When his gloved hands touched the door, he was off to the races. Bolting to the rearward woods, he ran full speed wholly expecting to hear sirens flood his wake. He heard nothing, and motored into the curtain of trees where he made an abrupt right-hand turn and headed through the woods in the direction of the Jeep.
In fear that he would become one, he moved like a fugitive. Bent on self-preservation with zero regard for personal injury, he sprinted through the bushes, branches, sticks and vines. He hurdled a downed log and ducked a head-high branch before abruptly skidding to a stop in the leaf-covered dirt. He knelt at the base of a large tree, shielded from civilization, the businesses on the right and the neighborhood on the left.
With no time to catch his breath or stew in the excitement and fear, he stripped himself of his hat and wig and ripped his clothes from his body. Once reduced to underwear, he unzipped his backpack and removed the acetone and rags from the same compartment that contained the bundles of fives and pellet gun. He hurriedly unscrewed the plastic safety top from the metal canister and poured the noxious paint thinner over a rag. With a deep breath, he closed his eyes and doused his head and face. The powerful chemicals washed over his skin, the feeling was unholy. The fumes evaporated his breath and singed his airway. Penn fought for nontoxic air. Ignoring the effects, he vigorously scrubbed his face and neck with the solvent-drenched rags, repeating the noxious process several times over. Both his skin and eyes were on fire and nausea was beginning to turn his stomach, but within a minute, Penn had returned to Penn, his minority status revoked along with the fraudulent scars and unsightly lines that pocked and sliced his face. He wiped himself clean, careful not to miss any of the makeup, and exchanged his suit jacket, shirt, tie, hat, and wig for the colorful Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses from his pack.
He continued with the pack in hand, and soon he could see his Jeep through the urban wilderness. Penn crept to the edge of the parking lot, where he took stock of the situation. The immediate coast appeared clear and he tiptoed from the strip of forest towards the Jeep.
Sirens ripped into earshot, electrifying the neighborhood with the blare of crime fighting and emergency. Though obstructed by the former restaurant, Penn could hear the police cars racing past – not to – his location. He released a nervous exhale and took to the driver seat before he wedged the backpack under the passenger’s seat. He then put the key in the ignition and dropped the Jeep into gear.
The police were armed with his name and on the prowl for him. Yet, Penn continued to the bank unabated. He parked a quarter of a mile from the branch behind an out-of-business restaurant, and used his rearview mirror to put the finishing touches on his outfit.
In full regalia, he took his backpack by the strap and walked from the soon-to-be getaway car. Stepping from behind the dormant restaurant, he headed along the sidewalk and down a commercial stretch of national and regional franchises towards the bank that was located on the next block. Penn studied his surroundings. Behind the businesses was a swath of token forest that separated the boulevard from a residential neighborhood. The woods appeared dense in coverage but spacious enough to allow for adequate flight. They were his out.
In minutes, Penn was facing the plate glass door of the bank. His heart rate ticked up. He steadied himself with a deep breath before tentatively reaching for the door’s handle, which greeted him with a static shock. He flinched; his hand recoiled a few inches. Penn pulled open the door.
The lobby was quiet, the bank without other patrons except an older woman conducting business with a teller at the far end of the counter, which left two other tellers idle at their posts, a young man and a young woman.
Penn causally neared the counter.
In a jovial voice that ran counter to the bank’s mortuary ambiance, the female teller welcomed Penn. “Good morning, welcome to New State Bank. What can we do for you today?”
Angling for a more intimate exchange, Penn withheld his reply and walked towards her and her hospitable smile, toothy grin that dominated the lower half of her face until Penn came into full view.
“I called earlier today about changing some hundreds into fives,” he said in his Southern baritone.
“Uh, yes,” confirmed the teller with hesitation. Averting her eyes from her deformed customer, she added, “Our assistant manager set aside the fives.” She slid a slip of paper across the counter. Still shying away from her customer’s deformity, she failed to notice his gloved hands as they took the form and reached for the chained pen. “If you would, please fill out this exchange form. I’ll get the bills and recount them.”
The teller disappeared into a door at the end of the counter, as Penn wrote on the small piece of paper. After a moment, she returned carrying several stacks of five dollars bills that she placed on the counter next to an automatic counter. Penn watched as she undid the first stack and ran it through the machine.
