“Don’t know but we ain’t here for poetry.”
Denny entered behind them and said, “Okay, get on with it. Seven more drawers in here. I’m almost inside the other room.”
They returned to their labors as Trey casually smoked a cigarette on a park bench across the street and glanced repeatedly at his watch. The frenzy across the campus showed no signs of dying down, but it wouldn’t last forever.
The second and third drawers in the first room revealed more rare books by authors unknown to the gang. When Denny finished cutting his way into the second room, he told Jerry and Mark to bring the drill. This room, too, had eight large drawers, seemingly identical to the first room. At 2:15, Trey checked in with a report that the campus was still in lockdown, but curious students were beginning to gather on the lawn in front of McCarren to watch the show. Police with bullhorns had ordered them back to their rooms, but there were too many to handle. At least two news helicopters were hovering and complicating things. He was watching CNN on his smart phone and the Princeton story was the story at the moment. A frantic reporter “on the scene” continually referred to “unconfirmed casualties,” and managed to convey the impression that numerous students had been shot “by at least one gunman.”
“At least one gunman?” Trey mumbled. Doesn’t every shooting require at least one gunman?
Denny, Mark, and Jerry discussed the idea of cutting into the drawers with the blowtorch, but decided against it, for the moment anyway. The risk of fire would be high, and what good would the manuscripts be if they were damaged. Instead, Denny pulled out a smaller one-quarter drive drill and began drilling. Mark and Jerry bored away with the larger one. The first drawer in the second room produced stacks of delicate papers handwritten by another long-forgotten poet, one they’d never heard of but hated nonetheless.
At 2:30, CNN confirmed that two students were dead and at least two more were injured. The word “carnage” was introduced.
When the second floor of McCarren was secured, the police noticed the remnants of what appeared to be firecrackers. The empty smoke bomb canisters were found in the restroom and the shower. Trey’s abandoned backpack was opened by a demolition crew and the spent smoke bomb was removed. At 3:10, the commander first mentioned the word “prank,” but the adrenaline was still pumping so fast no one thought of the word “diversion.”
The rest of McCarren was quickly secured and all students were accounted for. The campus was still locked down and would remain so for hours as the nearby buildings were searched.
At 3:30, Trey reported, “Things seem to be settling down out here. Three hours in, fellas, how’s the drilling?”
“Slow,” came the one-word response from Denny.
Inside the vault, the work was indeed slow, but determined. The first four opened drawers revealed more old manuscripts, some handwritten, some typed, all by important writers who didn’t matter at the moment. They finally struck gold in the fifth drawer when Denny removed an archival storage box identical to the others. He carefully opened it. A reference page inserted by the library read, “Original Handwritten Manuscript of The Beautiful and Damned—F. Scott Fitzgerald.”
“Bingo,” Denny said calmly. He removed two identical boxes from the fifth drawer, delicately placed them on the narrow table, and opened them. Inside were original manuscripts of Tender Is the Night and The Last Tycoon.
Ahmed, still glued to his laptop and now drinking a highly caffeinated energy drink, heard the beautiful words: “Okay, boys, we have three out of five. Gatsby’s here somewhere, along with Paradise.”
Trey asked, “How much longer?”
“Twenty minutes,” Denny said. “Get the van.”
Trey casually strode across the campus, mixed in with a crowd of the curious, and watched for a moment as the small army of policemen milled about. They were no longer ducking, covering, running, and dashing behind cars with loaded weapons. The danger had clearly passed, though the area was still ablaze with flashing lights. Trey eased away, walked half a mile, left the campus, and stopped at John Street, where he got into a white cargo van with the words “Princeton University Printing” stenciled on both front doors. It was number 12, whatever that meant, and it was very similar to a van Trey had photographed a week earlier. He drove it back onto campus, avoided the commotion around McCarren, and parked it by a loading ramp at the rear of the library. “Van in place,” he reported.
“We’re just opening the sixth drawer,” Denny replied.
As Jerry and Mark flipped up their goggles and moved their lights closer to the table, Denny gently opened the archival storage box. Its reference sheet read, “Original Handwritten Manuscript of The Great Gatsby—F. Scott Fitzgerald.”
“Bingo,” he said calmly. “We got Gatsby, that old son of a bitch.”
