fb-pixel

Chapter 20: Eagle of the Seas

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 Twenty

Slowly, foot by foot, Hailey clambered down the stern of the boat, using the toes of her tennis shoes to find purchase in the small gaps between the planks of the ship’s hull. She could hear the water lapping at the waterline beneath her, and the grunt of Nick belaying her from above — but she was focused directly ahead, to the ornate fixture now just a few yards below.

Advertisement



“Be careful,” Nick hissed, from above. “And hurry. This is one big, damn boat, and we’re not going to be alone on it for very long.”

Hailey worked the muscles of her arms and legs, her hands white against the rope, lowering herself, closer and closer.

“We may not be alone as it is,” she whispered back toward him, as she worked. “There’s a story that a ghost lives on board: a 19th-century sailor by the name of Neil Harvey. Supposedly, he’d fallen asleep during his watch. The captain had him stabbed in the stomach, then tied him over one of those cannons. Blew him into tiny pieces. Now he haunts the decks.”

“Really encouraging,” Nick hissed back. “You should hire yourself out to kids’ birthday parties.”

Hailey smiled, as she descended the last few feet, and then her focus was entirely on the white, ornate object affixed to the stern. Up close the thing was huge, much bigger than it looked from the water below. Painted in glistening white, with a bright red eye, and a shield across its chest, red and white stripes beneath 13 little stars. A Revolutionary era American flag, on a Revolutionary era symbol — a great eagle, wings unfurled, affixed to the stern of the greatest warship of the time.

Advertisement



Hailey ran her eyes over the eagle’s wings. She knew it wasn’t part of the original construction of the ship; like the rest of the USS Constitution, this part of the hull had been retrofitted many times. This particular wooden decoration dated back to 1907. But the ship’s relationship to the powerful symbol went back much further than that. In fact, the USS Constitution’s first nickname had not been “Old Ironsides.” Before that, it had been known by another name.

“The eagle of the seas,” Hailey whispered to herself.

Before this eagle had been affixed to the Constitution, there had to have been earlier versions, Hailey felt sure. Maybe dating all the way back to Revere. He had, after all, made the copper that lined part of the bottom and sides of the ship, as well as many screws and bolts and wedges used throughout. He’d also made the giant bell that had once stood on its deck, before the bell was shot to pieces by a British frigate.

Heather Hopp-Bruce and Craig F. Walker/Globe staff

And maybe he’d crafted one final item, placed it aboard as well, somewhere only he — and whoever he meant to send it to — would find it.

Hailey pulled the tomahawk out from her waistband and jammed the edge of the axe blade between one of the eagle’s wings and the planks of the stern.

Advertisement



“La cloche sous l’aigle,” she whispered. The bell beneath the eagle. She wasn’t fluent, but she recognized enough words to make the translation. If the professor who had saved her in the museum was right, this was the place to look.

She braced herself with the rope in one hand, then put all her weight behind the tomahawk. There was a groan from the wood of the ornate eagle and then an edge started to come loose. Hailey leaned farther back — Nick grimacing at the added strain on the rope — and the edge shifted a little more, there was light crackling sound, and then the wing pried loose from the stern. The rest of the eagle was still affixed, but Hailey was able to reach behind the wing, to the boards beneath.

They were smooth and strong, but Hailey was determined. She lifted the tomahawk above her head, took a breath, and then swung it forward, hitting the wood with the sharp edge of the blade. Wood splintered around her, but she kept swinging. In a matter of minutes, she was through the first board, and then into another, deeper into the frame behind the ornate stern. Two more swings and she heard the distinct clang of metal against metal.

She put the tomahawk back in her waistband, then leaned forward, gripping the rope with just her legs, and reached in with both hands. She didn’t know what she expected to feel — the smooth curve of an enormous bell hidden in the wooden frame? — but she was shocked to find, instead, something much smaller. There appeared to be a carved out hiding place in the wood — and in that space, a metal box. Too small for the bell, Hailey realized, but she grabbed it anyway and pulled it free.

Advertisement



The box glinted in the moonlight, and Hailey realized with a start that it was made of what appeared to be solid gold.

“What is it?” Nick hissed, from above. She could see that he was leaning over the edge, holding the rope, staring down at her.

She shook her head. She wasn’t sure. But she needed to find out.

“Pull me up,” she hissed.

***

Minutes later she was topside next to Nick. He was still holding the bronze eagle, and they were both breathing hard, but Hailey’s mind was entirely focused on the gold box on the deck between them. Before either of them could speak, Hailey dropped to one knee. The box had a clasp, but no lock; she wouldn’t need the tomahawk this time.

With trembling fingers, she undid the clasp and opened the box.

Inside there was a small bit of yellowed paper, very old. Written across the paper were words in sweeping cursive, by the hand of someone who had died very long ago.

“What does it say?” Nick asked.

Hailey read the words with difficulty.

“From the bell that made the box.”

