Two numbers come up at the same time, a twenty-one-year-old girl named Chantelle Lecuyer, originally from Montréal, now attending Columbia University, and a recently retired insurance actuary named Edith Robinson. So Finch gets to dig through all of Mrs Robinson’s insurance investigations for the last five years, and John gets Chantelle.
“She spends a lot of time online every day,” says Harold, fingers flying over the keyboard as he sets up a secure browsing profile for John. “Mostly on a social media site called Tumblr.” He pronounces it tum-bee-ell-arr. “Dig through her activity, let me know what you find.”
It quickly becomes obvious that the site is impossible to browse unless you have your own account, so John quickly knocks one together for himself. He calls it nycbirdman and smirks.
Chantelle’s user name is donttrustthebee. Her blog doesn’t have anything to do with bees. It’s mostly pictures of young, attractive actors and actresses, and the occasional long blog post about politics, but the kind that might attract hate crime rather than state or military interest – it’s mostly stuff about feminism in movies. None of it seems to be stuff she’s written herself. It all feels weirdly devoid of commentary – aren’t blogs supposed to have words on them? – until John realizes that Chantelle writes a ton of stuff in the tags, which he hadn’t been looking at and which aren’t actually that obvious, visually. With a sigh he starts again at the most recent post, paying attention to the tags this time. The comments on the politics are smart, what he understands of them; the comments on the pictures of movie stars are mostly incomprehensible and she seems to hate a lot of them. Or at least, she tags them with things like ‘HOW DARE YOU’ and ‘NO’, which maybe, John begins to think after a while, mean the opposite.
“I don’t know if I’m going to get anything from this,” John says.
“Hmm?” says Harold. “Oh, keep looking. Ms Robinson had quite the career, as it turns out. She saved her company nearly sixteen million dollars in fraud.”
John clicks back and back through the posts. He feels like he’s getting a remedial course in the last five years of pop culture. A pattern also becomes clear about Chantelle’s taste in more than movies. He raises an eyebrow at a post full of pictures of naked women tied up in arty poses.
“I think she bats for both teams.”
“The word is bisexual, Mr Reese, and unless her sexual orientation constitutes an immediate threat to her life, I’d prefer a summary when you’re finished.” Harold sounds a little snippy.
“Just giving you some background information. Edith giving you some trouble over there, Finch?”
Harold snorts. “Hardly. I already have a suspect. A rental car registered to her old firm’s major competitor has been appearing on her street on a regular schedule for the last four days. I suspect they’re watching her house.”
“You want me to get over there?”
“Not just yet.”
John keeps clicking. She also reblogs a bunch of pictures of cute animals. Some nice dogs. A bird which kind of reminds him of Harold. It’s all puffed up like Harold gets when he’s irritated.
“Hey, Finch, come and check out this interface,” he says.
“You’re more than usually determined to interrupt my thought processes today,” Harold says, but he pushes back from his desk and slides his chair over to John. He scrolls down the page, frowning, then clicks around, testing the ask box, the message function. “What the – who on earth designed this? This is appalling – what are you smiling at?”
“Here, did you check her inbox?”
John didn’t even notice that there was an inbox. Finch breaks into her account in less than thirty seconds and then scrolls through the messages, which seem to be… sexting? Is that what the kids call it? I take your nipple between my teeth and bite, just enough that you can feel it. You arch your back and moan, but I don’t stop until you beg, then I lick you better and slide my hand down between your thighs.
John actually feels his cheeks heat up, although it’s less the porn – erotica? – itself and more because Harold is reading it right there next to him, blinking rapidly, ears going pink. This particular porn has been written back and forth between Chantelle and someone called janisjoplin, who Finch identifies, after running a quick IP locator, as a twenty-five-year-old named Laura, a Columbia graduate student.
“I’ll go check her out,” John says, getting up. The library is feeling a little close, all of a sudden.
Harold clears his throat. “I’ll send Fusco to check Robinson’s watcher.”
He picks up Chantelle coming out of the 145th St subway, and tails her two blocks to a block of offices. She takes the elevator to a floor marked Dr. Sandra Wong, Psychotherapist. John sits in the waiting room and pages through Chantelle’s phone messages. She has the Tumblr app on her phone and it accounts for most of her data usage this month. There are a few texts from her father, mostly about the health of the family dog. They seem a little odd to him. Stilted. “Check the parents,” he murmurs to Finch. When the hour’s up, Chantelle doesn’t come out; John’s about to ask Finch to check whether there’s a second exit to the office – has it been knocked into the building next door? – cursing himself, when a petite woman – Asian, mid-to-late-fifties, short hair – leaves and locks the office. She looks straight at John.
“Can I help you?”
