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Chapter 15: ‘This one’s gonna hurt’

Heather Hopp-Bruce/Globe Staff; Adobe; Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 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 Fifteen

“Look out. This one’s gonna hurt.”

Nick Patterson braced himself against the low bench that took up most of the aft section of the arrow-shaped skiff, twisting the throttle forward as hard as he could. His other hand was white against the rudder controls, keeping the bow of the little boat aimed directly at the peak of the wave that had suddenly sprung up in front of them, probably churned up by one of the big cargo boats farther out in the harbor.

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The motor behind him groaned as the front of the boat hit the wave. Nick felt himself lifted into the air, a spray of salt water drenching his face, but he held on tight to the controls. Then the boat slammed back down with a wicked thud, eliciting a loud yelp from his only passenger.

“If we end up in the water,” Hailey shouted at him from the front of the boat, “I’m going to sink like a stone. Didn’t I tell you I never got around to learning how to swim?”

Nick stifled a grin as they hit the next wave, thankfully smaller than the first. He’d grown to like this strange young woman, even as he wondered why she was willing to be part of his dangerous game. He pushed the rudder slightly to the left, steering from memory. It was getting darker by the minute. The moon was high in the sky, which was just cloudy enough to cast the harbor in a thick envelope of gray on gray. Still, Nick didn’t need much light to know where he was going. He’d spent his teens and 20s mucking about the docks and piers that jutted out from the decrepit warehouses and cargo depots that spotted this section of the harbor.

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Grabbing the skiff had been a last-minute tactical pivot. After the shock at the warehouse, and the strange transaction by the trunk of Gail’s car, he and Hailey had planted themselves in the back corner of a quiet bar six blocks away, figuring it was better to wait for nightfall before they made their next move. By the time the sun had gone down and the bar had started to fill up with locals, they’d figured out their next destination — well, Hailey had figured it out, because now it was Nick who increasingly seemed to be along for the ride — and they’d headed to the water taxi terminal at Marine Industrial Park. But even from a block away, it hadn’t been difficult for Nick to spot the plainclothes officers milling about the front entrance to the terminal; you didn’t need to be an ex-con to notice a pair of well-built men with shoulder holsters beneath their jackets. Feds, local PD, transit authority, it didn’t matter. Nick knew from experience, once that APB went out, it was, for cops, pinata without the blindfolds, and everybody got a chance with the bat.

Which meant that public transportation of any sort was out of the question. A taxi or Uber wasn’t a much better choice; taxi dispatchers would have been warned to look out for people fitting their descriptions, and an Uber left too big an online trail to follow. Who knew what sort of technical tricks the FBI was capable of?

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They’d resolved to go on foot, and they’d made it two blocks from the water taxi terminal when Nick had noticed the small, floating dock running behind a fenced-in yard full of shipping containers. Tied to the dock were a pair of single motor skiffs.

“You know how to drive one of those?” Hailey had asked.

“It’s pilot, not drive, and it isn’t that complicated. One of those levers steers, the other makes it go. If there’s gas in the tank, it will get us there.”

He’d made short work of the lock in the chain-link fence, and took even less time to hot wire the skiff’s ignition. A quick glance at the maps on Hailey’s phone, and he’d had the course charted in his memory.

Now, 20 minutes later, they were circumnavigating the edge of the city, staying as close to land as possible to avoid the bigger boats out in the harbor while staying far enough from the docks to keep themselves shrouded in that enveloping gray. Despite the circumstances, Nick had to admit that he was enjoying himself. The spray of water felt good against his skin, and there was just the littlest bit of hope still smoldering inside of him — not the conflagration he’d felt when he’d come so close to the biggest score of his life — but something.

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Was part of that hope invested in her? He looked at Hailey in the front of the boat, huddled forward; he could clearly make out the bulky shape on her lap, the object from Gail’s trunk, wrapped in a checkered towel. The towel had been in the trunk as well; god only knew how long that thing had been bundled up that way. Years, maybe decades. As Hailey shifted against the deck, a section of the towel moved as well, revealing a glimmering hint of what was beneath. Even in the dull moonlight, it shined like gold.

