Joss had always known, since the very first time she'd engaged with the Man in the Suit instead of just chasing him, how things would eventually come to an end. Either someone would lock him up, or he'd be found bleeding out somewhere. Prison, or a bodybag: those were the only two realistic options. Even after she'd learned his reasons, she'd known there was no other way for things to play out.
That conviction nagged at her as she stared at the settling wreck of a spare, spacious building on Baxter Street where she'd been supposed to meet him and his all-knowing friend. In just her short acquaintance with the man, John Reese had been shot, beaten, and set on fire; he'd even been blown up before. And Finch was resourceful. Too resourceful for her peace of mind, most days. It was difficult to believe they hadn't made it out before the walls fell in.
Unfortunately, the lack of calls or texts to her burner phone in the days since it had happened was suggestive. And when she returned to her desk to trade concerned glances with Fusco the day they got reassigned to a new case, she found a time-delayed email in her personal account that was even more distressing.
Greetings, Detective Carter, it began. If you're reading this message ....
Joss closed her eyes and sat for a long moment in silence before continuing.
Take care of Bear, it read, a little further down the page. He should remember you, and he does understand most basic commands in English, though he still responds most consistently to Dutch. Enlist Taylor's help in bathing him – he's a little large for one person to manage alone – and be firm with him. He'll protect you with his life.
She couldn't help but wonder how he'd discovered the bathing thing, and found herself picturing the little guy bent over a washtub. And wondering whether Bear actually had protected his owners with his life; no one had seen hide nor hair of him, either, since the apartment had exploded.
She swallowed convulsively around the lump that formed in her throat at the thought.
The letter read like an apology from a man too emotionally clammed up to have a heart-to-heart in person; it read like a goodbye, and the last paragraphs cinched it.
Finch once said I was his contingency plan, John wrote, and I'm sorry to have to tell you this way, but you're mine. I know it's a little sudden, but I would trust the matter to no other hands but yours. It's completely up to you whether or not to continue after we're gone.
But if you do, just remember: his grammar may not be like Huey's or Louie's, but if you can decipher what he tells you, it'll put your feet on the right path.
That last part made no sense to her. How could Bear 'tell' her anything? Dogs had no need of grammar. But she tabled the sentence for later without dismissing it, because the message closed with a line even more painful than the rest:
Thank you, Joss. For everything.
John was fond of surnames. The military thing; she did it, too. But she'd noticed he called her by her first name when he wanted her to pay close attention, or for emotional emphasis. Same with times when Finch became 'Harold'. And even Fusco got the 'Lionel' treatment occasionally. To have signed the email that way ....
Tears threatened to well in Joss' eyes, and she blinked them hastily away. It wasn't a joke. God help her; it wasn't a joke. They were really gone.
The day went a little – bleak on her after that, and only grew worse as the hours wore on. And she wasn't the only one; she didn't think she'd ever seen a man look as gutted as Fusco when the crime scene people reported finding Detective Stills' old badge on a body from the wreckage – the one John had always carried to get himself out of a tight spot. If she'd looked even half as wretched as he did when she'd been out at the scene, half the precinct had to know that something was up. She could only hope they attributed it to the loss of the chase, and the potential FBI promotion attached to it, instead of something a little more likely to get her fired.
She found it difficult to care, though, either way. Ever since she'd taken that first step off the straight and narrow into John's world, it had been difficult to imagine backtracking to the way her life had been before. And Joss wasn't sure whether it made it better or worse that Bear finally turned up that evening: panting patiently on her stoop while Taylor scratched his back, as if he were just any ordinary pet.
She hadn't been able to convince herself to stop carrying the burner cell yet, either. Though her denial paid off exactly a week after the bombing, when it rang during the dinner hour as if nothing had changed at all. For half a second, she thought it might be Finch or John calling her up with a new case; then she remembered and scrabbled hastily for a pencil, heart in her throat. But there were no threats, no offers of blackmail, not even a familiar voice: just a sequence of random words mixed with characters from the military alphabet.
Volksmärchen, Mark Lima, it declared in heavily digitized tones, followed by a beep, then two other indecipherable three-word phrases. And – then it simply hung up.
Joss stared at the receiver for a moment, thrown back to that farewell email. Decipher. Not the perpetrator, then? It had to be something to do with John's 'contingency'. The last thread of hope finally shriveled: even if the bodies pulled out of the rubble turned out not to be theirs, John and Harold weren't planning on coming back. If they were anywhere within reach of whatever contact had called her, he'd have called them instead.
Which left her with what. His grammar may not be like Huey's or Louie's? No shit; whoever not-Huey not-Louie might be, he didn't have any grammar at all. But she couldn't just ignore it, whatever it might mean ... because John had trusted her with it.
