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Chapter 11: Swallows and swans

Heather Hopp-Bruce/Globe staff; Adobe/Yury Kisialiou - 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 Eleven

“A little clichéd, Patricia,” the man with the thinning blond hair and the delicate features said, as he made a show of wiping down the wooden bench with a monogrammed handkerchief. “But at least the view is nice.”

Putting the handkerchief back into the front pocket of his tailored, European-slim, electric-blue suit, he settled himself onto the bench. And then he waved a manicured hand toward the placid pond in front of them, his fingernails filed and polished to the color and consistency of tempered glass.

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“And very romantic. I should have suspected you would have chosen such a location, considering your training. But of course we need to keep this professional. This is far from a social call.”

In that, the slight man was correct. In everything else, he was dead wrong. Although a park bench in the middle of Boston’s Public Garden might seem an unlikely place for a clandestine meeting between two highly trained operatives in a dark, criminal trade, it was also the most logical setting. Cafes, restaurants, and bars were difficult environments to secure, and the possibility of surveillance high. A hotel room was out of the question; if things went wrong, there needed to be more than one exit, and hotels meant cameras, which necessitated disguises, which were both time consuming and annoying. Which left the outdoors. And what could be more natural and unremarkable than a man and woman sitting together on a park bench by the pond in the middle of the Public Garden, watching the beautiful swans peck at each other just a few yards away.

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“Not a social call at all,” the man continued, folding his hands together on his lap. He was still staring straight ahead — perhaps actually looking at the swans. They were magnificent creatures, to be fair, even sitting quietly, grooming each other at the water’s edge. A pair of them, white as snow, with wing spans of almost 7 feet, proud necks rising and falling as they worked their dagger-like beaks.

“We are here, Patricia,” he continued, “because the family is concerned. I don’t have to tell you; things are not going as planned.”

Another thing he got wrong — her name wasn’t actually Patricia, though it was a close enough approximation that she didn’t feel the need to correct him. The truth was, she didn’t actually have a name. She had a designation. But of course he knew that as well. She was not deceived by his appearance, any more than he was by hers. Beneath the tailored suit, his body appeared narrow and long, but she could see what others might miss; the tight cords of muscles running up his thighs and forearms. Everything he did was physically precise, because his body had been toned and trained to act with physical precision and power. His blond hair was thinning, yes, but because It had been dyed and pruned and changed so many times it was impossible to know its true color and form. His features were delicate, but most of them were not the features he had been born with. He had changed his face almost as many times as his hair. Even now, she could see the hint of foundation on his cheeks and forehead.

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In their world, nothing was as it seemed.

“I’m a bit surprised, Curt,” she finally responded. “Usually Mr. Arthur conducts these meetings in person. Sending you seems a bit … extreme.”

The man smiled. The name he had given her on the phone was Curt, even though it was every bit as approximate as Patricia.

“You’re surprised. Really. After the disastrous failures of the past 12 hours.”

Patricia winced, only partly because it was a fair assessment of what had transpired. Incredible, that it had only been 12 hours since she had been called into such furious action, after years of methodological investigative work and general spy-craft on behalf of boss she knew only by his first name, a man both massively rich and brutally intolerant of failure. Even after a lifetime of training, her body was feeling the toll of the three consecutive missions. At 37, she remained in peak physical condition, but, still, age had its limitations. When she’d first finished her “education” as an operative at the age of 15, she’d been able to conduct similar missions for days on end.

“The trunk has been located. It won’t be a problem again. And I’ve put the paintings on the cargo ship,” she said, straightening a line in her knee-length skirt.

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It was the fourth outfit she’d worn in the past day. At the casino, she’d needed to blend in; a maid’s uniform she’d lifted from the laundry room in the basement of the Encore had worked well, even though it had been a size too large. She could have subdued the out-of-shape fence in a straight-jacket and handcuffs if she’d needed to. The young men in the warehouse had been more of a challenge. She’d worn an athletic jumpsuit and body armor, even though there had never been much of a chance of the low-level criminals getting a shot off. She doubted either of them had ever used that shotgun other than for intimidation; they had been totally unprepared for what had hit them.

The same could be said for the professor. The leather skirt and high heels she’d chosen for that job had been even more efficient weaponry than a shotgun. The high heels she was still wearing, but the skirt was back in her hotel. If this meeting went south, that skirt would have no effect on a man like Curt. But the heels still had their uses.

“Mr. Arthur doesn’t care about the paintings,” Curt said. “The family hasn’t waited 30 years for a bunch of paintings.”

Amazing, how easily Curt could dismiss a half a billion dollars in stolen art. But Patricia knew that, in this instance, Curt wasn’t speaking for himself. The two were of a breed. Hired guns. For more than a decade, she had been drawing a paycheck from the family, and it had all come to a head in the past 12 hours. So many starts and stops over the years, and finally, she had gotten so close.

