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Chapter 19: Role of a Lifetime

Heather Hopp-Bruce and Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

“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 Nineteen

Less than one hour later, on the opposite flank of Boston’s inner harbor, it took all of Hailey’s strength and a good bit of leverage to pull Nick the last few feet up the side of the massive, slowly rocking hull of a much bigger, much different ship. Even with the help of the ropes and rigging that dripped like ivy down the side of the great, floating piece of history, it had been an ordeal working her own way up from the skiff, parked in the water some 40 feet below. She could only imagine how difficult it had been for Nick, with only one good arm and a fair bit of blood still drenching his shirt and the makeshift bandage they had made from the checkered towel that had once covered the diary of the French bronzier Thomire.

With one last gasp of energy, Hailey leaned back and heaved the big man over the railing. Then she collapsed back against the polished deck, breathing hard, next to the eagle, which she’d placed on the deck before helping Nick. It was dark out, somewhere between 2 and 3 in the morning, but between the moon and the lights from the pier on the other side of the ship, it was easy to see the details. And even from flat on her back the details were beyond magnificent.

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The USS Constitution was nothing like the reconstructed trading vessel Hailey had leapt from that short hour ago. Stem to stern, the massive Revolutionary warship was more than three times as long, and though the Constitution had been refitted and restored dozens of times over the centuries, it was still a working vessel, the oldest commissioned ship in the US Navy. Normally, a crew of more than 60 serves on it, though in Revolutionary times, it carried as many as 500.

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Thankfully, at the moment it appeared to be only Hailey and Nick on board. Research on her phone, which had been safely tucked in her purse on the skiff, had given Hailey the good news that the Constitution was in the midst of a monthlong retrofitting, and would be docked in its bay by Building 22 in the Charlestown Navy Yard until it was deemed seaworthy again. Approaching from the water, they’d been able to avoid the guard station on the pier and had made it to the ship’s waterline without much trouble.

Before they’d begun the climb up, Nick had tried to talk Hailey out of the endeavor. She’d been relieved to find him at the skiff after she’d made her escape from the killer with the dark hair — and had even grabbed him in an embrace that had surprised both of them — but she was amazed he’d had enough energy to argue with her about the risks they were taking. The woman was still out there, and she’d potentially heard enough to figure out where they’d been heading. Nick had agreed with Hailey when she’d decided to reach out to law enforcement — first, through her roommate, who had told her about the investigators who had been at her apartment, and then leaving a message for the FBI agent who had given her roommate his card — and he felt there was no reason for them to risk their lives again trying to find something that probably didn’t exist, or was lost to centuries of history.

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But Hailey was determined to see this through to the end. It wasn’t just about money anymore; she was no longer simply chasing some big score. Now, it was the math. It reminded her of when she’d first learned to count cards; it was this magical power she’d suddenly acquired, this secret world she’d never known existed before. And here, too, the skill at cards that had brought her to the casino, had also opened a door to a role in recovering something that shouldn’t have existed: something of incredible power. Paul Revere’s bell, his alchemical Philosopher’s Stone — a bell that emitted a tone that could transform lead into gold. Hailey had to see this through.

And so here she was, on her back on the deck of the USS Constitution, on the verge of what could be a history-changing discovery, a feat that made card counting look like a petty child’s trick.

She rose from the deck, scooping the eagle under one arm. She’d actually been on the Constitution before, during freshman year at MIT, at one of those social mixers she’d been unable to avoid. Back then, so early in her grift and her carefully layered new identity, she’d still been concerned about appearances.

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A glance ahead told her Nick’s piloting of the skiff had been on target; they were very near the stern of the ship. The three masts rose up behind her to dizzying heights — the main mast, to 175 feet — but ahead the deck sloped only slightly upward, ending in a railing that seemed part of the current refitting. Planks from the railing had been removed, beyond which Hailey could see the water, a good 40-foot drop below.

She started forward toward that gap in the railing. Nick followed, his head swiveling to take in the ornate woodworking on either side, the elegance and precision of the ship around them. Usually, visitors to the Constitution started in the museum dedicated to the ship on the pier, learning how it had been built in 1794 in a shipyard in the North End — just blocks from Paul Revere’s home — and launched in 1797. How the ship had bested numerous pirates off the Barbary Coast, before it had made its name in the great battles of the Naval War of 1812.

Almost at the stern and the break in the railing, Hailey noticed that a row of three of the ship’s cannons had been moved up onto the deck from the cannon room below; probably part of the retrofitting, they were huge beasts, squat and heavy in the darkness. All three were on wheeled frames, their barrels facing out toward the ocean. Nick was now eyeing the cannons as well.

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“Fake, I assume?” he said. “Nobody’s going to use them to sink our skiff on our way out of here, if we manage to find this bell?”

“The whole ship has been refitted and restored numerous times over the years. The cannons too. Most were recast, iron dummies, not meant to be used. But a couple are active. They don’t fire cannon balls. They’ve been hollowed out and retrofitted as .40 mm saluting guns. Packed with gunpowder and saluting shells. They make quite a blast. They fire them twice a day when this thing is up and running.”

Nick raised an eyebrow, more at her encyclopedic memory than the mean-looking cannons. But she ignored him, because she was already at the break in the railing. She paused, scanning the deck around her, looking for something she could use. Luckily, one was never far from rope on the deck of a ship.

She skirted over to a coil resting by the base of what appeared to be a heavy copper tying post. She grabbed a heavy length of the rope and used her weight to drag it back to the break in the railing.

“Hailey, is this really a good idea?”

Hailey handed Nick the eagle. Then she looked around herself again.

“I’m going to need some sort of tool, to pry it loose.”

She looked left and right, but there was nothing within range. Then Hailey noticed that Nick had pulled something out from the waistband of his jeans. He held it toward her.

It was a tomahawk.

“I couldn’t help myself,” he said. “Hey, you were fine with selling the stolen Gardner paintings. What’s the difference?”

“There’s a big difference between making money off of something that’s already stolen, and stealing it yourself. It’s what separates a card counter from a cheat.”

Nick rolled his eyes as Hailey grabbed the tomahawk from him. She slid it into the waistband of her skirt, then took the end of the rope in both hands. Nick moved further down the line, dropping to his knees on the deck and gathering rope into his own hands.

“Will you be able to handle my weight?” Hailey asked.

“You just hang onto your end. It’s a long drop down.”

Hailey turned, and looked over the ledge. He was right, the water would feel a little like concrete if she fell from that height. But she didn’t intend to go all the way to the water. Her gaze focused on a ridge about halfway down the stern, where something wooden and white and ornate had been affixed to the hull.

She clutched the rope with both hands, then climbed over the break in the railing and began her descent.