Chapter 1: Dr Wong
Two numbers come up at the same time, a twenty-one-year-old girl named Chantelle Lecuyer, originally from Montréal, now attending Columbia University, and a recently retired insurance actuary named Edith Robinson. So Finch gets to dig through all of Mrs Robinson’s insurance investigations for the last five years, and John gets Chantelle.
“She spends a lot of time online every day,” says Harold, fingers flying over the keyboard as he sets up a secure browsing profile for John. “Mostly on a social media site called Tumblr.” He pronounces it tum-bee-ell-arr. “Dig through her activity, let me know what you find.”
It quickly becomes obvious that the site is impossible to browse unless you have your own account, so John quickly knocks one together for himself. He calls it nycbirdman and smirks.
Chantelle’s user name is donttrustthebee. Her blog doesn’t have anything to do with bees. It’s mostly pictures of young, attractive actors and actresses, and the occasional long blog post about politics, but the kind that might attract hate crime rather than state or military interest – it’s mostly stuff about feminism in movies. None of it seems to be stuff she’s written herself. It all feels weirdly devoid of commentary – aren’t blogs supposed to have words on them? – until John realizes that Chantelle writes a ton of stuff in the tags, which he hadn’t been looking at and which aren’t actually that obvious, visually. With a sigh he starts again at the most recent post, paying attention to the tags this time. The comments on the politics are smart, what he understands of them; the comments on the pictures of movie stars are mostly incomprehensible and she seems to hate a lot of them. Or at least, she tags them with things like ‘HOW DARE YOU’ and ‘NO’, which maybe, John begins to think after a while, mean the opposite.
“I don’t know if I’m going to get anything from this,” John says.
“Hmm?” says Harold. “Oh, keep looking. Ms Robinson had quite the career, as it turns out. She saved her company nearly sixteen million dollars in fraud.”
John clicks back and back through the posts. He feels like he’s getting a remedial course in the last five years of pop culture. A pattern also becomes clear about Chantelle’s taste in more than movies. He raises an eyebrow at a post full of pictures of naked women tied up in arty poses.
“I think she bats for both teams.”
“The word is bisexual, Mr Reese, and unless her sexual orientation constitutes an immediate threat to her life, I’d prefer a summary when you’re finished.” Harold sounds a little snippy.
“Just giving you some background information. Edith giving you some trouble over there, Finch?”
Harold snorts. “Hardly. I already have a suspect. A rental car registered to her old firm’s major competitor has been appearing on her street on a regular schedule for the last four days. I suspect they’re watching her house.”
“You want me to get over there?”
“Not just yet.”
John keeps clicking. She also reblogs a bunch of pictures of cute animals. Some nice dogs. A bird which kind of reminds him of Harold. It’s all puffed up like Harold gets when he’s irritated.
“Hey, Finch, come and check out this interface,” he says.
“You’re more than usually determined to interrupt my thought processes today,” Harold says, but he pushes back from his desk and slides his chair over to John. He scrolls down the page, frowning, then clicks around, testing the ask box, the message function. “What the – who on earth designed this? This is appalling – what are you smiling at?”
“Here, did you check her inbox?”
John didn’t even notice that there was an inbox. Finch breaks into her account in less than thirty seconds and then scrolls through the messages, which seem to be… sexting? Is that what the kids call it? I take your nipple between my teeth and bite, just enough that you can feel it. You arch your back and moan, but I don’t stop until you beg, then I lick you better and slide my hand down between your thighs.
John actually feels his cheeks heat up, although it’s less the porn – erotica? – itself and more because Harold is reading it right there next to him, blinking rapidly, ears going pink. This particular porn has been written back and forth between Chantelle and someone called janisjoplin, who Finch identifies, after running a quick IP locator, as a twenty-five-year-old named Laura, a Columbia graduate student.
“I’ll go check her out,” John says, getting up. The library is feeling a little close, all of a sudden.
Harold clears his throat. “I’ll send Fusco to check Robinson’s watcher.”
He picks up Chantelle coming out of the 145th St subway, and tails her two blocks to a block of offices. She takes the elevator to a floor marked Dr. Sandra Wong, Psychotherapist. John sits in the waiting room and pages through Chantelle’s phone messages. She has the Tumblr app on her phone and it accounts for most of her data usage this month. There are a few texts from her father, mostly about the health of the family dog. They seem a little odd to him. Stilted. “Check the parents,” he murmurs to Finch. When the hour’s up, Chantelle doesn’t come out; John’s about to ask Finch to check whether there’s a second exit to the office – has it been knocked into the building next door? – cursing himself, when a petite woman – Asian, mid-to-late-fifties, short hair – leaves and locks the office. She looks straight at John.
“Can I help you?”
“Hi,” John says and pulls out an easy smile. “I think I’m in the wrong place.”
“Are you here for the veteran’s group? We’re in the other building today. Do you want to walk over with me?”
“Uh,” John says. “Sure.”
“I don’t know your face,” she says in the elevator. “First time at the group? Did Daniel suggest us?”
“No, one of your other patients,” John says. “Chantelle Lecuyer? I know her dad. I thought I might see her here today, actually, she said she’d meet me.”
“I’m sure you’ll find the group helpful,” Dr Wong says calmly. John is pleased by her caution. “Where did you serve?”
“Afghanistan,” John says. “Three tours.” He catches sight of Chantelle’s bag dipping below street level as she goes down into the subway. “Listen – I’m sorry. I’ve changed my mind.”
“That’s okay,” Dr Wong says. “We’re here every Monday.”
John heads for the subway.
Emerging above ground at the Lincoln Center, he and Chantelle receive a text from Dr. Wong at the exact same time: Concerning incident at office. I think a man is following you. Tall, white, blue eyes, dark hair, wearing suit. Please consider what I said and go to police. John ducks his head immediately, turns away from Chantelle so she can’t see his face. In the reflection in a storefront window, he can see her looking around wildly.
“… Mr Reese?” Harold says in his earpiece, no doubt looking at the same damn message.
“Her therapist is a careful lady,” John murmurs, impressed, albeit pretty furious with himself.
“She obviously is aware of the threat to Chantelle’s life, as is Chantelle. It seems that you’ve lost the opportunity to extract that information from her, however.”
“Seems so.” Chantelle disappears into a Hot Topic. John doesn’t try to follow her; now that she’s looking for him, he’d stick out like a sore thumb in there. “I’m beginning to think her friend Laura might be a dead end.”
“I’m inclined to agree,” Harold says. “I’ve uncovered some information about her father which may shed some light on the situation.”
Turns out, Laura has nothing to do with anything; Chantelle’s father, a small-town Canadian politician, took some money he shouldn’t have, and some guys in the pay of the former mayor of some city in Quebec (you’ve never heard of the King of Laval? I thought you were an international spy, Mr Reese) have been sending him threatening letters to get him to pay up, the most recent of which included surveillance photos of his daughter. They were taken outside her therapist’s office. It’s a quiet street, with the double entrance into the office, the two buildings knocked together. Vulnerable. She has another appointment in her calendar for the next day; John thinks he’d better show.
“Did you check up on the therapist?” John says later, around a welcome mouthful of ravioli. Chantelle is in her dorm for the night, and John hasn’t eaten since noon.
“Sandy Wong,” Harold says. “She runs a number of support groups in addition to her private patients. Including the LGBTQ veterans group on Mondays, presumably the one she mentioned to you. No, Bear. No. Your dinner is over there. We’ve talked about this.”
Bear’s attempts to share their meal distracts Harold while John wonders whether he meant anything by it, or was fishing for information, or – it’s occurred to him before, to wonder whether Harold knows that about him. He’s never mentioned it. John doesn’t think it’s in his Agency files.
Then Harold says, “Have you ever considered seeing a therapist?”
John blinks, thrown. “Why?”
Harold makes an odd gesture which John mentally translates as a shrug, even though he doesn’t move his shoulders. “It seemed to me that you might find it helpful to talk to someone.”
“I’m okay,” John says automatically.
“Your ex-partner and lover recently strapped a bomb to your chest,” Harold says, looking him dead in the eye. “That is only the most recent of a series of traumatic experiences you’ve undergone. You have not been okay for as long as I’ve known you.”
John manages, he thinks, a pretty convincing smile. “You get used to it.”
“That would be the problem, John.” Harold looks – sad, John realizes. He can’t think of anything to say.
They send three guys to snatch Chantelle outside Dr Wong’s office. They arrive ten minutes after Chantelle goes in; they’re sloppy, and apparently aren’t expecting any opposition. John takes out two on the street, leaves the driver cuffed to the wheel and one on the ground, but the third gets into the building, and Chantelle and Dr Wong step out of the elevator at that moment, so John has to change his plans quickly, and takes a flailing elbow to the face in the process of disarming #3.
“Go back upstairs,” John snaps at them, but #3 slides to the ground, out cold.
“Oh my god,” Chantelle says, “That’s René, the fucking asshole I was telling you about. Hey, do you work for my dad? Are you okay?”
“I’m calling the police,” Dr Wong says. “You’re bleeding.”
“They’re on their way.” John touches his nose gingerly, and his fingers come away wet. He’ll probably have a black eye tomorrow. Great. “Chantelle, your dad should be more careful who he does business with. There’s a detective coming who’ll help you out, Detective Carter. Do either of you ladies have a Kleenex?”
