focused on the rhythmic clicking of the turn signal. From the back of the van, a short, bald Hispanic man with a panther tattoo creeping up the side of his neck looked ahead and cleared his throat.
“We’re close,” the Hispanic passenger noted. His companions did not need the reminder; they all knew exactly where they were going and what they were going to do when they got there. Each of them, save the vocal driver, reached under their seats and took out cheap plastic animal masks that could be found at any ninety-nine cent store. From back to front, they all checked the reinforced elastic band and slipped their masks over their anxious faces.
From back to front, the Hispanic man secured a tiger mask over his face. In front of him, two African-American thugs rolled their shoulders and looked down at their laps before putting on bear and shark disguises, their mass-produced plastic crinkling as they adjusted the fit. In front, the angry passenger fixed a pointed glare in the direction of the driver, then put his face into a tan and brown lion mask. Lion let the elastic snap securely on the back of his head in a way that said this was not the man’s first time doing this.
“Two blocks,” Zebra announced, now glancing every other second at his rear view mirrors. Lion did his best not to notice the tic, instead he turned around in his seat to address the others, who had now moved on to preparing heavy-duty canvas duffle bags, dinged and scratched shotguns, a gleaming Glock nine millimeter, and one matte black Uzi that Bear stroked lovingly in the back.
“One more time,” Lion said in an even, calm voice, “Bear and Tiger get the guards. Zebra’s on the clock. Shark and me have got the cash. Once the guards are down, Bear and Tiger, you got crowd control.”
Bear and Tiger nodded as the van took a leisurely right onto a main street. Fifty feet from the intersection, a sleepy Bank of America sat between two vacant lots, its impressive modern glass façade obscured by blinds to keep the bright DC sun out of customers’ and tellers’ eyes. Lion has wondered during the planning stage what idiot had designed a façade that could only really function six hours of the day, but that detail was about to make him a very rich man, so complaining seemed inappropriate. Maybe he would find out who built it and mail him five percent. Sure.
Lion reached over for a sawed off shotgun and slipped two shells into the “Don’t freeze up. They give you lip, you bust some heads. We’re knocking over a bank in the middle of DC, so getting caught’s worse than smoking some asshole. Heroes get dead, you got me?”
Everyone nodded gravely. The van eased to a stop in front of the neighborhood bank and the side door flew open with pent-up energy as the animals charged out of the vehicle. They reached the drab glass and steel doors in seconds, Bear and Tiger barreled straight ahead as Shark held them open and followed right on their heels as they passed the bank’s ATM anteroom and on to the main event.
The Georgetown neighborhood branch had been specifically chosen for its lack of vigilance. With only the odd drifter or drunk college hooligan to handle, the security staff was both small in number and almost criminally complacent. Only one of the two armed guards turned as the doors banged open, and his perturbed expression quickly met the hard polished wooden stock of a shotgun swung with savage speed.
The guard’s partner jumped with alarm as he heard the sickening wet crack of his friend’s jaw separating, but only got as far as reaching down for his weapon before Tiger was on him, wielding his shiny Glock. The butt end of the handgun impacted ferociously with the guard’s forehead, dropping the unfortunate employee as if he were a marionette and his puppeteer had suddenly let go of his strings. The panicked shrieks began immediately, but were hushed by the deafening, echoing roar of Lion’s shotgun firing into the ceiling. Tiny bits of plaster fell and skittered across the marble floor as the leader shoved the wafting twin barrels into a teller’s face. The middle-aged woman’s overdone eye shadow was already running in streaks of blue down her cheeks as she started to cry behind the prison-like steel bars that made up all the tellers’ “windows.”
“Time for the lion’s share,” the homicidal criminal muttered behind his thin plastic snout.
It was now evident that this was not the animals’ first job together, as Bear and Tiger had already disarmed and moved their fallen adversaries into the middle of the bank and corralled the customers into the center as well.
Bear tossed one of the guard’s pistols to Shark as the fish-masked robber shoved a teenage boy in a gray hoodie and jeans roughly to the floor. Shark considered grabbing the boy’s sunglasses that fell out of the boy’s pocket but thought better of it.
