Actions

Work Header

Code Indigo

Work Text:

02.21.2013 — 21.17

 

The address belonged to James Mercer, ex-Marine (dishonorable discharge), member of the militia movement, recent recipient of a sizable chunk of cash and now a resident of Queens, New York.

Shaw wasn’t sure how this would play out—she’d learned not to assume too much about the numbers—but she could see why the the federal government was taking an interest. Mercer hit a few of her personal buttons, come to that. If things went down a path that ended with her bullet in his body—well, it wasn’t like she’d lose any sleep over it.

She heard the chirp as Mercer locked his car, then peered out into the street to see him walking away. She took another minute to track the movement in and around his apartment building before hitting her earpiece. “He’s on the move. I’m going in.”

The street was clear. Shaw raised her gun and kept close to the building for cover, her shoulder almost brushing brick as she moved toward the door. She stopped short when she saw the men in heavy black jackets and gas masks.

“We’ve got trouble.”

“What sort of trouble?”

“The armed kind,” she hissed, pulling back into the shadows to get her bearings. “At least four of them, probably more. Wetwork teams.”

“You think they’re government?” The voice in her ear was surprised but still focused. Shaw could hear the tapping of his keyboard, and she knew he had her back. Reliable tech was worth its weight in jacketed lead. Not that she’d ever tell him so.

“Can you access Mercer’s computer?”

“I’m already in. It’s as though he didn’t even try to secure it. He has emails from ex-military contacts, who—wait, this isn’t right—”

She’d noticed. He was saying something else about the computer, but she’d made up her mind.

The men were certainly wearing vests under those jackets, but that wasn’t a problem. She took two of them out at the knees. Their earpieces were bigger and more obtrusive than hers, and she took a moment to look down her nose at the Feds before she snatched one off the guy at her feet and stuck it in her other ear, shoved the radio into her belt. She darted for the open doorway.

One of them met her there. He was clearly expecting someone taller and didn’t know how to adjust to her speed and center of gravity. She didn’t have much time, though, and half her attention was on everything going on upstairs. There was a volley of machine gun fire from above, then an answering spurt from an MP5. She didn’t flinch at that. It was the stun grenade she wasn’t expecting. Before she could control the reflexive jerk of her head her opponent had landed an elbow on her solar plexus and sent her flying into the wall.

The air went straight out of her lungs. Audibly, if the panic issuing from her earpiece was any indication. She took back what she’d been thinking about tech. Mother hens, the lot of them. She felt a pang of bittersweet nostalgia right behind the bruise to her abdomen.

“I’m fine,” she growled, because she was—the man she’d been fighting had written her off and was headed upstairs to join the rest of the party. The other earpiece, the one she’d stolen, told her they were sending backup. Shaw sucked in her breath and straightened. “There’s at least one more team. I’ve got to show myself if this is going to work.”

“If they see you—if you’re compromised—”

Shaw got why he was worried; this had been a tricky situation to begin with, and now she was about to advertise their existence to exactly the wrong people. Someone had to prioritize, though, and when she was in the field those snap decisions were all hers. “Too bad. You got me the numbers,” she said. “Now let me do my job.”

“And if our numbers decide you’re a threat?”

“They won’t. I got a good look at the guy earlier today. I know his type.” The ISA didn’t breed them that way, but she’d met hundreds like him in the Marines, and she was willing to bet he’d be reluctant to hurt a woman even if she was armed to the teeth. His partner might be a different matter, but she just needed one of them on her side to make them both listen.

It was too quiet; she could feel the situation unraveling upstairs, and she didn’t think she was going to like what she found when she got there. She heard a sudden series of grunts and the thwack of flesh against fabric. It was as good a cover as she was going to get, so she moved up to the next floor and took out the man who’d hit her before he even saw her coming.

She’d gotten a glimpse around the corner before he dropped, so she had some idea what she’d see behind him. Of their two numbers, at least one was alive. She put her hands up and stepped into full view. “Reese,” she said, “listen. I’m here to—”

He shot her square in the chest.

She landed flat on her back at the edge of consciousness. She couldn’t move at first and knew better than to try. Instead she listened to Reese make a noisy exit over the familiar squawk of Finch’s voice in her ear, demanding to know if she was all right.

Well, okay. She wouldn’t be making that mistake again.

 

 

02.22.2013 — 01.32

 

She’d never get over the look on Finch’s face when he had to inspect her injuries. He was always horrified at the near miss and a little embarrassed at taking the liberty of physical contact, but under it all he was mostly just bewildered. They’d been at this for a year and a half, and she was pretty sure a part of him still didn’t believe guns existed in real life.

“You can say it if you want to,” she said.

“Hmm?” He stopped peeling her out of the vest and cocked his whole upper body at her. He was having a little trouble with the zipper, which was dented and not quite working right. Kind of like her ribcage. She’d have helped, but she was having some range of motion issues.

She jerked her chin down. “You were right about the vest.” She hated wearing them—they didn’t come standard in her size, so when she was with the Marines and the ISA her choice had usually been between wearing something awkward and too ill-fitting to do much good anyway and doing without. She’d been used to doing without.

Finch had them custom-made. Of course. She’d never asked about his supplier, but they did come in handy on numbers like this one.

“I take no pleasure in the fact that you’ve been shot, Ms. Shaw.”

