person

A Talented Man

 


“It’s as if the guy was gonna either be president or Attila the Hun.”

Detective Bernard Sullivan, ret.

_______________________________________________________

 

“…and boss, I’m telling you, it was a mess. He just smiled and left. And then that detective that’s been such a pain in the ass? Szymanski? He shows up fifteen minutes later like he’d been tipped off or something. We barely got out of there without him seeing us.”

Carlo took a bite of linguine. The pasta was cooling, the sauce as well and he pushed the plate away with a grimace of distaste.

“And where is he, anyway?” Frankie, added. “He was gonna meet us here and it’s almost ten—

“He’ll be here. Give him time.” He wiped his mouth on his napkin.

“We have. Three hours.That's a hell of a lot of time to get from there to here. And that’s another thing—it’s been almost six months now and where’s it gotten us? Where’s he gotten us?”

Frankie was getting worked up now, leaning into Carlo’s space, his voice rising. “That’s not his fault. You know my plans were never going to be accomplished overnight.”

Frankie was already shaking his head. “It’s not just that—he’s not one of us, boss. Manzione. Where’s he from? Nowhere. Who’s he connected to? No one. I’m telling you—”

Carlo held his hand up, stopping Frankie mid-whisper. “And I’ll tell you again because we’ve had this conversation and I’m tired of it. He’s part of the crew. He can do things you mugs can’t.” He patted Frankie’s shoulder to soften his words. “I trust him; he’s staying.” He appreciated the advice, but ultimately, the decision was his. 

“If you trust him so much, how come you haven’t told him who you really are?”

He stared at Frankie. Then smiled. “That’s my business.”

Frankie hesitated in a moment that was tense and ugly. Then he nodded shortly and sat back in his chair. He wasn’t happy, but he’d shut up and that was the important thing.

Because the last thing Carlo needed was more pressure. The time of change was coming—he could feel it, a subtle shift of attitude and confidence that told him the tipping point was at hand. Something he’d been waiting for so long now, it felt a lifetime. And he didn’t need his right-hand man messing things up because he was jealous of the new guy.

He picked up his wine glass and surveyed the room. No one had noticed the conversation, but then, he’d chosen this restaurant for that very reason. Discretion, fear or simple apathy, the regulars kept to their own business.

“Finally,” Frankie muttered.

Carlo looked over at the door. “Here’s our boy.”

Striding across the long, narrow room with that, ‘Fuck you’ walk of his, looking neither to the left nor the right as if the place were empty.

And damn, the diners didn’t even glance up as he passed and Carlo wondered what he wondered every time John walked into a room—how did they not see what was before them? Because if ever there was a killer made flesh, it was here, sliding into the chair next to him, smelling of the night air, sweat and gun oil.

“Charlie,” John murmured easily with a slight bow of his head. He turned to Frankie and bent his lips in a smile. “That was fun.”

Frankie’s face darkened and he bent forward. “Yeah, for you, maybe. We had to clean up after you. Again.”

He jabbed his finger for effect and John stilled for a second before saying quietly, “Then next time, you might try acting instead of standing around like a bunch of two-year olds. You should be thanking me—I saved your life.” He leaned into Frankie’s space, palms flat upon the table. “And if you point your finger at me again, I’m going to give you a matching scar for the other side of your face. Try being invisible then.”

Frankie glared at Carlo and he raised his hands in a, ‘Don’t blame me— you know how he is’ gesture. He never interfered with his people’s arguments—they'd work it out or be out. A basic management technique that he’d found as useful in the classroom as on the streets.

But Frankie snarled and he stood up, his chair sliding back to hit the wall. “See you tomorrow, boss,” he muttered.

John smirked and didn’t watch him leave. He picked up the glass Carlo had filled an hour before and took a drink.

“Hey,” Carlo said, “you want to sip that. It’s a hundred and fifty bucks a bottle.”

“What’s a history teacher doing drinking a hundred and fifty dollar bottle of wine?” John asked, holding the glass up to the light. “I thought you were keeping a low profile?”

“I was, but…” He shook his head. Patience and planning had been his forte for so long. “It’s all coming to a head—can’t you feel it?”

“No,” John said evenly, pointedly.

Carlo leaned forward, dropping his voice to a whisper. “It’s better if you don’t know, John.”

“Is this about protecting me or the fact that you don’t trust me?”

“It’s not about trust. I just don’t want to fuck it up at this late stage.”

John raised an eyebrow and Carlo held back a smile—he rarely swore, probably a holdover from constantly having to watch his mouth in school. Another thing that would soon change.

“But Frankie knows.”

Carlo shrugged. “He's been with me a long time.”

John took a sip of wine. “He’s unpredictable. You should cut him loose.”

“Funny. He said the same about you.”

“You two planning my retirement, Charlie?” John asked silkily, relaxing back in his chair, long fingers just touching the stem of the glass.

He was wearing the shirt Carlo had bought him a few weeks ago, open at the throat, a soft blue that did something to his skin, made him glow, made everything around him fade. Such a far cry from the John he’d been seven months ago, down on his luck, a bum. Carlo was more than proud he’d had a hand in John’s re-making. And he wanted him so bad his belly hurt. “What do you think?”

John smiled. “I think as long as you can use me, you’ll let me live.”

He shook his head. “No.”He’d had the same thought, months ago after the first run in with Frankie but John more than paid his way and not just in bodily harm. “Don’t worry about Frankie—he’s just being Frankie.”

“And you’re just being you?”

“Something like that.”

“Ah.”

He wanted to reach out, but he couldn’t, not here. “What are you doing?”