Shark examined the huddled mass that he was now in the middle of. The Bank of America’s main floor was a long rectangle, broken up only by small islands of countertops for customers to fill out receipts and pockets of desks and chairs for customer service representatives. Shark had his back to the tellers and faced the long floor to ceiling windows of the bank’s façade. To his right was the entrance, where Zebra had just arrived with additional duffle bags and Bear was keeping watch over the customers. Tiger stood alert on Shark’s left side, twenty feet from the wall and facing the hostages. Shark checked the guard’s weapon for a moment before speaking.
“Stay on the ground and look at the floor! We’re here for the bank’s money, but heroes get dead!”
As if on cue, a sneaky bank employee popped up from underneath his desk behind Tiger’s back. Shark never hesitated as the nervous heroic employee raised his own concealed gun. The bank robber simply shifted his gun slightly to the left and rapidly fired five shots at the would be savior, embedding three bullets in the doomed man’s chest. The man’s white dress shirt started to blossom red as he fell in an awkward stumble into his own office chair. The terrified shrieks now started to mix with sobs, but the grisly scene only seemed to enrage Shark more.
“What did I just say?” The murderer bellowed. Shark sensed motion below him and glanced down at the teenage boy he just shoved to the ground moments ago. In the chaos, the kid had put the hood of his sweatshirt over his head. The bank robber shrugged derisively.
“Pussy,” he taunted under his breath, then turned toward Zebra, who anxiously fiddled with the duffle bags and generally did nothing to help the robbery.
“Zebra!” Shark called across the floor. “Watch these assholes and cover me. I’m gonna get that wannabe’s piece.”
“Cash and guns,” Tiger chuckled as Shark joined him by the bank’s far wall and left Zebra in his place in the middle of the floor. “Best day ever.”
Zebra’s eyes danced around the space with adrenaline-fueled unease and he cursed the lack of peripheral vision in his mask. If he was truly being honest with himself, Zebra was both in complete awe and utterly terrified of Shark’s ability to act without hesitation. The getaway driver tried to scan the room as he had seen Shark do before, taking in where his partners in crime were and the position of hostages and—
Something moved under Zebra’s feet. Rather, Zebra knew something was moving because it was making one of the oddest sounds the bank robber had ever heard. It sounded like winters in Philadelphia when the snow and ice became one hard pack and only steel shovels would defeat the accumulation, a sharp, grating, gritty sound against an unyielding surface. Confused by both the sound and its location, Zebra looked down where a boy, no older than fifteen or sixteen, was lying face down on the ground with his hands by his head.
Except the fingers on those hands had carved out tiny angry furrows like tiny plows in the floor. In the marble floor.
Zebra’s head jerked up and around as he looked for Shark or Lion. “Hey—!” He called out, but that was as far as he got.
The force of the blow against Zebra’s ankle was shocking, the surprise of pain and the immediate loss of balance only received a sucking inhale as the side of the criminal’s face hit the floor hard. Before Zebra could put a thought together, he screamed in agony as a vice-like grip seized his ankles with bone crushing force, followed by the tiny muffled snaps of the man’s ankles giving away.
Zebra’s mask fell off as he was lifted off the ground, revealing in the growing darkness of shock that the previously prone teenager was not only standing, but actually spinning the robber around like a child with a foxtail toy, but the injured man’s legs were the toy’s nylon tail and his head was the attached baseball. Just as quickly as Zebra had hit the ground he felt the grip loosen and give way to the incredibly foreign sensation of hurtling through the air and smashing violently through the bank’s front windows, landing in a broken heap against the getaway van and flooding the space with afternoon light. The entire event happened in less than five seconds.
For an instant, no one spoke, no one sobbed, and no one screamed. No one, including the four remaining animals, even moved. Everyone stared at the figure in the middle of the room, a physically fit but by no means intimidating teenage boy who seemed to be admiring or shocked by his work behind polarized Ray Ban wrap sunglasses. That instant was all the boy and the hostages needed.
