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Chapter 2

Chapter 2: Close pursuit

Heather Hopp-Bruce/Globe staff; Globe file, Adobe

“The Mechanic” is a novella by best-selling author Ben Mezrich. The fictional work will publish exclusively on BostonGlobe.com over the next two weeks. Read more about this book at globe.com/themechanic. Sign up to be alerted when the next installment goes live here.

Chapter Two

“Thanks,” Hailey said to the dealer, uncrossing her legs and rising quickly from her chair. “I better get back to my room and hide this from my boyfriend, or he’ll give it all back on the roulette wheel.”

She grabbed the chips with both hands and swept them into her purse, which was open on her lap. Her roommate Jill’s purse, actually, tiger print, with bronze clasps worn down from many nights spent clubbing in Kenmore, makeup applied and re-applied in bathrooms jammed with BU girls. The lipstick and compact had been replaced with a fake ID and a half-empty juice box. All part of the routine: heading to the bathroom early in the evening, dumping out the scotch she’d ordered when she’d first sat down and refilling the glass with apple juice. Nobody betting $2,000 a hand at blackjack was playing sober, and no matter how late it was, no matter how inattentive the pit boss seemed, in a casino you had to assume someone was always watching.

Obviously, that assumption bore true again, because the two suits were now heading in a straight line for Hailey’s table. She jammed the last few chips into the purse and clicked the wonky clasp shut.

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“You don’t want me to color you up?” the dealer asked.

“I like the sound they make rattling around in my purse,” Hailey responded.

And then she was away from the table and moving fast toward the hallway leading out of the gaming area, toward the interior of the resort. She would have rather had gone straight for the front entrance, but the two suits were closing fast and she wasn’t sure she could make it past them in time.

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Card counting wasn’t illegal, and the fake ID was a minor crime, not the sort of thing you’d find yourself in handcuffs over. But like every practiced card counter who played the sort of stakes she was playing, she’d had run-ins with casino security before, and she knew they’d try to “back room” her if they caught her. Which meant a trip to somewhere deep in the bowels of the hotel, where they’d threaten to call the police, threaten to take her chips, and then make her sign some sort of “trespass” act — basically saying if she returned to the Encore, she’d be trespassing. And then, most likely, they’d fingerprint her before they’d let her leave with the chips.

And that was what she had to avoid. Because the fingerprints wouldn’t match the fake ID; nor would they match the real ID she had sewn into a pocket in her skirt, where she kept her apartment keys and her credit cards. And it certainly wouldn’t match the name on those credit cards, or the rental agreement she’d cosigned with her roommates, or the identification materials at the registrar’s office at MIT. Being good at math wasn’t going to earn her a PhD if she was facing multiple charges of fraud, no matter how innocent her motive.

Bottom line was, she had a lot more at risk than 22 grand in chips.

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She skirted between two more blackjack tables, dodged a waitress carrying a tray loaded with vodka Red Bulls, then nearly upended a planter bristling with something that looked like a botanical experiment gone horribly wrong, involving bamboo, a rose bush, and a miniature weeping willow. Then she was out of the gaming room and pushing her way through a more crowded hallway. Weaving past a group of bachelorette partiers with matching T-shirts and blinking bunny ears, cutting between two Instagram-worthy women in the midst of a selfie by a spitting fountain shaped like a clam shell, then nearly slamming headfirst into a pair of young men in shirts that were a little too tight and much too shiny. She finally dared cast a look back down the hall, hoping against hope — and her heart froze, because the two suits were still coming fast, the one with the crew cut pointing right at her as his thick thighs propelled him forward.

Damn. She cut hard to the right, and found herself in front of a bank of elevators leading up into the hotel. There was a key pad next to the buttons, but she was prepared. She yanked a room key from her purse — the key she’d lifted from the back pocket of a middle-aged salesman so engaged in video poker in the slots parlor she could have taken his belt and shoes, too — and hit the button.

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Thankfully, the elevator doors opened right away, a young, drunken couple sharing a bottle of champagne stumbling out. Hailey leapt past them, hit a random floor, and slammed the door-close button with the heel of her hand. As the doors slid shut, she caught a last glance of the two suits, running down the hall straight toward her, and then she was moving upward, breathing hard.

A minute later she was out on the sixth floor of the hotel, quietly pacing the long hallway, her tennis shoes sinking into the thick carpeting. Beige, more beige. She knew she didn’t have much time — the security goons would figure out what floor she was on, and they would be there within minutes. She scanned the doors on either side of her as she went, looking for a fire exit. There might be cameras in the stairwells and halls, but if she was fast enough, maybe she could get outside before anyone got to her. Her face on a camera wasn’t going to be a problem; a fingerprint went back a lot farther in time than facial recognition software, because by the time she’d grown into this face, she’d become the person on her ID. Unfortunate, that her fingerprints hadn’t changed at 12, like the rest of her body. Puberty had its limitations.

She was halfway down the hall, still scanning doors, when she heard the metallic ding of the elevator behind her. Someone was coming to her floor. Could the security goons have found her that fast? She began to panic, rushing forward, looking at door after door after door. And then she saw it: one of the hotel room doors about three feet ahead of her was slightly open. As Hailey leapt forward, grabbing at the knob, she saw why. The keypad attached above the knob was hanging off the door by a spaghetti twist of wires. Someone had broken into this room, and recently.

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Hailey paused for the briefest of seconds, wondering now if this was such a good place to hide. But then she heard the elevator doors whiffing open at the end of the hall, and she made the only decision she could. She leapt inside the hotel room, shutting the door as well as she could behind her. Then she turned, her back against the knob, and tried to catch her breath.

The room was large, with a big picture window overlooking the dark and undulating murk of the Mystic River. The décor of the room was more beige upon beige, from the oversized bed to the thick curtains by the window to the walls. There was a framed picture above the bed, a colorful, comic-strip drawing of a blonde woman looking into a hand mirror — assuredly something expensive, rare, and mostly ignored by the type of people who would stay overnight in a casino overlooking the Mystic River — and a flat-screen TV on a dresser directly across. But Hailey’s attention was immediately drawn to a chair in the corner by the window, because it was facing the door and because it was also occupied.

The man in the chair looked to be about 50 and disheveled, wearing a suit jacket too small for his rounded shoulders, and gray pants that didn’t match. His belt wasn’t around his pants, which was odd. Stranger still, the belt wasn’t gone; it was, in fact, tied tightly around the man’s left wrist, pinning the man’s hand against the arm of the chair.

“Sorry, the door was open,” Hailey started to say, then paused, as her mind digested what she was seeing. The man was staring right at her, eyes open, but the look on his face wasn’t right.

“Are you — OK?” she said.

The man didn’t answer. It was then that Hailey noticed: He didn’t answer because there was a bullet hole in the middle of his forehead.