"Time to wake up, John."
Harold's hands rested on the keyboard, the terminal window open, waiting.
In a small window on his left screen, the grainy, zoomed-in footage from the accident played in a silent and infinite loop. The truck barreled down from the side street, the SUV went tumbling over in a hail of sparks. One wheel spun crazily in the air as the driver of the truck emerged, alone, went around to the far side of the SUV, and came back into view dragging a limp and drugged Reese.
At least, Harold was assuming drugged. If Reese were dead, there would have been little reason for the abductor to take him away from the wreck. In any event, Harold would assume Reese had been drugged. He would not consider other possibilities.
Reese still had the phone Harold had slipped to him in prison, four days before. It would have hibernated at 5% power to preserve state. Assuming it was in range of a cellular signal, he could wake it. While it was not equipped with the proper gear to force pairing, it would still offer him considerable resources. But he would have only a few minutes to work, seven at best.
Triangulating the phone's location was perhaps the most obvious choice. But New York was too densely populated. A single building could contain thousands of apartments, and Harold couldn't rely on getting a signal even that precise. Alternatively, he could locate the nearest wireless device in range, assume it belonged to the abductor, and try to hijack that. Success would bring a wealth of data: he could triangulate the abductor's phone repeatedly; he could activate the microphone and camera.
But, seven minutes... Harold's eyes drifted down to the keyboard. His hands didn't yet move.
Time to decide. He issued the commands and booted the phone. The prompt came up; he did a quick resource check. Power at 4.785%.
He activated the phone's networking utilities and began scanning. No wireless routers in range at all -- no, wait. Three, very faint, with residential-user SSIDs: two bog-standard linksys, and a third called "Annie's Appalling Abode" that was almost certainly an Apple router. There were two other devices closer with active bluetooth signals, one with cellular as well: the abductor's phone.
It cost him another thirty precious seconds to establish a reliable connection, spoofing a cell tower signal. The hard drive was encrypted. Harold grimaced briefly, but there was no time for self-recrimination; he had less than five minutes left at this level of power consumption, and firmware exploits were his only remaining option.
He forced himself to try the iOS 5/6 vulnerability he'd uncovered three weeks ago: he didn't really see this particular operator using an iPhone, but the odds were so heavily in its favor he had to try.
The phone remained resolutely unmoved. He cleared the screen; the timestamp taunted him. Three minutes left. Bear whined quietly by his feet, but didn't twitch. In the background terminal window, Annie's Appalling Abode cracked wide open to hand him only a useless Apple TV and network printer; the two linksys networks were completely empty, at least at the moment. If there were any computers attached, they weren't turned on.
All right; he'd gone by the statistics, now he'd go by intuition. Something sleek and deadly and high-end. The S3 was plastic; he'd bet on the bleeding-edge version of the Razr instead. He stacked up requests to the connection queue one after another, until it stopped answering; then two lines of bytecode, hopefully to be loaded into the memory buffer while waiting for the queue to clear; then the reset signal.
Waiting for the phone's signal to reappear felt an eternity. He forced himself not to rescan too soon; it came up on the second try. One minute remaining. He swallowed. If this didn't work, there wouldn't be time for another attempt. He sent the bootstrap command. He waited. The cursor blinked three times.
It gave him a prompt.
Harold let out a breath that shuddered uncharacteristically. He quickly initiated a network connection to his own external IP address, logged in; he saw the window appear on his desktop. He flipped the connection, made certain he could access the systems. The hard drive remained impenetrable, but that was all right. He activated the location services and the microphone and heard a woman's voice say, low and smiling, "Have a sip -- it's just water, I promise. I know the drugs leave such a rotten taste in your mouth. Sorry, John, I'm sure you understand under the circumstances."
John was alive. Not seriously injured. Harold sat back in his chair heavily; he took off his glasses and wiped them with a shaking hand.
Noises came, inviting interpretation: the staccato click of heels on a hard unyielding floor, the soft thump of a glass being put down on a table. Heavy breathing in the background, slow but deep and regular.
"I was thinking we could catch up. Talk about old times."
"Like that time in China when you shot me in the back?" John's voice, thick with the aftereffect of whatever drug had been used on him, but recognizable, coherent – and feeding him information.
Harold felt a little more tension leave his shoulders. He sat back up and opened the dossier on Kara Stanton: meager, unfortunately, and nothing since her presumed death in Ordos. No known allies, no known hiding places, no known sources of income. The triangulated location came back: a block in the middle of Jackson Heights with ten buildings on it. Very little use.
"Like that time in China when our superiors lied to us both and set us up to be killed," Stanton said. "Yeah."
"And yet I haven't tracked you down and tied you up in a windowless basement in -- where are we exactly?"
Stanton didn't take the bait. "Well, John, when I found you, you were handcuffed in the back of an FBI van being taken somewhere just as scenic," she said lightly, "so I thought you might forgive my intruding."
"Oh, I'll forgive you, Kara," John said. "Just as soon as you get these chains off my wrists and let me down from the ceiling."
Harold frowned in sympathy even as he started a sketchy diagram of the room: a hook strong enough to take John's one-eighty pounds, even if he tried to throw his weight against it, implied a concrete ceiling, and one high enough to keep him nearly on his toes to prevent him simply wrestling his chains off it. A basement with a high ceiling: somewhat unusual, at any rate. Harold hit the phone.
"Talk to me," Fusco said, without preamble, which Harold appreciated. Fusco's voice was hard and angry, with more cause than one: Detective Carter remained under sedation in the hospital, although out of immediate danger.
"I'm sending you several addresses in Jackson Heights," he said. "John is being held in one of them. We need to determine whether any of these buildings have a basement room with a ceiling height greater than eight feet."
