John couldn't figure out why anyone would want Miriam Hechel dead until he turned a corner and found her waiting for him with a big umbrella and a megaphone-volume lecture on a big strong man like him following defenseless old women and probably trying to steal their social security. The lecture continued, with repeated thwacks from the umbrella, even as he dragged her around the corner to save her from the hit man that had been sent after her—by her landlord, it turned out; she was the lone rent-controlled holdout blocking a billion-dollar development project.
After about thirty thwacks she finally realized he was one of the good guys, and without a pause she stuffed the umbrella under one arm and hauled out her smartphone, on which she had the photos and vital statistics of what had to be every single woman she knew within ten years of John's age. "I'm not Jewish," John tried to point out, uselessly, while he returned fire over the top of a dumpster.
"Nobody's perfect, honey," Miriam said. "Don't worry, Judaism goes by the mother. Now look at Alicia, here, she's a lawyer, I know this girl since she was thirteen, she's gorgeous, so smart—"
"I've arranged a safehouse, Mr. Reese," Harold said in his ear, and rattled off the address.
"Maybe later!" John said to Miriam, and hustled her through an alleyway and into the back of a cab.
The ride to the safehouse took twenty minutes, during which Miriam worked her way through Amanda, Anita, Daphne, Jennifer, Jennifer, Jennifer, Judith, Leah, Rachel, Ruth, Sara, and Yael. "Here," she said, "smile a little, you don't need to look so grim all the time."
"What?" John said, looking over at her; he'd been watching out the back window for any signs that they were being tailed. Miriam clicked several pictures of him, and smacked John's hand away—sharply; she had a hell of an arm for an eighty-three-year-old—when he tried to grab the phone.
"Enough, what, you think I'm turning you into the police, you save my life from that gonif?" she said. "A woman likes to see what a man looks like, too, you know. And you can't make a good living at this work, saving old ladies like me, so you need someone can support you; that kind of woman doesn't come easy. What about your family, you have family? Tell me."
"Look, Miriam," John said, shoving bills at the taxi driver as he got her out, "I'm really not in the market."
Finch looked up from a laptop in the sitting room of the brownstone. "Hello, Mrs. Hechel," he said to Miriam. "I've managed to trace what I suspect to be the payment leaving Mr. Hirschbaum's accounts," he added to John. "The hitman seems to be a gentleman by the name of Marco Ruiz; Detective Fusco is arranging for a warrant to examine his finances. If we can connect the dots, that should be enough to wrap this up."
"Oh," Miriam said to John, having looked Finch critically up and down, "why didn't you just say you had a boyfriend?"
Finch did a double-take at her, which went a long way to compensating John for the umbrella-thwacking, and even more so after Miriam plunked herself down at the table and leaned in towards Harold and demanded, "So what aren't you married for yet? It's legal two years now! Are you taking advantage of this nice boy?"
Finch gave John an alarmed look.
"I'm going to head back to the apartment complex and see if I can roust our hitman out of hiding," John said cheerfully. "You and Miriam can discuss our future. No prenups!" He saw Miriam nod approvingly and turn narrowed eyes on Harold.
Unfortunately, he got back four hours later and found that Harold had escalated: he and Miriam were sitting together over tea and rugelach and looking at an online catalog of wedding rings run by the grandson of one of Miriam's very good friends.
"Call me when you decide," she said to Harold, writing her phone number down. "I'll make sure he should give you a discount; don't you go buying full-price."
"I will, Mrs. Hechel, thank you," Harold said, taking the number and smiling as he handed her back over to John. Miriam spent the ride back to her apartment lecturing John on having spent too long giving Harold the milk for free and how he should know he was worth more than that. "But don't you worry," she said firmly, "I straightened him out: he's a good man, but even a good man needs keeping in line sometimes."
"Harold, you realize if you don't call now, she's going to set half the population of the city looking for us to make sure you make an honest man of me," John said, when he got back to the library.
"Oh, I intend to call," Harold said absently. "Engagement and wedding rings are notoriously marked up far beyond their actual value," and John came around the corner of the desk and found that Harold was looking at New York State marriage law and had another window open to the Botanical Gardens event space rental page.
John blinked. He appreciated Harold's occasional willingness to take things that one step too far—it dovetailed neatly with his own more-than-occasional inclination to do the same—but this seemed a little extreme. Harold was reaching for his phone. "Yes, this is Harold Wren calling for Mr. Jacobsen—thank you. Mark, how are you? I hope this isn't a bad time, I'm calling with a rather special request—"
John stood by for several minutes, but eventually he pulled up a chair and sat down: Harold kept talking seriously to his lawyer about estate planning and federal tax laws for almost an hour before he hung up. "That's the problem with lawyers billing by the hour," Harold said. "It's nearly impossible to get off the phone with them sometimes."
