Frank Nash was dead. Which is why it was such a surprise when I received his letter:
You’re just the mug I need to help me get back my gold.
Think about it.
I checked the postmark. The letter had been mailed a day earlier, another surprise. Frank "Jelly" Nash might have been one of the nation’s most prolific bank robbers, pulling over a hundred successful jobs in a twenty- five- year career, but dead was dead, and since Nash had been shot in the head in 1933, he was deader than most. Also, while I like to keep an open mind when it comes to the paranormal, somehow I was confident that if Nash wanted to speak to me from the grave, he would have chosen more efficient means than the U.S. Postal Ser vice. Still, there’s something about the word "gold" that captures the imagination, so as the letter writer requested, I did indeed think about it.
The next morning I received a second letter.
I’m planning a job worth millions. Do you want in?
I didn’t actually need the money, yet I had to ask— how many millions?
Two days later, a Sunday, Nash sent an e-mail; apparently he had an account with Comcast:
The boys in St. Paul tell me you’re a mug who can
be counted on in a tight spot. Want to join my gang?
I clicked the Reply button, wrote "I would never join a gang that would have me as a member," and hit Send.
Twenty minutes later, the phone rang.
"Hello, McKenzie. It’s Ivy Flynn."
"Ivy. How are you?"
"I’m really good. How ’bout yourself?"
"Couldn’t be better."
"McKenzie? I’m sorry to call you out of the blue like this, but I need a favor."
Ivy was a graduate student in the Department of Entomology at the University of Minnesota, and about two years ago I had hired her to determine what was killing the honeybees owned by a close friend of mine. During the course of her research, someone took several shots at her with a twelve- gauge.
"I owe you one," I said. "Tell me what you need."
"It’s kinda complicated. Can we meet?"
We worked out the details. Afterward, I asked, "Ivy, do you know anything about some messages I’ve been getting from Jelly Nash?"
"That was my boyfriend’s idea. He thought they would pique your curiosity."
"Did he actually use the word ‘pique’?"
"Let me guess— English major."
"American literature. He’s working on his Ph.D."
"Will he be joining us?"
"Well, tell him the mug’s curiosity is indeed piqued."
"I will. McKenzie? This is going to be so much fun."
"More fun than getting shot at?"
She actually thought about it for a few beats before answering. "Yes, sir. Lots more."
We agreed to meet at the same place we had met years earlier, Lori’s Coffee house on Cleveland Avenue across from the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota. I parked on Buford next to a small, classically designed Catholic church with arched stained glass windows, blond stone recovered from a church that was torn down decades earlier, and a peaked red tile roof. It was called the Church of St. Andrew Kim and served a congregation of Koreans. Before that it was called Corpus Christi; the previous owners sold it to the Koreans when they moved to an ultramodern church with all the personality of a New Country Buffet— go figure.
A used and abused dark blue Chevy Trailblazer was parked across the street from the church. The two men sitting inside had an unobstructed view of Lori’s front door. I might not have noticed them at all except for the still- burning cigarette butt that the driver flicked out the window. It joined three others in the street. Assuming he was a diligent chain- smoker, I decided he must have been parked there for at least thirty minutes.
Ivy and her companion were sitting at the same table as when I first saw her; she could have been perched in the same chair. Even the paintings for sale on the walls looked familiar. While Lori’s hadn’t changed much, though, Ivy had. Twenty- four months ago I thought she was an attractive young woman hiding behind dowdy clothes, thick, large- rim glasses, and an unfortunate hairstyle. Well, she wasn’t hiding anymore. Irish red hair curled around her triangular face, setting off eyes that glistened like wet shamrocks. Her shirt was selected to accentuate her curves and her shorts— it was probably too chilly to wear shorts in early May, but if I had legs like hers I would have worn them, too.
She came out of her seat for a hug. She was so happy to see me that she laughed out loud. I kissed her cheek and said, "You look fabulous."
"You’ve always been nice to me," she said.
"Is this the boyfriend?"