“C’mon,” she said, hissing under her breath as he finally unzipped her and started easing the kevlar over her shoulders. Bear’s ears twitched from his position at their feet; he knew when his people were in pain. “You take a little. I can always tell when you’re thinking ‘I told you so.’ ”

He pursed his lips. “I merely thought, under the circumstances, we’d be wise to take some extra precautions. And as you see—”

“Told you so,” she said helpfully. The vest came off. He folded it neatly, as though it mattered. She wouldn’t be wearing this one again. She rolled her shoulders experimentally and winced, then prodded at her ribcage. She inhaled until she was satisfied that her breathing wasn’t restricted. Finch was watching her, worry settled at the corners of his mouth; best if she gave him something to do. “I don’t think he broke anything. I should stretch it out, though, or I won’t be able to move tomorrow. Get me an ice pack?”

She sank into a chair and let the cold seep through her ribs. When she could feel them starting to numb, she said, “Stanton’s dead.”

She knew this look, too. It was the one he got whenever they lost someone. “You’re certain?”

“I didn’t exactly stop to take vital signs, but I know a corpse when I see one.” She looked up at Stanton’s and Reese’s photographs taped to the wall. Hers was a formal headshot from Annapolis, his a casual, smiling candid taken in the Green Beret’s uniform. “Anyway, do you think he’s the type to leave his partner behind?”

He moved to the computer, and she counted her distraction a success. “I don’t believe Agent Reese is, not judging by the files I’ve decrypted so far.”

She caught the slight stress on Reese’s name. “He’s not, but—?”

“I want to show you something. There wasn’t time before.” He pulled a still up on the monitor and angled it toward her, then zoomed in and hit a few keys to clear the picture. John Reese frowned out at her, and behind him—

“Is that Stanton in the background? When was that taken?”

“Tonight, just seconds before the others opened fire. I accessed the camera on Mercer’s computer while I was looking at his emails, but the video cut out soon after. I imagine a stray bullet was responsible.”

“But whose bullet?” She leaned forward to see better and stifled a grunt of pain. Stanton had her gun out, but she wasn’t covering the door. She was aiming at her partner. “She turned on him.”

“Evidently.”

“Any idea why?”

“Well,” he said, “if I knew that, our next move would be much easier to determine. There was nothing in their files to indicate who might have subverted Agent Stanton.”

“Who says anyone did? We’ve got pretty convincing evidence the CIA wanted Reese dead.”

He sat back in his chair, considering. “And Stanton with him, or they’d have chosen a less indiscriminate method of assassination. Would they have ordered her to shoot her partner when they were planning to kill both of them?”

“Yes.”

He looked the question at her. She knew he trusted her judgment, so she didn’t take offense, and she also knew it wasn’t idle curiosity; Cole had been the same way. I’m a ‘why’ person, Shaw, he’d said back when they were learning how to work together. Tell me what to do and I can do it. Tell me why and I’ll do it the next time without being asked. Or in Finch’s case, tell him why and he’d come up with a better plan.

“Call it an insurance policy,” she explained. “The Feds like their contingencies. And I saw Reese in action—he and Stanton are top operatives. If they’d both been alive and working together, the CIA would have lost more than a couple of teams tonight.”

“I suppose that bodes well for Agent Reese’s survival in the short term,” Finch said, “but they’ll find him eventually, and we can’t help him if he’s determined to evade us as well.”

“So we’ve decided he’s the victim here and not the perpetrator?”

“For the moment. There’s still considerable potential for collateral damage.”

“Then what is our next move?”

“Assuming we can locate Agent Reese, and assuming he’s amenable, I’ll speak to him in person.”

“Like fuck you will,” she said without thought. Finch in the field she could deal with, though things were much easier when she knew he was holed up in his book cave; Finch in the same room with a trained, desperate operative was not part of any mission parameters she was willing to accept. “It’s bad math, Finch. I can’t divide my attention between protecting you and dealing with him.”

“I don’t think that will be necessary.” He sounded much too certain of himself. “Agent Reese is unlikely to see me as a physical threat, and I’m counting on you to cultivate some degree of goodwill. He won’t be willing to meet me otherwise.”

“Right,” she said, “unless he thinks we’re working for the people trying to kill him and just wants to get close enough to snap your neck. You were the one who told me to take extra precautions, remember.”

“We had less information then. In any case, you’ll be the one finding and retrieving him. I’d never cheat you of your share of the physical danger.”

His tone was light, bantering; she wasn’t having any of it. “Dangerous to you and dangerous to me are two different things.”

“Not from where I’m sitting, Ms. Shaw.”

“That’s sweet,” she said flatly. “Really, Harold, I’m touched. It’s also stupid.”

“I know how you must feel about the idea—“

“Obviously not, since you still think there’s a chance in hell this is going to happen.”

“Then what do you suggest?” he asked. “Do you really suppose we can bring this matter to a satisfactory conclusion if Agent Reese isn’t willing to work with us? I think some measure of trust is in order. On both sides.”

Damn him for having a point. “Not ‘Agent’, ” she said. “He’s been burned. He won’t want to hear it.”

He didn’t say I suppose you’d know, for which she might have been grateful if she’d been in the habit of gratitude. Instead he said, “I’ll bear that in mind when I speak to him. Of course, all of this supposes we can find him again in the first place. Where do you suggest we start?”

She glared a bit. That worked pretty well on most people who’d seen what she could do with a plastic spoon and a ballpoint pen, but then Finch had never been most people. She reached for the jacket she’d dropped in a heap on her way in, digging the radio out of one pocket and the earpiece out of another. “Brought you a present.”

“Why, Sameen, you shouldn’t have,” he murmured, his eyes lighting up.

“Can you do anything with it?”

