Dark Dragons

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Chapter 7 - Basic Training: First China National Bank

Saturday, May15

10:51 AM.

They weren’t here for the bank’s operating money. That cash would certainly contain “bait bills”——money with recorded serial numbers that could be tied to a robbery. They also had to deal with the specter of tracking devices or dye packs embedded within the cash bundles ——electronic transponders hidden near the entrance would arm the packs during the getaway and set them to explode thirty seconds later. Screw that noise, Patterson thought. They had no time for that cash.

They weren’t here for the negotiable bonds certainly locked away in the vault’s safe deposit boxes either. Those were numbered and could be traced. Diamonds and rare coins, original artworks and gold, or whatever valuable locked away by the bank’s customers could be laid off through a fence but only garner a measly 15 or 20 percent. That shit wasn’t worth the job either.

What they had come for were the six duffle bags in three safe deposit boxes containing $47 million dollars in laundered opium money that used to belong to an Afghan warlord now pushing up poppies in a shallow grave south of Lashkar Gah.

Patterson counted seven customers inside Chinatown’s largest bank, First China National: three girls working the tellers and the bank’s lone security guard, all of them Chinese-American locals. Number of employees in the back: unknown.

“Get your gook asses on the floor!” Patterson screamed. “Now!”

He didn’t have to repeat his demand. Everyone complied quickly, one lady crying, another screaming. Shit . . . to the left, a kid probably twelve or so, standing with his Oriental eyes as large as saucers, his mother trying desperately to pull him down.

“Cameras!” Patterson said.

Two 35-mm surveillance cameras in the lobby were quickly deactivated with submachine gunfire as well as the one behind the teller counter.

“Mr. Six, secure the rear!” Patterson shouted.

Sergeant, or ex-Sergeant, Billy Hoyle quickly vaulted over the teller door to scan for more employees in the back and to secure the one-way fire exit in the rear of the bank next to the drive-thru. Seconds later, a muted cry from the offices in back told Patterson that Hoyle had succeeded in finding more employees.

Ex-Sgt. George Mayfair quickly flex-cuffed the security guard’s wrists, a Chinese kid probably working part-time and wondering why he had been picked to work the Short Saturday shift. A dark and spreading dark spot around the crotch of the kid’s pants began to appear.

“Mr. Two, you’re on crowd control and collect cell phones!” Patterson shouted. “Mr. Four’s at the door! Mr. Five, Mr. Three, you’re on me!”

10:52:47 AM

Patterson and Mr. Five, a.k.a. ex-Sergeant Steve Arnold, both fired a couple of bursts of gunfire into the teller door’s lock and Mr. Three, a great demolition man by the name of Ron Fowler, kicked open the door. All of the hostages began howling, some in broken English laced with rapid Chinese. The vault was situated in the southeast corner behind the teller counters, east of the drive-thru teller window and collection of cubicles, offices and conference rooms which lay on the bank’s west side. Patterson was almost drooling.

Billy Hoyle had found three more employees in the back and had them spread eagle on the floor between the teller counter and the short corridor leading to the offices, his German submachine gun moving from hostage to hostage. “Ima kill me a gook, Mr. One! Who shall it be?”

“I’ll pick one for you later,” Patterson said smiling. Hoyle was playing the Kill Crazy Sidekick to a tee just like he had been ordered. “Steadfast, now.”

The vault door was open as it should have been during business hours, but the Plexiglas “day gate” was not. Patterson knew that the only employees with keys to the gate were the bank manager, the assistant manager and the customer services manager. “Assistant Manager Cindy Hong!” he shouted. “Front and center!”

Hoyle practically pulled the screaming woman off the floor by her hair. “Here’s a name tag that says Cindy Hong, ASM,” Hoyle growled. Black streams of mascara oozed down the woman’s face. She was biting her bottom lip.

“Your day gate key, please,” Patterson said calmly.

Cindy Hong simply looked up at him in an almost catatonic state, mumbling something under her breath. She was now drawing blood from her lip.

“Give me the fucking key, bitch!” Patterson roared, his mouth an inch from her face.

She let out a sort of grunt, her eyes slowly crossed, and Cindy Hong went limp like a fish. She fell forward against Patterson who let her drop to the floor.

“You gotta be kidding me!” he said, looking around at his comrades. He bent down and went through her skirt pockets. Nothing.

“Where’s the key?” Hoyle asked.

“Rip her clothes off!” Fowler said. “She’s probably got it hid.”

“Leave her alone!” one of the male employees shouted from the floor.

Hoyle placed a boot on the man’s neck. “Quiet, you.”

Patterson tore Cindy’s shirt off and every button went flying. Then he pulled her skirt down to her knees. “Where’s the goddamn key?”

There came a sudden movement on the corner of Patterson’s eye. He turned to see the prone Chinese man quickly knock Hoyle’s boot away and smash his balled fist up into Hoyle’s testicles. Hoyle responded to the man’s defiance with a loud, three-round crack of 9mm fire into his chest.

Screams. Shouting. Patterson could hear the little boy in the lobby crying. The Duke closed his eyes momentarily, trying to absorb what had just happened. Now they were murderers——not folk hero bank robbers who got away with $47 million and bested the LAPD. Now it was San Quentin and the needle if caught. Christ, Billy.

Hoyle staggered back like a dazed quarterback pancaked by a defensive tackle, his eyes squinted into narrow slits. “Oooooh.”

“Pull yourself together, Mr. Six!” Patterson shouted.

Hoyle let out a guttural moan and then nodded at his commanding officer. “I’m okay.”

“Mr. One, I spot something silver,” Arnold said, and bent down to seize Cindy Hong’s fist.

“You gotta be kidding me? It was in her hand all along?”

Arnold pried out a long key with a magnetic strip on its shank and gave it to Patterson.


The vault of the First China National Bank was a concrete and steel impregnable beast known in the business as a Class 1A commercial vault, constructed from the densest military-grade concrete and 3/4-inch rebar. The manufacturer made the vault door out of four inch steel with a copper layer sandwiched inside to diffuse the heat from cutting torches. Its walls and ceiling measured twelve inches thick and the floor eighteen inches. Embedded throughout was a one-inch continuous layer of carburized steel plating to foil any attempt to cut, drill, or jackhammer in. As a final thumbing of the nose to any potential robber, electronic sensors resembling window screen would trip the 211 silent alarm if penetrated or if they detected noise from an industrial drill or rising temperatures from a torch or burn bar. The gearbox containing the locking bolts inside the vault door would also sound the alarm if tampered.