“Hi,” John says and pulls out an easy smile. “I think I’m in the wrong place.”
“Are you here for the veteran’s group? We’re in the other building today. Do you want to walk over with me?”
“Uh,” John says. “Sure.”
“I don’t know your face,” she says in the elevator. “First time at the group? Did Daniel suggest us?”
“No, one of your other patients,” John says. “Chantelle Lecuyer? I know her dad. I thought I might see her here today, actually, she said she’d meet me.”
“I’m sure you’ll find the group helpful,” Dr Wong says calmly. John is pleased by her caution. “Where did you serve?”
“Afghanistan,” John says. “Three tours.” He catches sight of Chantelle’s bag dipping below street level as she goes down into the subway. “Listen – I’m sorry. I’ve changed my mind.”
“That’s okay,” Dr Wong says. “We’re here every Monday.”
John heads for the subway.
Emerging above ground at the Lincoln Center, he and Chantelle receive a text from Dr. Wong at the exact same time: Concerning incident at office. I think a man is following you. Tall, white, blue eyes, dark hair, wearing suit. Please consider what I said and go to police. John ducks his head immediately, turns away from Chantelle so she can’t see his face. In the reflection in a storefront window, he can see her looking around wildly.
“… Mr Reese?” Harold says in his earpiece, no doubt looking at the same damn message.
“Her therapist is a careful lady,” John murmurs, impressed, albeit pretty furious with himself.
“She obviously is aware of the threat to Chantelle’s life, as is Chantelle. It seems that you’ve lost the opportunity to extract that information from her, however.”
“Seems so.” Chantelle disappears into a Hot Topic. John doesn’t try to follow her; now that she’s looking for him, he’d stick out like a sore thumb in there. “I’m beginning to think her friend Laura might be a dead end.”
“I’m inclined to agree,” Harold says. “I’ve uncovered some information about her father which may shed some light on the situation.”
Turns out, Laura has nothing to do with anything; Chantelle’s father, a small-town Canadian politician, took some money he shouldn’t have, and some guys in the pay of the former mayor of some city in Quebec (you’ve never heard of the King of Laval? I thought you were an international spy, Mr Reese) have been sending him threatening letters to get him to pay up, the most recent of which included surveillance photos of his daughter. They were taken outside her therapist’s office. It’s a quiet street, with the double entrance into the office, the two buildings knocked together. Vulnerable. She has another appointment in her calendar for the next day; John thinks he’d better show.
“Did you check up on the therapist?” John says later, around a welcome mouthful of ravioli. Chantelle is in her dorm for the night, and John hasn’t eaten since noon.
“Sandy Wong,” Harold says. “She runs a number of support groups in addition to her private patients. Including the LGBTQ veterans group on Mondays, presumably the one she mentioned to you. No, Bear. No. Your dinner is over there. We’ve talked about this.”
Bear’s attempts to share their meal distracts Harold while John wonders whether he meant anything by it, or was fishing for information, or – it’s occurred to him before, to wonder whether Harold knows that about him. He’s never mentioned it. John doesn’t think it’s in his Agency files.
Then Harold says, “Have you ever considered seeing a therapist?”
John blinks, thrown. “Why?”
Harold makes an odd gesture which John mentally translates as a shrug, even though he doesn’t move his shoulders. “It seemed to me that you might find it helpful to talk to someone.”
“I’m okay,” John says automatically.
“Your ex-partner and lover recently strapped a bomb to your chest,” Harold says, looking him dead in the eye. “That is only the most recent of a series of traumatic experiences you’ve undergone. You have not been okay for as long as I’ve known you.”
John manages, he thinks, a pretty convincing smile. “You get used to it.”
“That would be the problem, John.” Harold looks – sad, John realizes. He can’t think of anything to say.
They send three guys to snatch Chantelle outside Dr Wong’s office. They arrive ten minutes after Chantelle goes in; they’re sloppy, and apparently aren’t expecting any opposition. John takes out two on the street, leaves the driver cuffed to the wheel and one on the ground, but the third gets into the building, and Chantelle and Dr Wong step out of the elevator at that moment, so John has to change his plans quickly, and takes a flailing elbow to the face in the process of disarming #3.
“Go back upstairs,” John snaps at them, but #3 slides to the ground, out cold.
“Oh my god,” Chantelle says, “That’s René, the fucking asshole I was telling you about. Hey, do you work for my dad? Are you okay?”
“I’m calling the police,” Dr Wong says. “You’re bleeding.”
“They’re on their way.” John touches his nose gingerly, and his fingers come away wet. He’ll probably have a black eye tomorrow. Great. “Chantelle, your dad should be more careful who he does business with. There’s a detective coming who’ll help you out, Detective Carter. Do either of you ladies have a Kleenex?”