He turned them over in his hands, then popped the back of the radio. “These are meant to be secure and untraceable.”

“Yeah,” she said. “That’s what I thought.”

 

 

02.22.2013 — 06.42

 

She spent what remained of the night on a cot they’d set up in a back room. She woke a few hours later to find that her ribs hurt like hell, but in the good kind of way, and that Finch was still bent over his keyboard, shirtwaist sticking out above his belt like rumpled feathers. Bear thumped his tail twice in greeting. “Good morning, Ms. Shaw,” Finch said without looking up.

“Did you sleep there?”

“No,” he said, “but I did gain access to the rest of Stanton’s and Reese’s files. They gave me much less trouble than yours ever did; the CIA ought to keep more of its records in hard form, if it can’t be bothered with better security.”

She didn’t really care about the CIA’s filing system. “So was it interesting reading?”

“Exceedingly. I also made significant headway with this.” He lifted the radio. A rectangular bulge was stuck to one end with a length of electrical tape, and a USB cable connected the whole lot to a laptop. “I believe I’ll have access to their communications before long. That should allow us to monitor the Agency’s progress in tracking Mr. Reese, which may keep us several steps behind him but will at least give us warning of another attempt on his life.”

“Any chance of getting us a step or two ahead of him?”

“Like I said, the files were quite interesting.” A few keystrokes brought a collage of scanned documents up on his screens. “Two years ago Reese and Stanton were dispatched to San Jose to execute a nuclear engineer named Daniel Aquino. According to the mission report, they were told Aquino had been selling nuclear secrets to Hezbollah.”

“But he wasn’t.”

“Not according to this.”

He expanded a bank statement so she could see the items he’d highlighted. Shaw resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “Getting bored, Finch.”

“Ah, yes. I’ll spare you the details. The payment Aquino received for his alleged treason came not from any foreign organization but from our own government. Your former employers, to be precise.” He expanded another window with what she could only describe as a flourish. “The funds came out of the budget for a project codenamed Northern Lights.”

“Is that supposed to mean something to me?”

“It should. You were a part of it, Ms. Shaw, even if you were never aware of the project as such. Northern Lights is the ISA’s designation for the Machine.”

She had to unclench her jaw before she could respond. “Aquino was killed because he knew about the Machine. Reese and Stanton—”

“I haven’t uncovered anything to indicate they got that far, but one of them was headed in that direction. I didn’t discover this paper trail myself. These documents were all taken from the personal hard drive of a CIA analyst named Veronica Sinclair, and these—” A few more windows flashed across the monitors. “These appear to be her incoming phone records. You’ll note extended calls from two unrelated numbers I’ve traced to burner phones—”

“Finch.”

“The first signal came from Prague and the second from São Paolo. They coincide with missions Reese and Stanton took to those locations.”

“All right,” Shaw said. She’d have been nearer the end of her patience if she hadn’t known this was going somewhere useful. “How does that help us find Reese?”

“Last night, Veronica Sinclair purchased round-trip tickets from Washington to New York. Her outbound flight boards in….” He made a show of glancing at the clock. “Twenty minutes.” He handed her a boarding pass still warm from the printer and an ID with her Warren alias. “We’re about to hit rush hour, Ms. Shaw. I suggest you get moving.”

 

 

02.22.2013 — 07.14

 

The files were, like Finch had said, interesting. Shaw finished scrolling through the sections he’d forwarded to her phone and deleted them.

Her taxi had a Top 40 station cranked up well past a polite volume. She hit her earpiece, confident both that she wouldn’t be overheard and that Finch would be wincing at the driver’s taste in music.

“How’s it coming with that radio?”

“They’ve changed protocols and blacklisted this unit. I’m attempting to reverse the process. The encryption is rather clever, but I estimate I’ll have full access to their channels in another hour or so.”

“That’s right, talk dirty to me, Harold,” she said, just to make him twitch. Pity she couldn’t see it.

His voice went a shade dryer. “In the meantime we’ll have to operate on the assumption they’re chasing the same lead as we are. Ms. Sinclair’s flight will be landing at LaGuardia shortly, but I've taken the liberty of adjusting the airline’s records so she’ll appear to be on a later flight into JFK. If, as I suspect, the CIA plans to tail her from the airport and intercept her rendezvous with Mr. Reese, this should delay them.”

“And what happens when they realize someone’s tampered with the records? You want the CIA looking for a hacker with an interest in the Machine?”

“That would hardly be a desirable outcome. No, I believe I’ve covered my tracks.” He sounded smug. Sometimes she wondered what he’d do without her on the other end of the line to brag to. “Airline reservation systems are notoriously outdated and unreliable. I’ve altered a number of other bookings as well.”

“Finch, shutting down air travel on the eastern seaboard is probably going a bit far.”

“Why, were you planning on flying today?” he asked. Yes, definitely smug.

She glanced down at her printed itinerary to Aspen. “Here you had me looking forward to some skiing.”

“Sorry to disappoint you. Ms. Sinclair didn’t check any items, so you can only be certain to catch her if you’re waiting at her gate. Her flight is running precisely on time, so you have ninety minutes to get through security. The lines are running slow. I suggest you start at Terminal D and walk to her concourse. And if I might remind you, Ms. Shaw, the TSA does tend to frown on firearms, so if you would—”

He couldn’t see her, so she let her mouth curl at one side. “I’ll play nice. But what happens when I—”

“Not to worry; there shouldn’t be any red flags sent up when you fail to board, especially as you won’t be checking bags. Your flight will be delayed for several hours due to the booking errors, so they’ll assume you simply gave up and left.”

