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Chapter 1

Chapter 1: Sitting pretty

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 One

It was a little after 2 a.m. on a Wednesday, and Hailey Gordon was on the run of her life.

She gripped the cushioned edge of the blackjack table with both hands as she tossed a purposefully nonchalant glance at the cards spread out across the green felt. Christ, it was hard to keep her emotions in check, push down the excitement coursing through her veins. She wanted to leap up from her chair, bear hug the nice old man sitting two seats down from her, lift him up in the air and swing him right out of his orthopedic clogs. Instead, Hailey painted her face with a bored look, then waved a manicured hand over the table, letting the dealer know she didn’t want any more cards.

Next it was the old man’s turn, down at third base, the last chair at the table. It had just been Hailey and the man for the past hour, because it was so damn late and the middle of the week, and because the limits in this particular corner of this particular casino were way too high for its ZIP code. Hailey had no idea how the man could afford a hundred dollar minimum; from his clogs to his resort-wear linen suit, the man’s look screamed pension. Then again, Hailey knew better than most that looks could be pretty deceiving. She’d been using her looks to deceive for a really long time. And at the moment, she was about to deceive her way into a tidy little fortune.

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The dealer wasn’t paying attention, and the pit boss — his belly pushing precariously against the buttons of his uniform as he chatted up a cocktail waitress on the other side of the blackjack pit — was otherwise engaged, so Hailey let her glance linger a little longer across the table. The brightly colored metropolis of chips spread out across the felt nearest to her was a thing of pure beauty, and judging from the dealer’s revealed card — a 6, a wonderful, incredible, palpably sexy 6 — things were about to get even better. Hailey had $8,000 behind her four hands, another $6,000 in yellow chips, bananas, already safe next to her drink, a light brown mixture in a scotch glass that smelled like apple juice if you got close enough. Because, in truth, it was apple juice.

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Looks, again, deceiving.

But moving her eyes from the table to the surrounding casino, Hailey knew she had nothing to feel guilty about. The entire place — this entire industry — was built on sleight of hand. The table gaming room was vast and very beige, other than the felts; beige, from the tables themselves to the thick carpeting to the curtained walls. In stark contrast, there were velvety red chandeliers hanging from the high ceiling — matching the crimson tide that blanketed every inch of the nearby slots parlor — and soft, soothing music pumping in from speakers hidden somewhere in the corners. The air was cool and, if rumors held true, slightly over-oxygenated. And everything smelled slightly floral. To be sure, the place was rife with flowers. A seizure-inducing botanical excess, from the 55,000 blooms spanning the walkways out front of the lavish casino’s entrance, to the 4,000 potted plants spread through the gaming areas and hotel rooms, to the multitude more intertwined in the working carousel that dominated the foyer. But the scent in the air didn’t come primarily from the colorful plants, it was manufactured by teams of aroma therapists and pumped in along with the oxygen. Everything, from the décor to the lighting to the air, was meticulously designed, by people much less interested in art than commerce.

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There is a reason there are no clocks in casinos, and that it is always hard to find your way back to the front entrance. There is a reason Vegas didn’t have minibars in the hotel rooms, and why there is a noticeable lack of windows anywhere near the gaming areas. Heck, there is a reason the carpets in casinos were usually ugly and discordant; the idea is to keep your eyes up, on the flashing lights of the slots and the deft flight patterns of the dealing cards. The visual cues, the design of the building, the smell in the air, it’s all there to get you gambling and keep you gambling. Because the more you gamble, the more, on average, you lose. And it doesn’t matter if the casino is smack dab in the middle of the Vegas strip, or here, 3,000 miles away on the edge of the Mystic River; a casino is one big act of deception, a reverse ATM masquerading as an entertainment facility, where everything and anything is aimed at separating you from your money.