“Later, you mean?”

“Yes.”

John downed the last of the very expensive wine, then pushed to his feet. As he was getting up, he leaned over and whispered in Carlo’s ear, “Getting fucked by you. I hope.”

He turned to the door and left the way he came, left Carlo, heart thumping in his chest, feeling as if the lights were too bright, the sounds too loud.

_______________________________________________________

 

 

On his belly, splayed out, passively taking it because that’s how Charlie liked it—no reciprocation, no response. He’d made the mistake, months ago, of trying and Charlie had shoved his head down and said, ‘No.’

“Tell me you like this,” Charlie panted in his ear.

“I like this.”

“Tell me you’re mine.”

“I’m yours.”

“Tell me you’re gonna stay, no matter what.”

“I’m going to stay,” he murmured, the words burning his throat because what did he of about staying? He never stayed. Especially not with someone like Charlie.

“No matter what?”

“No matter what.”

Charlie groaned and thrust faster, making the bed creak and moan, mouthing John’s scapula at just the wrong moment, his glasses catching the curve of bone because he’d forgotten to take them off when he’d shoved John onto the bed.

But not a big deal, ultimately. Business as usual.

***

He glanced up at the clock’s thin blue numbers without moving his head, Charlie’s arm heavy around his waist. Eleven forty-seven. Too early to leave; he’d made that mistake, too, the first time Charlie had fucked him. Charlie hadn’t liked it when he'd gotten up to get dressed and since he didn’t much care either way, he always waited until midnight. Like Cinderella, only he wasn’t a disinherited princess and Charlie sure as hell wasn’t Prince Charming.

He smiled at the image that brought to mind and waited.

At a few minutes to twelve, he began to edge away, carefully, because he was tired and he didn’t want questions, comments or complaints. But he wasn’t careful enough—Charlie stirred, his arm tightening.

“Hmm?”

He paused and said without looking around, “I need to get up early. I’ve got the meet with Latimer.”

“Yeah, okay. Be careful.”

“I’m not afraid of him.”

“I didn’t mean that. Be careful he doesn’t make you mad—we need him in one piece.”

He nodded and got up. His shorts were on the other side of the bed where Charlie had thrown them. He picked them up and tugged them on.

“Hey?”

Charlie was sitting up, arms around his bent knees, watching with steady appraisal. “Yes?”

“I might have something new for you.”

He pulled on his trousers. “What is it?”

“Benny was followed the other day as he was coming out of the bodega.”

He shrugged. Benny had been making mistakes lately—he was too old to be on the job but try telling Charlie that. “Woman or man?”

“Man. About fifty; with a face like a boxer and balding, according to Benny.”

“Was it the Feds?”

“I don't know because Benny doesn't know. He gave the guy the slip and doubled back, but the guy got away. In an expensive black town car.”

“Anything else?”

“He got a plate.”

John shook out his shirt, then drew it on. Charlie had torn off one of the buttons again. He’d take it to the cleaners in the afternoon. “Who is it registered to?”

“Some shlub; a paralegal named Burdett.”

“I’ll look into it.”

“If he’s the guy, take care of him.”

“Okay.”

“But quietly. Don’t take any chances, not now.”

“Okay.” He sat down on the chair and pulled on his socks and boots.

“Hey, come here,”Charlie said softly, patting the bed.

He didn't sigh as he rose to go sit on the bed. Charlie reached for his hand. Not to hold it but to fasten his cuffs.

“You know about Napoleon, right?” Charlie asked, fingers moving deftly.

“Some,” he lied. He’d read half a dozen biographies on Bonaparte over the years, but Charlie liked it when he didn’t know something—it was the teacher in him.

“After fifteen years of serving his country, they kicked him out, exiled him to the tiny island of Elba.” Charlie finished with one cuff and reached for the other. “And there he stayed, biding his time, until he made his move. He raised an army and retook the throne.”

‘And ended up exiled on another island, thanks to more than a touch of megalomania.’ “So you’re planning on raising an army?”

“I won’t have to. There…” Charlie patted John’s hand, pushing away at the same time. “Go. I’ve gotta get some sleep.”

They didn’t kiss goodbye—it wasn’t their way. He rose, gathered up his coat, gun and keys and left without looking around, knowing that Charlie was scrutinizing his every move.

***

He breathed deep when he got outside. A thick fog had moved in, covering the city with grey, bringing with it the smells of the water—salt and humidity and decay.

He should go straight to bed. Killing three Russian mobsters in forty-seven seconds and then getting fucked by the man who’d ordered the hit took a toll, even on him.

Instead, he stopped by the liquor store around the corner from his place, bought a fifth of whiskey, then locked himself in his hotel room and drank himself to sleep.

***

Burdett turned out to be, as Charlie had said, a shlub. Well, not a shlub per se, but definitely a man without much character.

Thanks to Fusco and the limo’s GPS, John picked up Burdett’s trail near the Upper East Side. He followed from a safe distance and when the limo stopped near Grand Central Terminal, he parked and followed on foot, growing more and more puzzled.

Because Burdett was in his late-forties, had a stuck-in-the-seventies haircut, and a more than conservative suit. He seemed the epitome of harmlessness compounded by the fact that he was also disabled.

Probably a car accident or fall. When he turned his head, he turned his entire body, so a fused CV2 or 3? Add to that an injured leg or hip—he threw his leg out as he walked, his gait jerky and stiff like a marionette with a bad string. He also had an odd way of walking that didn’t have anything to do with his handicap—as he moved through the crowd, people made way for him but didn’t look at him, as if he were a ghost.

