Ghosts


 

John eased back into the seat after closing the passenger side door. Finch had already settled himself behind the steering wheel, seat belt in place across his torso with the engine of the Town Car already idling. He waited patiently for his new associate to buckle himself in before backing the car out of its space.

The day so far had been pleasant so Finch had kept the climate control set to circulate; now that the afternoon temperature was rising to its predicted high he reached over to tap the digital control to cool the interior to 78 degrees. Harold then told his passenger that he could adjust the dual controls to whatever temperature he wished before putting the car in drive, accelerating, and steering it towards the exit.

John had driven with the windows down when he was still Reese; he really hadn’t let himself get used to the comfort of air-conditioning after decades of his body acclimating to harsh conditions, even during stakeouts sitting for hours in a vehicle’s oven-like interior. It was only while Finch was driving or on the rare occasion that he rode as John’s passenger that the windows were rolled up and the air on.

Since John had started this after-life in Evan Ardent’s body, he’d seldom been in a car — let alone driven one — before today. John really had no idea what temperature his borrowed physic would prefer his side of the car be set to. Only Evan had had the same rigorous training as he so John just sat further back in the seat saying, “I’m fine.

Finch darted a glance at his passenger. Of course you are. John was the same way. Harold stiffened his shoulders and shook his head minutely. Where is all this coming from? Am I still missing John so much that I am projecting Mr. Ardent’s actions into those of the man I loved?

Harold clenched the steering with his hands while berating himself for the possibility of him even confusing the two men. John was gone and Harold’s heart still clenched painfully at the remembrance. Evan Ardent —  as similar to John Reese as he was — was not John and never would be. Harold vowed to himself that he would keep some distance from Ardent emotionally; it wouldn’t be fair to either of them to develop some kind of closeness so he could ease the pain of losing his John simply because his mind was playing tricks on him.

Harold had contemplated outfitting Evan Ardent with whatever he needed in lieu of letting Ardent move some personal items from his apartment to the safehouse until the threat to the Number was neutralized. Only Harold had outfitted John with everything from underclothes to suits; Mr. Reese had treasured every gift as much as it had overjoyed Finch to give them — a precursor perhaps to their growing feelings for each other turning into love. So when Harold reached the crossroad he needed to turn right to drive towards the safehouse he turned left.

When Finch noticed out of the corner of his eye Evan sitting forward as the car turned in the opposite direction of the safehouse, Harold hastened to explain the change of plans, “We have been so focused today on the frustrating task of finding anything to lead us to the whomever wants to do our number harm, I had completely forgotten that you needed to retrieve personal items from your apartment. I suggest Mr. Ardent that you pack whatever you may need for an undetermined amount of time to bring to Mr. Corbin’s apartment.”

John nodded that he had also forgotten and confessed the same, “Yeah, that slipped my mind too.” He really hadn’t; John just never thought about returning to Ardent’s apartment for any of his meager belongings. He had just assumed Finch would supply anything his new employee might need. Now John felt a very odd mix of relief, joy, and disappointment. Relief that Finch apparently only supplied disguises for his new associate to wear not personal attire, joy that he — John Reese — had been so special that Harold had given him everything he could possible need or want from the day John had agreed to stay on, and an unexplained disappointment that Finch was treating Evan as an associate and a formal one at that — despite there being something a little more than just a business arrangement between them since their first face-to-face in Delgado’s apartment. Maybe he was hoping Harold sensed somehow who Evan really was.

Twenty minutes after leaving The Library John was in Evan’s shabby apartment throwing a few things in an old Army green drawstring duffle with more holes than duffle it seemed.

All John had left of Ardent’s pitiful possessions that remained in the closet including those from Evan’s employed by the NSA/Samaritan days — the black outfits John had trashcanned months ago —  consisted of three comfort worn(out) pairs of blue jeans, four threadbare screen printed t-shirts, every one dotted with small holes, and a white dress shirt, yellowed from years of hanging unworn and unwashed.

