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Chapter 7: Dead reckoning

Heather Hopp-Bruce/Globe staff; Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; 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 Seven

“Well, what have we got here,” the burly, pug-nosed homicide detective growled, as he caught sight of Zack Lindwell entering the sixth-floor hotel room from the crime scene staging area that now took up much of the hallway outside, “You must have gotten off on the wrong floor, Lindsy. This one is way below your pay grade.”

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Zack faked a smile as he picked his way between two CSI rats in white smocks and matching gloves who were on their knees on the beige rug, measuring shoe prints. Another half-dozen of the Boston area’s finest hair-follicle and carpet-fiber collectors were between Zack and the State Police detective, who was over by the body in the chair, but they didn’t look up from their work.

“I don’t know, Detective Marsh. There’s a Koons in the lobby and a Lichtenstein about two feet from where you’re standing. I think I’m right where I belong.”

Danny Marsh glanced at the cartoonish painting above the bed, then snorted, unimpressed.

“That thing qualifies for a visit from Quantico? Well, it’s still on the wall. You can head back to your buddies at Art Crimes and tell them to stop wetting their pants. And if the ME finds a Picasso rolled up in this guy’s intestines, I’ll be the first to let you know.”

This got a laugh from the closest lab rat on the floor, who was carefully bagging what looked to be a yellow casino chip that had rolled under the foot of the bed. Zack stepped over the smocked man’s leg as he moved next to Marsh. Close enough to the body that he could see the waxy sheen growing in patches across the man’s skin and the blisters already forming in the outer epidermis. Based on this, and the general stiffness apparent in the man’s limbs — even the arm strapped to the chair — Zack put the time of death somewhere before midnight, but later than 11 p.m., between six and seven hours ago. He knew from the case call that the body had been discovered around 3 a.m., by hotel security, who had been checking doors on a different matter and had found the broken lock outside. Surprising, that the ME hadn’t arrived yet — but then again, it wasn’t even 6 in the morning, that hazy hour between night and day shifts. From the look on Marsh’s face, no doubt the detective was at the tail end of a long night, which meant he’d likely be even more unpleasant than usual.

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“I’m not here looking for Picassos, detective. And I highly doubt Jimmy the Lip here would have been able to tell a Picasso from a C.M. Coolidge."

Marsh raised a wary eyebrow.

“Dogs playing poker,” Zack explained. “Prints were real popular in the suburbs in the 1970s.”

“Yeah, thanks for the art history lesson, Lindsy, but I couldn’t give a damn about how well you know your painters. I’m more curious about how you know our rapidly bloating friend. And, for that matter, what you’re doing here in the first place.”

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It was about as cordial a welcome at Zack had ever received from the rough and tumble state detective. They’d worked together twice before — though “worked together” was a very liberal description. Four years ago, a month after Zack had taken over the Art Crimes desk of the FBI’s Boston Field Office, he’d consulted on a murder-robbery at a resort on the Cape involving an antique Cartier watch that had been lifted from a private collection a week before. The minute he’d entered the crime scene, Danny Marsh had been on top of him, shouting about chains of command and jurisdiction. It wasn’t just the usual back and forth between state law enforcement and the feds; Marsh had a real disdain for the Art Crimes desk. He saw Zack as a book-smart dilettante who’d spent more time at some elite university studying paintings than in the streets with the dirtbags who stole things and killed people, and that he had no business sticking his nose into real police work.

Zack’s FBI training aside, Marsh hadn’t been entirely wrong. Zack’s classmates at Yale, where he’d gotten his PhD in art history, focusing on the European Impressionists, had been equally surprised when he’d applied for the opening in the FBI Art Crimes division. What neither Marsh nor Zack’s colleagues at Yale knew was that Zack had grown up around cops. His father and uncle had both walked beats in New Haven, Conn., where Zack grew up. He was also well-familiar with the sort of people Marsh put in handcuffs every day; his two favorite cousins had gone from stealing car radios in junior high school to stealing the cars themselves after their father, the beat cop, had died young of a heart attack, leaving the family struggling on a police officer’s pension. Both were in jail, now, but Zack had remained close to them, visiting them at the medium security lockup they called home in Western Mass.

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But it certainly hadn’t helped matters with Marsh when one of Zack’s informants had quickly solved the case, pinning the Cartier theft on a local mobster. Nor did Zack and Marsh’s relationship improve a year later when Zack had solved a shootout robbery at an auction house in Marlborough, back-tracing the steps of one of the thieves, and eventually leading Marsh and his colleagues to the case’s unsavory conclusion — the two hapless art thieves bleeding to death all over a Renoir.

Now, another year gone by, they were together again, flint and steel on the sixth floor of the Encore Boston Harbor. Zack had a feeling he wouldn’t be mending his relationship with the ornery homicide detective anytime soon.

“Jimmy O’Leary,” Zack said, nodding at the dead man in the chair. “He’s a mid-level fence. Loosely connected with the Dominel family in Southie, but pretty much an independent businessman. Usually moves low-level product. Silver candlesticks stolen from someone’s estate. A painting grabbed off a wall in some university dining hall. Once he tried to sell a Tiffany chandelier that fell off the back of a truck when they were renovating the old Four Seasons in the Back Bay.”

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“Jimmy the Lip,” Marsh said. “Charming. You’ve got nice friends, Lindsy."

“More of an acquaintance. Hadn’t heard from him in years. Then a couple of days ago, his name came up. Seems he had something to fence. Something that was way out of his usual league. He was asking around, because his usual buyers couldn’t handle something like that. Not even close. Some of the people he asked, reached out to my office.”

Marsh looked at him.

“They reached out to the FBI?”

“Because of the sizable reward.”

Marsh’s angry demeanor seemed to fade a bit, as he became genuinely interested.

“How sizable?”

“Ten million. Immunity from prosecution. That sizable.”

Marsh whistled, and a couple of the nearby CSI rats looked up.

“That’s a serious number. What kind of candlestick is worth $10 million?”

“Not a candlestick,” Zack said. “Paintings. Eleven of them. And two other items. Stolen more than 30 years ago. March 18, 1990.“

“Don’t tell me,” Marsh said.

“Yep. The Gardner paintings.”