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Chapter 14: Puzzles to solve

Heather Hopp-Bruce/Globe Staff; Adobe/irazzers - 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 Fourteen

“I’ll be there in 20. Keep the bodies warm for me, detective.”

Agent Zack Lindwell hung up his cellphone and slipped it back into his jacket pocket, right next to his badge. The phone felt warm through his jacket and shirt, which made sense, because it hadn’t been a short phone call. Getting information out of Danny Marsh over a cellphone was like trying to pry a Renaissance masterpiece out of its gilded frame; eventually, you just had to take a razor to it to get the damn thing loose.

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It had taken 10 minutes just to get the detective to give him the most basic details of the new crime scene at the South Boston warehouse, and that was before the detective had even gotten around to mentioning the unique state of the two victims. This time, the ME was already on the scene, but from what Marsh had told Zack, the ME wasn’t going to be much help until he’d gotten the results of his toxicology reports. The way the bodies were piling up, by then they’d all be finding themselves dodging national news vans and network television anchors.

Zack rubbed at his tired eyes. He knew he needed to head to South Boston, to see the scene for himself, but he wanted a little more time to contemplate what he’d already uncovered. So for the briefest moment, he stayed where he was: sitting on the edge of a twin bed in a small, stoic bedroom in a third-floor walk-up two blocks from Mass. Ave. in Central Square. The furniture in the room was mostly utilitarian, painted in calming pastels. Across from the bed was a small, converted card table serving as a desk, propping up a cheap laptop computer and a few blank notepads. Next to the computer was a wooden bookshelf that might have come from a garage sale. Between the shelf and the single window overlooking a parking lot was another card table, and then a dresser. Zack had already gone through the drawers. Mostly cheap dresses and jeans, a few T-shirts, nothing remarkable. No stash of money or casino chips had been found, but then, Zack hadn’t yet brought in the state CSI team, or the fiber and hair bloodhounds. Somewhere in this room, he assumed, was a loose floorboard, ceiling tile, or false shelf bottom. Maybe a stack of bills, maybe more yellow chips, maybe even a computer memory card full of records. Good card counters always kept meticulous records, whether out of ego, or efficiency; in that, they were very similar to professional art thieves.

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Zack finally rose from the bed, casting a quick glance out the window to gauge the time. Mid-afternoon now, but the parking lot below was only half full. This part of Central Square had so far avoided full gentrification, but the rent was probably still pretty high, being so close to the MIT campus. Most of the apartments in the building were filled with students, a lot of them, presumably, math and science whizzes like Hailey Gordon. The roommate — Jackie something — who was still in the apartment’s kitchen two doors down talking to one of the investigators Marsh had sent, was studying quantum physics. A pretty girl, friendly and very smart. Zack had already gone through her bedroom, which had been filled with family pictures, stuffed animals, high school and college paraphernalia. On her desk he’d noticed a framed photo of her boyfriend, a student at Emerson. On her shelf, next to the books on physics, a row of shot glasses emblazoned with various local sports logos.

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But this room, Hailey Gordon’s room, was a different story. Apart from the few pieces of furniture, there was hardly any proof that someone actually lived here. No family photos. No signs of high school, college, or sports allegiances. No picture of a boyfriend, no Teddy bears. The books in the bookshelf were mostly math texts, physics, a little chemistry. The laptop was protected by a password that the techs at the field office would eventually be able to crack, but Zack didn’t expect they’d find much of interest within those bytes and bits.

The only thing in the room that offered even a hint that someone had been here in the past week was spread out across the second card table: a half-finished puzzle. At least a thousand pieces, which in itself was unremarkable. But the pieces were all white — no pictures, no color, not even a slight variation in shade. When Zack had first walked into the room, he’d turned a few of those pieces over, assuming they were upside down.

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Hailey Gordon was certainly an enigma. Not the least because her name wasn’t actually Hailey Gordon. Although the facial recognition software at the casino had led Zack to this apartment, hers was a carefully crafted identity that went back many years. She had succeeded for all these years as someone who didn’t actually exist.

The girl who’d occupied this room, and had been at the Encore casino 12 hours ago in the room of the murdered fence, had been born Katie Allenbeck, in a small town near Fitchburg, near the New Hampshire state line. The Staties had gotten one fingerprint off of the yellow casino chip they’d found under the bed in the room where Jimmy the Lip had been killed, and that fingerprint had been the first page of a memoir that tended almost entirely toward tragedy. Zack’s researchers at the field office had been able to fill in most of the pages.