Two dark gray dress slacks, one dark blue polo with pocket, and one charcoal with thin white stripes along with some colored tee shirts — every item included in a ten dollar grab bag John had purchased from a thrift store soon after assuming Ardent’s  life — made up the rest of the closet’s contents.

Even though he was living in another man’s body he still felt uncomfortable wearing Evan’s underwear so John had purchased a week’s worth of ribbed white tank undershirts and colored boxers — three days of those in the hamper. John grabbed those first, stuffed them in a plastic grocery bag, and then into the duffle. The clean clothing from the closet he’d bought for himself went next followed by a shaving kit filled with the few grooming aides John had replaced of Evan’s.

It was kind of embarrassing to realize it was his fault he’d allowed his new life as Evan Ardent to sink so low but re-avowed he would do better. Finch was depending on Evan now to save the numbers plus John still believed Harold’s life depended on him too. As he walked towards the sedan John caught sympathy on Harold’s face briefly before Harold masked it and opened the trunk from the inside the car.

The fifteen minute drive between Ardent’s apartment and the safehouse was made in silence as was the walk into the building and elevator ride up to the apartment. Finch quickly excused himself by saying he needed to rest an hour or so and then fled into his bedroom.

Harold leaned against the bedroom door closing his eyes in thought. He had for a moment reconsidered his decision to outfit his new employee when he saw the tattered bag Ardent was carrying. No doubt the bag’s contents weren’t in much better shape. But no, he couldn’t do that; he would give Ardent his salary early with a tiny bonus and let the man decide for himself to upgrade his apparel or not.

Harold shook himself mentally; he had to bottle up these crazy thoughts about his new associate until the situation with the current Number was resolved and even longer. The barely audible grunt that escaped his chest as he bent over to untie his shoes was more in exasperation of the situation than the physical discomfort of removing his shoes which he picked up and carried to his closet. Harold sniffed and sighed as he slid the shoes in their place on his shoe rack. He then removed his suit jacket, slacks, and vest to hang on their hangers. In front of his bureau mirror Harold undid his tie, slid it from around his neck and slipped it over the empty branch of a tie tree that occupied a corner of the dresser; he followed the tie removal with the taking off of his dress shirt and socks which he tossed in the hamper. Harold limped heavily over to his bed and lay down.

He closed his eyes, but his mind was too active for him to really rest. They would save Delgado first and foremost Harold decided and then he would find a way to permanently deal with his unusual reactions to Evan Ardent.

~ * ~

John stood at the door while watching Harold escape to his room. He couldn’t help feeling that somewhere in between departing their base of operations in The Library and leaving the building’s parking garage, Harold had chosen to distance himself from Evan Ardent. John shook his head negatively a few times then hoisted his bag of possessions over his shoulder to carry them into the guest bedroom.

It took all of five minutes to put his belongings away and carry his grooming kit into the guest bathroom. Thoughts of Harold lying alone on his bed across the hall crept into John’s mind as he stepped into the shower. He quickly twisted the hot water knob off. Showering under the frigid water was preferable to succumbing to the temptation of stroking himself instead. Stepping out of the shower a few minutes later he wrapped a towel around his midriff and shaved while letting the temperature of the room warm his chilled skin.

Looking at the clock as he went back out into the bedroom John decided to stretch out on his own bed; there was still almost two hours to go before the meeting at the church. Hands linked behind his head John looked up at the ceiling. He didn’t try to sleep yet he let Ardent’s body relax. It needed to be at its best to stop the threat against Delgado and Harold.

~*~

The meeting room was full when the two of them arrived at the church. Yet Harold managed to find them two empty chairs set up in a spot he could move his seat a good foot away from John’s. John was sure now Harold was intentionally distancing himself from Ardent; as they walked from the apartment earlier Harold had kept as much space between them as he possibly could — a complete one-eighty from the previous night’s closeness.

This evening’s session was about to begin, so John put what was happening with Finch to the back of his mind. Delgado welcomed the regulars before congratulating the two newcomers attending the support group for the first time. Along with lauding them for deciding to reach out for help from his group, Delgado offered his assistance and added, “Although the sober companions associated with this support group are paired with other individuals, I assure every one of you that they too are just a phone call away.”