Patterson and Crew had to forget the daring Saturday night burglary. The only way into this $1.1 million box had to be during business hours when the vault was open.

An average bank vault contained hundreds of safe deposit boxes of various sizes from that of a shoe box to an airport baggage locker big enough to fit a large person. The locks to these industrial-size safe deposit boxes would require a considerable time to drill through, longer than the required two minute safe period which was the average time it took for the first cop to come squealing to a halt outside the bank. If the robbers hadn’t left the bank after two minutes, they were in the danger zone, and then it was all about SWAT snipers, hostage negotiations, and the headaches that came thereafter.

But there were too many alarm buttons to keep this bank caper off the LAPD’s radar. Patterson and Crew knew about the “pagers”——remote silent alarm activators every employee had clipped to their belt or stashed in their pockets that worked exactly like the buttons under the teller counters. There were also too many bystanders outside with cell phones who witnessed armed men in gas masks storm through the door, so it was a damned certainty the cops already knew an armed robbery was in progress. They expected the LAPD to show.

And they had a plan for that, too.

Patterson unlocked the Plexiglas day gate to the open vault, and Fowler and Arnold followed him in. He flung open the stainless steel gate to the safe deposit box room, and they dropped the duffle bags each had been carrying. Inside were industrial cordless drills and a loose assortment of cobalt metal-boring bits. Their targets were the three large safe deposit boxes on the floor encased in the wall: #34, #35 and #36.

Patterson looked at his watch. 10:53 AM. Shit. “We’re at two minutes! Mr. Two and Mr. Four are now on SWAT watch!” Then he turned his attention to the task at hand. “I got number thirty-four. Five, you got thirty-five. Three, you got thirty-six. Let’s go!”

Darren was listening to the steady drone of the Dragonstar’s anti-graviton emitter, a rather soothing sound during cruise mode, and thinking of a hot make out with Vanessa Vasquez on a beach in the Maldives when Tony rudely interrupted the imagery.

Jackpot! Bank robbers, no shit! Sub-channel sixteen-seven! Get on it!’

Darren thought-triggered his fighter’s comm system and tuned to sixteen-seven, a rather garbled transmission coming from what sounded like a cop in his squad car.

“. . . advised, Unit Four, needs assistance! We have a 211 in progress at the First China National Bank at Hill and College! We have shots fired! Code Three! Shots fired! Submachine guns!”

A lady’s voice: “All units, officer requesting assistance at Hill and College at the First China National Bank. Two-eleven in progress. Shots have been fired with submachine guns.”

“Fifteen-oh-ten, requesting SWAT, Code Three!”

Another cop: “You better get a Tac Alert here, submachine gunfire coming from inside the bank!”

“Tac Alert is being declared. RA is en route, SWAT is being notified for airlift.”

‘Goddamn, listen to that!’ Tony cried.

Darren could practically hear Tony bouncing up and down in his seat.

‘Where is this?’ Darren asked.

‘The hometown, baby. Some bank in Chinatown!’

Darren remembered reading somewhere that there were around 3,500 banks throughout the L.A. metro area, which held the regretful reputation as the Bank Robbery Capital of the World. Great. Tony got the Shit Storm he had been praying for. And a bank robbery to boot.

“Fifteen-oh-four, we got three black-and-whites on location! We’re being pinned down by submachine gunfire! We’re gonna need a CP established farther away! We still got traffic coming through!”

“We need a supervisor out here NOW!”

“Be advised, supervisor en route. All units, be advised that there is still traffic moving around the location.”

“Fifteen-oh-ten, there are at least three suspects inside the bank, one outside shooting randomly with a submachine gun, all wearing body armor and gas masks!”

“All units, three confirmed suspects and one outside the bank with a submachine gun. Suspects are wearing body armor and gas masks. ASTRO units are inbound, SWAT en route.”

‘Okay, fearless leader, what’s the plan?’ Tony asked.

‘What?’ Darren shouted. ’You asshole! You’re the one who sniffed out this ‘basic training,’ you figure it out!’

‘Okay, I say we go invisible. Fighters and all. We do a plop-and-drop, put the fighter’s on remote and send them out of visible range, say, seventy thousand feet, so they don’t have to waste energy running invisibility. We stay ghosts and find a way into the bank that doesn’t attract attention.’

‘Then what?’

‘Then it’s up to you to figure out the close-quarter combat shit, that’s what.’

Darren closed his eyes, his attention tuned back to the soothing hum of the anti-graviton emitter. He couldn’t see the outcome to this. Improvised action and hostage rescue? Them? Darren had no doubt about their close quarter combat “training”——they had plenty of hypnotized conditioning stored to memory that would please the most demanding SEAL or Green Beret commander——but was that enough? Tony was right about them needing practice, but Jesus, a bank robbery? No, screw that crap.

‘We’re not getting involved. We’re going to sit back and observe the SWAT teams. We can learn a lot just from watching.’

‘C’mon, Darren, you know there’s hostages,’ Tony said. ‘We’re invisible ghosts! Futuristic war gods of the ninth dimension. We can sneak in and literally walk up to a bad guy and bring his ass down with a head shot. Badda bing, it’s over.’

‘We’re not going in with guns blazing like Yosemite Sam! We don’t know the bank’s lay out. We don’t know jack about the bank robbers, or if they’re hopped up on meth and got booby-traps set up and hostages duct-taped to the front windows.’

‘Darren, you know how this bank robbery stuff plays out. It could go on for hours with the negotiations, trading hostages for pizzas and cigarettes, and all that back-and-forth shit . . . and you want us to just sit back and wait for the bad guys to get religion and come out with their hands up? What kind of close-quarter ass-kicking is that?’

