John got the numbers sometimes these days, if Harold was busy at the time. He got the one on June 29 and had just started the lookup when Harold came in, looked at the board where John had written down the code, and said flatly, "That's Leila."
John broke speed records getting them to her grandparents' new house in Brooklyn, paid for with the Petrosian settlement money, and nearly burst in on a very alarmed Sammy and Veda. John left Harold downstairs explaining while he raced up the stairs two at a time to the nursery, where Leila was—perfectly fine, fast asleep in her toddler bed, and snuggled up with a stuffed animal.
John sat down in the rocking chair by the bedside for a moment, his heartrate slowing, then he got up and shut the blinds; a quick look around outside showed him nothing obvious. The voices downstairs fell silent, and Harold came creeping in to join him; John let him take the chair, and stayed at the head of the crib, looking down at her while the afternoon sun crept across the floor. She wasn't a baby anymore, she'd become a little girl, but she still had her little nose, her fluff of red hair.
There wasn't enough money to tempt a kidnap for ransom. The settlement had been reasonable but not excessive: Sammy and Veda had just wanted custody and enough to provide for Leila's future, and Adnan Petrosian had just wanted to get the whole thing wrapped up and gone. His wife was still in prison. The terms of the settlement had explicitly forgone any future claim to Petrosian's estate, so Leila's half-brother had no motive, and Sammy and Veda hadn't had any other trouble lately.
Leila woke up yawning and stood up in her crib, took one look at Harold and squealed, "Glasses! Glasses!" and held out her arms to be picked up. Harold blinked in surprise but went to pick her up; John bent down and lifted out the stuffed animal, a ragged mostly-grey bunny rabbit. It had the weird picture of Harold from the Amber Alert ironed onto its face.
"She kept waking up at night and crying and crying," Veda explained, a bit sheepishly. "I thought maybe she missed you. So I put it on and gave it to her."
"Stay here with her," Harold said to John; he was packing up his laptop.
"Where are you going?" John said.
"Wardriving," Harold said. "Sammy will take me around the neighborhood."
John finished securing the house, then came back to the living room to keep an eye on Leila, who was busy doing some important construction work with alphabet blocks. She looked over at him three times with deep skepticism, then she apparently decided he was okay, and she got up and came over to him and put her tiny hands on his knees and stared into his face. He stared back.
"Will you play with me?" she said.
He ended up sitting on the floor making the Finch bunny dance and talk to her in a squeaky voice about how important it was to use strong passwords.
He went over the house every fifteen minutes. The house was the furthest thing from secure: windows in every direction, only thin curtains, a front door, a side door, door to the garage, an opening to the basement in the backyard. But everything stayed quiet; Harold only said, "Trying to crack every wifi network in a five block radius is not an instantaneous process, Mr. Reese," peevishly, when John checked in after an hour.
Leila was banging her spoon on the table and eating dinner by the time Harold finally called him back. "About time," John said into the earbud. "What—"
"Get a bag of her things," Harold said in his ear, his voice utterly flat with panic. "We're taking her with us. Get everything ready, get her into the car—"
"I'm moving," John said, and he had Leila scooped up in one arm and was pulling Veda upstairs with the other. Leila shrieked and yelled and thrashed. "No bath!" she said. "I don't want to take a bath!"
"No," John said. "No bath tonight, sweetheart."
He had her in her carseat, and a bewildered and anxious Veda was showing him how it buckled into the back of their car, by the time Sammy and Harold pulled up; Harold was out of Sammy's car and limping towards them instantly, the laptop under his arm, his face white. "Do you have everything?" Harold said. "Do you have—"
"Yeah," John said; Sammy was talking to Veda quietly behind them, telling her they had to go as well. "Everything we need. Harold—"
"It's Root," Harold said. "There was a shot of her at the local Starbucks on the security camera from earlier this morning. It's Root."
John put Harold at the wheel and sat in the back next to Leila. She cried noisily for five hellish minutes, making it impossible to ask any questions and refusing to be consoled by anything John said or did; then she just as abruptly fell solidly asleep. John rubbed his face and leaned forward. "What does Root want with Leila?" he demanded.
Harold didn't take his eyes off the road. "I assume that she's found the Machine," he said. "The physical location of the server plant."
"Can she do something to it?" John said. "Can she—hack it, or—"
"No," Harold said. "She can't do anything to it. But I can."
"You told me once the Machine was locked down," John said. "A completely sealed system."
"It is," Harold said. "The one exception is if a registered administrator is physically present at the core servers."
"She needs to get you there?" John said.
"She needs more than that." Harold's mouth worked a little. He briefly met John's eyes in the rearview mirror. "I made clear to her that I would—that I would rather die than help her compromise the Machine." He looked back at the road. "But if she had Leila—"
John looked at Leila, asleep with three fingers in her small mouth, soft baby face frowning a little, small and defenseless and portable. Root would make Harold put Leila into a carrier; she'd get him to the servers and she'd put a gun to Leila's head, and Harold—Harold would give her anything she wanted. It was a solid plan.
"John," Harold said, without looking towards him, "We can't let that happen."
"Not while I'm breathing," John said.
"I'm afraid that's not good enough," Harold said. "John, if there is—if we can't ensure Leila's safety—"
John got what Harold was getting towards. "No," he said flatly.
"There's no other way to be certain," Harold said. "I meant it, John. I would rather die than see Root have access to the Machine. If we can't keep Leila from her hands—then I have to destroy that option from the other end."
"Listen to me," John said, leaning forward. "We're going to keep Leila safe. We're going to take her somewhere Root is never going to find her."
Harold was silent. In the lurid amber light of the streetlamps his face was remote, fixed and strange. John said sharply, "Harold."
"All right," Harold said abruptly. "Where should we go?"
They swung by the library to pick up Bear and guns and computer equipment, and drove through the night. Around midnight, somewhere in Virginia, John told Harold to pull over at a rest area, away from the lights, and waited until a lone man parked an generic black SUV and went inside.
"Get the car seat unfastened," he told Harold. He left Bear at attention, looking anxiously around the car, and swapped plates around on three other cars; then he put the last set of plates on the SUV and jacked it. He pulled it up to their car; Harold hauled the car seat over into the back, and Bear jumped into the front seat.
They reached the Charlotte, North Carolina, train station parking lot at five in the morning. Harold roused groggily, blinking at him in the rear view mirror. "Let's go," John said, leaving the keys in the ignition. Harold nodded tiredly and leaned over to unfasten the car seat.
Leila woke up as John lifted the car seat off the base and said, "I want Granma!" and struggled to get out.
"She's not here, sweetheart," John told her. "Can you say, 'Daddy'?"
She blinked at him. "Daddy?"
"Yeah," John said. "Can you remember to call me Daddy?"
"Daddy!" she said promptly.
He pointed to Harold. "And that's Papa."
Leila disagreed. "Glasses!"
"No, sweetheart," John said. "Glasses is the bunny. This is Papa."
She looked down at the bunny, still in her arms, and held it out. "This is Glasses!"
"Right," John said.
"This is Glasses, that's Papa, and you're Daddy!" she said, in triumph.
"That's my girl," John said, hefting the seat against his side. "Undercover again." He picked up the bag of her stuff.
"I want out!" Leila said, straining against the straps.
"Very soon, Leila," Harold said, watching them, his mouth downturned and worried. "Where are we going?" he asked as they walked to the station.
"Nowhere," John said. "We're going to buy tickets on a train heading west, then go get a cab to a mid-range hotel. Then we find a rental house in the country, an hour out or so, and you can build us some identities."
"That far?" Harold said: the first doubt he'd expressed. "Given our cover story," he glanced over at Leila, "wouldn't it be better to remain in the city environs?"
"We're not looking to make friends, Harold," John said. "We want our neighbors to classify us and then avoid us. Being the scandalous gay couple down the street is a good option."
They landed at a giant Hyatt with a convention and a packed lobby. The front desk staff barely looked up from their computers, checking them in, and no one complained that Bear was over the 50-lb limit on pets. John stuck the Do Not Disturb sign on the front door, drank two cups of the free instant coffee, and took a fast shower while Harold got started on their backgrounds. A messenger was at the door by the time he was dressed again, with fresh driver's licenses and bank cards.
John took his and slid them into his pocket; he shrugged on his suit jacket again. "Don't open the door for anyone while I'm out," he told Harold. "No room service, no phone calls."
"Unnecessary, Mr. Reese," Harold said, already at the door, waiting to close the bolts.
John nodded: just better to be sure. "I'll be back in two hours," he said. "If I'm not, call a cab and go to another hotel. I'll leave a message in the usual place if I'm okay. If I use the phrase all is well, assume I'm compromised and avoid any further contact. Call Carter and get back to New York."
Harold looked at him, and John felt cold; he knew damn well Harold wouldn't call Carter if that happened. "Finch, she'll be able to help," he said.
