THE EASTERN BANK OF NEW ENGLAND, MONTPELIER, VERMONT
It was the easiest job in the world. Donald Cho nursed his morning coffee as the tellers and manager of the Montpelier branch of the Eastern Bank of New England finished up their pre-opening routine. There were six people working in the bank that morning, including him, and Donald blew on his coffee as he watched them ready themselves for what almost certainly would be what passed for the early morning rush in Vermont's tiny and sleepy capital city.
Cho had been a police patrolman in Boston for almost all his adult life – working his way up to Sergeant, until he reached 50 and retired on a very healthy pension to Montpelier, keen to enjoy the fishing and wilderness experience that this most beautiful of states offered. As a patrolman in Massachusetts' largest city, he'd been responsible for a beat that had included the Combat Zone, a tiny two block area adjacent to the Financial District, between Park Square and Stuart Street and which sat squarely in the centre of Boston's Red Light District. Cho had ridden a radio car through the neon-lit streets and black, maze-like alleyways during the early 1980's when The Combat Zone was at its worst, a riot of adult book stores, strip clubs, grindhouse threaters, hookers and crack dealers. It was one of the worst routes any patrolman in America could have, perhaps matched only by those unlucky souls who, like Cho, had discovered early on that as street police they were too good, too quick to notice the out of the ordinary, to be wasted patrolling the quiet suburbs. Like him, they had some of the worst urban decay in America to patrol – The Tenderloin in San Francisco, Times Square in New York, Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles – and no doubt they, like Cho had learned that the difference between vigilance and complacency is the difference between a beer in O'Malley's at the end of your shift and a short, violent death in a filthy alley behind an adult movie theater. It's a lesson Cho never forgot, whether it was steering his cruiser along Stuart Street watching the street hustlers eye him, waiting for him to pass so they could complete their business, or standing in the bright and sunny foyer of the Eastern Bank of New England, watching tellers young enough to be his daughter share stories of their families and adjust the plastic palms and potted plants that made the Montpelier branch seem less like a bank and more like a sun lounge. Cho had taken the security guard gig to earn a bit of extra pocket money, secure in the knowledge that Vermont was among the safest states in the Union and the last bank robbery in Montpelier had been conducted when Gerald Ford was President. He saw himself as a meet-and-greeter rather than as a security guard, and the only time he had taken his colt revolver from its holster since taking up the post was to clean it. The Combat Zone had taught him though that even though the gun was for show these days, it still needed to be ready. He needed to be ready.
Davis, the branch manager and a man younger than Cho's grown up son, tipped the security guard the wink that informed him that it was time to open the doors. Cho ambled to the front of the bank and unlocked the doors, propping them open to welcome an October day that was promising to be unseasonably warm. First in was Mrs Waverley – a lifelong resident of Montpelier and well into her 80's.
Cho smiled at her as she shuffled past.
"Morning Mrs Waverley. Beautiful day isn't it?"
The old woman grumbled under her breath.
"1977, that was the last time we had an October this warm. We had eight inches of snow on the ground by Thanksgiving and it didn't melt until March."
Brad Marks followed her in, he was a local apple grower and cider maker and he nodded his head in acknowledgement to Cho, who nodded back. Sally Faulkner and her baby daughter Gemma followed afterwards and the young woman beamed a smile at Cho, who returned it with interest. Usually, that was about it for the early morning rush, but today, a young couple who Cho didn't recognise walked in. The man was in his 30's, the security guard guessed, and was wearing a plain brown, cheap-looking suit and sunglasses. The woman, perhaps three or four years younger, was dressed in an anonymous looking business suit and she too wore sunglasses. Both carried identical large cheap plastic brief cases. Neither met Cho's eyes and that, plus their forgettable clothing and something about their demeanour set Cho on edge. He was instantly transported back twenty five years into the past and he was back in his Boston PD uniform, watching the inhabitants of The Combat Zone knowing that each one could have the .357 or the box-cutter or the dirty needle that ended your life. He began to move, almost imperceptibly back towards the rear wall of the bank, so he could keep both the strangers in glasses in his eyeline and, God forbid, the line of his Colt.