“One of these days I’m going to stump you, Finch.”

“I like to think I’ve accounted for all contingencies.”

Except he hadn’t. Shaw got to the gate just as Sinclair’s flight landed and fell into step a safe distance behind her, just a short, slender woman nobody would find threatening. And that was the irony, wasn’t it, because Shaw of all people should have known better. She had her eye out for the usual government types: bland, suited, well-built, something like Reese. She skipped right over a deadly familiar face just because of the body it was attached to.

She realized her mistake right about when she toppled sideways through a door marked RESTRICTED, her arms and legs flopping uselessly and a shooting pain in her neck. (How had the woman gotten a taser through security?)

“Sam,” said Root, smiling down at her. “How nice to see you again.”

She couldn’t speak, though she’d probably just have been swearing anyway. Finch had gone silent in her ear.

Root turned her over so her face was mashed against scuffed tile, then proceeded to pull her arms behind her back and tighten a zip-tie about her wrists. “I should probably just kill you,” she said benevolently, like a teacher to her slow but treasured student. “I don’t have much time, even though Harold was good enough to slow down the CIA for me. That was Harold, wasn’t it? He has such a distinctive flair.”

“Come anywhere near him—” She’d gotten her voice back, but it was hard to deliver a businesslike threat to the floor.

“Oh, relax.” Root jerked another zip-tie around her ankles. “He can’t help me right now. And you’re in luck, too, because bodies found in airports get all sorts of attention, and none of us wants that, so it looks like you get to live. Much better if you disappear on your own.”

“Might be difficult,” Shaw said into the tile.

“I have every faith in you, Sam. Now if you’ll excuse me, I should catch up to Veronica. Maybe we can share a cab to the hotel.” She leaned down, lips brushing Shaw’s hair, and whispered into her earpiece, “See you soon.” She pressed a kiss to Shaw’s cheek and was gone.

“Ms. Shaw?” Finch’s voice, strained with worry.

Feeling prickled back into her extremities. She rolled onto her side. “Tell me you’re in a secure location.”

“Are you—“

“Finch.”

“Yes,” he said, “and I’m not alone.” She could hear Bear whining and anxious in the background. “You heard what she said; she’s not interested in me. Are you all right?”

“Fine. It’ll take me a few minutes to get out of this.”

“You might want to cut that down if you can.”

“Why’s that?”

He said, reluctantly, “She was threatening to kill you, and I didn’t think I had time to call in the usual reinforcements.”

He’d panicked, in other words. “So what did you do?”

“Notified airport security of an incident near your location. I suggest you get out of there as quickly as possible.”

She turned the response she wanted to give him into a grunt as she worked her arms down and under her legs. Goddammit, this was not going to do anything pleasant to her ribs.

Fifteen minutes later, she slid behind the wheel of the first car she’d seen in the lot. “Talk to me.”

“No sign of either Ms. Groves or Ms. Sinclair.” He didn’t sound too rattled, at least. “I can track them down, but not quickly enough.”

“Tell me you have a plan.”

“As much as I strive for self-sufficiency, I’ve learned there are occasions when outsourcing is the better part of valor. I’ve just managed to patch into the CIA’s frequency.”

“What do they know?”

“Very little, so far. They still expect Sinclair on the later flight. Nor have they had much luck in finding Mr. Reese. On the other hand, they do have more people on the ground, so they may turn him up before we do.”

“Bad luck for him.”

“I’ll update you with the location of each of their teams as they check in. I’m counting on you to keep close on their heels, Ms. Shaw.”

“There’s only one of me, Finch. CIA thugs are a dime a dozen.”

“If only they were all we had to worry about.”

She’d recovered her stash of weapons and was strapping them back in place as she drove. She flexed her ankle and felt her backup piece sitting cool and slim against her calf. “If wishes were AK-47s. I’ll be ready for Root.”

“Unfortunately, I was referring to yet another complication. One thing the CIA does know is that they aren’t the only government agency interested in Mr. Reese. It appears your former employers have been apprised of the situation.”

“Great,” she said, and dropped her foot on the gas pedal. “The only thing we were missing was an inter-agency turf war.”

“The ISA was never terribly happy about sharing the numbers, in part because the people with whom they had to share them were understandably curious about the source of the information. If Reese and Stanton came too close to the Machine and the ISA became aware of it, they wouldn’t have hesitated to step in and address the problem. Even if the CIA had objections.”

“Who did they send?”

“Unfortunately, the ISA is less accommodating about exposing their frequencies, so I haven’t been able to establish that quite yet.”

Reese and Stanton had been good. Nearly as good as Shaw was, which she could admit because she was confident, not delusional. Her old agency wouldn’t be taking chances. “Okay,” she said, “two minutes ago your plan was shit, but it was better than nothing.”

“And now?”

“Now it’s worse than nothing. Forget the CIA, I have another call to make.”

She punched in the number from memory, already planning to switch phones and destroy this one as soon as she got the chance. It rang twice before connecting. “Hey, Wilson,” she said before he could get a word in edgewise. “I gotta admit, I’m a little surprised you still answer this number.”

“Shaw,” said her ex-handler. “I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to hear your dulcet tones.”

“Have you started the trace on my phone yet?”

“How stupid do you think I am?”

“I’d tell you, but whoever you’ve got running the trace is probably a lot brighter, so we don’t have the time. I want a meeting with Hersh.”

“Why would you want that?”

“You haven't heard?” she asked, unspeakably pleased by this. “You’re out of the loop. Just get him the message. Four o’clock, Lexington and 77th.”