Her companion rose to his feet and extended his hand. "Josh Berglund," he said like someone fond of reciting his own name. His appearance generated about as much excitement as a bowl of oatmeal— medium height and twenty pounds overweight, with straight brown hair, unremarkable hazel eyes, and a mustache that he should have given up on years ago. My first thought, Ivy could do a helluva lot better.
"Please," he said and gestured at a vacant chair.
Two large mugs sat empty on the small square table, along with a white plate that once held something made with a lot of powdered sugar.
"How long have you been here?" I asked.
"About a half hour," Ivy said.
Berglund studied his watch. "Forty- two minutes," he said.
It couldn’t be "about forty- five minutes," my inner voice said. No, it has to be exactly forty- two minutes. C’mon, Ivy, what are you doing with this guy? Still, the timing worked with the chain- smoker outside.
"So, what’s going on?" I asked.
Berglund gestured at the mugs in front of us. "Can I get you something?" "Sure." "Mocha, latte, cappuccino, espresso, French soda—" "Coffee is fine." He stared at me as if he had never heard of such a thing. "Black," I added. "As you wish. Ivy?" "Nothing else for me," she said. Berglund left the table and made his way to the counter. I turned to
Ivy. She reached across the table and squeezed my hand. "I am really glad to see you," I said. "You look absolutely beautiful." "Thank you." "So, when did this Berglund happen? Last time we chatted you were unattached and happy about it."
"That’s what I said, but I didn’t actually mean it. As for Josh, I’ve known him on and off for a couple of years. We didn’t start dating until three months ago."
"Ahh—you sound like my brother."
"Your brother goes ahh?"
"Everyone I know goes ahh, especially when they’re about to tell me that I should be with someone who’s better- looking and has more money, but Josh is smart and generous and he’s kind to me and he makes me laugh. That’s a lot."
"Ahh," I said.
I asked how she had been, and Ivy filled me in on the past six months— she was still going for her Ph.D. and expected to get it by the end of the term. A moment later, Berglund returned with the coffee. He set it in front of me and sat quietly while Ivy and I continued to exchange pleasantries. I was sure it annoyed him that I was holding hands with his girl; I just didn’t care. He seemed tired and uncertain, but that lasted only a few minutes. He gestured impatiently with an unexpected flash of energy.
"There are things we need to talk about," he said.
"Yes," Ivy said. "That’s why we’re here."
I took a sip of the coffee. The house blend. Nice. Lori’s always served a good unadorned cup of joe.
"Okay," I said. "I’m primed. What’s your story?"
"McKenzie, we need your help," Ivy said. She squeezed my hand for emphasis, then released it.
"No," Berglund said. "Not need." He glared at Ivy as if she had just tipped his hand in a high- stakes poker game.
She shrugged. "Why else did we call him?"
He shook his head as if Ivy were discussing matters that were far beyond her grasp. I didn’t like the gesture but let it slide.
"Why did you call me?" I asked.
Berglund’s eyes went from me to Ivy to the ceiling and then back to me again. "Do you know who Jelly Nash was?"
"Jelly Nash was a bank robber who committed most of his crimes during the twenties and early thirties."
"His real name was Frank Nash. He was born in the small town of Birdseye, Indiana, but he grew up in Oklahoma. His mother died when he was two . . ."
Berglund didn’t care what I knew or didn’t know. He had a story to tell and he was going to tell it his way and there wasn’t anything to do except lean back in the chair and listen.
"He was first arrested for burglary in 1911..."
I glanced at my watch several times, but if Berglund noticed, it didn’t slow him down any.
"Nash was a meticulous planner. He spent many hours in the banks before he robbed them, drawing up detailed floor plans, noting the location of the safes as well as the movement of employees. Each robbery was timed. He and his gang would go in, stay for a specific number of minutes, then leave no matter how much loot had been collected. His escape routes were charted block by block . . ."
Finally I said, "You’re telling me this— why?"
Irritation flashed across his face. Apparently he didn’t like being interrupted.
"Approximately 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, June 8, 1933, Frank ‘Jelly’ Nash stole thirty- two bars of gold bullion from the Farmers and Merchants Bank in Huron, South Dakota," he said. "The gold has never been recovered. I believe it’s still here in St. Paul."