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Encore Boston Harbor was as pretty and twinkling as anything they’d ever cooked up in Nevada. From the $30 million Koons sculpture of Popeye — Popeye! — in the front lobby to that flowered merry-go-round — complete with a unicorn, a Pegasus, and a Hippocamp, because why not? — the place felt a lot like Vegas. And during the early evening hours, the clientele was well-heeled, professionals in sports coats mingling with club-attired millennials from the city. But the later it got, the more the patronage turned local, Chelsea and Everett and Malden, and that suited Hailey, because deep down, beneath her streaked blond hair, and the preppy-collared tennis shirt and matching skirt she was wearing, and her polished fingernails, and the fake jewelry on her fingers and throat, she was Chelsea and Everett and Malden. The clothes and the jewelry and even the hair were an act, something she’d carefully put together in the little bathroom she shared with two roommates in Central Square in Cambridge. Even the way she was sitting, bottle-tan legs crossed at the knee, tennis shoes bumping up and down, fingers absentmindedly curling twists of her golden hair, all of it was part of the act. Pretty blonde trophy girlfriend, blowing through her boyfriend’s stacks of chips, not a care in the goddamn world.

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None of it was real. The money on the table was basically everything she had to her name. There was no boyfriend, she’d never held a tennis racket in her life, and her hair was naturally brown. A magic act within a magic act. Anybody looking her way — from the pit boss to the men in the security booths attached to the “eyes in the sky” monitor above the blackjack table to the old man at the end of the table — would see what she wanted them to see: pretty blonde trophy girlfriend. Not an applied math PhD student at MIT who was paying her way through life with the one attribute that was real about her, her facility with numbers. And right now, the numbers were telling her that she was about to walk away from a long night of cards with enough money to pay her rent, a semester of tuition, and most of her outstanding bills.

The old man finally asked for another card on top of the hard 14 he had in front of him, which the dealer wearily obliged, revealing a 4. Hailey added one to the running count, adjusting the true count in her head: Plus 14, two thirds into the deck, a really deep deal, probably because the dealer, mid-50s, balding, with glasses fogged by hours in the over-air conditioned room, looked bored out of his mind and at the end of a long shift. A count that high so deep into the deck meant the cards left to deal were heavy with faces and aces; the dealer’s showing 6 would likely lead to a busted hand, which meant the four hands in front of Hailey would pay out.

Even if it sounded complicated to the uninitiated, beating the game of blackjack was actually simple math. You kept track of the low cards and the high cards as they came out of the deck; the more low cards that came out, the higher your count, and the better the deck became. The deeper into the deck you went, the more significant that number was — the difference between the running count and the true count. And the higher that number went, the more money you wanted to have on the table.

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

Hailey’s original bet had been $2,000, and she’d been dealt two face cards. The dealer had turned over a 6. She’d split the faces, which was an unusual play. At the level she was playing, you’d expect a move like that to get attention from the pit boss, but the cocktail waitress was way more interesting than a dumb, drunk blonde throwing her boyfriend’s money away after a day on the tennis court. Then both of Hailey’s split hands had hit faces — a jack and a queen — and she’d split again.

Even the dealer had raised his eyebrows above his foggy glasses at the $8,000 she now had laid out in front of her, but she’d only laughed and made some comment about how mad her boyfriend was going to be if she lost.

Now, as the dealer reached out to turn over his hole card, she did her best to keep the tension out of her cheeks and eyes, keeping that smile light and unconcerned — and there it was, a 10, bright red and perfect, for a dealer 16. Which meant he needed another card. His fingers sped to the shoe in pure mechanical fashion, gears in a machine, and then the next card whizzed onto the felt, face up. Another 10.

A dealer bust at 26.

Hailey fought the fireworks in her chest as the dealer began pushing equal stacks of yellow chips next to her bets, another $8,000 to add to her 14. Twenty-two thousand dollars. The old man at the end was clapping his hands together, his hundred dollar bet doubled, and Hailey was about to congratulate him, when something caught her eye. Past the old man, all the way across the beige room, a door had opened and two men were coming through. Big men, big and burly, one with a crew cut and the other with a dye job that wasn’t fooling anybody. Both were wearing dark suits, and the one with the crew cut had an ear piece and was talking into something attached to his lapel.

“Nice win,” the dealer said, scooping up the cards, but Hailey was barely listening. The two men had made it a few yards before pausing, the crew cut still speaking into his lapel. And then he looked up, right at Hailey. Before she had a chance to react they had locked eyes, and she knew.

She had been made.