“What makes you think he’s in New York?”

“I know something you don’t know,” she said. “Good talking to you, Wilson. It’s just like old times.” She hung up.

“Are you sure that was wise?” Finch asked.

“Hersh probably won’t show, but he’ll take a couple of teams off Reese and send them instead.”

“I repeat, are you sure—”

“Pay attention, Harold. I’m not going to show, either.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to add to our radio collection.”

Hersh’s teams showed up well ahead of schedule to canvas the intersection, but she beat them to it by a good half hour. Shaw wasn’t even particularly impressed by their attempts to blend in. Either ISA hiring standards had gone downhill since she’d been let go, or they didn’t have anyone on her level available on such short notice. They were probably all in deep cover in Algiers, or chatting up arms dealers in Bangkok, or maybe—

“Ever been to Istanbul, Finch?”

“I can’t say that I’ve had the pleasure, no.”

“I shot a guy in the Spice Bazaar once,” she said. “Smelled like mint and nytroglycerin. Then Cole got us some kokoreç—seasoned sheep’s intestines on a roll, you’d love it—and we had lunch on the Bosphorus—”

“As fascinating as this is, could you perhaps rein in your nostalgia and focus on the matter at hand?”

“C’mon, Finch. I never get to catch up with old friends.”

“You’re in a better mood than I expected.”

“Well,” she said, walking up behind a pair of men trying hard to look more like Wall Street types than government assassins, “I have this feeling things are about to start going our way.”

“Ms. Shaw? Are you—oh.”

She tuned him out for a bit.

“Are you all right?” he tried again a moment later.

“Better than.” She shook out her hand. It tingled with the aftershocks of a satisfying punch.

“Did you get what you came for?”

Her other hand was busy with a borrowed earpiece. “Gimme a minute to find out.”

It was twenty minutes, actually, before Hersh’s voice came over the line to order his men off the street. They’d tracked Sinclair to the Suffolk Hotel, and she’d have to hurry to get there before they did.

She didn’t, in the end; she missed Root entirely but arrived in time to watch Reese shoot his way through most of Hersh’s people while zip-tied to a bed with a vial sticking out of his neck. The syringe wasn’t depressed, which was good—Finch’s contingencies didn’t include carrying lidocaine in her back pocket. Usually.

She took care of the last guy herself just to save Reese the trouble. Call it her good deed for the day.

He’d wrenched one corner of the headboard apart to get his hand free. His legs and other arm were stretched out and tied down, and a chunk of splintered wood dangled hilariously from his right wrist, but he didn’t hesitate to level his gun at her chest. His eyes widened a bit as he recognized her, and he shifted his aim to her forehead. Man learned quickly, she’d give him that.

She made a show of raising her hands. “Last night was fun and all, but do yourself a favor and don’t shoot me this time.”

“And why would that be doing myself a favor?” She’d never heard him speak before. His voice was soft, deadly. It was a voice that told you if you were close enough to hear him, it was already too late.

“Well,” she said, “there’s that.” She gestured toward the syringe. He didn’t so much as blink, but she was watching the telltale rustle of the suit as his muscles tensed around the needle. “You ever inject anyone with aconitine, Reese?”

He looked at her calmly. Too calmly—that was the look of a man who was seriously considering the merits of convulsions and respiratory paralysis over his other options. “Have you?”

“You show me yours, I show you mine,” she said. “Oh, wait, I’ve already read your file. Your partner’s, too.”

That got to him. She saw a little shiver behind those dead eyes. “Who are you?”

Shaw gave him a smile that showed all her teeth. “I help people.”

“And sometimes poison them.”

“That was a phase,” she said. “You know how it is.” She dropped her voice like he had, low and intimate. “I grew out of it, Reese. Want me to tell you how?”

Now there was a flicker of something else behind his eyes, like he knew what she was going to offer him. She thought for a second he might shoot her just for the suggestion, but after a few beats he lowered his gun.

He held still as she leaned over to draw the needle out of him. It didn’t even leave a mark. “Lucky bastard,” she said. He turned his head to stare at her. She flicked a knife out from under the cuff of her jacket and reached for his wrist. “Let’s move. I’ve got a friend who wants to meet you.”

 

 

02.22.2013 — 18.52

 

Finch was waiting when they arrived. The room was lit dramatically, and the view behind him was magnificent. It was one of Harold Crane’s vacant properties; one of Crane’s suits, too, and the quietly confident demeanor of someone who wielded real power along with his billions. Shaw was impressed despite herself. She wondered if Reese recognized armor when he saw it.

She stopped near the door and let Reese walk past her, as instructed. She kept her stance relaxed and her face expressionless, not that either of them was paying any attention to her. She felt the narrowing distance between the two men like an itch along her spine.

“Mr. Reese,” Finch said, “I’m glad you could join us.”

Reese had stopped a few paces away, out of arm’s reach but still much too close. He might try for a broken neck, but he wouldn’t be expecting the fused vertebrae; she wasn’t sure how much time that would buy her. Maybe enough to get to them, maybe enough to get to her gun, or maybe it wouldn’t make any difference. That was something she should know. She cursed herself for not having thought of it before.

“So you’re the boss?” Reese was saying, soft as ever. He wouldn’t try strangling; he’d know she’d be on him too soon for it to work. Heel of the hand to the nose, maybe, splintering bone like needles up into the brain.

