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Chapter 9: On the trail of trouble

Heather Hopp-Bruce/Globe staff; Adobe/Finmiki - 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 Nine

Hailey slid out of the back of the yellow cab onto the deserted sidewalk, the sea breeze from the harbor, just a hundred yards away, biting at her cheeks. She tried not to think about all the bad decisions that had led her to just that spot; if the past few hours were evidence of anything, it was confirmation of what she’d learned at age 12, when, a runaway with little to her name except a genius for numbers, she’d first set out on her own: Bad decisions compounded, like interest.

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She watched Nick Patterson come out of the taxi on the other side and pay the driver from a roll of twenties he’d pulled out of his jeans jacket. Case in point, her decision to follow this ex-con to an alley lined with warehouses, so deep in South Boston she might as well have been in Dublin. Nick Patterson was one compounded lifetime of bad decisions in work boots and denim, the kind of guy she’d learned a long time ago to stay away from. Apart from math, her greatest skill was her ability to read people. Usually, she could read a face as quickly as she could game a blackjack felt, and she’d been reading Nick Patterson since they’d left the casino four hours ago.

He didn’t seem dangerous or violent, but he was certainly a thief. He didn’t appear sophisticated enough to be a con artist, and he’d seemed sufficiently disturbed by the dead fence in the hotel room to convince her he’d had nothing to do with the murder. But it was also clear that he was involved, and by following him out of the hotel and to this alley in Southie, she’d allowed herself to also get involved — something that went against every instinct she’d developed over the past 16 years. All because of a photograph of a painting she’d never seen before, and the excited claims of a crook she’d just met.

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She watched as Nick came up next to her, and nodded toward the boxy, four-story building directly in front of them. The windows didn’t start until the second floor, most were boarded over, and the walls were covered in graffiti, the slurs and gang tags worn down by the constant lick of harbor air. Hailey hadn’t realized there were still forgotten buildings so close to the Seaport, which had transformed in recent years from the kind of place you might safely stash stolen art to a bustling, overcrowded playground for tech entrepreneurs and 20somethings, bristling with outdoor restaurants, dance clubs, movie theaters, and posh hotels. No doubt, at the stroke of midnight some well-heeled developer would wave a magic wand, and this boarded-up building, too, would transform into a lab or a co-working space or a PF Chang’s.

“This is the place,” Nick said. “Things might get a little dicey. The plan wasn’t to show up empty-handed.”

The plan. Nick had gone over the rough details in the cab ride from the casino to the all-night diner where they’d spent the last few hours waiting for daylight, and Hailey still wondered why she hadn’t told the driver to pull over and dump her out right into the Ted Williams Tunnel. Bad decisions piling up, like a chain-reaction crash on the Expressway. Hell, chancing her way on foot through the 3 a.m. traffic in the tunnel seemed more logical than the story Nick had been spinning. But still, she’d kept on reading that narrow, hardened face, those deep-set eyes. There was no doubt, as crazy as the story got, Nick believed every bit of it. The guy was a thief, but he was also sincere.

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The photo in his jeans jacket was of a stolen painting, part of a stash worth upwards of half a billion dollars. Though the theft had taken place 30 years ago, the paintings had finally surfaced, and were now sitting in this warehouse in South Boston, in the hands of some associates of the red-headed kid Nick had met in prison. Nick had taken over the kid’s role in the scheme, and had arranged to move the paintings through a fence, who was either planning to sell them himself, or turn them in for the reward — $10 million — and give Nick a hefty cut. But now the fence was dead, tortured and murdered in that hotel room.

“The guys holding the paintings,” Hailey said. “They’re connected to the original crime? The Gardner heist?”

When Nick had first shown her the photo of the painting in the stairwell, Hailey hadn’t recognized it, but she’d definitely heard of the famous heist. She’d been rough on the details, but Nick had filled her in on the rest at the diner, while she’d picked at a stack of pancakes. Despite his rough exterior, Nick wasn’t stupid, and he’d obviously done some deep digging while he was still locked up. The Vermeer and the rest were incredibly valuable, but they were also extremely recognizable, which made them almost impossible to sell. Probably why they’d remained hidden for so long, though Nick had his own theory. Apparently, the guy who most investigators have pinned the heist on — a young, brash mobster named Bobby Donati — had been murdered a year after the theft. Beaten, stabbed 20 times, throat cut, then shoved in the trunk of his Cadillac which was left parked on a street in Revere. Nick’s theory was that it had been a mercenary operation; Donati had been paid by someone to rob the museum of some particular works of art, and not necessarily the most valuable. Then he’d hidden the stash, and either died before he’d been able to turn it over to whomever had hired him, or had died because he’d been unwilling to turn it over.

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Either way, according to Nick, those paintings had remained hidden in various basements and safe houses in Boston for three decades.

“In a manner of speaking,” Nick said, responding to Hailey’s question as they headed up the path toward the warehouse. “According to my notebook, my red-headed friend and his buddies had been clued into the stash by the daughter of one of Donati’s drivers. She was too afraid to try to move the paintings herself, so she steered them to the artwork for a cut. Everyone in this is here for the same reason: To get paid.”

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Hailey paused, letting him get a few steps ahead on the path. The door to the warehouse looked as daunting as the building itself; heavy and metal, with a peephole slot halfway up that could be opened from the inside. There was still time to get away from this, to walk away and forget that she’d ever met this ex-con or seen a Polaroid of that stolen painting. She still had that small fortune in Encore chips in her purse, which her roommate could cash out for her, and even if her face was on a surveillance tape at the casino, it wasn’t a sure thing they’d connect her to the murder. The cops were probably already scouring the city for Nick, a guy with a prison record who had actually been in contact with the murder victim.

Only Hailey knew that he was innocent of the murder. Not innocent, of course, but he hadn’t killed Jimmy the Lip, and for that, she was indeed his alibi. But she wasn’t going to pretend that she had followed Nick to South Boston to keep him from a murder rap. At the diner, they’d come to an agreement; once they’d retrieved the paintings, they’d find a way to return them for that reward. Nick and his associates would get the lion’s share, but there would be enough left over to keep her off the blackjack tables for many years. Nick was right: She, like all the rest was in it to get paid.

“Circle of life,” she said, then followed him the rest of the way to the door.

Nick didn’t respond, because he’d gotten there first. Which meant he was close enough to see the three bullet holes in the rusted locking mechanism, and the way the metal closest to the frame had buckled inward, where someone had pushed their way in, hard and fast.

Even so, Nick didn’t do the smart thing, turn and head back out of that alley. Instead, he set his jaw, pushed the door open and headed inside.

Bad decisions, compounded.

Hailey took a deep breath and followed.