Katie had been orphaned at the age of 4 when her parents had been killed in a car accident. No other family to speak of, she’d ended up in the system, bouncing from foster home to foster home, never quite finding the right fit. But at the age of 10, that had changed for her; she had been taken in by an older couple who’d raised dozens of foster kids. Dr. Lawrence Pinter, a retired engineer and scientist who spent his time collecting and repairing antique crystal radios in the basement of his rural home, aided by his wife, Martha Pinter, who had been a kindergarten teacher at the local public school. Good people, who’d never been able to have children of their own.

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But there was no happily ever after. Six months after taking Katie in, Martha Pinter died of a heart attack, and things went quickly south. Dr. Pinter began to have episodes of what would later be described as dementia. Local police were called a half dozen times, finding him wandering in the neighbors’ yards, or stumbling along the side of a nearby highway. Child services began to get involved. Then one morning, Dr. Pinter was picked up on a freezing winter day, in a field 2 miles from his home, half-dead from hypothermia. A judge decreed that he needed to become a ward of the state. Katie was going to have to be moved again, placed with a new family.

And that’s when the next tragedy struck. When child services arrived at the Pinter home to pick up Katie, they found the house engulfed in flames.

Zack had read through the file from the Fitchburg Fire Department, which had been called in when the fire had grown too large for the local crew. According to forensics, the fire had started in the old man’s workshop; apparently, a crystalized stone called pyrite, used in the workings of the doctor’s antique radios, had set off the blaze. It turned out pyrite could be highly flammable, under the right circumstances.

At the time, it was never clear what happened to the girl, whether Katie had died in the fire or run away as the flames swallowed up the house. At first, she’d been listed as a missing person, but as time passed and no sign of her materialized, she’d been forgotten, like the hundreds of other untethered kids her age who disappear every year. Technically, her file was still open, but nobody had been looking for Katie for a long, long time.

Hailey Gordon’s file, at least the one kept at the admissions office of MIT, where she’d attended undergrad and was now a graduate student, was much more pleasant reading. She had written her own story there, and it was a good one. Zack had always enjoyed fiction over nonfiction. In fiction, the story went wherever the author chose to take it.

A con artist of a familiar kind, yes, but Hailey Gordon was also plainly a genius. Faking an identity, let alone a high school record, good enough to get her into MIT was a feat in itself; succeeding at such an elite university, and surviving this long on her own, was even more impressive. According to the roommate, Hailey had usually paid her rent and bills in cash, and though she was often late, she had never missed two months in a row.

Card counting, odd jobs, petty schemes, however Hailey had done it, she’d managed pretty well. She’d focused on her studies, stayed under the radar — until now.

If Zack had to guess, she’d stumbled into this murderous mess by accident; but since she hadn’t come home to the apartment or shown up to her classes that morning, it appeared she was at least along for the ride, either under duress or as a player. Marsh’s detectives were scouring the city for Nick Patterson, the much more likely candidate for the murder itself, but it was clear from the evidence they’d already gathered that Hailey might well be a willing participant in whatever was still going forward.

Witnesses had placed Hailey with Patterson in the taxi that had taken them from the casino to the warehouse in South Boston — now, a second brutal crime scene. After a fair amount of verbal fingernail pulling over the phone, Marsh had described to Zack the open, empty crates; enough crates, of the right size and shape, to have once contained the Gardner paintings. But the crates were just crates; the bodies were something else.

According to the ME on the scene, it was certainly a double homicide, but it was unclear exactly how the two young men had died. A toxicology report would take time, and even that might not be conclusive. Zack knew there were plenty of toxins that didn’t show up on a toxicology report; chemistry was a fickle sport. A piece of crystal could power a radio, but it could also start a fire big enough to burn a house down.

Zack crossed the small bedroom, taking a pair of gloves out of his jacket pocket and slipping them on over his fingers. He unplugged Hailey’s laptop, retrieving it for the techs back at the field office, who would make short work of the device’s password protection. He’d already called them from the bedroom, bringing into play an even more sophisticated technical weapon from the FBI’s arsenal. Now that the roommate had provided Hailey’s cellphone number, they could both use it to place her location and begin the process of getting a warrant for a remote wiretap. Not only would they be able to listen in on any calls she might make, but they could also attempt a “phishing” expedition: call the phone, remotely disable the ringer and any screen indications that a call was coming in, and force a connection. Hailey’s cellphone would become a listening device, a remote bug. Zack had used the tech before to varying degrees of success. If the phone was in a coat or a purse or a deep pocket, you didn’t get much. But if you were lucky, if the phone was out in the open, it was like you were right there, along for the ride.