John followed him into the building, but held back by the information kiosk. There were only a few people waiting at the elevator bank and even though he was sure Burdett hadn’t spotted him, he didn’t want to blow it this early in the game.

He’d do a little research first, find out what he could the fast way.

***

The brownstone was a bust. It seemed like the others on the street—about as secure as a cracker box. But it had bars on all the rear windows and a sophisticated alarm system on all the doors and windows. The only accessible area was the backyard—the alley gate was padlocked and easy to pick. He poked around, peering into the tiny garage. Nothing there but old computer equipment and furniture and he thought about breaking in through the garden-level window but decided to save that for another day. In case he got desperate.

So, he tried another front—using the cover of a prospective employer, he began to dig.

Burdett, first name Harold, was as innocuous on paper as he was in real life. He worked as a software engineer for a company that provided a range of services, including database configuration and management. In seventeen years, he’d been promoted twice and had just received his fifth ‘Software Engineer of the Month’ plaque and gift card. And even though he looked good on paper, he was probably on his way out—his manager was gunning for him with a series of bad performance reviews. He probably had a few months at best.

Poor sap.

John thanked the bored HR girl and left, a weird feeling in his chest.

Why the limo and security? And why the misidentification? Benny D’Agostino was getting old, sure, but no way would he confuse Burdett and a guy who looked like a boxer. Maybe it had been Burdett’s driver? But he was around thirty, not fifty, and definitely not bald.

So none of it fit and as he left Burdett’s building, he thought a little sourly, So much for the fast way.

***

But pain in the ass or no, he loved this. Tailing a mark, circling like a shark, adding more pieces to the puzzle the closer he got.

Burdett had a routine; leave the brownstone at eight sharp, arrive at the office at nine-fifteen, work until noon. Then, a thirty-minute lunch at the cafeteria on the third floor, reading a book a day, then back to work until five. He left the building around five-ten, walked three blocks to where the limo waited, then back home where he’d stay until the next morning.

Like an automaton.

Even his body language was robot-like. Bland to the point of fading into the background, he never smiled, never showed surprise or anger. He had no friends, made no casual conversation. When everyone was gathered in groups in the cafeteria, he’d sit alone at a table along the far wall, reading.

No one was that boring, that regular, and as John shadowed and made mental notes, he began to wonder just what the hell he was seeing.

***

“So, nothing? No boxer?” Charlie said.

He crossed his legs and sipped his coffee, not taking his eyes from the newspaper. “Not so far.”

“It’s been a week. You should have called before now.”

I didn’t—you called me, remember? But Charlie’s voice was heavy with dissatisfaction and he kept his sarcasm to himself. “These things take time.”

“What about a wiretap?”

“His line isn’t accessible.”

“Buried cable?”

“So it would seem.”

“Huh. You said he was a software engineer, right?”

“Hmm.” The woman at the table next to him was either going to turn twenty-five or had just turned twenty-five; she was surrounded by co-workers, laughing as they gave her a cake and a bunch of balloons, each marked with a, '25.'

“And that’s all you got after a week?”

“Yes.”

“I’m not impressed, John. I thought you’d have more.”

“What can I say? This is an unusual case.”

“Yeah, well, I want you done. Yogorov is having a party on Friday; I thought I’d pay him a visit.”

“I never pegged you for a party crasher, Charlie.”

“You never pegged me, period.”

John cracked a smile. Charlie almost sounded grumpy. Which was sort of funny, considering. “Give me two more days. I should have something by then.” Across the room, Burdett closed his book and pushed awkwardly to his feet.

“You better. Frankie’s getting antsy. He wants me to take you off the job so he can handle it on his own.”

Burdett made his way around the tables, his movements stiffer than usual. He must be having a bad day.

“You there, John?” Charlie asked tightly.

“Yeah, I’m here,” he answered absently. Burdett had paused to talk to a woman. She worked on the fifth floor, in records. Burdett said something to her that made her laugh, then he continued on, expression blank as always. “Frankie can have it. I don’t care.”

“No,” Charlie muttered, falling for the bluff. “But just two days.”

He glanced down as Burdett came his way, pretending to concentrate on the newspaper. “Yeah, okay.” Burdett passed behind the pillar that John was using for cover and it had to be his imagination that he could smell the soft scent of aftershave.

"John?"

"Hmm?"

“What’s going on with you?” Charlie asked, his voice unusually tentative.

He took a deep breath and straightened up, folding his paper, telling himself to concentrate on the task at hand. “Nothing. Just a little bored.”

“You sure that’s it?”

“I’m sure.”

Charlie was silent for a long moment, then he muttered, “Well, enjoy it while it lasts. You’ll be plenty busy in a few days.”

He hung up and John turned off the phone with a grateful sigh. Charlie was getting paranoid. And paranoid sociopaths never made the best companions.

***

The next two days passed the same as the week before. So much so that he was wondering, for the first time, if he’d found someone that had no dark side, no wild side—someone who was simply as he appeared.

And then came the last night of his stakeout.

***

He was half asleep, head propped on his fist, wondering why he was spying on someone who didn’t need to be spied upon when movement caught his eye. He jerked up, wide awake, and peered through the windshield. The limo had pulled up in front of Burdett’s brownstone. The driver got out, then opened the rear door.

And here came Burdett in a black wool coat and red scarf. He glanced around and stiffly descended the stairs. He climbed into the back, the driver closed the door and in a moment, they were off.

Finally.

John let the limo get a few blocks away then followed. North to Greenpoint, just across the river and then under the viaduct. Not the nicest neighborhood for eleven at night.