The denomination was not random. Penn had selected five-dollar bills because he wanted to avoid confrontation with a dye pack capable of soiling both his money and clothes, and from what he had gleaned from movies, television, and the internet, dye packs were typically reserved for bundles of tens and twenties. But once the teller ran the stacks through the counter, which fanned the bills, all dye pack trepidation was alleviated.
After the last of it was counted the teller turned to Penn. “Five thousand seven hundred and sixty, all in fives,” she said, still uneasy by the man’s appearance. “I need from you is the exchange slip and the money you want exchanged.”
Penn slid her the completed exchange form.
She glanced over the information provided and quickly looked up. “Are you serious?” she asked, as if she was the victim of a practical joke.
Penn did not answer. His twisted Picasso expression remained warped as he slowly opened the backpack and held it up to the counter.
The teller froze.
Penn attempted to encourage her with a nod of his head, but the subliminal effort failed, and she remained catatonic. He further opened the pack, and gestured with a tilt of his head for her to look inside.
The teller peered into the bag. At the sight of the black gun, she snapped to and quickly moved to retrieve the stacks of money from the rear counter.
Penn eyed the bank. It was quiet. Every conceivable activity had come to a complete stop. The phones were no longer ringing, employees were no longer moving, and the old woman standing down the counter stood like a statue facing the similarly still banker before her. A jolt of fear seized him. The silent alarm had been triggered. No one was moving or talking because they were operating under robbery guidelines. In the stillness, Penn could feel the police racing to towards the bank. Panic gushed from his stomach up through his throat, but he choked the bile down with a forceful swallow.
The instant the teller placed the bills on the counter, Penn swept them into the backpack, and the lopsided transaction was complete. He offered a polite but hasty “thank you” in his contrived accent before zipping up the pack and trotting to the door.
On a circuitous route to the bank, Penn made a stop at a convenience store where he placed a call from an endangered standalone payphone. Attempting to echo a discombobulated old-timer from the depths of Georgia, he forewarned the bank that he was on his way with the intention of exchanging five thousand seven hundred and sixty dollars in larger bills into five-dollar bills and wanted to make sure they had an adequate number of bills on hand to facilitate the exchange. The amount was calculated, having lost seventy-two hundreds dollars when his loan was pulled, less twenty percent for his error. Additionally, he was hopeful the differing amounts would further distance him from his last visit to the bank.
The representative on the other end of the phone confirmed that the branch indeed had the change available and that the chief teller could set aside the necessary stacks of five-dollar bills. Customer service, thought Penn.
He returned the antiquated phone to its chrome cradle as his cell phone sprung to life in his pocket. Penn scooped the phone, looked at the number, and answered as Penn. “Hello, Holly. How are you?”
“I’m good. I just went for a ride and I’m on my way to campus for office hours, but I wanted to give you a heads up.”
“What’s going on?”
“The police were at my house.”
“They were asking about you.”
The blood raced to his war-painted face. Of everything Holly could have said, he was not expecting that. Penn struggled to take a breath.
Between the Knight Power & Light escapade, car dealership hijinks, and the clinic he knew the police would be entering the equation at some point, but he had not anticipated their arrival this soon, and certainly not by way of Holly.
“Sorry,” he mustered, “I was just about to sneeze.”
“That’s the worst. So, yeah, this officer, or detective I guess, came by the house with some photographs.”
“Photographs of what?”
The simplistic reply further numbed him. “Oh, that’s odd.”
“Two black and white shots of you looking oh-so cool in your stuffy suit,” she said with levity.
“That doesn’t sound good, aside from me looking cool,” he said with a forced laugh as he scrambled to get his arms around Holly’s words and the photographs. “I wonder what could they possibly want with me and why would they talk to you?”
“Because they didn’t know your name,” she explained. “Just the pictures.”
The inability of the police to source something as remedial as a name was a promising harbinger, and Penn felt incrementally relieved. Additionally, if the police were only presenting pictures of him without a disguise, then it was possible that they didn’t have him entirely pinned. “Wait a second, how’d they get your name?”
“It’s confusing, but somehow they backed into a list of protesters based on the membership of the organizing clubs, or something like that.”
“I’m sorry about all this,” said Penn. “Did you get any idea what they wanted?”
“It sounded like all they wanted was your name.”
“And you gave it to them, I trust?”
“Well, yeah. I hope that’s cool.”