They were above Arizona now, heading west and descending slowly. They would be over L.A. in twenty seconds. Darren was suddenly feeling cold. ’Alright, we obviously can’t make decisions until we enter the bank. As soon as we achieve situational awareness, I’ll make my decision concerning possible action. Clear?

‘Yes, sir.’ Tony replied. Nate and Jorge, as usual, said nothing.

Definitely cold now. Darren now knew the outcome to this. He didn’t have to know the bank’s lay out or if the robbers were wearing ladies underwear. Tony——who once took on half the football team because they made fun of his tattoos, who once jumped on the hood of a moving car, whose quick mouth always landed him in detention, the Video Game Loose Cannon who could never finish a level because he always rushed his actions and got killed——desired nothing more than to walk into a bank robbery-turned-hostage barricade and start shooting.

Darren thought of the unthinkable. Of Tony accidently squeezing the trigger on a hostage or a SWAT officer storming through the front door . . . and Darren pulling his own trigger on Tony to stop him.

The guys descended on downtown L.A. with their cloaks running, and the first thing Darren noticed were several news helicopters hovering over Chinatown and a pair of LAPD Astar choppers providing aerial recon. He had the others hang back at one thousand feet while he swooped down a bit further to get a better look. Invisible and silent, his Dragonstar dipped below a KTLA news chopper and pulled up twenty feet above the bank’s parking lot.

He scanned his surroundings. Four SWAT snipers visible. Black and white patrol cars on every corner, sides turned toward the bank, uniformed cops strategically positioned behind the engine blocks with AR-15’s pointed at the bank. Broken glass and bullet holes everywhere. Lots of cops hanging out in front of the Fortunate Dragon restaurant down the street——where they look like they set up a command post. Several black Ford Explorers everywhere—— probably SWAT transports. An armored L.A. County Sheriff LAV with a top-mounted .50 caliber machine gun parked in the intersection. No bad guys outside shooting at the cops. Looks like the drive-thru teller window has been shot out——possible entry point there. ’Set ’em down, guys,’ he ordered. ‘Me first, Jorge, Tony and Nate. Form up and drop. Go, ready.’

Darren quickly lowered his Dragonstar ten feet off the deck, activated his suit’s own invisibility cloak and popped the windshield. He sent a thought-command to the auto-pilot, instructing the fighter to ascend to seventy thousand feet in five seconds, deactivate its invisibility and await further instructions.

He shut down the thought-unit which readjusted his brain to “real time”——he felt ringing in his ears, and the world around him appeared to stutter like a film——and everything slowed down. The sensation of the real world felt bogged down, heavy, the air thick.

Darren unplugged himself, grabbed his pulse rifle from the compartment above the seat, and jumped out of the cockpit. The bright sun overhead hammered his suit’s cloak, the receptors howling under the stress. He had to find cover in three minutes, or he would be in a world of visible shit. He looked up at the blue ultrasonic image of his Dragonstar quickly rising into the black sky and Jorge’s fighter replacing its position ten feet above the parking lot. Another chopper roared overhead.

Darren quickly jogged toward the rear of the bank and the shattered drive-thru window. Once under the drive-thru roof and out of the sunlight, his cloak gathered less power from the suit generator. He now had twelve minutes of invisibility remaining as long as he stayed out of the sun.

Attached to his helmet, the three remote-controlled recon camera scouts signaled that their tiny hover motors were primed. Darren told one to float through the broken window and take a peek inside. Free from the suit’s cloak, the tiny scout became visible, but Darren sent it quickly through the window and up to the ceiling. Darren’s “fly on the wall” showed him everything.

Three bad guys in the lobby with twelve . . . thirteen . . . fourteen hostages on the floor. No——thirteen hostages. One body on the floor behind the teller counter, blood everywhere.

“They cacked somebody already,” he whispered to his squad.

His RCS slid across the ceiling to hit more angles. Nothing. Panning right, Darren spotted the opening to the vault. The little scout darted to the floor and zipped forward. Panning left into the vault. Nothing. Moving forward. The RCS went under a metal cash cart along the right wall to scan the vault’s counting room across the floor. Still nothing. Panning right——bingo——three more bad guys in the safe deposit room with drills. Darren had his scout leave the vault and scan the bank’s west side. Only offices and conference rooms here, all empty. After thirty seconds of scanning the interior, Darren summoned his scout to hold position near the drive-thru window. A three-dimensional battle map of the bank appeared at the bottom of his visor.

“Six bad guys total. Three in the lobby, three in the vault. Thirteen live hostages and one dead behind the teller counter. We’re going through the window and to the left into one of the offices. We’ll stack up there for a bit. Jorge, you’re on me. Two by two.”

Darren and Jorge both leaped up into the window, sailed over the counter and landed on the plush carpet, their weapons up and sweeping. Tony and Nate came through next. The four of them slowly walked to the area behind the teller counter and to the left toward the collection of offices. Darren could only see the 3D, ultrasonic image of the body lying on the floor, so he summoned his RCS to get a real look.

The dead man’s brass ID said, Michael Zyang, Home Equity Financing. He was particularly small, even for a man of Oriental descent. Had he given the robbers shit, or was he just a weak-looking guy who had incurred the robbers’ wrath precisely for that reason?

Darren realized he was gritting his teeth. More fucking bullies.

He pressed his pulse rifle tighter to him and moved up the corridor away from the chaos in the lobby. He had his RCS hover above the door to provide a look out, and quietly closed the door. The guys shut off their invisibility.

Darren opened his visor and sucked in a large gulp of cool, air conditioned air.

“Now what, Darren?” Nate asked.

Darren did not answer. He leaned against the wall and stared at the ceiling

Patterson’s drill bit suddenly went through. He had finally broken the cylinder bolt after five minutes and three cobalt bits.

“I smell green, boys!”

He dropped the drill, and a crowbar finished his work on safe deposit box #34. The Duke flung the door open and had to forcefully drag the nylon duffle bag out with one boot against the wall——173 pounds to be exact, he knew. That’s how much $7.8 million in Ben Franklins weighed. He zipped the bag open and examined the fifty thousand dollar bricks inside, each one shrunk wrapped and stamped with the seal of the Royal Bank of Bahrain where the opium warlords of Afghanistan had originally deposited them ten months earlier. Still untraceable and clean as a virgin’s honeypot.

