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Chapter 6: ‘Just the way you like it’

Heather Hopp-Bruce; United States Library of Congress, 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 Six

“Hope you don’t mind,” the woman said, sweetly. “I’m an early riser. I needed to check my e-mail, and my phone is out of power. But I made you coffee. Right there, next to the Declaration of Independence.”

Charles saw the mug on the table — thankfully on a coaster — by the glass case. He still didn’t know quite what to say, so instead he retrieved the coffee and took a little sip. It was the deep roast he’d gotten from Trader Joe’s in Central Square, with just the right amount of cream and sugar. There was also something spicy in the sip — maybe nutmeg? Cinnamon?

“Two sugars and a cream, and a little surprise I whipped up myself. Just how you like it.”

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He flushed a bit, snippets of conversation from last night at the bar echoing in his ears. Right after she’d sat down at his table, startling him, and told him he looked just her type, she’d asked how he liked his coffee in the morning. Such an aggressive approach; he’d surprised himself by not excusing himself and running for the door. But he’d already been two glasses of wine deep, not counting the champagne from dinner. And he had been celebrating.

Looking at her, even lounging at his own desk like she’d picked it out from the antiques fair herself, he realized he’d never really had a chance. Five-nine at least, with legs that seemed almost too long for her body, smooth and athletic and bare all the way to the edge of the skirt that hugged her thighs. Her hair was jet black and tied up in a ponytail, though the night before he distinctly remembered it loose and wild, spread out across the pillows of his bed. Her cheeks were angled high and sharp, and her lips were full, still blood red, and turned up at the edges. But it was her eyes that were her most distinct feature: dark like her hair, but perfectly elliptical, like a hieroglyphic you’d expect to find on an Egyptian pyramid.

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In short, she was way out of his league. Fifty-two-year-old divorced professors of mid-18th-century American history didn’t pick up women like her in wine bars; they certainly didn’t get picked up by women like her, well, anywhere. It was unnerving, seeing her at his computer, drinking his coffee, using his record player — but maybe he was overreacting.

He took a deeper sip of his coffee. The warm liquid felt good against his dry throat, the vapors battling the slight pounding in his skull. It really was foolish to drink so much on a weeknight, but then, he hadn’t had many occasions to celebrate like that. Sure, he’d finished papers before, had published many, all the way back to his PhD thesis which had ended up in the Cambridge Historical Journal, leading to his recruitment by Harvard’s History Department. But that paper — a detailed exploration of the relationship between John Hancock and Samuel Adams based on a trove of original letters he’d discovered tucked into a notebook of Ben Franklin’s on loan to Widener Library from a collector in London — wasn’t even in the same league as what he was about to accomplish.

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Thinking of what was coming — what was just a handful of days away — buoyed him as he stepped deeper into his study. The woman had turned back to the computer, and as he continued toward the desk, she turned the laptop so that he could see the screen.

To his surprise, it wasn’t open on an e-mail server. It was open to something he instantly recognized. He stopped, halfway past the coffee table, right beside a shelf lined with books about the Boston Tea Party.

“That’s my paper,” he said.

She nodded, tapping her long fingernails against the mouse.

“Yes. Really interesting. I stumbled onto it while looking for my e-mails. It’s fascinating. I’ve always considered myself a Revolutionary War buff, but I’ve never read anything like this before.”

He looked at her, then at the screen. Although it was possible he’d left the paper open in some task bar on his computer, he couldn’t imagine that she’d read much of the 50-page document, unless she’d been awake much longer than he thought. He wasn’t surprised she’d found it interesting. Even though most people glazed over a bit when he told them his focus — the Revolutionary Era and the relationships among the Founders — he knew that the paper on the computer screen between them was something different. His research — his discovery — was certain to make worldwide news. No matter what journal he sent it to, once it was out, he was certain it would find its way into the mainstream. For a history professor, it was a once-in-a-lifetime shot. Which was probably why he hadn’t already published the paper; in fact, the only people who’d even seen it, other than this woman who had picked him up in a wine bar the night before, were the handful of Revolutionary War obsessives who frequented an obscure Reddit chat stream he’d started a few months earlier. He’d just posted the synopsis the morning before to see what they thought. He hadn’t yet logged on again to see the response, but he was certain the four or five followers of the stream would have a lot to say. People who dreamed about the works and deeds of Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin were easily incited.