"Harold," John said, feeling pretty curious by now, "have I missed some significant event in our relationship?"
"I do feel rather foolish that it didn't occur to me before Miriam's sage advice," Harold said. "It neatly solves the most pressing problem—namely your spending spree at Logan Pierce's charity auction—as well as avoiding similar issues in future. And it will substantially reinforce your cover as John Wiley, but really, that's almost incidental."
"Well, I am sorry, Harold," John said, not sorry, "but if you'd made it more clear you'd be that hard up for ten million dollars—"
"It's not the amount," Harold said, frowning at him, still wonderfully annoyed—that really had been the best ten million dollars John had ever spent, "it's the scrutiny. Mr. Wiley had a hundred million dollars on paper; that did not translate into ten million dollars of disposable cash to spend in a night. His financial situation is now highly precarious, and I can't rescue it without transferring a sum large enough to draw attention by violating his firm's compliance regulations. Fortunately, marriage eliminates virtually all barriers to property transfer—"
"Harold," John said, "are you asking me to marry you for your money?"
"Well, Mr. Reese," Harold said, "given how much of it you've spent already, I don't really see how you can complain."
"It's just not a very romantic proposal," John said mournfully.
"I'm afraid getting down on one knee would pose certain logistical difficulties," Harold said, "but I'll get you a very nice ring to make up for it."
It was a very nice ring: several narrow bands of platinum and titanium, just the right thickness to feel solid and comfortable on his hand, not gaudy despite the square-cut diamond. John already liked rubbing his thumb against the cool thin grooves; he took out his favorite handgun and tried it: no problems. "But was it really three months' salary?"
"The ring itself, hardly," Harold said. "The prototype emergency microtransponder concealed beneath the diamond raised the cost to thirteen million, which I hope you'll agree is a respectable amount."
"I can accept that," John said. The real value of the ring turned out to be in Fusco's expression, though. The sheer acrobatics were impressive: his face went through twenty-three different degrees of confusion and dismay in under five minutes, and the fun didn't stop for the whole rest of the day.
"I'm just saying, I'm on to you," Fusco muttered at John. "You're yanking our chain."
"I'm hurt by your insensitivity to my relationship milestone, Lionel," John said.
"Shhh!" Carter hissed at them.
"He's yanking our chain," Fusco said to Carter.
"Did the two of you misunderstand the idea of sneaking up on the heavily armed drug dealers?" she said.
"Is it really my fault if I want to share my happiness?" John said.
"Yes," Carter and Fusco said. The drug dealers did find them right then, but John was getting bored with the sneaking anyway, and there were only eight of them, and they didn't have any really big guns except for two.
Afterwards, Carter folded her arms and gave him a skeptical, unimpressed look over the ring. "So when's the wedding?"
"This Saturday," John said. "Harold wants to move fast." It had something to do with estimated tax payment deadlines; John hadn't paid all that much attention. "11 am, at the Botanical Gardens up in the Bronx. We'll need a witness."
They both gawked at him at that point. John hoped Harold was getting this on film through the building's security cameras.
"You rented a place," Fusco said, flat.
"You rented the gardens?" Carter said.
"Well," John said, "Make-A-Wish is using them for a public fundraiser. Harold just donated the cost of the venue in exchange for them keeping the Rose Garden empty. There should be a big crowd coming in. You can slip through under that cover, meet us there, and slip back out afterwards—"
"Holy shit," Fusco said, staring at him. "You're serious."
"Yes, Lionel," John said, gently, enjoying himself. "I'm serious. We're getting married."
They both stood blinking at him, and then abruptly Fusco snorted and said, "All right, yeah, okay: who else was gonna put up with either of you?" He shook his head. "Tell Four-Eyes I hope he knows what he's getting into," he told John pointedly and stomped off after the dealers being hauled away to the squad cars.
Carter stared after him, then looked uncertainly back at John. "Well—congratulations, I guess." Then she shook herself and laughed suddenly. "All right, you are yanking our chain: I'm not going to pretend I saw it coming, but I'm pretty sure you both wanted it that way." Her smile softened. "Congratulations."
John smiled back, oddly touched: it was nice to feel like she'd be happy for him, for them. "Thanks," he said, and was about to let her in on it, when abruptly Harold said in his ear, "Mr. Reese, if you've finished tormenting our detectives, I'm afraid we've just received our second number of the day."