“Margaritaville here we come!” Patterson roared as he wrestled the second bag to safety.

Fowler and Arnold yelped in victory.

The early-warning receivers began to beep for attention in their earphones.

“Oh great, what’s this?” Darren wondered.

Everyone quickly highlighted the prompt on their helmet visors and each obtained a live sub-space feed from both surveillance satellite drones. A green, rotating line-display of the solar system appeared along with telemetry data in Xrel script. The fifth orbital ring was blinking yellow——Jupiter. Darren zoomed in, and the gas giant planet’s transparent computer image suddenly reared up to full magnification along with its family of sixty-plus moons. One of the moon orbits was flashing red . . . Io. Again, Darren zoomed in and saw several patches of indiscriminate haze orbiting the moon. GAMMA-RAY SIGNATURES PRESENT — IONIZED MEDIUM DETECTED.

“Anti-matter engines,” Darren said. “Looks like the Vorvons are orbiting Io. Why, I don’t know. And here we are playing cops and robbers. Let’s get out to the lobby, kick some ass, and get the hell out of here.”

One of the phones on the teller counter began ringing. Mr. Four, aka ex-Sgt. Devon Washington, shouldered his German submachine gun and calmly strode over. His job now was to communicate with the police negotiator in an agitated manner, despite his actual composure. This would let the SWAT commander know that they had kill-crazy psycho-gods on their hands and a long Dog Day Afternoon lay ahead. This incident had to play out as long as possible for it all to work.

“Get into character, Mr. Four,” Hoyle said with a grin. “’Mother fucker this and mother fucker that’ works pretty good.”

“Don’t forget to ask for smokes,” Mayfair said.

Washington smiled and picked up the phone, his face going rigid. “Yeah?”

“Kill ’em all!” came a screaming voice from the other end. “Jesus commands thee to kill all the gooks! All of ’em by God! Wipe the locusts from Canaan! Cleanse the wicked gooks from——”

Washington hung up the phone and chuckled.

“What?” Hoyle asked.

“The cops haven’t isolated the bank’s phone service yet.”

“Prank call?”

Washington nodded. “Probably some stoned redneck sitting in front of his TV.”

Mayfair laughed. “Cock in one hand, remote in the other!”

“These guys are too calm, yo,” Nate whispered over the comm, standing against the wall in the lobby. “They act like everything’s gonna be all right.”

“Like they know they’re going to get out of here with no problem.” Tony agreed. “I bet there’s loads of dirty cops outside who are in on the score. Some real movie-style shit’s gonna go down, you wait.”

“What do think they got planned, Darren?”

“Don’t know,” he replied. He was too busy watching the three guys in the vault cracking open the safe deposit boxes with his recon scout. Those bags looked heavy. Just how were they going to get them out? A daring helicopter assault, maybe. Whatever they had planned, the hostages were likely going along for the getaway as human shields. Darren couldn’t see any other way for the bad guys to make this all work.

“We’re so close, Darren,” Tony whispered. “Fifteen feet away and we can smoke these three in the lobby.”

“Hold your horses,” Darren replied. The three robbers in the vault began a slow procession into the area behind the teller counter, dragging the duffle bags behind them.

“Mr. Two, Mr. Four and Mr. Six,” one of the robbers shouted. “Get them up! Thirteen asses off the floor!”

“Darren?” Tony said with unmistakable agitation.

Some of the hostages were crying, pleading. One little old Chinese lady held a picture of a woman out for the robbers to see, but her unintelligible cries went unanswered. The three guys ordered the hostages behind the teller counter——and corralled them all into the vault. The other three robbers had dragged all six duffle bags into the hallway outside the large conference room across from the office where the guys had sought shelter.

“What’s going on?” Jorge asked.

One of the telephones behind the teller counter began to ring.

“Mr. Four, you’re up,” one of the robbers, apparently the leader, said.

“On it, major.”

Oops, Darren thought. Thanks for that intel, Mr. Four.

“These guys are military,” Nate said. “Special ops, I bet.”

The bad guys herded the last of the hostages into the vault, and the massive stainless steel door slowly swung shut. The turn wheel to the locking bolts was spun, and the hostages were now locked inside. No human shields for the getaway. How were the robbers getting out with six duffle bags they could hardly lift?

Mr. Four picked up the phone.

“Keep dem SWAT ma’fuckas from tha bank, ya here?” Washington shouted real gangsta-style.

“I understand, no one’s going to harm you, alright?”

“Whadya want?”

“I want to talk, okay? My name is Sergeant John Randal.”

Washington paused on purpose for a few seconds, and then said, “My name’s Lewis.”

“Okay, Lewis. That’s good. I just want to know if everything is okay in there. Is there anybody hurt? I’d like to——”

“Hurt? Yeah, s’body hurt, man, we didn’ mean to. He shot up real bad. Dead now. We didn’ mean to!”

“How are you, Lewis?”

Textbook, Washington thought with a grin. The cop didn’t want to acknowledge that a murder had been committed. Any mention of a dead hostage would force hopelessness on the robbers, and negotiations would just go south from there. “I’m okay. We’re okay. We just thought we’d be in and out. Two minutes, you know. In and out, but things got fucked up an’——”

“It’s okay, man.”

“——didn’ go as plan, ya know.”

“Okay. Lewis, I want to talk about the other people inside. The customers and employees. Let’s talk about letting some of them go, okay?”

“What for?”

“For anything you might need.”

Patterson gave Washington the rolling motion with his hand, telling him to keep talking. Meanwhile, the Duke pulled out a jam-proof handheld radio from his flak jacket and pushed the TRANSMIT button. A single VHF chirp went out. Two seconds later, he received a double-chirp.

“Mr. Seven says, ‘Fire in the hole,’” he whispered to his squad.


Darren felt the floor vibrate and the air in the bank push outward. One of the tall windows cracked. Everyone aimed their pulse rifles toward the robbers standing in the corridor outside the offices. But none of the robbers moved.

“You gotta be shittin’ me?” Darren said, looking at his RCS image.

A three foot hole had opened in the conference room floor.

