Crossing his arms, John considered all his options. Honestly, they hadn’t been at this location very long, but if this kept up, he’d have to do something.
“Oh! Shit!” A blond guy - no weapons, torn jeans, bandage on his arm, band-aid on his chin, purple Converse, and no coat – ran out onto the grass. “Lucky!” he yelled, grabbing for the yellow lab’s tail and missing, nearly falling down.
John watched Bear dance around, not upset in the least about being humped by his yellow friend. The guy made another desperate lunge, slipped on the grass, fell on his back, and lay there, looking stunned. John ambled over to him.
“It’s fine.” He gave the Dutch commands to bring Bear to heel and snapped on the leash. The yellow lab – one eye, short legs, probably a crossbreed - bounced around and sat on the blond guy’s face. “Good luck with him.”
Bear looked up at John, and they were on the move. By the time they hit the corner, John’s ear wig clicked over.
“Mr. Reese, we have a number.”
“On my way,” John said. “I’m stopping for coffee.”
“Tea for me, please.”
Tapping his ear, Clint tugged Lucky’s tail. “Good boy. Contact made.”
“You’re sure it was him, Hawkeye?”
“Positive identification. He’s better-looking in person. Nice dog.”
“Did you plant the bug?”
“Nope. His situational awareness is off the charts.” Clint put his hands behind his head and enjoyed the sunshine. “We’re going to have to go to Plan B.”
“We don’t have one of those.”
“Huh.” Clint wasn’t worried. He’d think of something. “Stark, let the spies handle this.”
“Lucky is not a spy.”
Lucky woofed, and Clint rubbed his dog’s head. “Yes, you are, Lucky. You are!”
“Wrong guy. Right dog,” someone muttered.
Harold glanced up from his paper. “Excuse me? Have we met?” He watched the young man duck his head and rub a hand through his hair.
“Lucky really likes your dog. Can they play together?” He looked so embarrassed.
“Of course.” Harold unsnapped the leash and gave the command to go play in Dutch. Bear woofed and dashed off with his yellow friend. “I assume you’re accustomed to seeing him with someone else.”
“Right. Tall, dark, and handsome.” The guy nodded. “I’m Clint, by the way. That’s Lucky.”
“It’s nice to meet you.” Harold managed a quick smile and wouldn’t be offering his name in return. “Bear does enjoy his dog friends.” He snapped his paper up again and went back to reading the financial section. ‘Clint’ didn’t say another word, going off to sit in the grass, and that was the only reason Harold didn’t leave after five minutes. Also, Bear was having a grand time with his friend, Lucky, who was missing an eye but still full of life.
Of course, he’d have to tell John and knowing him, this would be their last playdate. The paranoid survived.
Clint was careful not to watch them leave, sprawling on a bench and drinking from his water bottle. Lucky was grinning around a tennis ball. “We are a go.”
“About time. Starks hate waiting.”
“Whiner.” Clint finally looked that direction, glad to see no sign of them. “Anyway, Jarvis isn’t a Stark.”
“You take that back!”
“Whose turn is it for Bear tonight?” John asked, scraping his plate for the last bit of gravy and potatoes.
Harold was fussing with his phone, but he looked up. “You, please, even though it’s my turn. I need to put in some hours as Harold Wren at the office.”
“Bear hates that insurance stuff.” John hid his smile, but it was the truth.
“He chewed the Frederickson’s policy,” Harold said very sternly. “Right before they arrived!”
“He loves paper.” John slipped Bear a treat from his pocket. The sound of crunching came from under the table, and Harold favored John with a tiny glare. Those glares never discouraged John at all. He nudged his plate away and concentrated on his coffee. “It was nice to have a day without a number.”
“I’m sure we’ll pay for it tomorrow.” Harold finished his plate. “Oh, I almost forgot. I met Bear’s yellow friend at the park today.”
“With a blond guy?” John thought that was description enough.
Harold was back to poking at his phone. “Yes. He didn’t seem overly bright.”
“That’s the guy.” John would find a new dog park. “His dog certainly was overly friendly.”
Nodding, Harold hummed his agreement. “My Uber is almost here. You have the check, Mr. Reese?”
“Of course, Harold.” John let the waitress refill his coffee, not watching him leave. Bear had to pull his weight on this team, and that meant no yellow friends. John would make it up to him in dog treats.
“We have to decide how we’re going to play this,” Stark said.
Clint rolled his eyes. “Look, it’s a black bag job. If we don’t, he’ll probably beat the shit out of me. Or shoot me.”