Advertisement



Her heart was pounding in her chest. From the bell that made the box. The golden box. Hailey was about to read the words out loud again, when she noticed that there was something else in the box, beneath the paper. She carefully moved it aside and saw a piece of narrow metal, carved and polished, longer than her hand and wrist. The shape seemed vaguely familiar.

“I think it’s a clapper,” she whispered. “Or part of a clapper. From a bell. A very big bell.”

“There’s something written on it,” Nick said.

Hailey realized he was right. There were words inscribed along the edge of the clapper. She had to squint to make them out.

Proclaim Liberty

Hailey stared at the words. It took a moment, but then she recognized them.

“What does it mean?” Nick asked.

“It’s part of a longer inscription. ‘Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All The Inhabitants Thereof.’”

She shook her head, her mind whirling. Was it possible?

“Nick, this clapper, I don’t know how but I think it’s from the Liberty….“

She never had a chance to finish her thought. There was a flash of motion from behind her and then something hit Nick from the side, yanking the bronze eagle out of his grip and toppling him backward onto the deck. He landed, sprawling, next to the coil of rigging rope as his head hit the heavy copper tying post with a terrifying crack.

Hailey leapt to her feet, trying to pull the tomahawk out from her waistband, but the woman with the pitch black hair was too fast. Her foot, still in heels, came up and the tomahawk spun away, harmlessly. Hailey took a frightened step back, and felt cold iron against the small of her back. She glanced back and saw the curved base of one of the heavy black cannons, its barrel pointed out toward the ocean. Then she turned forward again, to see the woman facing her, just a few feet away, the eagle in her left hand. Her right hand, still at her side, held the gun.

The woman looked at Hailey, then at the golden box on the deck between them.

“You’ve got what you want,” Hailey said. “Let us go.”

The woman’s expression changed, just a fraction. Hailey had never read a face so cold, so controlled, so practiced. There was pity there, but overwhelmed by something else: a sense of mission.

“Unfortunately,” the woman said. “That’s not how this works.”

She raised the gun. Hailey pressed back against the iron of the cannon, felt the wheels beneath its frame give a little, but she knew there was no time to do anything, nowhere to run. She thought about closing her eyes, but decided she needed to keep them open.

Then, out of the corner of her eye she saw the slightest rush of movement, then something flashed in the darkness.

A bullet hit the woman with the dark hair just below her ribs. Her gun spun out of her hand and she crumpled forward, clutching at the wound. A man rushed forward from the direction of the bow of the ship. He had his own gun drawn, and was flashing a badge with his other hand.

“Zack Lindwell,” he shouted, “FBI.”

He kept the gun trained on the woman, who was still barely on her feet, but hunched all the way forward, almost to the deck. Then Zack turned toward Hailey.

“You OK?“ he started, but he never finished the question.

In a flash of motion so fast Hailey couldn’t digest what she was seeing until after it had happened, the woman with the dark hair leapt forward, holding something she’d slipped out of the heel of her right shoe. Before Zack could react, she’d jammed the thing into his extended arm, and, in an instant, his entire body contorted. The gun fell from his fingers and he collapsed onto the deck. He rolled onto his back, trying to regain control of his limbs, but then every part of him went rigid, like his muscles were turning to bone.

The woman stepped back, kicking off her other shoe so that she was now barefoot, still pressing the gunshot wound beneath her ribs with one hand. The bronze eagle, now flecked in her blood, was still tight in the other. She turned toward Hailey, took a step forward. Hailey stumbled backward, felt the cannon again but then noticed something else. The base of the cannon wasn’t as smooth and curved as she’d thought. She reached back, touched it with her hand. There was an opening near the top of the cannon that shouldn’t have been there.

Heather Hopp-Bruce and David L Ryan/Globe staff/David L Ryan, Globe Staff

A gasp emerged from the stiffening FBI agent on the ground.

“What did you do to him?” Hailey asked.

As the woman glanced toward Zack, prone against the deck, Hailey reached behind herself and grabbed the cannon with both hands, then pulled as hard as she could, spinning the enormous thing around on its wheeled frame. When she looked up, the barrel was aimed directly at the woman, who was staring at her, a mixture of shock and amusement on her face.

Hailey glanced down at the cannon. As she’d felt, there was an opening in the iron where the back of the tube had been shorn off and replaced. From within the opening, Hailey caught the faint scent of packed powder.

As the woman watched, amused, Hailey drew something from a pocket in her skirt. It was the necklace that Nick had tried to take from the display case in the Tea Party Museum. Hailey had grabbed from him, meaning to return it to the case. Whatever else she was, she wasn’t a thief. She was a mathematician, a card counter. And just maybe, a mechanic.

She took the little bell that flashed like gold at the end of the necklace in her hand, and held it over the opening of the cannon.

The woman with the dark hair smiled, the blood from the wound beneath her ribs seeping through her fingers

“It’s not a real cannon,” she said. “None of this is real. It’s history. It’s an illusion. And Katie — even if it was real, you can’t get fire from gold.”

