“We can be redeemed only to the extent to which we see ourselves.”
Reese woke from a gentle dream of being wrapped around a warm body, to the cold reality of a ringing telephone.
Instinct kicked in, one hand sliding under the pillow to grip his Sig-Sauer, the other reaching for the cell on the nightstand, silencing it, the ring-tone identifying the caller before he even focused on the display. The lack of daylight outside the wide sweep of the loft's windows tolled o-dark-something. Probably not a social call. He slid his earpiece into place and activated it.
"Good Morning, Mr. Reese."
Harold sounded annoyingly chipper despite the early hour. In John's experience, that was never a good sign. He tentatively revised his assumption about the nature of the call.
"New Number?" he asked almost hopefully.
"Not as of yet."
Chipper and cryptic. Something was up.
Reese let his head thump back on the pillow and squinted at the clock. 5:37 AM. "Then why--"
"It occurred to me that I have been remiss in offering you options in continuing education, Mr. Reese. Studies show that employees who are given the opportunity to sharpen their skills prove to be more content and successful in their chosen fields."
John stared at the ceiling for a moment, trying to parse the reason this particular bug had gotten under his partner's skin at this--godawful early--hour. No answers were forthcoming from the textured surface, so he sat up, tossed back the covers, and swung his legs over the side of the bed.
"I've already been to spy school, Finch," he growled.
"Yes, and admirably you survived it. I have a slightly different agenda than your previous employers, as you know. And higher standards."
Reese set his Sig on the nightstand and dragged a hand through his hair.
"Just what will this little exercise entail?" With Finch, the devil was always in the details.
"What do you know about geocaching, Mr. Reese?"
John blinked in surprise. "It's a high-tech scavenger hunt."
"A crude description, but it will suffice. Its origins stem from the 160-year old hobby of Letterboxing, first practiced in Dartmoor, Devon, England in 1854. Advances in satellite mapping technology, improved accuracy of GPS devices and the removal of Selective Availability have made navigation games quite popular among certain sets. You, of course, are familiar with the military's adaptation."
Reese scowled. "Orienteering." He had less than fond memories of the land navigation courses the Corps had required. Most were umpteen miles long, in ugly terrain and timed for the worst weather. He glanced outside. The sky was just starting to show the first hints of dawn. At least the late May forecast had called for clear skies and balmy weather.
Reese rolled his left shoulder gingerly. Resolving their last few Numbers had required more use of physical force than he'd had to apply in some time. In addition to his aching shoulder, he had a bruise on his left upper thigh from where he had taken a nasty kick. It was just starting to fade from reddish-purple to green. He had actually contemplated using some of his generous salary to reserve a hotel suite with a whirlpool tub to soak in today, if they didn't have a new Number to pursue. The idea of traipsing around New York City wasn't high on his list.
"This will be primarily a mental challenge, Mr. Reese. I'm well aware that our most recent Numbers have taken a toll. No strenuous physical exertion will be required."
Of course he was aware. Eyes and ears everywhere, at all times, was Finch's modus operandi.
John glanced longingly over his shoulder at the bed with its state-of-the-art memory foam mattress and impossibly high thread count Egyptian cotton sheets--all courtesy of the man currently responsible for dragging him out of it. Finch had sounded almost giddy delivering his mini history lesson, which meant he had undoubtedly spent a great deal of time planning whatever was to come. The man allowed himself so few pleasures. It would be a shame to disappoint him.
With a sigh Reese yielded to the inevitable. "All right, Finch. How's this going to work?"
"I will send an initial set of coordinates to your phone. You will need to find the location. Once there, you will find something that will lead you to your next destination. Follow subsequent clues until you reach the end of the exercise."
"Something?" John asked warily. "That's a little vague, Harold."
"Really, Mr. Reese. If I give you all the details there will be no challenge. I assure you, things will become clear once you begin. There's no need to be so suspicious."
"First thing they taught us in Spy School."
"I thought the first lesson was how to disembowel your opponent with a spoon," Finch remarked dryly.
"That's Number Two. You have to identify the opponent first, Harold. That's where the 'trust no one' lesson comes in handy."
"I see. Perhaps some ground rules are in order."
John tried hard not to smile. "Perhaps."
"While I am not able to guarantee that no danger exists in anything you will be instructed to do, the probability, given your skill set, is extremely low. This will be combination of high- and low-tech problem solving and navigation exercises. You may use any resources you wish. At some points you will be required to solve a puzzle in order to obtain the clue to the next destination. If you fail to solve the puzzle, or are unable to decipher the clue, you may contact me for--"
"A Lifeline?" Reese offered innocently. He had discovered, quite by accident, that Finch was a closet fan of the old 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire?' television show-- the British version, of course--and John enjoyed taunting him with that knowledge whenever the opportunity arose.
Harold usually gave back as good as he got, but this time his end of the line was silent. John frowned, and was about to ask what was wrong, when Finch abruptly picked up where he'd left off, as if the break had never occurred.
"--another clue. You may choose to end the exercise at any time. Simply notify me and transportation will be provided to whatever destination you desire."
There was a hint of uncertainty in Finch's voice that hadn't been there earlier. "I hear Paris is nice this time of year." John said, teasing, trying to recapture the lightness of their earlier exchange.
"Paris is...lovely in the spring, but Florence..."
Reese stilled. The bittersweet wistfulness embedded in that comment held the memory of actual experience. Finch had slipped and revealed something. And Finch never slipped. Curiouser and curiouser.
"Is there a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow?"
"Besides the personal reward of a job well done? I remind you, Mr. Reese, this exercise is for your benefit."
"I'm goal oriented, Finch. You knew that when you hired me."
"Among other things," Harold muttered. "All right. Should you finish the day successfully, you may a pick a prize."
"Anything I want?" Reese asked, stunned.
"If it is within my ability to secure or provide it. I draw the line at procuring nuclear ordnance to round out the collection in your closet, however."
John laughed. This was just bizarre. An open-ended offer. From Finch. The possibilities...
"IF you finish successfully."
Of course there was a catch. The man epitomized deviousness, so this wouldn't be a walk in the park. Yet he wouldn't set Reese up to fail, either. Whatever he had in mind was within John's capabilities, even if it might stretch them a bit.
"I assume you'll be keeping an eye on my progress," he said wryly.
"Always, Mr. Reese," Harold said softly, his voice pitch a fraction lower.
John shivered as the familiar phrase slid right past his defenses, wrapping him in a blanket of warmth from the inside out. Harold had no idea what those words did to him, especially in that tone of voice.
Or did he? Reese shook his head, certain he was reading more into the shift in timbre than actually existed.
"Do I get to shower first?" he asked, striving to cover his reaction with a grumpy rejoinder as he shoved himself to his feet.
"Of course." Finch was all business once again. "Your first clue will be waiting when you are ready."
Reese took a few steps toward the bathroom before he halted. Finch had said no strenuous physical activity would be required, but knowing how Harold's mind worked, this adventure could entail anything from crawling through the sewers to attending the opera.
"Is there a dress code for this operation?"
"Office casual or something equally comfortable will suffice, Mr. Reese."
"John Warren would be appropriate."
Reese raised an eyebrow at that. Warren was the cleanest cover Finch had created for him. The best lies were the truth, just with a few details omitted. Warren's 'life' mirrored John's real one closely--minus his time as a government operative--and came complete with an office, a secretary, and the appropriate family photo on the desk. Meticulously crafted, that identity had withstood the FBI's scrutiny when he'd landed in their hands a few months earlier. It had fooled Agent Donnelly, but in the end it was just a construct. It was used sparingly, for good reason.
John was intrigued.
"Will be provided as necessary."
"If necessary, that will be provided as well. I would ask you leave the bulk of your arsenal in your closet, but I presume you would be most comfortable with at least one of your weapons."
"I would." While this challenge of Harold's might be fun, caution was always the by-word of the day. "And if a Number comes in?"
"Then regretfully we will return to business as usual."
John nodded. Harold was looking forward to this, but he wouldn't let it stand in the way of their work. Reese glanced at the clock. Nearly 6:00. "I'll be ready in a half-hour."
The click in his ear signaled Finch closing his end of the connection. John pulled his own earpiece, laid it on the nightstand and headed to the bathroom. Starting the shower, his mind ticked over their strange conversation.
He had grown used to Harold's voice in his ear, learned to detect the man's moods and emotional state by the pace and tone. Normally, Finch was calm and collected, information dispensed precisely, observations carrying a touch of his dry, acerbic wit. Today he'd been all over the map, almost playful one moment, somber the next.
It was a puzzle.
More telling were the tidbits of information he'd dropped. Paris. Finch had been there, John was sure of it. With someone. Grace? They'd had almost four years together, surely they had traveled. Paris was a popular destination for the art set. He could envision Harold suggesting a trip there to make her happy. The sense of melancholy Reese had noted certainly matched Finch's feelings about their lost future.
Florence, though...the wistful longing imbued in Harold's murmur of the word suggested that city meant something special to him. Finch was fluent in Italian, spoke it nearly as well as a native. Reese knew enough of the language himself to have understood most of Harold's international conversations with one of his favored tailors.
John's world travels with the CIA had never allowed for an enjoyable dalliance in any city, and he had been in Florence only once, tracking a terrorist. He had vague memories of tall bell towers, shining domes and surreally perfect sunsets; of a sprawling city which inhaled history in fading frescoes and crumbling carved columns, and exhaled scents of blossoming lime trees and tangy spices.
Florence was a city of wide thoroughfares that narrowed suddenly into winding labyrinths of cobbled paths; tiny niches cloistered in shadow holding masterpieces carved by some long-forgotten unnamed sculptor; faceless statues standing guard over ancient histories and works of the Masters. Perhaps it was its very aura of secrecy that intrigued the older man.
Italy, even more than France, was renowned for romance. A country which suited his elegant partner, John mused, whom he had long suspected was a romantic at heart, despite his affinity for technology and pragmatic outlook on the world. Finch with his impeccable bespoke clothing, courtly manners and prickly sense of honor often struck Reese as a man out of time. He would have been right at home as the distinguished Duke of a sprawling Italian manor, avid patron of the arts and literature, and science.
Silk and velvet would suit him.
Florence would also have attracted an art aficionado, but for some reason that didn't seem like the right connection. Florence was...personal to Harold in an entirely different way.
And there had been that silence after he'd mentioned the Lifeline...as though he'd caught Finch off guard. As if the term they had joked about for months had suddenly taken on a different meaning.
Shaking his head, Reese slid out of the sweats he had slept in and stepped into the spray. The pulsing jets of water thumped against the back of his head and neck and he relaxed into the massaging action, enjoying the sensation and heat. Fragments of the dream he'd awoken from drifted through his head: warmth, security, peace. A sense of being whole again. Desire. John felt himself growing hard. He closed his eyes and eased his fingers down his lengthening shaft, stroking and teasing, letting his thoughts wander.
"...you may a pick a prize."
"Anything I want?"
"If it is within my ability to secure or provide it."
Reese's fingers tightened almost painfully around his cock, visions of what he would really like to ask for filling his head. Harold. In his arms. In his bed. Those deft fingers that played a keyboard like a virtuoso, playing him...
John reached back and quickly turned the water to its coldest setting.
It was a fantasy, he sternly reminded himself as the freezing deluge killed his arousal. Harold was off limits. Harold was still in love with Grace.
The open-ended offer Finch had made certainly wouldn't include John taking the man to his bed.
Ah, but wouldn't that be a prize.
"Get the right head in the game," Reese muttered, closing down that train of thought.
He finished his shower quickly. Toweling off, he glanced at his reflection in the mirror. The scars from knife wounds, shrapnel and bullets were easy to see. The worst ones were buried deeper, lodged in the darkness he carried inside. Finch and their work with the Numbers had lightened the load, but the fact remained that he was certainly no prize.
He ran a hand across his morning stubble and decided to forego shaving. The less time spent in front of the mirror of truth, the better.
Five minutes later he was tucking a long-sleeve slate gray shirt into a pair of black jeans. He placed Warren's identification into his wallet, slid it into a rear pocket, then added his holster. He debated on shoes for a moment, ultimately choosing a pair that would bear the mileage he suspected he would put on them before the day was out.
He checked the pistol, loaded a fresh magazine, and settled the Sig-Sauer behind his back before slipping his earpiece into place. There was no indication that the connection to Harold was live, but he knew Finch had ways to listen in even if his phone wasn't on. There was something far too reassuring about that--knowing someone was always at the other end. It could make him dependent. Sloppy. In the CIA he'd learned the hard way that he was on his own, that no one was coming for you.
Yet time after time, when he had needed him, despite the risk to his own safely, Harold had come, turning the CIA's truism upside down. Just as he had turned John's life upside down.
Or, more accurately, had set it to rights.
Maybe a little reassurance wasn't such a bad thing after all.
Picking up his phone, Reese found the text message with a set of GPS coordinates from Finch waiting for retrieval. Despite the odd start to the day, it held promise. He fed the coordinates into the tracking app on his phone. Time to get started.
Glancing out the window at the brightening sky, he grabbed his black leather jacket from the closet near the door and headed out.
The sky was clear, the air was cool, but holding the suggestion of coming warmth as Reese strode down the street toward his first destination only a few blocks away. The path suggested by the navigation app led him to a familiar landmark: a coffee vendor he sometimes frequented, just opening for the day. A small crowd of early risers clustered around the stand. John barely managed to stifle a pleased grin at Harold's opening gambit. The man did know his habits. Or at least Reese's preference for an early morning hit of caffeine.