Except it wasn’t gold, it was bronze, gilded and shaped over 200 years ago.

“The eagle,” Nick had exclaimed, when Gail had first opened that trunk. “The finial, from the top of one of Napoleon’s flags. This is it? Donati was only supposed to steal the gold eagle?”

“It’s not gold,” Gail had responded. “And yes, he’d been paid — an insane amount of money, actually — to steal that damn eagle.”

Hailey had lifted the object out of the trunk. It was about 10 inches tall, and about half again as wide, wing tip to wing tip. Weighed a few pounds. Bronze, not gold, so it couldn’t be worth much beyond the historical value. Not the kind of money you risked your life or freedom for. Or killed for.

It was then, while Hailey had been running her fingers over the wave-like curves of the eagle’s wings, that Nick had noticed the other object in Gail’s trunk, wrapped in a smaller, similarly checkered towel. Gail had shrugged at him.

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“And that’s the second thing Donati was paid to steal.”

“I thought Donati never took the second job. I thought he ended up in the trunk of his car.”

Gail nodded again.

“He didn’t do the second job. My father did. After Bobby was murdered, my father couldn’t help himself. Donati had told him the details, and he was curious. So one night, he went ahead. It wasn’t difficult. It wasn’t an art museum. But it was a museum, of sorts. In a house. The oldest one in Boston, in the North End. 19 North Square. The house is still there.”

Hailey had looked up for the first time from the eagle in her hands.

“Your father robbed Paul Revere’s house?”

Nick had thought the address had sounded familiar. Growing up in Boston, especially if you’d made it through middle school, some landmarks were hard to avoid.

“Not the whole house. Just a basement library.”

Gail had reached into the trunk and handed Nick the second object. When Nick had unwrapped the towel, he’d found himself holding a small, yellowing book, bound in a leather cover. Opening the book, he’d seen that it was handwritten, and not in English.

“Is that French?”

But Gail had already slammed the trunk shut, heading for the driver’s side door.

“You two are on your own,” she’d said, as she’d gotten into the car. “And don’t take this the wrong way, but I hope I never see either of you again.”

Now, many hours later, Nick worked the throttle to speed the skiff around a buoy that was dancing in the waves to his left. Then he shifted his gaze from the eagle in Hailey’s lap to the antique book, still wrapped in its towel, sitting gingerly on top of Hailey’s purse on the deck next to her. Nick had assumed the French was a dead end, until a few minutes after he and Hailey had settled into the back of that bar to wait out daylight, when she’d drawn her phone out of her purse. Hailey couldn’t read French, but she had an app on her phone that could.

“A lot of the greatest mathematicians are from overseas,” she’d explained. “Most of the time I’m translating Russian papers with this, but it can handle dozens of languages. Will take me a little time, though.”

Luckily, they’d had hours to kill. And it had taken Hailey only a couple chapters before she’d looked up from the phone and the book with an expression that could only be described as bewildered.

The book, she’d explained, was actually a diary, handwritten by Pierre Philippe Thomire, the French sculptor who’d made the eagle finial that had been stolen from the Gardner museum. Thomire had been one of the most prominent bronziers of his era, had even made some items for Marie Antoinette’s famous salon. But the diary had not been written in Paris, where he ran a workshop so big he employed hundreds. The diary had been written here, in Boston, during a short sabbatical Thomire had taken after his 63rd birthday.

“It was the summer of 1814,” Hailey had continued, in the corner of the bar. “The same year the finial was made.”

According to the diary, Thomire had come to Boston to spend a week in the workshop of the most famous metal worker in the fledgling American republic.

“Paul Revere. And this is where it really gets strange.”

According to Thomire’s diary, he hadn’t visited Revere simply because Revere was the foremost metallurgist in the country — the only person in the Americas who had figured out how to work with sheets of copper, and the top expert on bronze and engraving — but because Thomire and Revere shared another passion.

“Monde Secret de l’Alchimie’,” Hailey read, from the diary. “If the translation software is working correctly, he’s talking about alchemy.”