As the terrified customers broke and started dispersing to different pieces of cover and escape, the hoodie-clad boy whipped around behind him and sprinted the few feet to the closest teller window. He gripped two of the metal bars in the same impossible grip and wrenched them out in a twisting, pulling motion that snapped the bars into two jagged, two foot long, handheld batons. Combined with the chaos of the fleeing customers, the two pairs of animals on either side of the kid never had a chance to properly regroup. Even if they had, the display of power, agility, and ferocity they were about to face would have beaten them on their best day.
Bear was the closest to the new hero and first to react. The man brought his shotgun up to his shoulder and started to advance, but in the time it took him to do all that, the mysterious boy had already made up the distance between them with breathtaking speed and had penetrated the robber’s defenses, bringing both bars down on the shotgun and breaking one of Bear’s arms in the process.
Bear doubled over, howling in pain for a brief moment before the kid redirected the momentum of his swing, reached back like a major league slugger, and slammed the twin pieces of metal into the thug’s chest. The blow sent the incapacitated robber flying back along the floor and nailing a running Shark before impacting hard against the far wall, knocking pictures and advertisements clattering to the marble below. Both men laid out on the ground, groaning and writhing in anguish.
The teenager ducked instinctively as the surviving animals opened fire, doing everything they could to drop him. To the shell shocked hostages, the battle unfolding in front of them would have been described as graceful if it did not seem so perverse to think about. As soon as the bank robbers started firing, the boy got down in a low crouch and spun around like a break dancer, using his momentum to fling himself back toward the teller windows and drawing fire away from the innocent customers. As soon as the gray blur reached the teller counters, he seemed to skip up to the four foot ledge and propelled himself in a shallow dive toward the two armed men, his hollow bars whistling in the air as they moved with him. He finished his dive with a quick somersault and ended up directly between Lion and Tiger, who hesitated with fear of shooting each other. In that moment of hesitation, the teenager engaged both of them, bars flashing out in sloppy but effective attacks that tried to target specific parts of the body, particularly the knees.
A few hostages risked peeks at the action, but saw only a flurry of motion and heard hauntingly melodic whoosh of the teller bars between the two helpless villains. It was as if someone had badly reenacted a Jason Borne fight scene but sped up the action slightly. Almost simultaneously, the mysterious savior’s weapons found weak spots on the sides of Lion’s and Tiger’s knees and both men yelled aloud in distress, their heads falling forward as a reflex to examine the damage.
The boy seemed to anticipate the motion, standing up with explosive power and swinging his bars up in both hands, pinging the sides of the bars against the exposed chins of the criminals, and knocking them both backwards, already unconscious. Not to be outdone, his lithe arms flashed out and he slapped their guns out of their hands with well-timed flicks of his wrists.
Through the entire seconds long exchange, the boy’s expression remained neutral, though not passive. That neutral face vanished as another single shot rang out, this time followed by a zipping hot flash of pain as the bullet passed through the upper left arm of the boy’s sweatshirt and grazed his flesh. He cried out, a single quick sound of pain that gripped everyone’s hearts with cold fear. The gray hoodie again became a slight blur as he turned around to face the far wall, where Shark was sitting up, pushing away from the scene with his left arm and aiming his captured handgun at the child. The neutral expression left the boy’s remarkable features to be replaced with the flush red of rage and a furrowed brow behind the impenetrable sunglasses. Shark started to scramble faster toward Bear’s loaded gun.
Furious, the teenager adjusted the grip on the bar in his right hand and hurled it in a sidearm motion across his body and toward Shark. To the boy’s horror, his enraged throw went completely off target and embedded itself in a middle-aged man’s leg who was hiding behind a chair fifteen feet away from Shark. Even the hardened criminal stared in shock at the innocent man, who had managed to pull out the jagged bar but could do nothing about the blood beginning to seep out or the mind-erasing pain of the mistake. The boy was still staring at the monstrous accident, jaw slack and face sheet white. The wail of police sirens began to grow in the distance as people outside the building fled the battle in fear.