He checked the GPS coordinates to verify the stand was where Finch had intended to send him, then waited his turn, scanning his surroundings out of habit. There were still several people in front of him when he heard the vendor call out, "JOHN". When no one else moved, he edged toward the front, reaching for his wallet.
"Order's already paid for," the man said, sliding a large cup toward Reese. The thermal paper sleeve wrapping the cup had his first name scrawled across it. "Pastry, too. What would you like?"
John examined the Plexiglas-fronted case which held an assortment of morning goodies. And they were 'goodies'--homemade and delicious, which Reese knew from personal experience. On a whim, John chose one of Harold's favorites, a deep-fried donut with a slathering of frosting, dotted with colored sprinkles. The vendor handed it over with a napkin and called the next order.
Reese stepped back, frowning slightly. This was his destination, according to the coordinates, but where or what was the 'something' Finch had said would lead him to the next location? He took a sip of the coffee, savoring the rich, dark brew. Prepared just the way he liked it. Maybe the beverage was the clue?
Or the cup.
Balancing it in in the same hand that held the donut, he peeled off the thermal wrapper. On the inside of the paper he found a message: 75' N
A direction, not a set of coordinates. Interesting.
He turned so he faced north and did a quick estimate of where 75 feet from the vendor stand would take him. There was a small park across the street, lined with footpaths. He headed in that direction, pacing off the required distance. Give or take a foot or so, an empty park bench awaited him.
Reese took a quick look around. The park's paths were beginning to fill with pedestrians, men and women of various ages, all moving with the targeted mindset typical of New Yorkers. None seemed to have any interest in him. He did a casual walk around the bench, but didn't find anything obvious which could be construed as another clue. 'Accidentally' dropping the napkin, he crouched down to retrieve it. Nothing taped underneath the bench either.
The 'chir-ing' of a bike bell caught his attention and he glanced toward the sound. A bike messenger was cruising up the path toward him, weaving deftly around the pedestrians. Reese set his coffee and pastry on the bench, leaving his hands free. The rider, a young woman in her early 20's, came to a hard stop in front of him.
"You're John?" she asked, slipping her goggles off her face.
He nodded cautiously.
Reese tensed as she reached into the messenger bag slung diagonally over her shoulder, relaxing slightly as the woman extracted a manilla envelope from the depths.
"This is yours then," she said brightly, holding it out to him.
He reached out and took the envelope. A quick glance revealed no name or address for either the recipient or the sender. It had to be from Finch.
"Thanks," he murmured, turning it over to check the other side. It was blank as well.
"Don't mention it. Easiest $50 I ever made." She flashed him a grin, donned her goggles and zipped off.
Reese did a slow scan of his surroundings, not really expecting to find his partner nearby, but certain Finch was watching. Sure enough, he was in direct view of one of the park's surveillance cameras. John offered a short nod toward it, acknowledging Harold's cleverness, and seated himself on the bench.
He took a sip of coffee and weighed the envelope in his hands. It was lumpy on one end. He flipped it over and released the metal clip, letting the contents spill out onto his lap--a set of keys attached to a keyring with an electronic fob, a word-search puzzle book, and a pen.
There were no identifying marks on the keys or the fob to indicate what type of vehicle they belonged to, so he turned his attention to the puzzle book. It was the type found on any magazine rack, a cheap glossy lightweight cover wrapping off-white printed sheets, about a quarter of an inch thick. The book was new, the spine showing no wear. He riffled the pages. One page held a corner crease, as if it had been dog-earred, then smoothed back into shape. The paper stock for that page had a minimally different texture and only one side of the sheet held a puzzle to solve.
Reese masked a smile and reached for the pen. He alternately munched and sipped as he circled the words hidden in the puzzle. It took fifteen minutes to find them all, an odd assortment of nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs:
Given Finch had supplied a set of keys, the word 'DELIVERY' seemed like the best clue, although it was a little overkill--or insulting--for Harold to supply two hints. Maybe he was just starting him out easy, like he had with the trip to the coffee vendor.
Reese picked up the keys and pressed the 'lock' button on the fob. A horn sounded, somewhere off to his left. Dusting the stray sprinkles from the donut off his jeans, he downed the last of the coffee and rose to his feet. Rolling the puzzle book into a tight bundle, he slipped it and the paper wrapper from the coffee cup into his jacket pocket.
He hit the button on the key fob again, orienting himself to the location of the vehicle by the sound of the horn, and headed down the path toward the street, dropping his empty cup in a trash can.
Finch had supplied the keys to a good-sized cargo van. As he had done at the bench, John took a walk around it. There were no windows in the back, and the windshield, driver's and passenger-side window were tinted. He went to the rear of the van and tabbed the fob, unlocking the vehicle.
He opened the rear doors cautiously. Booby traps hadn't been mentioned in the ground rules, but he wasn't taking any chances. The doors swung open easily, revealing a packed interior. Boxes marked with labels indicating they contained canned foods filled half the van, large containers marked 'bedding' consumed the rest of the space. He looked inside one of each type of carton to find the contents matched the labeling. The foodstuffs had been very recently purchased, and not from some discounted or expired overstock. The bedding box was filled with new blankets, still in their airtight plastic wrappers.
Reese shut the rear doors and walked around to the driver's side. Peering in the window, he could just barely make out a white box on the passenger seat. He opened the door and slid onto the seat, shaking his head in amusement when he realized it had already been positioned to accommodate his long legs.
Finch and his details.
He reached for the white box. It was of a similar size to that used by bakeries, tied with a string. The post-it note with two words written on it, stuck to the top, made his throat tighten.
He closed his eyes and concentrated on breathing. He should be angry at this blatant invasion of his private life; Joan was a figure from the dark days, before he met Finch. Instead, he felt a warm wash of gratitude that Harold had discerned her importance. When he had a handle on his emotions, he pulled the puzzle book out of his pocket and scanned the page he had completed. There was a better word that suited this situation:
It fit the older woman who had sheltered him in the homeless encampment during his alcoholic stupor. She had looked out for him, making sure no one messed with him when he was too drunk to know up from down; listened patiently when his grief was so raw that he couldn't stop it from spewing out. She had never asked him for a single thing.
It also fit his partner, whose generous gift of the supplies in the back of the van Reese would have the honor of delivering, along with a special thank you earmarked for his protector.
He set the box securely on the passenger seat, belted himself in and started the van. He didn't need directions to this destination.
Joan's eyes had widened in delight when she opened the white box to find it filled with chocolates and sweet pastries. Her pleased squeal had drawn a handful of others to her side, and she had generously shared her unexpected bounty before closing the box and tucking it away in her private stash.
Since taking over the building, Adam Saunders and his uncle had made a number of improvements to make life easier for the homeless who sheltered there, but the additional supplies John brought were eagerly accepted. Joan had rallied a few able bodies and the van's contents were dispersed to those in need quickly.
Reese spent nearly an hour visiting with Joan. Life on the streets was hard, the sad stories she told familiar, but her spirit remained undaunted.
"You look good," she said finally, cocking her head to the side, bright eyes examining him thoroughly. She poked at his ribs. "Not so skinny."
He laughed and captured her hand, closing his own around her thin fingers gently. "I'm eating regularly," he rasped softly. "You need anything?"
She shook her head and patted the new blanket on her lap. "I have a safe place to rest my head, food to fill my stomach and a handsome young man visiting. What else could I ask for?"
John had a list, things he could offer now that he was no longer drowning himself in a bottle. But her needs had always been simple. "Another box of sweets?" he asked.
She grinned. "Too many of those, and I'll lose my girlish figure."
Impulsively, he pressed a courtly kiss to the back of her hand. "Never happen."
"Oh, go on, with you," she said, giving him a gentle push. "Such a flirt you've become."
Reese rose to his feet. "Must be the company I'm keeping."
She smiled, her eyes softening. "Whoever it is, they're good for you."
A smile twitched at the corner of John's mouth. He was sure she was envisioning some long-legged beauty, not a dapper gentleman, but he wasn't about to correct her. "I need to go, but I'll stop back soon for another visit."
"Be well, John."
Reese nodded and headed back to where he had parked the van. He cranked it to life and drove a few blocks before pulling over and turning off the engine. He tipped his head back against the seat and murmured a soft, "Thanks, Finch," to the air.
Taking a deep breath, he sat up straight in the seat. Time to get back into the game and see what other surprises Harold had in store for him.
Since nothing had been left for him at the homeless shelter, the next clue had to be somewhere in the van. He flipped down both visors and checked the glove compartment, but came up empty. The inside of the driver's compartment was pristine. The van had a GPS, however a quick check showed nothing programmed, his route from the park to the shelter the only thing in the memory.
Well, he hadn't expected Finch to make this easy.
He was about to get out and search the rear of the van, when another thought occurred to him. He reached forward and pulled out the ashtray. A piece of crumpled paper lay inside. He grinned and retrieved it, smoothing it across his knee. It bore a single line of numbers.
His pleasure at finding the clue was soured by the memory of the last time Finch had left him a similar series of numbers to decipher--when Root had taken him. John had ultimately tracked them down, but had nearly come up short. Bursting into that home and finding a dead body tied to a support beam had almost broken him. For a horrifying moment, he had thought it was Harold, and that once again he had been too late to save someone he loved.
Breadcrumbs in the form of a cufflink and numbers on an abandoned cordless phone had been his salvation.
John pulled the puzzle book from his pocket, flipped to the blank inside back cover and grimly started drawing out a grid to solve the number sequence using Tap Code. He got as far as putting in the first few letters of the alphabet when he paused, frowning.
Finch was devious, but not cruel. He had to know that this would bring up memories of his kidnapping. John couldn't believe Harold would want to revisit that episode any more than he did. He scribbled out the grid he had started and took a closer look at the number sequence.
He had focused on the numbers at first glance, and had missed the dashes. It wasn't Tap Code. A different cipher, but which one? The most complex required a key of some sort.
Trying the literal route first, he pulled the van key from the ignition and checked it again, but found nothing to suggest it was part of this clue. He studied the number sequence. Two sets, one of four digits, one of 8. A slow smile began to curve his lips. He had been looking for a complicated solution, when it was really child's play--a basic letter-number cipher, with A=1, B=2, and so on.
It took less than thirty seconds to get the answer:
John's stomach rumbled. Breakfast sounded like a fantastic idea.
Reese wasn't nearly as paranoid as Finch, so he'd had breakfast at the Lyric Diner often enough that he was a semi-familiar face to the middle-aged hostess. She smiled at him when he came through the door and waved him toward the back. He settled into his favorite booth, the one where he had sat with Harold.
His waitress dropped off a glass of water and a cup of coffee, letting him know his order was almost ready. He nodded, not at all surprised that Finch had things so exactly timed out.
He sipped some water and thought about the history this booth contained. It was where he had made some of his first forays to learn more about his cagey employer; where he had learned that Finch was a man who looked for traps everywhere, equating a question about what items were good on the menu, to a ploy to learn where he lived.
This was where Finch had given him Judge Gates' photo, one of their early Numbers; a case during which he had learned The Machine, and its creator, weren't infallible.
It was also the case that had convinced him that he owed Finch a debt far beyond the 'thanks' he had murmured on their second meeting in this booth. Harold had offered him a job, and a purpose. He had been candid that there might not be much of a future for either of them. The work was dangerous, the uncertainty level high. There weren't a lot of positives in his salespitch.
But saving young Sam Gates, seeing father and son playing together in the park, had given John a reward he couldn't begin to measure.
Kara Stanton had nearly beaten that out of him. She had taunted him for playing the 'boy scout', for wanting to help people. He had walked in the dark with her for too long to ever be free of that taint, but he had started to balance the scales.
The eggs benedict was superb, as always, spiced with memories and the pleasant tang of friendship.
Finishing his breakfast, he looked for his next clue. He pulled out the folded menu, tucked into the metal rack at the end of booth and studied it. It contained no photos, no hidden messages that he could find.
The waitress had dropped his bill on the table. It was marked paid, with a generous tip already applied. At first glance, it looked in order. Something about the total though...
He examined the bill more closely. The receipt was computer generated, definitely something Finch could hack with his technological wizardry. A numeric code was listed for each item on his order, along with the price. The code for coffee was 4075568, the price, $.67. The eggs benedict code was 7397117409999 at a price of $9.98. Having ordered this same combination numerous times, Reese knew without even looking at the menu that those weren't the correct amounts.
He opened the GPS app on his phone, and entered the numbers as latitude and negative longitude coordinates, placing decimal points in their appropriate spots. Within seconds, the app had pinpointed a location in the 800 block of 3rd Avenue, roughly six blocks from the diner.
John left a few dollars of his own for an additional tip and headed out to the street. He hesitated just outside the diner's doors. The van he had been driving was gone. Finch had waved his magic wand.
Smile twitching at his lips, Reese merged with the other pedestrians on the sidewalk. A short walk would give him a chance to work off some of his breakfast.
John studied the storefront of the motorcycle dealership where the coordinates had led him. Definitely upscale. Possibly the same place Harold purchased his Ducati.
The inside of the dealership was a rider's wet dream. Rows of aerodynamic road machines, chrome sparkling brilliantly in the showroom's overhead lights; dazzling colors and racing stripes making the sportbikes look fast just standing still.
Center stage, under its own spotlight, was the most beautiful ride Reese had ever seen. A Ducati V-twin 1199 Superleggera sportbike, sleek matte black and silver. It practically vibrated in place, the power encased yearning to be set free. There was, understandably, no price tag. If you had to ask, you couldn't afford this baby. John estimated it would run at least a high five figures.
The single salesperson, a younger man in his mid-thirties, was finishing a phone call, so John yielded to the impulse to take a closer look. He managed a slow walk-around, appreciating the bike's design and details before the man approached him.