What the Army liked to call an M112 Composition C4 Block Demolition Charge had done the trick. Patterson peeled back a chunk of torn carpet and peeked down the hole. “Hello, Sergeant Davies.”

A skinny guy wearing khaki shorts and a Hawaiian aloha shirt popped up like a bunny rabbit and smiled. “Hello, major.”

“What was that explosion, Lewis? Is everything okay in there?”

“Jus’ the vault man. Safe deposit boxes. Gotta get ’em open somehow.” Washington purposely paused again. Then, “Look, I gotta go help get the money out, an’ ’member, keep them SWAT away from the bank. My man is watchin’ both sides.”

“Lewis, don’t hang up, just——”

But Washington did just that.

Three seconds later, the phone began ringing again.

Patterson smiled and pulled Sgt. Davies out of the hole, brushing dirt off his shoulders. Over the past five nights, they had tunneled in from the storm sewer system by cutting through the side of the pipe and excavating forty feet to a point below the foundation concrete under the bank’s conference room. There were 1,500 miles of storm drains below the city of Los Angeles ranging in size from twelve inch gutter pipes to huge culverts big enough to swallow an MTA bus. Separate from the sewer system, the storm drain pipes currently had no more than a trickle of water during this dry month of May. So to dispose of the excavated earth, they had simply sandbagged all of the dirt and built a dam upstream from the tunnel entrance. When the trickle of water became a two foot reservoir at the end of each night’s dig, they hacked open each sandbag, and the rushing water simply carried the dirt downstream. Seven 4-wheel ATVs were waiting to be loaded inside the Hill Street culvert. The getaway van sat two miles away in an abandoned warehouse parking lot in Lincoln Heights.

“Okay, Delta, we’re Charles Bronson in The Great Escape,” Patterson said.

The phone was still ringing . . . and ringing. . . .

“Delta Force,” Tony said. “Counterterrorist-soldiers-turned-murdering bank robbers, and they’re getting away. Cops don’t have a clue.”

“They had to have heard that explosion,” Nate said.

“You heard that one robber. Told the cop it was them blowing up the vault. I’m telling you, in fifteen minutes the SWAT teams will be storming an empty bank with hostages locked in the vault, a dead body, and a hole in the floor. This sucks!”

Yet, there was a sense of alleviation in Darren’s chest. For some reason, he just wanted the robbers to go. Michael Zyang demanded justice, yes, but Darren had the itchiest feeling that they had wandered into a disconcerting situation far above their level despite their technological edge, and they weren’t ministers of justice and punishment. They weren’t cops. Practice? Shit. They didn’t need practice. Why were they not beating hell-bent for Jupiter right now where the real threat lay? Why . . . why has the phone stop ringing?

“Yeah?” Tony said with a nervous voice. “Are you the police?”

Darren turned and saw that Tony had bent down behind the teller counter and had taken off his helmet so that he could talk on the phone. He was visible.

Tony talked very strangely——like he was acting. “Hi, Sergeant Randal, m’name’s Vinny. I’ve been hiding in one of the back rooms. They never found me. Look, I gotta tell you something. They’ve got all of the hostages locked in the vault. And they blew a hole in the floor in one of the offices. There’s a tunnel under the bank. . . .”

Tony, what are you doing? Darren thought.

“. . . yeah, you heard me. A tunnel. They’re dropping the money bags right now. They’re gonna get away.” Tony paused, listening. “Yeah, everyone’s locked in the vault but me. You want me to come out or stay hidden . . . come out . . . with my hands up? Okay, man. Huh? Yeah, I’m telling you everyone else is locked in the vault.” Tony hung up and put his helmet back on, reactivating his cloak.

“That was very stupid,” Darren said.

“Are you kidding? What the hell is wrong with you, anyway, Seymour? They’re not going to get away now. I bet the SWAT will start popping every manhole cover for three square blocks. There’ll be a short gunfight, couple dead here and there, then the bad guys drop their gats and raise their hands. Robbery over. That’s what you wanted, right? Let the cops do the work, and we sit tight and watch the show . . . right, chicken-shit? I’m just following your chicken-shit orders!” So much malice had filled his voice, it threw Darren back a bit. Being scolded by a first-rate chaos-maker like Tony Simmons was just too much. That was Darren’s usual job. And it stung. . . .

. . . stung because Tony was right. Tony had seen further into the future, and had the battle plans already drawn. Just who in the hell was leader here?

Darren’s suit sensors detected movement outside the bank beyond the shattered drive-thru window. Five SWAT officers in body armor had suddenly gathered around a manhole cover in the parking lot, their MP5 submachine guns pointed down. Still invisible, Darren approached the front of the bank and looked through the busted glass. Every manhole cover up and down the street had five SWAT officers each standing around them. Then at the same time, one cop at each cover bent down and rent it off, and they began pouring into the storm drains.

Darren didn’t like this. Something felt . . . wrong. His ears were ringing strangely. Goosebumps were forming under his sub-suit. Was he having a premonition? A sickening feeling of the SWAT underestimating their adversaries churned in his gut. He knew SWAT were highly-trained, but up against former Delta counterterrorist operatives? This shit was going to get ugly.

That ugliness began about five seconds later when the sound of muffled gunfire exploded from the hole in the conference room. Intermittent blasts of submachine gun fire. Incomprehensible shouts. A man screaming. Then a heavy detonation——grenade?

“Jesus, listen to that,” Tony said with a chuckle.

“Appreciating your handy work?” Darren asked.

Darren couldn’t see Tony’s expression under his helmet visor but knew it had to be one fit for spite. “Just . . . following . . . orders.”

“Why didn’t you tell that Sergeant Randal that they were dealing with Delta Force troopers? That would have been a valuable piece of intel for the cops to know, you think?”

Tony didn’t answer. Then, “I don’t know. I forgot, I guess.”

“You forgot? That was convenient.”

“You think I did that on purpose? Like I wanted the cops to get plugged?”

”I don’t know, Tony, but it sure is turning out to be a costly mistake on your part!”

“What is your motherfucking problem!” Tony shouted at him. “I told you, I forgot!”

The argument came to an abrupt end when something they hadn’t expected suddenly happened: the bad guys were retreating back into the bank.