"On it," Fusco said, and Finch hung up.
"I'd like to, John," Stanton was saying, earnestly. "I'd really like to do just that. The thing is, I'm not sure that we're on the same team anymore. I was hoping you could convince me." Her voice was moving, fading slightly and coming back in. Harold tried to envisioned the placement: John hanging perhaps in the center of the room, Stanton circling slowly around him. "Why don't we start with what you've been doing all this time."
"Keeping busy," John said.
"I know. You've been working for someone."
If Stanton's phone wasn't moving with her, likely it was lying somewhere nearby, on a table, in the open. Harold activated the camera long enough to determine it was unfortunately face down, and turned it off again to conserve power. He turned up the microphone volume and started getting a noise profile for the room. It was unfortunately minimal: confirmation they were almost certainly underground.
"The CIA quit sending checks when they tried to kill us," John said. "I've had to pick up odd jobs to get by."
Stanton laughed. It was an oddly nice laugh, warm and appealing. Harold supposed it was an asset for their line of work to be able to seem like a friendly, normal person, the sort you might like to have a drink with, someone without secrets or cares beyond the ordinary. He found he preferred the honesty of John's silence, the haunted quiet of his eyes and mouth, and the ferocity that showed beneath them.
"More than getting by, I'd say. What a nice suit this is." There was a soft snick, a quick ripping sound -- a knife through fabric. A sharp knife. Harold frowned at the screen: she was cutting John's suit jacket up the back, down the arms, stripping him of a little more armor. "Bespoke, premium wool, hand-stitching -- five thousand at least."
"I got a discount," John said.
"Mm," Stanton said. "The thing is, two years ago you rolled your eyes when I tried to get you into a suit a tenth of the price. No, John, I'm pretty sure someone got this for you. Someone who cares a lot more than you about men's tailoring. Someone," she added softly, "that you were willing to indulge."
Harold bit his lip, angry with himself. He'd sacrificed a great many of his once-routine pleasures as too risky; he'd thought his taste for pedantic tailoring was a harmless one he could keep, and there had been a particularly addictive satisfaction in inflicting it on John. It hadn't been the clothing, it had been the way John had submitted to his increasingly refined wardrobe with an amused air of long-suffering that had failed to perfectly mask what Harold could best call his quietly pleased surprise. It hadn't occurred to Harold that he was leaving fingerprints, ones that would put John at risk as much as himself.
"She made it worth my while," John said.
His gasp of pain was quickly choked off, but it made Harold jump, hands moving above the keyboard, a useless flutter: what had Stanton just done?
"Sorry, John," Stanton said, cheerful, "but I thought I could save us some time. I know you're about to give me Zoe Morgan." John was silent, but his breathing was more labored, struggling to catch up. "It would have been a good red herring, except I already tracked her down to the ground trying to pick up your trail, so I know it's not her."
The clack of her heels was beginning to seem at once grating and ominous. Harold cursed the blocked camera: where was she in the room? How close was she to John with the knife? He was half tempted to start looking into echolocation-based scanning tools, but it was too far from his own expertise; he'd need a week, and he wasn't leaving John in her hands for a week even if he had to orchestrate a CDC alert on the entire block and have the whole place and everyone in it locked down from the sewer level up.
"No," Stanton said, "it's not Zoe. In fact, I don't think it's a woman at all. A woman might want you in a bespoke suit, but I think she'd let you make the call on what went in the fly – " the microphone was loud enough to catch Reese's short inhalation, " -- and you'd go for zipper instead of buttons. I think a man put you in this suit."
There was something decidedly unpleasant about hearing Stanton vivisect their lives in her smooth, calm voice. The audio processing was only halfway through; there was nothing more to do there. Harold looked at the neighboring networks again, checked for any activity, though his system was already automatically polling every minute. The Apple TV -- perhaps he should investigate it further. It might have personal data that would give him something, an address, quicker than Fusco's work on the buildings.
And speed was increasingly crucial. Stanton had too much knowledge of John to work from, too much intimate knowledge; it made her a far more dangerous interrogator than a stranger. John would be stubbornly, ferociously determined to give her nothing, nothing which might get her any closer to Harold than she already was, no matter how trivial; a resistance that would surely make her only the more suspicious.
"I find that very interesting, John," Stanton said. "That he'd want to, that you'd let him." She leaned in and murmured, softly enough the mike barely picked it up, "Are you fucking him, John?"
That, at least, was an obvious, clumsy sort of attack, and Harold was quite sure John would disdain it as it deserved. And evidently he did, because Stanton's voice returned to normal. "No, you're not. That's even more interesting though, really." Her heels kept clicking, slow, steady, circling. "Do you want to be?"
John remained silent.
"Would you like it if one day he said, 'John, would you – ' huh, no," she interrupted herself. "No, that's not landing. He doesn't call you John. Did you give him another name? You wouldn't have changed John, that would be pointless. Does he call you – oh." There was a smile in her voice, sly and pleased, a cat batting around a mouse. Her voice dropped again, intimate. "Tell me, John, what would you do if one day he said, 'Mr. Reese, would you let me fuck you?'"
The cursor leapt on the screen; Harold realized he'd clenched his hand on the mouse. He forced his hand to relax: he was doing John absolutely no good by permitting himself the luxury of anger. He needed to be grateful for every moment Stanton gave him. The room noise scan had finally completed, and he had a good ten minutes of footage now; he masked out the general static and stripped out the voices, and boosted the volume to try and find anything he could in the background.
Over the microphone feed, Stanton was laughing; she said, "Oh, John. That was some tell. You're tired, though. They kept you up a lot in Rikers the last four days, I imagine, and the beating you took couldn't have been fun. Don't beat yourself up over it."