"On my way," he said. "See you Saturday," he told Carter cheerfully, and jogged to the curb.
The rest of the week was weirdly busy: nine numbers in five days. Finch had to resort to calling Carter up and giving her one number with no elaboration. "What, that's all you got, a social?" she said.
"I'm afraid so," Harold said, typing frantically in the passenger seat: he was still looking up the bare details for the number they'd just gotten fifteen minutes before, an Arlene Delorno; the number before that, Jacinto Werner of Staten Island, was currently duct-taped inside the trunk. "Please do whatever you can, Detective; I'll be in touch as soon as possible."
"So much for the Machine slowing down," John said, pressing on the gas. "Harold, we're going to have to pick up the license today or tomorrow."
"Yes, I'm aware of that," Harold said. "We have to deposit Mr. Werner with the authorities in any case: we'll leave the car outside 100 Centre Street, call it in, and go down the block to the county clerk's office; we can catch the 4 train at the City Hall stop afterwards. Ms. Delorno works at Yankee Stadium; at this time of day we'll do better taking the subway in any case."
John wasn't sure what they would do if a number turned up on Saturday, but after they managed to save Huang Wei from getting dropped off the Brooklyn Bridge on Friday night, the Machine went silent. They crashed for the night at John's apartment, not far away; the next morning they even managed to have breakfast at Golden Unicorn before taking the train to the gardens.
The main entrance by the conservatory was a zoo, crowded with people coming in and out, lots of families, kids with their faces painted; they were a little overdressed in their suits, but there were enough staff around to keep them from standing out badly, despite Bear in his service vest. The crowd thinned out as they walked down the forest trail, and there were polite signs posted well out saying The Rose Garden Is Closed; a thin white cord blocked the path when they got near.
John unhooked it for Harold and Bear and closed it up behind them. "Judge Gates said he'd meet us at the gazebo."
"I hope he wasn't too alarmed when you asked him for a favor," Harold said. "I imagine he must initially have assumed you meant something quite—" He halted, abruptly, as they came to the top of the staircase down. Bear's ears were pricking forward. John caught up the two steps behind him and stopped.
It was a big formal garden, laid out in geometric lines, wide paths around the flowerbeds. The center aisle down to the gazebo in the middle was clear; Judge Gates was standing there under the roof with Fusco and Carter.
All the rest of the paths were full of people standing quietly and oddly separate—not talking to one another, many of them alone: a wildly mixed group, old and young and families, a cross-section of the city's ethnic groups and races, suits and baggy pants and a few uniforms. Some of them were glancing covertly at the others, wary, curious; others had their heads down, hands shoved in pockets, hunched; waiting.
All John registered at first was the crowd, an automatic sense of danger, then people started turning to look up at them and his eyes started picking out faces—Theresa Whitaker, with her aunt, taller by three inches with her hair up and in a nice skirt suit. Janos Varga and his wife, by one of the benches; he was sitting with a cane propped against it. Ernie Trask in track pants, standing grinning with his arms folded over his chest near the north entrance. Miranda Salzgeber from the case at the Swiss embassy. A tall lanky black teenager in a dress shirt with a narrow tie that Reese took a second to recognize as Darren McGrady. Sofia Campos, tanned and in a short designer dress.
Bear gave a soft whine of anxiety, unsure. Harold finally, stiffly, took a step. John put a hand on his elbow, not sure whether it was to steady Harold or himself, and they went together down the staircase, through the stone gate. John thought maybe it would be easier once they were lower down, once he couldn't see the whole size of the crowd, but it wasn't. He recognized every face he saw out of the corner of his eye: every one of them had been pinned up on Finch's glass wall, a number or connected to one, a solid mass of people all around them.
Harold was staring at the ground; his breath was coming in short harsh pants, and his face was pale and flushed luridly along the cheekbones. John matched his stride to Harold's and managed to get through the long walk to the gazebo; he wasn't sure how. He looked at Carter and Fusco as they finally got there: it helped to be able to focus on their faces. They were both in their dress uniforms, grinning.
"You didn't think we were gonna let you get away with eloping?" Fusco said. He reached out to take Bear's leash. "One of you got the rings?"
"I—yes," Harold said after a moment, half-choked. He fumbled in his pocket and gave Fusco the box; Carter had moved to stand by John's side.
"You okay?" she said quietly, amused but warm.
John couldn't seem to say anything. "How did you—"
"Remember I was supposed to be trying to hunt you down?" she said. "All those case records came in pretty handy. Don't worry," she added. "Everyone knows the score: slip in, slip out. But, well—I thought they should have the chance to be here."
