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Shadow's Hoax (Shadow Island FBI Mystery Series Book 12)

A Taste of… Shadow’s Hoax

Chapter One

“Hurry up, ladies. It’s nearly time to open.”

Arthur Carson shook his keys toward the three teller windows where his staff sorted and stocked their tills. The lobby of the Sandpiper Bank was spotless, as usual. Every weekend, the cleaning service polished the worn tiles and old-fashioned brass fixtures at each teller window.

For the type of clientele they attracted, everything had to be perfect.

“No one’s ever here when we open on Mondays.” Stephanie, his youngest teller at only eighteen, always teased him about his by-the-book attitude. According to her, such fussiness contrasted with island living. “We’ve got plenty of time to get ready.”

Arthur rested one hand on the push bar of the front door. Muscle memory guided the key into the lock as he called over his shoulder. “Never say never. As soon as you do, the universe will do its damnedest to prove you wrong.” He quarter-turned the dead bolt to the right, opening the door. “Besides, we all know—”

As the bank door swung open, a rough hand reached through and shoved him backward.

Arthur landed on his back with enough force that he slid a few feet, his elbow taking the brunt of the impact. It was only by luck that his head landed on the large rug with the Sandpiper logo instead of the tile floor.

Someone muscled through the doorway. “Stop what you’re doing and put your hands up!”

Shock coursed through Arthur like electricity. A robbery? Really?

Adrenaline surged through him when the dead bolt slammed into place.

My keys!

He stared at his empty right hand. Then lifted his gaze to the door.

A clown blocked his view. He blinked rapidly, certain he was hallucinating.

How hard did I hit my head?

A Halloween-style rubber mask grinned at him with a wide, rounded, synthetic smile. The clown wore stereotypically frizzy red hair and sported a bulbous red nose. The rest of the costume consisted of striped, oversize clothes with multicolor pom-poms trailing down the front. The chucklehead standing over him could have passed as any standard-issue clown, if not for the ominous backpack slung over his shoulder.

The clown shoved Arthur’s keys into a pocket of the padded costume. But one of the smaller keys hooked on the loose material, leaving it exposed.

Arthur stared at the shoes and realized they were covered in big blue elasticized booties. Like the kind hospital staff wore for sanitary purposes.

The clown stepped forward, the glint of black steel materializing in his gloved hand. Arthur’s bowels nearly loosened as he faced his worst fear…the dark barrel of a handgun leveled at his face.

Behind him, screams of shock and panic from his three tellers punctuated the bank’s lobby.

“Shut up and do as I say, or I’ll put a bullet in his brain!” The command came from behind Chucklehead’s unmoving rubber lips.

Without taking his eyes off the macabre maniac, Arthur called to his staff, trying to reassure them. “Do as he says. Remember your training. Don’t resist. Hand over the money and follow his instructions.”

As the robber stepped over him, Arthur recoiled, covering his head with his hands. A thin splat seized his attention, and he glanced up in time to watch a stack of brochures slide across the floor like a glossy wave. Their plastic stand followed, clattering on top of them. In the midst of the commotion, the coffee pot hit the tile, shattering glass and lukewarm Arabica across the strewn brochures.

“Listen up.” The clown looked at a piece of paper before stuffing it deep inside his costume. “Empty your tills or your manager’s going to die!” Chucklehead’s mask faced the three tellers, who’d stopped screaming and were standing with their hands trembling above their heads. “Do you want me to kill him?”

Arthur remained frozen in place as the gun once again pointed at his head. The clown picked up a little stand for business cards from one of the tables in the lobby and slung it across the room.

“Because I will. I have specific instructions that we all need to follow. If you touch the silent alarm, I will shoot him. And I won’t stop shooting until there’s no one left to call for help.”

Instructions. Was this guy so inexperienced he needed someone to tell him how to rob a bank? Had those been crib notes he’d stuffed into his getup?

As threats went, it was straightforward and easy to understand. All three bank tellers stood motionless. Arthur remained on his back, craning his neck so he could keep an eye on the cheerful mask of the criminal terrorizing his three employees.

“Take all the money out of your tills and put it in bags. Do it now. Fast. And don’t put any of those dye packs in. I’ll see them, and you don’t want to give me a reason to get angry while I’m holding a loaded gun.”