Dr Wong hands him one silently. Chantelle stares.
“I think I know who you are,” she says. “I’m Judy Li’s aunt.”
John pinches his nose with the Kleenex. “Loan sharks, right? Chemo bills?”
“You saved her life.”
He remembers Judy Li. Tiny, like Dr Wong. Rail-thin and bald from the chemo. She hadn’t been afraid of the debt collectors, only furious. John had liked her. “She doing okay?”
“She’s much better. Her last scans were clear.”
“The police will be with you in two minutes,” Harold murmurs into his ear. “I’ve passed on our information to Detective Carter and sent an anonymous tip to the RCMP.”
“I gotta go,” John says. “Thanks for the Kleenex.”
“Wait,” says Dr Wong. She rummages in her handbag, then presses a card into his hand, after. “If you ever need someone to talk to in confidence, I’ll clear my schedule for you, any time. It’s the least I can do.”
She meets John’s eyes, firm and sure. John feels a stab of liking for her.
“What would you like us to say to the police?”
That's nice, he thinks. Considerate.
“Unknown bystander, gone before you came downstairs, you didn’t see him or her.” He opens the door carefully, checks the street. The first two guys are still lying there, although one of them is conscious now.
“Thanks!” Chantelle yells after him.
John’s around the corner before the police arrive.
“I don’t like the look of your face,” Harold says, clipped and cold. John automatically looks up for cameras.
“That hurts my feelings, Harold.”
To his surprise and amusement, Harold flusters. “I meant your injury.”
“I’m okay,” John says, trying not to grin, since he’s already getting nervous looks from passers-by and he thinks his teeth might be bloody.
“You said that when you’d been shot in the stomach. As we established last night, it communicates nothing whatsoever.”
John frowns. Harold gets snippy when John gets injured, but he sounds more pissed than is proportionate; John’s barely hurt at all, his nose isn’t even broken.
“Harold, I’m ok-”
“Stop saying that.”
John opens his mouth, closes it again.
“My apologies,” Harold says heavily. “A good day’s work, Mr Reese. Feel free to go home and put some ice on your face.”
“Sure,” John says. He has an uncomfortable feeling in his stomach that he can’t shift; at home, later, he has the strange urge to call Harold on the comm to tell him that he’s doing exactly what he was told. He doesn’t do it.
Late that night, alone, dutifully icing his face, John opens his new Tumblr account and navigates back to the picture of the round bird on Chantelle’s page. He looks at it for a while, and sips his whisky. He only allows himself one when he drinks alone these days, so he’s trying to get in the habit of drinking it slowly. He notices that Chantelle has written borb in her tags, which seems weird, since she doesn’t usually make typos. He clicks on borb, hoping he’ll get a definition or something. He gets… more pictures of birds. Round, fat, fluffy birds with ruffled feathers that look kind of grumpy, but also comfortable, warm, like they will be okay through the winter. Puffballs with beaks. Someone has written BIRD ORB = BORB on one of the posts. John finds himself smiling, and he clicks the little heart button. Then, mostly just to figure out how the interface works (he tells himself), he clicks a few of the other buttons. After a while, he notices that nycbirdman now contains sixteen pictures of fat, round birds.
The next morning, he has five followers. It’s satisfying, but disturbing; it gets under his skin like a splinter, that this must be what a normal person might feel on a normal day. Five followers on a social media account for fat birds. He thinks about that as he examines his black eye. Normal. He forgot what it could feel like.
“I checked up on Dr Wong,” Harold says, apropos of nothing. “She is who she says she is.”
“Fine,” John says. He wasn’t really worried about it.
Harold continues, “I think you could trust her confidentiality.”
“Oh,” John says, catching a clue. “You want me to see her?”
“It’s entirely up to you.” Harold has his back to John, limping only slightly as he takes down Chantelle’s photograph, sticks up a new one. He’s wearing a blazer John doesn’t think he’s seen before, with a kind of plum tint to it.
“New jacket?” he says, purely to change the subject.
“Yes,” Harold says, sounding surprised, even pleased. “What do you think?”
John wasn’t expecting his distraction tactic to work, and he struggles to find a follow-up. “The color’s different.”
Harold hums agreement. “It’s a little unfashionable, and I’m never really sure about reds in menswear, but I think it’s muted enough to avoid being vulgar, and it is fall, after all.”
He falls silent. John can’t think of anything else to say. After a moment, Harold turns back to the board. John is conscious of something; disappointment, maybe. A window that opened and closed again, and he missed it.
Something about the conversation grinds into that splinter from the morning, stronger this time, a throbbing phantom pain. And the new idea Harold has planted in his head has taken root enough that he thinks, maybe I could ask Dr Wong about it.
He probably never would have made the appointment, but a few weeks later, Harold says, “If you’re still planning to make that appointment with Dr. Wong, might I suggest Tuesday at three? I’ve been running a small study, and that is statistically the time that we are least likely to be on the move with a number.”
“You sure you want me talking to someone? About what we do?” It isn’t really what John means to say.
“It helps that she already knows the bare bones of what you do, and has a motivation for keeping your secret even beyond the bounds of doctor-patient confidentiality. As long as you keep any specific details out of your discussion of our work and say nothing about the Machine, I don’t see why you shouldn’t see her.” Harold pulls something out of a desk drawer and hands it to John. “Switch that on during your appointment and you’ll disrupt any recording equipment in the room.”
Of course Harold has already thought the whole thing through.
“Will you be listening?”
Harold hesitates at that. “No. But if something comes up -”
John nods. “I’ll keep my earpiece in. If I go,” he adds, belatedly.
The business card is still in his wallet, a little dog-eared. He tells himself, dry-mouthed, that he can give it a try. He doesn’t really need it, he knows, but the fact that he can’t stop messing with his Tumblr – the way he keeps wanting a do-over on that blazer conversation with Harold – it’s niggling at him, and he doesn’t know why. He could use another perspective; just one or two sessions, probably. But it’s the fact that Harold went to the trouble of running a damn study that makes him pick up the phone.
Sandy Wong remembers him, and says she’s happy to see him on Tuesday at three. John has the distinct impression that she’d been keeping it open for him.
“So, John,” Sandy says, her hands folded in her lap. She hadn’t even tried to ask John if she could keep notes, which he appreciated. “How are you feeling?”
John isn’t sure what to make of that. He shifts in his seat. This was a mistake. He decides to go in guns blazing. Better that she knows what she’s getting into.
“I used to kill people for a living.”
Sandy only nods encouragingly.
“Now mostly I save people,” John says, “Although I put four guys in hospital yesterday.” Sandy nods again, like she hears this all the time. “So, I feel okay, I guess.”
“Let’s start smaller,” Sandy says. “Why don’t you tell me what you like most about your day?”
nycbirdman’s Tumblr looks a little bare. John can’t figure out how to add a picture onto the top of it, like other people have. He wastes two hours clicking around the FAQ and the help sections, and finally, in frustration, writes a text post, hoping that one of his five followers might help: I can’t figure out this site. How do you get an image into the banner? Almost immediately, someone reblogs the post and adds hey @nycbirdman, you’ve disabled your asks. John rubs his forehead. Eventually, some fourteen-year-old girl helps him figure out how to get a picture into his damn website. Then he has to decide on a picture. He pulls up a stock image of birds on a telegraph wire. It’s long, and fills the space, and he thinks it looks nice. Then he has to fill out the title. After much thought, he writes, I like borbs. Then he deletes that. It feels too personal.
John is sure that Harold is keeping an eye on his new social media presence, but he doesn’t say anything about it until a couple of days later, when John is supposed to be surveilling Edith Robinson and instead is taking a picture of a bird.
“What on earth are you doing?”
“Robinson is in the bathroom.”
“Are you taking a photograph of that pigeon?”
John wonders, occasionally, how often Harold watches him when he’s on the job. Or off the job. It’s easier to be good, to buy groceries and do his laundry and clean his apartment and only buy one bottle of whisky every other week, when he feels like Harold is watching. John doesn’t test it, doesn’t even really want to know; he just likes the illusion of constant surveillance. He finds it comforting, the silent presence around him all the time. Probably that’s unhealthy.
“I like that pigeon,” John says.
Harold seems momentarily stunned into silence.
“I see,” he says finally.
When John posts it to his Tumblr later, he tags it ‘borb’ and ‘pigeon’ and ‘nyc’. Eight people ‘like’ it and one person reblogs it with the tags so round and so thinking and I love it. John follows that person back.
A borb, John discovers, is a round bird, but borbs are also birbs. A birb is a cute bird, or a dumb bird, or a really smart bird, or a bird doing something funny. Not all birbs are borbs, although some people use the words basically interchangeably. But maybe all borbs are birbs? The kids are into all kinds of crazy shit these days.
“I’ve been taking pictures of birds,” John says to Sandy.
“For your Tumblr?”
“Birding is very popular with veterans,” she says. “It’s a very peaceful hobby.”
He shows her the photos on his phone.
“I like that pigeon,” she says.
“I took that a few days ago,” John says. “Harold thought I was crazy.”
“Does it matter to you, what Harold thinks of you?”
John stares at her. He can’t even comprehend the question.