"She's a beauty, isn't she?" the salesperson said.
"Yes, she is," John murmured, regretfully turning to face him.
"Paul Smithson," the younger man introduced himself, extending his hand.
Reese completed the gesture with a firm handshake. "John Warren."
Smithson's eyes lit up. "Of course. You're here for your test drive."
Apparently. John nodded, playing along.
"Man, I envy you," Smithson said, "Only the owner's taken this baby out." He laid his hand on the Ducati's leather seat.
Reese blinked and barely managed to control his surprise. Finch had said transportation would be provided as necessary, but this...
"You're familiar with the brand, I assume," Smithson rambled on, apparently unaware John was practically salivating. "This is the ultimate sportbike. Limited edition. Ducati produced only 500 of them. Completely revised over the 1198. Superleggera, 'light' in Italian, puts her at 390 pounds curb weight."
John raised an eyebrow. His own bike tipped the scales at 463 lbs.
"Titanium," Smithson explained with a grin. "Valves, exhaust and nearly all of the bolts. Shock coils are titanium as well, instead of steel."
John mentally revised his initial price estimate upward and smiled. Trust the man whose own skeleton was reinforced with titanium wires and screws to choose a bike with similar tensile strength.
"In addition, they used magnesium instead of aluminum where ever they could," Smithson went on. "Wheels are magnesium forgings by Marchesini. Maneuverability is superb and performance...well, she's capable of output beyond 200 horsepower."
Reese whistled softly and Smithson grinned. "She's gassed up and ready to go. We've got gear for you in the changing room."
The gear, like the bike, was state-of-the-art. The pants were competition weight leather, reinforced with kevlar. Reese slid out of his jeans and slipped them on. They fit exactly and they were the perfect length for his long legs. John shook his head delightedly. Of course they would be. Finch had his measurements.
The memory of Harold fussing with the trousers on his 'Wall Street' suit flashed through his head. The shiver that had zipped up his spine had nothing to do with the way the pants 'broke' on the shoe. Finch on his knees before him, on the other hand...
John shoved that thought away before he had to adjust the already snug pants. He sat down on the chair and slid the sturdy boots that had been supplied onto his feet. Also, to no surprise, a perfect fit. He decided to use his own leather jacket instead of the one provided. It was a little longer and would cover his gun and holster. Gathering up his jeans and shoes, he headed back out to the showroom.
Smithson was waiting for him next to the bike, a helmet under his arm. Reese placed his clothing into the Ducati's small carrier which already held a full water bottle, and took the proffered head gear.
"This is the new Skully AR-1," Smithson said, nodding toward the helmet. "They've added some interesting high-tech features. You've got an internal display for GPS, fuel levels and speed. It also connects via Bluetooth to your phone. All voice activated with built in speakers and microphone. Plus, it's got rear view display. You can see what's behind you and in your blind spots without turning your head."
"Nice," John murmured appreciatively.
Smithson handed Reese a standard white business envelope. A quick glance revealed a New York state map and a blank white credit-card sized piece of plastic. Reese tucked the envelope into the inside pocket of his jacket.
"Your arrangements indicated that alternative transportation would be waiting at your destination. Is that still correct?"
John had no idea, yet, where he was heading, but he assumed Finch wouldn't strand him somewhere, so he nodded.
"We'll have a trailer waiting to retrieve the bike, then," Smithson said. "A suggested route for your test drive has already been programmed into the helmet's GPS. Please advise us if you choose to deviate from it, or your destination, so we can alter our pick-up arrangements."
Reese managed to contain a grin. He was sure the route had been programmed by Finch. Where it would take him was anyone's guess, but he was game. "I'm sure the suggested route will be fine."
Reese straddled the bike and spent a few minutes familiarizing himself with the controls, the layout of the gauges, and adjusting the mirrors. He dropped the helmet in place, pleased that with the voice activation feature, syncing his phone took only moments. The GPS lit with the first of his directions, and a suggested travel time just shy of two hours on the programmed route.
Two hours on this bike on a beautiful spring day. John didn't even care if the bulk of it was city driving, but he hoped for a long straight stretch to open her up.
He nodded toward Smithson, who stepped back with a thumb's up. The bike started with a roar that dropped to a low growl. John let it idle for a minute, then lifted the kickstand and shifted into gear. Smithson opened the front doors of the dealership and Reese cruised out of the showroom and onto the street.
For the first twenty minutes, he motored through the city, getting a feel for the bike. By the time he hit the entrance ramp for the highway heading north, the engine was purring.
He resisted, barely, the temptation to push the envelope, allowing himself ten miles over the speed limit. It wouldn't pay to end this trip early by drawing unwanted attention. He slid from one lane to another, passing slower vehicles with ease, the bike's balance superb and handling effortless.
Too soon, the GPS chimed with a course change, leading him off the expressway to an older, county highway. Disappointment over the loss of speed gave way to enjoyment as the two lane road carried him into the rural countryside and a long series of winding curves.
He leaned into them, pushing the speed out of sheer joy. He charged up a steep hill and zoomed down the other side, exhilarated.
It was a rush--like flying.
The miles sped by. After about an hour, the GPS display flashed, showing a suggested rest stop a short distance ahead. He crested a hill and pulled into a graveled turnout, easing the bike into the shade of the trees on one end before shutting it down.
Dismounting, the ache in his left shoulder and residual soreness from the bruise on his thigh reminded him he wasn't at 100 percent, but the discomfort was minimal and easily ignored.
He felt wildly carefree. It was a strange, unfamiliar sensation.
He pulled off the helmet and set it on the seat, grabbing the bottle of water from the carrier. Unzipping his jacket, he took a long drink and wandered over to the railing that edged the turnout, letting his gaze drift. From this vantage point, the surrounding countryside stretched in a crazy quilt of small farms and woodlands. The air was sweet, the sky a vibrant blue, the trees decked out in the green only seen in spring.
He breathed it in, let the sensation settle into his bones. Some of the tension he had carried for years seeped out of him.
It wouldn't last. Couldn't. The work he and Finch did was cloaked in shadows and filled with danger, their list of enemies growing. He needed the edge, the coiled readiness which allowed him to anticipate and react, to stay alive. To save their Numbers. To protect Harold.
But it felt good to let it go...even if it was for only a short time.
He turned his face to the sun and closed his eyes, a soft smile breaking free. Moments like this were to be cherished. Shared.
Out of habit, his fingers sought his earpiece, but he stopped short of making the connection. For all his talk about this being a 'test', Harold had essentially programmed a day off, at least to this point. Maybe Finch needed a break, too. Maybe he wasn't sitting in the Library, tracing John's path. Listening.
Maybe he was outdoors, sitting on a park bench, watching Bear frolic, enjoying the same sun.
It was a pleasant thought. Although their work rarely allowed it, John had joined him for outings like that. A warm sense of companionship always accompanied those simple breaks in the craziness. Two men and a dog. Not your traditional family grouping.
It was all the family he was ever going to have. Despite musings on a conventional life--a wife, children, the picket-fenced house--he knew they weren't meant for him. The choices that he had made had eliminated those options. If he was honest with himself, he wasn't really suited to a 9-to-5 existence. The thrill of the hunt was in his genes. Saving a Number, returning them to their family, was a source of immense satisfaction.
A soft breeze kissed his face and he forced the maudlin thoughts away. Finch had given him a gift today. Several, actually, and he wasn't going to waste them feeling sorry for what he didn't have. He had a purpose, a friend, a partner. A dog that they shared. Late night meals of chinese take-out. A voice in his ear at any time of day or night.
Harold was in his life and in his heart. That was a surprising gift in itself.
And the man did have exceptionally good taste when it came to surprises. Reese glanced toward the bike and grinned. Even if he couldn't keep her, the freedom and pleasure of the experience made this a day to remember.
Good humor restored, John drank the last of his water and placed the empty bottle inside the bike's carrier. A few minutes later he was back on the road, picking up speed on a steep downhill slope, leaning hard left and right to navigate a tight series of curves.
A quick glance at the course laid out on the GPS display inside the helmet indicated the upcoming four-mile stretch was a straight-away. The temptation to open her up and see what the bike could really do was overwhelming. He shifted his weight slightly, leaning forward a bit more, and twisted the throttle grip toward him. The engine revved, and he toed the clutch. Just as he was about to shift gears, a phone symbol appeared in the display.
Reese felt a surge of disappointment, but the job came first. He throttled back to just under the posted speed limit. "Answer," he directed. The helmet's bluetooth immediately sent the incoming call to his earpiece.
John dropped the bike down a gear and started looking for a place to turn around. "Where do you need me, Finch?"
"There's no need to alter your current activity. Things remain quiet on this end. I simply thought it pertinent to advise you that the traffic surveillance in your area has developed a...glitch."
Reese smiled evilly. "A glitch." He eyed the tempting stretch of highway ahead. "That's...too bad."
"Yes. It's undoubtedly just a line of corrupted code. At any rate, I'm certain the complication will be resolved within the next fifteen minutes, but I thought it best to let you know."
John was glad the helmet didn't come with an internal webcam, because the shit-eating grin on his face would have ruined his reputation forever. Finch was not only tracking him, he was being a good partner and clearing the way. Nice to have a man like that on your side, looking out for your best interests. "I appreciate that, Harold."
There was a moment's silence before Finch spoke again. "Enjoy your ride, Mr. Reese." John's earpiece clicked as Harold ended the call.
"Oh, I will," he murmured as he twisted the throttle. The bike leaped forward, seemingly as eager as its rider to see how fast she could run.
With less than a mile left on his programmed course, Reese pulled to a stop in front of a gated entrance to what appeared to be a private estate. He checked the GPS. His route definitely ended somewhere inside. A quick glance revealed a surveillance camera mounted on top of one of the gate posts, and a high-tech card reader in the center of the wrought-iron gate.
He pulled out the envelope he had received at the motorcycle dealership. With the GPS programmed, he hadn't needed the map, but the white plastic card might be his ticket in. He slid it into the reader. There was a buzzing sound, the click of a lock, and a moment later the gates swung smoothly inward. He motored inside and down a tree lined drive, pulling to a stop in front of a large building that looked like an old fashioned Italian villa. Parked off to the side was a truck from the motorcycle dealership.
John dismounted from the bike and regretfully said goodbye to the sweet ride, patting the leather seat before setting the helmet on it. He ran a hand through his damp hair to straighten it, retrieved his jeans and shoes, and carried them inside. The massive wooden front doors opened to a tiled lobby with a reception desk at the far end.
Private club, not estate, he thought, as he moved forward. Very expensive, exclusive private club based on the quality of the furnishings. He stepped up to the desk, greeting the older, silver-haired man behind it with a nod. The man didn't have a name tag, and the three piece suit he wore rivaled some he'd seen on Finch.
"We've been expecting you, Mr. Warren," the man greeted him. "I'm Mr. Jones. If you'd like to change and freshen up, Mr. Chapin has time reserved for you. Bruce will show you the way."
A well-groomed young man in a something close to a bell-hop's uniform materialized at the end of the reception counter. Reese hesitated. He wasn't used to going into situations blindly trusting.
"As Mr. Peregrine's guest, you have full access to the Club," Jones said smoothly. "If there is anything you need, please let me know."
Reese felt some of the tension ease. Peregrine. He hadn't heard that alias before. A bird of prey was an odd selection for his gentle friend. Finch could be vicious when he was decimating a perp's bank accounts, however, so maybe it wasn't such an unusual choice.
He followed Bruce down a long hallway to a well-appointed lounge. By the time he had changed back into his jeans and cleaned up from his ride, his curiosity was in full bloom. The day had already been full of surprises. He wondered what the nature of this private club would reveal.
Bruce led him down another hallway and outside, through a rambling expanse of carefully tended lawn and gardens beginning to burst with spring flowers. Their destination was a separate building, low-roofed and squat ugly in comparison to the rest of the architecture. His guide rapped on a door just inside the front entrance, bearing a nameplate: 'Andrew Chapin'. The knock generated a snarled, "Enter," from behind the panel. Bruce opened the door for Reese and backed away quickly.
John entered a modest-sized office, spartanly furnished and military-pristine. The setting matched the man behind the desk. Chapin was every inch the military man, sans uniform; short bristled haircut, sharply pressed short-sleeve dress shirt, square-shouldered. Reese guessed at late fifties, the craggy face bearing the creases and grooves of a life hard-lived. Chapin was the antithesis of Mr. Jones' studied front-desk elegance.
They differed in attitude too. Jones had been sophisticated charm. The skeptical glare Chapin turned his way made John feel like a green recruit and he barely stopped himself from coming to attention.
"Let's see your hands," Chapin ordered, sounding like the drill sergeant he probably had once been.
Without a word, Reese approached the desk, extending both hands, palm up. Chapin grasped both with a firm grip. He studied John's palms, ran a thumb along the index fingers of both hands, pausing just a fraction at the calluses. He released his hold and sat back.
"What are you carrying?"
Ah. That explained the hesitation. And the faint smell of gun oil and cordite in the air. Reese reached back slowly and extracted his Sig-Sauer. Chapin held out a hand for it. John smoothly ejected the magazine before acceding to the unspoken demand. Finch might have arranged this, but there was no way Reese was handing anyone a loaded weapon that might possibly be turned against him.
Chapin didn't bat an eye. He pulled a cleaning kit from his desk drawer and proceeded to strip the Sig. In moments he had it disassembled and was scrutinizing each component, face contorted in a frown.
John waited patiently, trying not to smile. There was a sense of familiarity about the man that nudged at him, but he couldn't quite grasp it.
"Well, at least you know how to maintain it," Chapin grumbled after a few minutes.