The man walked casually to the back of the queue waiting for a teller to become free, and looked entirely relaxed as Sally wrote out a deposit slip behind him. The woman went to the back of the bank, placed the briefcase on the table, but did nothing else.
Cho's experience in the Combat Zone had made him almost clairvoyant when it came to spotting nervousness in people, and as he saw the woman snatching glances at him and his sidearm, every alarm bell in his head began ringing. Cho moved himself towards the front doors slowly and without making a fuss, putting his coffee on the shelf next to the front door.
What happened next felt like a lifetime to Cho, but in reality lasted less than a minute. As the man in the sunglasses reached the teller, the woman and man simultaneously pulled MAC-10 submachine guns from their briefcases. The woman levelled hers at Don, who's hand immediately went for his Colt.
"Don't do it, Old Man". Her voice was brittle. "Take it out of the holster real slow and lay it on the ground." Don did as he was told. The man was gesticulating to the teller to fill the bag he shoved through the gap beneath the glass with used $20s and the woman ordered Don to kneel down. Then she ordered everyone else to do the same. Sally Faulkner began to panic as her child began to cry, and the noise was making the woman more and more nervous. She walked over to the young woman and ordered her to silence the baby. Sally begged the woman not to hurt her, grasping her daughter to her, shielding her from the ugly sub-machine gun the woman in the glasses had slung over her shoulder. Sally's daughter, perhaps sensing her mother's distress began to bawl louder and the woman in the sunglasses got more agitated. Don used the fact that the female robber's attention was focussed elsewhere to reach slowly and deliberately down his left leg, eyes never leaving the woman and her dark aviators, as he sought out his Detective Special .357 revolver he had worn as a back-up piece for 30 years on the streets of South Boston and never got out of the habit of carrying, even in semi-retirement.
The woman in the aviators was becoming more and more irate with Sally and her by now screaming daughter, and Cho began to fear what she was going to do if the baby didn't stop crying. The other bank robber was waiting with increasingly short patience for the teller to finish filling the bag. Brad Marks and the bank manager were twitching, and Don knew that if he didn't act quickly, one of them was going to do something stupid. If shooting had to start, Cho knew it had to be on his terms. He drew the revolver from the holster as the woman in the sunglasses hit Sally Faulkner with the butt of her gun. It was a tap really, but it made Sally scream and Cho knew that neither the Bank Manager or Marks would stand for one of their own being treated like that, or what might come next if the woman made a grab for Sally's daughter, now wailing like a banshee. He drew a bead on the woman as she stood over Sally, screaming at her to keep quiet.
"FREEZE!" He shouted, surprised at the authority in his own voice. He knew that she wouldn't because only experienced pro's ever thought they were going to get caught and had the response to such a challenge thought out before they entered the bank. The woman in front of him looked more at home on Madison Avenue than Vermont State Prison, she looked like she'd throw up if caught shoplifting, so this was wildly out of her league. He was right. She whirled round, gun pointing outwards and Cho didn't wait for the barrel to complete the rotation and stop, pointed at him. He fired three rounds, all three hitting the woman in the chest, throwing her backwards over the table where her brief case sat, blood spraying through the air in an arc high enough for Cho to know he'd hit something major. The male robber, hand on the full bag of money, was more lithe and less of an amateur than the woman Don felt sure he'd just shot dead, and was ducking and firing his gun in Cho's general direction as he headed rapidly for the exit. Cho dived for cover behind the fallen table and returned fire, missing with all three shots. The noise of the gunfire in the confines of the bank, combined with the screaming and the crashing of smashed glass was deafening, so loud, in fact, that he never heard the woman he'd shot stand up behind him, blood still spurting from the gunshot wounds he'd inflicted, and was entirely unaware of the situation he was in until she brought a broken table leg down on his head. His last vision before the scene faded to black was of the female bank robber, dark glasses askew, gaping gunshot holes in her chest, carefully adjusting her glasses, fixing her hair, picking up the MAC-10 she'd dropped when Cho had shot her and following her partner in crime out of the bank at a fair sprint. Were Donald Cho not suffering a fractured skull and starting to succumb to blissful unconsciousness, he might have believed he was actually seeing tiny white creatures curling and squirming around in the holes he'd blown in the woman's chest as she fled.