Chapter 2: Borbs
To his surprise, Sandy doesn’t think it’s a problem that he’s spending most of his downtime posting and reblogging pictures of the roundest birds he can find. In fact, she says he should try to make time for it. In a quiet moment while waiting on a number, John tries to download the Tumblr app to his phone. Harold is in his ear immediately.
“Several of the security parameters on your phone are being disrupted – what on earth are you downloading?”
“It’s for my therapy,” John says, as snidely as he can, partly just to fuck with him, and partly because he’s pissed at himself for not checking the app specs against his jacked phone. Stupid.
He’s braced for Harold to tell him that he didn’t encourage John to see a therapist for him to be irresponsible, but Harold only says, “Oh. Well, don’t use it until I’ve looked it over, please; I’m sure I can patch up these holes so that it’s safe for you to use. If not, we’ll get you a dedicated phone.”
John stares out of the car windshield, and tries to fathom how he feels about this.
John can’t help pushing it. For several weeks he tries dropping statements that begin “my therapist said I should…” on Harold, just to see how far the supportive act extends, and maybe, a little, to see whether Harold really isn’t listening to his sessions.
“My therapist said I should play catch with Bear in the library more.” Harold sighs, and starts moving wires and disconnecting his extra monitor.
“My therapist said I shouldn’t take Fifth at rush hour.” Harold pauses, then programs a different route into the GPS.
“My therapist said I should eat more beignets.”
“She did not,” Harold says. Then he adds, “Perhaps you’d better get a dozen, and bring them back to the library.”
It’s sort of fun, fucking with Harold like this, in the way free-fall is fun, with an edge of nausea.
Mrs Robinson’s house is in a nice, leafy neighborhood, and John’s car is backed into a shadowy spot next to a park. She’s inside, probably making dinner; the other guy watching her house is in a black Ford Focus, a hundred yards away. Fusco chased him away, but two days later, he was back.
“What’s that?” John says, holding up his phone so Harold can see. “The red one.”
“That’s a cardinal,” Harold says, “Haven’t you ever seen a cardinal?”
“Sure I’ve seen one, I just don’t know the name.”
“How about that one?”
“That’s a male sparrow.”
“And that one? The little brown one?”
“That’s also a sparrow. A female. There are web apps for this, you know.”
“And the one next to it?”
“For heaven’s sake, John, they’re all sparrows.”
“I’m new to this, Harold,” John says, injecting a slightly hurt tone into his voice. “My therapist said I should have a hobby.” Harold hesitates. John’s stomach drops. He’s pushed it too far; this is the time Harold gets pissed at him.
“I apologize,” Harold says at last. “Ask away.”
“What’s this one?”
“That’s a spa- now you’re doing this on purpose.”
John can hear him smiling. His stomach unknots.
"How did you get along with your mood diary?” Sandy says.
John pulls out the notebook she’d given him. There’s some blood on it but it’s still basically okay. He should have kept it in a plastic bag. There isn’t much written in it, though. Whenever he had any downtime, he looked at the words she’d written in for him, “The date is … the time is … I feel…” and the blank space stared back at him. Instead, on another page, he kept a record of the time he spent taking, editing, stripping geolocation information from, uploading, and reblogging pictures of borbs. Birds. He takes her through the numbers and explains them.
“So these represent the times this week you felt…”
“…anything, yeah,” John agrees, deadpan.
“Ah,” says Sandy. “I take it this isn’t working for you. Why don’t we try another approach?”
“Oh,” John says, feeling a little silly. “Yeah, sure. Thanks.”
When he can’t sleep, John drinks his glass of whisky and looks at pictures of fat birds. He lets himself think about Harold, bright colours and ruffled feathers. Soft. He supposes he could watch porn, but if he’s honest, he prefers this.
“Do you feel you should prefer porn?” Sandy says, when John tells her this.
John lifts a shoulder. “I guess it seems a little pathetic.”
“There’s nothing wrong with liking birds, John,” Sandy says gently. Funny how John gets the feeling she’s saying something else.
The Robinson case drags on. Things usually unfold faster than this, and it’s possible the threat has passed, but the other insurance guy hasn’t stopped watching her, so they don’t stop either. The other guy keeps regular hours – he’s such an amateur, it’s almost offensive – so while Harold keeps an eye on him, John can go home, take a shower, shave, change. Robinson’s neighbourhood isn’t the fanciest, but he’s beginning to be worried about someone calling the cops on him. He’s outside his apartment with a cup of Starbucks’ finest warming his hands when Harold’s voice cuts through the Manhattan traffic.
John looks up immediately and steps into the shadow of a building, all his senses on alert, one hand going to his weapon. He doesn’t see anything.
“What am I looking for?”
"Oh, I’m sorry. It’s not a threat. At least, not to anything bigger than a squirrel. Do you have your field glasses with you? Turn forty degrees to your left - yes, the building at the corner of 109th – look up to about the thirtieth floor – there’s a peregrine falcon perched on the cornice, do you see it?”
At the moment John finds it in his field of vision, the falcon takes off again, an easy glide, soaring high above the city. He watches it, fascinated. He probably would have thought it was a gull or something if Harold hadn’t pointed it out, but now that he looks at it, he can see that even sillhouetted against the sky, it looks different; its wings are built to fold back like a fighter jet, and it doesn’t flap at all, just hangs in the air, looking down, watching.
“A surprising number of birds of prey live in Manhattan,” Harold murmurs into his ear. It feels like he’s right there next to John. “The high rises are like cliffs, which are their natural habitat; they generate the same updrafts and thermals.”
“Lots of dumb pigeons. Must be like fast food.”
“That too. It’s amazing, how nature adapts to the city. They’re practically dinosaurs, incredibly sophisticated predators, and they manage to thrive in the middle of one of the busiest cities in the world. People just don’t notice them. They make me think of you, actually,” he adds, and John blinks, caught off-guard by the warmth in his voice, the shift into the personal.
“Who are you calling a dinosaur?” he shoots back, just a beat late.
“I was only referring to your facility with social media,” Harold says, and it takes John a moment to realize he’s teasing. He gets that prickling, hot sensation again, like feeling working its way back into a bloodless limb. It hurts.
sitdowndaniel sends him an ask saying hey just curious, how round does a birb have to be to become a borb?
John writes back Pretty round, but it doesn’t have to be all biomass. Feathers count. He wonders how he became someone with opinions on bird sphericalness. It’s kind of nice to have a strong opinion about something that isn’t related to their work at all. He’s beginning to think there’s something in Sandy’s suggestion about hobbies. Maybe he should start caring about sports again too. Maybe baseball. He wonders if Harold is into sabermetrics. Seems like the kind of thing he’d be into.
It’s past midnight, but he’s still wearing his earpiece. He doesn’t let himself think about it before opening the com.
“Hey, Harold,” he says softly, into his empty bedroom.
There’s a brief silence. Then, “Yes, John?” Harold says. John feels the corners of his mouth twitch involuntarily.
“You into sabermetrics?”
There’s another brief pause, during which John thinks his next words will probably be, you called me at this time to ask me that? or is this relevant to a number? or is this leading to another hamfisted attempt to find out where I grew up, Mr Reese? before Harold finally says, “I don’t keep up with the field anymore, but I used to be, yes.”
“Yeah?” says John, delighted, then realizes he doesn’t have a follow-up question.
“The fascinating thing about sabermetrics,” Harold says, keys tapping in the background, “is that until the late ‘70s -”
John quietly closes his laptop, lies back on the bed and listens to his voice, all his muscles gradually loosening.
John isn’t all that interested in the rarer birds, or the ones with exotic plumage, or the big raptors. He kind of likes the little birds that are everywhere, that can survive on anything, that fade into the background. He’s never really noticed how many of them there are before, sparrows and pigeons and robins and starlings and crows, grackles with their shiny heads, red-winged blackbirds with their croaking yells that always sound to him like radio static, and even Canadian geese. (Geese are obnoxious, Harold said disapprovingly into his ear as John snapped a picture, but later he’d stopped John at an intersection to point out a V in the sky. They’re not heading south, John had objected. Oh, geese will go anywhere, Harold sniffed. John likes them. He read a Tumblr post about how they have a reputation for being aggressive because they’re not afraid of humans, so they don’t take shit from them. He respects that.)
Although John thinks of Harold as a rare kind of bird, with his silk pocket squares and the fancy suits John has taken, very secretly, to thinking of as plumage, Harold picks his aliases from the kind of birds that blend in. Maybe he thinks of himself as like them: quiet, mousy, dust-coloured. Easily hidden. John suspects that Harold likes the common birds too.
John thinks it might be kind of nice to have music on his Tumblr that plays while people look at pictures of borbs. He can't work out how to do it, though, and yet again winds up writing a text post to ask for help. When he checks on his phone the next morning he has about thirty messages saying things like "NO" and "DELETE YOUR ACCOUNT" and, "OH MY GOD, DID I WAKE UP IN 1998? NO. STOP. WHAT ARE YOU DOING." Someone has attached a gif of Abe Simpson shaking his fist at a cloud.
"Harold, I think I'm being cyberbullied," John says.
"Well, we can’t have that," says Harold. "Give me their usernames and a minute or two and I’ll destroy their GPAs.”
John surprises himself with the hard little thrill that gives him, even though he knows Harold’s teasing.
“You going to protect me, Harold?” he says, knowing he’s flirting, not wanting to stop.