He slid the cloth and the pistol's pieces toward Reese. The message, and challenge was clear. John was tempted to reassemble the piece with his eyes closed, but he resisted the urge to show off. He put the Sig back together, in just under his best time.
Chapin grunted and opened a drawer in his desk. He extracted an empty magazine and a box of ammunition and handed them to Reese. John checked each round as he loaded them. The mag held fifteen rounds. He glanced at Chapin expectantly.
The older man eyed him for a moment, then pushed back in his chair. He leaned down and came up with a pair of crutches. Shoving himself to his feet, he maneuvered around the desk. Reese tried not to stare at the artificial limbs revealed by the knee-length khaki colored shorts the man wore; both legs were prosthetics.
With a jerk of the head, Chapin gestured for him to follow. John picked up the Sig and the magazine he had just filled, and paced behind the older man down a short corridor. Chapin unlocked a door and led the way into a shooting range; a dozen booths divided by opaque panels. Chapin stopped at one and reached down to toggle the light on for that lane. A standard man-shaped target hung at the end, bulls-eyes marking critical zones.
"Fire off ten rounds," he ordered brusquely.
Reese stepped forward, ignoring the ear protectors and safety glasses for a moment. He set the fresh magazine down on the counter of the booth and raised the Sig toward the target, sighting it. He heard Chapin mutter something under his breath, and quirked a small smile, knowing he had scored a point in his favor. He lowered the pistol and loaded the magazine before donning the ear protectors and glasses. He took a stance, drew in and released two deep breaths, then racked the slide. He fired two rounds, took a breath, fired two more, another breath, then fired another six. Laying the pistol on the shelf, muzzle facing the target for safety, he slipped off the ear protectors.
"You're dropping your left shoulder," Chapin observed gruffly.
Reese nodded. He knew he'd been compensating. "Banged it a few days ago."
"You shoot like an Army brat," Chapin muttered.
"Takes one to know one," John responded cheerfully.
Chapin waved at the target. "Finish it off."
Reese donned the ear protectors again and fired off five more rounds to clear the magazine, making sure to correct his stance.
"Hummph," Chapin huffed. He pulled in the target as John ejected the empty magazine and laid the ear protectors and glasses on the counter. The middle of the center-mass bulls-eye was obliterated. "You'll do." Swinging easily on his crutches, he grunted in Reese's direction, and headed toward the far end of the booths.
John slid his own magazine into the Sig and holstered the pistol before following. Chapin unlocked another door. This one opened onto another range; one that offered distance shooting. Reese had spent hours on ranges just like it in the service, perfecting his rifle skills.
Chapin set his crutches aside and unlocked a large wall-mounted cabinet, swinging back the doors. John moved forward eagerly, drawn by an array of weapons, many of which he had never seen before.
"Private stash," Chapin said, a grin transforming his taciturn expression into comradely acceptance. "Most of these are prototypes. I do tests for a number of the manufacturers. Range is booked for your use for an hour and half. Want to see if you can find the target with a few of these?"
Reese tried to stop a grin from forming and failed miserably. He felt like a kid in a candy store. So many choices. Which one to try first?
A dozen weapons later, Chapin gestured for John to join him as he closed the doors on the range. He led Reese back to this office and pulled two chilled bottles of water from a small refrigerator.
"I'd offer you a beer, but I don't allow alcohol in this part of the club," he explained.
Chapin handed one bottle to John and sank down in his chair. Dropping his crutches to the floor, he lifted both feet onto his desk, sat back and took a long drink.
Reese unscrewed the cap off his own bottle and drank thirstily, washing down the taste of gunpowder that lingered on his tongue. His gaze drifted to Chapin's artificial legs, wondering where he had been injured, trying to understand why he felt like he knew the man. Chapin was like many of the soldier's he'd served with, and some of the drill sergeants he had trained under. Maybe that's all it was.
"Souvenirs of Desert Storm," Chapin explained, catching the direction of John's gaze. "IED took out the truck we were in. Bunch of us ended up as 'guests' of the locals. Stuck us in a pit. No food. No water. No medical care, that's for damn sure. Would have died there if it weren't for a rescue by a Special Forces team. Both legs were useless, but the Ranger that got me out just flipped me over his shoulder. Carried me for miles in the dark before we hit the evac point."
Reese covered his shock by taking another swig from the water bottle. The sense of recognition flared. He remembered a pitch-black night, the stench of blood and bodily waste wafting from a pit in the ground; hoarse pleas for help, for mercy; coarse sand whipped by the wind stinging his face, mouth dry and lungs heaving as they scrambled toward the waiting chopper; a gravelly 'thanks' as he lowered his precious burden off his shoulder and onto the helicopter's flight deck.
Reese had never known what happened to the men they saved that night. His team was retasked the next day. It couldn't be the same man. There was no way...
"Army medics tried to save my legs, but they couldn't," Chapin continued. "Spent some time in rehab figuring out how to live out of a wheelchair, tried to get resettled into the world after my discharge. Fell onto some hard times, like a lot of us that came back from there."
John nodded in understanding.
"I tried hard not to hit rock bottom. Figured I'd gotten a second chance when that Ranger pulled me out of the pit. Didn't want to give up on that. Wouldn't have been right. So I got myself into some counseling. Wound up doing some work for the VA, volunteer stuff mostly, at one of the hospitals. One day, I got called in to the Administrator's office. Some rich guy had dumped a boat-load of money into the system, to be used for some experimental high-tech prosthetics development. Computers and brainwaves, stuff. Turned out my name was at the top of the list, if I was interested."
Some rich guy...with an advanced knowledge of computers and an interest in veterans...particularly one that had crossed paths with Reese...John didn't believe in coincidence. Finch's fingerprints were all over this.
"Got my third chance and I took it." Chapin patted his artificial legs. "Took a year or so to get it right, and I'll never run a mile again, but it put me back in the world."
"How'd you end up here?" Reese asked, pretty sure he already knew the answer.
"Got a call out of the blue from the owner. Said he got my name from the VA. The members had been pushing for a gun range. He wanted to make sure things were done right; wanted somebody who wouldn't be swayed by money or power games. I guess he figured I wouldn't let some nine year old fire off an AK-47 just because dear old dad thought it was a good idea." Chapin grinned. "Personally, I think he wanted somebody to scare the shit out of the entitled kids of the club's members, and maybe some of the members too, so I do my best to make that happen."
Reese grinned. "Sounds like an interesting guy."
"He's odd. Doesn't like guns himself. I've offered to teach him, but he'll barely step foot in the range. Doesn't cut corners on getting me what I need, though. He's the one that arranged for that little collection of mine you tried out."
"Guess I'll have to drop him a thank-you note," Reese said. Rising to his feet, he extended his hand. "I appreciate you sharing your toys."
Chapin's answering grip was firm. "It was a pleasure." His eyes grew soft and his voice roughened as he squeezed a little harder. "Thank you."
John stilled for a moment. There was no way the man recognized him. And yet... Reese added a little pressure to his own grasp and nodded before he let go.
"Don't pick up any more bad habits," Chapin growled, eyes glinting with humor. "You need some practice time, you call me. I'll whip you into shape."
"I'll remember that," John promised, offering a casual, but genuine salute.
His steps were slower than normal as he made his way back through the gardens to the main building. There had been so many missions during his time with Special Forces that most blurred in his memory. None of them had been pretty. Get in, do whatever needed to be done to accomplish the objective, and get your butt, and the rest of your team, out if at all possible. Debrief, and get ready for the next mission. Questions weren't encouraged. Closure wasn't something command worried about.
Chapin might have been one of his. It would be just like Harold to track down those missions and tamper in his own way with the results. The man excelled at the long game and in manipulating events.
As with Joan, Reese should have been angry at the illustration of how well Finch knew him, knew his history. It was another example of how large the gap really was between what Harold knew about him, and what he knew about his enigmatic partner.
But all he felt was gratitude. It didn't really matter if Chapin was the man he had saved on that mission. The fact was that he had saved someone that night. He had done his job to the best of his ability. Treachery and lies had soured so much of his service to his country, but that effort...that had been done honestly, and well.
He rolled his left shoulder, the ache a little more pronounced. Some of the weapons he had tried out carried a good kick, and Chapin had challenged him to shoot both right- and left-handed. He cracked a smile at the irony of Finch owning a shooting range. The fact that he had known how to use a spotter's scope to determine windage and range when they had been tracking Ulrich Kohl should have provided a bigger clue that Harold wasn't as ignorant about guns as he claimed to be.
And speaking of clues, Reese needed the next one.
He stopped at the front desk, where Mr. Jones was still presiding over the lobby.
"Did you enjoy your visit, Mr. Warren?" Jones asked politely.
"Very good." Jones slid a set of keys with a heavy fleur de lis shaped fob toward him. "I'll inform Mr. Peregrine as to your satisfaction."
Reese didn't think that would be necessary. He could see a small surveillance camera mounted in the frame of the picture on the wall behind Jones. Finch was undoubtedly tapped in. He offered a small nod toward it, and walked across the tiled lobby into the bright outdoors.
The Ducati was gone, and in its place sat a black Mercedes Benz SLS GT Roadster convertible, top down. Another fast ride. John walked behind it, noting the license plate, RAPTOR, with a smile. He slid in behind the wheel, the buttery leather seat warm from the sun. Once again, its position had been adjusted to fit him perfectly.
He tapped the GPS, frowning when no programmed coordinates appeared. He leaned over to check the glove compartment. Empty. The envelope in his jacket crinkled with the movement. He pulled it out and extracted the map.
It unfolded with the stiffness which suggested it had never been opened, or if it had, it had been done very carefully. He scanned it, looking for the clue that would send him onward. No roads had been highlighted, no 'X' marked the spot.
He pinpointed his current location. The bike ride had been a two hour journey, on winding back roads, however he was just under an hour and fifteen minutes from the City if he picked up the highway. He checked his watch: 1:30. His empty stomach was reminding him that it had been a long time since breakfast. He could grab a bite to eat on the way.
IF Harold intended for him to head back.
He didn't want to admit he was stuck, but he was tempted to call Finch and use that Lifeline to buy a clue, if only to hear his voice.
Pride made him take another look at the map. He traced the fastest route home with his finger. The paper was smooth, except... little pinpoint bumps at one location. On the map, the area was marked as a nature preserve. Wings Landing.
John pulled out his phone and logged into the internet. Wings Landing was not just a nature preserve, but a bird sanctuary. A link referenced a small restaurant, an old fashioned 50's-style diner at which one could enjoy a meal and view the birds in their native habitat. The diner, not coincidentally, was called 'The Raptor'. The website conveniently offered the GPS coordinates as part of its directions.
Reese laughed softly, admiring his partner's guile. He entered the coordinates into the car's navigation system as the Mercedes purred to life, and turned onto the drive leading to the main road.
From the outside, the diner looked just as it had been advertised. Reminiscent in shape to an old railroad dining car decked out in neon, it squatted at the edge of thick woods. Inside it was black and white checked floors, padded booths and gleaming silver metal stools capped with lipstick red upholstery. Elvis Presley played on the jukebox. All it was missing was the stereotypical hot-rod as decoration. Only a few late lunch stragglers were seated at the curved counter where a grizzled old man in a white apron and a classic soda-jerk hat was collecting dirty plates and dishes.
The aroma of fried onions and sizzling meat made John's mouth water.
The old man waved to him. "Sit anywhere you like." He pointed toward a set of doors set mid-way along the back wall. "The outdoor deck is open, too."
Choosing not to waste the beautiful day, John headed outside. He paused on the wooden deck. It was like stepping into another world, the bright colors and hard lines of the diner's interior replaced by the soft tones and sensual curves of nature. It was a strange juxtaposition of culture. Wicker chairs with inviting stuffed canvas cushions surrounded tables which appeared to be crafted from living trees. Once the doors had closed behind him, the sounds of 'The King' were replaced by lilting bird song.
Reese settled into one of the chairs. There were no menus on the tables, none of the normal condiments or rolls of silverware. A set of high-powered binoculars and a booklet which turned out to be a miniature field-guide for identifying birds were available instead.
A short-lived blast of sound announced the entrance of his server, a woman in her early 20's, carrying a small tray with a glass of water. She wore jeans and well-worn hiking boots. A long-sleeved denim shirt with the cuffs rolled up topped a t-shirt emblazoned with "Birds Do It, Let's Fall In Love". Her blonde hair was pulled back in a tight pony-tail, a sprinkle of freckles highlighted her cheekbones. A hastily pinned-on name tag identified her as 'Josie'.
"Hope you don't mind," she said, setting the water in front of him. "We're a little short-staffed once the main lunch crowd leaves."
He wasn't sure what she was referring to, other than the speed of service, which, given that he had just sat down, was excellent. "Mind?"
"Well, I assume you were expecting the whole 50's poodle skirt and bobbie socks thing," she explained with a grin. "It kind of goes with the decor."
He smiled back. "Now that you mention it..."
"Don't. Please" She gave a theatrical shudder. "This isn't my day job, so I get to bend the rules. I just help out in-between shifts and research."
"I'm working on my doctorate in Ornithology. Specifically, Peregrine falcons and their re-emergence into the urban setting."
Reese took a sip of water. Peregrine, again. He was moderately familiar with the birds, having shared a rooftop or two with them in the City during surveillance on their Numbers. They were elegant in flight, stooping to amazing speeds when they targeted their prey in a no-holds-barred dive. They were also fiercely protective of their mates, nests and offspring. He glanced at the heavily forested surroundings. "This isn't particularly urban."
