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Chapter 12: Flights of fancy

Heather Hopp-Bruce/Globe staff; Adobe/pixs:sell - 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 Twelve

Professor Adrian Jensen was muttering angrily to himself as he worked the combination wheel on his bike lock, pinning the lightweight, ridiculously expensive carbon frame of his cycle to the aluminum sign post jutting up above one of the most highly trafficked corners in downtown Boston. Not cursing, exactly; Adrian was too aware of the constant stream of lunchtime foot traffic coursing by him, like a stream parting around a jagged stone. But he was stammering and gabbling under his breath: a steady torrent of verbal self-affliction that had run continuously and unimpeded, for the 6-mile ride from his office at 6 East Hall, smack dab in the center of the Tufts campus.

He was still talking to himself, in fact, as he undid his bike helmet, shook his halo of reddish-blond hair free, then hooked the helmet to the bottom of his heavy backpack. The backpack was still slung over his left shoulder, the strap digging into the thin material of his tight cycling jersey. The jersey, of course, matched his pants, which hugged his oversized calves and thighs like a wet suit, or if you hated the look, like an oil spill on a drowning bird. Adrian was fully aware of the image he projected, from the cycling clothes to his tanned and nautilus-shaped form, to the ringlets and waves of that expertly coiffed hair. He knew that many of his students, and a fair portion of the other professors at Tufts — not just in the Department of History but throughout the humanities — often used terms like “dandy” and “peacock” when they thought he was out of earshot. But other people’s opinions had never bothered him. Perhaps it was his severe upbringing at the hands of his scientist parents, but he’d never had patience for the opinions of fools or rivals; in fact, the only thing he disliked more than unsolicited opinions were flights of intellectual fancy.

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Which explained his current mood, as he stared up at the Georgian façade of the stone and granite building that took up much of the block, where School Street and Tremont meet. To be sure, King’s Chapel, the oldest continuously used religious site in Boston and one of the oldest churches in America, was familiar to Adrian, a place he’d visited many times. As a scholar who’d dedicated much of his adult life to 18th-century American history, it would have been impossible for him to avoid such a high profile location, favored by a multitude of Revolutionary War figures, many of whom were entombed in the building’s catacombs or buried in the plot of land directly adjacent to it; those heroes not on the grounds of the church were interred right across the street, in the Granary Burial Ground, even more popular with tourists and history buffs. But on this particular afternoon, Adrian could think of a dozen places he’d rather be than in this grand, old church.

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In two hours, he was supposed to be giving a lecture to an auditorium full of freshmen about Paul Revere’s role in the Boston Tea Party, one of the most famous — and much misunderstood — episodes of the Revolutionary period. Adrian didn’t enjoy lecturing freshmen; he didn’t really like undergraduates as a breed, and was much happier lodged in his office or in one of the university’s many libraries, working on his research projects. But even standing in front of a crowded hall filled with bored, core-requirement-obsessed teenagers who’d chosen a course on the Revolution because they’d thought they’d be hearing about musket battles and cannon balls, instead of taxation issues and harbor docking rights, was preferable to his current absurd adventure — a mission necessitated by the fanciful speculations of an academic competitor.

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Adrian shivered with disgust as he reached into the backpack and withdrew a sheaf of papers in a manila envelope, still warm from the printer in his office. Absurd was the right word for it; when he’d first received the email from Charles Walker, that Harvard buffoon, the night before, Adrian had almost erased the missive and deleted the attached file the minute he’d read the subject line:

The Most Amazing Paul Revere Discovery in History”

Adrian shook his head at the audacity of such a subject line; and when he’d printed out the paper and read through it — well, the subject line paled in comparison to audacity of Charles’s thesis. Incredible, absurd, insane. The only thing that had kept Adrian from tossing the entire thing into the nearest receptacle were the exhibits attached at the end. Because once Adrian had finally gotten through all those pages of fantasy, speculation, nay, science fiction, he’d finally made his way to the attachments — Charles’s discoveries, his core evidence. And to be fair, as absurd as the entire project appeared, those discoveries, well, they weren’t simply absurd.

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They were maddening. And worse — maybe true.

Adrian’s gaze shifted from the envelope back to King’s Chapel. First to its grand ionic columns, because they were impossible to ignore. Then higher, to the rectangle of stone with the arched Paladin windows, rising above the congested mid-day traffic. No steeple; the original builders had hoped for one, had even drawn up plans, but a financial squeeze had left them with just enough for the granite “tower.” Dreams, as they often were, overmatched by reality.

Adrian’s attention moved back to the envelope in his hands. Maddening. Because it appeared Charles’s fevered dreams, in this instance, had somehow overcome reality.

Adrian shook his head, that mane of ringlets flashing in the sun. He and Charles had never had anything close to a good relationship. As two scholars playing in the same sandbox, they’d always been competitive. Given the differences in their personalities, they could never even agree to disagree about the arcane details of their shared intellectual focus. Even before this new, wild thesis, Charles had always been drawn to the fanciful and the fantastic. Adrian had often suggested that the buffoon should have found his way to Hollywood, rather than the hallowed halls of Harvard. Leave it to the masses to picture Paul Revere as a swaggering, near mythical character; as a scholar, Adrian had always believed his duty was to reveal Revere as the man he really was: a slightly pathetic warrior, but a brilliant metallurgist, engraver, and technologist. In Revere’s own words, a mechanic.

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Charles Walker had always believed there was more to the man. And when they argued, his response had always been the same: Boston was big enough for two eminent experts on Paul Revere, no matter how disparate their scholarship. Adrian could spend his days in the diligent pursuit of the mundane details of Revere’s life, while Charles would focus on the dramatic secrets he believed were hidden beneath those details.