Dr Wong hands him one silently. Chantelle stares.
“I think I know who you are,” she says. “I’m Judy Li’s aunt.”
John pinches his nose with the Kleenex. “Loan sharks, right? Chemo bills?”
“You saved her life.”
He remembers Judy Li. Tiny, like Dr Wong. Rail-thin and bald from the chemo. She hadn’t been afraid of the debt collectors, only furious. John had liked her. “She doing okay?”
“She’s much better. Her last scans were clear.”
“The police will be with you in two minutes,” Harold murmurs into his ear. “I’ve passed on our information to Detective Carter and sent an anonymous tip to the RCMP.”
“I gotta go,” John says. “Thanks for the Kleenex.”
“Wait,” says Dr Wong. She rummages in her handbag, then presses a card into his hand, after. “If you ever need someone to talk to in confidence, I’ll clear my schedule for you, any time. It’s the least I can do.”
She meets John’s eyes, firm and sure. John feels a stab of liking for her.
“What would you like us to say to the police?”
That's nice, he thinks. Considerate.
“Unknown bystander, gone before you came downstairs, you didn’t see him or her.” He opens the door carefully, checks the street. The first two guys are still lying there, although one of them is conscious now.
“Thanks!” Chantelle yells after him.
John’s around the corner before the police arrive.
“I don’t like the look of your face,” Harold says, clipped and cold. John automatically looks up for cameras.
“That hurts my feelings, Harold.”
To his surprise and amusement, Harold flusters. “I meant your injury.”
“I’m okay,” John says, trying not to grin, since he’s already getting nervous looks from passers-by and he thinks his teeth might be bloody.
“You said that when you’d been shot in the stomach. As we established last night, it communicates nothing whatsoever.”
John frowns. Harold gets snippy when John gets injured, but he sounds more pissed than is proportionate; John’s barely hurt at all, his nose isn’t even broken.
“Harold, I’m ok-”
“Stop saying that.”
John opens his mouth, closes it again.
“My apologies,” Harold says heavily. “A good day’s work, Mr Reese. Feel free to go home and put some ice on your face.”
“Sure,” John says. He has an uncomfortable feeling in his stomach that he can’t shift; at home, later, he has the strange urge to call Harold on the comm to tell him that he’s doing exactly what he was told. He doesn’t do it.
Late that night, alone, dutifully icing his face, John opens his new Tumblr account and navigates back to the picture of the round bird on Chantelle’s page. He looks at it for a while, and sips his whisky. He only allows himself one when he drinks alone these days, so he’s trying to get in the habit of drinking it slowly. He notices that Chantelle has written borb in her tags, which seems weird, since she doesn’t usually make typos. He clicks on borb, hoping he’ll get a definition or something. He gets… more pictures of birds. Round, fat, fluffy birds with ruffled feathers that look kind of grumpy, but also comfortable, warm, like they will be okay through the winter. Puffballs with beaks. Someone has written BIRD ORB = BORB on one of the posts. John finds himself smiling, and he clicks the little heart button. Then, mostly just to figure out how the interface works (he tells himself), he clicks a few of the other buttons. After a while, he notices that nycbirdman now contains sixteen pictures of fat, round birds.
The next morning, he has five followers. It’s satisfying, but disturbing; it gets under his skin like a splinter, that this must be what a normal person might feel on a normal day. Five followers on a social media account for fat birds. He thinks about that as he examines his black eye. Normal. He forgot what it could feel like.
“I checked up on Dr Wong,” Harold says, apropos of nothing. “She is who she says she is.”
“Fine,” John says. He wasn’t really worried about it.
Harold continues, “I think you could trust her confidentiality.”
“Oh,” John says, catching a clue. “You want me to see her?”
“It’s entirely up to you.” Harold has his back to John, limping only slightly as he takes down Chantelle’s photograph, sticks up a new one. He’s wearing a blazer John doesn’t think he’s seen before, with a kind of plum tint to it.
“New jacket?” he says, purely to change the subject.
“Yes,” Harold says, sounding surprised, even pleased. “What do you think?”
John wasn’t expecting his distraction tactic to work, and he struggles to find a follow-up. “The color’s different.”
Harold hums agreement. “It’s a little unfashionable, and I’m never really sure about reds in menswear, but I think it’s muted enough to avoid being vulgar, and it is fall, after all.”
He falls silent. John can’t think of anything else to say. After a moment, Harold turns back to the board. John is conscious of something; disappointment, maybe. A window that opened and closed again, and he missed it.
Something about the conversation grinds into that splinter from the morning, stronger this time, a throbbing phantom pain. And the new idea Harold has planted in his head has taken root enough that he thinks, maybe I could ask Dr Wong about it.