Before Shark could use the mistake as a distraction to finally reach his comrade’s weapon, the boy took careful aim at the murderer and flung his last remaining bar at the criminal. This time the throw hit true, flying straight into Shark’s exposed right shoulder with such force that the bar went through the meat and carried the man an extra foot into the wall, pinning the robber to the scene of the crime.
The cacophony of the robbery gave way to a post traumatic stillness of sniffling sobs of shock, muffled and stuttering calls to 911, and Shark’s stupefied wail of pain as he finally comprehended what had happened to his shoulder. The Bank of America smelled of gunpowder and blood, mixed surreally with the calming, fading scent of the Potomac in fall. The setting sun reflected off the brick of the surrounding structures and gave the stark, lifeless grays and whites and muted reds a blood orange tint that would have been striking and beautiful outside but inside the crime scene made everything threatening, sad, and exhausting.
In the middle of this chaos, the teenager stood alone, head down, still concealed by hood and sunglasses. While the battle seemed to take no effort at all, the boy’s posture now told a different story. His chest was heaving under his sweatshirt and he wiped cold, clammy palms against his jeans in vain. Now the sirens were clear and distinct, and there were a lot of sirens approaching. The boy’s head twitched up toward one of dozens of security cameras and he swore aloud in a surprisingly shaky voice. He risked a glance toward the man he had injured and was ashamed to see the man staring right back at him.
The boy took a half step toward the victim and opened his mouth to say something but decided against it at the last second. He put a hand up as if to explain himself but could not find any of the words to convey the whirlwind of conflicting thoughts in his young mind. Instead, he drove a fist angrily into a teller counter, smashed a section of the cheap wood to splinters, and fled the bank at the same speed that he had attacked the animals with only a minute ago.
Bank of America
Georgetown, Washington DC
October 17, 6:00pm
“Rewind that last part. Jesus. Christ.”
“I dunno, Fox. Right now that sounds like a pretty decent theory.”
Detective Ryan Fox sighed and pushed his wireframe glasses up on his face so he could pinch the bridge of his thin nose. The career police officer pushed back on the flimsy chair and rolled a few feet away from the glowing computer screen inside the bank’s poor excuse for a surveillance station.
He spun around in the dark room and tried to tune out the dozens of officers milling about and talking idly in the middle of the crime scene as well as the red and blue sweeping lights underneath the door that reminded him his day would probably not end until tomorrow. If he was lucky.
He took another spin on the chair and ran one hand through his short, salt and pepper hair as he checked the time on his other hand. His partner, a fresh-faced new promotion named Tony Tompson, gave the fifth of what would eventually be ten low whistles as he leaned in close and watched the “highlight tape” again.
“So what are you thinking?” Tompson asked, rewinding to watch Zebra get tossed out the front window again.
I think this is something we’ll regret getting involved in, Fox thought wearily.
“I’m trying to think about this rationally,” Fox said, standing up and shrugging in the tiny space. The career man wondered if the surveillance station really was a closet, but pushed it out of his mind. “Best I got, it’s adrenaline. Fight or flight. Like those stories of moms who Hulk out and lift cars off their kids.”
“I dunno,” Tompson said, gesticulating animatedly toward the screen, “look at this stuff. I mean, he throws that dude like it’s nothing.”
“Whaddaya mean ‘So?’ He ripped metal bars off a teller window and fought people like Neo. It’s weird. Like ‘Fringe’ weird.”
Fox’s head tilted to one side. “The hell is ‘Fringe’?” He asked.
Tony looked at the much older Detective like he had just grown a second head. “You don’t know that show? ‘Fringe?’ On Fox? It’s about this team of FBI agents. Crazy, inexplicable stuff happens all the time, but it’s totally explained by science. JJ Abrams, man. That guy’s incredible with everything.”