Manual turned the podium over to any of the group who wished to speak and of course Harold Corbin was the first to stand up. “As most of you know, my name is Harold and I am an addict,” Harold began after adjusting his tie clasp. There was the smatterings of, “Hello Harold,” from different members of the group before Harold continued with his story.

Finch told it the same as he had the night previous, but also added that Manuel Delgado had accepted his offer to be sober companion to any member of the group whom Delgado decided would benefit from his help the most.

Harold adjusted his tie once more, which had John wondering why he was feigning nervousness. That is until Finch made eye contact with him momentarily, nodding and glancing imperceptibly at each of the newcomers in quick succession, before continuing on with his group share, “We were only introduced last night, ….” Of course; it would be hard to take photos, even stealthily with a camera phone, in a group this size and packed in close in the small meeting room. Clever Harold! You are using a camera hidden in your tie clasp.

Finch’s gentle caring voice eased its way into Reese’s thoughts, “… I know it has only been twenty-four hours since Mr. Ardent and I began our journey together. Only every journey begins with the first step and we have taken it. We are urged to overcome our addictions one day at a time so Evan and I shall strive to surmount them, together.”

John turned his head from side to side to look at the people seated close to him; what Harold had said was for their benefit, meant to lend believable credence to Ardent and Corbin’s cover. Yet he knew somehow Harold’s avowal was not just about the addictions they would never totally be free from, no matter how long they remained sober; his words were about the mission too. The pronouncement also set John’s mind at ease. For whatever reason Harold was distancing himself from Evan Ardent, it had nothing to do with Evan’s importance in his life. Whatever the Mission threw at them, the two of them were in it together. John faced forward and waited until Finch looked directly at him again before nodding with a smirk and an eye wink.

Harold solemnly gazed out at the faces looking back at him for a few moments. His words, although not the truth in fact, were true in meaning. as to encourage everyone in the group to stay strong, to take overcoming their addictions one day at a time, but not to do it alone. Harold had Grace and Earnest to help keep him sober and clean; now Evan would have him, Earnest and the Mission. When Finch saw Ardent’s acknowledgement that he understood this despite Harold’s strange behavior this afternoon, Harold breathed a sigh of relief. He turned the podium back over to Manuel and returned to his seat.

John leaned in close as Harold settled, “We’re good, Finch, okay? Now I think I need to say something myself. Give you a chance to adjust your tie clasp some more while everyone is looking at me.” He probably shouldn’t have done it, but as he got up John gripped Harold’s shoulder while moving past him. Harold tensed but immediately relaxed; John left his hand there for the few seconds it took for him to squeeze past the other man. It was heaven to absorb into his palm the warmth of Harold leaching through the suit he wore and to be able to touch for the briefest of time.

Only John had to let go to move out into the aisle and to the podium that Delgado turned over to his friend Evan. John cleared his throat, with difficulty he began, “Hello! My name is Evan and I am an addict.” Maybe it was because John knew that Harold was an addict too, could understand the demons that you had to fight, that gave John the strength now to admit something he never could before — not even when Harold had pulled him out of the gutter after Jessica had died.

As Harold looked up at Evan with eyes full of understanding, nodded and smiled in support for him to continue, John said as a weight lifted, “I gave everything I could my entire life to this country but when the government cut me loose completely without a reason why, I was left with nothing. No job, no training for civilian life, nothing. With one failure after another to find employment and keep the job I started drinking, and drinking, and drinking some more. Last night I came here after my latest binge.”

John began to falter then, the words that had came out easily slowed down as emotions welled up unbidden. “Manuel Delgado introduced me to a man who has in twenty-four short hours given me hope that I can turn my life around. I know it won’t be easy but we’ll take it one day at a time.” John looked directly at Harold then, “Thank you. I don’t think you will ever understand how much I mean that or how much I really needed you to come into my life.” John was speaking for Evan Ardent to Harold, but in his heart and mind he was speaking for John Reese.

