Eight Years Ago

Two federal law enforcement agents, one from the FBI and one from the DEA, were coordinating the stakeout of the Golden State Bank in Ventura, California, from a vacant third-floor office in the Erle Stanley Gardner Building across the street. The building was named after the author of the Perry Mason novels, who wrote his classic mysteries in an office on the same floor.

The agents sat on folding chairs facing a window that overlooked Main Street, the bank, and the two black SUVs that idled in front of it, so their backs were to the office door when US Marshal Andrew Walker strode in wearing a white Stetson Shasta cowboy hat and carrying a box of Krispy Kreme donuts.

“Morning, gentlemen,” he said.

The men were so startled by Walker’s unexpected arrival that they dropped their walkie-talkies, reached for their guns, and nearly fell out of their chairs before they realized that the only dangers they faced were from high calories and tooth decay.

“What the hell are you doing here, Walker?” asked FBI Special Agent Kent Dubrow, holstering his gun. Beads of sweat were already rising on his balding head. “You aren’t assigned to this operation.”

“I was in the neighborhood and thought you might be hungry,” Walker said. “I always am when I’m on a stakeout.”

Walker was an even six feet tall, his body linebacker thick, and he wore a loose-fitting sport coat over a JCPenney oxford shirt and Levi’s 501 jeans to hide his Glock and his badge.

Ventura was a small town on the Southern California coast and had been in a slow, steady decline for decades, ever since its oil wells stopped pumping and the beach was severed from downtown by the 101 freeway. The relentless surf had eroded away much of the beach, leaving a few wet clumps of sand clinging to the long line of boulders and rubble that had been dumped along the edge of the pedestrian promenade in a desperate attempt to save it from destruction.

Business on Main Street was so bad that the few occupied storefronts were primarily filled by nonprofit thrift shops, from Goodwill to the Coalition for Family Harmony. All that downtown Ventura had going for it now was the historic San Buenaventura Mission at the northwest end of Main Street and the county fairgrounds on the rapidly eroding waterfront.

“You didn’t drive all the way up from LA just to ruin my diet,” Dubrow said, picking up his walkie-talkie and turning his attention back to the street.

Walker raised the lid of the Krispy Kreme box to display the wide assortment of donuts to the DEA agent. “I’m Andrew Walker, US Marshals.”

“Clyde Preston, DEA,” the agent said, peering into the box and sniffing the donuts like a curious beagle, which he resembled. He was short and had big ears and close-cropped brown hair. “Is that a chocolate-iced custard?”

“Help yourself.” Walker had already eaten two on the drive up from the donut shop in Oxnard.

“You didn’t answer my question,” Dubrow said to Walker.

“I’m chasing a fugitive.”

“Take a number and wait your turn to get him, which is going to be years,” Dubrow said. “Diego Grillo is the American representative of the Vibora cartel, a whale. You chase minnows.”

“This is a joint FBI-DEA operation,” Preston added, talking with his mouth full. “We’re staking out a private bank that Grillo is using to launder $1 million in marked money that he got in a drug-smuggling sting that we set up. Grillo and his bodyguards walked into the bank right before you arrived. We’re taking him down and the Vibora’s entire operation in America along with him. Thanks for the donuts, but whatever your interest is in him doesn’t really matter.”

“You can keep Grillo,” Walker said. “I want the banker.”

“Milburn Drysdale? The US Marshals Service doesn’t enforce banking regulations,” Dubrow said. “That’s a job for the Treasury Department and the Federal Trade Commission. Or did Drysdale forget to pay some speeding tickets?”

“Milburn Drysdale isn’t a banker and that isn’t really a bank,” Walker said. “You’re all being conned.”

First National Bank Building
The Erle Stanley Gardner Building

* * *

Danny Cole’s fake nose and mustache were itching but that didn’t dim his blatantly dishonest smile. Nobody expected an honest smile from a crooked banker, least of all Diego Grillo, the drug lord from the Vibora cartel who sat on the other side of Danny’s desk.

“Welcome to Golden State Bank, Mr. Grillo,” Danny said. “We’re honored to have the opportunity to serve your banking needs.”