And not too many places to hide—he kept going, over the bridge to circle around. He turned off his lights, then parked on the access road and got out his camera.

It was a meet all right. A man stepped out from the shadows of the viaduct into the harsh yellow street lamps and yeah, here was the boxer. Big and ugly, wearing a black leather jacket and gloves. He and Burdett exchanged a few words and then he reached inside his jacket. John tensed and took a quick breath, releasing it slowly when the man pulled out an envelope and not a gun.

Burdett looked inside the envelope and there was another brief exchange of words.

Then, they both separated, the man back to the shadows, Burdett back to the car. John couldn’t help himself even though the boxer was the main event—he trained the camera on Burdett and took a look. And for the first time, Burdett was actually showing some emotion. Anger? Frustration? Both?

Huh.

So Harold wasn’t happy with what he’d been given or maybe he wasn’t happy with the messenger?

John watched for a brief moment, itching to pull in front of the limo, to stop Burdett from leaving and force him to say what was going on. But, no, he had a job to do. And that job was in a black SUV, heading east.

***

They didn’t go far. Two miles from the river to a little dive off 54th.

John followed. Even into the bar, because what the hell—he was tired and if the guy was trouble, he’d just take him out back and get what he needed the hard way.

But the guy wasn’t trouble. He was a whiner, sure, but not trouble. Sitting at the bar, complaining about his life. About how it sucked, about how his ex was making it suck harder, every last dime going to her and the kid. The bartender did what all bartenders did—he listened with a look of thinly veiled boredom as he wiped down the countertop, then a tray of glasses.

By midnight, John’d had it and when the guy got up to use the bathroom, he made his move. He cut the guy off with an apologetic, ‘I’m sorry—didn’t see you there; you go first,’ gesture, lifting his wallet at the same time. He palmed it, nodded to the bartender, and left.

He waited until he was back in the city to see what he’d caught. About ninety bucks tucked under a picture of a little boy, a beat up punch card for a pizza joint in Queens and an equally beat up driver’s license for one Leonard Stills.

***

An ex-cop was who Leonard Stills turned out to be. An ex-cop with no pension, no 401k, no savings. He’d blown it all defending himself against very public charges of corruption when the city kicked him off the force two years ago. Since then, he’d applied for, and been turned down from, several security jobs.

John wasn’t sure how he and Harold had crossed paths, but cross paths, they had.

He closed the folder Fusco had given him, then rubbed his jaw, that weird feeling in his chest now a lump. So Burdett and Stills were working together. So Stills was the kind of man that gave creeps a bad name?

So what?

***

Charlie answered on the second ring. “Where the hell are you?”

“Ten minutes away. What’s wrong?”

“Something’s come up.”

“What about Burdett? I finally got some information—don’t you want to hear it?”

Charlie hesitated, then said, suddenly amiable, “Never mind about him. Benny was probably just overreacting. I’ve got another problem for you to take care of.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah, you know Benny—always one for drama.”

John frowned—that wasn’t his take on Benny, not by a long shot. “What am Imissing here, Charlie?”

“Nothing. It’s over.”

“Okay,” he said slowly. “What about Frankie? He’s too busy?”

“Yeah, Mr. Smartguy, he is. He’s taking care of a little project for me.”

He held back a sigh and pulled to the side of the road. “What’s the job?”

“Some kid named Julio copped Joey’s car today while he was in the liquor store. Joey’s gone to get it back, but I need you there also. Use that tracker I had you install.”

“Joey’s got something in the trunk?”

“Yeah, a lot of somethings. If the kid takes a peek and decides to grow a brain, Joey’s gonna be in for it.”

He tapped his thumbs on the steering wheel. Something was happening here and Charlie was trying to keep it from him. “Okay.”

“And when you’re done, meet me at the apartment.”

“Okay.”

He hung up and stared unseeingly out the window as the traffic zipped by.

‘Never mind about him.’ And, ‘Benny was probably overreacting.’

What the hell was that all about? Charlie was patient, methodical and once he made a decision, he never swayed. He was like a bulldog that way. And if he thought someone was on to him or one of his men? He’d make them pay, one way or another, even if it took years.

But what was that about protecting Joey? Charlie'd had him install the tracker in first place because he thought Joey was stepping out on him. So why would he care if Joey went down on a possession charge? Those somethings in the trunk could link Joey to Charlie, sure, but he didn’t think that was it.

He grabbed the tracker out of his kit and turned it on. But he didn’t punch in the code for Joey’s car. He first tracked Charlie’s car. It was where it should be, in the parking garage under his apartment building. He entered the number for Frankie’s car next, telling himself he was crazy, there was nothing going on and he was just being—

Frankie’s car was on the move. Heading north at a fast clip.

He could be going anywhere, doing anything, but John knew where he was going—he’d traveled the same route often enough in the past week.

North on Manhattan, heading straight for Burdett’s place.

***

‘This is stupid,’ he told himself, even as he ran the red light on 144th, even as he swerved around a white mini-van that was moving too slowly.

Stupid because Frankie wouldn’t hurt Burdett, not in a relatively quiet neighborhood in broad daylight. Stupid because even if Burdett was murdered, what was it to him? Nothing, that’s what. Not his secretive behavior, nor his awkward way of moving, nor the way he didn’t smile back when a pretty girl smiled at him.

Nothing.

But apparently not, because a UPS driver stopped unexpectedly in the middle of the street and John wrenched the steering wheel, whipping to the left, passing too close on purpose, the driver’s shouts fading in the distance.

***

He got there too late.

Pulling up short behind a bright yellow Humvee as he turned the corner of Burdett’s street, unconcerned that he was sticking out into the intersection only aware that Frankie and Jimmy were already on Burdett’s porch.