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“I’ve always been fascinated by Revolutionary War heroes,” she continued. “Men like Patrick Henry, George Washington, and of course, Paul Revere.”

Heather Hopp-Bruce; United States Library of Congress, Adobe/AungMyo - stock.adobe.com

Charles swirled the coffee in the mug with his wrist.

“Revere wasn’t actually a war hero,” he felt the need to correct. “Though he is, arguably, the most famous name of the period, especially in this region. But the tourists who regularly visit his carefully preserved house in the North End, or his gravestone in the Granary Burying Ground by Downtown Crossing, have no idea who he really was.”

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If she had read through the paper on the computer, or much of it, she must have gathered that Charles was arguably the foremost Revere scholar in the country. His memory of the night before was sketchy, but that might even have come up in conversation. It wasn’t his best opening line, and it usually landed pretty flat, but he usually dropped it at some point. Although to be fair, last night she’d done most of the talking, while he’d done most of the staring.

“In fact,” Charles continued, “Revere was pretty much a failure at battle. Court-martialed in 1779 and dishonorably discharged after a botched siege of a British fort in Maine — the most disastrous battle in the Revolutionary War — that left most of his battalion killed or captured.”

“But that’s not how he’s remembered,” she said.

Charles sipped the coffee again. His smile returned, because now they were solidly on his turf.

’Listen, my children, and you shall hear, of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.”

“Right, the poem. Longfellow, right? The British are coming.”

“Revere certainly had the best PR of any of the Revolutionary heroes,” Charles said, repeating a line he’d used, sometimes successfully drawing a laugh, when he’d taught a freshman core class to undergraduates, “but most of what people think they know about Paul Revere, and his famous midnight ride, is completely wrong.”

“He didn’t ride his horse across Boston, warning the people that the British were attacking?”

“It wasn’t his horse, and no, he wasn’t warning the people of Boston of an impending attack. And most of his ride took place outside of Boston, on the way to Concord and Lexington. He also took the first part of his journey — across the Charles River — by boat, and he wasn’t alone, there were three riders working together. And during the ride, Paul Revere was actually captured by the British, roughed up a bit, and then released.”

She tapped the computer screen with a red fingernail.

“This paper goes a lot deeper than that.”

So she had read that much, at least. For some reason, Charles got the immediate and strange feeling that she was humoring him, getting him to expound on information she already knew. He realized that he’d never actually asked her what she did for a living, or who, really, she was. In fact, he wasn’t sure he even knew her name. Something that started with a “P,” but he was afraid to make an attempt, considering what they’d already done together — the lipstick on his pillow. In all of that, he felt so awkward, so unsteady; so he stuck to the arena he knew best.

“That’s correct. The true reason behind that midnight ride. But before we can even begin to understand what Revere was really up to, we need to understand who the man actually was.”

The woman hit the mouse with her other hand, and then tapped the lines of text in the first paragraph of his paper.

“His family was French, his father owned a silver shop. Revere was a craftsman, a silver-worker. One of the most technically gifted of his era. He also worked at dentistry, but he probably didn’t make George Washington’s wooden teeth.”

“He was a technologist,” Charles said, feeling his face flush. A little embarrassing, how excited he could get over Revere. “An innovator. He worked with silver, but also bronze and wood. And copper — it was Revere’s shop that first covered the Boston State House dome with copper. He was also one of the most talented engravers of his era.”

He glanced at the print of Revere’s famous engraving of the Boston Massacre on his study wall, made just three weeks after the actual event itself. The drama of the piece was palpable; the viciousness of the Redcoats and the misery of the injured and dying Colonists engraved with such passion, it was no surprise that the work had helped incite a nation.

“He was also a Freemason,” the woman said, looking at the screen.

Again, it did not appear she was reading something she did not already know. Which was odd. Who was she, exactly? A fellow historian? He didn’t want to be judging her by her appearance, but she didn’t look like any American history buff he’d met before. And he’d met plenty.