Grillo was known for the huge scar on his face left by a machete and the two fingers he lost blocking the blow. His mangled hand rested on the silver titanium briefcase on his lap. He was flanked by two men in dark sunglasses, who wore matching Italian suits tailored to hide the big guns in their shoulder holsters. Two more of his men were still in the SUVs outside.

Three other members of Danny’s crew posing as bankers worked busily at their desks, showing no interest in the meeting. There was Kurt Sabella, who handled the staging, and Adam Horowitz, who handled the tech, and finally Tamiko Harada, who was obviously the eye candy and, less obviously, the muscle. She had two guns hidden under her desk and she knew how to use them from her days in the military, before her dishonorable discharge.

“I’d like to put some money in my children’s college funds,” Grillo said. “They have all recently opened accounts here.”

“Yes, all one hundred of them,” Danny said. “That’s a lot of kids.”

Grillo shrugged and stole a glance at Tamiko’s bust. “I’m a virile man with many wives.”

Danny said, “All of your children are studying abroad.”

“They are very smart and worldly.” Grillo hefted the twenty-pound briefcase onto the desk with a thud and opened it to show Danny the neat stacks of hundred-dollar bills inside. “I would like to deposit $10,000 in each of their accounts.”

The deposits were just under the legal limit that would have required a reputable bank to file a report with the government. However, a reputable bank would see a hundred deposits of that amount into third-party accounts held by people residing overseas as an obvious case of money laundering. But this was not a reputable bank. It wasn’t even a bank, but Grillo didn’t know that.

“There’s a standard 10 percent service charge for transactions of this nature,” Danny said, reaching for the cash. Grillo abruptly slammed the case shut, nearly severing Danny’s fingers.

“Not a penny more, Mr. Drysdale,” Grillo said, “or I’ll kill you and everything living that’s close to you. Your employees, your wife, your mistress, your children, your dog, your goldfish, the yeast in your refrigerator. I’d kill your landscaping, too, but the drought has already done that.”

“Understood,” Danny said. “Perhaps we should take a moment to count the money together. I’m very attached to my goldfish.”

* * *

“This is Danny Cole,” Walker said, holding up his iPhone with a picture of the man. He had blue eyes, a charming smile, and relaxed, boyish charm. He looked like the stereotypical image of the fit, affable country club tennis pro who got along easily with everyone, especially the women, married and unmarried. Which, as it turned out, was exactly what he was pretending to be when the photo was taken. “He’s Milburn Drysdale, your banker.”

“This is Drysdale.” Dubrow held up his iPhone, which displayed surveillance photos of a middle-aged man entering and leaving the bank. Drysdale had green eyes, a bulbous nose, and a thick mustache. “He doesn’t look anything like Danny Cole.”

It was true. He didn’t look like Cole, but the mischievous sparkle in his eyes, despite the green contacts, was unmistakable to Walker.

“It’s him,” Walker said. “It’s a disguise.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I’ve spent three months tracking him here,” Walker said. “And Milburn Drysdale is the name of the banker in an ancient sitcom called The Beverly Hillbillies. It’s Cole’s idea of a joke.”

Dubrow snorted with derision. “That’s all you have?”

“I can prove it,” Walker said. “We can walk in there right now, arrest him, and peel that fake nose and mustache off his face.”

“No, we can’t,” Dubrow said. “It’s a private bank. The door is locked and you have to be buzzed through from inside. On top of that, it’s a crowded street full of pedestrians. We can’t risk provoking a shoot-out.”

“Grillo has killed a dozen people and is the California head of the Vibora cartel,” Preston said. “Human life means nothing to him. We won’t make our move until Grillo and his motorcade are on the overpass leading to the southbound 101. We’ll box him in over the freeway, where he can’t escape or hurt anybody if he decides he won’t go down without a fight.”

“What about Cole?” Walker said. “While you’re chasing Grillo, he’ll get away with the money.”

“Drysdale and the cash aren’t going anywhere,” Dubrow said. “He established this private bank to launder money for street gangs. He’s not going to close up shop now that he’s snagged the perfect client to whip up more business. It’s a long con.”

“Cole doesn’t do long cons,” Walker said. “This is the endgame. He’s pulled a dozen heists and countless cons and always manages to slip away without getting caught. I want to end that winning streak.”