Harold was focusing on the audio processing and not particularly on what she was saying; it began to penetrate, and he raised his head abruptly. Her voice and heels were coming closer to the microphone; he heard her say, "But you don't think I forgot to make sure your phone was off, do you? No, you don't."
There was a scrape, and Harold had a moment to realize she'd picked up the phone. "But you think he's listening in somehow anyway," Stanton said thoughtfully. "On mine?"
If she destroyed the phone – Harold activated the camera for whatever else he might be able to get beforehand; it was now looking directly up into her face. Stanton was still a beautiful woman, but not quite the same one from her dossier photos: thinner and more worn, with a scattering of pale white scars barely visible on the underside of her chin. There were probably more on her face, concealed behind makeup. She looked at once tired and almost feverish, a manic quality to her eyes.
More to the point, the ceiling of the room was distinctly even higher than eight feet: closer to twelve, if Harold had to guess. As she turned, the video showed him John: bruised, eyes reddened, mouth tight and unhappy; his arms were bound at the wrist and secured on a large hook, stretched up high over his head. The jacket had indeed been cut off him; he'd lost one of his cuff buttons, so the sleeve hung loose dangling from his elbow, and a shallow cut crossed his forearm: a few thin lines of blood trailed down from it and marked the white shirt with blooms of red.
John watched Stanton coming towards him like a wary, beaten animal, braced for another blow. She was smiling as she leaned in, raised the phone between them nearly level with their lips, and said softly, directly into the microphone, "Do you think he'd agree to meet me to save your life?"
"No," John said flatly: a command, edged with desperation.
Harold was not a romantic and not in the least inclined to hand himself to Stanton when that would certainly not result in John's being released; however, a negotiation might well prove valuable. For that matter, Stanton might want things that he could simply give her: money, a new identity, a safe place to run.
But Stanton didn't actually seem interested in talking to him for the moment; before he could even consider activating the speaker, she lowered the phone, laughing again. "John, you do have it bad. So why haven't you made a move? You're a lot of things, but you don't dither. If you thought he might not be interested, you'd ask and find out, end of story."
John's eyes flicked down to the phone again, helplessly, and though he jerked them back away almost at once, Harold realized what Stanton had meant by a tell. He couldn't help recognizing that John didn't want him hearing this. But Harold couldn't understand entirely why; Stanton seemed obsessed with a sexual interpretation that John surely couldn't imagine Harold would find either believable or for that matter, offensive if it had been true. But John's tastes very evidently ran to tall, beautiful women: Harold had seen more than one example --
"It's also a little off the beaten path for you," Stanton said, thoughtfully, echoing his very thoughts. "If you were looking to get laid, I would have pegged Morgan as your type, in fact, and she was certainly interested. So this isn't about sex, John, is it? What do you want? You want him to ask? So you can have the upper hand? – No, oh, of course not. It's the opposite, isn't it? You want him to be in charge."
John wasn't looking at the phone anymore; he'd fixed his gaze away and moved his head. Harold couldn't see more than the line of his jaw, a line rippling with tension. His own hands had stilled; he found it abruptly difficult to get his breath.
"You want him to own you," Stanton said softly. "Every last part. You want him to want that from you, John, don't you?"
John said nothing, didn't move: a chiseled statue. Harold stared at the small rectangle of the video, unable to drag his eyes away. Stanton was – merely being fanciful. She was extrapolating from nothing, John had said virtually nothing to her, was surely in pain and deeply tired, unable to think clearly –
The noise processing had finally completed; playback started automatically. Harold shoved the video to one side of the screen and focused his attention on the audio. His face felt strangely tight and uncomfortable, heated; he had to push his glasses up his nose.
There was virtually no background noise except an occasional muted rumble, not far away, at irregular intervals: a subway train? The MTA had an internal database of train schedules; there were two major stops in the vicinity of the target location, with a total of five trains regularly passing through. Harold wrote a quick routine to find a match between the times and the rumbling background noise, throwing in a degree of fuzziness to compensate for unplanned delays.
There weren't a lot of possibilities by computational standards, and he had thrown every server he had at the job: the results came back almost instantly, laying out trains in a line that matched the peaks of the audio waveform. The loudest train was the 7, the rest were slightly fainter. Closer to the 74th Street stop, then. Harold pulled up the Google maps view and overlaid it with a map of the tunnels: a large building on the corner, a new condominium.
His phone rang. He hit his earpiece. "Roosevelt Avenue and 73rd street," he said.
Fusco paused. "Yeah," he said. "I got the plans: the building at 17 Roosevelt has a basement twelve feet high."
"That's where John is," Harold said.
"Okay," Fusco said. "Let's go get him."
"I couldn't agree more," Harold said.
He hung up and allowed himself one final glance at the video. Stanton had fallen silent and was sitting back in her chair with the phone in her hands, probably in her lap: the camera was looking up at John from a greater distance. His face was rigid and implacable, giving nothing and yet the very intensity of his control bit at Harold, too much of a revelation; he felt a sharp terrible guilt for seeing this, even while he found himself unable to look away.
"Who is he?" Stanton said abruptly, as Harold reached for his laptop to transfer the data streams: a sincerely baffled question. "After what happened to us, after the way our country betrayed us, you'd come back from that and you'd just hand yourself over? What is he, John?"
Harold was working quickly; he had the neighboring networks already transferred, now the phone connection. He flipped it over, shut down the camera, and put the audio into his earpiece.
As he stood up, the laptop shut and under his arm, John spoke softly in his ear. "A good man," he said. Harold swallowed.