The tone of Chucklehead’s voice remained flat and hard. He walked over to a desk, picked up one of the chairs, and threw it at the cardboard stand for the bank’s new home equity program.

As he circled the area, Chucklehead managed to keep his gun pointed at Arthur’s head the whole time.

“Do what he said. Give him all the cash, ladies.” Arthur twisted around to keep the man in sight. He was too far away to interfere with the clown, and besides, the whole staff had been trained on how to respond to robbers. While this was Arthur’s first time putting that training into practice, he knew the main directive. No heroics.

As a cardboard promotional sign for the bank’s certificate of deposit rate sailed over the service window, the tellers screamed again.

Jen, the most senior of the tellers, gave a shaky nod to Arthur before heading to her till. That was when Stephanie and Karen regained control of themselves enough to follow Jen’s lead.

“Don’t you move, man. There’s plenty of faces in here that wouldn’t look so good with a bullet in them.” He continued to sow chaos, moving, throwing, and scattering anything he could shove or throw with one hand.

Arthur noted the gap between the mask and the costume. White makeup covered the scant amount of skin around the clown’s eyes. He glanced down, but the clown’s wrist was also concealed.

Every time something new crashed into a wall or shattered on the floor, the women behind the counter flinched. Chucklehead’s rubber mask hid any feelings he might’ve had toward their reactions.

Arthur felt helpless and embarrassed as he lay on the floor, useless. He needed to de-escalate the robber’s chaotic behavior before someone got shot. “There’s no need to do this. We’ll give you what you want, and then you can go. It’s just money. No one wants to risk their life for it.”

The clown stopped his rampage, and Arthur was terrified his words might have invited more danger.

With a deliberate movement that sliced through the tense quiet, the clown pivoted the gun away from Arthur. As the barrel targeted Jen, who stood mere feet away, her face drained of color. “You know, man, it’s that kind of smart thinking that will make this so much easier. Hand over the bags.”

There was a moment where everyone was paralyzed with fear.

“Hand over the bags!” The command erupted again, more ferocious this time. His rubber-soled slippers squeaked against the floor as he whirled and redirected the gun at Arthur. Chucklehead strode over and grabbed him by the collar. “Or this man’s brains will be the next thing to decorate these tiles!”

“Okay. Okay! Here!” Jen tossed her bag onto the counter. She then hurried over to the others and added their bags to make a pile at her window. “That’s it. That’s everything we have. You can let him go. Just take the money and go.”

The clown pulled Arthur’s shirt tight across his throat, forcing him up onto his knees just to relieve the pressure. “I can let him go, but I won’t. He’s going to stay right here next to me while you all come out from behind there. And keep your hands up where I can see them.”

Silently, the three women walked to the end of the teller counter, lifted the swing door shelf, and opened the half door. Karen was shaking so hard that when her foot landed on one of the brochures, she nearly went sprawling. Arthur’s heart broke for his friend and colleague. It was his responsibility to comfort and protect the three women.

But he was useless.

“That’s good. Now line up in front of your boss, facing the other way. And put your hands behind your backs.” The masked man stepped around Arthur. “Boss man, you can stand up now. No funny business, or the executions begin.”

Arthur, careful to keep his hands raised, struggled to his feet. From behind him came the sound of a zipper being pulled shut, and his mind raced to picture what the robber was doing. He realized Chucklehead must be retrieving something from his backpack.

“Now we walk these nice ladies to the bathroom.” The barrel of the gun hit the back of Arthur’s head hard enough to make him stumble forward. “Move.”

In the back corner of the lobby was a single-use commode, for the employees more than visitors. Even customers who’d been coming in for most of their lives were unaware of the bank’s facilities. Which made Arthur wonder how this man knew about it. Because of the clown costume, visually identifying the man was impossible. Nothing in his movements triggered a memory.

But then again, Arthur was so scared, his mouth tasted like dirty pennies.

The bank wasn’t large, so they reached the unmarked door in only a few strides. “Inside. Move it. And keep quiet. Trust me, you don’t want me to come back here. Lay face down on the floor, hands behind your backs.”

Shoving his terror down, Arthur tried his best to comfort his tellers. “It’ll be okay. You’re all being very brave. We’re going to get through this.”

