• The Green Duffle

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    THE GREEN DUFFLE

    Steven Walker was singing along to one of his all time favorites – Fields of Gold by Sting – tapping lightly on the steering wheel. He had just finished a delivery to Pasadena City College; then decided to take a few extra minutes and drive through San Marino on the way back. He liked this beautiful little community, and his route would take him by the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens.
    As he drove he thought about his life – he was thirty-one, loved his wife and his two little daughters – loved them a lot. They had a comfortable home in Downey. But it was dated and needed remodeled and upgraded. He liked his work – had toiled during high school at his father’s business and then during college at UCLA – although he counted himself extremely lucky that he had gotten into a first level school. And then getting into their design department for his last two years was tough. His General Education grades were right at the cutoff point. On graduation he went to work for RR Donnelly for three years in their San Francisco office before coming back and working alongside his dad. One day after working in the family business for almost five years his father and mother announced they had decided to go on an evangelical mission to Mauritania in West Africa – they would leave in six months but there was no specific return date.
    The business was sold to him on a long-term contract. Running the operation was challenging, but usually interesting and he was building it slowly. It produced take home pay for his family last year of about $87,000. “Am I happy?” He thought to himself, “Yes, not as happy as I’d like to be, but I generally feel positive about life.” Besides he thought, everything is relative. If I were rich and famous everyone I know would want to borrow money or grab my coattails in some way. Or I could have been born in a place like Somalia, where disease and poverty would cut my life expectancy to about forty. As he stopped at a light, an older disheveled woman pushed her shopping cart across the cross walk, all of here worldly belongings on board. He thought, “There but for God’s grace go I.” “No, he sighed, I’ll just count my blessings, of which I have many.” And he drove on with a certain sense of well being.

    ******************************

    Stan said, “did you hear that on the scanner?” Lets get rid of the money immediately. Where?” said Glenn. “Anywhere we can toss it and come back later,” exclaimed Ben. “What about the Huntington Library grounds? It’s over 200 acres and surrounded by a huge fence and lots of trees – we’re only about five blocks away.

    **********************************

    Steven came up to the stop sign at the intersection of Euston and Oxford in Pasadena. Euston ran along the iron fence that blocked the extensive grounds of the museum, library and gardens. You couldn’t see into the grounds because the heavy overgrowth up against the fence. As he looked right to turn, he could see a white van about a block away. It stopped suddenly, two men jumped out and tossed what looked like a green duffle bag over the iron-spiked fence and into the thick shrubs. The two cars crossed about half way down the block. The driver looked intently at him as the van passed and picked up speed.