Hailey smiled back at her.

“My name’s not Katie. And this isn’t gold. It’s pyrite. Fire is right in the name.”

With a flick of her fingernail she shaved a tiny segment of the pyrite from the miniature bell. The second the flake touched air, the oxygen reacted with the iron sulfide in the pyrite and a tiny ember fluttered down into the opening in the cannon.

The woman with the dark hair had barely enough time to widen her cat-like eyes before the packed charge within the refitted cannon ignited, the. 40 caliber signaling-shell exploding through the barrel with immense force. The blast from the cannon hit the woman direct center, the cone of fire from the signaling-shell mangling the bronze eagle and crashing into the woman’s chest like a balled fist. She staggered backward, screaming, flames leaping from her clothes. Then she reached the opening in the railing behind her and toppled backward plummeting to the water below.

***

Hailey’s ears were ringing as she rushed toward the two men lying on the deck. Nick was stirring, rubbing at his head where it had hit the copper tying post. She went to him first, helping him up to a sitting position, checking his eyes, the wound on his head. He looked reasonably lucid, so Hailey turned quickly to the other man. He was in much worse shape. The FBI agent’s eyes were wide open, staring straight upward. His arms and legs were rigid, and his chest was barely moving as he struggled to breathe. His lips opened, as he if he was trying to speak.

Hailey heard sirens coming from somewhere beyond the pier, and she knew help would be there soon, but she doubted soon enough. She needed to help this man, but she didn’t know how. The woman had stuck him with something, some sort of syringe. Hailey looked past Nick, to where the woman had been standing just moments ago and saw one of the woman’s high heels lying on its side, close to the break in the railing where she’d gone over into the water.

Hailey ran to the shoe. She grabbed it with both hands, flipped it over. Beneath the heel, she saw a little compartment — and a second syringe. There was no way to know for sure, but, Hailey thought to herself, if you were in the business of poisoning people, you were likely to carry an antidote.

She grabbed the syringe and rushed back to the prone FBI agent. Then she unrolled one of his sleeves.

“You’re going to be OK,” she said, praying it was true.

She jammed the needle into his arm.

A long few seconds passed, the sirens from the pier growing louder. Behind Hailey, Nick was trying to sit up, now, looking her way. But Hailey was watching the FBI agent. His gaze had suddenly shifted, the stiffness of his cheeks loosening. He looked back at her, his mouth finally moving.

“The paintings,” he started.

Hailey shook her head.

“Never saw any paintings. Had the eagle for a while, but that’s gone now. Maybe you can fish it out of the water, with whatever is left of that woman.”

She stood, then looked toward Nick. There was still blood running from his scalp and the wound in his shoulder, but he was smiling at her, and she smiled back. She knew he could hear the sirens too, but he made no move to rise. He seemed resigned to the moment. Maybe they’d take him back to jail, maybe they’d let him go. Heck, maybe they’d give him a piece of that reward, for getting so close. A part of her wanted to go to him, again, be by his side for whatever happened next. But she pushed the thought down, into the protective cage she’d built up over her years as a runaway, the cage where she kept most of her feelings.

“It’s been fun,” she said, toward him. “But I think this is where we go our separate ways — at least for a while.”

The last part was hard to say, but there wasn’t much a of a choice. That woman, the killer with the sable hair, had known Hailey’s real name, which meant the FBI assuredly had figured out who Hailey was as well. Her carefully crafted house of cards had fallen down, which meant it was time to pack it up and start over.

Being Katie again wasn’t an option. Katie was nobody; scared, broken, alone.

Hailey pulled away from Nick, and started toward the rigging that would lead her back down to the skiff, intending to get as far away from all of this as she could.

“Hailey.”

It wasn’t Nick calling to her, it was the FBI agent, Lindwell, behind her on the deck. She turned slightly, to see that he was now holding the golden box, containing the strange clapper. “You don’t have to keep running.”

Hailey looked at him. The FBI agent didn’t understand. It went against every grain in her being, standing still. It was something every good card counter knew: When the cards got cold, you got up from the table.

But for the briefest of seconds, she didn’t take that next step. And it wasn’t the FBI agent she was now looking at, it wasn’t just Nick again — it was that gold box, that clapper.

A clapper, Hailey believed, made for the most famous bell in the world.

Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All The Inhabitants Thereof. Hailey had recognized the inscription immediately. It was carved into the bronze of the Liberty Bell, the ultimate symbol of American independence.

It seemed insane, impossible, but the math was leading Hailey to one conclusion:

The Liberty Bell wasn’t just the most famous bell in the world. It was quite possibly the most powerful object in existence. A bell designed by Paul Revere to produce a tone that could, for a start, transform lead into gold.

No matter how badly Hailey wanted to turn and keep running, she stood there, on the deck of that famous, aging ship, and listened as the sirens grew louder and louder, melding together into one insistent note, sounding almost like the peal of that distant bell…