"Hurry back," was all Harold said.
John walked three blocks away from the hotel, looking at license plate holders, and then flagged a taxi to the first dealership that he spotted twice. He was back in under an hour, having made a salesman moderately happy, with a certified-pre-owned SUV identical to four others he'd seen on the streets.
When he unlocked the door and slid it to the limits of the bolt, Harold came and peered past him down the hallway in either direction, a tightness around his eyes. "All is well?" he asked.
"No, but we're okay," John said, and Harold let him in. "I've got a car. How are we doing?"
Leila was sitting on the floor with Bear, the two of them happily ripping apart the hotel's television guide and the glossy book on the pleasures of Charlotte. "Daddy!" she said, and hugged John's legs. Then she pointed to one of the pictures she'd ripped out and said, "Now I get ice cream!" The picture was of a fancy statue at the local art museum, but it had a headdress that looked vaguely like soft-serve, John supposed. He looked at Harold.
"I resorted to bribery," Harold admitted, sounding worn; his face was pouchy, although he'd taken the time to shave. "Yes, Leila, I'll call room service now. As for a house," he added, "I've found three furnished rentals in fairly remote areas; I have a lawyer checking to see which of them can be leased most quickly. Lie down and get some sleep." John nodded, dimly; he had to. He was running on fumes, awake and on alert for more than thirty-two hours.
He lay down on the bed. A minute later he opened his eyes again. Leila was standing next to the bed on tiptoe staring right into his face, her nose an inch from his. "You are sleeping," she informed him.
"No, but I'd like to be," John said.
It turned out that having Leila repeatedly instruct Glasses to "Be quiet, because Daddy is trying to sleep," wasn't all that conducive to getting some rest. Something else was bothering him, too, something under a conscious level; when the room service cart came to the door, he got up abruptly and caught Harold's arm.
"What happened?" he said.
Harold was stiff in his grip. "I beg your pardon."
"Something happened," John said. "While I was out. What was it?"
Harold hesitated; then he said, "Nothing—it's not important. I have no reason to believe we've been compromised," he added, and John accepted that, but he still got out his handgun and stood behind the door, aiming at chest level, while Harold signed for the food.
John closed the door behind the cart and threw the bolts again. "Okay," he said, "now you're going to tell me."
Harold was taking the covers off the food; he hesitated, then turned to Leila, who was throwing Glasses in the air yelling, "Ice cream!" with joy. "Yes, sweetheart, come here," he told her, and put her at the coffee table with a dish of ice cream and a spoon. "It's really not significant to our present situation," he told Reese, setting out the rest of the food: nothing fancy, just a heap of scrambled eggs and bacon and toast. "One of my security systems at the library was triggered—that's all."
"The alarms?" John said.
"No," Harold said. He put down a dish with the plain hamburger he'd ordered for Bear, who dived in eagerly, then sat down next to John on the small couch with his own plate of eggs. "She must have disabled those successfully," he said stiffly. "The one she triggered was one of my fallbacks. It wiped all the servers when she got too close to gaining access."
John stopped eating. "How sure are you she didn't actually get in?"
"Completely," Harold said. "It was—designed to catch her, actually. She has a tendency to try certain unusual memory exploits first when she's cracking a system. I patched my operating systems to generate a small scale EMP whenever any one of them was attempted."
John raised his eyebrows. "Generate an EMP? Harold, are you saying you set an e-bomb in the library?"
"Yes, well," Harold said tightly, "I found it preferable to the possibility that she might gain access to my servers." He looked down, and abruptly John realized what that meant: Root had been in the library. She'd been—sitting in Harold's chair, at Harold's desk, typing on his keyboard.
John's hands were clenched into fists around his fork and knife; he made himself let go and set them down. "Okay," he said. "That's good."
Harold shifted around on the couch to stare at him. "Good?"
"Yeah, Harold, good," John said. "She couldn't have expected breaking into your servers to be easy. If she tried, that's because she didn't have a better option. That means she's lost our trail."
"For now," Harold said. He turned back to brood over his plate.
John reached out and gripped his wrist. "Harold," he said. "She's not superhuman. And she's not getting her hands on you again. You or Leila."
Harold didn't immediately answer, but finally he gave a small sharp nod.
They didn't leave the room the rest of the day. John gave up on sleep and let Leila jump on the bed and watch cartoons. He took Bear out for a couple of walks while Harold was finalizing the arrangements for the house, greased by money: lease signed, key pickup scheduled, utilities turned on.
Leila ran out of steam around 7pm and abruptly collapsed in the middle of the bed. John lay down next to her and closed his eyes; he was dimly aware of Harold moving around the room, turning off lights, murmuring something to Bear, climbing in on her other side.
The next morning they drove two hours into the country to the house: a century-old farmhouse on almost an acre with a big fenced yard. Harold went over it with the realtor while John brought in the groceries they'd picked up on the way and let Leila out into the yard: she ran around it yelling gleefully and throwing fistfuls of acorns and falling down into the dirt, Bear chasing after her and bringing her sticks to inspect.
The realtor, a woman with shellacked blonde hair, developed a slightly fixed expression when John came to Harold's side and deliberately took his hand. Harold had already signed the lease, but she hesitated handing over the keys and started belatedly trying to talk them out of it with, "I should mention that, well, you know, it's a very traditional—a very old-fashioned neighborhood—"
"Sounds great," John said blandly.
"Thank you, Mrs. Glenn," Harold said, holding his hand out for the keys. "I'm sure everything will be fine."
The rest of the day, Harold went over the house installing motion-detector wireless cameras he'd picked up at Radio Shack, hooked up to his own custom-written security programs. John spent the time trying to keep Leila from playing with the cameras, eating the screws, climbing the ladder, dumping out the kitchen garbage, eating the laundry detergent, drinking the Windex, playing with his guns, sticking her fingers into the power outlets, and opening the vacuum cleaner.
He more or less succeeded, and he didn't see any need to mention to Harold that Leila had eaten one of Bear's dog biscuits. "But you're making dinner," he said to Harold.
Harold looked up from his laptop with an ominously doubtful expression. "There's a reason I was an angel investor in GrubHub, Mr. Reese."
John glared at him narrowly. "There are recipes, Harold. You follow them. It's like code, just with food."
"Having an algorithm on paper is not the same thing as being able to implement it successfully, Mr. Reese," Harold said. "And if you disagree, I'd be delighted to provide you with an algorithm for finding a minimum spanning tree, and watch you build your own feature extraction library. May I remind you that you were the one who insisted on locating somewhere completely outside pizza delivery radius?"
John muttered under his breath, dumped Leila in Harold's lap, and went to cook.
They were both fairly wild-eyed by dinnertime. Leila sang Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star while banging her fork on the table as John dished out the food, asked where Granma was—fortunately she accepted pretty readily that she was on vacation with Daddy and Papa and would see Granma again soon—and enthusiastically crammed spaghetti into her mouth, all over her face, her bib, down her shirt, inside her pants, underneath herself—how?—and then held out her hideously orange-stained hands to John and said, "Hug, please!"
John swallowed and prepared to meet his doom. Harold caught him. "A minute of delay isn't going to crush her soul," he said, and firmly wiped her down despite her squalling protests. John thought she looked at her clean hands with vague disappointment, but when he finally picked her up, she made a small happy noise and nestled her head against his shoulder, and his stomach did an involuntary flip. He sighed.
By way of consolation, it turned out Harold did know how to make a mean spiked sweet tea. They took tall cold glasses and sat on the front porch swing with Leila drinking a sippy cup of milk between them, Bear sprawled panting at their feet, watching the neighborhood go by. The sun was low and it had started getting cool; people came out for Saturday night walks. They mostly stayed on the far side of the street across from the house, going by, and there weren't a lot of greetings called out; people eyed them sidelong.
"Not a very friendly set of neighbors," Harold said.
"Just like we wanted," John said. He leaned back in the gently rocking swing and stretched his arm out over the back, behind Harold's shoulders, intimate. Leila had slumped down and was asleep against his thigh; she hadn't napped all day, too excited by all the strangeness. Fistfuls of stars were coming out, crickets chirping; the heavy rustling elm trees above stirring only a little in the warm air. A curtain was twitching across the street, two houses down: someone peering out at them.
John touched Harold's shoulder briefly, so it wouldn't be a surprise, and then slid his hand down to cup the back of his neck, thumb resting at the base of his skull. Harold glanced at him sideways, looked out at the street, then turned in the seat towards him. Permission granted. John leaned in and kissed him. It was a nice kiss: firm and warm and unhesitating, Harold's mouth still cool and sweet from the tea, his lips soft. After a moment, he kissed John back. It was easy; a friendly kiss. John could tell it wasn't going to be a problem.
They didn't talk about it. "We should get some rest," Harold said simply, when they had parted.
