Downtown Los Angeles
To everyone in the room, she seemed like just a normal girl wearing Vans, blue jeans, and a red hoodie. They could see she was visibly nervous, understandably so, as were the other four people outside still waiting to be interviewed.
“Are you hurt anywhere?” the woman asked.
“Physically, no,” the girl answered. “Just shaken. Is it still going on?”
“Yes,” said a man wearing a dark suit holding a cell phone to his ear. He showed no sign that there was anyone on the other end of the call.
“My friend, Candice, she’s still in there.”
“We’re doing all we can to get everyone out safely,” the woman said assuredly. ”Now, you will be a tremendous help if you can answer some questions. Do you feel up to it?”
The girl nodded slowly.
Darla Dressel was included in a group of five hostages that were released from First Union Bank not more than twenty minutes prior. Detective Gina Behner was in charge of interviewing each one of them.
What had started out as just a grey Friday in February, rapidly deteriorated into a scene of controlled chaos. West Fourth Street was cordoned off. Police cars with silent flashing lights were disjointedly strewn about. Two large white trailers were dragged in and set up as command posts; each decorated with the LAPD shield and the words: Major Crimes Division.
Demands were being made.
Trained negotiators were trying to defuse the situation.
“Can you tell us how many gunmen there are?”
“Three from what I could tell,” Darla answered.
“Male? Female? Unfortunately, they are using a voice modulator, it’s been hard for us to tell.”
“All males, but they are wearing masks, the pullover, rubber Halloween kind. All three look about medium height and build, six-foot, maybe two hundred pounds. I don’t know, I'm not really good at judging sizes.” She fidgeted in her seat.
“It’s okay, Miss Dressel, you’re doing wonderfully.” The woman was nice, pacifying. The men around her were busy relaying information and making notes. The room they were in was cramped, brightly lit, and buzzed with rigid energy. Orders were being given tersely like the whole thing was routinely rehearsed.
“Will I get my purse back? It has my whole life in it. My phone, my ID’s, my car keys.”
“Our main concern is the safety of the hostages, ma’am, not your phone,” another man snapped caustically.
“Yes, of course,” Darla said, shrinking further into the folding chair. “Gosh, I’m sorry, now I feel so petty.”
“Don’t worry, he’s just under pressure. You’re doing great.” Detective Behner reached out to soothe the girl's hand. “This is going to sound obvious but I need to ask, what was your business in the bank?”
“I was waiting to deposit my paycheck. The place where I work always pays me by direct deposit. But my employer said they entered the payroll late and so he had to cut me an actual check. I...I would have used the ATM but...oh God, why didn’t I use the ATM?” Her rambling stopped as tears began to trickle down her cheeks.
“You’re safe now, Miss Dressel. Do you want to take a break?”
“No! Candice is still in there! Because of me!” She brought the sleeve of her wrist up to wipe her face.
“I understand. You said there were three, can you tell us where they are positioned?” She slid a rudimentary drawing of the bank lobby in front of Darla.
“Jesus Christ. Now they’re asking for a helicopter. These guys are either very stupid or very smart.”
“For God’s sake, Tom,” Detective Behner twisted back in her chair, “can you take that to the other trailer?” Turning back to Darla, she continued, ”I’m sorry, Miss Dressel, can you point to where you last saw the men positioned?”
“I mean, not really. They were moving around so much. They seemed to be focused mostly on the cash from the drawers.”
“Okay, good that helps.” She brought a walkie-talkie to her mouth. “Anderson, Anderson, this is Behner. Over.”
The voice replied almost instantly. “Go for Anderson. Over.”
“Get eyes on all exits, including the building’s roof access. Let’s watch for duffel drops. Over.”
“Priceless,” Tom belted out once again. “Hey, Gina, negotiator says they want pizzas.”
“What are we getting in return?”
“One more soul.”
“Miss Dressel, thank you for your help. I need to take care of this, so I’m going to ask that you step back outside. Is there anything else you can tell us?”
“They are armed, guns, big ones. And...I am pretty sure one of them had a backpack with explosives. I overheard them talking about rigging the entrances, or something.”
“Shit,” Behner muttered under her breath. “Thank you again, Miss Dressel, you can go back outside now. If you feel like you need medical attention, there are EMTs next door to assist you.” She spun again toward Tom. “What’s the ETA on that damn robot?”
“I should be fine,” Darla said softly to no one in particular. She slid her chair back, slowly stood, and casually left the trailer.
A light mist had begun to fall, typical for that time of year in Los Angeles. The four strangers that had left the bank with Darla were no longer lined up against the exterior. She looked around in all directions, unable to spot any familiar faces.
A crowd of people lined the other side of a yellow police tape barrier. Cell phones raised, all trying to capture the next viral video. Several uniformed officers were continually trying to push them back. Everyone seemed to have a purpose, a job to do, yet nothing really appeared to be getting done.