“There goes your storm drain surrender,” Darren growled.

A scared voice: “They got Fowler! Fowler’s gone, man!”

“I know, I know!”

“I got three of them! Dumb bastards!”

Patterson shoved Arnold’s ass up and out of the way as he climbed out of the hole. “Body checks!”

Everyone looked one another over, searching for wounds.

“Shit!” Hoyle shouted.

“What?” Patterson asked. “Where you hurt?”

Hoyle stared at the wall. “I’m not hurt. It’s just . . . . shit, man. I’m gonna get that San Quentin needle, now. Shit!”

“Relax, Billy. We prepared for this possibility. You know that. So we move to the back-up plan. Just like we designed. We’re going to get out of here, okay? We got the SWAT snipers where we want them and their entry teams bottlenecked. Okay? Act like you knew this was going to happen. We are going to get out of here clean. Mayfair, Arnold, Hoyle——get the bags back up here. Everyone else in the lobby.”

Snipers where they want them? The entry teams bottlenecked? That sick feeling was still rumbling in Darren’s stomach. Backup plans of unknown design had been drawn, drastic steps taken to ensure a successful getaway. Plan B. The robbers’ intelligence and audacity were chilling. These were pros.

“Tony, you got any ideas?” Darren asked with not a drop of sarcasm in his voice but with genuine counsel.

Tony, of course, heard Darren’s tone otherwise. “I don’t know anymore!” he shot back.

Darren let out a slow pacifying breath. Gotta stay focused, united. Tony doesn’t trust me. And I don’t trust him . . . gotta work on the leadership skills.

The robbers’ leader, the tallest one they called Major——Darren couldn’t see facial features because they were still wearing gas masks——pointed at the man wearing the flowered shirt and khaki shorts. “Sergeant Davies . . . assume the position.”

Davies gave a curt nod with an uncomfortable expression. He raised his hands high above his head and walked toward the tall floor-to-ceiling window, staring out at the cops with a phony look of terror on his face.

The major then pulled off his gas mask——long shaggy black hair with a short mustache and piercing blue eyes, a long ropey scar on his right cheek——and picked up the same phone Tony had just used earlier. A moment later, “Glad to meet you Sergeant Randal. Are you looking at the front window . . . ? Good. My demand is a simple one . . . you will contact one of your pilots to land his Astar in the parking lot behind the bank. If the chopper’s not on the deck in three minutes, we will plug the hostage now pressed against the glass and proceed to kill one hostage for every five minutes of your inconvenience. I will also impress upon you not to send in the assault teams before the three minutes are up . . . I’m sure that you’re now aware of our combat skills and any additional deaths of SWAT officers today would sap the LAPD’s already crumbling morale . . . by the way, tell your man on the roof of the Wei Hong that his .308 is exposed. I can shoot out his scope from here.” Click.

Darren really had no choice but to smile, despite his contempt. They guys were good.

Sierra Three on the roof of the Wei Hong gift shop peered through his scope and watched the five-man entry team approach the bank’s windowless east side in wedge formation. They disappeared slowly around the corner toward the drive-thru. Moments later, a second five-man team approached the bank from the same line and slowly rounded the corner toward the front, MP5 submachine guns out and primed.

“Sierra Three to TOC, principals are in position,” he said into his throat mike.

“Here they come, major,” the man at the window said through clenched teeth.

“Darren,” Tony said with unmistakable dread in his voice.

Darren already had two of his RCS’s outside the bank. “I see them, Tony,” he whispered. Two SWAT teams. Ten officers. Ten weapons primed for assault.

“That’s not it!” Tony whispered hard over their comm.

“What is it then?” Darren shot back with his own whisper.

He saw one of the robbers closest to him suddenly whirl around, his weapon raised in Darren’s direction. He had apparently heard Darren’s muffled words.

“Our cloaks!” Tony said.

Darren’s eyes snapped to the four now very faint power bars in the upper left corner of his visor display, each bar representing the power level of each suit.

They all had just seconds of invisibility remaining.

Aw, shit! They had completely forgotten about the time limit to their energy-sucking invisibility cloaks. It just so happened that he would be the first to appear in about fifteen seconds, then Jorge followed by Nate and Tony. Robbers spoiling for a fight. Now SWAT ready to storm the bank. No way out. The Doppler radar screen in Darren’s mind showed a huge green shitstorm with flashing spots of yellow and red bearing down on the bank.

“Get into position,” Darren said. “Hit the walls and stay low.”

“There it is again!” roared the robber named Mr. Six. “I’m telling you, there’s someone else here with us!” He swept his weapon in wide arcs, slowly strolling closer toward Darren.

“What are you talking about?” one of the others asked.

“I thought I heard whispering earlier, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t just hear it again.”

“Stay focused, Hoyle!” the major ordered.

That’s when Darren noticed that the major had something which looked like——a detonator?——in his hand. He could clearly see the guy’s thumb over a large black button and a long wiggling antenna sticking out. What has he got in his hand?

And then it came to him suddenly, aggressively, like a blade through the chest. . . .

Booby trap.

“Entry Team One to TOC, we’re in position.”

“Entry Team Two to TOC, we’re in position.”

Seconds later: “TOC to entry teams, you are cleared for action. Go when ready.”

Patterson was prepared for this. Geared up for all the green tea in China. For all of the hard earned currency and ten months planning. He shivered all over with the anticipation for needed violence, his thumb caressing the button. No way was he going to lose his forty-seven million.

They had, during the course of their planning, not only cased the bank, but likely SWAT sniper positions around the building, and they had discovered only four angles from which to fire into the bank’s interior. The four SWAT snipers outside were not aware that they were about to depart this world painlessly, courtesy of four explosives carefully hidden two nights ago. The entry team at the one-way exit near the drive-thru, probably a five-man squad, likely had that door rigged with a C2 breaching charge. Washington and Mayfair were on them. Arnold and Hoyle had the entry team outside the front windows, and Patterson had the snipers’ testicles clenched in his fist. Fourteen dead cops coming right up.