They'd always been so coy about how they got their information. How they found out that this person or that person might be in trouble, or might be a danger to somebody else. It had mystified and frustrated Joss that they seemed to know so much, and yet made such glaring errors – how one day they might save a little kid's life, and the next accidentally gave a boost to an asshole like Elias. But if it all came in coded phrases like that, she was a little less surprised. Nine words or letters wouldn't be much of a message, even if John had bothered to give her the key.
... Or had he? Huey, Louie; the names sounded familiar. They made her think of that trio of white-feathered ducklings on that animated cartoon Taylor caught sometimes on reruns. She couldn't remember the third one's name ... but it didn't matter, because John couldn't have meant them, surely? Somehow, she couldn't imagine him sitting down to watch the Disney Afternoon.
The question occurred to her again the next day, though, as she desultorily worked her way through a backlog of paperwork. Joss looked up and eyed her partner thoughtfully, wondering if his Lee watched the same shows as her son. Couldn't hurt to ask, she supposed.
"Hey, Fusco," she said. "You know those three ducks on that one cartoon? Scrooge McDuck's nephews, or something?"
He looked about as down as she felt, the corners of his mouth creased in a semi-permanent frown, but he answered gamely. "I'm pretty sure they're his great-nephews, actually. My kid thinks that show's hilarious; I got it for him on DVD. What about 'em?"
"What were their names, again?" she frowned. "Huey, Louie, and...?"
"Dewey," he finished, with a wry, faded grin. "Though I hear there's actually a fourth duck that shows up sometimes, from drawing errors; the animators call the phantom duck Phooey."
"Phooey, huh?" Joss snorted, returning the half-smile. It was tempting to leap on that reference; it was the same kind of random fact Harold might have pulled out on them. But she was pretty sure John would've said something if he'd meant her to reach beyond the likeliest answer. "The name Dewey mean anything else to you?"
She was still staring at Fusco when he finally caught a clue, something that looked an awful lot like hope flashing in his eyes. She was going to have to tell him about the message at some point; their guardian angels – or demons – really were gone, and they'd left quite the mess behind them. She could use his help if he still wanted to give it. But she couldn't either compel him or pull his ass out of the fire the way John could. She'd long since realized that Fusco must've been dirty before John brought him in to watch her, but she'd known him long enough she was pretty sure she could trust him to at least have her back around the precinct. He might have gone off track at some point, but he was basically a good guy.
But at the moment ... John had left this puzzle just for her. And she wasn't ready to share it just yet.
"Like the Dewey Decimal System, you mean?" he asked, sitting up a little straighter.
"Yeah. That," she said. She'd run into book ciphers before. Was she supposed to use the codes she was given to search one out, as an extra layer of secrecy? Well, there was only one way to find out. "Thanks, Fusco."
"No problem. Hey, if there's anything I can do, for, you know, you know I'm good for it, right?"
"Yeah, I know. And I appreciate it," Joss shut him down with a sympathetic look.
He deflated a little at that, the animation leaking aback out of him – but he still looked more thoughtful, more present than he had before the conversation. She turned away with a faint smile, then pulled up an Internet window and hit Google. It was kind of a long shot, but she thought it was worth checking out.
As it turned out, there were a lot of web sites out there that talked about the codes – but only a few that let people search actual book titles by code categories. After a few false starts, she stumbled across a website called the Dewey Browser, crossed her fingers, and entered the first word in the search box.
Search: Volksmärchen - Results 1 - 10 of 13, it replied; she held her breath as she scanned down the page. There were only two titles, it looked like, that actually started with the word, not just included it – and of those, one had the exact author initials of Mark Lima. As in, short for Max Lüthi. The full title was "Volksmärchen und Volkssage; zwei Grundformen erzählender Dichtung", and the little notes section said it was something to do with the history of fairy tales – but the relevant part, she was pretty sure, was the little column off to the right entitled DDC for Dewey Decimal Classification.
380, she wrote, frowning, then went back to the search box and typed in the next non-alphabetic word. Lifehacker, Golf Tango, yielded the three digit code 000, and Dobler, Lima Delta, gave her 050 in quick succession. Kind of strange, that none of them had decimal point continuations like she remembered from her own visits to various libraries ... just three whole numbers, each.
Three times three. For a total of nine digits. A nine digit number.
Her hand trembled as she wrote the last zero. Not such a long shot after all, then. Three guesses what it stood for, and the last two didn't count. It could only be a social security number – and more than that, it was one she knew. Joss may have shredded John's original personnel jacket practically the minute it arrived after her trip to New Rochelle, but the details on that first page had made a pretty significant impression. 380-00-0050 was the social security number for the Sergeant First Class who'd eventually become John Reese: a man who'd now ceased to exist at least two times over.
She stared at the number in dismay for a minute, then pulled the burner phone out of her pocket again and frowned at its small screen. "Why would you do that?" she murmured to it. Too quietly for Fusco to overhear, she hoped – but loud enough for what she assumed must be another hacker of Finch's caliber to pick up the words. "You and I both know you wouldn't be sending this to me if we could still save him."