“Relax, Walker,” Preston said, licking some chocolate frosting off his lip. “Once Grillo is captured, we’ll immediately move in on the banker and retrieve the money. We’re talking a five-minute wait, tops. Then you can try to pull off Drysdale’s nose.”

“That will be too late.” Walker dropped the box of donuts on the table and marched to the door.

“I don’t see why,” Dubrow said. “Whether or not Drysdale is your man Cole, he doesn’t know we’re here.”

“Of course he does,” Walker said, pausing in the doorway. “Why do you think he decided to stage his con in a bank across the street from Perry Mason’s office? He’s giving you the finger.”

“Do not make a move until we’ve got Grillo,” Dubrow said, “or your next job will be selling donuts.”

* * *

The instant Grillo and his men piled into their SUVs and drove off, Danny and the three other members of his crew stripped off their suits to reveal the matching bright-yellow biking jerseys they wore underneath. The jerseys were so bright they could probably glow in the dark.

“We have five minutes or less until the FBI moves in,” Danny said, removing his fake nose and mustache and tossing them in the trash.

“It gives me hives knowing the FBI is right outside the door,” said Tamiko as she and the others all pulled matching messenger bags from their desks and then gathered around the open case of money in front of Danny. The first things she shoved in her bag were her two guns.

“That’s what makes it exciting.” Danny handed them each several stacks of cash, which they stuffed into their messenger bags.

“That’s what makes it suicidal,” Adam said. He was short, chubby, and curly-haired. He didn’t like stealing from people in person. He much preferred to commit his crimes in cyberspace, where he could hide behind a keyboard. Add to that the Feds sitting right outside and he was afraid he might have a stroke.

When Danny was done doling out cash, a stack of about $100,000 still remained on the desk. It was a vital part of the plan to make sure Grillo wouldn’t be able to come after them. It was the evidence the Feds would need to put Grillo in prison.

“I hate leaving money on the table,” Kurt said. He was in his forties and had the ruddy complexion and stocky build of a construction worker who’d always worked outdoors.

“Think of it as a tip to the FBI for excellent service,” Danny said.

* * *

Walker sat in the front seat of his Ford F-150 pickup, which was parked on California Street, a few yards from the intersection with Main Street. The Golden State Bank was across the intersection in front of him, on the left-hand corner. The SUVs containing Grillo and his thugs had just left. Walker’s engine was running and he drummed his fingers anxiously on the steering wheel.

On the radio, he heard the chatter as the FBI and DEA vehicles slipped into traffic, angling into position to box in Grillo on the overpass to the southbound 101 freeway. The instant that happened, Walker was going into the bank. He knew Cole was in there and it was infuriating that the only law enforcement still on the scene besides him were Dubrow and Preston, and they were up in the office, eating his donuts.

The front door of the bank opened. Three men and one woman in matching yellow jerseys, messenger bags, and helmets rode out fast on racing bikes.

What the hell?

A man and the woman peeled off and went north on Main Street. The two other men came straight at Walker, heading toward the overpass to the beach.

One of them he recognized as Danny Cole.

At least, Walker thought, Cole wouldn’t be hard to spot in a crowd in that outfit. It was like he was wearing a neon sign.

Walker made a sharp, tire-squealing U-turn, nearly getting T-boned by cars traveling in both directions, and sped off westbound after the two bicyclists.

The other rider peeled off at East Thompson, the last street before the overpass that carried California Street over the 101 freeway, which cut off the city from Ventura’s long beach. Walker ignored him and weaved through traffic after Cole.

California Street ended in a T intersection with Harbor Boulevard at a beachfront plaza between a parking structure and a ten-story hotel.

Danny Cole sped across the crowded plaza and veered north up the promenade, which was lined with aging beachfront condos. Walker couldn’t get to the promenade without running over a lot of people, so he made a sharp right onto Harbor. He traveled parallel to Danny and the promenade, stealing glances out his driver’s-side window, catching brief glimpses of the con man across parking lots and between condos in his bright-yellow jersey.

Walker knew that up ahead were the sprawling Ventura County Fairgrounds and a small Amtrak station. That’s where he would cut Cole off and take him down.