He and Fusco spoke very little on the drive out to Queens. Stanton had taken a break from her questioning and was working on something, but behind John's back, and she didn't tell him what though he attempted to draw her out a few times. Harold wasn't sure why she hadn't destroyed the phone, even if she hadn't been able to find any trace of his break-in: it was impossible not to conclude they were walking into a trap.
He spent the drive breaking into the Apple TV, which proved vulnerable to a brute-force attack on the password: the associated Apple account was in the name of a Ms. Annemarie Russo; a quick investigation of the Housing Authority's records for the address revealed that she owned apartment 1C in the building in question. Harold reached into the back and pulled over the plans Fusco had brought along: a basement apartment was located directly beneath hers, with the largest room incongruously labeled a closet on the plans -- likely to get around city regulations requiring windows in living spaces.
"How're we going to do this?" Fusco said. "You figure she's gonna be waiting for us?"
"I think that's the most likely conclusion, yes," Harold said. The handgun he'd taken from Reese's cabinet felt unpleasantly heavy in his coat pocket, drawing warmth out of him even through two layers, although that was surely an illusion. The layout of the apartment showed one entrance only into the central room, down a narrow hallway. Stanton's unconcern was not foolish. In case of any frontal assault, she would simply put herself behind John, with a gun to his head, and demand surrender.
Harold glanced back at Bear, in the back seat, who pricked up his ears hopefully. They might plant Bear at the other end of the hallway -- hope that Stanton would secure them and then bring them out, unsuspecting and for a moment vulnerable.
"Unless she's a dummy, she's going to secure the room when she comes out into it," Fusco said, unfortunately making excellent sense. "You know, we could get the department into this. Thanks to Donnelly playing Lone Ranger, far as they know, John's still clean."
"I think not," Harold said. He disliked the idea instinctively, of course: he'd only just managed to pry John out of the clumsy, careless hands of law enforcement, and had not the least desire to put him back there. But there were more sensible reasons. "Stanton's become aware that John is no longer a potential asset to her. Sending in the police destroys his usefulness even as a bargaining chip. She'd almost certainly kill him to ease her own escape and remove a source of intelligence about her."
"Okay, so what, then?" Fusco said. "Shoot her through John, haul them both to the hospital? Or hell, leave her behind."
"I'd prefer to avoid causing any more damage to Mr. Reese than necessary," Harold said dryly. He looked at the plans again. "And I think there's an alternative."
"Yeah, what? No windows, one door," Fusco said. "There's no other way in."
"Yet," Harold said. "There's a Home Depot on Northern Boulevard on the way. Stop there."
"What're we gonna do, buy a jackhammer?" Fusco said, eyeing him.
"A little too noisy," Harold said, "but I believe the general idea is sound."
Ms. Russo was tired-looking, not surprising since they'd woken her up from the sleep she needed for her night shift at the nearby hospital. "Yeah?" she said warily, from behind the heavy chain on her door.
"Your name is Annemarie Russo," Harold said quietly. "You have a three hundred thousand dollar mortgage you can't afford and eighty-seven thousand, four hundred and twenty-three dollars in nursing school loans. Your mother who lives in Massapequa is growing increasingly frail and can no longer live alone, but you hesitate to move her into an assisted living facility -- "
"Who the fuck are you -- "
"Please allow me to finish," Harold said. "You have a banking account at Chase which you manage online which has an account number ending in 4982. Please go inside and look up your current balance: I'll wait here. I assure you, you'll want to come and speak to me again afterwards."
She stared out at them with one wide dark suspicious eye, then slowly closed the door. Harold waited; human curiosity was as powerful as fear, and his own appearance was sufficiently nonthreatening not to provoke an immediate call to the police.
"You got one hell of an approach, I gotta tell you," Fusco said. "It's a wonder you ain't got them beating down the door."
"I find this method saves a considerable amount of time," Harold said, "of which we have very little at present. Please don't drop those buckets."
The door opened again. "Okay," she said. "You got my attention. What do you want?"
"Pack a bag, move any personal belongings you value out of the kitchen, and go find a hotel," Harold said. "You'll need to stay there for six weeks, but your bill will be paid. When you return, your kitchen will have been remodeled, your debt will be gone, and you will also keep the two hundred thousand dollars I've already deposited in your account. You'll be able to sell this apartment and buy a larger one where you can have your mother live with you, and to pay someone to stay with her while you're at work."
"What the fuck is in my kitchen?" she said. "Someone rolled up the Mona Lisa and stuffed it behind a wall?"
"There's nothing in your kitchen," Harold said. "What's underneath it, however, is a man whose life I'm trying to save."
Possibly some degree of his desperation communicated itself: Russo stared at him one moment longer, then said, "Okay. I'm going to call my friend and stay on the phone with her. If something happens to me she's going to call the cops right off, you got it?"
"Perfectly clear," Harold said. "Thank you."
She packed her bag quickly and was gone even before they'd finished prying up the tiles of the kitchen floor. "This is nuts, you know that?" Fusco said, sloshing on the X-Crete. "Even if this stuff works, you think she's not going to notice when the ceiling starts caving in? And what are we going to do even if she doesn't, yell Geronimo and jump down on her head?"
"I'm afraid I'll have to leave the acrobatics to you and Bear, Detective," Harold said. "But I hope to provide a sufficient distraction to deal with the first problem."
He waited two hours until the floor was a slush of sand several inches down: Fusco was bailing it out with Ms. Russo's stock pots to make room for more of the X-Crete, wiping his forehead. Harold couldn't afford to keep the microphone live the entire time: he rationed himself to checking in briefly every five minutes for a dose of John's breathing; it was a little ragged but not desperate.