“Of course,” Harold says. John can hear him smiling; he himself is grinning idiotically out of the car window. “I will use all my considerable resources to defend you against preteens criticizing your web design.”
The rival insurance guy gets out of his car. He stretches for a moment - he’s been in there for three hours - then suddenly seems to make up his mind about something, and reaches into the car for a bag.
“But seriously,” Harold says, “Nineties aesthetic aside, the accessibility concerns alone - are you watching?"
"Yeah, yeah, I see him, I'll call you back," says John, palming his gun as he opens the car door.
Fifteen minutes later, only slightly out of breath, John closes the line to Carter and checks his Tumblr.
>>Seriously, the guy literally only posts pictures of fat birds, what has he ever done to you?
>he killed my great-great-great grandfather
@nycbirdman did you know Thomas Jefferson? can you help me with my history essay?
“What the fuck are you smiling at?” says the insurance guy, now zip-tied to a chair.
“Shut up, Kyle, you jerk!” yells Ms Robinson, suddenly emerging from beneath the kitchen table, and she hits him over the head with a frying pan. Shock gets people in funny ways, sometimes.
“What have I told you about overkill?” Carter says when she arrives. “Now I gotta take him to the hospital.” John shrugs, as Ms Robinson looks studiously in the other direction.
He comes in to the library to find a dog-eared copy of the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds on the desk.
“Hey, what’s this?” he says, picking it up and flipping through it. The pages are soft-edged, but the colors inside are still vivid and bright. There are pencilled notes on a few pages, faded, but legible.
“I thought it might be useful,” Harold says. He’s wearing a new tie today. Green. “There is plenty of information online, of course, but there’s something about having the physical book to hand.”
“Was this in the library?” John says, opening the book to look at the publication date.
“Actually no,” Harold says, a little stiffly. “That’s my old copy. Not the one my father gave me - that fell apart years ago - but the replacement.”
“Oh,” John says, startled. Harold’s cheeks are a little pink.
“Birding is a little difficult for me these days, with the work, and,” he gestures at his hip. “Besides, I have it all memorized. It’s really nothing.”
It’s a treasure. It’s a piece of Harold’s life; it’s the second-best thing he’s ever given him.
“Thanks, Harold,” John says, and wraps it carefully in a plastic bag before putting it in his pocket.
“You know,” Harold says, after a moment, “Central Park is a unique hot spot for birding. New York acts as a bottleneck for migration routes all along the East Coast, and thousands of species stop over there every year, especially in the fall and spring. There are birding sites dedicated to letting local birders know when rare species appear. It’s a good time for warblers right now. I could - I could take you to see some, if you wanted.”
“Yeah,” John says, heart in his throat. “I’d like that.”
He can’t quite tamp down the need to run away, so he commutes it into taking Bear for a walk; Bear means he’ll have to come back. He makes it four blocks before he taps the earpiece, wanting - something. Reassurance. The sound of Harold’s keyboard tapping overlays with the buzz of the city.
“John?” Harold says, after a few moments. “Did you want - did I, I’m concerned that I -”
“Nice tie,” John blurts out. “It’s new, right?”
He closes his eyes for a second in mortification, but the ground feels more solid beneath his feet. Harold is scared too, so John didn’t imagine it, he isn’t out here on his own. Bear tugs at his leash, and John resumes walking. One foot in front of the other.
“I, yes.” Harold sounds surprised. Pleased. “Do you like it?”
John smiles, despite himself. “I do. It’s a good color on you.”
It’s a strange echo of that conversation about Harold’s blazer, except that it feels entirely different.
“Do you know,” Harold says softly, “that before this week, you have never told me explicitly that you liked something, except for weapons and people who might pose a violent threat to you?”
John watches the crosswalk lights blink on, blink off. Bear starts walking, and John follows him.
“Sandy’s doing a good job on me.”
“I’m glad she’s helping. But - you’re changing yourself, John. Re-ordering your own mind. It takes sustained effort and control, and I’m very impressed by your progress.”
Pleasure grabs John by the collar and shakes him until he feels like his teeth are rattling. He looks down, sure that Harold’s watching, that he must be able to see how he feels, how good it is.
Oh, he thinks, weakly. That, more, again.
John is still reeling a little, two days later. He wants to tell Sandy about it, but he isn’t sure what to say, isn’t even really sure what happened, whether anything happened at all. He’s replayed it in his head over and over, and he still gets that little flip in his chest every time, but it was nothing, really. Harold just said something nice to him, because Harold is a nice guy. He knew that already. Harold suggested that they do something together, something that isn’t work, because Harold wants to encourage him in his hobbies. Maybe.
Finally he settles for, “Harold thinks you’re doing a good job.”
“I don’t care what Harold thinks,” Sandy says.
John’s hand twitches. He loosens his jaw with effort.
“Did you notice that you felt something when I said that, John?”
When John thinks about it, he can still feel the outline of the desire to punch her, like the afterimage of a flare. He looks up at her. She isn’t afraid of him, but - “I wouldn’t hurt you,” he says. His throat is tight. “Violence is my job. But I can control it.”
She meets his gaze. “I know that. I wondered if you did.”
“Harold wouldn’t -” John closes his mouth, realizing what he was about to say.
“Harold wouldn’t let you come to see me if you were dangerous,” she finishes quietly. “Do you trust him that much?”
He nods, unable to speak.
“Let’s go back to what you felt just now. Can you give the emotion a name?”
“I was annoyed, I guess.” More than annoyed. Annoyed is being stuck in traffic. He was angry. Haven’t been many times in the last twenty years that he got angry and didn’t get to hurt someone. Even when the person he was mad at was himself.
“Because -” it’s hard, this is hard, looking at himself this way. “Because you didn’t show Harold respect.”
“Why is it important that I show Harold respect?”
“Because.” He can barely get the words out. “He decides. If I’m good.”
She waits for him to finish, and when he shakes his head in frustration, she suggests,
“He decides whether or not you’re good? or if you’re good, he decides… what?”
The problem with having such a well-developed fight-or-flight reflex is that sometimes John’s body makes decisions for him. It does it now. He’s on his feet before he even really notices it, and once he is - “I have to go.”
Sandy sits back, like she has done the last few times John tried to bail out of a session, and spreads her hands, shifts her shoulders back into a non-threatening posture. He knows she’s doing it; he does the same thing with vulnerable numbers. He’s not vulnerable. He doesn’t know why it still works on him; brains are pretty stupid, he guesses, is what it comes down to. He feels his heartbeat slowing after that jolt of adrenaline, immediate threat diminished.
“It’s all right, John. We can stop talking. Sit out the hour with me.”
John forces his knees to bend, sits down on the very edge of the chair. After a moment, Sandy takes the deck of cards out from her desk that she keeps for him. He deals himself a round of solitaire, and she gets out her next patient’s notes. They work in silence for the rest of the hour as John deals himself hand after hand, and doesn’t think at all.
Harold hasn’t said anything else about going to Central Park, but a few days later, the weather’s nice and no number comes through, and when John gets to the library Harold puts up his hand to stop John taking off his coat, and picks up his own instead.
“I thought we might go to see your warblers,” he says, not quite meeting John’s eyes. “If you would still like to.”
They walk slowly through Central Park, on one of the quieter back paths. It’s a beautiful fall day, golden leaves drifting slowly down every once in a while, and birds right up close to the sides of the path, stuffing their tiny bodies with seeds and berries for the winter until they’re like little feathery tennis balls. Lots of them John guesses he would have thought were sparrows, but Harold murmurs, “Canada warbler,” and “yellow-throated warbler,” and “vireo, I didn’t quite manage to see what kind,” and John stares at them all, fascinated. He walks very close to Harold to make it easier for him to catch John’s arm or tap his wrist to get his attention without making a sound. Harold does both a lot, and John basks in the contact. He’s coming round to the fact that he likes being close to Harold. That Harold doesn’t seem to mind is something he can’t think about too hard; it’s like looking at the sun.
John is particularly taken with a grumpy-looking yellow-bellied ball of feathers and attitude that he sees clinging to a plant, shoving its head into the fluffy grey seeds as the plant sways under its tiny weight. They get a little closer, but the bird clearly has other things on its mind, and ignores them. John loves it. After a little while a pair of cyclists pass, and the bird flutters back into the trees, cursing a blue streak. He turns, grinning, to catch Harold looking at him with a strange expression.
“You look… relaxed,” Harold says, still with that odd half-smile. “We should do this more often.”
Suddenly aware that he’s probably giving too much away, John sets off down the path again. Feeling is twining its way up around his limbs, wrapping around his chest in hot, uncomfortable bands. It’s heavy, strange; he wants more of it, but also kind of wants to start running and sprint until he sloughs it off.
In an effort to sound normal, he says, “It’s a shame Bear can’t come.”
“I don’t think the birds would like it,” Harold agrees.
They walk together in silence for a little while.
“I find urban birds very reassuring,” Harold says. “They live out their lives according to the season, regardless of what we’re doing. They’re a reminder that the world keeps turning much as it always has. Not entirely, of course; human activity has had an undeniable impact. But they’re amazingly adaptable.”
“Are they safe here?” John says, gesturing to the trees around them. “Bottlenecks are vulnerable.”
The idea bothers him.
“There used to be a poaching ring operative in Central Park, in fact,” Harold says, mouth pinched. “Happily, they were broken by the FBI several years ago.”