In other words, Adrian would pursue actual academic work, while Charles would chase his flights of fancy. And up until those exhibits attached to the end of this wild paper, that’s what Charles had done, in Adrian’s view. Spun fantasy, wild theories, and yet…

Feeling savage with anger — and, yes, jealousy — Adrian tore open the envelope and dug into the papers, retrieving the final page. A printed image, incredibly detailed, that was actually a photograph of an original Revere engraving. An engraving that Adrian was quite sure had never been published, or even seen, anywhere before.

Incredible. And paired with the second exhibit — the photo that Charles had included in the paper itself, from Hancock’s trunk — even more than incredible.

Awe inspiring.

What Charles had discovered within the walls of John Hancock’s trunk would have been enough, alone, to set Adrian’s entire profession on fire. Adrian himself had found it so compelling that he’d spent much of the morning trying to arrange his own radiological study of the trunk, but to no avail. It turned out the donor who had loaned the trunk to the Worcester Museum had unexpectedly sold the trunk that very morning to a private collector with very deep pockets. Though the trunk would remain on loan to the museum, the new owner had insisted on retrieving it for a period of assessment and repairs. A new radiological study would have to wait.

So Adrian had been forced to do what he’d hoped to avoid; he’d called Charles’s office, hoping to see Charles’s radiological evidence in person. And that’s when he’d been told the terrible news.

The coroner’s office hadn’t yet determined if it was a heart attack or a stroke that had left Charles dead on the floor of his office earlier that morning. Apparently, he’d gone out the night before — perhaps in celebration of his discoveries, and obviously the poor fool had overdone it. Now he was gone, his paper unpublished, and Adrian was left with a quandary. He’d never agreed with Charles in life, but in death, as much as he tried, he found he couldn’t simply dismiss what the man had uncovered.

He stared down at the image in his hands. Like the picture Charles had included in his paper, from Hancock’s trunk, this second image was of an engraving, presumably one of Revere’s. Adrian was certain this engraving had also never been seen before, and he also was fairly certain he knew where it was from.

Revere’s Time Capsule. Of course, the time capsule itself was well known, even outside of academic circles. Buried by Paul Revere and Samuel Adams in the cornerstone of the Massachusetts State House in 1795, the capsule had first been opened in 1855, cleaned and documented, and then reburied. But in 2015, a much more public “opening” had taken place, in the Art of the America’s Wing of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In front of the governor and multiple television cameras, the museum’s curator had revealed the contents of the capsule and sent them for study, gathering together a group of experts to go over each item. Most of the contents of the capsule had been much what one would have expected: Newspapers of the era, in fairly good condition. Twenty-three coins of varying denominations. One of George Washington’s medals, a Seal of the Commonwealth, a title page from the Colony records. And then a final item — a silver plate, engraved by hand by Paul Revere.

Although the plate seemed, of itself unexceptional — the words engraved on it simply indicated that the cornerstone had been laid by Samuel Adams, then governor of the Commonwealth — the museum had sent out a call to local Revere experts, and Charles Walker’s Harvard pedigree had placed him at the front of the line.

For the first few months after the capsule had been opened, Charles had spoken of nothing else but that silver plate. And then, strangely, he’d gone silent about it, had never even mentioned it in passing, not once. Now, Adrian understood. Because he was certain that the picture in his hands was of that same plate — except it had been cut in two, sliced length wise, opened like the pages of a book. Adrian had no idea how Charles could have gotten permission to do such a thing; no doubt, he’d done it in secret. But that didn’t matter now, not only because Charles was dead but because inside the silver plate, he’d found a second engraving. And the import of this engraving far eclipsed the first.

Not words, this time, but an image. Adrian could easily identify the man pictured in the engraving: Paul Revere, as he would have appeared near the end of his life. In front of Revere, across what appeared to be the floor of a workshop or metal factory, sat a dozen wine glasses, in a perfect row. Each of the wine glasses appeared to be filled halfway with liquid. And at the very edge of the engraving, beyond the last glass, sat a large bell. Vibration patterns had been carved around the bell — clearly meant to symbolize that the bell was ringing. And Revere, at the other end of the line of wine glasses, was just as clearly making notations. Looking closer, Adrian could see that beneath each glass, Revere had etched a number. And beneath it all — Revere, the glasses, the bell — appeared a date.

A date that didn’t make any sense: 1814

Adrian knew the time capsule had originally been buried in the cornerstone of the State House in 1795. It hadn’t been reopened until 1855, and then reburied until modern times. The date on this engraving implied that sometime after 1795, but before Revere’s death in 1818, he had surreptitiously replaced the original silver plate with a second plate, containing this bizarre self-portrait. Not impossible — in fact, Revere, as the top metallurgist and mechanic of his time, and the only person in the Americas who had figured out the art of working with copper sheeting — had been commissioned to re-plate the State House’s dome as late as 1803, and would have had easy access to the cornerstone. But the question remained — why? And what did this engraving mean? And what was so important about the picture — the wine glasses, that bell, the numerical notations — that Revere would have wanted it so artfully hidden and preserved?

Adrian shook his head again, jammed the picture back into the manila envelope and the envelope back into his backpack. He slung the pack over his shoulder, then turned his focus back on the church. Even if Charles hadn’t just died on the floor of his office, this was a mystery Adrian would have felt obligated to pursue. There was meaning, a secret, behind that engraving, and Adrian was one of the very few people with the knowledge to figure it out. It was that that had led him here, to King’s Chapel. That knowledge and that date: 1814.

One last mutter to himself — this time, something approaching a curse — and Adrian joined the stream of tourists heading toward the church’s front door.