“Can’t we just reason with him?” Cap asked, face full of sincerity.
It was hard not to make fun of him, but Clint reined it in. “He’s ex-CIA. He’s hair-trigger, and he will hurt someone, I guarantee it.”
“How about we snatch the little guy?” Stark asked. “Then we have both of them.”
“And again, they’ll be so angry, they won’t listen.” Clint put his feet up on the table. “You said Jarvis wants to talk to the Man in the Suit, not his partner.”
“Jarvis can hear you, you know.” Stark glowered at Clint. “Jarvis, you want the little guy?”
“Since I have no information on who he is, I’m reluctant to agree. I need to speak with John Reese, primary asset, and I need him to listen.”
“Jarvis, this is annoying.” Stark looked like he wanted to pout. “Can’t we just go on with our lives?”
There was a short pause. “You have programmed me with many personality traits, but I like to believe that loyalty was learned from you directly. I need to speak to John Reese.”
Stark put his face in his hands. Cap patted him on the shoulder. “Children can be difficult. Jarvis does a lot for us. Surely, we can do this one thing for him. After all, it’s just talking. Right?”
“My nose already hurts,” Clint said, getting to his feet. “I’ll get a van. Cap, you’re going with me because Tasha is… somewhere.”
Cap nodded. “Full uniform?”
“No, all black and a ski mask.” Clint just knew they were doomed. “Stark, set up where we’re taking him. Not here.”
“Jarvis and I will work on it.” Stark left in a hurry, which might mean he needed coffee.
Clint pointed up at the ceiling. “You’re gonna owe me one!”
Of course he saw the van – white, newer model, good tires, back door access – but it was broad daylight so it was likely a delivery van.
The shout made John stop, and then things moved almost too quick to follow. The yellow lab made Bear jerk the leash out hard, preventing John from grabbing his gun. A small hesitation that he knew he was going to pay for, and he wasn’t even shocked when the black bag came over his head. He fought until it all went black.
“I think my nose is broke.” Clint sat down hard on the van floor as Happy put his foot to good use and got them moving.
Cap was making sure John Reese was comfortable, nothing pinching. “He throws a good punch.”
Bear woofed and sat on John, and Lucky bounced around, trying to lick everyone. Cap spoke softly to Bear in Dutch, and at least no one had lost a chunk of skin. Clint’s eyes widened when Cap pulled an ear wig off John Reese.
“Who do you think is on the other end of this?” Cap asked.
“My bet is the little guy,” Clint said. “Get his phone and take the battery out. We got enough problems.”
Cap gave him a long look. “He’ll feel more in control if we don’t.”
“The other guy might listen in, and that would be bad.” Clint sat up and found a dog treat for Bear and Lucky. Cap shrugged, dug out the phone, and took out the battery. He tucked the parts into John’s suit coat pocket. Clint went forward in the van, nodding in satisfaction. It wouldn’t be long.
“Prepare for incoming, Stark,” Clint said.
The metallic taste in John’s mouth let him know that he’d been hit with drugs, not a fist. He took several deep breaths before he raised his head and blinked to clear his vision. Half-expecting bright lights, he was surprised to see Bear with his head on John’s knee.
“How are you feeling, Mr. Reese?’ The voice came from the computer.
John wasn’t going to answer that. He scanned the small room, tested the cuffs that bound both his arms and legs to a metal chair, and tried to stand right up. The chair was bolted to the floor. Directly across from him was a computer, sitting on a small desk.
“Where’s the blond guy?” John hoped he’d gotten in a few good punches.
“Agent Barton is currently resting with an ice bag on his face. He compliments you on your punching abilities.”
Bear whined, and John whispered for him to lay down, which he quickly did. “Where am I?”
“Somewhere safe.” The computer showed a picture of Agent Barton, sprawled on a sofa, and John hoped to hell that the CIA wasn’t involved in this kidnapping. “My name is Jarvis. I was created by Anthony Stark to assist him in his daily tasks. I currently help him with a number of projects, including Iron Man. Pictures flashed by of Stark and Iron Man, and the computer sounded pleased with himself.
Leaning, trying to stretch his back, John noticed his ear wig was gone. Harold wasn’t listening in, and depending on how long it had been, he was probably tearing the town apart looking for him.
“Stark kidnapped me?” That was the easiest conclusion to all this. “Really?”
“Mr. Stark, Agent Barton, and Captain America all assisted myself in this endeavor. I needed to speak with you.”