Suddenly, something dark took shape in front of him, just to his left. It hadn’t been there before . . . had it? Some sinister-looking . . . thing . . . black from head to boot had just materialized impossibly before his eyes. His first fleeting impression was Star Wars. Boba Fett had just appeared in the lobby of the First China National Bank, he thought. Some absurd creature from the future had violated the present with its existence, and it was pointing something at him which upon the first shards of horror to enter his mind looked like——

His right arm just above the elbow exploded in a cloud of bone and flesh, the detonator flying like a discarded toy thrown by a brooding child. There came a second shot. Patterson reflexively inhaled in surprise and then realized he hadn’t inhaled at all——his lungs failed to suck air, and he looked down to see why.

Oh. . . .

The vision of lying on a tropical beach with a cold cocktail suddenly came and went when Patterson saw that a ragged hole the size of a softball had been punched clean through his Kevlar, into his chest, and out the back. Patterson’s last sentient perception of the world was the sight of his blood splattered across the wall behind him as he slowly spun around and collapsed.

Darren swung his weapon around, went to one knee and pulsed off a single laser shot into Mr. Six. The 50-kilowatt blast punched a cavity clean through his chest and drove him into the air where he landed, limbs flailing, hard into the teller counter.

Just as Jorge appeared, the remaining robbers returned fire. A split second of hot panic seized Darren when bright sparks suddenly erupted across his suit like angry insects trying to sting him, but the 9mm armor-piercing rounds were simply shattering harmlessly off his alien armor. Nate materialized over by the window. Tony appeared two seconds later at the teller.

Mr. Five’s head and right arm disappeared when Jorge tore into him with just two blasts from his rifle. That’s when the back door blew in with a deafening explosion and a flashbang grenade arced into the area behind the teller counter. The explosion momentarily stunned the last two robbers who had been firing on the “aliens” in the lobby. Two SWAT officers quickly duck-walked into the bank and took the two bad guys down with short jerks from their submachine guns, more SWAT pouring through from the back.

A second flashbang went off, tossed through the shattered front window from the other SWAT team facing the street. Their alien suits absorbed the shock and flash, protecting them from incapacitation, but Sgt. Davies still playing hostage against the glass hadn’t been so lucky. He let out a funny grunt and fell to the floor.

Just as Darren spotted the first SWAT officer storming through the front glass, his head suddenly jerked hard to the right as if he had been struck with a baseball bat, and he staggered back, his feet spinning before he could finally steady himself. His suit’s Incoming Fire Sensor retraced the path of a single .308 round back to a sniper who had just got Darren with a head shot from the roof of a gift shop across the street. Darren put the crosshairs on the brick ledge just under the sniper and returned fire with a pair of laser bursts. Shards of brick and mortar exploded, and the sniper recoiled out of sight.

Then came an almost comical moment, a span of about four or five seconds of God-like invincibility, when Darren, Jorge, Nate and Tony had their backs to one another in a circled wagon formation and simply stood there while a harmless rain of armor-piercing full metal jacket exploded across their suits. Bright showers of sparks and bits of copper and steel poured off them, and it grew so thick that the carpet at their feet began to smolder. Darren could feel the bullet strikes through his armor, and he let a slow grin cross his face. It felt like Magic Fingers.

WHAP! Another sniper, this one across the street at the Wuhan Gardens restaurant, played his head like a Jack-in-the-Box again. Annoyed, Darren aimed his rifle and EPG launcher and pumped a single grenade programed with a direct-impact detonation. The grenade struck where Darren wanted, that being the driver’s side door of a silver Toyota Camry parked in front of the restaurant. The explosion flipped the fiery vehicle up and off the street and slammed it topside into the front of the Wuhan Gardens.

Three of the SWAT outside recoiled out of the way from the windows, but the other two actually began to enter the bank with their MP5’s blazing uselessly. What they were attempting to do, Darren couldn’t tell, because they surely had to realize by now that their weapons were no more than squirt guns.

Enough of this. Darren sent a thought-command to his rifle, powering down the intensity level to its lowest setting and went for their legs, hoping his weapon wouldn’t still maim and tear. A single shot into the nearest cop’s thigh blew the Kevlar kneepad off and jerked his entire leg backward off the floor. The man screamed and fell, Darren satisfied to see him still intact but with a likely second-degree burn and a shattered bone or two. Just a few days in the hospital with a bullshit story to tell his buddies. Jorge followed suit and put the other cop down, his shot to the left shin. Oooo, that’s definitely broken.

Tony and Nate slowly ambled toward the teller counter with their pulse rifles in “room broom” mode, sweeping low-powered vollies of laser fire into the suspended ceiling panels above the SWAT officers’ heads. The five cops didn’t need further convincing, already halfway toward the exit. One of them actually performed a beautiful swan dive through the shattered drive-thru window, and Darren heard Tony laud the accomplishment with mad laughter

“Clear!” Nate said from the back door.

“Clear!” Jorge followed from the front, now guarding their two agonized prisoners writhing on the floor.

Darren walked up to one of the officers and pointed his weapon directly in the guy’s face. The cop stopped moaning and squirming. Through the man’s goggles, Darren saw his eyes go wide.

“Take your weapon and crawl out,” Darren said through the speaker under his visor.

The cop did as ordered. So did his buddy.

“Nate,” Darren said. “Stay back there and cover the rear. Jorge cover the front.” Despite his helmet’s temperature exchanger, sweat continued to drip off his burning face. He opened his visor to let the bank’s air conditioning help but the shattered windows and glass entry doors had let out the cool air. The only thing Darren received was the overpowering stench of blood and spent gunpowder. In fact there was gore everywhere. What hadn’t been splattered with blood had been thoroughly peppered with bullet holes and laser scorch marks. Desks overturned. Computer monitors shattered. Loan applications, brochures, and withdraw envelopes scattered across the floor. Smoke from the flashbangs still lingered. Darren immediately thought of Apocalypse Now with the reverberating whump-whump of helicopters outside drowning out all other sounds. I love the smell of laser-burned flesh in the morning!

Darren bent down and yanked his helmet off just a split second before he vomited all over the floor, eyes watering. He spit out the last of the puke from his mouth and took a swig of water from the fountain on the wall to wash the stinging bile from his throat.

“Y’alright, man?” Tony asked.