Gates was talking to Harold; John realized abruptly they'd never met. Gates turned and smiled at John. "Are you ready?" he asked.
The path behind him was full, too; all the spoked paths running out from the center. "Yes," John said, helplessly.
Gates raised his voice. "Friends," he said, "we're gathered here today—"
The words were a blur, and all the people rising out of the sea of green and dark branches. John tried not to look anywhere but Harold's hands, gripping his own painfully hard, but he kept getting caught on faces—Selma. Josh. Paula. Miranda. Jordan. Fermin. He hadn't realized—there were always other numbers, new numbers. He hadn't thought about—
John managed to say, "I do," though his hand shook as he slid the ring onto Harold's finger. Harold's voice sounded strange, and John looked up at last: Harold was staring at him transfixed, his eyes stunned and seeing—and seeing—John felt his breath coming in short harsh pants; his heart was pounding. He took one desperate step towards Harold; Harold's strong square hands were reaching for him, cupping his head, and they were kissing even as Gates said, "I now pronounce you married—apparently not fast enough," and people were laughing all around them—laughing, alive, saved.
People drifted out quietly afterwards, like Carter had promised, disappearing into the sprawl of the gardens and the nearby noise of the fundraiser; most didn't try to talk to them. Miriam poked him in the side with the umbrella handle in passing and said, "Mazel Tov!" Logan Pierce tried to talk them into an after-party at some speakeasy with great cocktails, but for once he took no for an answer easily and clapped John on the shoulder before vanishing. Then Sammy and Veda Cruz brought over a two-year-old Leila, shy and hiding her face against Sammy's shoulder, and John was done; his hand must have clenched hard, because Harold flinched and turning made quick excuses and drew John with him, away.
There was a car waiting by a nearby gate. The whole thing hadn't taken more than twenty minutes; the drive back was longer. Neither of them said anything the whole way. The car pulled up inside a private garage below Harold Wren's apartment building. The doorman nodded a greeting at the elevator. John had been here a handful of times, enough to establish recognition; twice in the last week: part of the plan. Harold slowed, then stopped and introduced him formally, said husband; John smiled mechanically at the congratulations.
The apartment was on the forty-third floor. John stepped into the living room and stood looking out at the Statue of Liberty, a small gleam out in the harbor; the massive bulk of the new tower rising out of Ground Zero, already two stories higher than the last time he'd been here.
Bear wandered away to explore. John heard the faint click of his nails on the kitchen floor and the lapping of his tongue when he found the water bowl. Harold sat down on the couch facing the view, stiffly. John sat next to him. They'd planned to have dinner before John slipped out of the building; there were covered dishes waiting on the coffee table, and with them a bucket of champagne, dewed with cold, two beautiful cut-glass flutes—Harold's joke. John watched drops of condensation swell, collect, and abruptly trickle down to join the spreading puddle.
"John," Harold said after a moment, his voice formal, tightly controlled, "I don't believe—it occurs to me that I haven't ever thanked you—"
It was too much. John covered his face and folded in on himself, helpless, and sobbed; a harsh, animal sound that tore out of his throat. He hadn't cried in—he hadn't cried since—Bosnia, kneeling over the corpse of the first man he'd killed, in the dirt, bruised and battered and terrified and sick, with blood on his fingers, in his mouth, and the glassy eyes dead and still staring at him, accusing: killer, killer, they'd said, and he'd known ever since that was what he was, that was—
Harold's hands touched his shoulders, tugging, and John fell into his lap, buried his face in the soft thin wool of his trousers, and felt Harold bending over him, Harold's arms around and sheltering him while he cried, wrenching, ugly sobs. It felt utterly wonderful. He didn't want to stop: held, loved, broken open; he let them come, shaking everything loose until he was hollowed out and too happy to keep crying.
"John," Harold was saying anxiously, stroking him, "John, my dear—" and John pushed himself up and dragged the back of his hand across his face, grubby, and butted his way to Harold's mouth, nudging his head up until he could catch it with his own and kiss him again.
Harold caught his face with both hands and kissed him back, clumsy and equally desperate, and they fumbled their way together to bare skin, clothes shoved aside, lying sideways on the couch pressed against each other, John's leg through Harold's, Harold's hand warm and strong in the middle of John's back, holding him on.
They rubbed off against each other like teenagers, panting. John buried his face in the warm hollow of Harold's neck and shoulder, nuzzling, breathing in his skin; Harold had pushed his hands up under John's shirt and spread them out wide, sliding them possessively over every inch of ground, his fingers sliding up the back of John's neck and into his hair. John groaned into Harold's shoulder and pressed against his thigh as hard as he dared, rocking his own leg back and forth. Harold gasped, then gripped John's hip and pulled them harder together.