He put the car in reverse and went back the way he came. Back and back until he got to the alley. He shifted to drive, then floored it, coming to a stop halfway down, right behind Burdett's house.

He jumped out of the car and opened the locked gate with his shoulder then ran across the tiny yard. Not to the back door with its steel security door, but to the north side. He kicked in the garden-level window and crawled in, cutting his palm on a piece of glass. Flicking the blood on the floor, he hurried to the stairs.

He pulled his weapon, then crept up, pausing at the door, listening for shouts, broken glass—anything that would tell him if Frankie had found a way in. There was nothing but silence and he pushed the door open to peer around the corner.

It looked like Frankie really was that stupid. Or maybe desperate because the doorknob jiggled and turned—he was trying to pick the lock.

John stepped into the hall and had taken two steps when someone grabbed him from the right. Instinct and training kicked in and he lashed out, hitting his attacker on the temple with the butt of his gun. The man, Burdett’s driver, crumpled to the ground with a moan.

A soft sound made him turn, gun raised.

Burdett was standing in the doorway to his kitchen, cup in hand, a look of astonishment on his face.

John opened his mouth to whisper something about, ‘Let’s get out of here,’ or the more prosaic, ‘You’re about to end up on the wrong side of a mob hit,’ but before he could, Burdett said in a stunned voice, “Mr. Reese?”

***

‘Mr. Reese.’ Two simple words that echoed in the quiet house as if Burdett had shouted them aloud. Taking John by complete surprise and he stood there frozen, feeling as if the earth had lurched beneath him.

“Mr. Reese?” Burdett said again, the liquid in the cup splashing on the ground as he took a step forward. “What—”

The doorknob rattled again and they both jumped. John leaped forward, shoving Burdett back into the kitchen. “Come on.”

Burdett craned his head, trying to see over John’s shoulder. “Mr. Reese—”

John pushed him, hand on chest, ordering, “Go!”

Burdett sat the coffee cup down and hurried to the door. “Where?”

“Someplace safe.”

He expected arguments or at the very least another, ‘Mr. Reese?’ but Burdett just scooped up a set of keys from the countertop and fumbled for the lock. His hands were shaking; John reached around and took the keys and unlocked the door.

“Me first,” he murmured, edging around Burdett.

“Be my guest,” Burdett murmured back.

He threw a smile over his shoulder at the unexpectedly pithy response and stuck his head out. There was no one in the backyard and—from what he could see which wasn’t much—no one in the alley.

Still…

“My car is in the alley. Stay with me.” He grabbed Burdett's sleeve, then crept down the stairs and scuttled across the yard to the side of the garage. He peered over the fence and scanned the alley, just for good measure. Still no on there, so either Frankie and Jimmy were still trying to find a way in through the front or they—

“Wonderful,” he murmured.

Burdett pressed close, trying to see. “What is it?”

“Company.” Jimmy was sneaking down the alley, skirting the trashcans and parked cars. Frankie was nowhere in sight but he had to be there and there was no way they wouldn’t see them when they made a dash for the car.

Assistance or more like rescue came in the form of an SUV, pulling into the alley right behind Jimmy. Jimmy saw it at the same time and he straightened up, hiding his gun and waving, like he was saying hello.

Perfect. John grabbed Burdett’s arm and dragged him to the car, using his body for cover. He opened the back door and shoved him in with a terse, “Get in. Stay down.” He didn’t wait for an answer but scrambled into the front seat, started the engine and back he went. Not soon enough because Jimmy had seen them. He began firing, uncontrolled shots that hit nothing but air, using the SUV for cover.

John twisted in the seat, one arm on the back and picked up speed. Past the houses and garages, careening into the street to do a counter-clockwise forty-five degree turn.

And there was Frankie. Standing in the middle of the street, aiming straight for them. He was smiling, that cool, smartass smile of his and he’d been probably waiting for this moment for so long.

“Mr. Reese?”

He didn’t have to look over his shoulder to know that Burdett was peering over the seat. “I told you to stay down.” He gave the car some gas. “And stop calling me that.” He floored it, from zero to thirty to forty in a heartbeat. Frankie threw off a few rounds but desperate didn’t equal suicidal—he dove to the left as John flew by, missing him by a few inches.

“Mr. Reese?”

He took the corner of Manhattan too fast and they skidded wildly before centering. “I told you to stop calling me that.”

There was a pause, then Burdett murmured, “Did you kill my driver?”

“No. He’ll have a bad headache when he wakes up, but that’s all.”

“Where are we going?”

“I have no idea.” Frankie was probably on the phone to Charlie. Which meant he was in for it. All the places he frequented were known to Charlie—the hotel, the liquor store, the gym where he worked out.

“Then may I suggest a place? So we can talk?”

“Where?”

“A park I know. Near the river. We’ll be safe there. At least, as safe as one can be in this type of situation.”

“Okay.”

“Just keep heading south. And then we’ll talk.”

John shrugged against the odd feeling that the tables had somehow turned, that instead of being the protector he was suddenly the protected.

Oh, well. At least Burdett had stopped calling him by a dead man’s name.

***

The park ended up being Roosevelt Island, a spit of land tucked under the Queensboro Bridge. In the wide-open, yes, but with available cover in case he needed it. He pulled into a parking space and cut the engine. Without a word, Burdett got out and headed towards a bench that faced the water. John followed.

His heart was still pounding from the chase, his temples damp, and the sudden change of scenery, from violent to pastoral, was disorienting. He felt as if he and Burdett were standing before a diorama pretending to be the city, the only living things in an artificial world.

