When Goldie asked me to conduct the gold inventory for her I’d simply assumed that her gold was stored in the vast vault under the Credit Suisse headquarters building on the Bahnhofstrasse in downtown Zurich. After all, she’d been a good customer of the bank for decades.

I’d planned to walk to the bank from my hotel, which was also on the Bahnhofstrasse but down by the lake, complete the audit in a few hours, then fly to Geneva the next morning. But now, thanks to Dr. Brenner, I’d learned that the gold was spread among five small Credit Suisse branch banks in five tiny alpine villages.

But just in case Dr. Brenner had been hallucinating, I called Frank Bolding, Goldie’s Swiss accountant, from my hotel room.

“Yep,” he said, “five little banks in five dismal villages in remote areas of the Alps. It’s possible to do it in four days, but count on five. The only roads from village-to-village are steep, narrow, and treacherous, and even though it’s late summer in Zurich, heavy snow is quite possible up there.”

How, I wondered, had I gotten myself into this ridiculous situation? But in it I was. The next morning Bolding picked me up at my hotel and he and I and the Lloyd’s of London rep, whose name was Patterson, headed for the mountains.

We arrived in mid-afternoon and checked into the only hotel in town, which looked to me more like a bed-and-breakfast – or a “Zimmer,” as they are called in Switzerland – than like a proper hotel. Then we walked over to the Credit Suisse branch bank, which was just across the town square.

In case you ever own a lot of gold bullion and you want your lawyer to handle the annual inventory for you, this is how it works.

We introduced ourselves to the bank manager and I handed him Goldie’s power of attorney, which he readily accepted, no doubt due to Dr. Brenner’s imposing certification. But then, to my annoyance, he sat down at his desk and read the whole thing through, v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y.

When he was finished he made a copy of the power for his records, then said, “Please come with me, Dr. Curtis.”

We went, alone, into the room that held the safe deposit boxes and I handed him my key – which was kept in Dr. Brenner’s safe. The manager unlocked the box and discreetly walked away.

Inside the box there was nothing but a bank envelope – the kind they give you your cash in – and a log book. Inside the envelope was a large key for the big vault underground.

Paging through the log book I saw that Goldie had visited the box every year for decades. She’d signed her name, carefully noted the date and time, and had also noted who had accompanied her. In recent years it had always been either Dr. Brenner or Frank Bolding, but in earlier years it had been their predecessors. The Lloyd’s representative changed almost every year.

I signed the log as Goldie’s attorney-in-fact, noted the date and time, and added Bolding and Patterson’s names. After the manager and I had locked the box again, all four of us crowded into a tiny elevator, which would have been claustrophobic with two people in it. The door closed and as far as I could tell nothing happened.

There was no sense of movement and no sound other than a remote hum. There was also no bump when we hit the bottom – the doors opened and there we were, one hundred feet underground.

I’d been expecting a vast underground space with many vaults and aisles, but the room was much smaller and there was only one aisle, on the right. The bank manager checked the vault number on our keys, pressed some buttons, and the vaults began to slide sideways, closing off the aisle on the right and opening an aisle in the middle, which led to Goldie’s vault.

I handed my key to the manager and he unlocked the door but didn’t open it, instead discreetly walking to the elevator and taking it back upstairs.

I opened the door and there it was, a large pile of gold bars just sitting there in the middle of the vault. I’d never seen even one gold bar before, much less many of them, stacked into a pyramid.

But to Bolding and Patterson it was just another day on the job. Patterson took a folding chair that was leaning against the wall and sat down on it. Bolding put on a pair of white gloves and handed me a pair – they were soft but had a super-grip palm. That was to prevent us from dropping a bar and causing tens of thousands of dollars of gold flakes to scatter across the floor of the vault.

Bolding picked up a bar and read off the serial number on it. Patterson said, “Check.” Bolding then handed the bar to me – it seemed to weigh about twenty-five pounds, making me wonder how little Goldie could have hefted so many bars. I then read off the serial number, presumably as a double-check, and Patterson said, “Check” again.

We did that with every gold bar, building a new pyramid beside the old one. Then we all signed the inventory sheet and Patterson gave each of us a copy.

Back at the elevator, we pressed a button, but that didn’t bring the elevator. Instead, it simply made a loud clang, letting the bank manager know we were ready to rejoin the world. He came down and locked the vault and up we went.

And that’s how it worked, except that now I had to do it four more times in four more tiny mountain villages.

Next up: Goldie, Part 3

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