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Chapter 17: On an eagle’s wings

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 Seventeen

Adrian whirled to find himself facing a young woman with streaked blond hair and wearing a tennis skirt, standing next to a rough-looking character in denim and heavy work boots. Both of them had wild eyes, like they hadn’t slept in a while, and the man seemed more interested in the flashier items in the exhibit cases around them than the professor holding a book. But then Adrian noticed the object in the young woman’s hands, half covered by a checkered towel, and his mind went taut, like a leather strap being pulled tight.

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“The eagle,” he gasped.

The woman nodded, strands of her hair like rivulets against her cheeks. "The finial from the Gardner museum,” she started.

“No,” Adrian said, surprising himself by opening up to these utter strangers. “Paul Revere’s eagle. From the mold hidden in Hancock’s trunk. But it’s not possible. It shouldn’t exist. It wasn’t designed to exist.”

“I don’t know anything about any trunk,” the woman said. “But this is definitely an eagle made from Revere’s mold. And we know that this eagle is important.“

Adrian shook his head.

“Not the eagle,” he said. “The eagle’s wings.”

He held out his hands. The woman looked at him suspiciously, but the man next to her nodded, so she handed it across.

Adrian gingerly unwrapped the rest of the checkered towel, revealing one extended wing. He ran a finger over the curves.

The woman seemed to understand.

“The mathematical equation” she said, “is hidden in the shape of that wing, right? Very complex. An equation that seems to be immensely valuable and powerful, but it isn’t something you can readily solve — it might take you years, maybe the use of a supercomputer. And even then, it might not be possible. Certainly, the man who crafted the eagle from Revere’s mold didn’t know how to solve it, but I think the solution has something to do with that book you’re holding.”

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Adrian shook his head.

“The solution isn’t written in a book. This wing is hiding an equation for a pattern of sound waves. A tone, made by the ringing of a bell.”

The woman opened her eyes wide. But then she nodded, impressed.

“Sound waves. The curves of the eagle’s wing represent precise sound waves. It’s theoretically possible. Sound waves can affect materials at a molecular level. Everyone knows the right frequency of sound can shatter glass. But using sound for something like this, to generate the perfectly precise tone to transform molecules — that would be one hell of a bell.”

The man next to the woman finally spoke, pointing at the necklace in the case in front of Adrian.

“Like that bell?”

Adrian looked down, realizing that the gold-looking ornament on the end of the necklace was indeed a small bell, about twice the size of an acorn. He shook his head, annoyed.

“Don’t be foolish. That bell is a trinket. Revere originally made it for a child’s doll house, then put it on a necklace.”

“Well, then which bell?” the man grunted.

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Adrian ignored him, speaking to the woman, who at least showed an appreciable level of intelligence.

“At first, I thought it was the bell in King’s Chapel. An easy mistake to make. Popular knowledge would have it that the King’s Chapel bell, delivered two years before Revere’s death, was his last. But I should have known better. Popular knowledge is an oxymoron. People, on the whole, are usually wrong about most things.”

The two strangers looked at Adrian with a shared expression he’d seen before on the faces of many of his colleagues and students, but he couldn’t have cared less. Because, having seen the last page of Revere’s Book of Bells, he now knew he was right. The textbooks, the tourist pamphlets, the popular conception were all wrong.

“In the later years of Revere’s life,” Adrian continued, now in full lecture mode, “he’d become obsessed with making bells. Over the course of a decade, he cast over 300 of them. Now we know why. He was chasing a ridiculous fantasy.”

“Alchemy,” the girl said.

Adrian noticed that the man had reached past him into the display case, and had deftly palmed the necklace with the gold-looking bell. But the woman slapped the man’s hand, then took it from him, as if planning to return it to the case. No doubt, she was the brains of the pair.

“Alchemy,” Adrian repeated. “Sorcery, magic, whatever you want to call it.”

“And the key to it was a precise tone emitted by a perfectly crafted bell,” the girl said.

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“A colleague of mine found evidence to suggest that Revere believed he had succeeded,” Adrian said. “He’d followed the blueprint that he’d hidden in the wing of the eagle, and crafted the solution — his very last bell.”

Adrian handed the eagle back to the woman, then opened the Book of Bells to the last page.

“After the King’s Chapel bell, he made one more. It was actually a replacement. In 1798, Revere had made a 242-pound bell for the greatest warship of the fledgling republic. But it had been shot off the boat’s deck during a naval battle, at the height of the War of 1812. While the ship was being refitted in Boston, a few years later, in the calm of night, Revere delivered a second bell. His last, crafted right before his death.”

The woman digested his words, her eyes growing wider.

“You’re talking about the USS Constitution. The tall ship, parked in Charlestown. Old Ironsides.”

“It was called that because of Paul Revere. It was Revere’s factories that plated the sides and bottom of the boat with sheets of copper. When the boat was struck by cannon fire during the war and survived, it was named Old Ironsides.”

“So this last bell is on the Constitution?” the man said, “Why would Revere put it there?

Adrian chose his most dismissive tone.

“The Constitution is basically a floating museum today, but at the time it was one of the most powerful ships in the world, certainly the most formidable in the Americas. It had just returned from numerous victories at sea. It was considered unsinkable. At the time, oceans were dangerous. There were pirates, enemy nations, storms. If Revere had wanted to transport something he imagined to be valuable — so valuable, that the British had essentially started the Revolutionary War over it, if my colleague’s theories are correct — how do you think he’d do it? He’d put it on the most powerful boat of his era. But not out in the open, where it could be shot off again. He’d have hidden it there.”

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“So he put this bell on the Constitution,” the woman said. “And then he died. You think it might still be there? Today?”

Adrian looked back at the book, his mind whirling. It was ridiculous, fantasy. None of it seemed true or possible. But he finally shrugged.

“If Revere’s bell actually is still on the Constitution, I know where you’d find it.”

He held the book up toward them, showing them the last page.

“It’s right in the name.”

Revere’s handwriting was lavish and in script, but readable: La Cloche Sous L’aigle

“What does that mean?” the man asked.

Adrian didn’t feel a need to respond. He could tell that the girl understood. And she was about to answer for him, when suddenly there was a loud hiss, and something whipped through the air, hitting the man next to her in his right shoulder, spinning him around. There was a spray of bright red blood, and then another hiss — and the display case behind Adrian exploded in a rain of glass.