It started with one number.
Harold stared at the computer monitor. Daniel Ralston, age 35. His was the social security number that the machine had just given them.
"Morning, Finch." Harold started, knocking the computer mouse in his surprise.
"Mister Reese," he said, not bothering to disguise his irritation at being caught off guard yet again.
"I have something for you," said Reese. He handed him a record.
"Wayne Shorter," read Harold aloud from the jacket. He should have known that his passing mention of collecting one hundred eighty gram vinyl wouldn't go unremarked.
"He's a jazz musician," said Reese.
"I know who Wayne Shorter is, Mister Reese." Another item for his collections; Harold thought it ironic that he couldn't give up his penchant for amassing things that ultimately would have no meaning in the face of the job he had set for himself and Reese. All of those items would one day be covered in dust, with no one there to care for them.
Maybe Reese had the right idea, not collecting things he cared about... except that he did, Harold realized. The record was exactly the kind of thing that John would want to own.
"I wasn't sure if you liked jazz," Reese said, a question in his voice.
He thought about parrying with his answer; instead he said, "Yes I do," and debated adding something else.
"New number?" asked Reese, interrupting his thoughts.
"Just one this time." He sat back so that Reese could get a better view of the computer monitor.
After a moment of reading he said, "Missing? Who reported it?"
"His wife, yesterday. So far nothing's been made public. Perhaps this would be a good time to ask Detective Fusco for some information."
"I'll give him a call," said Reese. "You have an address for our subject yet?"
"Almost there," replied Harold. He hadn't had much time to start digging into Ralston's life before Reese had arrived. Harold could feel his anticipation building. Finding secrets and putting them together gave him a thrill.
"Okay, here we are." He pointed to the computer screen as John leaned over to read.
"Close to midtown, then."
"Standard procedure, then? I'll check out the place, plant some bugs if no one's home."
"I'll keep looking here, but see if you can find a cell phone bill if you get in the house. This is already looking tricky." A cursory search revealed that the usual information wasn't right at the surface. Interesting.
"Oh, and Mister Reese?"
"Thank you for the record. It was-thoughtful of you."
Reese mumbled something that sounded like a cross between sure and yeah. Finch held back a smile; Reese sounded like he was choking on his response. He was better at giving thanks than accepting it.
Reese phoned to report that the bugs were in place and that he was about to collect the report from Fusco.
"I'm finding some stumbling blocks," Finch told him through the speakers. "Ralston's last work record dates from two thousand seven."
"How do you afford a home near midtown without a job?" asked Reese.
"I'm working on that," he replied. In the background Finch could hear the sounds of the city filtered through car windows as Reese drove.
After a pause Reese asked, "What kind of work did he do before?"
"Medical researcher. He has multiple degrees in biology. Looks like his doctoral work was in virology and immunology. He was working for the hospital near his home."
"Medical researcher? Maybe he works for a pharmaceutical company now?" Reese sounded doubtful over the phone; Virtanen pharmaceuticals had hardly been an ethical company but Finch hadn't spotted any hidden employees, just faked research results.
He sat smiling for a moment as he thought about the look on Keller's face when he told him his company was going down: rage, an impotent fury that Finch took as a down payment for recompense for all the victims like Dana Miller.
"Finch?" Reese interrupted his reminiscing. "I have a couple cell numbers. I'm not sure which is his and which is his wife's, though."
"I'll see if I can activate their microphones and pull GPS from both of them."
Reese read the numbers and then disconnected as he headed toward Fusco's location.
Detective Fusco was eating lunch when Reese approached him. Finch was still digging for information, letting some of his attention wander to the camera feeds he had tapped into. When he noticed Reese appear onscreen as well he turned on the microphone of Reese's cell phone.
Back to the computers-Daniel Ralston had published some interesting articles about viruses as delivery systems in patients with debilitating muscular diseases. Finch took a moment to walk to the library stacks and grab the medical terminology dictionary. Sometimes books were easier than computers; he needed to stand up and stretch anyway.
By the time he got back to the computer, Fusco was telling Reese something about Ralston not posing a threat.
Fusco continued. "What was interesting was what Missing Persons didn't say."
"It's been twenty-four hours, but as far as I can tell, the report's been buried. Which tells me that someone's applying some pressure somewhere." Finch glanced at the screen showing the street corner camera; even with the grainy feed, he could see the frustration in Fusco's body language.
"Who would have that kind of leverage with the NYPD?"
"Feds. Anti-terrorism task force. Military."
"Anything else?" asked Reese.
"This guy in trouble?" asks Fusco. "Is he gonna make trouble?"
Reese didn't answer the question. "I'll be in touch, Lionel."
Reese called him next. "Have you found out anything about Ralston's current work situation?" he asked.
"No, but I'm guessing it may be something classified, from what Detective Fusco told you."
"That was my guess, too. So what next?"
"Ralston's wife is upset, but she doesn't know anything. Ralston hasn't used his phone in two days." He texted the address to Reese.
"On my way," said Reese, and disconnected the call.
"I found the phone inside the trunk of a car."
Harold digested that bit of information and waited for the next.
"The trunk had been kicked open from the inside."
Had Ralston been forced into that car trunk? Kidnapping would explain the man's disappearance, but why hadn't he shown up yet? He had to have been alive still this morning when his number showed up.
"Did you find anything else in there?" asked Finch.
"Nothing that appears useful. Could you run the plates for me? I want to know who this car belongs to." Reese texted him the number.
"Got it," said Finch.
"I'm going to look around and see if I spot anything else."
"Yes, and bring me that cell phone, Mister Reese."
