It was funny, he thought as the man dropped his arm and let the gun rest against Harold’s forehead just above his glasses, that the metal barrel wasn't cold. Room temperature, warmed from being pressed against the number's side in the police-style shoulder holster. Perhaps it was his dislike of firearms, but he’d always imagined them to be as icy as they were deadly.
Harold stood still. The gun and the arm attached to it had pushed him back into a wall, leaving him off balance with the majority of his weight on his bad leg and unable to shift it. In his brief but immersive experience dealing with very desperate people he'd found blathering rarely had the desired effect. Pointed questions and comments, however, were often at least somewhat effective.
"Mr. Smith--" because of course the number's name was Smith. Harold supposed he should have been happy it was Jacob Smith not John. "--do you really think shooting me in the head will solve anything?"
And then Reese's voice sang in his ear,"Finch, where are you?" Husky and afraid and Harold could tell from the sound of traffic and the man's breathing that he was running at full tilt.
"Shut up. Just shut up. I don't care, okay, it just needs to stop. All of it." The hand on the end of the gun shook and Harold felt the rattle through his skull. If he didn’t end up with a hole in his head by the end of the day there was going to be a ring shaped bruise above his left eye.
"You are being unjustly hunted by a collections agency, Mr. Smith, but splattering my brains on the wall of the King St. Hardware Store will only make your situation that much worse." Harold's leg shook and threatened to give out on him. He thought of Reese, two miles away and on foot, panting in his ear. A long distance comfort. The gun bit deeper against his scalp, and he winced.
“I can't make it. I can't get to you in time."
Harold swallowed. His throat was dry and all he could taste was bitter saliva. "It's going to be okay," he said to one of them more than the other. Now it was Finch's turn to cobble together an apology, a goodbye. He understood how Reese felt in the parking garage now, flooded with things to say and no way to say them.
“Harold. I’m sorry.” John said.
“Just keep... keep doing what you have to do. That’s all I ask. Please.”
“No more talking,” Mr. Smith said.
Out of the corner of his eye Harold saw the store owner in his green apron reflected in the convex overhead mirror. The owner edged towards his assailant with a baseball bat clutched in his hands. Harold tried to shake his head, but the gun was pressed hard against him and pinned him to the display rack of keys behind him. If the store owner tried to be a hero there was no doubt in Harold’s mind that he wouldn’t live to discover the outcome of the event. Mr. Smith’s finger rested on the trigger of the gun. Not even a man with Mr. Reese’s reflexes could beat the pull of the trigger.
Then three things happened simultaneously. There was an electric whine, and the power cut out in the store, flooding it with the sort of blackness that was a rarity in the city that never sleeps. In that same instant, Harold’s leg shook one last time before it buckled on him, sending him crumpling to the ground in a pile of stiff limbs, and Mr. Smith shouted in surprise and squeezed off a round into the space Harold’s head occupied a half second earlier.
“Oh Jesus. Oh fuck,” Mr. Smith said, and vomited on the floor near Harold in the black. Harold pressed both hands over his mouth and tried not to moan as his leg and back screamed at him. Mr. Smith staggered into an aisle and towards the exit, illuminated only by the headlights of the cars outside.
Harold lay on the ground in the dark until the store owner fumbled to the entrance and began to talk on his cell phone, frantically raving about a customer who’d shot someone in the head. He wondered if John could hear the blood rushing in his head, beating against the in-ear headset. He got to his knees and by way of a small miracle made it all the way to his feet. The owner left and with him the sliver of outside light. Harold picked his way to the back and fell out emergency exit by the loading dock. The three steps down to the street gave him more trouble than the twenty flights of stairs up to John, and the roof, and the bomb vest. His hands were shaking almost as badly as his legs, but he clung to the guardrail until his feet were firmly on the pavement.
“Detective Carter,” he said into his ear piece, “there’s a man running down King Street with a gun. Please stop him.”
He hung up on her. His phone was buzzing; John was calling him he was sure. Instead of tapping his ear to answer he leaned over and vomited into the gutter. The buzzing of the phone against his skull only made his nausea worse, and he was getting disgusted looks from passersby. He limped heavily to the curb and hailed a taxi. He loathed the things, much preferring his hired cars with sanitary seats, but seeing as he was most likely going to be adding to the unsanitary conditions of the taxi, he couldn’t find it in him to complain. He waited until the car pulled into the street before calling Reese.
“Sorry for the delay, Mr. Reese. I’ve sent Detective Carter to collect Mr. Smith. I’ve no doubt she can handle the situation from here.”
“I believe that concludes the threat. I’m headed back. I’ll call you when we have a new number.”
He hung up and concentrated on not throwing up until the taxi pulled up four blocks from the library, and he paid the man three hundred dollars to strike his fare from the taxi’s record.