The four of them would be incredibly cramped packed into such a small room. He’d already made up his mind to position himself closest to the door. Though he wasn’t a large man by any means, he could serve as a barrier between the robber and the women who looked up to him. At least it would be something.

It’s almost over. If I break, they’ll be even more scared. I have to be strong for them. Oh, God, who’s going to call Mom every Sunday and on her birthday if I die today? I’m the only family she has left.

“Tape their hands behind their backs. Palms together.” Arthur perceived a roll of duct tape bumping against his shoulder even as the cold metal of the gun remained pressed against the back of his head. “And don’t try anything funny.”

With shaky hands, Arthur took the tape and bound the three women as they whimpered. He started with Stephanie, who was farthest from the door, lying with her feet by the toilet. Next was Karen, who was pressed up against Stephanie’s side. Finally, he bound Jen’s hands. She was positioned with her head under the sink near the door.

His stomach was sour from violating his employees. Tears streamed down Stephanie’s and Karen’s faces as they kept glancing over their shoulders at him. Jen had her forehead pressed to the bathroom tile floor, and she was shaking. They were helpless now, and it was all because of him.

Arthur lifted his foot to squeeze in next to Jen by the door, but a hand on his collar yanked him back. Caught off balance, mentally and physically, Arthur fell backward, landing on his hip and elbow—the same one he’d smacked earlier. At fifty-one, he wasn’t sure how many more hits his elbow could take without breaking.

“I didn’t tell you to go in there. Get up.” Chucklehead addressed Arthur’s bound tellers. “Ladies, if you so much as crack this door open, I’ll blow his brains out. If you know what’s good for you and your boss man, you’ll stay inside until I’m long gone.”

The robber closed the bathroom door and turned. Arthur struggled to his feet as Chucklehead shoved him toward the short hallway that led to his office, the electrical room, and the back door. His mind tried to piece together what the robber could want from this area of the building. “There’s no mon—”

“I have all the money I want. It’s time for something else.” They reached Arthur’s office, where he was shoved inside. Losing his footing, he collapsed on the floor in front of his desk, minimally grateful he hadn’t landed on his elbow yet again. His breathing was so hard and noisy, he almost missed the robber’s next words.

“You need to transfer all the money out of these accounts and send it to the account I have written down here. Get up and start typing.”

A folded piece of paper landed on the floor in front of him. Arthur picked it up. As soon as he saw the first account, a chill ran through him. His labored breathing was forgotten as he recognized the numbers on that list.

“No.”

A white cotton fist slammed into his cheek, knocking his teeth painfully together as his jaw bounced off the floor. “You’ll do it. And you’ll forget you ever did it. Hell, you’re going to forget I ever asked you to do this. And you’re going to forget to add this transaction to the list when you’re served with that warrant.”

“I won’t.” His eyebrows furrowed as he pushed himself up and back onto his knees. He scowled at the monster standing over him. Now he understood how Chucklehead knew his way around the bank. The Yacht Club was behind this. They were calling the shots.

Chucklehead was no longer a clown in Arthur’s eyes. Nor was he a robber. He was algae. “You can tell your masters in the Yacht Club I will never help them with any of their illegal dealings. It’s bad enough that I have to house their dirty money. I’m more than happy to help law enforcement—”

A blue streak slammed into his chest as the clown’s booted foot connected with its target, sending Arthur onto his back. The air rushed from his lungs and pain sliced through his sternum, but he was no longer filled with fear. Anger took over, masking the pain of what he suspected was a broken rib or two.

“If you know the Yacht Club, then you know that ‘no’ is not an option. These guys make much better friends than enemies. Trust me.” The goon’s foot pressed harder, compressing Arthur’s chest.

Arthur lifted his head from the worn tile floor of his office, not noticing the blood that frothed around his lips as the blood from his mouth mixed with his saliva. He looked up into the barrel of Chucklehead’s gun. “No.”

The eyes behind the clown mask widened, showing their brown color.

He tried to reason with the madman. “No one else in this bank can do what your masters want. Only I have the right passwords, and I refuse. The Aqua Mafia doesn’t have friends. They have slaves, they have enemies, and they have victims. Which do you want to be?”

For a moment, the goon seemed confused by the nickname-gone-viral the islanders had taken to using for the entitled thugs who thought they owned everything and everyone. Chucklehead scanned the room before fixing his gaze back on Arthur. “Just do it! Money isn’t worth your life!”