As slow going as it was with several members congratulating, blessing, wishing him good luck, and/or putting Evan in their prayers, John eventually made back to his chair next to Finch. After they both gave each other a tight smile that quickly morphed into one of understanding, John sat down next to the other man. When everyone’s attention had left them and was on Manuel Delgado’s closing words to end the evening’s meeting, Harold leaned in close and said barely above a whisper, “You get him, I’ll get the other.” John turned to look in the direction Harold was facing to see an older thirty-some Hispanic man who seemed to be staring at Manuel Delgado just a bit too hard.

When everyone got up to talk a bit to others there or just leave, Harold headed in the direction of the restrooms where newbie number two appeared to be going. A surge of adrenaline from fear momentarily had John wanting to follow — the sudden flash of a gun being trained on Finch from his dream caused the spike, but Harold and the figure were outside in daylight not a dimly lit basement mensroom — so John turned to go after his mark. Newbie number one was talking to Manuel with no trace of the if looks could kill stare-down in his eyes from before as he shook hands with Delgado while saying he would try to make the next evening’s meeting if he was still in the area; he was job hunting and he might be in another part of the city. John wasn’t able to clone the man’s cell phone as he didn’t have one or had some museum piece made back in the stone age.

When John saw Finch leave the church fifteen minutes later unharmed and scowling, John felt the tension ease from his shoulders. Only John grimaced when he heard that Harold had hit the same roadblock as he had except newbie number two actually had no cell phone as he bummed some change off Harold to use the payphone across the street to call his ride home. They waited on the corner watching number one and two get in their respective rides and the cars drive away. When Delgado left soon after with Max walking towards Manuel’s apartment they started walking in the direction of the safehouse.

When they were far enough away not to be heard by other group members still talking outside the church Harold said, “If it is agreeable with you, Mr. Ardent, I think we should just get the car and head on over to The Library. I will try to find out what I can while you put in a few hours at your cover job.” Finch pulled his phone out when it chimed, exhaled with relief, texted a few words, and informed Evan, “It seems Mr. Delgado has already made it home and is inside his apartment settling down for the night. I texted Mr. Tau that we are on our way.”

John expected Harold to pull his arm free but let Ardent hold on to his elbow for stability when they sped up their pace as Evan said, “Well let’s get going then.”

~*~

Six hours later Harold was resetting the alarm to the safehouse while John headed for the kitchen to start the water heating for Finch’s green tea — Sencha of course: that was as unchanged as the sun rising in the east — and oddly enough, as he’d hated the stuff as Reese, popped the top of two cans of Orange Crush soda and poured them into a large glass tumbler.

John had reclaimed more of himself the last few days then he had since waking up after surgery, but Ardent’s preferences for food and drink were so low on the need to be Reese again scale of importance that they barely registered hence: the carbonated orange drink fondness.

The devotion John felt for Harold Finch though apparently was something else entirely. He didn’t have to say to himself ‘This is me, John Reese.’ to have Evan’s body respond with it: as involuntary as the heart beat, it just did. There was no invisible line where Evan Ardent ended and John Reese began as they watched Harold almost needing to drag his leg to make it to the couch.

Harold limped heavily over to the couch favoring his bad hip noticeably even while trying to hide it and judging by the worried expression on Ardent’s face, he was failing terribly. Now was not the time to dwell on his response to seeing that look again; when they had saved Delgado he would examine this strange behavior of his. Only for now he just wanted to close his eyes a few minutes; Harold took off his glasses, set them on the coffee table, and leaned back pinching the bridge of his nose and closing his eyes at the same time.

John set the cup of tea down on the table next to Finch’s glasses with a loud thunk that sloshed some of the liquid onto the glass top. Harold barely stirred, just a slight body twitch, a deep breath in and exhale with a snort before he started to softly snore again. John grinned at the sight of Harold sound asleep, not in amusement but in relief. He picked the cup back up, took it back into the kitchen, and returned with a cloth to wipe up the spill.