Heather Hopp-Bruce/Globe Staff; Adobe

Nick Patterson might have been the key to the murders, but Zack had a gut feeling that Hailey — Katie — was the key to cracking the case. As he turned to head out of the bedroom, he took a last look at that unfinished puzzle, those unblemished, unpainted puzzle pieces.

Hailey might be the key, but they’d have to move fast. From what Zack could tell, Hailey Gordon might be good at solving puzzles, but she was even better at running from them.

***

Two hundred yards away, across the sparsely filled parking lot, Patricia sat behind the steering wheel of a black Escalade. Even from that distance, she could see the FBI agent making his way through Hailey Gordon’s bedroom. Patricia knew she had only a few minutes before the agent worked himself down the three stories to the back entrance of the apartment building, then out into the parking lot where his government-plated sedan sat waiting. But Patricia was in no rush.

She turned to glance at the small, rectangular device on the empty seat next to her. The device was about the size and shape of a small toaster oven, and was connected by a twist of wires to a concave speaker she’d suction cupped to the bottom of the Escalade’s dashboard. At the moment, the sounds emerging from the speaker were mostly the rustling of material, and the rhythmic patter of shoes against carpet. No doubt, the FBI agent had put his cellphone back in his jacket pocket, which would muffle anything he might say, but, no matter — Patricia had already heard everything she needed to hear.

The IMSI-Catcher — or Stingray, as it was more commonly known — on the seat next to her was much more impressive than it looked; it could mimic a cellphone tower, forcing mobile phones within a fixed distance to connect to it, capturing audio, text, even video. Coupled with the knowledge of Zack Lindwell’s specific phone signature, Patricia had been able to use the device the same way the FBI agent hoped to use Hailey Gordon’s own phone — as a remote transmitter. Not only had Patricia been able to listen in to the agent’s conversations with the FBI field office and the state detective, but she’d been able to access the camera on the man’s phone, getting a clear view of Hailey’s bedroom.

The Stinger itself hadn’t been easy to acquire, but the family she worked for had impressive resources. Even more difficult had been working her way into the FBI field office to keep tabs on the agent in charge of the investigation; but that was a part of a much longer project, one that Patricia and the family had been engaged in for some time. The FBI had entirely taken over the Gardner theft investigation within days of the robbery back in 1990, so the family had been forced to extend its tendrils in that direction from very early on. Of course, had Bobby Donati followed the family’s orders, and taken only what he’d been paid to take, there would never have been much of an investigation, and the FBI would never have been called in. The family would have acquired what they had been seeking — what Paul Revere had crafted and hidden centuries ago — and so much could have been avoided, so many unnecessary deaths over the years. Bodies in trunks of cars, supposed heart attacks and strokes, corpses in hotel rooms and warehouses. There were more bodies tied to the Gardner heist than Zack Lindwell would ever know.

The FBI agent couldn’t be blamed for his ignorance, Patricia thought; he seemed fairly competent, actually. The fact that he had followed the trail to the girl’s apartment was a sign of outside-the-box thinking, which would undoubtedly serve better than investigating by the books. Nick Patterson was a professional thief, and was the premier link to what Patricia was seeking; but Nick Patterson was a simple cog. On his own, he would not be a threat. Left to his own devices, he would eventually slip up.

The girl was different. She was brilliant, unpredictable, a wild card. Given enough time, enough information, she might figure out what was actually going on around her — and that made her dangerous.

But Zack Lindwell and the techs at the FBI, with their remote wire-tapping, had made things much easier for Patricia. They were leading her right to Hailey Gordon.

The agent’s footsteps continued reverberating through the speaker attached to the dash, as Patricia hit the ignition button, the car’s engine rumbling to life. She had no more time to waste.

There were aspects of Hailey Gordon’s background that reminded Patricia of herself. Molded by a difficult childhood, a broken toy who had fixed herself. The girl was gifted, and she knew how to disappear. Even more unnerving, given the current situation: Hailey Gordon was the type of genius who loved nothing more than to solve a puzzle just by its shapes and pattern.