He probably never would have made the appointment, but a few weeks later, Harold says, “If you’re still planning to make that appointment with Dr. Wong, might I suggest Tuesday at three? I’ve been running a small study, and that is statistically the time that we are least likely to be on the move with a number.”
“You sure you want me talking to someone? About what we do?” It isn’t really what John means to say.
“It helps that she already knows the bare bones of what you do, and has a motivation for keeping your secret even beyond the bounds of doctor-patient confidentiality. As long as you keep any specific details out of your discussion of our work and say nothing about the Machine, I don’t see why you shouldn’t see her.” Harold pulls something out of a desk drawer and hands it to John. “Switch that on during your appointment and you’ll disrupt any recording equipment in the room.”
Of course Harold has already thought the whole thing through.
“Will you be listening?”
Harold hesitates at that. “No. But if something comes up -”
John nods. “I’ll keep my earpiece in. If I go,” he adds, belatedly.
The business card is still in his wallet, a little dog-eared. He tells himself, dry-mouthed, that he can give it a try. He doesn’t really need it, he knows, but the fact that he can’t stop messing with his Tumblr – the way he keeps wanting a do-over on that blazer conversation with Harold – it’s niggling at him, and he doesn’t know why. He could use another perspective; just one or two sessions, probably. But it’s the fact that Harold went to the trouble of running a damn study that makes him pick up the phone.
Sandy Wong remembers him, and says she’s happy to see him on Tuesday at three. John has the distinct impression that she’d been keeping it open for him.
“So, John,” Sandy says, her hands folded in her lap. She hadn’t even tried to ask John if she could keep notes, which he appreciated. “How are you feeling?”
John isn’t sure what to make of that. He shifts in his seat. This was a mistake. He decides to go in guns blazing. Better that she knows what she’s getting into.
“I used to kill people for a living.”
Sandy only nods encouragingly.
“Now mostly I save people,” John says, “Although I put four guys in hospital yesterday.” Sandy nods again, like she hears this all the time. “So, I feel okay, I guess.”
“Let’s start smaller,” Sandy says. “Why don’t you tell me what you like most about your day?”
nycbirdman’s Tumblr looks a little bare. John can’t figure out how to add a picture onto the top of it, like other people have. He wastes two hours clicking around the FAQ and the help sections, and finally, in frustration, writes a text post, hoping that one of his five followers might help: I can’t figure out this site. How do you get an image into the banner? Almost immediately, someone reblogs the post and adds hey @nycbirdman, you’ve disabled your asks. John rubs his forehead. Eventually, some fourteen-year-old girl helps him figure out how to get a picture into his damn website. Then he has to decide on a picture. He pulls up a stock image of birds on a telegraph wire. It’s long, and fills the space, and he thinks it looks nice. Then he has to fill out the title. After much thought, he writes, I like borbs. Then he deletes that. It feels too personal.
John is sure that Harold is keeping an eye on his new social media presence, but he doesn’t say anything about it until a couple of days later, when John is supposed to be surveilling Edith Robinson and instead is taking a picture of a bird.
“What on earth are you doing?”
“Robinson is in the bathroom.”
“Are you taking a photograph of that pigeon?”
John wonders, occasionally, how often Harold watches him when he’s on the job. Or off the job. It’s easier to be good, to buy groceries and do his laundry and clean his apartment and only buy one bottle of whisky every other week, when he feels like Harold is watching. John doesn’t test it, doesn’t even really want to know; he just likes the illusion of constant surveillance. He finds it comforting, the silent presence around him all the time. Probably that’s unhealthy.
“I like that pigeon,” John says.
Harold seems momentarily stunned into silence.
“I see,” he says finally.
When John posts it to his Tumblr later, he tags it ‘borb’ and ‘pigeon’ and ‘nyc’. Eight people ‘like’ it and one person reblogs it with the tags so round and so thinking and I love it. John follows that person back.
A borb, John discovers, is a round bird, but borbs are also birbs. A birb is a cute bird, or a dumb bird, or a really smart bird, or a bird doing something funny. Not all birbs are borbs, although some people use the words basically interchangeably. But maybe all borbs are birbs? The kids are into all kinds of crazy shit these days.
“I’ve been taking pictures of birds,” John says to Sandy.
“For your Tumblr?”
“Birding is very popular with veterans,” she says. “It’s a very peaceful hobby.”
He shows her the photos on his phone.
“I like that pigeon,” she says.
“I took that a few days ago,” John says. “Harold thought I was crazy.”
“Does it matter to you, what Harold thinks of you?”
John stares at her. He can’t even comprehend the question.