"Research happens in the City," she answered. "Peregrines love those huge skyscrapers, and the older buildings with their nooks and crannies. Out here though, they recuperate. City life isn't all it's cracked up to be for raptors. There's a good food source, and lots of nesting places, but they're exposed to a lot of environmental poisons and man-made complications. That's the reason they were on the endangered species list. Pesticides damaged the eggshells, decreasing the viability of a successful hatching. We almost lost them entirely. It's only because a few dedicated ornithologists dug into the reasons behind their declining population that they're still around. If it hadn't been for their protectors, they would have--"
She broke off, blushing. "Sorry. I got on a roll."
"Easy to do that, when you're passionate about something," Reese said. "I have a friend with an interest in birds. He's fond of lecturing, too."
"Well, food should have been the first thing on the agenda." She eyed him seriously for a moment. "You look a burger man. Thick, juicy, grilled onions, butter-chip pickles. Fries." Her lip twisted sideways and a light frown creased her forehead. "Not clear on a malt or home-made pie, though."
"Depends on the size of the burger," he responded.
"Whoppers. And not the micro-waved fast-food type," she announced with pride.
He raised his water glass. "This will do for now. I'll keep the pie in mind."
Her pony-tail bobbed as she nodded and scurried off. He settled back to wait for his order, paging idly through the booklet with its descriptions of the birds in the area, stopping at the section on Finches. He wondered if he would ever know why Harold had chosen bird names for his aliases, and just how many there were that John hadn't even learned yet. He knew Crow and Wren, Crane and Starling, Gull and Swift and Partridge. Burdett had thrown him until he'd done some research and discovered its association to a bird called a Red Butt--a term which had sent his mind down paths he knew better than to explore. Peregrine was a new addition to the list.
'Finch' though, that suited him better than any of the others. On the whole, they were small to medium sized birds, the males known for their bright splashes of color. Their bouncing flight could be construed to be uneven in comparison to other species, much like Harold's limping gait. It didn't negatively affect their ability to get around, just as his partner's old injuries didn't prevent him from being active. They were vocal, voices ranging from a long sweet song, to a short pik-pik call of alarm.
Unpredictable, clever, often heard and not seen. Definitely Harold.
Josie bustled back with his order, the promised hamburger filling half the plate, a mountain of fries accompanying it. She refilled his water glass and left him to enjoy his food in peace. He dug in, savoring every bite.
He was finishing up the last crunchy french fry when she returned.
"I think I'll pass," he said, wiping his fingers on a napkin. "Regretfully."
Her eyes twinkled. "I can always package up a piece in a go-box."
That was tempting, but not knowing where he was headed, he declined with a shake of his head. "I do have a question for you."
"You said the Peregrines come out here to recuperate?"
She nodded. "We have a small hospital for injured or sick birds. Since I'm studying Peregrines, I have permission to cage them if necessary. One of the premier ornithologists from the Central Park Zoo helps me care for them."
Reese repressed a shudder at the mention of caging such a proud, free-spirited creature. It brought back too many nightmares of Finch falling into the hands of their enemies, locked away and exploited.
His expression must have given his dark thoughts away. Josie placed a hand on his arm. "We take very good care of them, and release them as soon as they are well enough to fend for themselves," she said gently. "Would you like to see?"
He needed something to remove the ugly image of Harold behind bars from his head. He nodded and rose to his feet. Josie led the way down the steps of the deck and through a narrow gap in the trees. A few hundred feet from the diner was a modest-sized wooden building, with panels on the gently slanted roof which he took to be skylights.
Expecting a sterile, clinical interior, he was surprised to find it softly lit by sunlight filtering in through the forested overhead canopy. The wide windows on the far side reminded John of the windows in his Loft. There were no cages in evidence. Josie turned and pointed toward the ceiling over his head. The wall common to the door was designed to mimic a cliff face, rocky protuberances jutting out to provide perching surfaces. Staring down at them from one of the ledges was a male Peregrine, the yellow rim of his eye standing out in sharp contrast to his black hood.
"This guy took a couple pellets to his right wing about two weeks ago," Josie murmured softly. "It's amazing how many fools think a wild bird is a convenient target to improve their sharpshooting skills. Especially in the City. A gentleman found him in Midtown, cowering under some bushes in the park. Without intervention, the injury to his wing would have left him prey for a stray cat. He was in pretty bad shape when he got here. Not so much from the injury, but raptors are predators, and when they can't hunt, they lose their will to live."
Her words resonated strongly with Reese. He had been in the same position after Jessica's death. Used to being at the top of the food chain, he had defanged himself with alcohol, not caring about anything except the relief the booze gave him from his grief. He cleared his throat softly. "He looks like he's in pretty good shape now."
"He is. I'll be taking him back to the City in a few days to release him. Once they find their partner, Peregrines mate for life, so I'm sure he'll find his way home. They're amazingly resilient creatures."
Reese nodded and glanced around. "This isn't what I was expecting."
She grinned. "It's different, isn't it? We do have a complete surgery and there are times when we have to use conventional cages, but this," she gestured to the room with a wave of her hand, "makes a huge psychological difference in recovery. It's the closest we can get to the feeling of open space."
Reese ran a hand down the simulated rock wall. "Did you get special funding for this?"
"An anonymous grant. One that's very generous. It's the only way we could have afforded to build this and pay a stipend to the zoo for their help. It funds my research, too. Otherwise I'd be spending a lot of time in that poodle skirt."
He met her grin with a smile. So John wasn't the only predator Harold had rescued. Finch and his resources...doling out lifesaving efforts and funds in the most unexpected places.
They chatted for a few more minutes, John making mental notes about the buildings in the City she accessed to check on nesting. It wouldn't do to run into her unexpectedly on one of their cases. Or to disturb the birds, if he could avoid it.
"Thanks for listening to me ramble," Josie said as they climbed the steps to the deck and made their way inside the diner. "I know I get carried away. To make it up to you, I'd like to comp your lunch."
John shook his head. "That's not necessary."
She winked at him. "Think of it as incentive to come back and try the pie. Bring your friend."
He pulled out his wallet, extracted several twenties and pressed them into her hand. "Give my compliments to the cook, and consider this a contribution to your research."
John stuck his hands in his jacket pockets when she tried to give back the money.
She tucked the bills into her jeans pocket and walked him to the diner's front door. "The pie will be on the house then," she said firmly. "Whenever you visit."
"Always good to have a favor or two waiting to be cashed in," he said with a grin. "Good luck."
"You too, John."
He was half-way to the car before he stopped and half-turned toward the building. He had never given her his name.
The GPS was flashing when he climbed into the Mercedes, indicating a direct route into the City. A short stretch of two lane road led to the on-ramp for the highway south. Mid-afternoon traffic was steady, moving at a good pace. Reese set the cruise control and motored along, part of his mind chewing over the day.
Finch never did anything without a firm goal in mind. His intricate plans always followed a step by step process, despite the red herrings he often threw into the mix to confuse the unwary. It was the way his mind worked.
So what was the goal for today? What was Finch trying to tell him? Show him? Everything Harold had planned had included something Reese would specifically enjoy. It had also been an odd trip down memory lane: detours to his past, signposts of the present.
Nothing about the future, but then again, theirs was clouded and presaged with the violence they encountered with each case, not to mention the powerful interested parties lurking in the wings. Any day, any Number could be their last. Was this day just a brief breathing space before the shit really hit the fan? Did Finch know something he didn't?
He tapped his earpiece.
"Yes, Mr. Reese?"
Harold's calm salutation left John scrambling to find the words to address the unease churning in his gut.
"I see you're headed into the City," Finch continued smoothly. "Right on schedule to arrive at your next destination. Was there something else you needed? Or--"
There was a pause that lasted several heartbeats. When he spoke again, Harold's voice was rougher, uneasy, although he tried to cover it well. "Or have you elected to bow out of the exercise? If that's the case, then--"
"Not quitting, Finch," Reese interrupted, frowning a little at the worry he sensed. "Just...checking in."
Silence again. And then...
"One would think you would appreciate the lack of my presence in your ear, Mr. Reese." Delivered in his normal, dry tone.
"I've gotten kind of used to it," John admitted.
Despite the concern which had prompted the call, Reese smiled. It wasn't often Reese could stump his partner into a one-word answer. And a flustered one at that.
"Anything interesting happening on your end?" he prodded.
"I doubt you would find my weekly system check and updating of our aliases worthy of the qualifier 'interesting', Mr. Reese. There was little mayhem involved."
The roiling in John's stomach began to settle. Harold appeared to be involved in basic maintenance, not life-changing or life-threatening research. Their future was still in motion.
"I've seen the damage you can do, armed with just a mouse, Finch. You have a bloodthirsty streak. It's just hidden better than mine," he teased.
"Should I take that as a compliment, or an insult?"
"Definitely a compliment."
"Accepted, then. Beyond the exchange of pleasantries, was there a point to your call?"
"To tell the truth, that big lunch on top of all this fresh air and exercise is making me a little sleepy." It wasn't that much of a lie. The car's exceptionally smooth ride, the comfortable seats, and running on cruise didn't exactly encourage attentive driving. He was feeling very relaxed, or at least he had been, before he'd tried to discern his partner's motives.
"Well, we can't have you falling asleep behind the wheel. That's a $250,000 automobile you're driving, Mr. Reese."
John's smile broadened. "You can afford it, Finch."
"One doesn't get to be a billionaire without being stingy, Mr. Reese. Or protective of one's assets."
A warm glow suffused him. He fell into the asset category. "Tell me a story," he blurted impulsively.
"A story. Of what nature?"
John huffed a laugh at Harold's suspicious tone. "I don't care. Something to keep me alert."
"'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,'" Harold intoned sonorously.
"I know that one. It doesn't end well."
"Have you been borrowing my first editions, Mr. Reese? Without permission?"
"Relax, Finch. I know better."
"Humph. Then perhaps you should speak with your dog and pass that lesson on to him. He has been eyeing them again."
"If you didn't keep taking the squeakies out of his toys, Harold, Bear wouldn't be interested in yours."
"Books are not toys, Mr. Reese. They are...gateways to imagination."
"Sounds like a slogan for the New York Public Library."
"I am sitting in one of their branches."
"A story, Finch," John prompted.
"Are you familiar with the tale of the blind men and the elephant?"
"It's not ringing any bells."
"It's a fable, or a parable, originating in the Indian subcontinent, I believe. In a small village, lived five blind men. One day, an elephant was brought into the village. The blind men, who had never encountered that type of animal before, each touched a part of the beast, trying to determine what it looked like. The first man touched the trunk, and declared it must be like a thick tree branch. The one who felt the tail thought it probably looked like a snake or a rope. The third man who wrapped his arms around a stout leg was convinced it was more pillar-like in shape. The fourth said it was a fan, after an examination of the elephant's ear. The fifth, who touched its side, argued it was a wall."
"Interesting conclusions," Reese murmured.
"And accurate, based on their individual experiences and perceptions."
"But not correct."
"The implication is that one's subjective experience can be true, but that such experience is inherently limited by its failure to account for other truths, or a totality of truths."
"Do the blind men ever agree?"
"Not without outside intervention. In the story, the wise man of the village reminds them that they each had only touched a part of the whole. In order to get a true 'picture' of the creature, they needed to combine all their clues, all of their perceptions."
"You're still as likely to get a mouse, as an elephant," John pointed out.
"Yes, that is a possibility. Even a sighted man is often blind to what is in front of his eyes. 'Perception is reality' is a difficult adage to argue. Sometimes a different viewpoint clarifies matters."
"You'd have to have a lot of faith in that viewpoint."
There was a long pause before Harold answered.
"You've perceived the crux of the issue, Mr. Reese. Influencing perception...can be a tricky endeavor. A great degree of trust is required, on both sides, to see the 'totality of truths.'"
John frowned. There was something about that phrase which applied directly to the thoughts which had prompted this call. He just couldn't pin it down.
"The story has many versions, in many religions and disciplines. It's used as an analogy for wave-particle duality in physics. I believe there's a more modern adaptation using seven blind mice, instead of men. Many psychologists use it as a metaphor for interpersonal relationships."
"Let me guess. 'You can't see the forest for the trees.'"
"Yes. And on that point, it appears traffic in your sector is picking up. May I assume you are sufficiently alert now to arrive at your next destination safely?"
Reese sat up a little straighter. Traffic was heavier. Miles had sped by while they'd been talking and the familiar skyline of New York was significantly closer.
"I think I can manage, Finch," he said. "Thanks."
"Always, Mr. Reese."
John felt the familiar shiver and almost missed the click that signaled Harold signing off. He sighed and tabbed off the cruise control, turning most of his attention to driving, allowing fragments from their conversation to surface on their own.
Forest for the trees...
It hadn't escaped his notice that Finch had found a way to end the call at the point when interpersonal relationships had come up. It wasn't a surprise. From day one, Harold had been an enigma, a puzzle John was still trying to solve. Reese had glimpsed a number of the 'trees' that comprised the edges of Finch's forest--a preference for tea over coffee, 180 gram vinyl over digital; a love of rare books, and a fondness for sprinkles on his donuts; a lost friend, a lost love; a rock solid sense of morality, a surprisingly awkward gentleness--but he doubted he would ever see the expanse in its entirety.
Now that was something Finch was extremely skilled at doing. John had been surprised at Harold's chameleon-like qualities, his ability to blend into the background, to appear to be someone or something that he wasn't. He had hidden in plain sight as an unassuming, low-level programmer, putting up with an officious, arrogant younger manager who never suspected he was belittling the man who owned the the company and signed his paycheck. He had misled Carter into thinking he was a dumpily dressed, insignificant para-legal; a perception which was shattered when Finch had shown some of his true colors, leading her on a wild goose chase around town as she followed the phone trail he had planted, meeting her face to face at his discretion, and heartlessly dumping her into the deep end of the pool on one of their Numbers while Reese had been laid up, recovering from Mark Snow's sneak attack.