    Steven was baffled. “What in the heck is going on here?” He thought why would anyone go to the trouble of throwing a bag over the fence, rather than just tossing it as litter. He pulled over to think. No rational thought came his way so he drove up to where he believed the bag had been tossed. There was a flattened beer can where he stopped, but he couldn’t see the bag anywhere on the other side. He looked at his watch. “Is it worth taking the time to go notify the people at Huntington or call the police? Ah, he thought, too much of a hassle.”
    Then he began to argue with himself. “Maybe I should just take a look, but the eight-foot fence is formidable.” He did have a large moving blanket in the trunk and could see a gate down about thirty feet. It was spiked topped also, but a little easier to climb. He threw the blanket up over the top, got a pair of gym shoes out of the trunk and scaled the fence with some difficulty – torn pants and a couple of minor cuts. Once he was on other side, he beat his way back to where he was opposite the beer can. At first he couldn’t see anything, but then slowly a green duffle bag came into view. It hung about three feet off the ground in the massive shrubs. He finally had to crawl underneath, tearing his clothes, and scratching his face and hands. He dragged the duffle down and out, and found it was padlocked. Not knowing what else to do he humped the bag to the gate, then rolled it up to the top with great effort before it finally dropped on the other side. It was hell to pay getting the furniture blanket off the spikes as he climbed down. He looked at the beer can again and wondered if it was a marker. On an impulse he picked up the can and threw it down the fence line about twenty-five feet.
    He had a box cutter in his back seat, but decided to throw the bag in the trunk and drive away quickly. There was something – he didn’t know if it was intuition or some primeval sense that told him to leave. He knew he didn’t want the guys in the white van to come back and find him with their bag.
    He drove about a mile and then pulled into Lacy Park in San Marino – away from other parked cars. He got his cutter and slit open the bag. He jumped as if he had released a rattlesnake. It was cash, lots of cash. There were loose bills and then stacks with bands around them – $10,000 in each stack. He folded the duffle over and slammed the trunk, looking around before he got in the car. Then he sat there thinking. “Where did this money come from? Probably drug money, but where would someone get banded $100 bills. He couldn’t figure it out.”
    Then the question. “Should I take it to the police?” If it was drug money, who eventually would get it, the state or the feds if I turned it in? What would they use it for? And legally, did he have any obligation to turn it in.” He thought he remembered something from his Business Law class at UCLA about the conversion of stolen property being a serious felony.
    “What about the personal risk if he kept it? Did the guys in the van get a good look at him, was there any chance they could find him?” Thankfully he did not have a front license plate and he thought that it would have been near impossible to read the rear plate as the van sped away.
    The quandary of whether to keep the money started to race through his mind. If it was bank money it should probably be returned, besides how would I get rid of that much cash? You couldn’t just show up to buy a new car and dump $50,000 in cash on the dealership desk without attracting attention and having a believable explanation. Maybe he could launder it through the business but then that would kick up his revenues and profits and he’d have to pay more state and federal income tax. Should he tell his wife about it? He thought she could keep a secret but he wasn’t completely sure. He decided if it was drug money, he was going to keep it.
    As he started back down toward Downey and the office, he turned to a news channel to check traffic on the freeways. Twenty minutes later he got some of the details about a fake daylight robbery in Pasadena at a Wells Fargo Bank. The robbers had used smoke grenades and some sort of fireworks that mimicked gunshots at Wells Fargo. Every police unit within a five-mile radius was at the scene within 15 minutes. Right at the height of the Wells Fargo crisis with swat units and fifty cops surrounding the building, a real robbery was taking place at the Chase Bank branch on East Colorado Boulevard, three miles away.
    Somehow the bandits knew that the main vault door would be open and that there would be large amounts of cash on hand. Three men came in, wearing Frankenstein masks – they had weapons and tasered anyone who showed the least resistance – customers and staff. They yelled not to hit any silent alarms, or reach for dye packets, or use their cell phones, and to immediately lie on the ground. After admitting three customers, they blocked the entry door with a sign that said the bank had a security problem and would be open at 11:10 (fifteen minutes away) and then locked it shut. Everyone was put on the floor with their hands tied behind their backs with plastic cable ties.
    They got the manager to open the metal gate at the vault door and quickly put the stacks of $100 bills into a green duffle bag. The third man went through the teller drawers and picked up the remaining cash. The whole operation took less than four minutes. They guessed that at least one of the tellers had hit the silent alarm, but figured they had at least ten minutes before someone in a patrol car headed in their direction. They tossed large, long term smoke grenades into the lobby and unlocked the front door, taking off their masks to reveal three other normal disguises underneath – as they left, they shouted that there was a bank robbery going on.
    The three trotted around the corner to where their white van was parked in a handicapped stall – ripped off their disguises and dropped them in a dumpster two blocks away. They needed to get far enough away to dump the van close to their cars. But after ten minutes they heard their police scanner come on and say that it appeared that the Chase Bank had been robbed. The robbers had escaped in a white van, which was caught on video cameras outside the bank building. The license plate numbers and images of the van were already on TV. Once the three criminals heard this, they stopped outside the Huntington fence and tossed the bag over, and then they drove the van another three miles and parked it behind a 7/11. Then walked to their cars a block away with hoodies pulled down around their faces.
    ***********************************
    Steven was about half way back to the office when he heard the news on the radio. “Crap, he said, so that’s where the money came from. I wonder how much?” He found out right away once he was back at his office. He dragged the duffle down to the basement where he kept past year’s records, quickly locking the door behind him. He pulled the money out a little at a time. There were loose bills that totaled up to $16,354. Then he got to the bricks of $100’s. They were in 100 in a stack, ten thousand dollars in each stack, new, and sequentially numbered. There were forty-two stacks – $420,000. My gosh, he thought, I’ll never see that much in a lifetime of work and investing – and he edged closer to keeping it.