Ryan felt the conversation spiraling out of control and cursed as his cell vibrated, alerting him to a text message. He flipped open the tiny phone and slapped it shut with more force than was necessary. “Speaking of FBI,” he breathed, “they’re gonna be here in ten and they’re gonna want to tear this place up. Let’s wrap this up and make copies of the tapes for us.”
“Already did,” Tony said confidently, tapping a flash drive against his palm like a gangster with a wad of bills, “I’m gonna watch this like fifty times more.”
The two Detectives shrugged on their suit jackets and marched out into the crime scene, ducking under yellow tape and sidestepping photographers that did not seem to exist in a world before “CSI.” Fox could never understand why people watched stupid cop shows like that.
“Here’s what I don’t get,” Tony mused excitedly as he walked beside the taller, broader cop, “that guy? On the tape? Neo. He’s just a kid, can’t be older than eighteen.”
Fox stopped right before the exit to the bank and turned around. “How do you know that?” He asked, more than a little frustrated. Tony had the youthful tendency to jump the gun, a bad habit that had almost blown several cases. Fox was starting to get the feeling Tompson had fallen off the “Don’t make dumb mistakes,” wagon.
Detective Tompson absent-mindedly rubbed at a spot on his dark blue tie before he explained. “Every Georgetown kid wears something G-town on their clothes and this kid arrived on foot and left on foot. Plus, you check out the clothes he’s wearing. That sweatshirt? One of the characters in those ‘Twilight’ movies wears them, and high school girls, they love them the ‘Twilight.’”
Ryan opened his mouth to speak but was stopped by Tony’s raised hands in a gesture of surrender.
“It’s a vampire series thing. It’s stupid, but the kids love it. Then you look at the way he fights. He’s not trained, he doesn’t know anything about fighting except stuff he’s seen on TV or movies…and then there’s the fact that he’s just plain scared at the end there and witnesses said his voice was kinda high. I think he’s a high schooler, I think he’s local, and I think our fed buddies are going to have a very long talk with him when they find him.”
Detective Fox took one more look at the security cameras before pushing outside to the bustling Georgetown street and the Ford Crown Victoria parked in the adjacent vacant lot. “Wish they had robbed the place after he gave a teller his name,” Ryan sighed.
“Takes the fun out of it,” Tony offered, patting his partner on the shoulder and walking slowly along the street in relative silence for a minute. “Hey,” he finally said, “this case…you know, I feel like it bothers you a little more. Why’s that?”
Ryan unlocked the door remotely and rested his elbows on the roof of the Crown Vic, and looked over the car at Tompson. “Because,” he explained, counting off the points on his fingers, “we’ve got an innocent guy who bought a teller window bar in the leg from a mystery someone who put five armed, grown men in traction. That guy’s gonna sue someone, those thugs are going to cost us who knows how much money in medical bills, and apparently we’ve got a super strong, impossibly fast teenager who doesn’t know how to fight but can go Katrina on a local bank. That, and the fact that the feds will probably dissect this kid when they find him—that’s not an ‘if,’ by the way—”
Ryan slapped his hands on the car roof and stared at the sky as if it had insulted him. “I think this guy’s local, too, and I think he was trying to help. Feds will tear that guy up, and you make an almost passable theory that he’s just a kid. That just doesn’t sit right with me. I want to find this kid first.”
A devious smile crept across Tony’s face and he slyly pulled the flash drive out of his jacket pocket. “We put this stuff up on the internet we’ll find him pretty quick,” he chuckled to Ryan’s scowl, then glanced down at his phone quickly. “All right,” he said, “I’m off. Gonna grab some Booey’s before I head back to station. I’ll catch you later.”
“I see any of this on youtube and I’ll rip your lungs out!” Ryan called after his partner. He got a casual wave over Tompson’s shoulder in reply.
As the sirens of approaching FBI vehicles bounced off the old brick and meandered around the famous cobblestones, Fox reached into the glove box of his Crown Victoria and fished out a battered soft pack of cigarettes and a lighter. As he took a guilty drag off the cancer stick, he stared at the red and blue lit crime scene and exhaled with frustration.
“Why’d you do this to me, kid?”