With the table top shiny clean once more John looked over to see Harold hadn’t moved a muscle. He watched in fascination as the hair above his lip fluttered with every exhale from the hawkish nose John adored. He hadn’t thought about it until now how good Harold looked with the mustache and beard. Unbidden John wondered what it would feel like brushing against his bare skin; he shook his shoulders while slamming that door shut forcefully and loudly in his head. “Enough of that Reese,” he muttered under his breath.

A little louder but still no more than a whisper he said, “Glad to see you’re sleeping-really sleeping again Finch.” His hands trembled, his hands not Evan’s, as he gently adjusted Finch’s legs and head so he was laying on his side on the sofa. John placed one of the couch pillows under Harold’s neck just so to support it and then pulled the throw from the back of the sofa and draped it over the still, soundly sleeping man. I never thought I would again. Sweet dreams Harold.

~ * ~

Harold started, something from his dream. He opened his eyes to a fuzzy darkened room, a light still on in the kitchen barely kept the entire area from being in total darkness. He pulled the coverlet off as he sat up with one hand and put his shoe-less feet on the floor. With the other hand he reached for his glasses and put them on. He didn’t remember falling asleep, just leaning back and listening to the sounds coming from the kitchen. Mr. Ardent? Harold looked around; he was alone in the room.

It was still early in the morning, four am according to the wall clock, time enough to grab a few more hours sleep. He needed to be fresh to tackle another round of, Who is our perp? Harold got up from the couch and headed for his room. Once in bed he planned on hacking more into the lives of the two new faces at the meeting, one Arturo Medina and one Richard Kearney, the next morning. Maybe with rested eyes he would spot something once he returned to The Library in the morning; one of those men had to be the threat.

John heard the shuffle of stocking feet moving past his closed door, a toilet flush, the faint rustle of bed clothes, the click of a bedside lamp, and silence. He had only been dozing lightly since leaving Finch snoring away on the sofa and getting into bed himself. He knew he still wouldn’t do much more now that he was awake again, so instead he stared up at the ceiling thinking about tailing Delgado and Aguilar to the retirement home. He agreed with Finch; one of the newbies from tonight had to be the threat. John just wished the sixth sense he had would tell him who it was not just set his nerves on edge. At least Harold is resting well, I’m going to need him at his best tomorrow when shit hits the fan.

~*~

John sat behind the wheel of the ten year old plain as dirt and unnoticeable to the point of being invisible Ford sedan watching the front of Delgado’s apartment building while playing with the set of keys Finch had handed him earlier. “One of the perks of working this job,” Harold had fairly beamed as he surprised his new employee and handed him the keys to a 2016 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Hard Rock — cherry red with coal black fender flares. “It’s not for tailing a number,” Harold said and then had actually smirked, “You’re stuck with the Ford POS over there for that.” Harold then told Ardent it was for their off days, for him — Evan— to get out and have some fun, be free for a change. He deserved that much for all the government had done to him and for sparing Harold’s life.

While John had stood there in the club’s parking structure stunned with his mouth dropped open, Harold had taped his watch and snapped, “Time to get to work now. Be careful Mr. Ardent!” Harold had headed inside the club without looking back; John had picked his jaw up off the asphalt to hurry over to the Ford, to get in and be on his way to tail the number as ordered.

It was just so unexpected if it could be called that. Somewhere buried deep in Ardent’s memories was an unspoken wish to someday own one that it surprised John how Finch could have ever found out. What was even more unsettling was a conversation that Harold and he had had before the dark days of Samaritan where he’d thanked Harold for the Ducati on his birthday the year following the loft gift, but had hinted as a joke that for his next birthday Finch could buy him a cherry red Jeep and now here he had the keys to one in his hand. Something had freaked Harold into distancing himself from Evan so abruptly. Had Harold pulled away because he thought the immediate closeness was somehow a betrayal to John’s memory? Only that didn’t explain the joy on Harold’s face as he handed Evan the keys.

Well hold those thoughts Reese. Showtime!