“That’s not how this works.” She should have insisted he give up his gun, but there’d been Finch in her ear telling her to leave it as a gesture of cooperation. At least it wasn’t drawn, but then neither was hers. Also Finch’s idea. She thought she was probably as quick as Reese, but there’d be a delay as she processed him reaching. A fraction of a second would be enough. Even if she got his head or his elbow he’d be firing from point-blank range and might still hit something vital, and anyway she couldn’t guarantee a clean shot with Finch positioned where he was.

Which was the whole point.

“And what is this, exactly? Who are you people?”

With Reese’s build, a full-body tackle would send Finch straight through the window. It’d send Reese plummeting too, of course, but he had to know he wouldn’t leave the room alive if he touched Finch. Shattering the glass would slow them down, maybe enough for her to get across the floor, but even if she got a hand around a cashmere-wrapped ankle she’d go right along with them.

Well, she’d keep that option open.

She absorbed their conversation without paying much attention to it, one of those natural talents Hersh had honed to an instinct. Finch was apologizing for being too late to help Stanton, Reese was pressing him on how they’d gotten the names in the first place, and she filed this away while focusing on the tone of Reese’s voice, the set of his shoulders, and the distance between his right hand and his pocket.

Finch raised his hand, and Shaw tensed. She saw the thin slip of a card between his fingers. Reese might carry a knife, she thought, might manage a quick swipe across the jugular, blood spurting, she’d done it before and she knew just how he’d angle himself to—

“Take it, Mr. Reese.” Finch was saying. “It’s your choice whether to use it.”

They stood outlined against the window, poised on the brink of something, until Reese broke the tableau by stepping away.

“I’d rather work alone.”

She let him get nearly to the door. Then she stepped sideways to put her body between him and Finch before she said, “Stanton shot you.”

Reese stopped.

“You’re favoring your left side,” she said. He didn’t move, didn’t glance toward the wound, did nothing to confirm or deny. “That’s going to slow you down.”

“Thanks for the concern,” he said.

“So did you kill her?” On the other side of the room, Finch had frozen with his lips parted. “Just curious. I didn’t have a chance to check the bullet angles.”

Reese’s face had gone blank. “I don’t think that’s any of your business.”

“Can’t blame a girl for wondering,” she said. “It’s what you said about working alone. You haven’t before, have you? You were with Stanton from the beginning. You even took her lead on most of the missions—until recently. The file said there’s been some tension. Did you tell her you were looking into Aquino? Did she even know why she died?”

“I think we’re done here,” Reese said.

Shaw knew when to play her trump card. “Jessica Arndt.”

“Ms. Shaw,” Finch said.

“She was in your file. She’d been dead for over a year before you found out about it, but the Agency knew. They keep tabs on those things.”

“Ms. Shaw.”

She ignored Finch. “And then you started checking up on old missions. Like Aquino. Were there other jobs that didn’t sit right? Other jobs that made you realize exactly how much good you’d been doing?” She leaned in a little. “Is that how you’ve been punishing yourself for her death? By finding out what you sacrificed her for?”

“Ms. Shaw,” Finch said, a bite to his voice. “That’s quite enough.”

She’d half expected Reese to crack. She wasn’t sure if that was what she’d been hoping for. But his expression had just gone distant as she’d kept pressing him. “They want you dead,” she said. She couldn’t tell if he even heard it. “Masochism’s one way to spend the last few days of your life, I guess. We can offer you a better one. If you want it.”

The files Finch had uncovered hadn’t given her everything, but she was good at reading between the lines. “You were halfway around the world when she died. No way you could’ve gotten there in time. But that’s what we do. We get there in time, when we can. You could help us with that.”

She could almost feel Finch holding his breath. She could feel her own pulse, slow and steady in her neck. From Reese, she got nothing at all—and then he turned and walked away.

Finch waited until the sound of his footsteps had faded. “Was that necessary?”

“Last-ditch effort,” she said, then shrugged. “I tried. Only so much we can do.” She’d said days, but she thought that was probably an overestimate.

“Are you suggesting we sit back and let nature take its course?”

“If by nature you mean Hersh, then sure. The man’s ready to die, Finch.”

“That’s never stopped us before,” he said. His shoulders had slumped a little under Crane’s impeccable tailoring, and his eyes were opened wide behind his glasses. He looked tired. He looked trusting.

He looked like a man who’d offered himself unarmed to an unbalanced and unemployed assassin, and she couldn’t work out how much of that was because of how badly he wanted this number to come out right and how much was because of his faith in her.

Maybe there wasn’t a difference. She sighed and reached into her pocket.

“What’s this?” he asked, taking the phone she’d bought from a kiosk while waiting for Hersh’s men. The screen was lit up with a GPS signal.

“The location of the tracker I slipped on him at the hotel.”

He softened with gratitude. “Sameen.”

“Don’t mention it,” she said.

 

 

02.22.2013 — 21.33

 

A few calls later, everything was in place. Leon had agreed out of terrified fascination, which summarized their relationship neatly. Fusco and Carter were mostly glad they wouldn’t be doing any shooting.

“You showing up for this one?” Carter asked.

“We’ll stop by to pick up the pieces, but I think I’d better keep a low profile.”

“Probably a good idea. As far as the FBI and NYPD know, the Woman in Heels is dead. Let’s keep them thinking that as long as we can.”

God, that was a stupid nickname. Bring stilettos to a shootout once and suddenly nobody would shut up about it. “Right,” Shaw said, “we’ll keep your lines open in case there’s trouble. Make sure he’s in a body bag when you load him in that ambulance, and Leon will handle the rest.”

The plan went off without a hitch. It would’ve made her nervous, but she’d never been superstitious—and besides, they were due.

