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Chapter 4: The man in the chair

Heather Hopp-Bruce/Globe staff; Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum/Photobeps - stock.adobe.com

“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 Four

The first thing Nick saw was the girl. Blonde and slim and preppy, tan legs sprouting from a tight white skirt. She was standing with her back to him on the other side of the hotel room, facing a chair. As she heard him enter, she swung around, and he saw her face. Pretty, but much paler than the legs, porcelain even, and the look in her eyes was pure terror. Then his attention moved to the chair, and the body sprawled across it, still mostly in a sitting position, one arm belted to the wood.

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“Christ,” Nick murmured.

The girl took a step toward him. Her whole body was trembling, and something slipped from under her arm — a purse. It hit the floor with a clatter, its clasp breaking open, casino chips spurting out across the carpet.

The girl dropped to a knee and started scooping at the chips.

“This isn’t what it looks like,” she said, as she jammed handfuls back into the purse. “I mean, I found him like this.”

“He’s dead,” Nick said.

He’d stopped in the doorway, the door still open behind him.

“Yeah, I figured that much out myself.”

Then she paused, looking up from the floor.

“You’re not hotel security.”

“He’s been shot,” Nick said, ignoring her. “Somebody shot him.”

The girl paused. She was reading his face in a way that made him instantly uncomfortable.

“You know him,” she said. It wasn’t a question.

Yes, Nick knew the man in the chair. Not personally, but he knew him. He’d spoken to him on the phone twice from prison, and once since he’d gotten out. The first time to explain that he’d “inherited” the deal from the red-haired kid, and that he needed to push back the meeting a couple months. And then right after he’d gotten his parole.

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“Jimmy O’Leary. Jimmy the Lip, they call him. I mean, because of, well, you know.”

The girl then noticed, for the first time, the dark discoloration on the man’s lower lip. A birthmark that went from one corner halfway to the other.

“And you’re here to see him,” she said, rising back to her feet. “Well, I think you got here a little late.”

And suddenly she was heading for the door. She was a good 4 inches shorter than Nick’s 6 feet, but she didn’t seem intimidated by him at all. Nor, in retrospect, did she seem as thrown by the man with the bullet hole in his head, not at all. The girl’s face was pale, she was trembling, but she hadn’t fallen apart, as most “civilians” might. No question, this wasn’t her first dead body. Nick’s either. Even though he was mostly a B&E guy, and had never carried a piece, he’d seen a body before. His second night at Walpole, before getting the transfer to Shirley. Piece of crap drug dealer hung himself in the cell next to Nick’s, and he’d had to spend six hours next to the body, listening to it bloat and leak. Something he’d never forget.

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As the girl passed him, he thought about stopping her, then instead took a slight step aside. His mind was churning. This wasn’t good, not good at all. This meeting, originally set up by the red-haired kid, was supposed to change everything. And now Jimmy the Lip was dead, and Nick was standing there, just a few feet away. He couldn’t begin to count the parole violations.

“You’re not waiting for that hotel security to arrive?” he asked. “The ones you called?”

“I didn’t call them,” she said. “And I don’t want to be here when they arrive.”

“And the police?”

“You can stick around if you’d like. This doesn’t involve me at all.”

And then she was through the door. No question, she had her own problems; Nick didn’t think she had anything to do with Jimmy the Lip’s death, but he had no idea what she had been doing in his room. The fact that she hadn’t called the police was big red flag, the sort of flag that maybe made her a more likely ally than adversary. Nick took one last look at Jimmy the Lip, then followed the girl, quickening his step to catch up. She was heading away from the elevators, toward a door at the end of the hall marked “Emergency Exit.”

“Hold up. I’m coming with you.”

“Like hell you are,” she said, quickening her pace. “I’m getting as far away from this, and you, as I can. Like I said, this doesn’t involve me-“

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“I find you in a room with my dead fence. That makes you involved.”

She looked at him.

“Fence? Like in the movies?”

“Whatever. Look, when they find the body they’re going to look at the cameras from the casino, from the elevator, from wherever else they’ve got them. And they’re going to see you, and they’re going to see me. And they are going to put us both on this floor, maybe entering that room.”

She’d reached the emergency exit door, put her hand against the wood.

“So?”

“So they are going to think one of us had something to do with the dead guy in the chair. That makes you my alibi. And me, yours.”

“I don’t need an alibi. And, no offense, but you don’t look like much of an alibi. You look like you just got out of jail.”

She pushed the door open and then they were in a cinder-block stairwell heading downward. No alarm, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t something buzzing in some security booth somewhere. They had to move fast.

“I did. And I don’t intend to go back, not for murder. If I’m going back, it’s going to be for something worthwhile.”

They were taking the steps two at a time, her in front, him right behind. As he went, he reached into his jacket and retrieved the little plastic bag. He tapped her shoulder, then handed it to her. She looked through the clear plastic, at what was inside.

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“What the hell is this?”

“This is what I was bringing to Jimmy the Lip. He was going to give me a hundred thousand dollars for it, as a down payment.”

She stopped in mid-stride, one tennis shoe hovering over the next step.

“This is a Polaroid picture. He was going to give you a hundred grand for a Polaroid?”

“Look closer.”

She squinted through the plastic.

“Looks like a picture of a picture.”

“A painting, yes.”

“Looks old,” the girl said. “A woman playing a piano, next to a guy with a guitar and another woman singing. It’s nice, I guess.”

“Nice?” Nick said.

“What? It’s not nice?”

He took the Polaroid in the plastic bag from her and jammed it back into his jacket. Then he started forward again down the stairs, taking the lead. Now she was step behind him, but he could tell she wasn’t just heading the same way, trying to get away from hotel security, or the police, or the casino He was leading, and now she was following.

“It’s not a piano, it’s a harpsichord. And it’s not a guitar, it’s a lute.”

It sounded funny even to Nick, the word “lute,” in his Dorchester accent. A few months ago, he’d never heard of a lute. And he’d never seen that painting before. But since that day in the TV room at Shirley, he’d done his research. This girl didn’t know it yet, but that painting was incredibly valuable. And famous. Maybe, Nick thought to himself, as he quickened his pace down the stairs, famous enough to get someone a bullet hole in the middle of his forehead.

In some ways, you could say, it was the most famous painting in the world.