“Well?” he finally said when Burdett didn’t speak.

Burdett made a helpless gesture, still looking at the river. “I almost don’t know where to start.”

“At the beginning?” Like, how do you know my name and why is Charlie afraid of you? “The beginning is always a good place.”

“The beginning,” Burdett murmured, as if he’d never heard of such a thing. “I’ll try.” He stepped towards the bench when John realized he was only wearing his vest and no coat. And that it was getting cold.

“Wait—” He took his jacket off and held it out. “Here.”

Burdett turned and looked, first at the coat and then at John. And there was that feeling again as they stared at each other, as if the world had ceased to spin and he was left off balance, wondering what had just happened.

Burdett broke the moment by taking the coat with a stilted, “Thank you.” He pulled it on and sat down. John sat next to him, a careful two feet away.

“So,” Burdett said, “I’m going to tell you a story.”

“A bedtime story?”

Burdett slanted him an impatient look. “Hardly.” He turned back to the river. “No, this is a story about two men. You see, Mr. Reese, I have been watching—and waiting, I might add—for you for a very long time.”

***

It was dark by the time Burdett finished his crazy story. Of how he’d been monitoring John for years. How he’d hacked his records, both civilian and military, to keep track of him. Even the government files that were supposed to be off limits except to a very few. How he'd planned to offer John a job when it looked like drinking was going to be his new career path. And how that plan had been preempted by Charlie.

“You mean to say all of this wouldn’t have happened if Charlie hadn’t been on the subway that night? That he wouldn’t have seen me take out those punks?”

Burdett nodded. “I saw the tape. You were…” He shook his head. “Impressive. Mr. Burton must have thought so, too.”

John wrapped his arms around his chest. It had grown cold as well as dark and he wished he hadn’t given away his coat. “I don’t believe you.”

“I don’t much care if you believe me or not, Mr. Reese. It’s what happened. My lawyer was on his way to the police station when Charlie Burton showed up. If it hadn’t been for him, I would have paid your bail and my men would have brought you to me. When I found out what had happened, it was too late. I looked for you, but you were off the grid.”

He squinted up at the bridge. “And you were going to offer me a job?”

Burdett nodded. “Yes. A job.”

“Why?”

“Because you could do what I can’t." Burdett gestured to his leg. "Because you needed something.”

“What did I need?” It was hard to remember, the man he’d been back then, drunk every day, miserable, suicidal.

“You needed a purpose.”

“Purpose,” he murmured, because yes, when Charlie had bailed him out and got him cleaned up, so earnest and forthright, John had thought, here’s a man I can work with, possibly follow. It wasn’t until later that he found out the truth and by then it was too late.

Burdett shifted sideways to face him. “Yes, purpose. It’s something you still need. This can’t go on, you know—whatever you do for Charlie Burton has got to stop.”

He shook his head, unsure if he were shaking off the truth of Burdett’s words or the impossibility of change. Not anything he wanted to think about right now. “What have you got on Charlie? Why is he so afraid of you?”

“I don’t know. All Ido know is that Charlie Burton isn’t really Charlie Burton. The real Charles Burton died years ago—the man you know assumed his name a year later.”

He should have known; he did know. “What’s his real name?”

“I have no idea. Just that he has ties to the Cosa Nostra and someone named Elias. Which means Burton is a very dangerous man, Mr. Reese. I believe he or someone in his crew killed a former detective to keep his secret.”

Well, that wasn’t a surprise—it had probably been Frankie—he’d gone out a month ago and had come back, smiling like a cat full of cream. “And this fake me, the one you hired in place of me?”

Burdett shook his head. “Mr. Stills. That was a mistake. I thought he could be rehabilitated. I was wrong. And he’s not very good at the few tasks I’ve given him.” He touched his coat pocket. “I’ve got to find a way out of that relationship.”

John nodded. He knew the feeling.

Burdett watched him for a long moment then said, “So, what do you think?”

“About your job offer?”

“Yes. It’s still on the table. And after working with Mr. Stills these last six months, I know what I’m missing. You and I will make a good team.”

John leaned forward and smiled, not nicely. “I’ve killed a lot of men in those six months, Mr. Burdett. How do you know I won’t kill you?”

But instead of answering, Burdett shook his head. “And that’s another thing. Burdett isn’t my name. You may call me Mr. Finch. And I promise you, that will be the last time I lie to you.”

“Everybody lies, Harold.”

“I’m not everybody. In case you didn't notice.”

The words were knowing, wry, and John swallowed his uninvited smile. “You didn’t answer the question.”

Burdett shook his head and reached in his pocket, saying absently, “You won’t kill me, Mr. Reese and I’m not afraid of you.” He pulled out a photo and held it up so John could see. A boy, maybe thirteen, dark hair and eyes. Along the bottom of the picture in elegant script was an address on the edge of Brighton Beach. “Here’s our first case. This boy is either going to be murdered or murder someone and he’s twelve years old—that’s too young for either of those things.”

“That’s a juvenile detention photo. Unavailable to the general public. How did you get it?”

“Never mind that now. Will you work with me?”

John stared at the photo a long time, then wrapped his arms around his chest. “No.”

Burdett cocked his head, his expression changing from composure to befuddlement. “What do you mean, ‘no?’”

“It’s a simple word and you seem to be a smart man.”

He began to rise, but Burdett stopped him, a hand on his arm. “Mr. Reese, this is your second chance and these people need you. This boy needs you. You can save him.”