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First, the fence. When the sources she had been monitoring had begun making noises about the reward, she had been skeptical; but a little digging had allowed her to put enough together to excite the family — after so many years, the object Mr. Arthur so coveted appeared to have been on the verge of surfacing. But in the warehouse, she’d been dismayed when she’d opened those crates. A half billion in paintings, nothing more.

And then, poor Professor Charles. As the family had instructed, she had been monitoring him for months, along with a handful of his academic colleagues, for any signs that anyone had stumbled into the family’s business. She had been shocked to see his recent paper posted on the Reddit board he’d created. It had been easy work excising the attachment from Reddit before any of his colleagues might have seen it, and even easier work gaining access to his home, computer, and bed. If she’d moved any slower, and he’d managed to publish that paper; there was no telling what his discovery might have led to, and how the family might have reacted. The image he’d uncovered from within John Hancock’s trunk might not have been enough, alone, to inspire the sort of connective thinking that might threaten the family’s grand plan.

“Maybe so,” she finally responded, now also watching the two swans. “But the paintings and the professor … There are so many threads but the knot is beginning to unravel. It won’t be long now.”

It was the slightest thing, the quietly threatening way Curt shifted against the bench, but Patricia’s training kicked in and the muscles of her body coiled, a spring pulling tight. Her mind was instinctively shifting through options. The .22 hidden in the sleeve of her blouse. Small caliber, but at close range it would do the job. The heels, of course; a 2-inch blade waiting in the toe of the left, and the spring-loaded syringe of paralytic concealed in the right, along with a second syringe containing the antidote, which she’d yet to employ. The twisted bands tying her long, sable hair into a pony tail; within the material of each twist, a coil of razor wire. And there were always her hands. She couldn’t be certain that she could take Curt in hand-to-hand combat, but she was willing to put her training up against any in the world. Curt might have spent years perfecting himself into a living weapon, on offer to the highest bidder. But Patricia had been quite literally born for this.

“The family won’t accept more failure, Patricia.”

Patricia wasn’t her name, because she didn’t have a name. She had a number. “Пятьдесят.” The transliteration, “Pyats-dess-yat,” was very close to Patricia. But it had never been intended as a name. She was merely the 50th girl born in that dormitory on the banks of the Irkutsk river. Of those 50, less than 30 were still alive 15 years later, when General Yakov, formerly of the FSB and before that the KGB, had been forced to close down his training facility. She would always remember the “graduation” ceremony, Yakov standing in front of his “children,” bemoaning the fate of the fallen Soviet experiment, the disaster that was Yeltsin’s Russia.

We are all mercenaries now, Yakov had told his “ласточки” — swallows, the name given to the participants in the program that had begun in the 1920s under Stalin. It had first repurposed Bolshoi dancers and movie actresses, before Yakov had the idea in the ‘80s of breeding his own. Swallows, girls, now women, trained in techniques that in the end were not so disparate: The strategies to make a man’s heart beat faster were not so very different than the tactics involved in stopping it from beating altogether. Distract, disarm, find a weakness to infiltrate and exploit, strike quickly and with great precision. That training applied whether you were trying to make a man fall in love with you, or break his neck.

Patricia forced her muscles to uncoil, as she saw that Curt likewise relaxed against the bench next to her. At the moment, at least, he was not there to replace her, or kill her.

“No more delays, Patricia. Do whatever you need to do to cut those threads, and untie that knot.”

“перерезать эту нить.” Cut the threads. Another of Yakov’s favorite teachings. Poor Professor Charles, the fence in the hotel room, the brothers in the warehouse. That left only two remaining threads. She considered showing Curt the photos she had on her phone, which she’d taken from the surveillance cameras at the casino. The unidentified young woman and the ex-con. Patricia had already made inroads into finding them — an inside track, of a sort, on an investigation already in motion. Once she found them, she believed, she would be on her way to accomplishing her mission, but Curt didn’t need to know any of this, because Curt was just like her. A mercenary. Nothing more

“They have names,” she said, quietly, not a hint of her Russian accent showing through. “The swans. They come back every year, right to this spot. They call them Romeo and Juliet.”

Curt raised an eyebrow.

“That makes this spot even more romantic. If, again, clichéd.”

“It turns out that they’re both female,” Patricia continued. “They’re quite beautiful. But they can also be vicious. Dangerous, even.”

“So I’ve heard. The beaks ...”

“You would think so, of course, but it’s the not the beaks you need to watch out for. It’s their wings. Beneath the beautiful plumage, the elbow joints. Strong and sharp; it’s rumored that they can break a man’s arm with one flick of those wings.”

She turned, gave Curt a long look.

“There will be no more failures. No more loose threads.”

She didn’t wait for him to respond. Without another word, she rose from the bench and headed off through the park, away from the bench, the mercenary, and the swans.