"The gold was worth two hundred and sixty- four thousand dollars when Jelly stole it," Ivy said. "At today’s prices, it would be worth—"
"Eight million, seven hundred sixty- six thousand, eight hundred eighty- eight dollars," Berglund said.
I stared at him for a couple of beats while I digested the information. "I’m sorry," I said. "What were you saying?"
"The gold had been en route to the Ninth District Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis for safekeeping," Berglund said. He was smiling. He had a rapt audience now, and he knew it. "Prior to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election in 1932, gold was circulated freely in the United States as legal tender, and banks and other private entities often maintained stores of bullion. In early 1933, as part of the New Deal, Congress enacted a package of laws that criminalized private ownership of gold; FDR himself signed Executive Order 6102, which made the hoarding of gold an offense under the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917, literally an act of treason. All gold—coins, dust, bullion— was collected by the government and traded for other forms of money. The government had no single place to store it— the Federal Gold Repository at Fort Knox wasn’t built until 1936— so the gold was sent to the reserve banks and to the U.S. Mint in Denver and to any other place where it could be well protected.
"We believe Jelly Nash somehow learned about the shipment, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. He had informants everywhere. He robbed the bank and got away with the gold as well as forty- six thousand dollars in cash. The theft was initially reported in the Huron Plainsman; there were several quotes from the bank manager and the county sheriff and a photograph of the safe Jelly had blown using nitroglycerin. Afterward, newspaper articles, as well as police reports, waxed extensively about the stolen forty- six thousand dollars, yet the gold was never again mentioned."
"Perhaps the reporter made a mistake," I said. "Goes to show, you shouldn’t believe everything you read."
Berglund shook his head. "I made use of the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to Treasury Department files," he said. "There is no question that the gold theft took place as originally chronicled. However, authorities at the time deemed that it was in the public interest to keep news of it from broadly circulating."
"We can only speculate," Berglund said. "There had been runs on several area banks during the months immediately preceding the theft. At the Security State Bank and Trust in Faribault, Minnesota, they had to literally stack money on the cashiers’ counters for depositors to see. To save the National Bank of Grantsburg, Wisconsin, the parent bank flew in sacks of money and allowed customers to watch them deposit it in the bank’s vault. Possibly there was a fear that news of the gold theft would spark additional, more violent runs, especially since many people were incensed that the government was seizing privately owned gold supplies in the first place. We were in the middle of the Great Depression, and people trusted gold more than the government.
"Also, Minnesota’s financial community was lobbying heavily for a bank holiday, something that Governor Floyd B. Olson refused to sanction. Eventually Olson would give in, but at the time of the robbery, he may have thought that public outcry over the theft would produce pressure too great for him to weather, and it’s possible that he pulled strings to cover it up."
"It wouldn’t be the first time a politician believed that telling lies was in the public interest," I said.
"No, I suppose not. In any case, Jelly Nash robbed the bank at 9:00 a.m., immediately after it opened its doors to the public. Huron is three hundred thirty miles from St. Paul. Today, that’s a five- hour drive. Maybe less. In 1933, it would have taken twice as long. Yet by nine that eve ning Nash was in St. Paul. The St. Paul Daily News reported that Nash and his wife, Frances, were seen carousing— that’s a direct quote from the newspaper— they were seen carousing with an architect named Brent Messer and his wife at the Boulevards of Paris nightclub. The newspapers loved to print gossip about gangsters in those days; it was like they were celebrities."
"So you believe Frank came straight here after the heist."
"I do. And why not? For nearly thirty years, St. Paul had been a refuge for gangsters, a safe harbor for killers, bank robbers, stickup artists, kidnappers, bootleggers, extortionists—criminals of every variety and stature. They were allowed to come and go as they pleased; authorities even afforded them protection from other law enforcement entities as long as they refrained from committing crimes within the city limits."
A simple yes would have sufficed, my inner voice said.
"They called it the O’Connor System, named after Chief of Police John—" "I know all this," I said. "It’s my town." Ivy flashed a look of disapproval. Still, the interruption slowed
Berglund down for a moment.