Darren nodded. His first experience of the terrors of combat. Well, it wasn’t all that terrifying, he admitted to himself, since they had the technological edge and surprise on their side——and they had used those two elements excellently. But where they had succeeded on those levels, they had clearly screwed up on others. Lack of thorough intelligence being the most obvious, and Darren’s unwillingness to charge quickly into the situation. His brain was scrambling too fast for him to go down the list. He’d do that later.

“So this is combat,” Tony murmured, looking around. Darren couldn’t tell if Tony was appalled or worshipful of the carnage they had created. Probably both.

“What do we do now?” Nate asked.

Darren was about to answer, but the phone was ringing again. The four of them all turned and faced the telephone sitting on the only desk which hadn’t been destroyed.

“Do we talk?” Tony asked.

“Yes.” Darren walked over and picked up the receiver. “Hello?”

“My name is Sergeant John Randal. Who am I speaking to?” The guy’s voice was deep and full of authority but with just a touch of solace.

Darren suddenly felt odd. Shameful. His stomach was rumbling again, but he had nothing left to puke. I’m not the bad guy, man. “Darren.”

At this, Tony made a grunt and rolled his eyes at him. “Don’t tell ’em your name,” he rasped.

“Darren, this may seem like a weird question . . . but who are you?”

“What do you mean?” But Darren knew what he meant. He knew the cops realized they were now in a situation that clearly wasn’t following the normal procedure of a bank robbery gone sour. However, the man’s question had another angle to it as well. Who are you? Darren looked around him, swallowed some more spit to soothe his stinging throat.

“Our spotters say that you opened fire on the suspects before our officers entered the bank. And that you . . . appeared . . . to be avoiding direct fire on those officers.”

“That’s right.”

“So am I to hope that I’m dealing with a person who clearly follows law and order?”

“Yes, you are.”

“I’m glad to hear that. Are the hostages okay?”

“They’re still locked in the vault.”

“How many?”

“Thirteen. The bad guys killed one already. He’s behind the teller counter.”

“Okay. So what are your intentions Darren?”

“That depends entirely on your intentions, sir.” Darren closed his eyes and took in a big breath. He hoped what he was about to say didn’t come out too clumsy. “Listen very carefully to me, Sergeant Randal. As you’ve already guessed, we’re not the bank robbers. We . . . thought we could help. But it didn’t turn out exactly how we wanted. Now here’s the important part. Give us three minutes to clear out of the bank. You won’t see us going. Just trust me in saying that we will not open fire on anyone. Just stay off the bank for three minutes and then you can enter. All of the robbers are dead except for the guy knocked out by the front window wearing the flower shirt. He’s not a hostage. If you try to enter before the three minutes, we will open fire, and it won’t be leg shots. I’m sure you’re aware that our suits can block anything you fire at us including the .50 cal on the LAV down the street, so please heed my warning. We’ll be getting the hostages out in just a minute. The explosion you’re going to hear is just us blowing the vault so don’t get itchy for action, alright, sergeant?”

“I understand.”

Darren hung up.

“Just leave the hostages where they are,” Nate said. “Cops’ll get ’em out later anyway.”

“I want this guy’s trust,” Darren replied. “Besides . . . one of my RCS scouts is locked inside.”

“Nice one, Seymour,” Tony cracked.

Darren put his helmet back on and lowered the visor with a thought-command. All thirteen of the hostages were scattered around the inside, sitting on the floor, leaning against the walls, some bored, some apprehensive. One guy, a distinguished looking Chinese-American in a business suit, kept looking at his watch and was clearly pissed off by the acidic look on his face and seemed to be missing a rather pressing engagement. Four of them were too close to the vault door for Darren to blow it. He looked down at the telephone and the list of extensions on the left side, and without taking off his helmet, picked up the receiver and pressed VAULT.

“Come on, somebody answer,” he said after about ten seconds of ringing. He could see that everyone was looking at one another, not sure what to do. Finally, Mr. I-Don’t-Have-Time-For-This-Shit made a move for the red telephone on the wall next to the count room door.


Through the speaker on his helmet, Darren said, “This is the police. We’re going to blow the vault door. Get everyone into the safe deposit box room and cover your ears.”

Darren made sure the last person had entered the far room before he raised his left arm toward the vault door. He placed the gauss gun’s sights to his helmet visor and aimed for the gearbox containing the locking bolts. Darren wasn’t sure what acceleration rate to use. He had various rates programed for different armor-piercing applications but not for a stainless steel bank vault. Too slow, and the slug would just disintegrate and leave a gouge. Too fast, and the slug would zip clean through like a pin through butter and not release its kinetic energy into the door. He selected a happy medium of five thousand feet per second. “Fire in the hole!”

The single recoilless blast blew the entire door! The kinetic energy sent an explosion of heat and chunks of molten stainless steel in every direction. Darren had the sudden feeling of spinning, and then realized he was upside-down and flying backward through the air. He landed on his back ten feet from where he had been standing. The end of the teller counter was gone, the suspended ceiling panels blown away revealing the bank’s steel rafters, and the day gate had twisted like a pretzel and embedded itself into the wall on the other side of the vault.

Tony, worshiper in the Church of Chaos and the Unexpected, shouted, “Hammer of the gods!”

Resisting the urge to tell Tony to STFU, Darren got up and waved his arms through the dust and entered the vault. Everyone appeared to be okay, several people wiggling fingers in their ears trying to undent their eardrums.

“Sweet freedom, people. Everybody out!”

The moment he spoke, everyone stopped to stare. Darren shared an awkward moment with them for about five silent seconds before he finally squeezed a laser pulse into the floor.

“Elbows and assholes!”

Thirteen ex-hostages suddenly exploded for the lobby. The last three guys did a perfect “Moe, Larry and Curly-jam up” at the door before they popped out and scrambled into the lobby where Nate motioned them toward the exit. Two SWAT officers in the street outside the bank relayed them to a point out of sight somewhere down the block.

Darren checked the position of their Dragonstars. They were still holding stationary positions seventy thousand feet above the city. He sent a thought-command to his fighter to activate its cloak and retrace its flight path back to the bank’s parking lot.

“Let’s get the hell out of here and head for space. Jupiter’s calling.”

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