Nick was pretty sure he’d heard the word before.

“Like, turning lead into gold.”

Hailey had shrugged.

“It’s a strange, cultish endeavor that goes back thousands of years. When I first got interested in science, I read about it pretty extensively. My foster dad at the time was into antique technology — mostly old crystal radios — but he had many books in his library, on all sorts of areas of pre-modern science. Alchemy is way older than radios. It began in ancient Egypt but has been practiced throughout time. A handful of famous scientists in history were secret alchemists. Newton was perhaps the best known. But there were many others.”

“Hailey…“

“Yes, I know. But stick with me. You’re right, at its most basic, alchemy is about changing lead into gold. But it’s much bigger than that. Alchemists believed that once you had the power to transform one metal to another, you had the secret to dominance over the material world. It was considered such a powerful science that alchemists were often arrested, and in medieval times, even killed. Which is why they became so secretive. Began using symbols to hide their work.“

“And Paul Revere?“

“Getting to that,” Hailey had said, as she’d moved closer to him in the bar, “Thomire had come to Boston because, according to the diary, Revere believed he had uncovered something significant. Thomire couldn’t get Revere to tell him what it was, but late one night, alone in Revere’s lab, Thomire had stumbled upon a sculpting mold. Except this mold was different; it was the result of many pages — books filled with pages — of mathematical calculations. The mold had been crafted to a mathematical precision Thomire had never seen before. He felt certain it had something to do with Revere’s alchemic discovery, so he copied the mold as best he could and took the copy back with him to France.”

“The eagle,” Nick had murmured.

“The eagle as a symbol goes back a lot farther than Napoleon or the seal used by the United States,” Hailey said, recalling some of what she learned in her foster father’s library. "Even farther than the Roman legions, who carried it on their own flags as a sign of their empire. Alchemists had been using a double-headed eagle as one of their prime, hidden symbols since before medieval times. That’s the real reason you see it as one of the symbols of Freemasonry as well. Many of the original Freemasons were alchemists. In the Revolutionary era — according to the books I’ve read on the subject — noted alchemists included Ben Franklin, John Hancock, so why not Paul Revere? It would make sense, considering what’s in Thomire’s diary; Revere was a metal worker by trade. A mechanic, Thomire called him.”

“So Thomire brought the mold back to France. And then he cast it, and used the design for the finial for Napoleon’s regiment.”

“Yes, but according to the diary, Revere had never meant it to be cast, because the mold wasn’t really a mold at all, it was a way of hiding a particular mathematical equation, which was supposed to lead to a mathematical solution. You see, the shape of the mold was actually an example of a branch of mathematics called algebraic topology. It’s like writing an equation, but instead of using numbers, you use shape. You know how you can use math to figure out the area inside a circle? Or how you can figure out the volume of a cylinder? This applies to more complex shapes.”

Nick was having an understandable amount of trouble keeping up. Hailey was so damn smart. Digesting all the information she’d gotten from the diary so quickly — it was boggling Nick’s mind.

“Alchemy is math, now?”

“Everything at its heart is math. Physics. Chemistry. And yes, alchemy. Take turning lead into gold. Lead is an element — you remember the periodic table? Gold is also an element. At the atomic level, they’re differentiated by three protons. Lead has three more protons than gold. To turn lead into gold, all you need to do is knock out those three protons.”

“Which is impossible.”

“Not at all. In fact, it’s been done before. Or something very close to it. Thirty years ago, scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory used a particle accelerator to blast a sample of bismuth, which is right next to lead on the periodic table. The accelerator knocked away two protons, turning the bismuth into gold. It takes an immense amount of power — nuclear fission level power — to transform metals, but it is indeed possible. Prohibitively expensive, and only on a limited scale, but yes, scientists can turn lead into gold. But I wouldn’t call a nuclear reactor the Philosopher’s Stone.”

Nick blinked, hard, but Hailey powered through.