“I didn’t know the FBI cared about birds,” John says.
“They devote sadly few resources to them,” Harold says, “But as it happens, a technical problem with the poacher’s server caused information on their financial transactions and client list to fall into the hands of a particularly energetic environmental activist group.”
“That’s some technical problem,” John says, raising an eyebrow. Harold’s answering smile is unexpected and sweet, and John’s heart stumbles as he smiles back helplessly, warmed through.
“I think I have a crush on my boss.”
It surprises John, not that it’s true (it’s an understatement, if anything) but that he said it out loud, to someone else. It comes home to him that he genuinely believes - that he knows that Harold isn’t listening, here. It’s another thing Harold has given him. Something it was difficult for him to give, which makes it worth more.
Sandy nods expectantly. “How are you feeling about that?”
“You don’t seem surprised.”
“Being surprised would imply I have any expectations, John.” Sandy looks at him seriously. “I’m not here to have expectations about how you will or will not feel. I’m here to help you work out how you do feel, and whether it’s the way you want to feel. So - is this the way you want to feel?”
“I,” John says. “I think so. Yeah. It is.”
The next number breaks fast, a hired hit on somebody’s rich father-in-law, and by the evening of day one Carter has the number in custody and the would-be assassin ready to make a deal with the DA. The only notable incident is that John turns his ankle in a scuffle with the assassin - hitwoman? hitperson? - on the roof of the Sheraton.
Bear whines when John limps into the library, and Harold is up on his feet before John can stop him. “It’s fine. Just a mild sprain.”
“Sit,” Harold says. “Ice, tape, painkiller. I’ll call you a ride home.”
John sits down on the couch - a little more heavily than he intends - and puts his head back on the cushion. He got knocked around a little too, he guesses. She got in at least one punch to his face - he was off his game. He runs his tongue along the inside of his teeth. Nothing loose, at least. But he’s tired and sore, and it makes him reckless.
“How about I just sit here and you tape it.”
He’s ready to be joking if Harold takes it that way, but Harold says, “Of course.”
“You don’t have to,” John says, already stiffening up with embarrassment. Harold puts his hand on his leg. It’s a steady, confident touch, warm with intent, and it shakes John more than he was expecting.
“I’m glad you asked. Here.”
John lets Harold take his foot in his lap, unable to quite believe his luck. Harold tapes his ankle with quick, professional touches, adjusting the pressure with a few glances up at John.
“You’ve done this before,” John says. He’s flirting again, he knows; Harold keeps giving him things, and it’s making him greedy, he can’t help it.
Harold’s face is a little pink, but he says evenly, “Did you think you’d be my first?”
John flusters, is totally unable to think of a response, and Harold’s little smirk says he knew exactly what he was doing.
“I’ll order a car for you,” Harold says. “Keep that ankle elevated this evening. And don’t think I won’t know if you cheat, Mr Reese.”
Desire twists in John’s belly, hot and uncomfortable, all the more intense because he wasn’t expecting it, somehow wasn’t prepared for it at all. This? he thinks, incredulous, but he already knows the answer.
The edges and lines of his apartment seem sharper, clearer; he’s hyperaware of the sound of his bare feet on the floor, the rustle of his clothes, the click of a cup placed on the counter. His phone buzzing when his take-out arrives, the take-out he didn’t order. He sits on the couch with his ankle elevated, opens a beer, takes his first ravenous mouthful. His heart pounding, he raises his beer in a toast to the camera in the corner of the ceiling, the camera he’s always pretended isn’t there.
“Enjoy your dinner, Mr Reese,” Harold says in his ear, close and intimate. John shivers.
Later, in bed, with the lights out, John slides his hand down under the sheets and strokes his dick, keeping his breath slow and even. If Harold was listening now, what would he hear? With every attempt to keep quiet, John gets harder.
Harold touched him, had his hands all over John’s bare skin. Below the knee, sure, but John’s skin is still tingling from it. He could have run his hand up John’s inner thigh and cupped him through his pants right then, firm and confident, knowing John would let him do anything. And John would. The steady brush of his knuckles against the sheets and his own rough breaths seem very loud.
Harold knows everything about him. Does he know this? Does he know John wants him to be watching him every second of the day? Making his decisions for him, giving him instructions and watching John obey? In the dark, halfway to orgasm, John lets himself imagine, for the first time, that he does know. He lets himself imagine that he’s one of Harold’s things, something he’s protective of, even jealous. He imagines Harold saying again, go home, and be good. I’ll be watching. Hot, urgent tension coils through him. I won’t let you out of my sight, Mr Reese. If Harold heard John’s breath stutter one too many times, he might switch on the monitor - there’s a camera above the door with John’s bed just within the edge of its field of vision - but even with infrared, all he’d see would be the outline of his body. And maybe he’d say, John? What are you doing? But he’d already know, he’d just want to hear more -
Breathless with daring, John lets himself groan, and his orgasm sears through him like a white-hot bolt. He almost expects his earpiece to crackle into life. But it doesn’t. He wipes off his hand with a sense of inevitability as the fantasy unfolds in full color and surround sound and takes up residence in his head. He isn’t going to be able to get rid of it now. He’s going to be thinking about it all the time.
He realizes, too late, that he’d known this would happen if he let it come into focus; that he wanted to feel this new, slow orienting of his body towards a compass point, the pleasure-pain tug that he thought the CIA had burned out of him. Worse, he realizes that his brain decided, some time ago, that it was okay to want this, because it thinks there’s a tiny, infinitesimal chance that he might get it.
If he’s good. If he’s really good. If he’s good all the time, if he doesn’t cheat. Harold might decide. Something.
“A number for you, Mr Reese.”
Harold speaks to him as John is shaving, but timed, John notices, so that he doesn’t actually have the razor against his face. It could be a coincidence; it could be that Harold has a camera on him on here that John didn’t catch. He likes not knowing. He also likes that Harold is conversational, but without a greeting, as if they’ve seen each other several times that day already. As if John already knows he’s in the room.
“I’m texting you the address of a photoshoot. Our number is a model.”
John snorts. “You bringing Fusco in? He’d hate to miss this.”
“I doubt it; André Fleming is a forty-seven-year-old outdoorswear model.”
John’s mouth twitches under his razor.
“Don’t cut yourself, Mr Reese, you’ll be modelling the new Sears line of rain jackets in less than two hours.”
John puts the razor down. “Finch.”
“Their security is in-house; it was easiest to get you in as a model,” Harold says briskly. “Don’t worry, all you have to do is follow instructions and look the way you usually do.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s more complicated than that,” John says, staring at his half-shaved face in the mirror. Look the way you usually do. People compliment him on his looks enough that he knows it always comes with something they want from him. Harold never has.
He resumes shaving and tries to recover his composure. It’s just a job. He’s there to protect the number and blend in.
“Sears, Harold? You couldn’t do better than that?”
“It does seem a waste, I agree,” Harold says, without a trace of sarcasm - in fact, he sounds almost a little defensive. It makes John want to laugh, but he doesn’t, in case Harold really can see him. “We’ll both just have to suffer through it.”
He keeps talking as John finishes shaving, dresses, pulls on his boots. As he tucks his sidearm into his shoulder holster, he suddenly thinks of something, and interrupts Harold in his unnecessarily long description of the immensely valuable Manhattan apartment Fleming owns. His ownership isn’t suspicious; he inherited it from a relative years ago.
“How the hell am I supposed to carry a weapon?”
“You’ll think of something,” Harold snips, which tells John that he hadn’t thought about it at all.
As soon as he gets to the photoshoot, he sees Harold’s right; the models are actually the least conspicuous part of the shoot. He’s pointed towards a curtained-off area, somebody measures him and tells him to come back at eleven-thirty, and then nobody pays attention to him at all. He wanders around, staying out of people’s way. André Fleming is a good-looking guy; a closely trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, light brown skin, soft brown eyes, and green-rimmed glasses. He seems well-liked; he laughs with several of the models, waves to the photographer, and soon is deep in conversation with the make-up woman about a new club called Shine.
“Look into the club?” he murmurs to Harold, and hears Harold typing away.
“There isn’t any immediate - oh, hm.”
John’s phone buzzes. Harold has sent him the URL for a page on the club’s website labelled Shine: Men. One of the photos, labelled Dré and new friend, is clearly their number getting intimate with another guy - tongue down his throat, hands on his ass. They’re both shirtless, bodies pressed against each other, sweat gleaming on their shoulders and faces under the club lights. It’s a pretty sexy photo. It makes John feel lonely.
“The photo was uploaded in the early hours of this morning - Fleming may not know about it yet. I’m trying to identify the other person.”
The face of the other guy is only half-visible, but he has a tattoo on his shoulder that could identify him.
“Jilted boyfriend? Blackmail?”
“A little public for blackmail, surely. Does Fleming strike you as the violent type?”
“Not really,” John murmurs, looking over at him. Fleming seems completely unworried. Either he’s the perp, or he has no idea his life is in danger. “Besides, if the photo was posted this morning, that’s too late to be a trigger point, right? His number was already on the docket.”
“Not if it is a planned catalyst, but I do see your point. It may be unrelated. Still, I’ll look into it. The dresser is coming up behind you.”
A half-second later, the guy who took John’s measurements loops his arm around his, and only Harold’s warning stops John from snapping his wrist on pure reflex.