~*~

Harold uttered a mild expletive when he ran into another dead end hacking into the background of Arturo Medina. The man supposedly had been in California for his entire life and according to birth records he was born in Los Angeles, but until twenty years ago there was nothing to be found that substantiated he actually grew up there — no school records, no medical either. There wasn’t any evidence on file that he was involved in any after school activities, sports, or clubs. The parents died when Arturo was six months old and that’s when the gap of twenty years began. The infant wasn’t placed with relatives — there were none — nor in the system. Baby Arturo vanished only to reappear as an adult at age twenty-two and working at a garage in the same city where he was born. The only reason for suspecting Arturo as the threat to Delgado was the timing of his appearance in NYC to visit a friend who had relocated here and his appearance at the AA meeting. And that was it.

Richard Kearney was more suspect to be the threat. He also had recently come to New York City. His connection to Delgado was that Kearney spent time in an upstate penitentiary and was a cellmate of one of the Vipers until being released three months ago. It hardly seemed likely that the unemployed and broke man who had asked Harold for change for a phone call was actually the threat, but Harold couldn’t rule the man out entirely. Twenty odd years was a long time to seek revenge. Regardless, Kearney might be the threat just because of his association with the former gang member and might be the ex-Viper’s first chance of making good on his promise to make Delgado pay for Gutierrez’ death.

Harold tapped his earpiece; Ardent was letting him know Delgado had left his apartment to meet with Aguilar. “Be careful Mr. Ardent, I still have no clue who the threat might be,” Harold cautioned.

He cut the connection to his employee and opened one up to Earnest, “A little help here please?”

At once all his monitors lit up, a death certificate dated forty years ago for Arturo Medina came up on one and a magnified medical record for a tattoo removal and a photo of said tattoo as required by California law loaded on the second. The tattoo was a coiled snake — a viper — ready to strike.

Harold tried to contact Ardent to warn him, Arturo Medina was Victor Gutierrez, very much alive and returned to New York to kill both Aguilar and Delgado.

There was no answer! The monitor with the death certificate blackened for a split second before it lit up again with a surveillance feed outside Aguilar’s mother’s room. In the tiny backyard behind it, Evan Ardent was unconscious, bound to a tree by several loops severed from a garden hose, and bleeding from his scalp — the blood still oozing down his forehead and onto his face. Gutierrez was crouched under a window looking inside, lying in wait for his victims to return to the tiny apartment.

Harold unlocked the drawer he had kept one of John’s handguns — one that previously hung in the Closet of Mass Destruction, but was now in his hand — pushed himself out of the chair, and limped out the door as fast as he could go. He shouted when he reached the main floor, “Leon! My computers! Now! Watch the feed and call the police when I get there! The door’s open!”

Finch was in the Town Car and on his way to The Pines and praying he could get there in time to save four people now. He wasn’t going to fail Evan as he had John.

~*~

John tailed the two men to the retirement home, parked a short distance away, and watched the duo enter the main building where the dining room was located. He didn’t think anyone was crazy enough to try something in a room full of witnesses but he kept hunkered down in his seat scanning the area for one of their two potential perps just in case.

John sat up though when a beat up pickup pulled into a spot a few cars in front and Arturo Medina got out. John crouched down as Arturo looked his way and then the opposite direction before he ran across the street. John was the only one watching the man as he jumped a wooden privacy fence.

After waiting a few minutes John got out of the car to follow. It was a really, really stupid move not alerting Finch before he did, but internally John argued in his defense: there was no time. He would just be extra vigilant tailing Medina; John hunched down as he crept along the fence line. There was no sign of Arturo when John cautiously raised up high enough to peer over the top. The last thing John thought was, ‘Real fucking stupid, Reese!’ when Medina jumped from behind the bush where he had been hiding and clocked John with a garden gnome as John opened the gate.

John came to blinded by the afternoon sun shining in his eyes, yet he could just make out the figure of someone holding a gun. He didn’t need to see who the figure was pointing the gun at, that didn’t matter: he already knew. John turned his head and shouted, “Harold.” Two shots rang out then and John clenched his eyes tight. No. No. No. Please God no?

When he opened them again Harold was still standing with a gun in his hand. His dream was wrong; Harold wasn’t frightened — he was shocked. Harold looked at the gun, at Arturo who was writhing on the ground a hand covering each of his bloodied knees, and back at the gun. Finch crooked his lips into a quick smile, shrugged his shoulders and humphed, “I did it.”