"I’m just trying to give you context," he said. He slowly drained the cold coffee that had pooled at the bottom of his mug before beginning again. "Jelly and Frances Nash were at the nightclub on the eighth. By perusing FBI rec ords, we discovered that they spent the night of June ninth with Alvin Karpis and the sons of Ma Barker at their hideaway on Vernon Street in St. Paul. We know that they departed the following day, the tenth."
"Abruptly is the applicable word," said Ivy.
"Only he didn’t have the gold with him when he left," Berglund said.
"How do you know?" I asked.
"Nash was a different breed of criminal than most that flourished during those days. Yes, he was a thief, but he also was a comparatively honorable man. I believe that it is unlikely that he would have put his wife at risk by transporting her and the stolen gold in the same vehicle. That, of course, is merely conjecture on my part. However, it is supported by the fact that Nash did not have the gold with him when he was apprehended by federal agents six days later in Hot Springs, Arkansas."
"You think it’s still in St. Paul," I said.
"Yes. The nine minutes Nash spent inside the Farmers and Merchants Bank triggered a massive manhunt. Treasury agents searched for the thieves and the thirty- two gold bars for many years. Yet no one was ever arrested for the crime, and the gold was never recovered. This is in the Treasury Department’s own files."
"Wait a minute. When Frank was arrested, it wasn’t for the gold robbery?"
"If the Treasury Department knew Frank robbed the bank—"
"It didn’t know. That’s something we developed on our own."
"He wasn’t identified at the scene?"
"No one was identified. Witnesses claim the thieves wore masks."
"Then how do you know Frank committed the robbery?"
"His fingerprints were all over it."
"He was identified by his fingerprints?"
"No. What I meant by fingerprints— that was a metaphor. What I meant, the way the crime was executed, the way the vault was blown using nitroglycerin, the short amount of time spent in the bank, the escape route— it all fit Nash’s MO, his modus operandi."
"I know what MO means," I said. "You’re telling me that there isn’t a shred of evidence placing Frank in that bank. You don’t actually know that he stole that gold. This is mere speculation."
"The facts fit," Berglund said.
"The facts could be made to fit anybody. Hell, it could have been Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."
"They were dead by then."
"Nonetheless," I said.
I took a long pull on my coffee while Berglund stared into his empty mug. Ivy took his hand and looked at him with a deep kindness that made me jealous.
"I believe," Ivy said.
"So do I," Berglund said.
"That makes two of you," I said.
"I believe Nash stole the gold," Berglund said. "I believe he hid it somewhere in St. Paul with the intention of fencing it or moving it once it cooled down, only his arrest and subsequent demise prevented him from doing so. It’s been patiently waiting all these years for whoever can find it."
"Assuming he did steal the gold— and that’s a big assumption— what do you think he did, bury it in his backyard?"
"Why not? Many people at the time— legitimate citizens— refused to give up their gold, choosing to hoard it instead until the price controls were lifted and they could sell it for considerably more than what the government was paying. Some of them did indeed bury it in their backyards."
"What do you want from me?"
"We want you to help us find the backyard. Ivy says you’re an investigator."
"In a manner of speaking."
"She says you know how to find things."
"If it’s worth it to me."
"We’ll give you a fair share of the gold."
It wasn’t hard to do the arithmetic. A third of $8,766,888 amounts
to $2.9 million and change. Yeah, that sounded fair. On the other hand, a third of nothing is nothing. "Why me?" I asked. "Based on the research you’ve already done, you
certainly seem to know what you’re doing. Why come to me for help?" "Assuming you agree to accept our offer, what would you do first?" "If this were 1933, we’d try to reconstruct Frank’s movements during those days he was here— interview all of his known associates, visit all of his haunts, and like that. Unfortunately, this isn’t 1933. This is the coldest of cold cases. Most people who witnessed the actual events are likely long dead. Those who aren’t were probably too young at the time to be of much help to us. That limits us to police records, newspaper reports, historical references—"
"I wouldn’t have thought of that."
"Yes, you would. You already have. You’re a smart guy." I glanced at Ivy when I said that, but I didn’t mean anything by it. I still thought she could do better.