    But he kept having random thoughts about the money that plagued him. What if the robbers got his license plate number and could identify him some way. What would he tell his wife when she noticed the unusual amount of cash? He knew that his mother and father would immediately have him turn it over. What if something happened to him and then his wife or employees found the cash. Was there some sort of Karma that came into play – if he kept the cash, would he get leukemia or something else that would bedevil him or his family? He carefully hid the money behind the file cabinet full of old receipts and decided to think about it for a day or so.
    Stan, Ben, and Glenn waited two full days to venture back to the fence. The van had been found, but they had been careful not to leave any prints or any other clues, plus they sprayed bleach all over the van’s interior to destroy any DNA that was accidently left. It had been bought in another state with cash, painted white, then stolen license plates attached. They had even filed off the engine and transmission numbers as well as other Id’s.
    This had all started when the three were laid off from Grumman when they merged with Northrop – along with many other engineers in their division. They usually had lunch together everyday when they were working. Since their last names all began in W, they were known as the Tri-W Trio. One of their favorite pastimes was to come up with the perfect crime. The bank job was the one they liked best. When they got laid off, unfairly in their opinion, they decided to scope it out. They spent three months going into the banks in disguise, understanding the security systems and when the vault was open, and when the largest amount of cash was available. They ran trial runs just like they had as satellite engineers until they had it down perfect. And the job went as planned until the police scanner barked out the information that the bank robbers were using a white van. They had forgotten about street cameras mounted high on the buildings. There was no choice as they fled but to toss the bag over the fence.
    Now they were back there in Ben’s SUV with a collapsible ladder. They found the beer can where Steve had marked the bag. It was 4:00 AM and two of them quickly got over the fence and turned on pencil flashlights. They couldn’t see anything. “You know, Glenn said, I think this looks different that where we threw the bag over.” They went back and forth along the fence until the lights showed an area where the branches had been broken and bent. Also there was black fabric on the gate top, but no duffle bag. “Damn,” Ben said, “someone has taken the money.” “It has to be the guy in that blue Honda Civic who was coming towards us,” said Glenn. “Then we are totally screwed,” said Stan, “The guy will turn in the money.” “Maybe not,” Glenn took him by the arm, “he may decide to keep it. The car had no front license plate, but I’m sure the first numbers and letters on the back plate were 6ZP. I think the Honda was about six years old.”
    It took them two days to get an insurance friend of theirs to find all of the Honda plates that started with that prefix from the DMV. Then another two days to run down the address and phone number of Steve Walker. They followed him one morning to work and made a positive identification. The question was how to get their money back. They weren’t real criminals, so no guns, or beating him up, or kidnapping his children. Finally they decided to call him and demand their money or else. The first call was to be one sided, just to make him nervous, then the next call they would tell him where to drop it off. He obviously hadn’t gone to the police. If he had given the money back to the bank, they were out of luck.
    *******************************************
    Steven was in a complete moral quandary. Just having the money was resulting in no sleep, not being able to eat, and being short with his employees, and his wife and children. His wife especially wanted to know what was going on, and she wouldn’t let up.
    He had about decided to drop the money off at the bank anonymously and forget the whole thing. Then the threatening phone call came – he almost took the money back right then. The next day a call came again and told him where to drop the bag off in Culver City. It was to be done at midnight that night. There were all sorts of threats to he and his family if he did not follow through. That did it; he decided to take the money back that afternoon. Put on gloves and placed it in cardboard boxes, parked three blocks away where he was sure there were no cameras, and rolled the boxes up in a shopping cart. He had on a fake mustache, sunglasses and sloppy brimmed hat and looked like an idiot, but thought he would never be identified. He just left the cart close to the front door.
    About an hour after he got back to his office, he heard the news that the money from the robbery had been returned. He gave out a sigh of relief and put his feet up. Now he could sleep and eat and enjoy life. He was happy. Ben, Glenn, and Stan were as mad as hornets when they heard, but there wasn’t anything to do – further harassment of Steven Walker wouldn’t do them any good. They just needed to start work on another plan. The cops said they were still looking for the robbers, but they knew any search would be minor. Besides, what would they be arrested for – Poor Robbery Attempt. The bank had the money back, that’s all that counted. The cops would have other things to do.
    Steven had studied the procedures that Chase would use to examine the currency. The loose cash would have to match exactly, even the one’s and five’s that were there. The stacks of $100’s had to be banded with the same brown wrappers and bills sequentially numbered. Just in case, normal procedure would be for the bank’s main security officer to electronically test the first stack, taking the first bill, then the one from the middle and then the last bill – to find if they were the Real McCoy. Then he might test the first and last bill from a few of the other stacks.
    A couple of months went by, Steven had a satisfied grin on his face, listening to the Dave Mathews Band on the radio, driving by where he found the duffle. By now all the currency from the heist was back in circulation. The $16,354 in loose currency was valid as were all of the hundreds in the first stack. The top and bottom of each remaining stack of hundreds were real, but in between everything else was counterfeit, very, very good counterfeit. The balance of the money he still held was behind the old file cabinet – $402,000 – all of it real. If and when the counterfeit bills ever showed up, they would have passed through many untraceable hands.
    He still had some of the same problems – what to do with the money, where to put it, etc., but all of those problems would resolve over time. He still had some guilt over what he had done, and to make himself feel better he made an anonymous donation to the Salvation Army for $10,000, as a token of repentance. Eventually he believed the guilt would go away, he hoped so.
    He drove into his parking spot at the business, looked up and proudly gazed at the sign over the door – Walker Engraving and Specialty Printing.

    Joseph Ollivier
    March 2014

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