“Thanks,” he mutters.
“You’re welcome!” the dresser says brightly. “Your first pieces are ready.”
John changes into the slacks, polo-shirt and rain jacket in a tiny curtained area, wondering whether Harold can see him; wanting, suddenly, for him to be here.
“Hey,” he says on impulse.
“I’m here,” Harold says immediately. Not quite, John thinks, but close enough.
“I don’t know how to model.”
“I’ll talk you through it if necessary, but I’ve seen a number of these shoots, and the photographers are usually quite specific with their instructions,” Harold says. The butterflies in his stomach settle a little.
“That guy measured me much quicker than you did.”
“No doubt because he is a professional, and I am not,” Harold says, just a shade defensive. John grins.
“It was a little unprofessional.”
Harold, uncharacteristically, hesitates. “I didn’t - I tried not to - I hope I didn’t make you uncomfortable. I promise you, John, I had nothing in my mind at that time beyond getting you clothes that fit.”
“No.” John swallows. At that time. “I appreciated that.”
They’ve never talked about it. John was barely off the streets, weaning himself off a litre of hard liquor a day and convinced every sound was black ops coming for him, and he took it as a test for himself to see how long he could tolerate having anyone so close to him. But Harold was so careful and slow, and did most of it kneeling, even though it obviously hurt him. John’s heartrate, after the initial spike, slowed to an even steady drum of no threat no threat. He also remembers being curious about whether Harold would try to grope him, half-expecting it. He was relieved when it was over. Later that night, he fell off the wagon and got drunk to forget how much he ached from being touched.
He looks at himself in the mirror propped up against the wall. The clothes fit. They’re okay. Probably not waterproof.
“What do you think?”
“I can’t see you, sadly. The nearest camera is near the far wall. I’ve identified the other man in the picture, by the way, and I think you’re right that the photograph is unrelated to the case. Like our number, he appears to have led a blameless life and have no jealous ex-partners in the picture.”
Chagrined, John leaves the cubicle and is immediately scooped up by Rob the dresser and swept towards the white backdrop they’re using for the shots.
“You look very handsome,” Harold says. John ducks his head to hide his smile, and warmth floods him. “You look better when I dress you, though.” The possessive note in his voice makes John want to drop everything and go back to the library and – his imagination offers him Harold measuring him again, running his hands slowly up his inner thighs, nudging John to open his legs – jesus. He sidles into the crowd of models in impractical raingear, his eyes on Fleming, and tries not to look as shaken up as he feels.
It’s a new, different feeling, this shivery waiting with the certainty that he’s safe, that Harold won’t drop him. He doesn’t want it to end, but he also wasn’t prepared for how fast lowkey angling for touches has turned into a hard craving for more. He’s hardly thought about sex for years. When it’s come his way it’s been a nice release of tension, but now, suddenly, there’s this; Harold’s mouth, his wrists when his cuffs slide up, all the places John could touch him, just casually. All the places Harold could touch him. He feels totally exposed, like if Harold sees him like this, he’ll know what John’s thinking. The thought makes his stomach drop. He’s barely come to terms with the idea of wanting this; the idea of getting it is – no.
He shakes it off. He has a job to do.
That job, apparently, is to move his leg incrementally and look “into the distance”. He stares at the far wall and tries to unlock his jaw.
“Let’s do some friendlier shots. Smile for me, sweetheart.”
John has never been unironically called ‘sweetheart’ by a man in his life.
“I’m looking through the camera roll as he takes them,” Harold comments. “He doesn’t even have a password. Some of the last ones were quite good. Not how I’d pose you.”
That possessive edge again. John is taken, suddenly, by the fantasy that Harold might do this, dress him up and position him, photograph him. It’s an uncomfortable, hot feeling. He stares into the camera.
“Yeah, that’s too sexy for Sears,” the photographer says, and John feels his face heat up. “Tone it down.”
“Bear is chewing on Asimov again,” Harold says. “Have you noticed he has a distinct preference for early science-fiction? Perhaps the cheap ink tastes better.”
John finds a genuine smile for the camera.
“Perfect. Okay, take ten. I want all the raingears against the blue backdrop.”
As they wait for the photographer to finish muttering with his assistant, Fleming leans over to John.
“This your first trade shoot?”
“Yeah,” John murmurs back. “Am I screwing it up?”
“Nah, you’re cool. Just a little stiff. Shake out your shoulders. You act?”
“Kind of a jack of all trades,” Jack smiles. “Any tips for me?”
“They want the clothes, not you. The hardest part about trade shoots for most models is pulling back, especially if they’re coming from acting or fashion. People with a lot of personality have to pull it back. For this, I’m at about twenty percent of myself on camera. You’re pitching it just right, though. Just be easy in your body. ‘Scuse me.”
He turns into the demanding hands of a dresser.
“Mr Fleming seems nice.” John bites back a sharp remark, thinking for a moment that Harold’s being sarcastic, but there’s no judgement in his voice. It’s a genuine comment.
“Wonder what he’d say if he knew I was pitching about a hundred and ten percent of my personality?”
“You were trained to fade into crowds, John. You’ve spent most of your life avoiding being seen. When you invite it, it’s – quite something.”
John blinks. Harold clears his throat.
“I’ve finished running the security footage from around Fleming’s apartment through my facial recognition software. Someone was loitering outside for several hours earlier this morning. White male, bald with dark facial hair, late forties, medium build, about 5’8”. I’m sending a photograph.”
John’s phone buzzes in his shoulderbag. He goes to check it, getting a dirty look from the photographer.
“Running his picture against Fleming’s social media suggests that it’s his cousin on his mother’s side, a Mr Stephen Hutton. Mr Hutton has a large amount of debt and a restraining order against him from his ex-wife.”
“Any sign he’s entered the building?” John mutters, keeping his lips as still as he can.
“I’m afraid so. The building’s cameras are closed-circuit but the door cam shows someone of about his height and build entering behind a resident. Perhaps you should leave Mr Fleming. His schedule puts him here for another two hours.”
John looks around. It’s a risk, but he’s seen nothing to indicate there’s a threat here. He slips away and ignores the commotion behind him when the photographer discovers that half his raingear has disappeared.
On his way out of the changing cubicle, back in his own suit, he retrieves his handgun from the inside pocket of a jacket on a clothes rack with a paper sign taped to it saying “DO NOT MOVE, 4pm shoot’. One of the dressers turns the corner at precisely the wrong moment and stares at him.
“Prop,” John says. “I have an audition.”
She laughs. “Oh my god, you could totally be James Bond.”
“Thanks,” says John. “I’m glad you think so.”
Fleming’s apartment building has a view of Central Park. It’s nice. Too nice, for a guy who models raingear.
“Who did you say he inherited this place from?”
“He inherited the apartment outright from his grandmother,” Harold says absently, keyboard clicking in the background. “She owned a rather successful cosmetics company. The apartment is worth millions on the open market, but he’s chosen to live there himself.”
“His maternal grandmother?”
“… that’s right. I’ll try to find out if Fleming has a will on record. That’s good thinking, Mr Reese.”
Harold’s back in professional mode, but the praise still runs down John’s spine like the brush of a warm palm.
Inside, the apartment looks more like it’s owned by someone who earns a model’s wage. A grey cat comes out when he unlatches the door, and stares at him, then bolts back into the bedroom. Probably nothing motion-sensitive is going to blow up, then. The place is clean, but the furniture is old, the wooden floor is scuffed everywhere, and the kitchen hasn’t been updated since the seventies. It looks good, though. Stylish. There are a few photographs around that catch John’s eye. One in particular: a staged black-and-white recreation of that famous photo of the sailor kissing the girl on VJ day, except the slim figure in white tipped back in the sailor’s arms is a young man. Like the picture of Fleming on the club website, it’s frankly sexual; they look like they’re about to get down to it right there in Times Square. As he searches for recording devices, hidden cameras, explosives, John wonders what it would be like, to look at that every day, to invite people into your home knowing that they’d see it. It isn’t even in the bedroom, and it seems so exposing. He thinks about Fleming telling him to be easy in his body. He thinks about fading into the crowd.
He finds what he’s looking for in the kitchen. A thin external wire, barely noticeable, running from the front burner down into the oven. John squints through the greasy glass front panel, not moving or shifting his weight, although it doesn’t look like the antique flooring’s been disturbed.
“Looks like Mr Hutton left a bomb in the oven. Not very friendly.”
“Are you in any danger?” Harold says tightly.
“Don’t think so. It looks like it’s set to detonate when someone turns on the front burner. Probably meant to look like a gas explosion or a flash fire. The oven’s about fifty years old.”
“I’ll call it in. The police will have the building evacuated and no doubt there will be fingerprints on the device, plus the camera footage I’ve collected. Mr Fleming’s lawyer’s records are not very secure, by the way; his sister is his heir. I don’t see what possible motive Mr Hutton can have for… well, a grudge against a lucky and affluent relation is as good as anything, I suppose.”
His dissatisfaction runs through John too, a thread of unease pulling him along. He doesn’t want to leave the cat; there’s probably a carrier somewhere, but it would take time, and he prefers the cat’s chances here to Fleming’s chances out there. He leaves the apartment behind him, leaving no fingerprints to embarrass Fusco, and goes to shadow Fleming in case Hutton tries again before they pick him up.