John rolled onto his back to let Harold drive, shoving a hand between them and into their opened pants; he pushed their underwear out of the way and gripped them both together, his head falling back against the cushions. Harold dropped his chin against his chest and thrust, erratically, wonderfully. John came abruptly, and brought Harold over with a few more desperate jerks of his hand, both of them spilling across his belly, over the suits, onto the couch.
They collapsed off the couch by degrees and slumped back against it, side by side on the Persian rug; Harold's tie was still dangling from around his neck, one lone holdout button still hanging in there on John's shirt, their cuffs loose, pants gaping open. There was a blaze of orange and gold and blue smeared across the buildings outside, the sun going down, the city lights coming up.
"Harold," John said softly, not a question, just wanting Harold's name in his mouth; but Harold answered him anyway, a soft brush of the back of his hand against John's cheek, tender. John leaned against it.
"Would you care for some steak?" Harold said, after a little while, looking over at the dinner tray. They dragged the food over and ate with the plates in their lap, Bear coming over for bites John sneaked him.
"You take him, I'll clear up," Harold said afterwards, and John buttoned his pants up and threw on his coat and took Bear down for a quick walk around the block, nodding to the doorman; it was a nice cool night. There was a bodega on the corner; John touched the earpiece. "Do we need milk?"
"No, but you could pick up some eggs," Harold said; John thought about it and got a pound of coffee, too, some fruit that looked good, and a few jars of basic spices: Harold had an unreasoning prejudice against any cooking that didn't involve a microwave or a telephone.
He smiled at the woman at the cash register and carried his shopping home. Harold had shoved the dishes in the sink and was contemplating the stained couch, a little ruefully. "Baking soda," John said, piling the fruit into a bowl.
"Cleaning service," Harold said dryly. He rubbed Bear's head. Bear whuffed and settled himself on his bed.
The bedroom was down the hall, the bed huge and luxurious, another wall of windows that darkened when Harold pushed a button. "Nice," John said, stretching out appreciatively, and reached out to tangle his fingers with Harold's, and then to roll towards him and kiss him again, and again. Harold tugged him in even further, and they ended up huddled together in the middle of the enormous bed, warm and close; home.
"You know, it's too bad," John said yawning, settling in.
"Hm?" Harold murmured, mostly asleep against him.
"We should've registered," John said.
Harold cracked an incredulous eye and peered up at him. John shrugged with his other shoulder. "I've always wanted a stand mixer."
"I can get you a stand mixer."
"It's not the same," John said sadly. Harold made a faintly disgruntled noise. John stroked his fingers through Harold's hair. "I do like the Kitchen-Aid, though," he added.
"Are you—planning to be high-maintenance?" Harold said, muffled and suspicious.
"It's important to keep up appearances," John said. "We don't want people getting the wrong idea about why we got married."
John woke in sunlight, Harold stirring next to him; they stared at each other. John leaned in cautiously, feeling weirdly unsure, but Harold leaned in awkwardly back, and then they were kissing: clumsy at first, noses going in the wrong places and a scrape of stubble, and then Harold shifted and John tilted and they fitted together, sweetly. John felt Harold smiling under his mouth, and when they parted to breathe, they both grinned at each other, involuntary and half incredulous.
They got up to have a lazy breakfast at the kitchen table, coffee and tea and scrambled eggs. "No number?" John said, clearing up the plates as Harold came back from the front door with the paper, and a bemused expression: he showed John the headline on the Metro section: A Day Without Violent Crime.
"Huh," John said. "Does that happen a lot?"
"Occasionally, but it is statistically unlikely at this time of year," Harold said.
"I guess we got—lucky?" John said. He and Harold looked at each other. "It's not like the Machine can control when people are going to commit violent crimes."
"No, no, obviously," Harold said. "Only—" he paused. "Only when we learn of them," he said slowly.
They looked down at the paper again. "That was kind of a crowded week," John said.
"I'm sure it's just a coincidence," Harold said after a moment.
Harold was in the shower when the phone rang. It took John a minute to find it, because it wasn't the one out on the kitchen counter, but a heavy antique rotary phone tucked inside a deep cabinet with part of the wall taken out behind it, connected directly to the building's telephone wires. John picked up and scribbled down the new number on the small blank pad right next to the phone: Kaleidoscope AG, Polytechnical WH, Victorious RM.
Time to get back to work. He smiled and reached to rack the handset, then he paused and brought it back. "Thank you," he said softly, and maybe it was his imagination, but he thought there was a faint crackle of static on the other end, answering.