Darla found a safe spot between the two command post trailers with a view of the Bank’s front entrance. She tucked in to watch.
The steady low hum of generators drowned out most of the clamor around her. She was like a forgotten observer, squeezed of what information they felt like they needed.
She pulled her hoodie up to shield out the rain.
Within minutes, a maroon Volvo puttered down the street. Darla watched as two cops shuffled a barricade aside to let it pass into the restricted zone; a teen behind the wheel. There wouldn’t be a gratuity big enough to compensate for the anxiety that poor boy was probably experiencing, she thought to herself.
The car crept along at a cautious pace until it reached the sidewalk in front of the bank’s main entrance. All windows to the storefront were covered with cardboard. That had happened even before Darla left.
As the car’s brakes slowly squealed it to a stop, the trunk popped open and the driver exited. He appeared to be a lot less nervous than Darla expected. Thick blonde curls billowed from underneath a faded Vito’s Pizzeria ball cap, wrinkled blue polo shirt to match. As he rounded the back bumper to extract the pizza ransom, he joyfully waved to the crowd who let out a whistling roar in reply. Darla chuckled.
Six stacked pizza boxes were placed by the front door and the delivery boy drove off with a story to tell his surfer buddies down at the beach.
The pizzas sat there for a moment before the shrouded glass door opened and a very nervous young woman appeared, head down. She didn’t waste any time, didn’t attempt to run or make contact with the mob of police officers surrounding the building. She had a job to do and the safety of everyone inside depended on her gathering the pizzas without incident.
As she disappeared, Darla sat on the hitch of the trailer and waited to see the hostage re-emerge. And, after several long minutes, the front door slid open once again. The same nervous young woman came back out, this time raising her face for the onlookers to see.
Darla wanted to bolt from her hiding spot and pull her in for a hug. But she knew she needed to wait.
Three heavily protected officers rushed in to intercept Candice, who in turn instinctively raised her hands as if to surrender. Two of the three had rifles drawn to the front door walking backward forming a moving shield as the third cop ushered Candice toward the trailers.
As they passed by Darla’s cove on their way to the EMTs, she could hear much of the same cadence that was said to her when she exited earlier.
“You are safe now...I know you said you aren’t hurt but we still need to check your vitals then ask you some questions...Any information you can provide will be helpful.”
Darla made eye contact with her friend and smiled; a silent communication, ‘I’m here, find me when you’re done.’ Candice—a blood pressure cuff wrapped around her arm—smiled back.
Roughly twelve minutes passed from the time Candice entered Detective Behner’s trailer to the thundering boom of the explosion.
It seemed to emanate from the back of the bank and was muffled as if it came from inside. But it was loud, and profound enough to vibrate Darla’s chest. Cops who had been positioned in the street behind their stationary cars were pulled further back.
Even though the blast was unseen, its shockwave seemed to create an invisible barrier of activity. Isolating any movement to the safe zone where Darla sat on her perch.
Thirty seconds later the trailer door opened.
Candice stepped out and closed the door behind her. Darla now knew this was the time to rush in for the hug.
“Oh God, Candice, are you okay?” Darla squeezed her friend tightly.
“I’m fine, I’m fine. Let’s walk. I need to get the fuck out of this area.”
As they passed by the EMT station, Darla grabbed two bottles of water. She nodded to the nurse standing guard.
The two girls headed east on West Fourth until they reached a narrow side street where they turned south. Office buildings rose like centurion guards on either side. People were still shuffling here and there trying to make their way closer to the action. Darla and Candice walked briskly in the opposite direction, glad to put it all behind them.
“You sure you’re okay?”
“Yes! Jeez. I’m more than okay.”
“That was so intense. My heart is still pounding in my chest. Did that detective interview you? Behner?”
“She did. Asked me the usual shit. She’s actually really nice.”
“Yeah, I liked her too. That bang was timed perfectly.”
Candice laughed. “No shit. I was getting a little nervous that I fucked up the timer. Next one should be in five minutes.”
“I’m almost afraid to ask this, but you have them, right?”
Candice looked behind her to assure that no one was watching, then pulled Darla into an alley. She crouched and fished two fingers into the inside of her boot pulling out a small-sized black velvet pouch.
“In the very same deposit box you said it was going to be.” She smiled. “Everyone is locked in the time-release vault along with the pizzas. Gonna be a long night for them.”
Still kneeling, Candice took Darla’s hand, forced open her palm, and poured out a small pile of sparkling diamonds.
“If these are worth as much as you say they are, my guy in Puerto Vallarta will get us at least half that.” She looked up at Darla, widening her grin. “That mind of yours, Dar. This plan was genius. By the time they get those people out of that safe, we’ll be just two ordinary girls on a beach in Mexico, baby.”
“Two very rich ordinary girls.”