John carried Leila upstairs to her bedroom and put her in the waiting toddler bed with Glasses. Harold put down Bear's dog bed next to the crib and checked the motion-detector cameras at the window again. "I'm going to do a final sweep of the yard," John said. Harold nodded.
He went along the fence with the infrared sight: no one. The neighborhood had gone quiet for the night. The houses in viewing distance were all occupied; he made mental notes of the people he saw through the windows, marking them down, starting to form profiles in his head. They'd have to replace the curtains. He could see Harold's silhouette moving in the bedroom window next to Leila's. There was an old woman sitting in the back window of the house right behind theirs, with a perfect view of him hanging up his suit jacket.
John paused. He raised the sight and looked at her. She was lifting her head every so often and peering out directly at Harold in the window, with—yeah. Those were binoculars. John slid his gun out of his waistband and hit his earpiece. "Harold," he said, "can you find out who owns the house behind us? Any chance they're a plant?"
"None of the neighbors have owned their houses for less than ten years," Harold's answer came back instantly. "That was part of my criteria, and if I recall correctly, the house behind us in particular is owned by a Mrs. Marilou Waterson, who inherited it from her own parents some thirty years ago."
"So why does the nice old neighbor lady have a pair of military-grade binoculars?" John said.
"Hm," Harold said; John heard laptop keys tapping away. "She's the president of the local Audubon Society," Harold said after a moment. "She's written several impassioned letters to the editor of the local newspaper about the destruction of the habitat of the native barn owl."
"Well, unless she's somehow found out about your taste in cover names, that doesn't explain why she's using them to watch your bedroom window," John said.
"Mr. Reese, you do remember the part where we're the scandalous gay couple that's just moved into the neighborhood?" Harold said. "I imagine she's hoping to see something scandalous and gay."
"Just a gossip?" John said, but he was already convinced; he uncocked the gun and put it away. "All right. Then I think we're all clear for now. Go ahead and get some sleep. I'll take the room on Leila's other side." He covered a yawn as he turned back to the house.
Harold paused and said, "Mr. Reese—"
"What?" John said, yawning again. Then he stopped. "Oh." He turned and looked back at the window where nice old Marilou was, yes, still avidly watching Harold's bedroom. With her fancy owl-watching sniper binoculars.
"Good night, Mr. Reese," Harold said formally, after they turned out the lights; he was lying on his back, wearing cotton pin-striped pajamas. His eyes reflected liquidly in the dark; the ceiling fan was turning in lazy slow circles overhead, stirring the fresh night air.
"Night, Finch," John said. He made sure his handgun was wedged securely against the headboard. The sheets were cool and crisp. He was aware of Harold by his side, his breath evening out already, his body warming the bed. His own eyes were closing.
He opened them again with sun coming in through the blinds; there had been a noise. He rolled over: Harold had just opened his eyes and was staring at the ceiling. "I think Leila might be up," he said.
The door pushed open. "I am up! I am! It's morning!" Leila said, and came pattering in, pulled herself up into the bed, and started jumping up and down on their legs. "I can jump!" Bear had followed her in, and apparently felt left out: he jumped onto the bed too, barking and turning in circles and wagging his tail wildly: it hit John in the face. Leila fell over onto Harold's stomach; he coughed heavily. Leila yelled, "Papa, no," as though it had been Harold's fault, and started flailing her arms trying to get back up. Flattened against the pillows, John exchanged a wild look with Harold.
Leila wanted cereal and bacon and grapes for breakfast. And another dog biscuit.
"Another dog biscuit?" Harold said, frowning.
"Have some grapes," John said hastily, shoving a bunch of them into her hands.
Harold was successfully distracted. "Do you think we should cut them up?" he asked.
Leila was already yanking grapes off the vine like a pro and cramming them into her mouth three at a time. John shrugged. "She hasn't choked yet."
Feeding her and getting her changed and dressed involved two weeping meltdowns and left the dining room and the kitchen and the bathroom all a disaster. John shoved her out into the yard afterwards, and he and Harold cleaned up. "Make a full pot, please," Harold said for once, when John started coffee brewing; they each drank two giant mugs, sitting on the back porch watching Leila and Bear chase each other around.
"Mr. Reese, while I commend you for devising a cover that will undoubtedly be extremely difficult for Root to trace," Harold said, a little plaintively, "may I ask about your exit strategy?" He paused. "There is an exit strategy, I trust?"
"We need to get Sammy and Veda established in a new identity somewhere," John said, rubbing his face; he felt like he could fall straight back into bed for another eight hours. "Completely clean. Right before they go, we set up a drop point and time, we each take three hops to get there, we hand Leila off to them, they take ten hops to go to the new identity. No more contact after that."
"You do realize," Harold said after a moment, "that it will take a—considerable amount of time to arrange replacement identities for them that will be robust enough to withstand tracing by a hacker of Root's skills."
"I do realize," John said, grimly. He tipped back the rest of his coffee.
Harold needed more computer equipment, so they packed Leila into the car and drove the forty-five minutes to the nearest Wal-Mart, a giant complex the size of a football field. Leila loved riding the shopping cart down the huge aisles and kept yelling, "More pushing, Daddy! More pushing, Papa!" They got several side-eyes and pursed mouths and mothers scooting their kids out of sight. John should have congratulated himself; he felt himself wanting to punch someone instead.
They stopped at a diner for lunch. Leila sang a new song she'd made up called, apparently, "Daddy, Papa, Glasses and me!" while making the bunny dance on the table. It only had the one line, but that apparently repeated indefinitely.
John was braced for a comment from the waitress, but instead with their lunch they got a free bowl of fruit salad for Leila and a slice of cheesecake for them, and a rueful smile. "Mine is four," she said. "Enjoy it! They sure do grow up fast."
"Do you promise?" Harold muttered, as Leila shot a grape out of her fist into his glasses and squealed with laughter. John left a fifty dollar tip.
Halfway through the drive home, Leila decided she'd been doing enough riding for the day and started crying and complaining she was uncomfortable. She stayed uncomfortable—as she made very, very clear—throughout the twenty solid minutes until they got back to the house. When John tried to put her in the crib for her nap, she ran away and squeezed herself through a wall panel into the old dumbwaiter, which sank down under her weight and got stuck far enough down inside the wall that John couldn't reach her.
Leila started crying. "Harold!" John yelled. "Get me an axe!"
"I think perhaps we should try a slightly less destructive alternative, first," Harold called from downstairs. John saw light appear as Harold pushed open the bottom panel down in the kitchen. His voice floated up. "Leila, sweetheart, there's no need to cry. You're on a secret ride."
Leila gulped down tears. "I don't want the secret ride!"
"All right," Harold said. John peered down the side: Harold was pouring what looked like olive oil on the chains. "We're going to get you out of the secret ride." He wiggled the chains and with a tug managed to get it moving again: he hauled her up to where John could grab her and pull her out.
It took copious amounts of cuddling and a cookie to calm her down again. "I want a biscuit," she sniffled, when Harold brought it up and gave it to her.
"This is a Leila biscuit," Harold said, giving John a narrow look. "The other ones are Bear biscuits."
"Oh," she said. "This is a Leila biscuit." She ate it. Then she said, "Now more secret ride!"
They stared at her. "I don't think that's a very good idea, Leila—" Harold began, and she giggled and made a dash around him straight for the dumbwaiter panel.
John grabbed her, and put her down out of reach. "Not a chance," he said. "I'm going to nail this thing shut."
Leila's brow gathered slowly. Her mouth turned down at the corners. She took a deep breath. She opened her mouth. John watched the process with the fascination of seeing a truck packed with explosives headed his way. Harold's eyes were wide and horrified.
They spent the next half hour running her up and down in the dumbwaiter.
After that, she needed to jump down the stairs and climb back up again, holding both their hands. Four times. Then she wanted a drink. They finally managed to get her down for a nap roughly two hours later than on the schedule Harold had painstakingly written out after copious amounts of internet research.
Once she was finally asleep, they went downstairs and sat down together on the couch.
"I should start setting up the new servers," Harold said.
"I should take a patrol," John said.
They sat on the couch for two hours.
John jerked up and off the couch as the doorbell rang: at some point he'd tipped over and landed with his head in Harold's lap. Harold was sitting up blinking himself. John checked the gun in his waistband and went to see who it was: it was a tall, stout middle-aged woman with a determined expression, carrying two covered dishes. "Hello," John said, warily. He eyed the dishes. Only a couple of inches deep, not likely to hold a gun—
"I'm Eleanor James, your neighbor two houses down," she said. "I don't mean to barge in on you, but I thought you might maybe like some help with dinner when you're just getting settled in, seeing as how you've got the little one and all."
"That," John said emphatically, deciding that in this case neighbors visiting was just fine, "is very nice of you."
"Hello," Harold said, popping up behind his shoulder, owlish from behind his glasses. "Please do come in, Mrs. James. I'm Harold Starling; this is my partner, John."
