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Chapter 16: The Book of Bells

Heather Hopp-Bruce/Globe Staff; 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 Sixteen

Professor Adrian Jenson’s cycling shoes clicked against the wooden planks of an 18th- century wharf as he hurried through the darkness, picking his way past stacks of cork-wood barrels, snake-like piles of heavy docking ropes, and spider webs of unfurled rigging. To his right, spread out beyond the wharf as far as he could see, the even darker panorama of Boston Harbor, as it might have appeared 250 years ago, marked by a distinct, if cacophonic symphony: Water crashing against great, tall ships, the caw of gulls, the odd rumble of thunder clouds gathering high above.

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Adrian’s lips turned down at the corners as he hurried his gait. He had no time for such foolishness. As good as the re-creation might be, it was all fantasy. The wharf had been constructed by professional set designers with Hollywood pedigrees. The panorama of the harbor was a projection, crafted by a cinematographer with a flair for the dramatic. The sounds were being pumped in through speakers hidden in the ceiling. It might have seemed like he was rushing through the crisp air of Dec. 16, 1773, but it was actually the second week of May, and the air was crisp because some fool had set the air conditioning much too high. The only thing linking Adrian to that fateful night — perhaps one of the most written about, taught, and referenced events in American history — was the time.

Adrian reached the end of the wharf — “Griffin’s Wharf,” the sign above a suspiciously blank and blackened section of the set proclaimed, even though Adrian was well aware the actual location of that historical spot was now filled in and paved over, at the corner of Congress and Purchase streets a few blocks away — and passed through an open doorway that led deeper into the museum. If you could call it that: From the two ships parked outside — expert re-creations of the shipping schooners Eleanor and the Beaver Brig — to the exhibits set within the sprawling complex that stretched along Congress Street, the Boston Tea Party Museum seemed more of an amusement park ride than a place you would go to study history.

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If it had been up to Adrian, he would have been in and out hours ago, right after his visit to King’s Chapel. Unfortunately, his phone call to the museum trustees had not gone as planned. Since he’d refused to give any details — how could he? — the trustees had been less than enthusiastic about his plan to rifle through one of their rotating collections. No matter that Adrian himself had curated that particular collection, two years earlier, when the trustees had finally deigned to acknowledge Paul Revere’s participation in the Tea Party, that historic act of hooliganism. Adrian suspected the trustees’ refusal to give him access had little to do with the collection, or their reverence for Paul Revere. They simply didn’t like Adrian, because he’d often told them what he thought of their institution. It reeked of whimsy. And Adrian felt almost as strongly about whimsy as he did about flights of fancy.

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On the other side of the doorway, Adrian found himself in the main section of the museum, a wide gallery filled with exhibits. There were framed documents on the walls documenting the onerous Stamp Act of 1765, which levied taxes on just about every piece of paper, from letters to playing cards, and the Townshend Act of 1767, which taxed pretty much everything else. Then a print of Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre, which followed in short order. And, after that, the declaration of the Tea Act of 1773, which most historians taught was the parliamentary outrage that led, in short course, to the Tea Party, the British overreaction, Paul Revere’s ride, and the start of the American Revolution at Lexington and Concord.

None of that was true, of course, as any of the freshman who’d remained awake through the lecture Adrian had given that very afternoon could have explained. Adrian believed the Tea Party had very little at all to do with taxation without representation. The Tea Act was not a new tax; it was a repeal of the heavy taxation inflicted on the Colonies up to that point. It was called the Tea Act because the one item exempt from the repeal was tea. But the real indignity of the Tea Act wasn’t the continuation of taxes, but that in the same stroke the British gave the foundering East India Company a total monopoly over the tea trade, indemnifying them from shipping duties. Tea itself became cheaper for the Colonies, not more expensive. But if the people of Massachusetts had no real reason to be upset by the protectionist move, one class of Bostonians became instantly incensed: the smugglers. The most prominent smugglers of the time — John Hancock and his friend Sam Adams — realized their tea business couldn’t compete with such a monopoly, and decided they needed to do something. So they turned to their colleague Paul Revere.