When a shocked Aguilar and Delgado burst out the back door of Mrs. Aguilar’s apartment, Harold had Ardent unbound and up on his feet. The two turned their eyes from away from Harold and Evan to look over at the wounded man groaning loudly or swearing in a combination of English and Spanish. Aguilar recognized him immediately and growled, “Gutierrez, you son of a bitch!”

At the sound of approaching sirens, Harold helped Ardent to the gate and quickly bade the two not to mention them. “We help people, and sometimes what we have to do isn’t legal. So please?”

Aguilar pulled a gun from his under his coat, pointed it briefly at the two vigilantes, then over at Gutierrez and held it on the assailant while kicking his weapon out of reach. “You’re under arrest!” he barked and without looking their way told Harold, “Get your partner out of here, I never saw you two.” Uncaring if the presumed dead gang leader would dare to claim police brutality, Aguilar put a foot on the wounded man’s knee and pressed down, “Right Victor?”

Harold wasted no time; he grabbed Ardent by the arm and rushed the two of them through the gate and towards the Town Car. “We’ll get the Ford later,” Harold huffed as they hurried away.

John was sitting in the passenger seat this time as Harold gunned the car to get them away from trouble. “You risked your life to save me. Why?”

“Let’s get you to the safehouse and check out your head wound. You may have a concussion,” was all Finch said.

~*~

Once in the elevator of the safehouse’s building, John let out the deep boom of laughter he had been holding in since Harold walked him past the desk clerk and literally pitched a bitch fit, “You really need to tell old lady Gunderson to scoop her dog’s poop. My friend slipped in a pile of shit and fell head first into that grotesque statue next to the stone block pathway.”

Harold gave Evan an odd look and worried, “We really need to check out that knock on your head. What I said wasn’t meant to be funny.”

Ten minutes later Harold had settled John on the couch and fussed over nothing repeatedly. There was a bump the size of half a walnut shell on his scalp right above the hairline, the whack on his skull barely broke the skin, and other than the dull thrum of pain it caused: John was fine. No dizziness, no blurred vision, and no other signs he was concussed.

When Harold made to stand up from the coffee table he was sitting on, John grabbed his arm and repeated what he said in the car, “You risked your life to save me. Why? When I was stupid you rushed in instead of sending the police. Why?”

Harold blinked a few times and then said, “Alright.” He moved over to the chair, rubbed his hands together and hedged at first, “I don’t know why exactly.”

Harold cleared his throat, swallowed hard, and admitted, “I am confused myself, but here goes.” Nervously he began, “I know we have only just started this endeavor together, but I knew you were the right man from the moment we met in Delgado’s office. I don’t understand why; maybe it’s that you remind me so much of John: like he is still here with me. I know this all sounds insane and I don’t want you to believe you are only here because of some wish on my part to make you his substitute. You are important too. Not because I need you. The numbers need you, too. I just couldn’t stand back and do nothing again. I couldn’t lose you like I lost John!”

Harold fisted his hands and dropped them hard on the top of his legs, “Dammit. That’s why I started keeping you at a distance; I started seeing too much of John in you. I didn’t want to use you like that Mr. Ardent. It wasn’t fair to you.”

Finch sprang up out of the chair, walked over to the window and agonized, “Now you are going to think I am some crazy old fool who desperately wants to find his dead boyfriend in someone else. Hell, I even bought you the Jeep John asked me to get him for his next birthday. I wanted to believe the stunned look you gave me was because you were at a loss for words happy like John would have been. But I came to my senses and ordered you to get back to work like an ass. I wouldn’t blame you if you bolted out of here and never came back.”

John walked up behind Harold and gently turned him around. “You’re not crazy. You are not using me. You say you’re being unfair asking me to work with you or to be your friend because I remind you of John. Well you’re not. You are doing what your heart wants you to do. It knows what I should have told you from the day we met. I am John and I am not going anywhere, not ever again.”

~~*~~

Epilogue

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