“Whoopee,” Mark said, though their excitement was thoroughly contained. Jerry lifted out the only other box in the drawer. It was the manuscript for This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald’s first novel, published in 1920.
“We have all five,” Denny said calmly. “Let’s get outta here.”
Jerry repacked the drills, the cutting torch, the canisters of oxygen and acetylene, and the pry bars. As he bent to lift the duffel, a piece of the splintered wood from the third drawer nicked him above his left wrist. In the excitement, he barely noticed and just rubbed it for a split second as he removed his backpack. Denny and Mark carefully placed the five priceless manuscripts into their three student backpacks. The thieves hustled from the vault, laden with their loot and tools, and scampered up the stairs to the main floor. They left the library through a service entrance near a delivery ramp, one hidden from view by a thick, long hedge. They jumped through the rear doors of the van and Trey pulled away from the ramp. As he did so, he passed two campus security guards in a patrol car. He flicked a casual wave; they did not respond.
Trey noted the time: 3:42 a.m. He reported, “All clear, leaving the campus now with Mr. Gatsby and friends.”
The power outage triggered several alarms in the affected buildings. By 4:00 a.m., an electrical engineer had worked his way through the school’s computer grid and found the problem. Electricity was restored in all buildings except the library. The chief of security sent three officers to the library. It took them ten minutes to find the cause of the alarm.
By then, the gang had stopped at a cheap motel off Interstate 295 near Philadelphia. Trey parked the van beside an 18-wheeler and away from the lone camera monitoring the parking lot. Mark took a can of white spray paint and covered the “Princeton University Printing” on both of the van’s doors. In a room where he and Trey had stayed the night before, the men quickly changed into hunting outfits and crammed everything they’d worn for the job—jeans, sneakers, sweatshirts, black gloves—into another duffel. In the bathroom, Jerry noticed the small cut on his left wrist. He had kept a thumb on it during the ride and noted that there was more blood than he’d realized. He wiped it clean with a bath cloth and debated whether to mention it to the others. Not now, maybe later.
They quietly removed all their stuff from the room, turned off the lights, and left. Mark and Jerry got into a pickup truck—a fancy club cab leased and driven by Denny—and they followed Trey and the van out of the parking lot, onto the street, then back onto the interstate. They skirted the northern edge of the Philadelphia suburbs, and, using state highways, disappeared into the Pennsylvania countryside. Near Quakertown, they found the county road they had chosen and followed it for a mile until it turned to gravel. There were no houses in the area. Trey parked the van in a shallow ravine; removed the stolen license plates; poured a gallon of gasoline over their bags filled with tools, cell phones, radio equipment, and clothing; and lit a match. The fireball was instant, and as they drove away in the pickup they were confident they had destroyed all possible evidence. The manuscripts were safely tucked between Trey and Mark on the rear seat of the pickup.
As daylight slowly crept over the hills, they rode in silence, each of the four observing everything around them, which was very little. An occasional vehicle passing in the other direction, a farmer headed to his barn and not looking at the highway, an old woman collecting a cat off the front porch. Near Bethlehem, they merged onto Interstate 78 and headed west. Denny stayed well under the speed limit. They had not seen a police car since leaving the Princeton campus. They stopped at a drive-thru for chicken biscuits and coffee, then headed north on Interstate 81 toward the Scranton area.
The first pair of FBI agents arrived at the Firestone Library just after 7:00 a.m. They were briefed by campus security and the Princeton city police. They took a look at the crime scene and suggested strongly that the library remain closed indefinitely. Investigators and technicians from the Trenton office were hurrying to the school.
The president of the university had just returned to his home on campus, after a very long night, when he got the news that some valuables were missing. He raced to the library, where he met with the chief librarian, the FBI, and the local police. Together, they made the decision to keep a lid on the story for as long as possible. The head of the FBI’s Rare Asset Recovery Unit in Washington was on the way, and it was his opinion that the thieves might contact the school quickly and want a deal. Publicity, and there would be an avalanche of it, would only complicate matters.