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It wasn’t simply out of patriotic fury that the angry townspeople gathered in the Old South Meeting house that evening to foment an act of rebellion against the crown. They were incited by Revere’s Sons of Liberty, or more accurately, his more professional cadre of clandestine operatives: his Mechanics. It was the Mechanics who provided the rabble-rousers with Native American costumes, adorning them with war paint and Mohawk feathers. It was the Mechanics who had provided the tomahawks that were used to shatter the lids of the tea crates. And it was John Hancock, the top tea smuggler in the Colonies and soon to be hero of the Revolution, who had reportedly led them from the meeting house, with the shout: “Let every man do what is right in his own eyes!”

In fact, one could argue — as Adrian often did —that the entire Revolutionary War was the result of a smuggler’s attempt to derail his competition. But Adrian’s role at the museum had been decidedly limited. He had nothing to do with the main exhibits, or the paintings on the walls of Hancock and others, or the glass case that dominated the center of the exhibit space, containing an actual crate from the Tea Party itself, rotating under elegant spotlights. The crate, one of only two that remained, had been scooped up out of the water the morning after the event by a 15-year-old kid named John Robinson, and had been handed down from generation to generation until it had been offered to the curators of the museum in 2004. Adrian wasn’t interested in crates thrown into the water in an act of corporate competition; no, his only contribution to the museum was a second, much smaller, and often ignored display case, right up against the far wall.

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Adrian made short work of the distance. This display case was waist high and only a few feet across, ending right by a door marked “staff only” that Adrian knew led to the museum’s control center — which itself, told you everything you needed to know about the place. What sort of true historical site needs a control center? What sort of academic institution needed special effects?

As he reached the case, he pulled a set of keys out from his backpack, which was still hanging from his shoulder. He wasn’t sure what had made him make copies of the keys when he’d first been brought in by the trustees to curate this addition to their exhibit room. Probably, it had simply been spite. He hadn’t been the trustees’ first choice. But Charles had been too busy to help out — busy with what Adrian now knew was his insane, secret project.

When the trustees had first informed Adrian that they’d wanted to add a case of Revere artifacts to their collection, he’d actually been in the process of helping to restore a batch of items taken from the basement of the Revere House in the North End. Of course, the Tea Party Museum had wanted Adrian to bring over dramatic memorabilia, maybe something to do with Revere’s midnight ride, or maybe a Revere-owned musket or a Revere-made cannon ball.

Adrian grinned to himself as he carefully opened the top of the display case. They hadn’t gotten muskets or cannon balls. Instead, he’d brought them a few examples of Revere’s delicate metal work; copper screws, silver plates, a few pieces of well-crafted jewelry, including a little necklace made mostly of silver, with an ornament attached to the links that shined like gold. And a stack of books, most in Revere’s own hands. Revere had been an obsessive bookkeeper, writing almost everything down. It was one of the reasons he was still so well known. Often, the most famous figures in history weren’t the most important. They were simply the ones narcissistic enough to write about themselves more than their peers, and smart enough to leave those books behind in places that were likely to still be around a couple of hundred years later.

Adrian ignored the copper, silver, and jewelry, and went right for the stack of books. It took him barely a minute to find what he was looking for: a small, leather-bound notebook, tucked between an almanac Revere had gotten as a gift from Ben Franklin and a sheaf of records from one of his foundries.

The notebook wasn’t titled, but Adrian knew it by sight. And though he’d mostly forgotten about it before that moment in the bell tower of King’s Chapel, he’d even had a pet name for the thing when he’d first delivered it to the Tea Party trustees.

Paul Revere’s Book of Bells.

Two years ago, Adrian had only leafed through the book, amazed that Revere had kept meticulous track of every bell he’d made. But now, armed with what Charles had discovered, Adrian wondered if it there were more to it than a pedantic personality. Maybe this record of Revere’s bells was actually a log of experiments, conducted over a lifetime, all aiming toward one goal: his final bell.

Adrian had never given it much thought before, accepting the common perception that the last bell Revere had made was the one hanging in King’s Chapel. He’d leafed through this book before, but had never really spent much time studying the pages. He hadn’t ever read it all the way to the end. He doubted anyone had.

Adrian opened the book, shuffling his way to the last page.

His eyes widened as he reached the final entry. My god.

Adrian was so surprised by what he read that he didn’t notice the shift in the air, or the shadows that suddenly played across the glass display, or hear the footsteps, getting closer and closer, until they were right behind him.