“Finch or Burdett or whoever you are, I’m long past a second chance. And no one’s coming to save anyone, least of all me. Here…” He dug out his keys and tossed them at Finch. “If I were you, I’d lose the car before Charlie finds it, but it’s your call. You can keep the coat.”

He left Finch standing in the middle of the empty park, staring after. On his way to find a taxi, he removed his SIM card from his phone, then tossed it in a fountain.

What a crazy night.

 ***

He took refuge in Manhattan, paying an exorbitant amount for the safety of the Mark Hotel. He double-locked the door, closed the drapes, then stripped and showered methodically, planning his next move.

In the morning, he’d retrieve the cash and fake IDs he’d been saving for such a time as this. His clothes and few personal items were a loss but he could easily buy more. He'd lay low for a few days and then assess the situation.

He was getting out the shower, wondering if he were too tired to go down to the bar for a drink when he glanced up, catching his own glance in the mirror. He padded across the cold tile floor and leaned over the sink to stare in his own eyes.

What had he done? What the hell had he done?

He’d blown a good thing for the sake of a total stranger. Well, the thing wasn’t so great and it came with a lot of conditions, but it was better than living on the streets with no purpose, no goal. He’d thrown away years of training, ignored all his natural instincts for a man who would no doubt be dead in a week.

He closed his eyes, unable to bear seeing the answer that was plain as day and turned blindly for the towels. He dried off, then got dressed again and went to lie on the bed.

How long it would take Charlie to find him? He generally stayed on his side of the river, but that had been changing over the last few months. And he never took betrayal well—John knew that better than most. So maybe a week or a month?

It was a problem that wasn't going to get solved overnight and he made himself close his eyes and relax. But just as he was falling asleep, the memory of the boy flashed before his eyes and he was up off the bed, scrubbing his face to get rid of the image. To remind himself that the boy was nothing to him, just as Harold was nothing to him.

He went to the mini-fridge and crouched to root around in it. He found a two-ounce bottle of whiskey that probably cost ten bucks an ounce, then turned on the TV. He watched whatever was on, relentlessly pushing Burdett’s words, his offer, from his mind.

***

In the end it wasn’t a week or a month. It was a little over twenty-four hours.

***

“This isn’t a good idea,” he muttered to himself, peering through the squeaky clean windows, looking for the boy. “You’re cracking up.”

It was true. The minute he’d woken from a shallow sleep, he’d thought of the boy. When he'd dropped the key card off at the reception desk and nodded to the clerk, he’d thought of the boy.

When he stopped by a tiny restaurant for what turned out to be a lousy cup of coffee and a decent breakfast, he'd thought of the boy.

Finally, standing before an old grave in Cavalry Cemetery, brushing dirt off the pouch holding his money and spare gun, he gave up.

He took the taxi back to town, stole a car and set off.

The address wasn’t quite in Charlie’s stomping grounds, but close enough and as he cruised the streets, he told himself he’d give it thirty minutes. If he hadn’t found the boy in that time, he’d leave and not look back.

And forty-five minutes later he was still looking, angry, talking to himself, which was never a good thing. He was crazy; crazy as Burdett and if—

He slowed down, then backed up to see what he was really seeing. “Goddamnit,” he whispered viciously, because yes, he really had seen Burdett inside a bodega, talking to a kid.

He backed up to the curb and got out, striding between the fruit and vegetable stands, into the store. “Harold,” he murmured pleasantly. On the other side of the store, and old man stood frozen, a phone in his hand. John nodded to him as well.

Burdett turned awkwardly, his mouth open in shock. “Mr. Reese. What are you—”

“The same thing as you, apparently.” He turned to the boy. He was taller than his picture made him to be, thin, with a faint trace of acne on his jaw. He was wearing an apron and holding a can of peas and a cloth. “What’s going on here?”

Burdett waved his hand. “I’m trying to convince Julio here to—”

John ignored Burdett and stepped forward. It couldn’t be— “You’re name is Julio?”

The boy nodded.

“Did you hotwire a car yesterday?”

The boy’s eyes narrowed and he shook his head.

“You didn’t steal a car from out there?” He jerked his thumb; the boy jerked, too.

“Tell him,” the older man said in Spanish, coming closer.

The boy shrugged, eyes to the floor. “I didn’t hotwire it; the keys were left in the ignition.”

“You should be a lawyer.” The boy glanced up. Under the hard veneer, he was terrified. “But, I’m not here for that. I just need to know what you did with the car.”

The boy licked his lips, then mumbled, “I left it where I found it. I mean, Idrove it around a couple blocks and I waited for the guy to leave, but then I put it back right where I found it.Honest—” He gripped the can of peas. “My cousin dared me to take it. I wouldn’t have—” He glanced at the older man and shook his head several times.

John sighed. “See, the thing is, Julio, the man you stole the car from? He’s a very bad man.” He smiled, a little regretfully. “And he works for an even worse man. It doesn’t matter if you gave the car back; he’s gonna come looking for you and then he’s gonna kill you.” Burdett shot him a quick glance and shifted from foot to foot. So, however he got his intel, he didn’t know everything. Interesting.

Julio nodded. “He was here yesterday. I told my grandfather, and—” He jerked his head to the old man. “I hid upstairs until he was gone.”

“He’ll be back, probably with his boss. Do you have somewhere you can go? Some place safe?”

The boy nodded cautiously. “My grandfather wants me to go stay with my mom in Florida.”

“Mr. Reese?” Burdett whispered, then pointed to the street when John glanced his way.

He looked over his shoulder. A car was just passing by, a late model Ford. “Harold?”he whispered without looking around. “Take the boy and his grandfather upstairs.”