Out of his bespoke layers, he could be a copier repairman, a rank technician of almost any sort. Donning that armor, he was a man who could challenge any corporate CEO and bring him to his knees.
Finch had been influencing John's perception of him since the moment they met. Ferrying him to a clandestine location in a town car from the police station; two body guards displayed, yet standing well out of their protective circle, waving them off as if Reese posed no threat; dressed in a simple dark trench coat, presenting a slight, harmless figure whose words carried power and made a lie out of that illusion; risking John's half-drunken wrath and unpredictability by taunting him with a tape of a woman's murder, managing to fearlessly gasp out a challenge when Reese could have easily snapped his neck.
Totality of truths...
Finch had quickly proven he wasn't the bored rich guy John had first pegged him for. Perception was not reality in Harold's case. Just when Reese thought he had him figured out, Finch would surprise him, drop a breadcrumb, lead him to a different answer.
Perhaps the 'totality of truths' when it came to Harold was not in what he hadn't revealed, but what he had.
That revelation made John sit up even straighter in his seat.
Finch had given him the secret of The Machine from the very beginning. Despite his claim that he knew everything about Reese, he couldn't have predicted with total accuracy what John would do with that information. Reese could have used the knowledge to buy his safety. He could have revealed the existence of the Library to the government, given them the perfect spot to trap Harold and gather him in. If he had played his cards right, John could have walked away with a wad of money and a new life.
Finch had left clues which had led Reese to Grace; essentially offering John a hostage who could be used against him.
Those two secrets had left him seriously exposed, yet Harold didn't make mistakes that left him vulnerable.
So if they weren't mistakes, they were intentional moves in a game that was still on-going. Offers of trust: elements of a strategy, detailed and precise, constantly adjusted. Finch had been two steps ahead of him all along.
Just like the game he had John playing today. Every move, every detail thought out well in advance.
Even a sighted man is often blind to what is in front of his eyes...
So what the hell wasn't John seeing?
He was still trying to find an answer to that question as he approached the destination programmed into the GPS. Once off the highway, the route had guided him into an older part of Brooklyn, through neighborhoods of aging, once-stately brownstones interspersed with mom-and-pop storefronts.
He eyed the parking structure the coordinates indicated dubiously. He had little fondness for buildings which offered only one way in and out. It was too easy to get trapped by an adversary lurking in the shadows. As he prepared to turn into the entrance, the GPS flashed a correction, directing him to a second driveway, fifteen feet further ahead--an open street-level lot.
Both relieved and perversely irritated at another example of how well Finch knew him, John pulled up next to the enclosed booth at the entrance. The parking attendant was a young man who waved him through with barely a glance. Reese guided the Mercedes into the first open space he found. A quick glance at the other vehicles in the lot revealed few other high-end cars. John raised the convertible's top and made sure it was securely locked before heading toward the booth.
Without looking up from the book in his lap, the attendant tapped a key on the console in front of him, generating a ticket which he handed to Reese. John murmured a thank you which was answered with a grunt.
Reese stepped away from the booth. The attendant obviously wasn't in on Harold's game. So what was he supposed to do here? He scanned the street. More brownstones, a video rental store, a small convenience store, laundromat, and glass-fronted storefront which appeared to be an exercise studio. He fingered the lot ticket absently. Where was his--?
The ticket, of course.
He studied the stub. The date was correct, but the time stamp was wrong. It was closing in on 4:00 pm, but the ticket read 19:34, nearly three and a half hours off. The ticket also listed the lot address--1913 Fenmore Avenue. 1934 had to be an address.
He crossed the street, checking the numbers on the storefronts. The exercise studio was his destination. He stopped just short of the wide windows to allow a young mother with two school-aged children dressed in martial arts Gis hurry past, and enter the studio. Other children of varying ages and adults were congregating inside, some taking seats on folding chairs ringing the perimeter, others settling onto the floor at the edges of the mats which filled the center of the large open room.
On the mats, a dozen older teens were engaged in a fairly advanced kata under the watchful eye of an instructor. Reese watched as one tall black youth wobbled a bit on his last position, but ultimately held it. The instructor crossed to him and murmured something in his ear before releasing the class with a low bow of respect. The boy John had been focused on returned the bow, then bounced excitedly up and down. As he turned toward the windows, Reese stiffened in surprise.
It had been over a year since they had helped solve his brother's murder. Just as he knew Finch kept tabs on Monica Jacobs, Reese had maintained a quiet surveillance on the young man, watching from a distance as the youth had blossomed in his foster family's care, and excelled at the gifted and talented school Finch had arranged. He could have ended up another tragic statistic. Instead, he was thriving, nearly three inches taller than when Reese had first met him, gangly limbs indicating more height would be coming. His face had thinned a bit, losing some of the roundness of youth, giving hints of the man he would become.
Darren stopped short, obviously surprised himself at finding John staring at him through the pane. He grinned and waved furiously at Reese, beckoning him inside. John made his way through the crowd, meeting the offered hand slap with matching enthusiasm.
"Reese! Man, it's good to see you!"
"I see you're still studying the 'Art of War'," Reese observed with a smile. "You haven't given up drawing, have you?"
"A true samurai must balance the mental with the physical," Darren responded, eyes flashing mischievously.
Reese nodded. "You looked good out there."
Darren's face flushed with pleasure. "One bobble at the end, but Sensei says I can move on to the next level soon. I can't decide between Kenjo and Iaido." He nodded toward two open chairs. "I can't believe you're here. You're just in time. Master Koboru is giving a demonstration. He hardly ever performs. You're gonna love this!"
Curious, Reese followed the youth to the seats he had indicated. They had barely settled when the crowd went quiet. A slight man dressed in the black gear of a Master stood at the edge of the mats, head bowed. Of oriental descent, he seemed ancient, almost frail, his bald head gleaming under the lights.
The illusion of fragility disappeared the moment he raised his head. It was as if he drew in power and strength from the very air around him. He paced to the center of the mats and pivoting slowly, bowed to all four sides. Gracefully sinking to his knees, he laid a sheathed katana sword reverently on the mat in front of him.
Reese leaned forward, watching as intently as the young man at his side. While he had trained in Krav Maga and Wing Chun, this was a martial art he had never studied. Iaido was the art of drawing, cutting and replacing the sword in the scabbard. It sounded simplistic, but there was a deadly elegance to it which had always intrigued him.
Koboru leaned forward, bowing over the sword, showing respect. With studied, precise movements, he picked up the sword and slid it into the sheath at his side. He settled for a moment, then in one smooth move he drew the katana from its sheath with his right hand. He continued the movement, extending the blade with a snap to his right, while at the same time rising enough to lunge forward with his right leg, foot flattening on the mat with a stomp.
A pause, then the blade was arcing over his head, reversing and slashing forward in a two handed grip, the fine steel whistling as it sliced through molecules of air.
Entranced, John watched as the Master flowed through the kata in a series of elegant moves and pauses, the blade flashing as the old man danced across the mats. They were a warrior's moves, the thrusts, the slashes, the snap of the hilt as it kissed the scabbard all geared to suggest violence, yet there was a raw elegance to it as well.
John felt a pang of disappointment as Koboru sheathed the sword a final time, placed it back on the floor and bowed over it. He was on his feet with the rest of the crowd, offering a respectful bow to the mastery he had witnessed. Koboru rose, made his bows to the assembled, and padded off the mats. He stopped briefly to exchange a word with one of the instructors before exiting at a door in the back of the room.
Reese glanced at the young man at his side, the youth's stunned expression making him smile. "I'd guess swords are going to win out over sticks," he observed.
Darren grinned, eyes sparkling. "Oh man, that was...I don't know what that was, but yeah. Swords, definitely." His head snapped up as someone called his name from across the dojo. "Excuse me for a minute."
Reese watched him dash around the mats, deftly avoiding the adults and children who were making their way toward the exit. After a short conversation with one of the instructors, Darren bolted back to him, nearly bouncing in excitement.
"Reese. He wants to talk to you!"
John quirked an eyebrow.
"Master Koboru." Darren breathed out the name in awe. "He wants--" The young man shook his head, regaining his composure. "I mean he asks if you would honor him with a word."
Despite the sneaking suspicion that this was another part of Harold's plan, one didn't disrespect a Master's request. With Darren leading the way, they headed toward the exit Koboru had used. A short corridor faced with doorways open to small, neat offices ended at another closed heavy wooden door, the panel intricately carved with graceful flowers.
Darren nodded toward a wicker basket on a small ornate table next to the door. "You need to leave your phone here." At John's quirked eyebrow, the teen shrugged. "Master Koboru is old school. Says you can't appreciate nature's voice with a phone stuck in your ear."
Reese hesitated, reluctant to part with his link to Finch, but the plea he read in Darren's eyes decided him. He placed his phone in the basket and pocketed his earpiece.
An exquisite Japanese garden filled the courtyard of the building behind the dojo, flowering plants and shrubs scenting the air, the low murmur of running water and the faint splash of a fountain creating a pleasant white noise which nearly canceled out any city sounds. They paced a walking path of paving stones to where Koboru waited, sheathed katana across his knees. Seated on a small stone bench, catching the lingering rays of the day's sun, the elderly man seemed an intrinsic part of the environment, completely at ease and at peace.
"Thank you for escorting my guest, Darren," he said softly in greeting.
Eyes wide, obviously tongue-tied, Darren managed a respectful bow.
"I would ask one more favor." The young man nodded, mouth opening in surprise as Koboru lifted the sword and offered it to him. "Would you return this to it's proper place?"
Reese watched Darren carefully, wondering if the young man knew how unusual the request was. Darren appeared to be aware of the honor he had been granted, bowing low before carefully taking the sword in both hands. With a nod toward Reese, he trod carefully down the path toward the dojo, carrying the sheathed weapon with the respect it deserved.
"Did you enjoy the kata?" Koboru asked quietly, his enigmatic gaze fixing on Reese.
"It was..." John searched for a way to describe what he had felt and finally settled on, "beautiful."
The old man's face transformed with a smile. "Ah. It pleases me you should choose that word. It is unusual for a Warrior to see beyond the weapon...the violence contained within the steel."
John offered a small smile, the barest of nods.
"Young Darren has spoken often of the Ronin who saved his life and found justice for his brother," Koboru continued. "He holds you in great esteem." Unsettled by the praise, Reese shifted minutely. Koboro glanced at him sharply. "You disagree? You do not see yourself deserving of his admiration?"
"I was just doing my job," John responded tersely.
Koboru shook his head. "I have made you uncomfortable. That was not my intent. Please forgive an old man's bluntness." He gestured to the space beside him. "Come. Sit. We will speak of the Sword.
"Tsune ni ite, kyu ni awasu," the old master murmured as Reese seated himself on the bench. "Iaido is a state of preparedness and action. One must be ever alert. Ready to face an opponent swiftly and decisively. A Warrior trains to attain the skill to use every part of the Sword, to hone his advantage. You understand this, yes?"
"The skill of the blade alone, is like the Sword, unsheathed. Without direction or purpose it is as deadly to he who wields it, as to the opponent who stands within its reach. The sheathed Sword is patience. Readiness. Knowing when to draw, and when to sheath the Sword, requires balance. A harmony of the spirit.
"That is the beauty of the art...the Way. A meshing of the warrior with intellect and will--skill and purpose--to action. The true practitioner is one who balances the capacity for violence with the moral conscience which guides him to seek to do more good than harm."
"That's a tall order," John observed.
"You are correct." The old man lifted his gaze to the garden. "It is the violence of their deeds by which the bushi are best known. And by the Warrior's code which allowed them to face death without fear, and commit seppuku to avoid dishonor. Few understand they also have a long history of service, not only to their Master, but to the people. Many were well educated and among our most lyrical of poets. Our most brilliant of artists and diplomats. This was not a balance easily attained. Samurai were valued during times of war for centuries for their skills as Warriors, but when my country turned toward peace, the bushi who had not found their balance were like the soldiers who return from our wars now. Lost. Leaderless. Abandoned. Some became Ronin, mercenaries for hire. Some bandits. Those who achieved the Way survived. The journey is...difficult. But not impossible."
Koboru paused, turning to gaze at Reese solemnly. "You have the skills of a Warrior, yet you do not find them worthy of praise. You see the beauty of Iaido, yet you cannot envision it within yourself. You are still on your journey."
Reese stiffened. The man was too perceptive, or Finch had coached him, which was more likely. He felt a stirring of resentment. "Darren said you seldom perform," he said, choosing not to respond to the unexpected critique, but to pose few questions of his own. "Why did you do it today?"
Koboru laughed lightly. "A little bird told me I would have an appreciative audience."
Finch. Enough was enough. Reese started to rise, but Koboru laid a hand on his arm. "The demonstration was arranged. This meeting was not."
Warily, John settled back on the bench.
"I owe a debt," Koboru explained. "I'm an old man and I would see it paid."
Reese eyed him suspiciously. "And how do I figure into it?"
Loss darkened the old man's eyes. "I had a granddaughter. Very much the modern American teenager. Her choices in friends...ah, she was young and the young will make mistakes. She thought they were going out for a late night drive. They stopped at a liquor store. Two of the young men she was with put a gun in her hand and forced her to help them rob it. The police gave chase. The car crashed. She was killed. One of her companions survived to reveal the truth...that they had been planning the robbery for some time. They had intended my granddaughter take the blame."