Eleanor came inside the foyer, but refused a glass of tea, or an invitation to sit down. She said, "I'm sorry to have to be so blunt about this," John glanced at Harold, eyebrow raised, "but I came over for a reason. Some of the boys tried to talk Jacob—that's my husband—into coming round here tonight to make some fuss at you." She shook her head. "I told him we don't want anything to do with that kind of nonsense, and he told them so." She nodded firmly; John felt a faint sense of kinship with Mr. James. "But I thought I'd better come and drop a word in your ear."
"Thanks," John said.
"And he made that for you," she added, nodding to the casserole; John felt even more kinship. "You can drop off the dishes when you have a chance; there's no hurry."
"Well, that's promising," John said, after she'd vanished back down the drive. "And partner? When are you going to make an honest man out of me, Harold?"
"I already have," Harold said, "three years ago, in a small civil ceremony in Boston—you looked very handsome; a few photos are on Facebook, although for obvious reasons neither of our faces are visible. Of course, given the anti-marriage amendment here, our actual legal relationship is in a peculiar limbo. Mr. Reese, perhaps we should reconsider our location. We are clearly drawing notice—"
"The two of us with a baby are going to do that no matter what, Harold," John said. "We just need to make sure it's limited notice. Once we confirm that yes, we're exactly what they think we are, they'll leave us alone."
"Or begin a campaign of harassment, apparently," Harold said.
John raised an eyebrow. "You don't think I'm going to have any problems dealing with a bunch of local gasbags, do you?"
"Shooting our neighbors would not be a good way to avoid questions," Harold said dryly.
"I'll restrain myself, if it comes to that," John said. Harold made a doubtful hmph. "Besides, we're not going to be here that long."
A loud thump came from upstairs. They both turned to look up. There was a moment of silence. Faintly, Leila's voice called, "Nothing bad happened!"
They looked at each other. "Long enough," Harold said.
Later that day, after several more hours of toddler-wrangling and dinner—the casserole was fantastic, although John was possibly biased since he hadn't had to cook it himself—and tucking Leila into bed for the night, John came back downstairs, picked out a couple of the larger machine guns and broke them down into parts, spreading them out over the dining room table. Harold eyed them with enormous skepticism but said nothing.
It felt oddly like home—like the library, anyway: cleaning his guns, Harold typing away. They had the windows open and the soft night came in, strangely peaceful; John let it wash over him, registering the normal levels of background noise, the ordinary sounds of the neighborhood, turning down his meter from the regular sirens and the subway grumbles of Manhattan.
He didn't like the thought of weeks and maybe even months here, with the numbers coming and no one back there to take them. He didn't have another idea, though. The only other option was to deliberately stake out Harold and Leila as bait, wait for Root to show up, and kill her. John had fundamental objections to the first part, serious logistical concerns about the second, and minor qualms about Harold's reaction to the third. He wouldn't let that stop him if Root did make it here, but he wasn't going to put Harold and Leila on the line deliberately.
He looked across the table: Harold was in shirtsleeves and vest and tie, not too far removed from himself, although there was a big cheese-stained handprint on the sleeve and a small piece of broccoli clinging just under the knot of the tie. The slight frown creasing his forehead as he tapped away, his mouth in a small determined line. John knew Harold hadn't been exaggerating. He'd put a gun to his head rather than leave Leila in perpetual danger.
And that wasn't going to happen. The other numbers were going to have to wait for a while.
"Harold." Harold looked up and blinked at him. "Sounds like our guests are coming," John said. There were footsteps on the gravel drive outside. "Head upstairs. I'll be there soon."
Harold hesitated. "Are you quite sure—"
"That I can deal with a few homophobes?" John said. "Yeah."
He checked himself in the mirror critically as he waited for them to come up the drive and decided he needed something: he went into the kitchen and dug out the apron he'd spotted in a drawer, along with the dishtowels: it was an appalling hot pink with a daisy on the front. He put his spare magazines in the pocket.
He heeled off his shoes before he answered the door: there were four of them waiting on the front porch, three uneasy and not meeting his eyes, one belligerent glaring him right in the face, a heavyset older man in a dress shirt with no tie, sleeves rolled up over beefy arms. That one had some minimal training, John was pretty sure; boxing or wrestling in high school, nothing since. One of the others, an older man, was ex-military—probably Army, since Fort Bragg was an hour away. "We want a word with you," the belligerent one said, flatly.
John leaned against the doorframe and smiled. "It's always nice to meet neighbors. Why don't you come on inside? Just leave your shoes on the mat."
Automatic manners kicked in, and they were taking their shoes off before they thought about it; John enjoyed watching them awkwardly wobble back and forth.
"We just wanted to stop by, have a little talk," one of the other men broke in nervously: a younger man, tall and gangly and with a thin mustache; he had a handgun in an underarm holster under his coat, a small well-worn bulge: probably some local law enforcement. "Just to make sure—thing is, you're new here; you're from Charlotte, I guess?"
"We just moved from Boston, actually," John said. "My partner wanted a warmer climate." He blinked at them innocently.
The belligerent guy made a noise of disgust. "Uh," the gangly guy said, shooting him a glance, "right, well, the thing is," they were following him into the house, "we figure, you just might not understand, this is a neighborhood where—" He stopped.
John slid into his seat at the head of the dining table and started to reassemble the MG4. "Go on," he said. They were all staring at his hands; it took him about thirty seconds. He pulled the right magazine out of the apron pocket and locked it in. He started working on the Glock. "Tell me all about the neighborhood."
"You Army?" the ex-military man said; he'd gone from looking uncomfortable to actively unhappy. The fourth guy, a balding thickset guy who hadn't made a peep, was edging back towards the door rapidly and doing his best to pretend he hadn't ever been here at all.
John smiled at him. "Don't ask, don't tell," he said. "Oh wait, I can tell. Retired, though." He finished loading the Glock and moved on to the Sig Sauer. "I heard some of you were worried that this might be a dangerous neighborhood for people like me and my husband." He was on to the sniper rifle. "I thought that maybe I could reassure you that I don't think there's anything here I can't handle."
They all looked even more awkward; the belligerent one was red in the face. Abruptly the older man said, "Pete Caldwell, 16th MP," and held out a hand.
John looked up at him and put down the rifle. "John Starling," he said, taking the hand. "1st SFG."
"Special Forces?" Caldwell glanced at the guns. "Weapons sergeant?"
John inclined his head. "I like to keep my hand in."
"Right," Caldwell said. "Well, sorry to have bothered you."
"Hang on a second," the belligerent guy said, taking a step closer to the table. John raised an eyebrow at him.
"Listen, Martin," the gangly guy said, low; the belligerent one shook off his hand.
"No, I don't give a damn if he's from the Army, or how many guns he's got," Martin said. He stabbed a finger down at the table, glaring at John. "My kids walk down this street to school. They ride their bikes in this neighborhood. They don't need to see obscene things shoved in their faces—"
"We usually save the obscenity for the bedroom," John said. "It gets messy doing it on the front lawn. And if your kids can't handle seeing me and my husband, they can walk a block out of their way. That wouldn't be a good idea," he added, as Martin's hand clenched.
But Caldwell and the gangly guy were already reaching for him; Caldwell muttered something to him sharply, then said to John, "We'll be going. Have a good night."
"You too," John said mildly, and stayed at the table while they let themselves out: he could see their reflections in the glass of the grandfather clock in the entry hall.
Afterwards he put the guns away and locked up. He did another circuit of the yard—Marilou was parked by the window again, so at least someone in the neighborhood had no objections to obscenity—and stood for a moment at the back door. His eyes wanted to turn the bushes and the house-shapes into something more sinister; the cicada noise ebbing and flowing felt ominous.
He knew intellectually this was as safe as they were going to get: even if they'd made a mistake, they hadn't made a stupid one. Root wasn't going to track them down in less than a week. The danger zone would be in two weeks, or three; the window between when she could have figured out some way to track them down, and when Harold would have finished building Sammy and Veda their identities. The window where he and Harold would have gotten used to this, where they would be tempted to stop worrying at exactly the wrong time. He'd exploited that window plenty of times; he knew he was going to have to work hard not to leave it open.
This wasn't the right time to worry; this was the time to get some rest—finish establishing the cover, work out their defensive plans, figure out how their lives were going to work day to day. Knowing that didn't do anything to dissolve the hard knot of tension between John's shoulders. He almost wished Martin had thrown the punch, that the gangly guy had pulled his gun. A fight would have felt good, a release valve. He shut the door finally and armed the security system and went upstairs. Leila was lying on her stomach with arms and legs sprawled like a starfish; Bear hardly moved, only his ears turning forward. John closed the door again softly.
Harold was sitting up in bed with The Language and Thought of the Child, reading at his usual unreal pace: eyes just going straight down each page without a pause. He looked up as John came in, watched him taking out his handgun. "John," he said, "with Leila coming into the room in the morning—"
"I know," John said. He made sure his back was to the window, keeping his body between his handgun and Marilou's view. He ejected the magazine from his handgun and put it in the end table before slipping the gun under his pillow. "Good enough?"