Two bicyclists in yellow jerseys suddenly cut across Walker’s path. He stomped on his brakes to avoid hitting them, his car coming to a rubber-burning, fishtailing, ear-ringing halt. But it wasn’t the man and woman from the bank. These were two people he’d never seen before.

That’s when he saw the sea of yellow jerseys and the hundreds of bicyclists that filled the fairgrounds’ parking lot in front of him. A huge banner and an arch made of multicolored balloons announced that this was the starting spot for the Ventura to Santa Barbara Bike-A-Thon for Muscular Dystrophy.


The waterfront promenade
The waterfront promenade

* * *

Danny rode fast along the promenade, weaving through the people strolling, roller-skating, and walking their dogs, the high tide crashing against the boulders to his left and spraying him with sea mist. To his right, behind the condo complexes he was passing, he caught flashes of the pickup truck that had started following him when he left the bank.

He had no idea who was chasing him, whether it was one of Grillo’s soldiers or a cop, but he wasn’t worried. He’d shake his pursuer when he reached the fairgrounds and lost himself among the hundreds of other bicyclists dressed just like him.

A dog snarled furiously as Danny passed, broke free of the woman walking him, and charged after the bike. Danny looked back at the vicious beast and, in that instant, collided with a man, who tumbled down the rocky embankment and splashed into the churning surf. Danny flipped over his handlebars and landed hard on the pavement.

The woman grabbed her dog’s leash just as the beast’s slavering jaws were inches from Danny’s face on the ground. Danny got up and saw the man, facedown in the water, his body being smashed against the rocks.

Danny looked ahead, the fairgrounds and bicyclists only fifty yards away. He could still make it into the crowd before whoever was chasing him caught up. But what about the man in the water? How much time did he have left?

He swore to himself, slipped off his messenger bag, and hurried down the slippery rocks. He grabbed the unconscious man by his shirt, dragged him up onto the promenade, laid him on his back, and began giving him mouth-to-mouth.

* * *

Walker braked hard, got out of his truck, and scanned the sea of yellow-clad bike riders.

Danny Cole was somewhere in that crowd. But Walker knew with crushing certainty that by the time he got reinforcements here to lock the place down, Danny and his crew would be long gone, having changed out of their jerseys and escaped any number of ways: by car, by foot, by bus, by train, perhaps even by windsurfing.

Yeah, that would be Cole’s style. Just sail away, giving him the finger as he went along the water.

Walker heard sirens approaching behind him, and when he turned in the direction of the sound, he looked south down the promenade. To his astonishment, he saw Danny Cole on his knees, soaking wet, and giving a man on the ground mouth-to-mouth. The bike was on the ground, too, and a crowd was gathering, including a woman fighting to hold back her barking dog, who strained at its leash to get to Cole.

Walker hurried over just as the man on the ground began coughing up water. The man was in his fifties, also wet, blood seeping from a wound on his head. But he was breathing, and that’s what mattered.

Cole leaned away from the man and reached for a messenger bag, but Walker beat him to it. He lifted it up and peered inside. It was stuffed with cash. Walker opened his coat to flash the badge and gun clipped to his belt.

“Andrew Walker, US Marshals. You’re under arrest, Cole.”

“What for?”

“I have no idea, but if I don’t think of something, I’m sure the Feds and the DEA will. This bag is full of marked money.”

Cole looked over at the fairgrounds and sighed with resignation. Walker followed his gaze and saw a paramedic unit and a fire truck arriving. Someone must have called 911. But Walker knew that wasn’t what Cole was thinking about. His crew had escaped. At least the con wasn’t a total disaster.

“Lie facedown, hands behind your back,” Walker said.

Cole did as he was told. As Walker cuffed Cole, the dog lifted his leg, looked the con man in the eye, and peed on his bike.

“Perfect,” Cole said. “Just perfect.”

Walker grabbed him by the arms and pulled him up to his feet.

“Could be worse. He could have peed on you.” Walker led Cole to his truck as the paramedic rushed over to help the man on the ground.

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Plaque on the Erle Stanley Gardner Building
The historical marker on the building at 21 California St., Ventura