Later, in his car outside the bar where Fleming is having drinks with a group of friends, John flicks through Tumblr on his phone. It takes a little while to find the exact picture he wants. Searching Tumblr is hit-and-miss - John isn’t sure if he’s doing something wrong, or if it really is this impossible, and asking Harold to help him would defeat the point - but actually he kind of likes the randomness, and spends twenty minutes browsing hundreds of photos of people of all shapes and sizes, some tied up. Ultimately, he settles on something a little more straightforward; a photo that caught his eye early on and that he kept coming back to. It’s a black and white photograph of two guys, like the one in Fleming’s apartment, but it’s genuinely old, maybe from the forties or fifties. They’re laughing, and kissing. It doesn’t look staged; they look like they mean it. He takes a deep breath, and reblogs it.
Two minutes later, Fleming walks out onto the street alone and a white car parked on the side of the street two vehicles along starts its engine.
A short altercation involving a 2010 Toyota, the exterior wall and front window of the bar, and John’s handgun later, an only slightly bleeding Hutton is being led away by Fusco, and Carter is talking to Fleming, who has a blanket over his shoulders and seems bewildered but fine. A little while later, Carter wanders over to where John is lurking in an alleyway.
“You okay?” she says to the fire escape.
“Fine. Did he say why he did it?”
“Can you believe this bozo thought he’d inherit the apartment because he was next in line in his dead grandma’s will from eight years ago? I swear, if I had a dollar for every crime we could prevent if people learned about inheritance law in grade school…”
“You should write a letter to the school board.”
“Yeah, in my copious free time,” she drawls. She looks tired, John thinks. Stressed.
“Hey Carter, you ever go birding?”
“I don’t go out in nature unless it’s a tropical beach. And I don’t like seagulls.”
John grins. “Noted.” He wonders if they could arrange for her to win an all-expenses-paid holiday in a way she wouldn’t find suspicious. It’s a challenge he thinks Harold might enjoy.
He looks over. Fleming is already chatting with the ambulance crew, laughing. John doesn’t break cover with the numbers if he can avoid it, and Fleming hasn’t noticed him yet, but he has the sudden impulse to go over to him regardless. Thank him for… something. For having a photo in his living room that John shouldn’t have seen; for living a life John is glad he got to be part of, if only for a few days. It probably isn’t a good idea. He suppresses the impulse, but watches until a car pulls up and a woman steps out, runs over to him with a cry and throws her arms around his neck.
“Fleming’s friend Jolie,” Harold says softly in his ear. “He’ll be fine, now.”
“Is the cat okay?”
“She took several chunks out of Fusco’s arm, but is now residing with a neighbour. Are you ready to go home?”
“Yeah,” John says, smiling. “Yeah.”
Chapter 3: Home
Back in the car, he checks his phone. He has fourteen likes and three notes.
uh those are dudes not borbs, idk if you noticed
GUYS THIS IS THE CUTEST FUCKING THING, THIS DUDE LITERALLY ONLY REBLOGS BORBS AND ONE VINTAGE GAY PHOTO. DID HE REBLOG TO THE WRONG ACCOUNT OR IS HE TRYING TO TELL US SOMETHING
omg grandpa borb is queer
He reopens the title of his Tumblr - still blank - and stares at it for a while. He writes into it, “I like borbs. I’m bisexual.” He deletes “I’m bisexual.” He types it in again. He presses ‘save’.
He actually jumps when Harold says his name.
“I… how’s your ankle?”
“Fine,” John says automatically. When Harold hesitates, he bites the inside of his cheek, and amends, “A little sore, I guess.”
“I think you should go home and ice it,” Harold says. “You did excellent work today. Would you like me to order you dinner?”
It shivers through John all the way home, the confused afterburn of pleasure combined with discomfort. He doesn’t usually let himself feel the day’s wear until much later, after he’s seen to the number, reported in to Harold, run his errands, arrived home safe. But today he drives home aware of how his ankle is throbbing, his knuckles are bruised, his feet are cold. He’s beat up and tired, and he wants Harold to take care of him, and he knows that Harold is going to. It feels dangerously good.
Later he’s warm, full, icing his ankle and watching a rerun of a British nature documentary, a recent one with such gorgeous camerawork that he has his phone out to look up the specs of their lenses. More than a million birds return yearly to South Georgia Island, with fifty thousand macaroni penguins alone. At high nesting season, the noise is indescribable. He reaches up to his earpiece without even thinking about it.
“Hey, Harold. You watching this?”
“Oh - ah, yes, actually,” Harold says. He sounds a little sheepish, but John can’t think why. Then Harold says, “Would you mind turning up the volume a little?” and John realizes Harold was watching his television, was watching him, and John caught him out. He almost laughs out loud. He probably shouldn’t be so gleeful.
“The sound’s better if you’re in the room,” he hears himself say. “Why don’t you come here?”
“… All right,” Harold says, “I will,” and John goes hot and cold all over.
“I don’t really make a habit of spying on you in your home.” Harold is holding a bottle of wine in one hand and Bear’s leash in the other. He looks uncomfortable. “But you seemed tired, and I wanted to check – and the documentary caught my eye, but I don’t have a television in that apartment just now, so–”
“That’s okay, Harold,” John says, trying not to smile and failing, especially when Bear, released, gallops in to say hello, obviously delighted by the late-night visit. “Come on in. Hey, there, buddy.”
Harold has been here before, of course, but this feels different; John’s conscious of having invited him here for the first time, and for once, Harold doesn’t walk in like he owns the place, even though he does. He hovers in the entryway, fussing with his shoes and his coat. Even the way he sets the bottle of wine on the counter is hesitant.
“It’s not the best, I’m afraid; I didn’t have anything on hand.”
John opens his mouth to say that he wouldn’t know the difference, but that’s not true; Harold’s been in his ear telling him whether the wine he’s drinking is good or bad for over a year, and by now he thinks he has a pretty good handle on price ranges, even if he’s not quite at an ‘overtones of leather and blackberry’ kind of place. Instead he says, “You didn’t have to bring anything.”
“Good manners are the foundation of civilization,” Harold says primly, and John grins, he can’t help it, even though he has nerves buzzing in his stomach, and his mouth is dry. Harold puts his hand on John’s, skin shockingly warm.
“I want you to have the best,” Harold says quietly. “I like giving it to you.”
“I. I like it too,” John says, heart in his throat. They stare at each other. Harold’s hand is burning a brand into his. It’s a deliberate breach of the boundaries between them, the last shreds of plausible deniability ripped away, and yet, John can’t bring himself to take that last step.
“John.” Harold swallows. “I want to make sure we’re on the same page.”
“I think we are,” John says hoarsely. He still can’t move.
Harold takes a step forward, reaches up, and touches John’s face. He strokes his cheek, runs a thumb over the stubble on John’s chin, over his lower lip. John closes his eyes, overwhelmed with gratitude that Harold is a braver man than him.
“This page?” Harold’s voice is very soft. John nods, only a fraction, not wanting to dislodge his hand.
“We don’t have to rush. I just wanted to make sure.”
John opens his mouth under Harold’s touch, and sucks his thumb into his mouth. Harold’s sharp intake of breath makes him dizzy with achievement, a high which ramps up when Harold says unsteadily, “You’ll have to bend down, if you want me to kiss you.”
Released from his paralysis, John does what Harold tells him. It’s so easy to let himself be kissed, to enjoy it, to slouch down with his hips against the kitchen counter, to let Harold lick his lower lip and taste the sound he makes. It’s an assault of knowledge after so many fleeting, stolen touches.
“Goodness,” Harold says finally. They’re both breathing hard, and his cheeks are pink. “Say something.”
“Do you want to go to bed?” John can’t stop touching Harold, but he hasn’t got further than his shoulders so far. He’s addicted to the feel of his warm solidity beneath the wool of his jacket. He feels off balance, and bed is more familiar territory. Maybe he can suck Harold off; he knows how to do that.
“Is that what you want? As I said, we don’t have to rush.”
“Seems like the obvious thing to do,” John says, and dares to brush his finger against the side of Harold’s neck. He doesn’t know exactly where Harold’s injuries are; would the back of his neck be okay to touch?
“Not necessarily,” Harold says. He looks a little dazed, but his tone is reasonable. “I’m perfectly happy to go to bed, or we could keep doing this for a while, although I think I’d like to move to the couch for my back. Or we could stop, and watch your penguins.”
John tries to consider it, the idea of letting this slow burn continue a little longer, easing into this new way of being with Harold. Harold taking it slow, treating him like a gentleman. The idea is absurd; it’s a luxury, like a two thousand dollar bottle of wine, like having his own therapist.
“Okay,” he says, giddy. “Couch.”
They sit in front of the penguins, but John doesn’t see a thing; Harold’s hand is resting on his thigh, thumb stroking firmly back and forth now and again, as if to say, yes, I’m still here, we’re still doing this. John’s body is gradually getting on board with the idea, relaxing into the contact, and after a while he realizes that his hard-on is tenting his pants in a pretty obvious way. It feels obscene, sitting here, with Harold’s warm palm on his leg, both of them pretending he doesn’t have an erection; pretending, that is, until he sneaks a look at Harold, and finds Harold staring back. They’re so close, reaching for another kiss is so easy. John leans in, then hesitates, suddenly unsure, but Harold doesn’t pull away.