"It will do," Harold said, as John slid in next to him. "Do we still have our voyeur?"
"Yeah," John said. "Not that we really have a right to complain."
"I suppose not," Harold said. He leaned over and kissed him, minty and cool, his hand on John's cheek, fitting their mouths together easily, as assured as if John really was his. John found himself leaning into it, meeting him. It was—it was good. Like there wasn't even a line being crossed.
They broke apart. Harold switched off his light. "Good night, John," he said, in the dark.
"Night, Harold," John said. His restlessness had eased. His whole body was relaxing. He slept.
"What time is it?" John said to Harold tiredly, the next morning, as they sat down on the back stoop again. Leila was running in circles after Bear.
Harold had the laptop on his knees and was peering at it with bleary eyes. "Seven-thirty," he said.
"It has to be later than that," John said, appalled.
"Unfortunately my system clock is synchronized with the atomic clock in Boulder," Harold said. He rubbed his face. "John, while we're on the subject of time passing, I think I should tell you that it's going to take me a minimum of three months to establish these identities."
"What?" John stared at Harold. "You took less than a week to set up my entire clean cover. Not to mention building half of it on the fly."
"And I assure you that if Root had been working for Agent Donnelly, she would have broken that clean cover and traced it to me within a day," Harold said. "I have to begin with the assumption that she has traced all my financial accounts. That means that any funds I move to make this happen must take an untraceable route—in other words, I have to launder the money. And as Root is surely herself an expert at money laundering, that's going to be a risk all its own."
"So what are you going to do?" John said.
"Well, one option is to invent and build a completely new method of money laundering that's never before been used by any criminal organization," Harold said.
Great. "What's another option?" John said.
"If I think of one, I'll let you know," Harold said.
John turned and stared at Leila running around the backyard. She'd stuck two branches in her hair like antlers now and the pants that had been green ten minutes ago now looked like camo.
"Three months?" John said.
"Three months," Harold said.
John had thought fairly well of his ability to go undercover, to commit to another identity and carry it off. He'd gone deep plenty of times, and he'd felt pretty good about what he'd done. He'd mostly gotten away with it unsuspected by his targets. He certainly thought he'd done the best he could.
John wasn't planning to get in touch with anyone at the CIA to let them know, but it turned out that what really made you commit to a cover was taking along a two-year-old. Three days in, and he was a full-time dad. If he wasn't riding herd on Leila, he was thinking about her—when the next meal was, the next snack, the next nap, the next disaster.
It could've been dangerous, except he was also aware every minute that she was in danger, reminded of it every time she hugged him in the perfect confidence that no one in the world could ever want to hurt her—well, except by cruelly refusing to let her eat grass or play with the pretty orange-handled scissors. He held her close and breathed in her baby smell and after he put her down, he checked the security logs again.
"I'm going to need get us a second car," he said that evening. Leila was drifting to sleep between them again, the porch swing rocking gently back and forth. "The money for that—"
"That I can get you," Harold said; he'd left his laptop inside, after pretty much being on it all day, working. "The difficulty is being certain that the money is permanently untraceable. The funds I've drawn on for the house and our other expenses here aren't, unfortunately, but they should take at least a few months to trace. I've also made a great many other withdrawals and shifted money around to cover our tracks as far as possible."
John nodded. "You see that house at the far end of the street, the one with the red garage?" Harold shifted to look at it. "Can you carry Leila that far in under three minutes?"
Harold paused. "If I have to," he said.
"Good," John said. "I'm going to arrange to have another car parked there between them and the next house over. You're going to keep the keys on you at all times. Tomorrow I'll show you how you get out of the house and off the grounds—you're going to have to go out the window on the second floor."
"With Leila?" Harold said dubiously.
"Using the carrier," John said. "I know she's over the weight limit, but she's close enough for an emergency. I need it to be eight minutes from the moment I tell you to go, to you and her in the car and moving."
Harold looked down at Leila; she was lying down resting against his thigh, eyes all but shut, pulling on her bunny's ear. His hand was resting on her head. He nodded slightly. "I understand," he said.
It was quieter out, a weeknight; fewer people out walking. There were still a few. John had his arm stretched over the back of the swing; he looked at Harold. Harold glanced back; his mouth turned up slightly. John leaned in to meet him. They kissed softly, intimately, only parting for breath; John nuzzled at Harold's cheek and went in for another round.
They were both breathing faster when they parted. Harold cleared his throat. "Perhaps we'd better go inside," he said. Leila was solidly asleep.
They spent the evening on the escape route. John cut a section out of the fence on the side of the house behind a bunch of bushes, letting out in the neighbors' flowerbed, and fitted it back in carefully; he held it while Harold plastered over the cuts with a little bit of white putty. "That should come out with a good shove," John said. "Let's go try the ladder."
He'd picked up a fire ladder at Wal-Mart; after about an hour of practice, John was satisfied with how fast Harold could get out of the hall window and down, on the side of the house most hidden from all the neighbors: a shed on one side, bushes on the other. "Good," he said. "We'll practice with Leila tomorrow." Harold didn't say anything, just nodded, panting, from the bottom of the ladder; he was leaning against the side of the house. "Walk around to the back door," John said. "You don't need to climb back up."
He pulled up the ladder into the window and went to let Harold in. Harold sat down heavily on the couch and took the damp washcloth John held out to him, wiping down his face; he was sweaty and his face was drawn with pain. John couldn't apologize; it had to be done. He put his hands on Harold's thigh and rubbed gently back and forth. "Do you need some painkiller?"
Harold closed his eyes and leaned back. "No, but that is more than welcome," gesturing at John's hands, so he kept massaging until Harold's shoulders eased back and he felt the clenched muscles relax under his touch. It was time to stop, to take his hands off. No one was watching.
He let go and patted Harold's leg and stood up. "I'll take a look around, and we'll go to bed." Harold nodded without opening his eyes. John went outside.
Three months. It was a long time. He walked the perimeter, thinking vividly about kissing, about Harold's mouth: his every night for three months, every still summer night, cool sweet kisses in the heavy warm air, the creak of the swing beneath them. He was wrong: this was going to be a problem. He looked at Marilou's window before he went inside: she was there again. He tried not to be glad.
He and Harold went upstairs together. John kept his back to Harold as they changed for the night, coiling up his belt mechanically, hanging his pants up. "John," Harold said.
He looked around. Harold was standing at the dresser, in boxers, his hand on the open drawer; John looked at him. Harold was staring into the drawer at his pajamas, and then his mouth quirked with decision; abruptly he said, "Under the circumstances, I don't think this will become less distracting the longer we avoid it."
John drew a breath; it never ceased to surprise him, somehow, when Harold was effortlessly brave. "No," he said, "I guess not."
Harold nodded. He pushed the drawer shut without taking out his pajamas, and got into the bed. John turned around again, got out of his shirt, every button a small infuriating delay; he jerked it off and tossed it over the chair. He pulled his undershirt off over his head and killed the lights.
Harold's hands were even better than his mouth, shaping a curve over John's shoulders, his back, his thighs. They tangled on their sides, kissing, and John was suddenly desperate, impatient; he pressed into Harold, his hips pushing forward, and Harold kissed him and reached down between them, pushing John's briefs away. John worked them off, rubbed himself against the silk of Harold's boxers, Harold's cock hard and hot beneath them, and groaned when Harold wrapped his hand around his cock.
It was strange because it was so certainly, completely his. This wasn't for a night. He knew even as he kissed Harold, even as he shuddered in his hands for the first time, that they were going to be lovers for the next three months: every night spent together, every day. They were practically—John found himself laughing, panting at the same time, even as he thrust into Harold's grip.
"Something entertaining?" Harold said, dry. He smoothed his thumb over the head of John's cock, fantastically.
"Well," John said, "it—oh. It took a while, but—at least we're finally consummating—yes." He closed his hand over Harold's and held him in place, his cock jerking, spilling hot and wet; Harold made a small snort of amusement, and kissed him again.
Afterwards, John pushed the covers back and nudged Harold to sit up. "We're going to be putting on quite the show," Harold said, a little dubiously, glancing at the window.
"Do you really care?" John said, stretching out luxuriously next to Harold's legs; he felt deeply relaxed, satisfied. He couldn't wait to do more of this. He nuzzled at Harold's hip and leaned over him.
"Not really, I suppose, given—ah," Harold said, and stopped talking as John took him into his mouth.
Four weeks later, Harold had learned how to scale down the wall and get to the curb, carrying Leila, in five minutes; John had learned how to make empanadas, alfajores, and chicken nuggets; Bear had learned how to shake hands and play dead; and Leila had learned the first twenty digits of π: Harold had written it out to several hundred places down on pieces of notepaper and taped them up in a banner running around the house at eye level, one rainy day. Leila had subsequently scribbled on long stretches of it—and on the walls; John didn't think Harold was getting the security deposit back—but it had kept her occupied for an entire hour.