"Okay," Fusco said, tossing the ruler up onto the counter. "We hit six and a half inches. You sure about this?"
"Yes," Harold said. The slab was seven inches according to the plans, which meant ten more minutes at the current pace. "Hopefully I can occupy her in the front room until you can break through. Once the ceiling comes down, focus your attention on getting Mr. Reese free: if Ms. Stanton is threatening me at the time, I imagine Bear will be happy to assist me."
"Yeah, if she don't just shoot you," Fusco said. "Watch it, Finch. I don't want to deal with John bitching at me I let you get yourself killed."
"I assure you, Detective, I will do everything in my power to avoid that scenario," Harold said.
He transferred the connection from the laptop to his smartphone and activated the microphone again as he limped down the fire stairs to the basement apartment. Stanton was talking again amidst the gurgle of a running sink, getting another glass of water perhaps.
"I've been trying to picture him," she said. "I don't suppose you'd help me out, John?" Silence was her only answer. "A good man. That's hard to imagine. A truly good man wouldn't need you, John, now would he? Unless this is some kind of private crusade.
"That would explain a lot. I've had the hardest time figuring out the connection between the incidents in your police files, and for that matter the ones that weren't in your files. They don't make much sense. So is that what he is? Some investment banker in sharp suits who wants to be a vigilante, but he's outsourced it to you so he gets to feel good without getting his hands dirty? And you would love that, wouldn't you -- you finally get to be a hero, play detective. Save the day."
She laughed, and Harold compressed his lips in disgust. He had wondered for some time now how the CIA had broken John so badly, how they'd made him into the man he'd first found, so endlessly far from the man Harold worked beside: the longer he knew John, the brighter he shone. It had been almost impossible to conceive. But this was how, of course. Layers of tarnish deliberately slopped over every ideal, telling him that he could do nothing to help others but the most ugly and banal work, that his hands could make nothing of value but murder.
Harold stopped outside the door and composed himself with an effort. His anger was not entirely disinterested. He loathed the idea of Stanton's hands on John's body and her voice in his ears, and not only for John's sake. But what mattered now was getting John out, safely. John knew better than to swallow this poison again; he knew how much more he was worth, surely, and if he came out of this room with any doubts remaining on that score, Harold would do anything in his own power to remove them. John might be Stanton's prisoner, but he was no longer hers.
"And you're so very useful to him, aren't you, John? Or at least you try to be. But he hasn't tried to reach me yet, has he?" Stanton said it archly.
Harold knew he was giving her more than he should: there were two minutes left on the timer, two minutes longer he'd have to distract her for, but he couldn't bear for John to endure that without any way to answer; he activated the speaker and said, "I do apologize for the delay, Ms. Stanton," and viciously enjoyed her hiss of breath, "but I'm afraid I don't move very quickly these days."
"No," John said, his voice raw and appalled. "Harold, no, don't -- " He cut himself off, abruptly.
"Harold, I presume?" Stanton said, after a moment. "I see I misjudged your level of interest."
"Yes," Harold said, "you did. Among other things. Would you care to come let me in? I think this conversation would be better held inside."
She was silent, and then he heard her heels come slowly down the corridor, echoing in the narrower space. He finally cut the connection as she began opening the door on the other side, activated the connection to Fusco's phone instead, and slipped his phone into his pocket so the good detective could listen in; the handgun was cold and heavy in his other pocket, under his right hand. He hoped not to learn whether he could use it.
She swung open the door, a gun in her other hand, and stared at him; Harold met her gaze steadily. "You're not what I expected," she said after a moment.
"You are," Harold said flatly, and saw her mouth tighten a very little. There was a certain reckless satisfaction in provoking her, rather like goading a tiger. Of course, there was a great deal of stupidity inherent in it as well. She glanced past him down the hall, making sure he was alone, then backed in slowly, the gun covering him. Harold stepped inside and closed the door behind him with his free hand, without looking away from her; she was surely aware of the gun in his pocket on her. The hallway was behind her. Harold risked a split-second glance over her shoulder and saw John hanging there, his face pale and stricken. He returned his gaze to her face.
She smiled at him, quick and brittle and sharp. "Well. What should we discuss?"
"Perhaps we might try the easiest solution," Harold said. "Do you have a price, Ms. Stanton? I have considerable resources, as you've already deduced. I would be more than happy to resolve the situation as amicably as possible, if that were an option."
"Well, that's certainly a very interesting offer," she said, seeming to relax slightly, the gun in her hand sliding just slightly off its mark. It was an invitation to mirror her, an invitation Harold didn't take up: he kept his eyes on her face and the gun in his pocket pointed relentlessly at her chest. John had once told him to make that his target, in extremis: the best for a novice shooter. Her mouth twisted a little, wryly. "But I'm not really short on money," she finished softly.
"At the moment," Harold said. Her eyebrows raised. "I've traced your Cayman Islands and Swiss accounts. They'll be broken shortly, if not already, and drained automatically. Unless, of course, we come to some other arrangement."
Stanton held very still, but her eyes gleamed, unsettlingly. "That's quite the feat," she said, "since they both use enterprise-level encryption. You'd need a lot of computing power to bust them open."
He said nothing, but she wasn't stupid. "Starting about a year before John came on board," she said, "our intel started to get better. A lot better. More targets, higher value, more definite instructions. We got busier. They brought John on – they brought a lot of people on – because we needed the help."
She was watching him with bright eyes as she spoke. "I never knew, officially," she said. "But it was pretty obvious to those of us who'd been there before and after. A lot of those people got reassigned, retired." She smiled thinly. "I suppose you could say so did I.