“Harry Potter aside, it’s what the alchemists called their Holy Grail: Some sort of device or substance that could transform metals. Most alchemists described it as a rock or powder, but according to this diary, Revere believed it was a mathematical equation, not a powder. Thomire was skeptical; how could a mathematical equation turn lead into gold? Even though he’d taken the mold, cast it into this bronze eagle, he couldn’t figure out the answer. But he did find one more clue. According to the last pages of Thomire’s diary, Revere’s experiments in alchemy did not end with the eagle’s mold. There was a second part — ‘deuxième partie’ — information without which, the eagle was useless. Contained in the curves and swirls somewhere within the shape of the eagle was the mathematical equation, the blueprint, but its solution was somewhere else.”

She’d lowered her voice even more.

“Thomire believed the clue to this second part could be found in a book Revere carried with him everywhere. When Revere passed away, just a few years later, the book also ended up in the library in his house, but Thomire never made it back to the Americas to retrieve it.”

“I guess we can assume that whoever paid Donati to steal this diary hadn’t known about the second book. Or they’d have bundled that in with the order.”

Hailey had moved from the translation app on her phone to her browser. A few minutes later, she’d looked across the table at Nick.

“The second book that Thomire describes isn’t in Revere’s house anymore. It was moved two years ago. A professor in Revere studies was helping curate another tourist spot just off the Freedom Trail, and he wanted to add some of Revere’s personal belongings. Presumably, it’s still there. From the looks of this tourist spot, it wouldn’t be that difficult to get to, even for a couple of fugitives.”

“So now you’re a thief on top of being a mathematician? And nothing so far has been easy; three people are already dead because of whatever the hell this thing is.”

“A few hours ago we were sitting on a half a billion dollars in art. Now we’ve got a bronze eagle and an old book, which together, might get us enough to pay for the good lawyer we’ll need to beat a homicide rap. But if Thomire was right, if Paul Revere really was onto something with this eagle’s mold and whatever came next — you could pay for a lot of lawyers with a working Philosopher’s Stone.”

It had sounded crazy, and impossible, and dangerous. But Nick hadn’t seen how he’d had any real choice.

“So you’re saying that Paul Revere discovered a way of turning lead into gold. Using math. And that the key to this is hidden in this eagle.”

“Not just lead into gold. If he figured this out, it’s a lot bigger than that. If you can transform one metal to another, you’re talking about restructuring materials at an atomic level. From that starting point, there’s no telling what you could do. Sure, you could turn lead into gold. You could also turn it into plutonium. You could use such a technology to engineer an instant, infinite power source. Heck, alchemists believed the Philosopher’s Stone could unlock the secret of immortality. Lead into gold is just a starting place. The applications would be endless. Infinite wealth, yes, but also infinite power.”

Nick didn’t understand much of what she’d explained, but wealth and power, these were concepts he couldn’t ignore.

But alchemy? Paul Revere? Nick wasn’t an educated guy, Hailey could swim circles around him in that department.

It all seemed more like magic than science. And yet here they were.

Nick’s hand suddenly froze against the throttle and he quickly pushed down with all of his weight, lifting the motor right out of the choppy water. The skiff jerked forward as it slowed, and Hailey nearly toppled over, grasping at the eagle in her lap with both hands. She stared at Nick, surprised, but he just pointed past her, into the gray on gray ahead of them.

Something was rising up out of the darkness not a hundred yards ahead, something tall and familiar, something that appeared incredibly old. It took Nick a full moment to understand what he was looking at.

The central mast of a Revolution era sailing ship.

Nick knew from research Hailey had done on her phone, at the bar and during the short trip, that the ship in front of them was actually a meticulous recreation, from its 90-foot, ornately decorated hull to its multiple masts and rigging. But in the darkness, with only the sound of the lapping water against the skiff, Nick — though certainly no scholar or history buff — felt instantly transported back 250 years, to one of the most famous and significant moments in American history, something every school child had heard of, even a child who had later turned to crime.

Fitting, he thought to himself, as he lowered the motor carefully back into the water, piloting them the rest of the way forward.

They were already flirting with alchemy.

They might as well add time travel.