“Life is worth more than money. Which is why I will never do what they want. Kill me if you have to. I will never help you or them.”

A gloved fist once again smashed into Arthur’s mouth.

Arthur rolled from the blow. He was beyond feeling pain now. It didn’t matter. A kick to the chest, and then another, slid him backward. Stars blossomed as more jabbing pain erupted in his sternum before he collided with the heavy wood of his desk. He gritted his teeth as a heavy heel stomped his side.

Through the blinding pain radiating through his chest and jaw, Arthur recalled the black plastic button mounted on the side of his desk. It blended in with the dark wood. A hidden alarm.

A sharp blow hit his kidney directly. Crying out, he seized the opportunity to throw himself forward, flinging his arm under the overhanging desktop. Hoping his erratic movement was believable, he slapped his hand against the plastic button. It depressed and stayed in. The silent alarm was enabled. Help was on the way.

“This is your last chance!”

Through the haze of his pain, Arthur detected fear and nervousness in the clown towering over him. He rolled away from the desk to face his attacker.

As he’d done in the lobby, the man in the clown suit was scattering anything he could find across Arthur’s floor. There was a desperate energy in his movements.

It made Arthur smile.

The Aqua Mafia hadn’t expected him to say no and stick to it. But there was nothing in this world that would convince him to do their bidding. Chucklehead was so busy ransacking the office that he never noticed when Arthur’s keys fell out of his pocket. Arthur rolled over with a moan, snatched them, and tucked them into his inner jacket pocket.

The clown spun around, jerking as he looked down at Arthur’s bloody, smiling face. “Just move the money, man. Give them what they want so I don’t have to do this.”

It hit Arthur then. The man didn’t want to kill him. Good. Arthur didn’t want to die. He tried to sit up, but his muscles weren’t working right, and it was hard to talk.

As he worked his jaw, something cracked loose and hit his tongue. He spat the sharp object—a tooth—onto the ground under his desk. “Each of us has to make tough choices in life. I’ve made mine. I won’t help men who pay other men to do things like this. Now you have a choice to make.”

Resignation filled the eyes of the Aqua Mafia clown. “Your death won’t change anything. They’ll get what they want, with or without you.”

“Well then, I guess they’ll have to find another way.” Arthur nodded.

His decision was made. He didn’t turn away as the gun leveled at him one last time. The hammer clicked as it pulled back. Silently, he prayed for his tellers to make it out of this unharmed. Once his petition was complete, peace enveloped him.

When push came to shove, he’d held fast to his morals. He would miss his mother, but he knew she’d be proud of him. That was enough.

Chapter Two

Sirens blaring, Sheriff Rebecca West slid her SUV sideways into the parking lot of the Sandpiper Bank right behind Senior Deputy Hoyt Frost. They both spilled out of their vehicles at nearly the same time. Guns out and at low ready, they trotted toward the front door and posted up to either side.

Deputy Jake Coffey’s cruiser screeched to a halt behind Rebecca’s, stopping perpendicular to hers. Though she kept her focus ahead of her, she was aware that he and Deputy Viviane Darby awaited instructions. “Coffey, Darby, block off the road with your vehicles. We don’t need anyone else joining us and getting caught in the cross fire.”

The two deputies backed out of the front lot and parked sideways in the street before bailing out to join her. Rebecca took that time to tap her pen camera and make sure it was recording. If she missed something in the heat of the moment, the video would catch it.

“See anything?” She glanced over at her senior deputy. “Use your pen.”

It was ridiculous that they had to resort to using campy spy gear she bought at the electronics store. By purchasing them discreetly, Rebecca kept their existence hidden from the corrupt politicians who had access to her spending budget. Sadly, the pens merely approximated the body cameras her team deserved.

Hoyt shook his head and gestured to his left before tapping his own pen.

Stationed to the left of the entrance, she positioned her deputies. “Coffey, Darby, windows.”

“On it, Sheriff.” Viviane must have seen what Hoyt had done, or maybe she was merely better at remembering, because she also turned her camera on, as did Jake.

Jake ran to her left and Viviane to her right, cutting through the shrubbery between the sidewalk and building. Viviane crouched beneath a reinforced window.