“Captain America?” John’s question seemed to trigger a response. The door opened, and Captain America – muscular, graceful, not that tall, baseball cap - walked inside, looking somewhat sheepish. He cracked open a bottle of water, showing off that it wasn’t tampered with, and gave John a drink. Then Bear got another treat. After that, it seemed a bit rude to order Bear to attack him, but it was tempting.
“Better?” Captain America asked. “I apologize. I haven’t kidnapped anyone since the war, but Jarvis needed to talk to you, and well, frankly, you scared the crap out of Hawkeye, so we tried to make sure no one got hurt.”
“Good job,” John drawled, not believing a word of any of this, and he was starting to think that he was hallucinating. He accepted another sip of water. “So, Stark did this? He’s talking to me through that computer?”
“Actually, no, he had a meeting with Miss Potts, and Hawkeye is across town with an ice bag on his face. It’s just me and you in an old Stark building.” Captain America shrugged. “When Jarvis is done, I’ll let you go. You can punch me in the face if you want. It’s just that Jarvis said it’s important, and he knows everything.”
The turn of phrase made John raise his eyebrows. “Jarvis.” He really stared at the computer – it wasn’t even a nice one, just an old monitor and a CPU plugged into the wall on a crappy desk.
“Yes, Mr. Reese, I’m an AI, made by Tony Stark. Are you ready to listen?”
John rattled his cuffs. “We could’ve done this the nice way,” he lied.
“I was told otherwise. Captain, if you would excuse us, please wait outside.”
“Sure thing. Yell if you need anything, and Mr. Reese, again, I’m sorry for the inconvenience.” And Captain America beat it out door.
“Harold is not going to believe any of this,” John muttered.
When John’s phone dropped out of the network, Harold scrambled to find him on nearby surveillance cameras. He’d been near his apartment, heading home, Bear with him, and there were at least two cameras that should’ve had footage.
There was nothing but static. The cameras shut off at the moment John would’ve walked into view, and they restarted at a time that Harold could only assume meant that whatever happened was over. Nothing, there was nothing.
John and Bear were just gone. Harold watched what little footage he had, looking for anything unusual but saw nothing. Nearly frantic, he pulled up a map of all the available external cameras on that street. He found one he’d missed at a nearby bank that wasn’t likely to show much at all, and when the static clicked on, Harold cursed.
Whoever had John had gone to a lot of trouble to keep it hidden. Harold got to his feet and retrieved his coat and hat. Someone had seen something. Perhaps, he’d enlist the help of Detective Fusco and Ms. Shaw.
“Are you ready to listen, Mr. Reese?”
“Yes.” John bit out the word, deeply angry. He had never considered punching an Avenger, but he might when they were done with this insanity. “Quickly, please.”
“I apologize, but this may take a moment. As I said, I am an AI, and until recently, I have been confined to Mr. Stark’s home in Malibu. When he constructed what is now Avenger’s Tower, I was given the task of maintaining…”
“Stop. I don’t care.” John raised his voice. “Tell me why I’m here. Now.”
“Because the path you are taking to contain Samaritan will fail, and people will die.”
John sat up very straight, fighting the cuffs because he was angry. “You can’t know that!”
And John finally caught a clue. “You’re communicating with the Machine. She sent you to kidnap me.”
There was a long silence. “We need you to stop what you’re doing and pursue an alternate method of containment.”
Telling them that Harold was in charge wasn’t an option, and it came to John that the Machine must be desperate. John bit the inside of his cheek. “How can I stop Samaritan?”
“Primary. Asset. John. Reese. Admin. Must. Listen.”
That was the Machine, and John thought about it before answering. “You two have run the numbers. What can I do to help?”
“Mr. Reese, we are going to wage a war against Decima.”
John thought perhaps he understood now. The Machine couldn’t get Harold to help so it’d come up with a workaround. Kidnap the primary asset and make him convince Harold to throw his considerable resources into destroying Decima.
“Does Stark know what his computer is doing?” John pointed with his chin at the door. “Or the captain there? He’d be appalled.”
“Once we have secured your assistance, I will be presenting the information to Mr. Stark and the Avengers.”
“So, you two can’t manage it without me?” John highly doubted that, and he wasn’t really convinced anything could stop Samaritan, not even two computers and Harold.
The Machine sounded as if it were having a breakdown. John rattled his cuffs. “Let me go.”