“But what about—”

He turned. And smiled. “Don’t worry about me. This is what I’m good at.”

Burdett nodded after a moment, then made a shooing gesture to the boy. The boy grabbed his grandfather and all three scurried through the shop, bent low.

John unbuttoned his jacket, then stepped outside. He picked up an orange and held it to his nose. Sweet.

Just as sweet as Frankie’s expression when he strolled up, Joey in tow. “Boys,” he murmured. “What brings you to this part of town?”

Frankie shook his head. “I should have known you’d be mixed up in this. What? The punk is working for you?”

He rolled his eyes. “No. He’s just a stupid kid who did a stupid thing.”

Joey leaned forward, still behind Frankie. “Hey! He stole my car.”

“It was a dare. And he returned it. If you had bothered to wait around, you would have seen him bring it back.” He smelled the orange again. “Does Charlie know you’re here?”

Joey looked at Frankie and Frankie looked at Joey.

“Yeah.” John nodded. “I thought so.” He set the orange down and took a few steps onto the sidewalk, still covering the doorway. “I’ll tell you what—we’re going to call this a wash. You go your way, the kid will go his. He won’t bother you again, you won’t bother him. Because this bodega is off limits—you so much as step foot across the threshold and I’ll know. And it won’t be you who comes looking next time.”

Joey retreated behind Frankie again. But Frankie, he just cocked his head and said, “And you think that’s it? We'll just turn and run?”

“No. I’m confident that when you think about it, you’ll realize this isn’t worth your time or energy.”

“And Charlie?”

“Tell him he was right,” John answered softly. “Change is in the air.”

They stared at each other as Frankie weighed his options—attack or retreat. But, as much as John hated him, he wasn’t a fool and in the end he backed away, nodding shortly.

John watched them go, watched them get in Frankie's car and drive down the street. When they disappeared around the corner, he went back inside.

***

“So, Mr. Reese,” Burdett said as they watched the Greyhound bus disappear around the corner. “Do you think Julio will stay in Florida?”

He shrugged. “He seems like a smart kid."

"And the bank account I opened up for him won't hurt, either."

"I suppose."

“So, does this mean you’re working for me now?”

He smiled at nothing in particular. “I have to, Harold. You wouldn’t last a day out here without me.”

Burdett snorted softly and they turned in unison to walk back to where the town car was waiting. “I think you’d be surprised at what I’m capable of, Mr. Reese. And,” he touched John’s elbow as he climbed into the car, “It’s Mr. Finch. Mr. Burdett is dead.”

John nodded. “Finch, it is.”

***

He waited twenty-four hours. Twenty-four hours, he’d found, was the cut-off point between tense anticipation and angry resignation.

He stood in the alleyway between a candy store and a t-shirt shop, waiting until he’d passed, head down, hands stuffed in pockets.

“Charlie.”

Charlie stopped. And didn’t turn around when he said, “I guess it was stupid of me, letting the boys go on without me. But when you gotta go, you gotta go.”

John nodded. Charlie’s men were about three hundred yards away, ambling up the boardwalk. Too far away to get to him before he got to Charlie, if it came to that.

“So let’s get it over with. Is it going to be a bullet or the knife?”

“I’m not going to kill you, Charlie.” Even though his gun was warm in his hand.

Charlie turned around. He looked much the same as always—pleasant, even kind. “So, what? You’re just gonna let me live?”

“I’m just going to let you live.”

“What if I come for you?”

“I’ll take out your crew, one by one, then I'll come for you. You know I can do it. Besides,” he shrugged, adding, “this is a big city. I doubt we’ll cross paths again.”

“And if we do?”

“Then we’ll meet under less pleasant circumstances.”

Charlie digested that. “And Burdett? Frankie went by his place yesterday. It was for sale.”

John nodded. “He decided he was growing bored with New York.”

“And his job? The one you were telling me about?”

“He grew bored with that, too. He quit yesterday and hopped on a plane. You’ll never find him so you might as well not even try.”

He hit a nerve, said the wrong thing because Charlie’s expression changed, grew red with anger. “You’re giving up all this for him? What is he to you?”

“None of your business.”

Charlie swallowed his anger visibly and his eyes grew kind again. He started forward. “John—”

John raised the gun. Charlie stopped.

“There’s nothing you can say Charlie. I’m taking another path now. And you need to turn around and walk away.”

After a moment, Charlie obeyed, but John didn't wait. He slipped between the buildings to where the black limo waited, the driver standing by the open door. He slid in and the driver closed the door.

He relaxed into the seat as they drove away, absentmindedly stroking the smooth leather, thinking about the next few days.

He’d strip the gun Charlie had given him and dump the parts in the river. When he was done with that, he'd find Stills. It was important to tie up all the loose ends and he was a big loose end. Fusco could help him with that. They’d work out a new deal, change a few things.

And then there was Harold.

He was waiting in that makeshift bat cave of his, reviewing their first case. John still didn’t know if he believed him about the machine and what it could do, but what the hell—he’d been right about Julio. He’d give him a second chance.

He sighed and looked out the window. The day was grey and cloudy, but still, it was kind of pretty.

“Sir?” the driver said.

“Yes?”

“Would you like some music?”

“Sure.”

A song came on, slow and hypnotic but strangely upbeat—the perfect accompaniment to the day, to the start of something new.

He propped his chin on his fist and as the car picked up speed and the city began to flow by, he smiled.

 

 

fin.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Story notes: 

John Reese, Harold Finch, Carl Elias
Person of Interest
9,100+ words 
Episodes referenced: All, but mostly from Witness
All characters belong to people and organizations that are not me