The phone vibrated in her hand a millisecond later, startling her badly enough she almost dropped it.
"Carter," she answered shakily as she fumbled it up to her ear; she caught Fusco staring, attention caught again by the sight of the phone.
It wasn't John, though. Or Finch. Or anyone else. Just ... nine more words, three random and six from the military alphabet. Three titles with two initials each, followed by dead air. She swallowed, shook her head sharply at Fusco as she hung up, then went back to the open Browse window and tried her luck with it.
Once again, she came up with a nine digit number ... this time, one that belonged to a stranger who'd recently been released from a federal penitentiary and had a wife and kid in the city. No mob connections at first glance, or HR: pretty basic, as far as John's cases usually went. Had gone.
She took a breath, almost still waiting for that next hint, that next 'suggestion' what to do – then bit her lip and looked over at Fusco. Whoever was passing on the numbers didn't seem to care what she did with them; and if – as John hinted – it was the same guy who'd fed them to them, he hadn't given the guys any more instruction, either. John and Harold had done all the investigation on their own.
That was hers, now. And her partner's, if he still wanted to play along.
"Think I'll stretch my legs a bit," she said. "Want to get a coffee, Fusco?"
Want to get, not want: he frowned at her, then connected the dots and gave an awkward stretch, checking around the office as he stood. "Sure, yeah, that sounds great," he said, a little too eagerly.
No one was watching, though – or if they were, she doubted they were thinking about any other kind of mischief than the usual type frowned on between partners. Joss rolled her eyes, pocketed her notes and pulled a sheet off the printer, then scooped her keys up and left.
Hours later, homicidal husband safely back behind bars and her disappointed but strangely happier partner sent home to his own kid, Joss walked the streets of the city with her hands in her pockets, thinking further. She hadn't had another call yet; couldn't even guess how frequently John and Finch had got them, since she was pretty sure they hadn't called her or Fusco on every case. And the more she thought about it, the less sure she was that she even wanted to keep going.
She'd assumed it had to be another hacker, at first. But that made little sense; how many datafeeds would a person have to be watching to come up with so many impending violent crimes over – how long had this guy been operating? Years? At least long enough for John to hook up with Finch. But the data he had access to went back a lot further than that; John certainly hadn't had his friend's help that time Finch had been kidnapped and he'd drug her halfway across the country trying to find him.
... That time he'd been kidnapped by another hacker. John had called her Root, if she remembered right. And Root had killed a former intelligence agent in the process, that Alicia Corwin they'd kept hitting roadblocks trying to investigate.
Computers. Not just intelligence – signals intelligence. Province of the NSA. She'd stood in the Real Time Crime Center, and that was just New York: no single human being could sift so many feeds, plus the other sources Finch seemed able to access at the drop of a hat, and come up with such pinpoint answers. There couldn't have be a full team out there feeding them, either; John had been dodging the government since the day he'd popped up on the radar in her interrogation room, and he'd refused to go to anyone for help when Finch had been kidnapped. Said he'd dropped off the grid for a reason.
... What kind of 'contingency' might a clever man obsessed with his own secrecy, dismissive of others', and probably backed by government funding come up with, in a post-9/11 era that valued security over privacy anyway?
She stopped on a quiet corner and looked up at a traffic camera, feeling the edges of an oncoming realization that threatened to wreck all her certainties as thoroughly as Superstorm Sandy had her city. No wonder they'd never wanted to tell her; even the vaguest outlines of the idea made her feel half-naked and powerless. The scale was just too vast; she could halfway trust John and Harold as friends and human beings, but some ... what were they even talking about, here?
Just what might a billionaire genius, a CIA field agent, a murderous hacker, and a dead NSA agent have all had in common?
She swallowed, staring up at that lens. Did she really want to know?
Somewhere in a vast dark room full of blinking lights, a data crunching engine with no formal name looped into a security subroutine, assessing current levels of threat.
Item, a few seconds of video dated January 19, 2012, a yellow chyron box surrounding the speaker's image: "She can never know about the Machine."
Item, a few seconds of video dated several months later: "I know you've got your rules, but I bet they don't account for everyone being dead. No one answering your phone calls, no one saving anyone. No contingency."
Item, one email, opened less than twenty-four hours prior: "Finch once said I was his contingency plan, and I'm sorry to have to tell you this way, but you're mine."
Item, real-time video of Detective Carter staring up at a camera, just as the Primary Asset had once done ... save for the white chyron delineating her peripheral nature.
Observation: In previous circumstances, the Primary Asset's decisions had proven more beneficial to the Machine's mission than the Admin's own.
Observation: Detective Carter had resolved the Number given her without direction from Primary Asset or Admin.
In that moment, had anyone been watching the main feed they would have seen a white shape flicker, its color changing to yellow.
COURSE OF ACTION SELECTED.
ASSET STATUS: REDEFINED.