“The detective said you were at the power company when that smoke bombing occurred and that it was possible you saw something.”
“I wonder what I would I have seen?”
“I don’t know. But then again, I didn’t know you were at their building when all that went down – I’m pretty sure you never said anything about that.”
“Did I not mention that to you?”
“Sorry about that. I was downtown talking to their HR department about a possible job. I left right when the fire alarm went off, but I didn’t really see anything. I actually didn’t realize anything had happened until I saw it on the news.”
“Wait, a job? Weren’t you just with me protesting that company, and now you’re applying for a job from them?”
“It’s a position within a subsidiary that’s spearheading their alternative energy initiatives,” Penn said before relaying some of what he had learned from the phone call with Knight prior to his attack. “I was asking about a project manager position within their Green Department.”
“Well, I guess that’s better than carving up the Earth for oil and coal,” conceded Holly, “but still – – why didn’t you tell me you were there during the bombing?”
“My mistake,” said Penn before blending his apology with more talk of the nonexistent opportunity. “I think you’d like the division. They’re focused not only on hydro and solar, but also on conservation. I’d be helping the environment from the inside out, just like you said.”
“Penn, did you have anything to do with the smoke bombing?”
The question felt as though it struck out of the blue, even though it should have been expected. Like Holly in her conversation with Avery, Penn was presented with a simple unavoidable decision. He could either cross the point of no return, head down a path of dishonesty, and lie. Or, tell the truth and watch the conversation and blooming relationship vanish.
Penn deliberated for an instant before making his choice. “Are you serious or are you joking? Of course I had nothing to do with it.”
“I know, I know, it sounded funny when I said it.”
Penn could hear the relief in her voice. “As cool as it sounds, an environmental terrorist, I am not,” he said before injecting stupefied astonishment into his voice. “Hold on, you don’t think the police think I had anything to do with the bombing?”
“No, relax,” said Holly. “I asked them if you were a suspect, and they said no.”
“Thanks for wondering.”
“Hey, a girl’s got to have standards,” she said with a smile that Penn could feel at the other end of the line.
With that, the professor invited Penn over for dinner later in the week. The African American imposter enthusiastically accepted and the two wished each other well, hung-up simultaneously, and went on their decidedly different ways.
When Penn was a child he had watched his father prepare for a Halloween party with nothing more than his wife’s makeup and rubber cement. His old man had applied the cement to his skin, gripped the bits of cheek and flesh, folded it onto itself, and held the skin until the glue set. The result, after repeating the process several times over, was an eerily disfigured face – cheeks folded into themselves, lower lip fixed to chin, and a half-collapsed nose. With the glue dry, he then applied various shades of makeup over the high sheen glue and newly fabricated wrinkles. His father smiled in the mirror and then at him. The image and memory were indelible.
Like father, like son, Penn set up shop in his bathroom. With the brush mounted on the underside of the bottle top, Penn applied the rubber cement to the more malleable areas of his face and forged seams of glued skin and fraudulent scars. He admired his work in the mirror, but also couldn’t help notice his sunken eyes and the loose inky purple skin draped beneath them. In vain, he rubbed his eyes.
When rubber cement was sufficiently dry, he painted his face and neck with the racially disparaging foundation. Careful to spackled all the exposed skin, including his inners ears, the inside of his nose, and the tops of his eyelids, he addressed every surface and orifice that offered a hint of his actual race with the dark brown makeup. Complete, he was unrecognizable, even to himself. Although the hue of his skin leaned towards the unbelievable, the creased lines crisscrossing his face appeared genuine, even if unfathomable. He resembled an African-American airplane crash survivor whose face had incurred traumatic violence and followed by several rounds of cosmetic surgery.
Not wanting to smudge the makeup or soil his dress shirt, he dressed carefully and left his tie loosely knotted around his neck and his collar wide open. He fitted his wig onto his skull and capped it with the now snug-fitting hat. After loading the acetone and bundle of rags, along with a Hawaiian shirt, sunglasses, and his BB gun into his backpack, he grabbed his suit jacket and walked to the kitchen where he was intercepted by Bayer, who was returning from the pool in search of a glass of water. They were mutually startled and cut skeptical looks at one another.
“Excuse me,” said Bayer. “May I help you?” Had he been standing in his own house, he would have been more demanding in his question; but as it was, he proceeded with a more courteous tone.