“He was a founding member of the Massachusetts chapter of Freemasons, correct. Many of the Revolutionary names were Freemasons. Ben Franklin, of course, but also Hancock and Revere. But Revere’s connection to the Freemasons was really beside the fact.”

Most people knew about the Freemasons; they’d been the subject of numerous pop novels and movies, and why not? A mysterious organization, or private club, dating back hundreds of years, with secret rituals and symbols, shadowy clubhouses and influential, often wealthy members, some famous, some infamous — wonderful grist for the conspiracy theorists. But Charles knew: Paul Revere’s relationship to the Freemasons paled in comparison to his true affiliation.

“Revere wasn’t just a Freemason,” Charles said, lowering his voice. “He was part of something much more mysterious and ancient than Freemasonry.”

He almost continued, then stopped himself. If she’d read through his paper, she knew where he was going — but if she hadn’t, well — he took another sip from his coffee, while watching her face. Those incredible cheekbones glowed in the light from his computer. He supposed it didn’t make any difference. He was going to be submitting his paper within days. And then his research, his discovery, would be everywhere.

“And now we’re at the gist of it,” she said. “That midnight ride.”

Charles was happy to shift from the revelation of who Revere really was, to the facts of that fateful night.

“It was, at its heart, an intelligence mission. On top of whatever else Paul Revere was, he was one of America’s first spies. He’d founded a group he called The Mechanics, and a faction of that group called themselves The Sons of Liberty. The Mechanics were tasked with keeping tabs on the British. That particular night — April 18, 1775 — the Mechanics had uncovered that a team of British soldiers was on its way to Concord.”

“To arrest John Hancock and Sam Adams,” the woman said.

“That’s what we learn in high school. Hancock and Adams were the de facto leaders of the American rebels; Hancock, a wealthy merchant — the richest man in Massachusetts — and Adams, a failed young businessman but a real rabble rouser, a fan of mob violence, and probably one of the leaders of the Boston Tea Party. They were arguably the most dangerous men in the Colonies. So it seems understandable that the British might want to send a detachment of men to go find and arrest them. But describing the British mission that way, well, it’s not entirely accurate. The British did intend to arrest Hancock and Adams, but that wasn’t the main focus of their raid, or of Revere’s ride. When Revere was captured by the British, and then released, he continued on to where Hancock was hiding, even though he knew his compatriots had already warned the rebel leadership. He continued on for one purpose.”

Charles waited a moment, to make sure her focus was entirely on him.

“To retrieve Hancock’s trunk.”

Charles said the words with a flourish, maybe a little too much volume. As he did, he felt himself nearly stumble, and reached out for a nearby bookshelf to steady himself. Perhaps he was still a little drunk from the night before. But he was too engaged now to slow down.

“After Hancock and Adams made their escape, Revere retrieved the trunk — a heavy, leather-covered, four-by-two, locked, wooden chest — and carried it off into the woods. It was that trunk that the British were searching for, that trunk that caused Revere to ride, at great personal danger, across Massachusetts that night.”

“The trunk,” the woman prodded. “I’ve read about it before. It contained letters, contracts, things like that, communication between the Revolutionary leaders. Political and maybe sentimental value.”

Charles shook his head so violently he nearly toppled over again. His mind was swirling a bit, so he took another sip of the coffee to try and steady himself. Again, he tasted something spicy.

“Is that cinnamon? Or tamarack?”

“Something like that,” the woman said. “The papers in the trunk, Charles.”

“Yes, the papers in the trunk. Revolutionary documents, yes. But that wasn’t all that the trunk contained.”

And now he was there, his discovery, the thing that was going to change his life. Hancock’s trunk. It had survived Revere’s adventure back in April of 1775, survived the many years, decades, centuries, and had ended up, rather ignominiously today, in a museum in Worcester, Mass., where it was kept in a hermetically sealed basement storage unit, and annually put on display for local schoolchildren. It hadn’t been easy for Charles to get permission to run a radiological study of the case — first an X-ray, then a CT scan — but what he’d discovered had made all of the red tape he’d had to cut through worthwhile.

Because what he’d found was bigger than a cache of Revolutionary War documents. Bigger than Revere’s connection to the Freemasons, or the importance of his spy network, his Mechanics. What Charles had discovered was a secret that, had the British succeeded in capturing Hancock’s trunk, wouldn’t just have changed the course of the Revolution but of human history.