Routines were dangerous; unfortunately, what a toddler really liked were routines. Naptime was pretty unavoidable, but John tried to keep meals unpredictable by feeding Leila smaller amounts more often. They almost always ended up on the porch swing at bedtime, though, and John didn't fight against it too hard, for reasons he wasn't going to examine too closely. Instead he had Harold install night-vision cameras along the overhang covering everything in the immediate area; he reviewed the footage every night before they went out.
"The defensive goal is to force a frontal assault, and control the impact," John said, spreading out the satellite shot of the block on the dinner table; he automatically guided Leila's hand with the crayon back to her paper when she tried to reach over and write on the roof. "If we get eight minutes warning or more, we go together. If we get less than that, you take Leila, and I buy you the time to get clear. No, Leila," he added.
Harold's mouth tightened. "How many people do you expect?"
"Six, maybe," John said. "Don't worry about me. I can handle it. What I don't want to have to worry about is Root or one of her people getting past me."
"I realize that," Harold said. "This plan still leaves you alone, facing ten men—yes, I do realize you're cutting down your estimates."
John didn't try to deny it. "Harold, remember, chances are she doesn't find us, and that even if she does, we'll have more warning than we need to get out. That's why we're here. This," he tapped the escape route, outlined in red, "is our emergency fallback." He'd laid down a dozen smoke grenades and a line of homemade land mines along the route. "But if she manages to actually make contact, if she gets someone inside our perimeter without us having enough warning, you blow the mines and the grenades, clear your route, and go. And you trust me to handle whatever she throws at us."
Harold looked at him, almost expressionless. "I know you would lay down your life to keep us safe," he said quietly.
"That's not the idea." John cupped Harold's face with a hand. "The point of this plan is I only need to hold them for eight minutes, and you'll be in the car and gone. Then I'll get out and find you."
The actual emergency plan was to spend the eight minutes killing all of them but one, get Root's location out of that one, find her and kill her. Then he'd find Harold and Leila. But close enough. He leaned in and kissed Harold.
He'd learned this, too, even while trying hard not to: how to take kisses for granted, the right to kiss, to touch. He'd learned to expect Harold's hands on him, Harold's mouth soft and quick and tender against his; Harold lifting John's hand absently to his lips to press a kiss against the knuckles. He'd learned what it felt like to ease himself slow and steady down on Harold's cock because he'd wanted Harold to have that from him; he'd learned how much he loved it, unexpectedly, how good it made his body feel.
Harold had been smirking faintly, afterwards, bringing him a glass of water while John lay gasping and beached in bed next to him. John gulped the water desperately and fell back against the pillows again and groaned. "Did you know—"
"That you were trying to be generous?" Harold said. "Yes, but I didn't really see any reason to spoil the surprise."
John had laughed a little, helplessly, and tugged Harold down into his arms.
He'd given up after that; he'd stopped trying to draw lines. He wanted everything, everything, for as long as he got to have this. Cuddling on the couch and blowjobs in the shower, sex twice a day or more if Harold didn't balk out of exhaustion; kisses every time he passed Harold sitting at his laptop or they sat down for five minutes after chasing Leila everywhere. He looked up more recipes and dragged Harold protesting into the kitchen and made him learn how to make scrambled eggs and boil pasta; he put together a swing set and got Leila a soccer ball and romped with her in the backyard, letting her score goals and putting her on his shoulders for victory laps while she yelled with delight.
And at night, while Harold worked on the impenetrable covers, John worked on two breakable ones.
Back in the early days, after Harold had first brought him on, Harold had set up a dozen accounts for him, all of them automatically replenished; John knew Harold didn't even glance at them. He'd experimented with them at first, testing the boundaries of Harold's patience and resources at the same time: he'd drained every one of them and shoved the money into a Caymans account, and waited to see what Harold would do.
The accounts had all been back at their initial balance one minute after midnight, and Harold hadn't said a thing; he'd kept not saying a thing while John did it over and over for more than a week, until John, baffled and annoyed by the million dollars sitting in his account, finally made a pointed remark, something about Harold maybe starting to run a little short. Harold had just looked at him so blankly that John had only then realized Harold literally didn't know or care that John was drawing himself a hundred grand a day. By contrast, Harold did know that John wore a 44L and had remarked disparagingly on the quality of Hugo Boss, although John had only stopped into that store for a total of fifteen minutes on his way in to work that morning.
Now John pulled money from those accounts to build a new one in a bank in Arizona, in the names of a couple carefully designed to look like people Sammy and Veda could pretend to be: recent immigrants, keeping to themselves, just buying a house. He'd gotten paperwork for their identities through a reputable Florida mob, expensive and high-quality, people who wouldn't talk easily—he'd made it look serious, the way he'd have done it if he'd assumed Root hadn't broken into their systems.
Once the real identities were done and they'd handed Leila off, John was going to send Harold to Europe for a few weeks and take off himself for Arizona, ostensibly to avoid Root ever finding where the handoff had taken place. He'd rent a house for the fake identities, and wait for her to show.
It was a solid trap; a great way to commit a cold-blooded murder. And he wasn't going to lie to Harold about it after it was done, so he didn't know if Harold was going to want to look him in the face again. He would; John knew Harold wasn't going to walk away from him; he knew Harold would even be very glad to have Root dead. But that would make it worse, not better. Harold would feel like a killer himself, and if that was there, between them, always—
John put that fear away. It didn't matter. He was going to lose Leila; he might lose Harold. But he'd still save them. No matter what it cost him.
"You don't really want to go to this," John said, appalled.
"I think we ought to," Harold said. "Mrs. James has continued to be hospitable—"
"I think you mean Mr. James," John said. "And not that I'm not grateful for the casseroles and the hand-me-down toys, but—"
"Refusing the invitation would be conspicuous after we've made a point of being explicitly out to the neighborhood," Harold said. "Not to mention I think we should take advantage of the opportunity of demonstrating Leila's health and happiness. Even Mrs. James has hinted of concern that we keep Leila so cooped up—"
"Leila's got a backyard the size of a football field," John said.
"She's alone," Harold said. "We've made no effort to arrange playdates or preschool or any kind of socializing—which, yes, for obvious reasons are impossible, but the last thing we need is one of our less-enlightened neighbors taking it into their head to report us for negligence and provoke even a cursory investigation."
John felt like there was a target on his back the entire time they were at the barbeque. He made sure Harold parked himself in full view at the edge of the pool, where John could watch him and still monitor Leila. He had to admit he saw the point of playdates: Leila went nuts for having other kids around, and she clearly also was going to need some remedial lessons in sharing and taking turns.
On the other hand, none of the other kids could sing the first thirty digits of π, and several of the grownups stared when she explained earnestly to the six year old that no, she was not counting wrong, it was the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter, and went running to Harold to make him explain it for them. It was almost worth making small talk with the neighbors to watch Harold's eyes go wide and alarmed when he was surrounded by seven kids under the age of eight all staring at him expectantly.
Caldwell and his family lived across the street; he was there, looking uncomfortable and trying to avoid John; so John made a point of cornering him and brightly talking about how he loved the James' decorating scheme. That backfired when Mr. James overheard him and promptly shot over and brought out twenty wallpaper and paint samples for John's opinion on his dining room renovation plans.
"The blue is nice?" John tried, and managed to bail out successfully by asking for the casserole recipe instead.
Harold escaped the toddlers and spent most of the party talking to Mrs. James; as they walked home with Leila he said, "I'm going to go over tomorrow morning, if you don't mind watching Leila alone. She's having some difficulty with her computer: from what she said it sounds like a particularly nasty piece of malware."
"Watch out, Harold," John said. "You really want to become the neighborhood tech support?"
Harold leaned back to look at him. "As it happens, I would rather minimize the security vulnerabilities of our nearest neighbors' home networks."
That made sense, although John was still on-edge all two hours that Harold was over there, even though they kept the phone connection open the whole time. He didn't like it any better when Mrs. James dropped by two days later with Mrs. Caldwell, her good pal, and recruited Harold to help them out, which took more chutzpah than John felt was reasonable, even if Mrs. Caldwell had brought over a pretty spectacular chocolate cake for purposes of peacemaking.
John was even more annoyed by the time Harold got back later that afternoon: he'd seen soldiers high on acid and armed with machine guns that were less terrifying than Leila after a slab of chocolate cake.
"We're supposed to not make friends," he said to Harold pointedly, after depositing a hideously smeared and yelling Leila in Harold's wincing arms.
"Establishing a small amount of social capital could come in useful, John," Harold said, holding Leila out as far from himself as possible while he carried her to the kitchen to wipe her down.
"I want more cake! I really really want more cake!" Leila cried.