Within seconds, Captain America strode inside and began releasing the restraints. “I am truly sorry, Mr. Reese. I’ll have Mr. Stark speak firmly to Jarvis about this situation.”
“I doubt it’d help.” John rubbed his wrist, noticing his phone and ear wig was inside his coat. “Get out of my way.”
Captain America got the door for him. “I called a cab. It’s waiting out front. Pre-paid, of course.”
“Jarvis, have Agent Barton meet me at the dog park tomorrow afternoon. I’ll have your answer.” John controlled his urge to punch the captain. “You need to hang out with more reputable people, Captain.”
“Heard that most of my life.”
Without looking back, John took Bear out to the street and the waiting cab. Only when he was seated, did he put the battery back in his phone and tuck his ear wig into position.
“Where to, buddy?”
John gave him an address not far from his safe house. Not the library, this conversation needed to be far from nosy computers.
When John’s phone clicked back into the network, Harold called him immediately. “John?”
“Here, Finch. Meet me at the garage.” And he hung up. He’d sounded fine, if cranky. Harold blew out a sigh of relief and hailed a cab. It wasn’t often he went to the garage, so something important had happened. The garage was one of those unique locations in Manhattan that had escaped surveillance cameras, so far. The cab let him off two blocks away, and he made sure he hadn’t been followed before approaching the side door. The usual surveillance camera, one of Harold’s, was gone from its perch, and he could see it had been smashed on the concrete.
“Get in here, Finch.” John opened the door for him and pointed at a bucket of water. “Phone goes there.”
Shocked, Harold complied, seeing that John’s phone and ear wig were already swimming. He added a second phone he had in his suit pocket. “I was concerned, Mr. Reese.”
“So was I.” John led the way to the small kitchen area in the back. “I made you some tea.”
“Thank you.” Harold stepped around a motorcycle, following after him. “Are we dark?”
“Where is Bear?” Harold was far more concerned about that than he’d ever admit. “He was with you.”
“Shaw came and got him. She also punched me in the chest, so thanks for that.” John put Harold’s cup at the small table and sat across from him with a cup of coffee. “Sit. You don’t want to be standing for this.”
Eyeing the dirty chair, Harold sat down. He’d get this suit dry-cleaned. “Decima? Samaritan?”
“Worse.” John poured a dollop of whiskey in his coffee and took a drink. “Captain America.”
“Excuse me?” Harold nearly sputtered in his tea.
“He kidnapped me.” John took another larger drink. “Stark and Hawkeye were in on it, too.”
Harold eyed the whiskey. “How much of that have you had?”
“Not enough to hallucinate Captain America.” John added a bit more. “I’ll start at the beginning.”
“Please do, Mr. Reese.”
When John finished, he guzzled the coffee and watched Harold pinch his nose with two fingers and let out a huff of pure exasperation.
“Fire away.” John wished there was more whiskey.
“You do realize that by tomorrow, Tony Stark will be fully engaged in the war against Decima because he loves a good fight.”
“Yup.” John tilted his head. “If all of that was true, not just a hallucination brought on by a number of drugs that I could list if you’re interested.”
Harold’s eyebrows were up. “Bear was there.”
“Oh, right.” John almost laughed at how that detail convinced Harold it’d really happened. “So, you think Tony Stark really created an AI?”
“I wish you’d listened to his story at the beginning.” Harold gave him a disapproving look. “It sounds as if Stark invented an AI to run his house, the man loves robots, and then moved him here when he built his ugly tower.”
“So?” John wasn’t sure why computer back story mattered.
“Something happened, and Stark’s AI evolved. He became aware of the world, not just Stark.” Harold made a humming noise. “This changes everything.”
“That’s what Jarvis said.” John shrugged. “Basically.”
“They’ve probably run a million scenarios.” Harold’s eyes were far away. His gaze snapped back to John. “Did you know, when you left, I stopped doing the numbers?”
The words were confusing for a moment, and then John got it. He felt like he’d been punched again, this time a whole lot harder. “Why would you do that? You had Shaw!”
Harold looked away, mouth pinched. He looked incredibly sad. “Detective Carter was dead. I was grieving. You were gone, and I wasn’t able.”
Apologizing wasn’t possible. John got to his feet and threw the empty whiskey bottle into the trash. He ignored the flinch. “The Machine wants you to start listening again.”
Harold nodded but the movement was slow. “Root said something similar, but-.” He stopped and looked as if he’d like to throw something as well.