"And now I track John down," she went on. "And he's working cases. Bizarre, obscure cases – low-value targets, with nothing gained as far as I can tell but individual lives. The white-knight stuff of his dreams. Cases that no one could possibly care about. And yet – and yet – he's working at the same pace. He's got intel just as good as we did."
Yes. Very far from stupid. In the moment, Harold was deeply grateful for his lack of affect; he knew his face was generally as impenetrable to other people as theirs were to him, if he didn't make a conscious effort. Now he did not; he said nothing. But unfortunately, he didn't have to.
"You know," Stanton said, "I think I just might have a price after all, Harold. Why don't we go sit down with John and discuss it."
"That depends," Harold said. "Would you take him down from the ceiling?"
"I think John had better stay right where he is," she said.
Over her shoulder, the ceiling caved in with a roar. Harold heard Fusco yell, "Holy shit!" and saw him come plummeting in a torrent of dissolved cement; John went down with him as the hook ripped out of the ceiling. Stanton jerked around to look; Harold got the gun out of his pocket and backed away to the wall, getting himself out of her line of fire. By the time she whipped back he had it level with her chest. "Please don't move, Ms. Stanton," Harold said.
She glanced back down the hallway; Bear was whining down through the hole anxiously in confusion, wavering at the edge; even as she looked, he gathered himself and made the leap. A sodden John was already twisting to his feet, shaking Fusco off, shouting, "Harold!"
She looked back at him, and Harold could see the moment of calculation in her head, the odds: then she smiled at him, brilliant, and was moving, the gun in her hand moving as well; Harold fired too late and ducked away instinctively from the shot that sprayed plaster from the wall beside him. By the time he straightened again she was gone, and John had staggered into the room and sagged against the doorframe, breathing heavily, staring at Harold; his arms were held out in front of him, stiffly, and waterlogged sand was dripping off him. "You're okay?"
"I'm fine," Harold managed. His heart was pounding furiously. He looked around himself, put the gun back into his pocket with a shaking hand and left his hand in there with it. "But I suggest we decamp before any authorities arrive."
The ride back to the city was a silent one. Reese lay down across the back seat and slept with the solidity of total exhaustion, Bear's inquiring whines from the footwell going unanswered. His arms were still held awkwardly across his body, although the abused muscles unstiffened gradually: by the time Fusco pulled up to the Lowell Hotel, they had collapsed into limpness at last.
"You handle Sleeping Beauty," Fusco said. "I got the dog."
Harold nodded. He paused before getting out and said abruptly, "Thank you, Detective. For all your assistance."
"Yeah, don't mention it," Fusco said. "What would I do without you guys to make my life difficult all the time? Come on, Bear, you get shotgun now." Bear yelped and jumped into the front seat as Harold vacated it.
John roused only with difficulty and followed Harold into the hotel almost sleepwalking; even with the bloodstains concealed by Harold's jacket draped over his shoulders, his appearance made the doorman hesitate until he glanced down at the hundred dollar bill Harold had slipped into his hand.
He'd arranged for the suite, pre-paid, from the car; the receptionist handed him the keys as soon as he'd said his name, or at least the name on the booking. Inside the room, Harold steered John to the bed with a hand on his back, and John was asleep again before he even landed on the pillows. Harold wrestled off his shoes and managed to roll him over onto his back; the cut on his arm had already scabbed over, but Harold sent out for a first-aid kit and cleaned and bandaged it as best he could.
Then he sat down heavily on the couch in front of the fireplace and stared at the flames, too enervated even to order room service. He had no idea how much time passed; at some point he evidently fell over. He woke with his glasses crooked half off his face and the imprint of one of the embroidered pillows on his cheek; the sun had gone down and the lingering embers were the only light in the room. He got up stiffly.
John was still lying across the bed, breathing slowly and evenly: Harold stood in the doorway and watched him a while, a satisfying reassurance. He hadn't really had a moment to establish that John was finally safely back in his hands, after all of it. Strange to think it had been less than a week since the debacle at the bank.
He finally turned away. A shower went a considerable way towards restoring his sense of equilibrium, and dinner as well; afterwards he stretched himself out more comfortably on the couch, wearing the bathrobe in preference to his stained and rumpled two-day-old clothing. Sleep didn't immediately come, however, and the ceiling provided no distraction from his unruly thoughts.
Harold had promised John once never to lie to him; that unfortunately precluded lying to himself as well. Stanton's perception was an itch in the back of his head, and he couldn't pretend that he didn't want her to be exactly, entirely right. He couldn't pretend that he wasn't mesmerized by the image she had offered -- John in his magnificent strength and beauty, yielding his body as a symbol of yielding his whole self. Harold could think of nothing he wanted more; he knew he would glory in John handing himself over like a gift.
But a gift Harold had no right to ask for; one which he should not even have known existed to be given.
In the morning, they would wake. They would have breakfast together. They would go to the library and do a careful post-mortem on the past week: there was a good deal of repair work to do on their various covers, and a conversation to be had about John's initial burst of wild recklessness that had set the chain of events in motion; Harold wondered abruptly if perhaps John did not know how much he was worth.
But Harold would say nothing about the interrogation; neither would John. The subject would be taboo. If Stanton had uncovered a real desire, it remained John's secret, and he had already chosen not to share it. Whether or not she was right that John wanted Harold to make the first move. There was no possible ethical way to use that information, and Harold could not deceive himself that he would have considered making that move without it. That was all there was to it.
He drew a sharp, lonely breath and pushed himself up; he opened the laptop again. Sleep might not come for a while, but there was always code to be done.
He woke to John's hand on his shoulder and struggled up from another awkward slumped position. "Sorry," John said. "You looked kind of uncomfortable."