“Can I,” he rasps.
“Yes,” Harold says, voice wobbling only a little, before their lips meet.
This time there’s intent to it, promise; John licks into Harold’s mouth, and when Harold moans, he does it again. He touches Harold’s face, and dares to kiss down his neck to his fancy shirt collar. Harold runs his hand through his hair, pulls him up to kiss his throat, and mutters, “biting?”
John gasps, “yes,” and is rewarded with a scrape of teeth that makes him groan. He pushes Harold gently back against the couch cushions until he’s lying half on top of him, without any plan in his mind but touching more of him, but Harold makes a sound that sounds more like discomfort than arousal.
“Yes, sorry.” Harold’s forehead is creased with frustration. “I think if we – if you move –” John tries to go where Harold tugs him, but the couch is narrow, and Harold is trying to move him and shove a pillow behind his back at the same time.
“Bed?” he finally suggests.
Harold hesitates. “We still don’t need to rush – you don’t need to worry, I can get comfortable here.”
John thinks about it. He’s enjoying this, not even so much the making out, although that’s really nice, but the idea that Harold really would just stop if John wanted, that he doesn’t expect anything. On the other hand, he could have Harold touch him more, right now, everywhere, on the nice sheets Harold bought for him.
“I think I want to go to bed,” he says.
Harold smiles, sweet and soft. “All right,” he says.
He isn’t quite prepared for how weird it is to watch Harold take off his blazer and waistcoat. He has a sudden, inappropriate image of an owl stepping out of its feathers.
“I’m not entirely sure if you realize what you’re – what you’re getting,” Harold says, not meeting his eyes. His cheeks are a dull red now. “I’m not much of a prize, John.”
It’s another kind of gratitude, to realize that Harold is unsure of himself. John scoots along the bed until he’s facing Harold, then slides down on his knees before him, because he wants to, because it feels good.
“…Oh,” says Harold. He seems barely to breathe as he reaches out and touches John’s cheek again, runs his fingertips over John’s hair.
“We can watch TV from here if you like,” John murmurs. His eyes close of their own accord when Harold strokes down the back of his neck, a sure, possessive touch that makes John’s whole body want to fall against him. “As long as I get some attention.”
“You have all my attention.”
John’s never heard Harold’s voice sound like this, breathy and fervent. It goes to his head.
“I’m more interesting than penguins?”
“Now, Mr Reese, it’s not a competition.” John can hear the smile in Harold’s voice, but he can’t see it, because he’s got his face pressed against the wool of his pants and Harold’s rubbing his scalp, and he’s pretty much in heaven.
“Kind of sounds like a no; you’re hurting my feelings, here,” he murmurs, eyes closed as Harold runs his fingernails down the back of John’s neck. Harold’s getting hard, and John wants to rub his face against his groin, lick him through his pants, but he wants more for Harold to ask him.
“Let’s just say that the nature of my interest in you is fundamentally different from my interest in penguins. I can’t help but notice that you’re still wearing all your clothes.”
“If you keep doing that, I’m not moving.” Harold’s found a good spot behind John’s ear and he’s just melting. His knees are kind of beginning to hurt but he wants to stay here forever. Then Harold grips his hair and tugs, and that’s a different kind of good. His breath leaves his throat kind of ragged, and he hears Harold inhale in response.
“On the bed.” Harold’s voice sounds a little shaky still, but John goes instantly, and starts to take his shirt off without being asked. Harold watches; his frank gaze is a hundred times better than imagining him on the other end of bodega security cameras. He slows it down a little, and sees Harold’s interest sharpen. If Harold wanted a show, John would give him one.
“How often do you watch me?”
“Oh, constantly,” Harold says, and John tips his head back and closes his eyes as Harold crawls over him and kisses his throat, his chest.
“What would you like?” he breathes into John’s skin. “Anything you want. Physical limitations taken into account, of course.”
“Hey,” John says, pushing up on his elbows. He hesitates, losing his train of thought at the sight of Harold, top two shirt buttons undone, hair mussed, cheeks and mouth flushed, pants tented and creased over his erection. It makes him feel tender and touched, that he gets to see him like this. “You don’t need to be so careful.”
“Oh,” Harold says, looking nonplussed. “I know I don’t need to. I thought you liked it.”
John opens his mouth, and closes it again. “I do,” he says at last. “I do like it.” He clears his throat. “What do you want?”
“I want to give you what you want,” Harold says. His mouth twists, almost apologetically. “It’s probably part of a habit of control, I realize. But I like – I like giving you things. I like watching you enjoy yourself. Offering you things. And watching you take them.”
John gets up on his knees and starts unbuttoning Harold’s shirt. Harold watches him uncertainly.
“There anything else you like?”
“Well,” Harold clears his throat. “You’re very handsome.”
A warm feeling that John has kept locked down for a long, long time is beginning to expand outwards until it bursts through the cracks, floods him, overwhelming. The desire to push his luck is reflexive, a last-ditch attempt to stop himself from sinking into it, even though he wants to so badly. He slides his hand between Harold’s loose shirt and his ribs, watches his face as he finds the ridged scars along his spine. He knew they’d be there. Harold doesn’t flinch.
“You don’t need those glasses, do you.”
“No,” Harold says softly. “Shall I take them off?”
“I put a tracker in them,” John says, helpless.
John pulls Harold in to kiss him without asking, this time, and Harold’s mouth is soft and welcoming. Harold’s hands come to rest on his belt, gentle.
“Take it off,” John blurts out. “Get me naked. Touch me.”
“I’d like nothing more,” Harold says, and when he pushes John back onto the bed, John lets himself fall at last.
“Make me feel good,” he whispers, as Harold opens his pants and presses a kiss to the sensitive skin above his hip. “Get me off.”
“Of course,” Harold says, and he does.
“Well, do you feel this is a positive development, John?” Sandy says.
“Yeah.” John smiles, and looks her firmly in the eye. “Yeah, it is.”
There’s been two numbers since, but he’s spent every other minute in Harold’s bed. He feels amazing.
“Listen, I’m really grateful for all your help.”
Her eyebrows raise slightly. “Of course, John. That’s what I’m here for.”
John is surprised by the sudden cold in the pit of his stomach as he begins what he came here to say, but he forges on. “I’m doing okay now, and that’s mostly thanks to you. You should give your Tuesday afternoons to someone who needs them more.”
Sandy puts her hand on her chin. John’s come to appreciate her interrogation style; she’s really in control of her body language when she’s thinking about what to say. Touching her chin suggests reassuring, calm deliberation rather than confusion, surprise or distress. He kind of wishes he could introduce her and Carter, sometimes.
“Ending your therapy is a major step, John, and one I’m open to discussing, but I want to set your mind at rest on one point. Regular paying clients allow me to have greater flexibility with clients who are in financial difficulties. My management of my time isn’t something you need to concern yourself with. The decision to end your therapy is one we should come to together based on your needs and yours alone.”
John shifts in his chair. This isn’t how he thought this would go.
“You didn’t just come to me because you wanted to resolve your feelings about Harold. You came to me because you have a stressful, dangerous, and isolating occupation and a history of trauma that has led to an almost total detachment from your emotional wellbeing that you wanted to undo. Is that fair to say?”
“… yeah, I guess.”
“Entering into a romantic and sexual relationship with your employer in this isolating, dangerous and stressful job does not seem to me likely to eliminate the stressors or history that brought you to me. I don’t say it’s a bad thing – but you see my point.”
“… I do,” John says. Sometime during her speech, the ice in the pit of his stomach melted and his shoulders unknotted. He feels weak with relief, but also exhausted. He thought – he doesn’t know what he thought. It seems stupid, now.
“I’m committed to helping you heal for as long as I am useful to you, or to helping you transfer your care to another therapist you can trust.”
“Okay.” John puts his face in his hands, because suddenly he isn’t really in control of his own body language.
“How are you feeling?”
He takes a moment to get his voice steady.
“Like I’ll probably be dead before I’m less of a goddamned mess.”
There’s another pause, and this time he doesn’t look up. He didn’t mean to say that. Sandy doesn’t deserve it; she’s never suggested he take up a job with a longer life expectancy. He appreciates that.
“It takes time, John,” she says finally. “Does this seem like a use of your time that will help you to be both functional in the way that you want to be, and as happy as you can be under the circumstances?”
John takes a moment to think about that. But it’s not really a difficult question.
“Yeah. It does.”
“Well, then, let’s keep at it,” she says, and her eyes are gentle.
“Hey Harold, ID a bird for me? Your three o’clock, fifty-five degree elevation.”
John waits, smile barely contained, for Harold to find the traffic mirror. He’s been waiting for Harold to be in the right position for this all day.
“What is it? Crow? Wren? It’s cute, I like it.”
“How could you possibly confuse… oh, for heaven’s sake.”
“Could be a peacock, I guess, or a swan,” John says thoughtfully, enjoying himself.
“I think, if anything, your sense of humour is getting worse,” Harold says. “I realize now that introducing you to birding was bound to lead to this but I didn’t realize the depths to which you were capable of sinking.”
“Aw, don’t be like that.” John grins. They’re on double surveillance duty, he’s got Harold in his ear, and it’s a lovely day. He tips his head back into the sunshine and lets a multitude of good feelings play through him.