"You overestimate me," Berglund said.
"Probably," I said, but I didn’t believe it. There was something else that Berglund wanted, and I thought I knew what it was. "McKenzie, will you help us?" Ivy asked. "Well, I’ll tell you, kid. I’m inclined to say no. I’m inclined to tell
you that this is the wildest of wild goose chases, and if the gold had been hidden in St. Paul— if Frank had even stolen it in the first place— somehow someone would have found it in the past seventy- five years.
I’m impressed that you believe that it exists, though. I’m even more impressed by the two guys sitting in the blue Trailblazer across the street watching us who also apparently believe that it exists."
They both turned to look out the window.
"Don’t act surprised," I said. "They’re the real reason you called me.
Isn’t that right?" "I didn’t know they were here," Berglund said. "You said we lost them," Ivy said. "I thought we had." "Who are they?" I asked. "I don’t know." "That’s no way to start a partnership, telling fibs." "I swear, Mr. McKenzie, I have no idea who they are." Berglund turned to Ivy, looking for support. "No idea at all." "It’s true, McKenzie," Ivy said. The anxiety in her voice was almost heartbreaking. "They just, they just appeared." "When?" "About a week ago. They’ve been following us—everywhere." "When I try to talk to them, they just drive away," Berglund said.
"Yet when I look around again, there they are." "They’re waiting for you to lead them to the gold," I said. "Who else
did you tell about it?" "No one," Berglund said. "You told someone." I glanced at Ivy. She shook her head. "A friend?" I said. "No," Berglund said. "Family member?" "No." "Someone you’ve been in contact with while doing your research?" "No one. We’ve been very discreet."
"Yet there they sit."
Berglund opened his mouth to defend himself, but I flung a thumb in the general direction of the front window and he thought better of it.
"So what you really want is for me to watch your back while you search for Jelly’s gold," I said.
"No, I . . ." Berglund turned to Ivy, looking for more assistance.
Ivy reached across the table and set her hand on top of mine. "More than that, I hope," she said.
I might have read a lot of extra meaning into the gesture if it came from someone else, but I knew her and she knew me. I was the uncle she counted on when she couldn’t turn to Mom and Dad. The realization made me sad. When did I stop being attractive to young women, I wondered.
When were you ever attractive to young women? my inner voice replied.
"Please help us," Ivy said.
Her pleading eyes, the expectant expression on her face—I closed my own eyes. When I opened them again she was still staring at me. All I can say is, I’m lucky she wasn’t selling time- share condos in Florida.
"Sure," I said.
They both seemed relieved, and for a moment I wondered just how much trouble they were really in that they hadn’t told me about yet.
"Are you kids old enough to drink?" I asked. They seemed insulted by the question. "Do you know where Rickie’s is?"
"The jazz joint on Summit Hill?" Berglund said.
"That’s the place, only don’t call it a joint; the owner doesn’t like it. I want you to give me a good five minutes, then go to your car and drive south on Cleveland until you reach Como Avenue. After that, I don’t care how you get to Rickie’s, just go."
"What are you going to do?" Ivy said.
"Make sure that the guys in the Trailblazer really are following you, then find out who they are."
"How?" Berglund asked.
"There are ways."
"Then what?" Berglund said.
"Are you going to shoot them?" Ivy said.
"What a bloodthirsty young lady you’ve become since I saw you last.
No, I’m not going to shoot them. I’m not going to shoot anyone. Let’s
be clear about that, kids. No guns, all right?" They nodded. "I mean it." They nodded some more. Still, I don’t think they believed me. "Okay," I said. I stood and splayed the fingers of my hand. "Five minutes. Then go to Rickie’s. I’ll meet you there."
Berglund stood, took keys from his pocket that were on a chain with a USA Olympic emblem. Ivy remained seated. Her eyes sparkled as she looked up at me.
"Seems like old times, doesn’t it?" I said.
Her smile matched her eyes, and she nodded in agreement.
Excerpted from Jelly’s Gold by David Housewright.
Copyright © 2009 by David Housewright..
Published by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.