The celebration was postponed until the four hunters arrived at the cabin, deep in the Poconos. Denny had leased the small A-frame for the hunting season, with funds that would be repaid when they cashed in, and had been living there for two months. Of the four, only Jerry had a permanent address. He’d been renting a small apartment with his girlfriend in Rochester, New York. Trey, as an escapee, had been living on the run most of his adult life. Mark lived part-time with an ex-wife near Baltimore, but there were no records to prove it.
All four had multiple forms of fake identification, including passports that would fool any customs agent.
Three bottles of cheap champagne were in the fridge. Denny opened one, emptied it into four mismatched coffee cups, and offered a hearty “Cheers, boys, and congratulations. We did it!” The three bottles were gone in half an hour and the weary hunters fell into long naps. The manuscripts, still in the identical archival storage boxes, were stacked like bricks of gold in a gun safe in a storage room, where they would be guarded by Denny and Trey for the next few days. Tomorrow, Jerry and Mark would drift back home, exhausted from a long week in the woods hunting deer.
While Jerry slept, the full weight and fury of the federal government was moving rapidly against him. An FBI technician noticed a tiny spot on the first step of the stairway leading to and from the library’s vault. She thought, correctly, that it was a drop of blood and that it had not been there long enough to turn dark maroon, almost black. She gathered it, told her supervisor, and the sample was rushed to an FBI lab in Philadelphia. DNA testing was done immediately, and the results were rammed into the national data bank. In less than an hour, it tagged a match in Massachusetts: one Gerald A. Steengarden, a paroled felon convicted seven years earlier of stealing paintings from an art dealer in Boston. A squad of analysts worked feverishly to find any trace of Mr. Steengarden. There were at least five in the U.S. Four were quickly eliminated. Search warrants for the apartment, cell phone records, and credit card records of the fifth Mr. Steengarden were obtained. When Jerry woke up from his long nap deep in the Poconos, the FBI was already watching his apartment in Rochester. The decision was made not to go in with a warrant, but to watch and wait.
Maybe, just maybe, Mr. Steengarden would lead them to the others.
Back at Princeton, lists were being made of all students who had used the library in the past week. Their ID cards recorded each visit to any of the libraries on campus. The fake ones stood out because in college fake IDs were used for the underage purchase of alcohol, not to sneak into libraries. The exact times of their use were determined, then matched against video footage from the library’s surveillance cameras. By noon the FBI had clear images of Denny, Jerry, and Mark, though these would prove to be of little value at the moment. All were well disguised.
In Rare Books and Special Collections, old Ed Folk snapped into high gear for the first time in decades. Surrounded by FBI agents, he raced through the log-in registers and security photos of his recent visitors. Each one was called for verification, and when Adjunct Professor Neville Manchin at Portland State spoke to the FBI he assured them he had never been near the Princeton campus. The FBI had a clear photo of Mark, though they did not know his real name.
Less than twelve hours after the heist was successfully completed, forty FBI agents were grinding away, poring over videos and analyzing data.
Late in the afternoon, the four hunters gathered around a card table and opened beers. Denny rambled on and covered ground they had gone over a dozen times. The heist was over, it was a success, but in any crime clues are left behind. Mistakes are always made, and if you can think of half of them, then you’re a genius. The fake IDs would soon be discovered and picked over. The cops would know they had cased the library for days before the heist. Who knew how much damning video footage existed? There could be fibers from their clothing, prints from their sneakers, and so on. They were confident they’d left no fingerprints behind, but there was always that possibility. The four were seasoned thieves and they knew all this.
The small Band-Aid above Jerry’s left wrist had not been noticed, and he had decided to ignore it too. He had convinced himself it was of no consequence.
Mark produced four devices identical to the Apple iPhone 5, complete with the company’s logo, but they were not phones. Instead, they were known as Sat-Traks, tracking devices tied to a satellite system with instant coverage anywhere in the world. There was no cell phone network, no way for the cops to track them or eavesdrop in any way. Mark explained, again, that it was imperative for the four, plus Ahmed, to remain in constant contact over the next few weeks. Ahmed had obtained the devices from one of his many sources. There was no on/off switch, but instead a three-digit code to activate the Sat-Traks. Once the device was turned on, each user punched in his own five-digit password to gain access. Twice each day, at exactly 8:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m., the five would hook up through the devices with the simple message of “Clear.” Delays were inexcusable and perhaps catastrophic. A delay meant the Sat-Trak, and especially its user, had been compromised in some manner. A delay of fifteen minutes activated Plan B, which called for Denny and Trey to grab the manuscripts and move to a second safe house. If either Denny or Trey failed to report, the entire operation, or what was left of it, was to be aborted. Jerry, Mark, and Ahmed were to leave the country immediately.