"How are you feeling?" Harold said, wiping his glasses and restoring them. In a bathrobe and evidently fresh from the shower, John looked infinitely better: hair damp, eyes alert, some color back in his face.
"Good," John said, simply. "Thanks."
"We should order breakfast," Harold said.
"We should order a lot of breakfast," John said.
The food came quickly; Harold had been tipping extremely well. John devoured three separate breakfasts and drank nearly a pot of coffee. In the morning, with bright sunlight streaming into the room, Harold found it less painful to contemplate what he couldn't have: indeed the previous day's events seemed almost unreal. And there was much to be savored in this moment: sitting in companionable silence with a friend; safe, warm, clean, well-fed; a simple catalogue of pleasures. Harold cradled his tea cup in his hands and sighed a little in satisfaction; he smiled when John looked up.
John didn't smile back, however; he dropped his eyes to the table, restlessly toying with one of the spoons. Harold set down his cup. "Are you all right?" he asked quietly.
"Harold, I screwed up," John said. "And I nearly got you killed."
"This isn't a particularly safe field of endeavor we've gotten ourselves into," Harold said.
"No," John said. "All the more reason not to take stupid risks. Don't – don't tell me that's not what I did."
"On the contrary," Harold said, blinking; he had every intention of outlining them in excruciating detail.
"You shouldn't have come after me," John said flatly. "You shouldn't have tried to get me out. I need you to promise me you won't do it again. If I screw up, you need to cut me loose."
Harold didn't answer him for some time. He felt too angry to speak; not with John but with Stanton, with all her poisonous ilk. At last he said, "I can't promise you that, Mr. Reese."
"Harold – "
"The answer is no," Harold said. "You are not expendable. You are not an acceptable loss. And if you would like me not to take unnecessary risks to save you, your first step is to avoid taking unnecessary risks with yourself."
John flinched and looked away, his mouth a hard, unhappy line.
"You know the scope of my resources," Harold said. "And yet it was a year before I hired you. A year of watching people die, of watching people's lives destroyed, while the Machine fed me numbers and I could do nothing. Do you think I didn't try anyone else before you?"
John jerked his head around and looked at him, startled. Harold nodded once. "Twenty-seven people," he said. "All of them, on paper, at least comparable to you in skill. Most of them in considerably better shape than you were when we first met. More reliable, more trustworthy, by any rational measure. They all gladly took the job without explanations, asking only a paycheck. And they were one and all resounding failures. Because the truth is, this isn't a job, Mr. Reese. This is a mission, and a hireling will not do. I need a partner. And the only promise I will make you is that having found you, I will go to almost any lengths you care to name to keep you."
John shuddered all over and dropped his head into his hands. He sat with his face buried, his shoulders moving with his breath, for a long time. And then he said, muffled and desperate, "Harold," a plea.
Harold drew a sharp breath. Slowly, half daring, he reached out his hand and settled it on the back of John's neck. And John shivered all over beneath his touch, urgently, and leaned towards him without raising his head.
Harold drew him up and closed the distance between them, kissed John's mouth briefly: it was soft and tender, and that was at once entirely natural and yet somehow surprising. John's eyes were shut. Harold kissed him again, tentatively. John yielded to the slightest pressure, parted his lips to offer himself, and yet didn't himself push. Harold drew back a moment and touched John's face with his fingertips, lightly. John had shaved against the grain. There was still a remarkable bruise purpling above his eyebrow, and a smaller one on his cheekbone.
John submitted to being touched. His eyes weren't shut, but he wasn't meeting Harold's gaze; he was looking down. It was at once exhilarating and terrifying. Harold shut his own eyes. Having been given the gift he wanted, it would be unconscionable to mishandle it; he composed himself a moment and reached for the hotel telephone. "Yes," he said. "I'd like the room for another two nights. Will that be any difficulty? Excellent. Thank you." He hung up the phone and found John looking at him, with hunger and gratitude.
He took John to the bedroom. Harold was beginning to feel more sure of his ground: very like when he'd settled on a design and what remained was the challenge of making it work. He put a hand on John's chest and said abruptly, "One moment," when John would have taken off the robe and slid beneath the covers with him; John looked a question at him. "Let me look at you first."
John held still and watched him with dark, trusting eyes as Harold undid the tie of his robe and slid it off his shoulders, baring his naked body: all elegant lines, the curving muscles of his shoulders sloped to his waist, his thighs lean and powerfully built. Harold smoothed his hands across John's chest, indulging himself shamelessly, and John trembled under his touch and his gaze both. He was going dreamy and unfocused, his breath coming quicker; faint color was rising in his cheeks. His cock was hardening, and after a moment he shut his eyes.
"Come to bed," Harold said, a little roughly; he was breathing quickly himself. It was intoxicating to feel John so entirely in his hands.
He spread John out and explored him thoroughly: like learning new hardware, mapping response to input. The hotel had thoughtfully provided an abundance of supplies. John groaned softly as Harold told him in quiet detail his plans for the rest of the day; Harold pressed two fingers into him steadily as he spoke. John's hips jerked against them.
"Please," John said, gasping. "Harold, please."
His body was sheened with sweat, his eyes fixed on Harold, already glassy with need. Harold even considered it for a moment: ordering John to bend over the side of the bed, taking him quickly, efficiently, establishing possession. "Would you enjoy that, Mr. Reese?" he asked, and John drew a breath nearly like a sob and said hoarsely, "Yes. Harold – "
"Next time, perhaps," Harold said, and leaned in and kissed him again. On an impulse he caught John's hand by the wrist, took it away from the tangled sheets and lifted it to the headboard in a silent instruction; John gripped it and raised his second hand to hold on as well without even being told.