Penn recognized the effectiveness of the disguise and decided to toy with his anonymity. He downshifted his voice and asked with low rough rumbling words, “You must be Penn?”
“You know where I could find him?”
“No, and may I ask what this is regarding?”
Penn appreciated the apparent loyalty, and was tempted to break character, but pressed on. “You know when he’ll be back?”
“I have no idea – you’ll have to forgive me, but I didn’t catch your name. Who are you?”
“Who am I? Who is anyone? Who are you?” A smile began to crack on Penn’s twisted face. “Who is Bayer?” At the last question Penn allowed his voice to revert to its accustomed pitch.
“Penn? Is that you? Man, that doesn’t look anything like you. You’re a black man,” he said with a grin. “And what happened to your face?”
“I hope you don’t mind the choice in color, I needed something that looked a little less like me.”
“Well, you certainly got that.” He neared Penn and studied the scars and creases. “And the scars?”
“That’s fantastic,” said an impressed Bayer before he noticed the backpack.. “What’s going on?”
“During the day?”
“Yup. It’s a fundraiser.”
Bayer may have had trouble in recognizing Penn through the disguise, but he saw through the spurious explanation.
Bayer’s suspicions were not one-sided. Since meeting Bayer, Penn had sensed a more significant backstory lurking in the depths of his houseguest’s history. The Colonel was a professional wanderer, Bob was traveling for a purpose, but Bayer was an accomplished man of seemingly sound mind consciously choosing to live on the streets. Whatever the skeletons dangled in his closet were wicked enough to keep Bayer on the road and off the grid. But Penn, like Bayer, knew enough to not ask questions.
Penn looked at Bayer’s disbelieving eyes and decided against patronizing the man. “It’s a long story,” said Penn. “Trust me; you’ll be better off if you don’t know.”
Bayer took Penn’s words at face value. Nothing more was said.
Cooling down from a late morning bike ride designed to eclipse the trauma of the clinic, Holly coasted towards home, ears occupied by music and mind distracted by thoughts of Penn. She headed up onto the sidewalk near her house, paying little attention to the grey sedan parked on the street or Officer Avery Hughes as she stepped from the vehicle.
“Ms. Baker,” said Avery, as Holly, deaf from the music, hopped off her bike and went to walk her bike to her front porch.
Avery repeated her introduction as she approached Holly, this time at a higher volume. “Ms. Baker, My name is Avery Hughes.”
The louder mention of her name cut through the music and caught Holly’s attention. She looked over her shoulder and removed her earphones. “Excuse me.”
Avery walked towards Holly, and extended a hand, which Holly shook. “Avery Hughes. I’m a detective with the Metro North Division” She offered Holly a view of her identification to substantiate her claim.
Holly subtly recoiled upon hearing the name of Avery’s employer. Her tone tentative, she asked, “What can I do for you, Detective Hughes?”
“Avery. Just plain Avery,” she said, her voice intentionally upbeat in hopes of mitigating Holly’s unease. “No class this afternoon?” The question was intended to be innocuous, conversational, but came across as intrusive and mildly menacing.
“How can I help you?” replied Holly.
Avery’s investigation of the Knight Power & Light smoking bombing had led her to believe that Holly had little, if anything, to do with the actual crime. Not only was Holly an upstanding college professor with zero in the way of a criminal record, suspicious online activity, or extreme activism away from memberships with a few reputable environmental groups – none of which had claimed responsibility, but she had also been in class during the actual attack.
“Just have a quick question,” said Avery already opening the manila folder in her hand. She presented Holly an eight-by-ten black and white photograph. “Would you happen to know this man?”
Holly looked down at the photograph, a zoomed-in cropped close-up of a man. Thought ricocheted about, but her expression remained entirely unchanged. After a moment, she went to answer Avery’s simple, binary question, but struggled to find the right word.
Sensing Holly’s consternation and looking to ease her mind as well as get an honest answer, Avery added, “Look, I’m not trying to be cryptic or trick you into saying anything. I’m literally just trying to find out this man’s name. And before you ask me why I’m talking to you or feel like I’m trying to box you in, I want you to know that you know him or at least have met him.”
And before Holly could utter the word “how”, Avery had extracted a second a picture from the folder. It was similar to the first, but was taken at the protest and showed Holly talking with Penn.