They met Leon in a cemetery, which had the advantage of being deserted at that hour of the morning as well as being morbidly appropriate (Finch observed).

Shaw was less concerned about the milieu. “I’m going in. Take Bear,” she said, handing Finch the leash. “If Reese comes out of there without me, he’ll know what to do.”

“I sincerely doubt it will come to that. I’m relying on you to convince him to accept our offer.”

“What makes you think it’ll go any different the second time around?” she asked, chafing her hands to keep her trigger finger from going stiff.

“When you brought up Jessica Arndt, you called it a last-ditch effort. I don’t think that was strictly true. I think Mr. Reese needs to see the personal element.”

“She’s as personal as he gets. It didn’t work.”

He was watching the ambulance and didn’t look at her. “You misunderstand me. The CIA has engaged in a relentless campaign to dehumanize Mr. Reese. He needs to know we won’t do the same. We need to extend him empathy, and I believe you are uniquely capable of doing so.”

“You’ve known me long enough to have figured out I don’t do empathy.”

“I need you to try.”

“What I don’t get,” she said, her voice hard, “is why this matters so goddamn much to you.”

“You’ve read his file,” Finch said. “What they did—they took a good man, a man who believed in something and was willing to do terrible things because of that belief, and they twisted him until all he could do was keep doing those things just because they asked.”

“Yeah, Finch. That’s how it goes.”

“Sam,” he said quietly, “please do this for me.”

“Well,” she said. “Just because you asked.”

He flinched.

Shaw drew her sidearm and went in. Leon had thoughtfully opened the body bag, probably to give that second dose of demerol, and Reese lay still with his arms at his sides. He looked relaxed. She felt a quick stab of envy. She ignored it and patted him down, irritated but not surprised to find that Leon had missed a handgun.

She sat down and waited for the dead to rise.

It got boring pretty quick, but she’d been on longer stakeouts, so she stayed alert and didn’t startle when he gasped and snapped his eyes open. It took them a few seconds to settle on her, and then he blinked before refocusing on the gun. Leon might have gone overboard with the sedative. Shaw approved.

“Wakey wakey,” she said.

He sat up slowly. She wasn’t certain how much of the confusion was feigned, but she was confident she could get off at least a couple of shots before he could touch her.

On the other hand, she was supposed to be building trust.

“Do we still need this?” She waggled the gun back and forth. He didn’t say anything. She left the safety off but very deliberately set it down beside her, watching for his reaction.

He was looking around him, taking in the medical equipment and the bag still wrapped around his legs. “I thought you specialized in getting there on time.”

“We do. Exactly on time. They wanted you dead, and now you are. You’re welcome, by the way. You could leave now if you want. Keep your head down and you might make it on your own.”

“I take it you’re here to offer me an alternative. I thought we were done.”

“And here I thought you were playing hard to get.”

“No. We’re done.”

The man had no sense of humor. She wondered if the CIA had beaten it out of him or if it came naturally. “Your lips say no, but the fact that you haven’t tried for the gun yet says you’re ready to be convinced.”

He unzipped the bag and kicked it off. “Not interested.”

“Look,” she said, “I’m not sure what it is you need to hear. If it was up to me, we’d have walked away after the hotel. But Finch seems to care, so I’ll tell you what did it for me. My partner died a while back.”

He did look at her then, a quick, noncommittal flicker of his eyes.

“It was on a mission. We’d been sent to a remote location to retrieve something critical to our employers. It wasn’t even a difficult mission—quiet, almost.” They’d had a lot of time to talk in Ordos. Just enough for Cole to tell her things she couldn’t unhear, things she should have seen on her own; not quite enough for her to process them. She’d never have the chance now. “We found what we were looking for and requested extraction as instructed. Instead of a retrieval team, they sent an F22. I made it out. He didn’t.”

She had to admit, he did impassive well. “Did they get him to shoot you, too?”

The idea of Cole pulling a gun on her—she nearly laughed. “No,” she said. “They didn’t. You get to win the pity party if that’s all you want.”

“And if that’s not what I want?”

“Then shut up and listen. I came back to New York as soon as I could. I had things to take care of.” For things, read people; two people who hadn’t made any of the choices she had but lost their son all the same. “I was angry. Spent a while looking for revenge.”

“Did you find it?”

“Turned out I didn’t need it,” she said, and it was almost true, because even if she still had no idea what the fuck had been on that laptop that anyone thought it was worth Cole’s life it had been months since she woke from dreams of putting a bullet in Wilson’s forehead. “I found Finch. Or he found me. See, John, I’m not a very nice person.”

“You don’t say.” Takes one to know one, she thought.

“I went to med school.” That wasn’t what she’d meant to say, but what the hell. “Only for a bit. It didn’t take. So I joined the Marines instead. Women aren’t supposed to see combat, but you know how that actually works. You remember your first kill? What it felt like during, what it felt like after? I mostly remember not feeling that.

“What do you think they do, Reese, with a woman who doesn’t mind killing people? Who honestly just doesn’t give a fuck? You already know because they did it to you, too. They give her a gun and tell her where to point it, and she does what she’s told because she’s got a mission. She doesn’t have to feel anything one way or another to know she’s doing the right thing, and everything makes sense for a while. And then they go and kill the one person she gives a shit about and that stops working for her.”

Her throat hurt. She wasn’t used to talking this much on a job.

“So that happened. And like I said, Finch found me.”

“And he told you where to point the gun?”