Bad news was transmitted by the simple message “Red.” “Red” meant, with no questions asked and no time for delay, that (1) something has gone wrong, (2) if possible get the manuscripts to the third safe house, and (3) by all means get out of the country as quickly as possible.
If anyone was nabbed by the cops, silence was expected. The five had memorized the names of family members and their addresses to ensure complete loyalty to the cause and to each other. Retaliation was guaranteed. No one would talk. Ever.
As ominous as these preparations were, the mood was still light, even celebratory. They had pulled off a brilliant crime and made a perfect escape.
Trey, the serial escapee, relished telling his stories. He was successful because he had a plan after each escape, whereas most guys spent their time thinking only of getting out. Same with a crime. You spend days and weeks planning and plotting, then when it’s done you’re not sure what to do next. They needed a plan.
But they couldn’t agree on one. Denny and Mark favored the quick strike, which entailed making contact with Princeton within a week and demanding a ransom. They could get rid of the manuscripts and not have to
worry about protecting and moving them, and they could get their cash.
Jerry and Trey, with more experience, favored a patient approach. Let the dust settle; let the reality set in as word crept through the black market; allow some time to pass so they could be certain they were not suspects. Princeton was not the only possible buyer. Indeed, there would be others.
The discussion was long and often tense, but also punctuated with jokes and laughter and no shortage of beer. They finally agreed on a temporary plan. Jerry and Mark would leave the following morning for home: Jerry to Rochester, Mark to Baltimore by way of Rochester. They would lie low and watch the news for the next week, and of course check in with the team twice a day. Denny and Trey would handle the manuscripts and move them in a week or so to the second safe house, a cheap apartment in a grungy section of Allentown, Pennsylvania. In ten days, they would reunite with Jerry and Mark at the safe house, and the four would hammer out a definite plan. In the meantime, Mark would contact a potential middleman he had known for many years, a player in the shady world of stolen art and artifacts. Speaking in the hushed code of the trade, he would let it be known that he knew something about the Fitzgerald manuscripts. But nothing more would be said until they met again.
Carole, the woman living in Jerry’s apartment, left at 4:30, alone. She was followed to a grocery store a few blocks away. The quick decision was made not to enter the apartment, not at that time. There were too many neighbors nearby. One word from one of them and their surveillance could be compromised. Carole had no idea how closely she was being watched. While she shopped, agents placed two tracking devices inside the bumpers of her car. Two more agents—females in jogging suits—monitored what she purchased (nothing of interest). When she texted her mother, the text was read and recorded. When she called her friend, agents listened to every word. When she stopped at a bar an agent in jeans offered to buy her a drink. When she returned home just after 9:00, every step was watched, filmed, and recorded.
Meanwhile, her boyfriend sipped beer and read The Great Gatsby in a hammock on the rear porch, with the beautiful pond just a few feet away. Mark and Trey were out there in a boat, quietly fishing for bream, while Denny tended to the steaks on the grill. At sunset, a cold wind arrived and the four hunters gathered in the den, where a fire was crackling away. At precisely 8:00 p.m., they pulled out their new Sat-Traks and punched in their codes, everybody pecked in the word “Clear,” including Ahmed in Buffalo, and life was secure.
Life was indeed good. Less than twenty-four hours earlier, they were on the campus, hiding in the dark, nervous as hell but also loving the thrill of the chase. Their plan had worked to perfection, they had the priceless manuscripts, and soon they would have the cash. That transfer would not be easy, but they would deal with it later.
The booze helped but sleep was difficult, for all four of them. Early the following morning, as Denny cooked eggs and bacon and guzzled black coffee, Mark sat at the counter with a laptop, scanning headlines from up and down the East Coast. “Nothing,” he said. “Plenty of stuff about the ruckus on campus, now officially labeled as a prank, but not a word about the manuscripts.”
“I’m sure they’re trying to keep it quiet,” Denny said.