Through the tinted glass doors, Rebecca could see the lobby. Empty of people, it looked like a hurricane had recently passed through. The floor was covered in glossy pamphlets and scattered papers. One section was littered with pink and yellow bits that she thought might be sweetener packets, but that could be her mind responding to the overwhelming scent of coffee in the air. It was too damn early in the morning to be doing something like this.

“What the hell happened in there?” Hoyt’s mumbled question echoed Rebecca’s thoughts. “I don’t see anyone.”

Rebecca didn’t either. She pressed her radio. “Darby, your window looks in at the end of the row of teller stations.”

The bushes rustled in protest as Viviane pushed her way through them, peering inside. “I can see behind the counter. No one’s back there, but all the teller drawers are open and appear empty.”

That wasn’t good.

“Darby, Coffey, work your way around to the back and radio what you see.” Rebecca reached up and tried the door. It was locked and rattled softly from the effort. “They should be open.”

“Uh, Boss, is that a handle from a coffee pot? But the pot’s next to the wall here.” Hoyt nodded to his right.

“Someone broke a coffee pot?” Rebecca moved away from the brick wall she’d tucked herself against to get a better view of the rest of the mayhem. There were no signs of life inside.

Around ten minutes had elapsed since the silent alarm had triggered.

“There goes my hope of this being a false alarm.” Hoyt shot her a worried look.

Most alarms were false, but there was a lot wrong with this scene. This felt real. The lack of employees was troublesome. Until she could get eyes on every employee—hell, even one employee at this point—she couldn’t be certain there were no hostages.

“No, I don’t think this is a false alarm either.” Rebecca cued her radio. “Coffey, what do you see?”

“Nothing yet.” There was a scratch of branches on fabric. “There’s nothing down this way, no windows or anything else.”

Rebecca knew this was the bank that handled the Yacht Club members’ accounts, along with who knew what else. A secure vault on the other side of the lobby housed the cash safe and safety deposit boxes, which could easily hold millions. Perhaps that was where the bank employees were hiding. The inner door to that vault was closed, so she couldn’t know until they entered the building.

She craned her neck to search for any signs of movement. “There are cars in the lot, so we know someone should be here. They’re supposed to open at nine today, and that was half an hour ago. Where is everyone?”

“There aren’t many places they could be. I’ve only ever been in the lobby.” Viviane’s voice whispered through the radio.

“I don’t want to pound on the glass. We need to assume there’s a robber in there.” They had to be prepared for anything. Switching her gun to one hand, Rebecca reached for her radio. “Dispatch, contact the security company for that silent alarm. Ask them if they can tell us what happened in there.”

“Already did, Boss. I’m on the phone with them now.” Elliot sounded nervous, and Rebecca couldn’t blame him. Bank robberies were big-time felony business, technically under FBI jurisdiction. They rarely ended well. “Until they get the camera feed pulled, all they can say for sure is that the alarm did go off. The reset wasn’t triggered, and no one from the bank has called in to say it was a false alarm.”

“Stay on it and keep us updated.” Rebecca braced her gun with both hands again.

Hoyt shook his head. “These doors are reinforced to withstand a hurricane, Boss. So are the windows. There’s no way we’re opening them without the Jaws of Life or a cutting torch.”

She was afraid of that. “We need to find a way in. The longer this goes on without hearing from anyone inside, the more certain I am that—”

“Back door is ajar,” Viviane whispered.

Rebecca bolted for the side Viviane had taken, motioning for Coffey to guard the locked door as she and Hoyt ran for the back.

“Elliot, let Coastal Ridge PD know we’ve got a bank robbery in progress. Suspect is not in sight. Close down the bridge to all westbound traffic.”

Every clue is a countdown.

A typical morning at Sandpiper Bank turns into chaos when an armed man in a clown costume storms in, shattering the calm. He trashes the lobby and executes the bank manager, even after securing the money, hinting at a motive beyond mere robbery.

Maybe money isn’t the root of all evil, after all.

Puzzled by the senseless violence, Sheriff Rebecca West is drawn into a labyrinth of mystery and danger as the bank’s connections to the Yacht Club are revealed. The arrival of the FBI, led by Rebecca’s former instructor, offers a mix of relief and renewed tension. Read More