While Charles’s thoughts were racing backward to the moment when he’d first seen it for himself on that portable CT scanner, the woman at his computer scrolled through his paper to that very image. And now there it was, on his laptop screen, in stark black and white. A technically enhanced image from a piece of parchment, hidden within the wood of the back wall of Hancock’s trunk.

And yet, as incredible as that image was, it wasn’t the whole story, not by a long shot. Because what the woman at his computer couldn’t possibly know, was that the paper on Charles’s computer wasn’t complete. He’d purposefully kept the very best part to himself, something he would reveal after the paper made its rounds and turned the world upside down. His second discovery: one that rivaled, and surpassed, his first.

He turned his attention from the screen to the woman, wondering what she was thinking, what that image meant to her. But her eyes, those dark, perfect ellipses, told him nothing. In fact, as he stared into them, they began to shimmer, shiver, swim.

“I don’t feel right,” Charles finally mumbled.

And then he noticed that his tongue felt abnormally large. His shoulders seemed to stiffen, and a tingle moved down the skin of his legs. Was he really still drunk? No, it was more than that. Was he having a stroke?

“What’s wrong with me,” he stuttered.

He tried to take a step, but his legs wouldn’t move right. His hand opened and the mug fell to the floor, hitting the carpet with a thud. Then Charles was falling, too. He reached out to catch the coffee table, but his arm was as weak as his legs. He hit the floor next to the mug, shoulder first. He fought hard to twist his body so he could still look upward, toward his desk.

The woman had come around from the other side and was now standing over him. Her high heels were inches from his face, her long legs rising up for what seemed like forever.

“Other than the Reddit group,” she said, her voice barely audible through a strange rushing sound that was now filling Charles’s ears. “Did you send this paper anywhere else?”

The part of his brain that was still thinking logically realized it was a very strange question. What did that matter?

“What’s happening to me?” he gasped, his tongue barely forming the words.

“It’s a paralytic,” the woman responded, from atop those long, long legs. “It comes from the Brazilian rain forest. It doesn’t have a name, actually, but it’s derived from the skin of an indigenous yellow frog. I put it in your coffee. That doesn’t matter now. Charles, concentrate. Did you send the paper anywhere else?”

A paralytic? From a frog? Charles blinked, realizing his eyelids were the only thing that still felt normal. His arms and legs couldn’t move, and his chest, his chest was growing heavier by the second.

“Paralytic. My coffee.”

“Yes. The effect starts in the skin, you felt the tingling? Then it moves to the muscles. First the big muscle groups, the legs, the arms. Eventually, makes its way to the lungs. I can reverse it, but we really don’t have much time. Did you send this to anyone else? A friend? A colleague? Anyone?”

She’d poisoned him. Why? It didn’t make any sense. He’d never met her before. He was a history professor. An expert on Paul Revere. Why would anyone want to poison him?

Paul Revere. His paper. His groundbreaking, life-changing paper.

She knew about the Reddit group, so she must have found it there. But how? The Reddit group was small, three or four scholars from universities around the world, the type of people who spent evenings searching obscure message streams for material on Paul Revere. How had she stumbled into that world, how had she found his paper, which he’d only sent the morning before? Or had she been monitoring the thread the whole time? Read the paper, then come to Harvard Square to find him?

Seduce him?

Poison him?

“Please,” he tried, his words crashing together like a train derailed from its track. “Help me. I can’t breathe.”

And at that moment, he suddenly did remember — he had sent the paper to one other person. Right before he’d gone to dinner the night before, at the very last minute. Not a colleague, or a friend. And not for advice, not like with the Reddit group. He’d sent it to one other person — out of pure spite.

He opened his mouth to try and tell her, but it was too late. Now his jaw wouldn’t move. His lips were open, but his face frozen in place. The woman watched him for a second longer, then turned and headed back to his computer. As he stared, unable to blink, she held something small and metallic against the base of the keyboard, and suddenly the screen blurred, then went blank.

The woman turned back to look at Charles one last time, splayed out on the floor.

His eyes were still open, but the pupils were growing larger, and wider, and rounder.

And then everything went dark.