Harold did bow to his anxiety, though, and made polite excuses to refuse any other local clients. John just didn't like having Harold out of his sight anymore. They were deep in the danger zone now: it had been almost two months, and John woke up twice a night sweating, straining to listen for some noise that had risen above the cricket-song: a pebble falling, a scrape of metal, an owl hooting.
Oddly he had a lot more warning when it came: a phone rang, late, and John jerked away from Harold's mouth, from a few desperate kisses that were all he allowed himself at night anymore. When he picked up, a thin, smoke-hoarse woman's voice on the other end said, "Young man, I'm very sorry to disturb you, but I think you have a couple of prowlers in your—"
The line went dead and silent: cut. The clock on the nightstand followed a second later: power lines cut, too. His cellphone buzzed on the end table, the security system firing an alert: Harold had powered that via a propane generator in the basement. Harold was staring at him, his face pale and floating in the dark.
"Go," John mouthed to him; he waited just long enough to see that Harold was moving, getting up. They'd both begun wearing sweatpants and t-shirts to bed lately; he shoved his feet into a waiting pair of sneakers and took the sniper rifle from the top shelf in the closet.
He checked from the back window first, Harold's exit route: there was one man covering the front corner of the yard, standing in the shadows. John hefted the rifle, took aim, pulled; the man dropped. Harold was coming out of the bedroom behind him, shoes and the baby carrier already on. John didn't say anything, just pointed to Harold and the window, thumbs up, all clear. Harold stood in the hallway, looking at him, then nodded once. He went into Leila's bedroom.
John left the sniper rifle inside a hall closet, traded it for his handgun. Bear had come out of the bedroom and was standing in the doorway, ears pricked forward on alert, completely silent. John beckoned him to the dark corner to the right of the top of the stairs and murmured, "Blijf, bewaken." One more line of defense, in case anyone tried to slip past him.
John crept halfway down the stairs and paused to listen. They hadn't come in the house yet: the security system would have fired again for that. Two men seen in the backyard by the house: one cutting the lines, one covering him, two more in back and two more out front at least, if they were remotely competent. John wondered if Marilou was going to call the police. That would make things complicated; he decided to clear out the front first. He didn't want some poor cop getting shot thinking he was looking for a burglar.
He reached over and rattled the front door knob from inside, then opened the shutters on the front left window. A man in a black ski mask turned towards him, eyes startled; John shot him twice through the glass and dived immediately across the room. Another man kicked the front door in, spraying bullets towards where John had been and yelling into an earpiece, "We've been made! Go, go—"
John dropped him with a bullet in the back of his skull before the guy even saw him, and didn't bother with a second shot. He picked the guy's earpiece off him as he went outside low and fast; no other men. There was a van parked three doors down that didn't belong in the neighborhood; smoked windows. John popped the earpiece in and heard, "—on the front porch, I see him—" and took aim and fired through the windshield. The voice stopped. He shot the tires out also, to be sure.
A pop pop pop on the far side of the house: the mines going off. He checked his watch: Harold had taken four minutes instead of three, slower than John would've liked, but he could imagine Leila had been less cooperative woken up in the middle of the night. Still within acceptable limits.
John turned back into the house as the phone buzzed in his back pocket, another security alert going off: back door breached. "About time," John murmured, and went to the kitchen. The ipad mounted on the wall gave him the video feeds at the touch of a button. There were four men coming in, solid formation, clearing the den and the living room, wearing ski masks.
Adrenaline was humming in his veins, intensely pleasurable, slowing time for his convenience. He'd always been good at combat; he'd always loved it, helplessly, even when he didn't want to; but this was easy: people coming into his house, to hurt Harold, to hurt Leila. John opened the pantry cabinet and took the gas mask and the grenades off the top shelf, got the shotgun down from over the fridge.
He pulled the rings and tossed the grenades out through the swinging doors, then shoved the kitchen table—granite and titanium—over on its side and ducked behind it. He pulled the mask down over his head as the men in the living room returned stuttering bursts of fire; then the grenades went off at their feet.
The firing stopped a moment. John glanced at the ipad screen. The four of them were coughing, eyes streaming, but still disciplined: back to back and covering the room. John placed them mentally, then turned and took aim through the wall. He fired: two men went down, three. The fourth guy, the one facing away, jerked around and started firing at the kitchen wildly, blind; John dropped his aim and took him out at the knees.
He went out through the doors; the last man was groaning, falling into coughing hoarse sobs as he inhaled more of the gas. John kicked away his gun, got and tossed his backup piece and knife, and grabbed him by the collar. He flipped the coffee table up onto its side and dragged him onto the living room rug. He took the throw from the couch and wiped up the blood trail from the floor, tossed it onto the rug with him. The guy was immobilized; the shotgun had left his legs below the knee a shattered red mess. John left him there for the moment.
The gas mask had infra-red; he switched it on and went out and cleared the back yard, fast: no more men. He left the door open as he went back in, letting the tear gas clear. Sirens were coming closer. He went back to the groaning thug in his living room and grabbed the corners of the rug and dragged him on it to the basement door.
He knelt down and tapped the guy's cheek with his gun. The man opened streaming brown eyes and looked up at him. "Jesus God, fuck," the guy said, rasping in agony. "Please, Jesus, my legs—"
"I guess I should take care of that," John said. He pulled a couple of zip ties out and started tourniqueting the guy's knees. "Meanwhile, take a look." The guy looked. "There's a panic room down there, hidden behind a panel. It's soundproof and it locks to my thumbprint. It's going to take the local cops at least two weeks to sort out the DNA and figure out that there was another guy here, and even then, I'm pretty sure they aren't going to guess you're still in the house."
"Oh, fuck, God," the man said.
John nodded. "So there are two things that can happen now. I can take you down there, and lock you in, and after the police clean up this mess, I can come down there and find you, and we can have a long conversation. Or, you can save us both some time and tell me where to find your employer, and I can make her very sorry for sending you and your team into this. Which sounds better to you?"
"What the fuck are you talking about!" the guy said.
"We're about to have company," John said, "so you don't have a lot of time to decide. I'm going to count to three."
"Do you mean—the woman? She just sold us the—God!—the intel, she didn't fucking hire us—"
"Intel?" John said, sharply. "What intel?"
"That you—you had the—fuck! That you had the prototype—"
Prototype? "How the hell were you supposed to get her the baby?" John said through his teeth.
"What?" the guy said, staring up at him, "We weren't supposed to get her anything—" and distantly, through the faint ringing in his ears from gunfire, John heard three more gunshots, and moved, yelling, "Bear! Bear! Zoek! Harold, zoek!"
He was running, ripping the gas mask away as he hurtled over the body lying in the front door and running, running, his heart pounding—Bear overtook him, flying, and kept going down the street: the getaway car was still there, half a block away. John threw himself after Bear in desperation. He didn't see anyone; he didn't see Harold, didn't see her. Had she brought another car? Or if Harold had run, if Harold had figured out a way, had bought him even a minute, left him any sort of trail—Bear rounded the car; half a second later John skidded over the hood and landed on the far side and stopped, short; Harold was there, sitting on the grass next to the sidewalk, leaning against the side of the car.
Bear looked up at John and whuffed once, sat down: found him. Harold had a gun in his hands. Root was lying sprawled on the ground in front of him, her face surprised, arms outflung, a small handgun dangling from her fingers.
John moved on autopilot. He kicked the gun away from her limp hand, checked her pulse. She was gone; the dark clothes over her chest were sticky-wet: three solid shots to the chest. "Harold," he said, dropping to his knees next to him. "Harold—" Pulse was okay, Harold was breathing steadily, but the—the blanket-draped carrier wasn't moving, and John got both hands on it and tore it open with a jerk that almost toppled Harold over and stared: it was empty—"Harold. Where is Leila?"
Harold didn't look at him. He blinked a few times; John tried not to shake him. "Inside the dumbwaiter."
"What?" John stared at him.
"I sedated her," Harold said. He sounded flat. He blinked again and then he looked down at Root. "She's dead."
"Yes," John said, blankly, and looked at the gun. It wasn't one of his. "Where did you get the gun?"
"I stole it from Mr. Caldwell's house while I was working on his wife's computer," Harold said. "Is that the police?"
John looked over the hood of the car; it was. He recognized the gangly younger man; he and another deputy were at the bottom of the walk of the house, their eyes wide; they were pulling their guns out. Probably they'd seen the corpse on the front porch.
"Perhaps you should go and extract Leila," Harold said. "I think this situation might be difficult to explain to the authorities. I left the ladder hanging over the side, against your instructions—I rather thought Root would be careful to arrange to keep my exit route clear."
John stared back at Harold again. His heart hadn't quit running on adrenaline; he'd checked her pulse, but he still didn't believe that Root was gone. He didn't believe that Harold had—"You planned this."