Holly knew she had done nothing wrong, yet she felt cornered. “May I ask what is all this about?” she asked, stalling with the possibility of gleaning a little information from the detective.
“I’m just trying to get a name, Holly.”
“How’d you get my name?”
Avery gave in hopes of getting. “We had your picture from the protest. We also had the rosters of the two groups that organized the event. So, I ran the lists against the DMV, filtered by gender and race, and then basically got lucky. But again, I’m not here to talk about you. I’m just trying to get this man’s name and whatever information I can find on him.”
“I don’t really know him,” said Holly, treading lightly, but honestly. “I met him at that protest. He came up to me and asked a few questions about what was going on – – -” Holly trailed off. “Wait, why do you need to talk to him?”
“We have some questions regarding the Knight smoke bombing.”
“The smoke bombing?” repeated Holly.
“Yes,” replied Avery without further clarification. Since the incident, the story had been lead on every local newspaper and news program and had drummed up considerable interest and debate.
“You don’t think he has anything to do with that mess, do you?”
“Obviously, I can’t comment on an investigation, but this shot was taken in front of the Knight Power & Light building around the time of the bombing,” said Avery as she reverted back to the first picture. “But, I will say I don’t think he had anything to do with the bombing itself.” A white lie, but Avery knew that if she said otherwise or put her acquaintance in harm’s way she risked losing Holly as a willing source of information. “We have reason to believe he may have seen something and might have some information that could assist us in finding out who did.”
Before speaking, Holly ripped through the mental transcript of her dinner with Penn. Had he mentioned that he was at the Knight building during the attack? She struggled to recall the answer. She opened her mouth but nothing came forth.
Unsure of what had been said, not seeing any reason to lie, and facing an officer of the law, Holly answered the question.
Throughout the night, Penn rolled amongst his sheets and crawled within his skin. His fatigued mind spun a frenzied web of fragmented thoughts that prevented him from finding serenity, much less sleep. Resigned to consciousness, he combatted his unbridled, manic thoughts by concentrating on his budding campaign. The bank that denied him soon found its way to the forefront.
From his bed, he ripped apart various forms of restitutions like a processing plant eviscerating the carcasses of chickens. But as he churned through different plots – some colorful, some sinister, all illegal – he kept arriving at the same sticking point, timing. Having just been rebuffed in his efforts to recoup the money, it was conceivable that he could be a prime suspect for any off-color prank at the expense of that particular branch without any direct evidence. Penn wanted to avoid the authorities at all cost, but he also wanted his due. He weighed and rationalized as his insomnia set to work twisting his perspective, and by dawn, he was convinced that he could act sooner rather later with an intellectual highroad defense: “Officer, I’d like to believe I’m smart enough not to rob the same bank I just visited.” And rob the bank was what he had decided to do.
That morning, shortly after PartyTown unlocked their doors for the day, Penn browsed the aisles and shelves of costumes. The scheme could not have been more simplistic. Penn would wear a mask, authentic beyond reproach and that of an innocent elderly man, which would be substantiated by a suit and Penn’s hat. The outfit would be adequate in getting him from the bank’s doors to the counter where he would softly request the funds from the cashier.
As he shopped he thought. Why not compound the disguise by applying a coat of dark brown makeup to his face before donning the mask? An exacting application, thought Penn, specifically around his eyes and mouth, could further mislead the scrutinizing eyes of the cashier, witnesses, and inspectors of camera footage into thinking the perpetrator behind the mask was of a different race. Opaque latex gloves would take care of his hands and wrists – in addition to his prints.
In his sleep-deprived state, he was emboldened by his ingenious, ironclad scheme until he realized that it was nothing more than an unoriginal masked robbery, a feat that more often than not ended in penniless incarceration. But he could do better; at least he thought he could. Then again, what criminals don’t think that?
By the third pass over the mask section, Penn began to not only question his angle, but feel disheartened by the mask prospects. From the vast inventory of latex, plastic, and rubber masks, he was unable to locate a disguise real enough to pass for actual skin in actual life. Mask-less, he stumbled upon the novelty make-up section, where his discouragement was eradicated by a renaissance of warped ingenuity.
Penn left the store, but not before purchasing a vat of racially incendiary dark brown make-up and a neatly cropped one-inch salt and pepper afro.
From PartyTown, he popped by a hardware store where he procured some black latex gloves, a bundle of paint rags, a liter of acetone, and bottle of rubber cement.