Koboru shook his head sadly. "I had been approached with a warning two days before she died. A man came to the dojo. He told me her life was in danger. That we should keep her close. Her parents tried, but she was headstrong, convinced of her own immortality. After the funeral he came here again. To express his sorrow for our loss. I was angry. I demanded to know why, if he had known she was in peril, he hadn't done more. He had no answer, he simply took my rage without question or excuse.
"Before he left, he had the courage to ask me for a gift. He understood that my heart screamed for vengeance. He asked that I create something beautiful instead. Something to honor my granddaughter. It was then I realized that he himself was broken, bowed with grief. He knew loss. He harbored the same desire for retribution which lived in me. Yet he refused to yield to it. He walked a different path. He convinced me to do the same." Korobu smiled gently. "The kata I created and performed today was the result of his request. When I dance it, my granddaughter lives."
Reese knew if he asked for her name, he would find it on Harold's board of lost chances. She must have been one of the early Numbers, one of those Finch could never forget.
"He returns on occasion. To enjoy the garden. We do not speak often. He is very..."
"Private," Reese said softly.
"Alone," Korobu corrected him. "And stubborn. Perhaps as stubborn as you."
Grudgingly, John accepted that observation. He and Finch were alike in that respect.
"He is curious, this little bird. On the visits when we do speak, he has many questions. He seeks to learn the Way."
John frowned. An interest in martial arts? Finch? Highly unlikely, unless it was the philosophical aspects which intrigued him. Physical violence and Harold were two opposite ends of the spectrum. He shuddered at the thought of poking someone in the eye in self-defense, and grimaced every time Reese returned to the Library with a new bloodstain on his shirt.
"Not to practice it himself," Koboru continued, "but to better understand a friend."
That made even less sense, if he was the 'friend' in question. Finch knew everything about him--understood what kind of monster he had hired. Reese glared at Koboru suspiciously. Was that what the old man wanted? A killer to settle the debt he had mentioned?
As if reading his mind, the master raised his hands. "You misunderstand. I wish nothing from you, but your patience and an open mind. As I said, our meeting was not planned. I did not know it was you, for whom he asked the favor of the performance today. Not until I saw you sitting with young Darren did I realize that my student's hero and the little bird's friend were one in the same."
"I'm no hero," John half-growled.
"Darren believes you to be."
"He's a child...too caught up in tales of glory and myth."
"A child who would have been lost to the darkness if you had not intervened," the old man countered calmly. "I asked to speak with you, to express my thanks for saving my student, and to pay back a debt to a man who kept me from dishonor." Koboru leaned forward, his gaze intent. "The little bird will not sing to you himself, as he should, so meddling old man that I am, I take it upon myself to speak for him."
John blinked in surprise, simmering anger replaced by wary curiosity. "And what would the message be?" he asked cautiously.
"His hope. That you find peace from your sorrows. Accept that you are a good man, not the darkness you hold close. That you open yourself to...possibilities."
John frowned and looked away. "When you live in the shadows...been a part of them, it's difficult to be anything else."
"Do you not feel the sun on your face? Your place in it?"
"Sometimes it seems like an illusion," Reese murmured.
"You have found your home, have you not?" Koboru pressed. "You are no longer Ronin. Your calling...saving innocents like Darren. Is it not a worthy use of your talents? Does it not bring light to your soul?"
“You wear a mask for so long, you forget who you were beneath it,” John admitted. "My...talents...it's hard to see those as valuable, or honorable. Not with what I've done to acquire them."
"Each step a man takes, each breath..." Noboru gestured toward the garden with a wave of his hand, “everything is connected. The wing of the corn beetle affects the direction of the wind, the way the sand drifts, the way the light reflects into the eye of man beholding his reality.
"'Peace comes from the acceptance of the part of you that can never be at peace.' There is no shame in your skills. In understanding of what you are capable. The world is not this peaceful garden. The Warrior exists because he is necessary. Balanced, he is capable of both violence and compassion. Complete your journey and your eyes will be opened and you will grant him his wish."
Peace from sorrow. Acceptance. Possibilities...
John shook his head. Well, he was obviously the sighted blind man. That was the message for the day. What he was supposed to see...that was the riddle he needed to decipher.
He glanced at Korboru. "You wouldn't have any sage advice about elephants, would you?"
The old man laughed. "Only that I would not invite one to visit my garden." He rose to his feet. "You, however, are welcome. Stay. Enjoy. There is still an hour of sun."
"And when it's gone?" Reese rasped softly, rising to offer a short, respectful bow.
Koboru offered a cryptic smile. "Seek enlightenment through another's eyes." He bowed and padded down the paved path.
Too unsettled to sit, John let his feet carry him in the opposite direction, deeper into the garden. Surrounded by beauty he couldn't appreciate due to the thoughts ping-ponging through his head, confusion turned to irritation. This was a waste of time. Introspection wasn't something he indulged in. He knew what he was.
Blind men and elephants.
There was a lesson there.
He was missing the big picture. Harold's 'totality of truths.'
The paving stone path curved around a fragrant flowering shrub and ended at another seating area, carved wooden benches arranged around a small reflecting pool, its surface shimmering in the lingering rays of the sun.
He hesitated for moment, then determinedly strode to the edge of the pool and looked down. The image of the man he saw looking back reflected his inner turmoil--hard jaw, cold eyes, tall, dark, menacing. The killer Kara Stanton had forged.
Disgusted, he took a step back and dropped onto one of the benches. He raked a hand through his hair in frustration and felt something stab into his side. Irritated, he reached into his pocket and pulled out the rolled up puzzle book. He had forgotten he had it.
Why did he have it? He hadn't really needed it for a clue all day long, so why had Finch provided it? He unrolled the book, turning to the page which held the puzzle he had solved, and studied the list of words.
He'd written them down in no particular order, but now that he was really looking at them, a pattern nudged at him. Frowning, he pulled out the pen and started a new list, picking out the obvious clues that best described the events of the day, pairing them with the words which best matched each scenario.
He stared at the last six words on the original list, pulse beating hard in his throat.
The day had been filled with revelations and truths. Each delivered by a source, location or experience Finch had chosen to prompt a particular message or memory. An outside source to influence his perception, like the wise village elder in Harold's parable. The enlightenment Koboru had suggest he seek through another's eyes.
Joan to point out that he was no longer the homeless drunk she had known.
Breakfast at the diner to remind him of where things had changed between him and Finch; where the first glimmerings of true trust had been offered on both sides; where he had made the choice to hope again.
The bike ride which had given him that amazing gift of peace and recognition that he was no longer alone; that he once again had someone who cared, who filled the empty spaces within.
Chapin's story restoring a sense of pride in who and what he had once been; a lesson that second chances were too precious to waste.
The plight of the peregrines, predators once endangered just as he had been; coming into their own again through the careful nurturing of those who found value in their fierceness, encouraging them to thrive and build their nests in the most unexpected of places.
Elephants--stories within stories. Trusted outside sources influencing perception for those too blind to see.
Darren and Koboru, student and master who embraced a warrior's code, finding the balance between violence and beauty, chaos and harmony; encouraging him to do the same.
'HOPE' had appeared on the list twice. It couldn't be a coincidence. Not coming from Finch. He had been so meticulous with everything else. If Koboru had been telling the truth and their conversation wasn't something Finch had planned, then it couldn't be Harold's 'hope' for him that the clue referred to.
Yet maybe that was part of it.
His greatest sorrow was his inability to save Jessica. He had been too late to save the woman he had once loved. Finch hadn't been able to save her either. She had been one of those early Numbers, like Koboru's granddaughter.
John pictured her in his mind, soft beautiful features and flowing blonde hair. The pain of loss was still there, deep within him, but the heartbreaking agony which had sent him into the alcoholic downward spiral which would have ultimately killed him, had eased to a dull ache. He had, without realizing it, nearly come to grips with it.
Koboru had been dead on, when he'd so bluntly stated John was still on his journey to accept who he was. "Who are you?" That was the first thing so many of their Numbers asked. Most recently, it had been Abby Monroe posing that question. He hadn't known how to answer then, and he wasn't entirely sure now. But after this day of revelations, he was faced with the certainty that he was becoming more than just the monster he hadn't wanted to find in the mirror.
He eyed the fainting shimmering pool, slowly rose to his feet and moved to the edge. He closed his eyes, drew in a deep breath. Another. He needed to understand. To see what it was his partner wanted him to see.
Harold. In his bespoke suits and colorful ties and pocket squares.
The man of mystery and secrets. Brilliant. Compassionate.
The man with a wicked sense of humor, when he let it out to play.
The man who arranged this day specifically for him.
He'd never had a day like it. No one had ever known him well enough to plan something that pushed all his buttons--in a good way.
No one had ever cared enough to...
Reese let his eyes drift open. The image reflecting back from the pool was different than the one he had seen when he'd last looked. Oh, it was the same tall dark haired man, greying at the temples, but the menace was gone, the eyes softened by a crinkle of laugh lines at the corners, and a small, but genuine smile curved his lips. The man looking back looked...
What was the difference? Why could he see this part of himself now, and not before?
He'd been thinking about Finch. About his day. About how well Harold had to know him to--
But of course he did. Finch knew everything about him.
Accepted everything about him.
Wanted him to be open to 'possibilities.'
Reese scrubbed a hand across his mouth, as his partner's earlier words came back to him. 'Even a sighted man is often blind to what is in front of his eyes.'
How many times had he told himself there was no chance for anything more than friendship with Harold because even if he was interested, the man deserved better?
Was Harold interested? Had he come to terms with his own loss? Had Harold let go of Grace?
He wished he had the answer to those questions.
He let his gaze drift, the lingering sun warming one side of his face. Half in light, half in shadow. That seemed to be where he lived his life now. It was better than being eclipsed by the dark, being the dark--a far cry from where he'd been before he met Finch. He'd been drowning and Harold had thrown him--
A connection to the world.
Lifelines went both ways.
John glanced down at the remaining list of words.
Damn, he was slow on the uptake. He should turn in his spy school diploma.
Reese snagged his phone from the basket as he exited the garden, automatically checking the call log. Being out of contact had probably unsettled Finch, but there were no messages waiting. There was no new clue to his next destination, either, although he suspected he was very close to the final move in the game.
The dojo was empty, the students long gone. John skirted the mats, treading quietly, respectful of the fragile peace he had attained, despite the urge to find his partner and confirm his conclusions. On the folding chair he had used earlier, he found a paperback book. Dog-eared and tattered, the cover half torn off, it was a copy of Great Expectations.
John grinned at the appropriateness of the title his partner had chosen.
A bright feather bookmarked a page, the highlighted passage his final clue.
“Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”
Only one day, one place, fit that description.
Reese shifted the Mercedes' into 'park' and killed the engine, pulling the keys from the ignition and fingering the key chain's fob thoughtfully. The fleur de lis represented a critical piece of the puzzle that he still lacked. A quick internet search on his phone had provided a tantalizing clue. He just needed to confirm it. He pocketed the keys and climbed out of the car.
Harold was standing where John had first seen him, where the first link of their connection had been forged. A lone slight figure, dressed in a dark overcoat, collar turned up to keep the slight chill of the breeze off his neck, he was half-turned toward the water, dwarfed by the bridge rising above, the lights coming up from across the river as day shifted into dusk sparkling firework reflections on his glasses.
"Congratulations, Mr. Reese," his familiar tenor reaching out to ensnare John and pull him closer. "You've acquitted yourself admirably once again." He twisted to look at Reese, eyeing him from head to foot. "Despite being out of contact for an unexplained period of time."
John slid into place at his side, hands tucked into the pockets of his jacket, the rolled up puzzle book clenched in one hand, hope a fragile tendril in his heart. So much depended on playing this just right. "Sorry about that, Finch. Didn't mean to worry you."
Finch glared at him. "Your propensity for finding trouble even in the most innocent of settings makes you a constant source of concern, Mr. Reese." His expression eased. "Nonetheless, I am pleased to find you without any noticeable signs of wear and tear. You successfully completed the day, and you didn't even need to contact me for a Lifeline."
Reese offered a casual shrug. "I didn't need to. I'm still holding onto the one you threw me almost two years ago."
Harold's eyes widened. "I...I see," he stammered, his gaze immediately shifting away.
Reese contained a grin and turned his own gaze to the water, waiting for Finch to make his next move. The silence stretched between them, as solid and dependable as iron and yet as prickly as Dickens' thorns. Finally, out of the corner of his eye, John saw Harold pull a handkerchief from his pocket and his glasses from his face.
"Well...since you've completed the exercise, I assume you're eager to collect your prize," Finch murmured, his attention on his glasses as he worked to clean what John suspected was an imaginary smudge from the lenses.
"That would be only fair," John rasped. "You did say I could ask for anything. Nuclear weapons aside."
Finch's hands stilled and he stared down at them for the space of several heartbeats before exhaling softly, slumping slightly. "So I did." He slid the glasses back into place, squared his shoulders and turned to look at John. "What is it you desire, Mr. Reese?"
An interesting choice of words. He should have expected it. The man was a tease. Sorely tempted to blurt out exactly what he wanted, John forced himself to keep his expression unreadable, half-turning toward his partner. "Two questions, first."
Finch's eyebrow rose, his gaze warily intent as he studied Reese. "I could conclude those questions constitute your prize."
John nodded calmly. "But you won't."
Harold frowned, then gave a quick shake of his head as he turned to look out at the water again. He was silent for a moment, then, "Ask your questions, Mr. Reese."
"What's so special about Florence?" John pulled the keys from his pocket and dangled them in front of Finch. The fleur de lis, symbol of that Italian city, glinted in the faint light.