Harold looked at him for the first time. "As you planned to lure her to Arizona," he said. "I think we both knew there was only one way out of this situation, Mr. Reese."
He pushed himself slowly to his feet. John stood up with him. Harold's face looked remote, his mouth thin and unsmiling. He was closed off, stiff, a wall, and John wanted to hit him, to—to beat the shit out of him, hurt him, Harold had—Harold had—
He reached out and grabbed a fistful of Harold's shirt and jerked him close, into his arms, and kissed him; kissed him again and again, desperately, until Harold started shaking, shaking so hard John had to take the gun out of his hand; there were tears sliding down Harold's face, salt on John's tongue. John broke off, his forehead pressed against Harold's, breathed twice. He kissed Harold again, hard and angrily, then pushed him back. "Get inside and open the trunk."
John shoved the gun in the back of his pants, then bent down and heaved Root's body over his shoulder. John carried her around to the trunk and dumped her inside with the gun, slammed the lid, and went back to the house.
It took him two minutes to climb back inside the window; he heard the cops downstairs as he pulled himself in through the window. "Jesus," the gangly guy was saying, probably talking into a radio, "Jesus Christ, oh my sweet God, Nancy, we need a—we need all the buses down here, Jesus. Jesus." The other cop was vomiting, it sounded like.
The dumbwaiter platform had been hauled a short way down, to the relative safety between the floors. Leila was lying on it asleep in her car seat with Glasses in her arms and a Kevlar vest tucked around her; there was a piece of paper pinned onto it. John lifted her out. It was a business card for an attorney in New York. She was snoring a little, drooling. John clenched his jaw. What if—but Harold would have thought of that. Harold had thought of everything.
"What would have happened if we'd both been killed?" John said tightly as he strapped her into the back seat of the car. Harold had started the engine, but he hadn't turned on the lights. Bear was lying on the floor; his ears swiveled between them anxiously at the edge in John's voice.
"Mrs. James would have received a message in the morning," Harold said. "It's on a deadman switch." He pulled out slowly and rolled away down the road barely touching the gas until they were three blocks away. Ten minutes later he was on the highway, the route they'd agreed on, driving.
"Take the exit," John said, when the first rest area came up ten minutes later. He had his hands clenched on his thighs. He didn't know what he was going to do, what he wanted to do. When Harold pulled off, John opened the door and walked away from the car into the middle of the empty parking lot. Harold got out a moment later and followed him. He stopped a few feet away.
"You knew all along," John said. "You knew she'd guess the plan and be at the escape point."
"She was—very good at finding flaws," Harold said.
"You found this one first," John said. "And you didn't tell me."
Harold made a small movement. "The flaw wasn't the escape route. It wasn't any particular aspect of your plan. Changing it wouldn't have eliminated the danger."
"Then what was it?" John said, wheeling on him. "What was the flaw, Harold, that you couldn't tell me about?"
"That you love us, of course," Harold said.
John stared at him.
"She knew nothing specific about our plans. She simply looked behind you, confident that you would place yourself between us and danger." Harold paused. "I think you know you would never have agreed to any arrangement that did otherwise."
"Harold," John said, and stopped. He did know. He couldn't have done anything else.
"And she would never—she would never have allowed you to get near her; you're too dangerous. It was—the only opportunity was—I had to be the one to—"
Harold's voice was rising, fracturing, and anger was running out of John like water. He crossed the distance Harold had left between them. Harold was shivering, hollow. He tipped his head forward against John's chest and huddled in against him, inside his arms. John drew him close, stroked his head. "Yes," he said, sorry and glad at the same time, letting himself breathe at last; letting himself believe they were safe. "You had to. You love us, too, Harold; you had to."
The rental site had called the house a chateau, which was pushing it, but the backyard really was an orchard: forty fruit trees in neatly pruned rows, a couple of neighborhood ponies looking over the fence and trying to steal unripe apples, and boxes overflowing with strawberries in the June warmth. And the deck seating wasn't so much a chair as a king-size bed that had grown several arms and legs and seat backs.
John hadn't completely let go of the itch at the back of his skull: being away from the city, jet lag, and the faint tension lingering after going through Customs at the airport. The sun was gently baking him, though, and Harold was stretched out next to him, with Leila's voice high and gleeful in the near distance.
"It's really extraordinary how much she's grown," Harold said half-wistfully as she went by yelling, "Rarrr, I'm a zombie!" while she chased a yelping Bear with red-stained hands and mouth: she'd been cramming in strawberries with both fists. "Did I tell you, Veda says she's already beginning to read? I've ordered some introductory texts—"
"I hope that's not one of them," John said, eyeing the six-inch-thick tome on Harold's lap. It was in French.
"No," Harold said, dignified, "although I did think she might enjoy having me read her some Proust, as long as we're here—"
"Sounds great for naptime," John said, and gave Harold a bland, innocent smile. Harold hmphed and cracked the book open, pointedly ignoring him. John put his hands behind his head. It was just warm enough, perfect; the air was sweet. He stretched and felt his spine crackle satisfyingly all along its length, muscles unwinding one by one.
He was starting to let himself believe he got to have this. Harold had done a lot of talking about "maintaining the continuity of a significant relationship in Leila's life," but John still hadn't entirely believed that Veda wouldn't change her mind about letting them take Leila on vacation at the last second. Then he'd come in the front door: Leila had yelled, "Bye Granma! Bye Granpa!" and sailed out the door to the waiting car with her tiny roller bag bumping behind her, and Veda had smiled and kissed him on the cheek and said to have a good time.
It still hadn't seemed real, but he'd woken up this morning in a house in France next to Harold with sun coming in, no one trying to kill him, and thirty-two pounds of three-year-old landing squarely on his stomach, yelling, "Daddy! Papa! Time for pancakes!" which was a substantial confirmation that yeah, this was really happening.
John sat up as Leila came trotting over and reached up for help getting onto the deck chair, leaving a huge crimson handprint on his pajama pants. "Papa, do you want a strawberry?" she said, waving her gory hand in Harold's direction.
Harold hurriedly said, "I'm afraid I wouldn't like any strawberries right now, thank you, Leila," leaning back.
"Daddy, do you like strawberries?" she said to John, appealing. "They are so yummy!"
"Sure," John said, and opened his mouth to let her pick several out of her squashy fistful to put into his mouth. They were pretty amazing, once he'd picked the leaves out of his mouth.
"I'll get you more strawberries!" she said, crammed the rest of her handful into her mouth, and slid off the chair to go dashing across the field again.
"We should have a conversation with Veda about that," Harold said, watching her go.
"Yeah," John said. Veda had told Leila she was going on a trip with Uncle Harold and Uncle John, friends of the family, but Leila hadn't bought it, and John wasn't going to be correcting her. He'd understood his dad being away on tours of duty. He was pretty sure the job, the numbers, would make more sense to her when she got old enough to understand than Adnan Petrosian pathetically hiding from her like she was dirty laundry. "What kinds of rights does Petrosian have in the settlement contract?"
"Supervised visitation rights to start, should he choose to exercise them," Harold said. "He hasn't."
John nodded, angry, though considering the guy was a lying adulterer who treated his gay son like an embarrassment, seduced a girl young enough to be his daughter, and pushed her to give away their kid, he wasn't all that surprised.
"That could, however, be dealt with." Harold gave a small shrug. "He never actually insisted on a paternity test during the settlement. It would be reasonably easy to arrange results showing one of us was in fact the biological father."
"Why, Harold," John said, "what a fantastic idea."
"I'm afraid it's somewhat unscrupulous," Harold said, "but it would simplify the situation. It would invalidate the settlement, of course, but money is not an issue: and it would facilitate my arranging a more comprehensive trust fund in Leila's name. Assuming that we can persuade Sammy and Veda to agree."
John wasn't sure what sounded better, Petrosian's name off, or his and Harold's name on, but either way he liked it.
"I wouldn't propose changing the actual custodial arrangement immediately, of course," Harold went on, though, and John stared at him. "Naturally they would refuse, and in any case we're hardly in a position to take on that responsibility at present. But given Sammy and Veda's ages, and the typical physical demands of our cases, it seems to me that there will be an intersection of interests in approximately five to ten years' time..."
He trailed off, noticing John staring helplessly at him. Harold blinked. "We can't keep going into the field forever, John."
John looked around—at Leila, at the house, at everything that had only just started to seem real when he'd known it couldn't last, when it had been a stolen handful of days. "And then we'll—?" He stopped; he couldn't finish the sentence. Harold wasn't wrong. John knew he was already on the downward slope: muscle tone, reflexes, recovery time, strength, energy, all of it eroding little by little. Sooner or later, Harold would have to recruit new operatives to keep the list covered.
He'd just never—that ended with him dead; not in a country house, married, with a daughter; not with happily ever after. But then—he put his hand out, instead of speaking, and Harold took it and gripped it in his own—Harold had rewritten his story before now, more than once.