“No, he left that up to me. He gave me a mission. Things started making sense again.” No feelings required. Morality by the numbers, he’d called it, then smiled a bitter little smile that made her wonder what cruel joke she was missing.

Reese probably wanted the feelings, though. Well, he’d have to find them on his own. There were some things she couldn’t manage even if Finch was the one asking.

“You know what they taught us in med school? Everyone’s heard it. ‘First, do no harm.’ ” He wanted to laugh, she could see it, and it might be a bitter laugh at a cruel joke but she’d take it as a sign of life. “It’s not that simple, though. Sometimes you gotta cut someone open to make them well. Some of the best surgeons I ever met were heartless bastards who’d as soon take a scalpel to you as look at you. Thing I learned, though—if someone has to work on me, I’ll take the guy who knows it’s going to hurt and does it anyway over the guy who flinches at the sight of blood. There’s a place for people like us, Reese. I just hope you know it when you’ve found it.”

She left him then—left his gun, too—and went outside to wait with Finch.

“How did it go?” he asked.

“Guess we’ll find out.”

They did, when Reese emerged a few minutes later and walked slowly toward them. The gun was a slight bulge inside his suit, and his stride was easy. Finch was tense, though, for all he’d been telling her they could trust Reese—she knew this because Bear started a low growl as he approached.

Reese cocked an eyebrow. “Stil. Afliggen.”

Bear lay down at once, his ears perking up with pleased interest. Reese crouched, offering the back of a closed fist for the dog to sniff. Finch looked down at them with a vague air of betrayal.

“I guess you’ll fit right in,” Shaw said.

Reese straightened. He was taller than either of them, but Shaw’d long since grown out of that sort of intimidation. “I’ve got to say, I’m feeling pretty good for a corpse.”

“It’s not so bad,” she said. “We’ve both been dead for years.”

Finch had recovered his cool. “Only insofar as either us is supposed to have existed in the first place.”

“Pedant.”

Reese was looking back and forth between them, assessing, acclimating. She couldn’t tell if he liked what he saw. “So how does this work?”

“We’ll set you up with a handful of aliases,” Finch said, “and access to ample funds. It’s your decision whether to seek permanent lodgings, though either way you may consider the expenses covered. I imagine Ms. Shaw can show you the best ways to gather—equipment—in New York, unless you’d prefer to make those arrangements yourself—”

Reese’s lips quirked. “I meant the numbers. How does that work?”

“Ah,” Finch said, gaze darting toward Shaw. “Yes, of course. This is perhaps not the place for that conversation. I suppose we had better—” He stopped, floundering. He’d been so certain of Reese, but now he’d run smack into walls built too thick for him to breach on his own.

“Yeah,” she said, as gently as she knew how. “I think we’d better. Come on, the library isn’t far.”

 

 

03.07.2013 — 11.27

 

The storm was closing in. The rain swept ahead of it, and she kept close to Finch’s side so she could hold the umbrella above them both. Bear trotted beside them in the service vest she’d bought for occasions like this one.

“Thank you,” he said absently. “Have you heard from our Mr. Reese today?”

“He’s settling in,” she said, by which she meant he’d already stashed enough heavy weaponry to arm another coalition offensive. “He’d probably be happier if we had another number.”

“I would be as well. The Machine’s silence has been troubling.”

“Well, we’ll keep him busy if we can. He’ll do, Finch.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

“Thought you knew that already. It was in his file, wasn’t it.”

“I still value your opinion.”

She kept her eyes ahead on the spatter of drops on the pavement. “He was a good man, you said, and they made him into something else. You got a lot of a few CIA assessments and some mangled mission reports. So I’ve been wondering. What’d they put in my file?”

She felt him pause beside her, but she kept going. He had to hurry a bit to catch up to the umbrella. “You know what was in your file, Ms. Shaw.”

She did. Nobody’d have called her a good person in need of dehumanizing, not even reading between the lines. Especially not reading between the lines. “I can guess. I don’t know what you got out of it.”

He waited a few more steps before saying, “Most of it was excised, but I was able to reconstruct enough to get the general idea. You were a brilliant and dedicated operative."

“Yeah.” She’d never had to work at keeping her tone neutral. “That sounds about right.”

“Sameen,” he said, putting one hand on her arm. She stopped without meaning to. “Sam, I got enough out of that file to make a decision, and while I may have had second thoughts at the beginning you’ve never once given me cause to regret my choice. Quite the opposite. I am profoundly grateful I received your number and even more so that you’ve been willing to work alongside me. And if I may say so, I’m certain Michael Cole felt the same way.”

She stared at him until Bear whined at her, water dripping down his sides, and then she started moving again. “You never met Cole.”

“No,” he said. “Though I'm still certain. I—I should add that I overheard what you said to Mr. Reese in that ambulance.”

“Of course you did, Finch.”

“I only meant that some of the details of your last mission with Agent Cole didn’t find their way into your file. Did you—do you know what you were sent to retrieve?”

She blinked at the change in topic. “It was a laptop.”

“And did you ever discover its contents?”

“No,” she said, “no, I never found out why they killed him.” Cole might have, though—he’d always been too curious for his own good. When she’d gone outside to signal the extraction team that wasn’t coming, he would’ve had the chance to crack the lid. She’d never know.

“Sameen, I’ve been meaning to—”

He was cut off by the insistent jangle of a payphone. They looked at one another, then moved without further discussion.

Finch reached for the receiver. She shifted the umbrella to her other hand and stepped in to keep the rain off his glasses, then took out her cell of the week and punched in ten digits. He answered on the first ring.

“Reese,” she said. “We have a number.”