Harold woke not knowing where he was or how long he’d been asleep. There was a hand on his shoulder.
Reese stood over him, his face dark and his eyes shadowed. John’s hands were at his collar, searching Harold for blood and injury. Harold realized he was sitting on the bottom step to the library. It couldn’t have been more than an hour since the hardware store, since Mr. Smith had only avoided becoming a murderer by luck and maybe a little something else.
“I need to get upstairs,” he blurted, and he avoided looking Reese in the eye. Reese seemed to be willing to let the matter drop until they were both settled, and Harold let himself be helped up the stairs. The last time John had helped him was the train station, Root’s drug, and his cramped legs that hadn’t been straight in days. Harold shook against John’s arm, and John beautifully kept his mouth sealed.
They made it to the top of the stairs and John got Harold settled at his desk. The familiar squares and ridges of the keyboard under his fingers calmed him and he let his hands take off, keying in queries and bringing up not Mr. Smith’s footage, but the footage of the power outage.
“What are you looking for?”
“You should go home, Mr. Reese. We have no more numbers and seeing as you appear to have sprinted all the way across Manhattan, you could use the rest. Mr. Smith is being taken care of by Detective Carter.”
Finch let his eyes flicker up to meet Reese’s and he wished he hadn’t. Concern was written all over his face. Concern and pity and fear. He closed his eyes and felt the gun against his forehead. The computer pulled up a traffic camera’s view of the corner block. The power outage happened in one fell swoop, knocking out the lights from the hardware store but effecting none of the surrounding businesses. “This power outage, combined with a convenient loss of function of my hip, is the only reason I’m alive.”
Harold watched as John studied the footage on repeat. The power came on not long after Finch stumbled out the back door. “Quite the set of circumstances.” His face was blank and Harold narrowed his eyes.
“John, I don’t think you’re grasping the severity of the situation. If this means what I think it means, the machine has been compromised. It is doing more than giving us numbers, more than I programmed it to.”
Reese pointedly looked at him and tilted his head.
Harold was suddenly glad he was sitting down. Even if his body hadn’t already rebelled against him today, he was sure this would have floored him. “You knew…”
“The machine helped me find you, helped me track Root.”
Harold felt bile rise in his throat again. “What?”
“I gave it an ultimatum. I got you back, or your contingency wasn’t a contingency anymore.” Reese’s mouth quirked into a half smile. “Your machine knows a good deal when it sees one.”
Finch flashed to years ago, to a blackjack game and a drunk driver and his world spun. The machine always knew a good deal but no one was supposed to offer it one. No one was supposed to think they could. “John, what have you done?”
The phone rang and Finch answered it automatically. Carter’s voice buzzed out from the speaker into his ear. “I got your gun-waving lunatic off the street, now you want to tell me what’s going on? Perp is pretty convinced he just shot a short, middle-aged man with a limp and glasses dead in the head. If you hadn’t called it into me I’d be pretty worried right about now.”
“Thank you, detective.”
“That’s all I get? Seriously?”
“Yes.” He hung up on her again.
John’s phone rang within seconds, and he glared at Finch as he picked it up. “Sorry, Carter, Finch isn’t in a talking mood,” he said, and he walked out of the room and into the stacks to take the call.
Harold sat alone at his desk, his temple to the Machine, and imagined how it would end. Surely the NSA would notice something amiss eventually. They were predominantly incompetent, but it only took one bright person to pick out a pattern, a string of strange events no one could explain. Harold’s ability to cover up their own illegal activities only went so far, and with the Machine acting as a free agent there was no telling what evidence trails were being left behind. And what then? Would the Machine consider the NSA to be a threat? The US government in its entirety? Would it protect itself like it protected him? He couldn’t access it now, not like he had back when he was teaching it how to see, how to know what humans would do and act and want. The NSA would notice in a heartbeat and frankly he didn’t want to, even if he could. Once that back door was cracked any wider than it already was, the Machine’s security would be stripped entirely.
Harold lost himself into bad scenario after bad scenario until he felt hands threading through his hair. He froze. “I didn’t take you for a hair fetishist, Mr. Reese.”
John’s hands were methodical but unrelenting. “Just making sure you didn’t get grazed,” he said and his voice was softer than usual.
Suddenly Harold was very tired. He sagged into the chair and said nothing when John’s hands stilled against his scalp. His whole body hurt, not just his neck and hip, and he felt weak and shaken. He closed his eyes and when he opened them again John was pushing a bottle of water into one hand and a packet of saltines, probably as old as the building, into his other. His fingers were trembling too much to open the plastic wrapper on the crackers, and John had to tear it apart for him. If he was less tired, less bone achingly exhausted, he would have cared. He let John help him up and lead him to the back stacks near the fiction section, authors Ga-Ko, where they’d set up a twin bed back when Leila had come to them. He fell asleep before he even fully laid down.