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Chapter 8: Dead ends and dead men

Heather Hopp-Bruce/Globe staff; 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 Eight

Detective Marsh laughed out loud.

“The Gardner theft. It’s like herpes. Flares up every couple of years. You Feds get some hot tip from a phone line, or some drug dealer gets pinched and tries to talk his way into a lighter sentence by throwing up a bunch of bull about this guy he knows, who knows a guy, who knows a guy — when the hell are you going to give up on that pipe dream already?”

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The truth was, Marsh wasn’t wrong. The Gardner Art Museum theft remains the most famous unsolved art heist in history, the subject of countless theories, tips, investigations, and dead ends. On March 18, 1990, shortly after 1 in the morning, two men posing as police officers had talked their way into the small museum in the Fenway section of Boston, tied up the two guards, and made off with 11 paintings — including “The Concert” by Vermeer, one of only 34 existing paintings by the Dutch master, and now perhaps the most valuable missing painting on earth. None them have been recovered. On top of the Vermeer, the thieves took a number of Rembrandts, including “Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” and others, including works of Degas and Manet. In a strange twist, along with the priceless items, the fake cops also stole two objects that seemed decidedly random: an ancient Chinese “Gu,” a vessel used for liquids such as wine, and a bronze finial in the shape of an eagle that had once sat atop one of Napoleon Bonaparte’s flags. Neither of these two items were particularly valuable, which made their addition to the loot more mysterious. The paintings, on the other hand, were worth hundreds of millions, if not more; recent assessments had put the value of the theft over half a billion dollars.

For many a federal agent over the past four decades, the Gardner paintings have been the investigative equivalent of Melville’s white whale; so many leads had brought agents so close to solving the case that announcements had been drafted and discarded multiple times. Scenarios have abounded, involving Boston gangs rising all the way up to Whitey Bulger himself, the most famous mobster in local history. Many books and articles followed trails both strong and obscure, eventually converging on a plot involving a second-tier gangster named Bobby Donati, who may have hoped to use the paintings as leverage to get a colleague out of prison. Donati’s gangland murder a year after the theft made it a difficult theory to prove, though the investigations surrounding a number of Donati’s associates had kicked up many promising leads. And yet, for all the investigative efforts, the paintings, the finial, and the Gu were still missing — and the $10 million reward that the museum and the FBI had offered remained unclaimed.

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When the calls came in from one of Agent Zack Lindwell’s contacts that Jimmy the Lip was enquiring about that reward, Zack assumed it would be another dead end, like all the rest. In fact, he might not have even followed up, had Jimmy the Lip not ended up strapped to a chair, with a hole in his forehead. Six hours ago, Zack could easily have written the calls off to fantasy, mere tall tales. But in the light of the early morning streaming in off the river, things looked a little different.

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People didn’t usually get shot in the head for making up stories about missing art. And the bullet hole in Jimmy’s head wasn’t even the worst part of the crime scene.

“Two fingernails,” Zack said, changing the subject as he drew Marsh’s attention to the corpse’s hand, still pinned to the chair by his belt. “Torn off clean. Probably with a plier. Someone was looking for information.”

Marsh nodded. The expression on his face hadn’t softened, but as much as he disliked Zack and the FBI, he did like solving cases. No doubt, Zack had already saved him time at the computer by identifying the corpse, and that was welcome; Marsh wasn’t particularly facile at a keyboard.

“Security cameras put two people in the vicinity of the room, within spitting distance of the time he got whacked.”

Marsh gestured toward one of the CSI guys, who brought over a pair of black and white photographs culled from the security footage. Both photographs were from cameras at the end of the hallway, above the elevators. The first was of a man of indeterminate age, with narrow features and light brown hair. The guy’s face had a weathered, tough look to it, and his build was tall and athletic, but there was a slight hunch to his shoulders. He had been caught in motion, and from the way he walked — confident but wary, arms loose enough that if he needed to move quickly he could — Zack could tell he was no stranger to the worlds both Zack and the detective knew well. If Zack had to guess, the guy was a criminal, a cop, or a convict.

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The second photo was a bit more a surprise.

“Is that a tennis skirt?” Zack asked. The detective only shrugged.

The girl was pretty, probably late 20s, with streaked hair and too much jewelry on her fingers and throat. Her face was round, her cheeks flushed, even in black and white. She had also been caught moving down the hallway, but her gait was much faster, and she was looking back over her shoulder. No doubt, she was running from something.

“Yeah,” Marsh said, noticing Zack’s look. “Hotel security had chased her into the elevator on the gaming floor. Apparently she’s a card counter, made a bundle at a blackjack table and then booked it up to the sixth floor when they came after her to throw her out.”

“They checked her ID at the table?”

“They did, but turns out it was a fake. Ran the name and picture, and they don’t match anyone in the state. Hotel security looked back over the tape, say she’s real good, had them completely fooled for most of the night. And this wasn’t the first time she’d hit them. We’re working on a real ID, but it’s going to take time.”

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“And the guy?”

“Him, we know. Facial recognition software generated a match right away. A dirtbag named Nick Patterson, nine years at Shirley on a string of bank jobs all over Middlesex and Suffolk counties. Did his time quiet, out on parole just two weeks ago.”

Zack turned back to the man’s photo. No doubt, this was the more likely candidate for the killer. Like they always say, you hear hoofs, you don’t look for zebras. Then again, it was the zebras that had always kept Zack up at night, not the horses. When he’d first studied the Gardner heist during his training at Quantico, it hadn’t been the paintings that had caused him to lose sleep — the Vermeer, the Rembrandts. It had been those two other stolen items, the ones that didn’t make any sense. The Chinese Gu. The bronze eagle from Napoleon’s flag. The Gu, maybe that could be written off; it was really old and an easy grab, sitting right there in a case just inches from the Vermeer. But taking the eagle, that was work: The thieves had first tried to unscrew the entire flag from its frame, before giving up, leaving half the screws undone. Then they had climbed halfway up the wall to unscrew the finial. It hadn’t been easy, and it hadn’t been quick. Why bother? You’ve got a Vermeer worth a hundred million, easy, and you stick around for a worthless bronze eagle?

“So this Nick Patterson,” Zack said. “He walks after nine years, heads to the Encore, and kills a small time fence?”

“Tortures him first,” Marsh said. Then he shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe they had some beef going back to before he got locked up. Or maybe he got wind that Jimmy the Lip was moving something valuable, came here to get a piece of it? How much was that reward again? Ten million? That’s worth a couple of fingernails.”

Zack didn’t say anything. It seemed weak to him, that Patterson would have come here to question and kill a low-level fence. Jimmy the Lip was a middle man. He didn’t steal things, he didn’t hold onto things, he just moved them. A guy like Jimmy, you either sold to him or you bought from him. You didn’t kill him.

Still, it was possible — if Jimmy really did know something about the Gardner paintings, $10 million was a good incentive to try and get that information from him. There were plenty of people who would do some pretty horrible things for that kind of money. Maybe Nick Patterson was one of them.

“You think whoever did this got what he was looking for?”

Zack shrugged.

“One thing is sure. Whoever came here last night knows a hell of a lot more than we do.”

Marsh looked at him.

“How do you figure?”

Zack pointed to the dead man’s hand.

“He only took two nails.”