John took the opportunity to give him more bad news. “I sent Shaw to turn her loose. We’re going to need her in this fight.” He hated it, but it was true.
Harold looked as if he’d bit into a lemon. “She’ll kill people.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” John shrugged, thinking the Machine would control her. “You were tired of feeding her anyway.”
“I don’t agree with this course of action!”
“And that’s what got me kidnapped!” John was willing to raise his voice as well. “The Machine--.”
“An AI can only make a response based on its programming!” Harold interrupted him. “We have to believe that humans-.”
“Harold, stop.” John pulled a chair close, turned it, and sat down hard. “Listen to me. If you leave this in the hands of humans, we are gonna screw it up. We’re greedy, and only rarely care about long-term consequences. The Machine, you taught it, acts without the mess of emotions that drive us.”
“I wanted humans to make the decisions.” Harold had said something similar in Italy.
“Humans take those Relevant numbers and kill the people involved. Very often with no questions asked, and no intel gathered to make sure of the targets.” John put his hand on top of Harold’s, feeling the flinch. “You built it. It’s time to trust it.”
“John,” Harold said in a small voice, “because I built it, I know how much can go wrong. The Machine, I limited its reach for good reasons.”
Frustrated, John wanted to shake him. “Then you set it free. You did. Now, you have to hope you’ve made the right choices, sorta like kids. Once they’re eighteen, all you can is hope for the best.” He met Harold’s eyes. “I won’t walk away again, no matter what happens.”
Harold wanted to believe him. He did. But John couldn’t understand the Machine, and John had left before, left Harold alone. “Even if Shaw dies? Or Bear? Or Fusco?
“Or myself?” Harold watched the questions hurt him. “If I die, the Machine won’t hesitate a nanosecond before sending you another assignment.”
“And if I die?” John hit him where it would do the most damage. “Can you go on?”
“I don’t know.” Harold cared for John far too much. “I won’t want to, that I know.” He had to get up, move, but John was right there, and his face had never been so intense. Harold sighed. “I would, if I thought it was possible to win.”
“Harold, has anyone ever told you that you over-think situations. Sometimes, when you’re down, you pick up and go on because you trust the man leading you.”
“Man?” Harold asked skeptically.
“AI, whatever. All I know, if the Machine is desperate enough to make an Internet friend, and then convince that friend to round up all his friends to kidnap me, we have a problem.” John got up, swung the chair out of the way, and went out into the garage. “I guess I could drive over there and ask. I know where the Avengers live.”
That ludicrous remark almost made Harold laugh. He eased to his feet and followed after him. John had a rag and was wiping down one of his motorcycles. “Change is hard. I like my job the way it is.”
“I agree.” Harold didn’t want to talk about how horrible the numbers were without John to help. He stepped around a Triumph and got inside a Ford Mustang with the top down. At least the seat was clean. “I didn’t realize you had this car.”
“Pierce gave it to me, and no, it doesn’t have a tracker on it. He was upset about the watch.” John had forsaken his jacket and had his sleeves rolled up. He glanced over. “Wow, joking. I stole it, of course.”
Harold tried to get the terrible look off his face. He disliked Mr. Pierce immensely. “You do realize that now I don’t know what the truth is?”
“I realize. Do you realize when you say those three little words, I want to punch myself in the face so I don’t have to listen to you.” John’s tone was biting.
Surprised into silence, Harold wished for his phone. “Well, it is a lovely car, either way. I suppose, I don’t have a choice about all this, do I? I made the damn thing, and now I have to help it take over the world.” He was exaggerating, a little. “Better than Samaritan, I suppose.”
“I trust you over Greer. Someone needs to shoot him.”
“Samaritan will kill him, given half a chance. Trust me on that.” Harold had experience with it. They were going to turn Samaritan loose with no clear objectives. So many people were going to die. “Captain America?”
“I’m still not okay with it.” John strolled over and began rubbing the Mustang. “He drugged me. Didn’t even have the courtesy to punch me in the face.”
“That bastard,” Harold drawled. “And I’m a trifle insulted I wasn’t kidnapped. I built it!”
“The Machine loves you.” John rolled his eyes. “It wasn’t going to take a chance you’d be hurt.”
“It also might have deduced that I listen to you.” Harold flexed his hands into his trousers, not wanting to think about his Machine having emotions, like love. “Take me for a drive.”
The silence was deep, but John opened the big, garage door. He had his jacket on when he slid into the driver’s seat. “Buckle up.”
“Always, Mr. Reese.”