He worked John open slowly and thoroughly, occasionally stroking his cock. John shuddered and writhed under his hands, but never let go of the headboard even as his breath grew ragged and fractured. It was almost unbearably tempting to skip ahead, but Harold had no intention of hurting John even slightly through a careless rush any more than he would have written sloppy, inelegant code, even if it got the job done.
By the time Harold was satisfied, John was staring at the ceiling blindly, dazed; his body had gone past tension and into a kind of relaxed, waiting lassitude. "All right," Harold said; John blinked a few times before he refocused on Harold.
He sat back against the headboard and gave John the condom. Permission given, John moved with ferocious haste: slid it onto Harold's cock, slicked him thoroughly, and then straddled Harold's hips and sank down on him with what was unwise haste even given the extent of Harold's preparations. Harold barely had a chance to anticipate it before it was happening, before John was rocking fervently down onto him, panting; he caught John by the hips and stilled him. "A little slower, I think," he said, his own voice wavering.
"Oh, God," John said, his voice cracking. He squeezed his eyes shut and moved again, a slow rolling movement that made Harold's breath catch in his throat: the heat and clasp of his body felt nearly unreal. John's hands were clenched into fists resting on his thighs, pleasure furrowing his forehead.
Harold put his hands on John's, unknotted them; their fingers laced together. Harold had a burst of longing for the strength to thrust, to possess John even more thoroughly; but of course, that was foolish: strength was not in short supply. "When you're ready, John, take me deeper into you. Slowly," he said pointedly, as John immediately shifted his weight.
"You're killing me, Harold," John said, his voice straining, but he obeyed, moving by slow degrees, easing himself further on. John's cock was jutting urgently out, hard; Harold wrapped his hands around the shaft and stroked, lightly only. "Harold."
"Very soon," Harold said, panting. "Let your body adjust."
"Harold," John said, "I can take it."
"I'm aiming for something more than endurance here, Mr. Reese," Harold said. John made a low noise of protest between his teeth; Harold stroked him again. "I do appreciate your restraint," he added, because John deserved to hear the praise. "Do you think you could bend down far enough to kiss me?"
John caught his mouth almost instantly, hungrily; he gripped the headboard on either side of Harold's head and bent for more: deep sweet kisses. John kissed like a man starved of all tenderness; it made Harold want all the more to go slowly, to take only still better care of him.
Abruptly Harold imagined John in his home, in the quiet peace of his personal library, dozing stretched on the couch with his head in Harold's lap; he imagined John in his bed, drowsy and smiling and half-incredulously happy. He wanted those things with a ferocity he would never have expected from himself. He wanted John behind his locked doors, in a place where John might be unarmored, knowing himself cherished and safe. He held John's face between his hands, kissed him again, softly, again and again.
John broke off finally, leaning his forehead against Harold's, panting. "Please," he said, softly, truly desperate, and Harold said, "Yes. Yes, John."
John took a better grip on the headboard and began to ride him vigorously, hips and thighs pumping with shocking ease and grace; Harold held on to him, dizzy with the heady mix of lust and John's strength under his hands. He stared up at John making no effort to conceal his admiration, and was rewarded with John's crooked smile, smug and a little shy all at once. John began to show off a little, letting go the bed with one hand, rising nearly all the way off Harold's cock before he sank back down onto him. There was no need anymore to worry: a jolt of pleasure wrote itself vividly across John's face every time he thrust himself down, and his cock was extraordinarily hard in Harold's hands.
It seemed he could go on forever, but Harold's own endurance was nearly at its limits. He halted John once more to kiss him again, but they were both breathless; John's thighs were trembling against his sides. And after all, there would be time. "All right," Harold murmured against John's mouth, stroking his cock again; John leaned into his grip urgently. "Now."
John shut his eyes and thrust back another half-dozen times; Harold let the pleasure swell and crest and take him utterly, working John's cock through it until he too moaned and stiffened and came in his hands, spilling wonderfully slick over Harold's fingers.
John sagged over him, and by slow degrees tipped off and fell over onto his back. His chest rose and fell in great swoops. Feeling nearly light-headed, Harold breathed with him and reached out to put his hand lightly over John's wrist, a secure connection. John relaxed next to him, and his breathing evened into sleep almost at once.
Harold slid a card with two addresses on the back along the table to John while they breakfasted, two days later; John picked it up and looked at it. "The first is for your fitting with William Fioravanti," Harold said. "The appointment is at one. I've already given him precise instructions."
John smiled down at the card, turning it over in his hands. "I'd expect nothing less, Harold. And the other?"
"When you're done there, you'll need to pick Bear up from Detective Fusco and bring him home with you," Harold said. He kept his eyes on his screen and deliberately didn't acknowledge John's startled, half-disbelieving look. "Also, while I've made arrangements for the rest of your things to be moved, I imagine you'll want to handle your arsenal yourself – "
The laptop – and the entire room service table – slid out from under his hands. Harold opened his mouth to speak, but John was sliding to his knees between Harold's legs, catching his hands, and he kissed them as though Harold were his monarch, his king. He reached for Harold's belt, hands shaking, and Harold acted on blind instinct and caught them, stopped him. John halted at once. He wasn't looking at Harold; he was staring down, seeing nothing, his mouth parted as if he was fighting for breath; his hands were trembling.
Harold wanted to say something, and yet could find no words to encompass this: something terrifyingly more complicated even than love, a monstrous complication all its own; and then he realized John had found the right metaphor already. He said nothing; deliberately he raised John's hands to his own lips and kissed them back, accepting, and John put his face into Harold's lap and wept while Harold stroked his dark head gently.