Finch tucked his head as far as his stiff neck would allow and appeared to be studying the ground as if it had suddenly become the most fascinating thing he'd ever seen. Then he huffed out a soft, rueful laugh and raised his head. Looking at his profile, John couldn't be sure, but he thought a small smile curved his partner's lips.
"As I'm sure you can surmise," Harold said quietly, "I didn't fit in particularly well with my peers when I was growing up. While most of them were content with the prospect of repeating the lives their fathers led, I wanted more. Farming, while in my blood, was not where my interests lay."
A farm boy? Finch?
"Technology was more to my liking, and far more understandable to me than nature or people ever were. I was always tinkering with some piece of machinery...tearing it apart to see what was inside. I wanted to understand why things worked the way they did...why sometimes they didn't work. I always thought I could make them better if I could just get to their secrets." Another breathy laugh. "I suppose at heart, I've always wanted to 'fix' things."
Finch's voice and expression grew somber. "Even things that couldn't be fixed."
He shook himself. "My first glimpse of the world beyond acres of corn and wheat was through the eyepieces of a Viewmaster. I spent hours studying each frame of every exotic locale I could find a disk for. Italy intrigued me the most. Seeing it in person had to wait until after I'd graduated from college. The ink was barely dry on my diploma before I caught a flight to Europe. It was...amazing. A place where my secrets were a drop in the ocean of mysteries around every corner.
"I'd already been in hiding from the government for years at that point...constantly looking over my shoulder, careful of my every move, every word spoken." He shot a quick glance at Reese. "Youthful indiscretions," he explained blandly as John raised a curious eyebrow. Harold shrugged and looked away again.
"Firenze was 'la culla del Rinascimento'...the 'cradle of the Renaissance'. The place where magic and superstition gave way to science and a true exploration of humanity's potential. It was the home of the Medici, patrons of art and music and literature. Despite history revealing them to be political despots, they sponsored some of the greatest inventors and artists of all time--Michelangelo, da Vinci, Botticelli...
"Florence opened the doors of the world for me. Walking its streets...soaking it all in, I felt a sense of...liberta...freedom like I'd never before experienced. It was the place that let me see, and be, who and what I truly was. Era il posto che ho trovato il mio cuore. Florence was where I took my first male lover." He smiled, a sweet gentle curve of the lips that made John ache, wanting to see it turned his way.
Finch sighed. "I could have stayed there forever."
"Why didn't you?" Reese asked gently.
A laugh escaped the older man. "I ran out of money." He twisted toward John. "I wasn't always wealthy, Mr. Reese," he said dryly. His expression grew pensive. "And Nathan was here...a partnership just begun, and filled with promise. There was work to be done."
"A Machine to build?"
"Eventually. We were going to change the world." Harold looked away. "You know how that turned out."
Reese nodded, let his gaze drift outward as he struggled to arrange his thoughts. He had one question left, and if Finch answered it with as much candor as he'd answered the first, John's path would be clear.
"Today...why John Warren?"
Harold's voice dropped a register, laced with anger and frustration. "Because the last time you used that cover, you ended up incarcerated in Rikers. Caged. Wanting only one thing. To go home. " Finch dragged in a deep breath, held it for a moment, then released it, deflating slightly, jangled emotions bleeding out on the exhale. "And despite my best intentions, efforts and resources, I could do nothing to ease your pain." He shook his head slowly, voice growing soft again. "John Warren is the closest identity to your own past. One that, fortune willing, you might take up one day in truth. I wanted to give you better memories to associate with that name."
"That's not the only reason," Reese pressed. "All of my...experiences today. They made me look at my life...my choices, in a different way. Influencing perception, you called it. I get that. But you sent me out there as John Warren. Not John Reese. Why?"
Beside him, Harold stiffened. "The John Reese I know is a good man, but you don't see yourself that way." Finch turned to look directly at him, his expression grim. "Despite the CIA's efforts to turn you into one, you were never the monster you think of yourself as, John. If you were, you would have ended my life in that hotel room on our second meeting, and walked away without a trace of remorse. You would have killed Daniel Casey whether he was guilty of treason or not and pulled the teeth from his cooling corpse yourself, instead of offering him money to get away and providing your partner false proof of death."
Stunned, Reese shook his head. "Casey...he was a hacker...that was...that was before we ever met. One of my last ops here in the States. How could you--?" He stared at Finch, horrified. "The Machine. He was a Number. He was one of yours."
Harold took a half-step closer, head cocked slightly to the side, eyes pleading. "And you saved him, John. You saved Daniel Casey, despite your orders, despite the danger the decision posed for your own safety. Because it was the right thing to do. John Warren's life is the one you should have had. He never worked for the CIA. He was never betrayed by those he trusted. Never forced to question his own sense of honor. Never turned inside out by loss. I had hoped...to give you a day without that darkness."
"You can't erase the past or its affects by pretending it doesn't exist, Finch," John said softly.
"True. But...you've shown me that we don't have to live in it. Let it rule our lives. The past doesn't have to negate possibilities for the present. Or the future." Harold countered. "We are, who we are, John. Men who tried to do the right thing and it just...it didn't work out the way we had hoped. The decisions we've made...the actions we've taken weren't evil. Just flawed. Imperfect. Human. Influenced, by people and circumstances beyond our control. Castigating ourselves for where those events have led us...there is no positive outcome in that data set. The only way the equation balances out, the only way to move forward...is to let it go."
Accept and move on. Take the chance. Be open to possibilities.
John was willing, but...
"Have you let it go, Harold?" Have you let her go?
Harold looked away. "From the moment I chose to live or die with you on a roof top," he said softly.
A soft breeze feathered against John's face, the same sense of peace he'd felt earlier in the day settling into his bones again, warming him, fueling a desire he'd never dared entertain, except in his dreams. He laughed, startling a wide-eyed, confused look from his partner.
"I'll say this for you, Finch. You sure know how to plan a date."
Harold's eyes widened impossibly further, the older man's mouth opening slightly in surprise.
"That's part of what today was all about, wasn't it? A date? Courtship?" He tugged the puzzle book from his pocket, flipping it open to the results of his final word match-ups and holding it out for the older man to see. Flinch just blinked at him, totally flustered to be caught out. "Tell me, Harold," Reese prodded gently, "did you plan a day like this for Grace?"
Finch's mouth shut with an almost audible click of teeth. Lips pressed tightly together, he ducked his head. "I told you I'm not good with people, Mr. Reese. I've only...pursued one other person in my life," he admitted softly. "The 'formula' for romance is much more complicated than any code I wrote for The Machine. I went with what worked before." He looked up, the faintest of smiles twitching his lips. "Grace's day didn't involve loud guns and razor-sharp swords, but I didn't think you were the flowers and art museum type."
Grace had meant everything to Finch. He would have done anything to make her happy. Harold would have given her the world. Instead, he was offering it to John.
Reese slid the puzzle book back into his pocket and took a step closer, tucking two fingers under Harold's chin, nudging his head up a fraction. He reached out and laced their hands together, giving a little tug, which brought Finch up against him.
His partner's body was stiff and unyielding for a heartbeat. And then abruptly the tension bled out of him and Harold leaned in, pressing against John, eyes dark with passion as he rose a little on his toes to seal their lips together. The chaste kiss lasted only a fraction of a moment, Harold taking charge quickly, tongue tickling at John's lips, seeking entry. Reese groaned low in his throat and opened to him.
The world fell away, the past obliterated for an eternity filled with Harold's own greedy moans of pleasure. They plundered each other's mouths, erections rubbing enticingly through layers of fine wool and denim, hardening lengths reflecting their eagerness to come out and play.
Head spinning, John broke the kiss, nipping seductively at his partner's lips. Eyes glittering, panting slightly, Harold smiled up at him joyously--even better than the sweet, wide smile John had ached for earlier. Eyeing those lips hungrily, Reese absently identified one more 'tree' in Finch's 'forest'--passion took years off the man, lighting him up from the inside, easing the lines of strain around his eyes, smoothing his brow. John itched to see what he looked like rumpled and well-fucked.
"Thank you for the day, Harold," he murmured.
"You've yet to pick your prize, Mr. Reese," Finch countered playfully, shifting a little to bump his groin against John's leg. "There must be something you want. Perhaps that horrifically fast motorcycle you were mounted upon today?"
John grinned wickedly and nudged back, ignoring the ache from the lingering bruise on that leg. Oh, he'd decided on his prize, all right. "Only if you ride with me, Finch." At Harold's soft amused murmur of dissent, Reese nudged him again. "You did say you found the experience exhilarating the last time you were on one. You even mentioned getting a bike for yourself. You could consider it an investment. It is a limited edition after all."
Finch glanced down at their still joined hands. "Perhaps I could arrange another test drive. I do like to take a hands on approach to managing my assets." He looked up, eyebrow rising speculatively. "Is that your choice?"
"That bike might suit John Warren, but it's a little flashy for the 'Man in the Suit'," he answered with a slow shake of his head.
A slight frown curved Harold's lips, his grip on John's fingers loosening, signaling his uncertainty. "What then? I did make a promise. I wouldn't want you to think I wasn't a man of my word."
John offered reassurance with a gentle squeeze of his fingers. "You know me, Finch. My needs are simple. Before you rearranged the day, I was planning on renting a hotel room with a hot tub. To soak out some aches and pains."
Harold's eyes were suddenly filled with remorse. "Oh. Of course. I didn't realize...I can--"
He started to tug his hand out of John's hold, intending, John guessed to grab his phone and make the arrangements. Reese tightened his grip and slid their clasped hands to Finch's back, pulling his partner toward him, pinning him in place. He slid his stubbled cheek against Harold's smooth one, felt the puff of the older man's surprised gasp as John tongued the shell of his ear. "Hot tubs are more enjoyable with company, Harold," he whispered.
He released his partner's hands, gently smoothing his own up and down Harold's back, turning what could have been construed as aggression into loving entreaty. "Join me?"
Harold slid his arms around John, pressing close. "Always, Mr. Reese."
Reese felt the familiar shiver, this time accompanied by the low chuckle that vibrated against his chest from the man in his arms. Damn him. Finch had known all along.
John's hand slid to the nape of Harold's neck, fingers stroking the short hairs lightly before he gave in to the impulse to ruffle the spiky longer strands at the top of the older man's head. "I always wondered how this would feel," he murmured.
Harold leaned back slightly, looking up with mischief in his eyes. "Perhaps I should devise a new exercise for you. Something tactile. Blindfold optional. To test your experiences and perceptions. Hard data is the only way to evaluate your conclusions."
"Blind men and elephants, Finch?" Reese's hands dropped to Harold's ass, pulling him close.
"Parables are meant to be tested," Harold answered, reaching up to capture John's mouth in a quick, hungry kiss. He licked his lips as he leaned back. "I should collect some additional data as well. Just to be thorough."
John took a deep kiss of his own, pleased with the heat rising from his partner's skin and the breathy gasp Harold gave as he stepped back and straightened his coat. "We can compare notes," John said, shifting his stance to ease the tightness in his own pants.
"Yes. Although I'm quite confident I can analyze your responses without involving an outside source. It is an experiment best conducted in a controlled environment, however."
"The hotel, then?"
"Actually, if you're amenable to a minor change in destination, I do know of a location that might be suitable for our purposes."
Reese shook his head, trying to stifle a grin. "I don't know, Finch. I was really looking forward to that hot tub."
"Oh, I assure you, it does have a quite...generously sized Jacuzzi."
"Any other amenities?"
"Beyond the king-sized bed?" Finch asked innocently. The gleam in his eyes suggested an entirely different agenda. "The pantry is well stocked. I suppose I could arrange for dinner...or breakfast in bed. I do know the owner."
Reese nodded, pretending to consider it. "That does present...possibilities."
Harold huffed softly in amusement, then reached out to lace their fingers together once more. "Possibilities, indeed. Let's go home, John."
“I took a breath and let it go
and suddenly the air was crisper
and my lungs lighter
there was him
saying my name
in different ways
and I catch myself throwing glances in the mirror,
seeing someone I don’t know
but I can’t wait to,
and that is the start of everything.”
We can be redeemed only to the extent to which we see ourselves.--Martin Buber
The motorcycle and helmet Reese rides/uses in the story do exist. If you're curious about the bike, here's the link:
I changed the colors to black and silver for the story.
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." --Charles Dickens, A Tale of two Cities
The Elephant and the blind Men.
http://www.k4care.net/index.php?id=44 and http://www.jainworld.com/literature/story25.htm
Iaido demo video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLoIqo3-HVM
Tsune ni ite, kyū ni awasu (常に居て、急に合わす), that can be roughly translated as “being constantly (prepared), match/meet (the opposition) immediately”.
“Everything is connected. The wing of the corn beetle affects the direction of the wind, the way the sand drifts, the way the light reflects into the eye of man beholding his reality. All is part of totality, and in this totality man finds his hozro, his way of walking in harmony, with beauty all around him.” --Tony Hillerman, The Ghostway.
“You wear a mask for so long, you forget who you were beneath it.” --Alan Moore, V for Vendetta
“If you think that happiness means total peace, you will never be happy. Peace comes from the acceptance of the part of you that can never be at peace. It will always be in conflict. If you accept that, everything gets a lot better.” --Joss Whedon
“Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.” -- Charles Dickens, Great Expectations.
Era il posto che ho trovato il mio cuore--(Italian) translation-- "It was the place I found my heart."
“I took a breath and let it go
and suddenly the air was crisper
and my lungs lighter
there was him
saying my name
in different ways
and I catch myself throwing glances in the mirror,
seeing someone I don’t know
but I can’t wait to,
and that is the start of everything.”
-- Charlotte Eriksson