The car was registered to a shell company, but Finch knew how to follow money trails. Money didn't lie and it eventually traced back to Epsilon Strategy Corporation, known as ESC, a privately traded company.
Reese came in with his usual silent entry. Finch told him, "I've been trying to hack into the transportation department's traffic feeds. There should be a camera here"-he pointed to a spot on the screen close to the dot representing the car where Reese found the phone-"and here."
"Having a hard time?" asked Reese.
"Nothing I can't manage," he answered. He had hacked this website once already-before he had recruited Reese, when his hours were spent fruitlessly tracking people but unable to take effective action. "Do you have that cell phone?"
Reese placed a phone on the desk. "Happy birthday, Harold," he said with a deliberately blank tone.
Finch ignored Reese's attempt to get a reaction out of him. "Could you take a look at Ralston's workplace?"
"Sure thing." Reese pushed away from the desk. "Want me to ask his co-workers any questions?"
Finch furrowed his brow. "I think we'd better wait until we know something more definite. Unless inspiration strikes you."
Reese smiled at that last comment and started walking out.
"Careful, Mister Reese. A company that takes this much care to hide isn't going to make it easy for you to get inside. Or back out, for that matter."
After Reese left, Finch examined the cell phone. All messages and texts from before two days ago had been erased; nothing was left except some messages and texts from the wife, each increasingly desperate in tone.
Someone to miss him if he's dead, thought Finch. It was more than what he had right now, though that was mostly his choice.
He watched the traffic recordings multiple times before he spotted it-someone walking on the far side of the side from the camera, a strange lurch in his step, like he'd been wounded. More of an irregular gait than his own walk, mused Finch. To him the man looked like Ralston, but he couldn't be sure. No way to zoom in with this kind of recording; he took two screen shots and put the pictures into the enhancement software.
"Finch?" Reese's voice startled him, a talent he would've thought was only available in closer proximity.
"Yes, Mister Reese?"
"Something is definitely wrong here."
"Define wrong." While waiting for Reese to answer, Finch pulled up the results of the enhancement: definitely their subject. Ralston looked blank in one of the pictures and deranged in the other. Being locked in a car trunk might do that to a person, he supposed.
"There was a firefight, multiple shots fired." Reese paused and then added, "Apparent casualties, based on the blood spatters."
"Have you called the police yet?"
"As soon as I finish taking a look around. I'd rather be scarce when they get here." Finch could hear the sound of doors being opened and closed in the background.
After another minute Reese quietly said, "Damn. Just found Ralston." Reese sighed over the phone line. "He's been shot multiple times. And decapitated."
Finch repeated Reese's last words out of disbelief. "Shot and decapitated?"
"Yeah. There's another body here as well, gunshot victim, no decapitation." Another pause and then Reese said, "We need to get whoever did this. There are cameras here; I'm going to look for the security office."
Harold went back to work, alternating between reading Ralston's articles about virus-delivered transgenes and digging through ESC's financial records. The company did a lot of private government contracts but Finch hadn't been able to find what the contracts were for yet.
A loud shriek came out of the speakers, making him jump. "Mister Reese?" he said urgently. "John?"
No answer, just a series of unidentifiable thudding noises. Then John's voice, a whispered snarl, saying something not directed at him. "Who are you?"
He heard a whimper and gasp, then: "Mike Trejo."
"Tell me what happened here."
"I-we. They came after us."
"Who came after you?"
"Those guys, we thought they were dead and one was shot but these others, we started moving them, but they weren't dead, they weren't, they-" Mike's voice got higher and higher as he spoke.
"Mike." Reese's voice sounded calm and commanding. "Breathe slower, Mike. Let's sit you down."
Finch heard more gasping through the microphone, then a stuttering narrative from Trejo. Apparently two series of events had occurred at ESC's lab: the first one Trejo knew nothing about, although Finch would guess that an angry Daniel Ralston had been part of it. Trejo had been part of a clean-up crew sent in to deal with the bodies. They couldn't have been dead, though-they were part of the second event.
Trejo's voice was still trembling as he described what happened next. "One of 'em bit Victor and he screamed and fell and it was like he was havin' a seizure or something and that was when Eddy ran and I locked myself in the office." He took another deep breath and continued. "They were banging at the door but then it got real quiet."
"Did you see anything else?"
"No. I-I didn't come out again."
"Mike. Can you show me if Victor is still out there?"
Finch heard a door open and several footsteps. "Last I seen him was over there," said Trejo.
Another door opened. "Finch. Found a body. No pulse."
"But he does have bite marks? Broken skin?" asked Harold.
"Yes, he does." Both of them stayed silent for a moment and then Reese said, "I think I'll stay here for a bit, watch Victor here and get some more details from our pal Mike."
Finch let out a breath. "I'm going to check something out. I'll get back to you if it's relevant." Before disconnecting he added, "Don't forget how Ralston's body was... taken care of."
Something about the word bite echoed in his mind. He'd been trying to sleep last night, listening to the news as a soporific; it had merely been background noise, but there had been something about a bite...
He found it in the police incident report: a woman waiting at a bus stop had been bitten by a passerby; she'd collapsed at the scene. No name released for the victim, and the perpetrator hadn't been caught. Finch checked the location of the attack; it was in a direct line between Ralston's work place and the car trunk where Ralston's phone had been found.
Time to find out more details about what had happened to the bite victim, except that something else was happening. "Four numbers?" he said aloud.
"Mister Reese," he said.
"Kinda-busy here, Finch," answered Reese, his words interrupted with gasps.
After a minute of disturbing noises, Reese started talking again. "Victor here started moving again."
"I take it you had to-"
"Yeah. Hang on," said Reese. Finch heard a retching noise. "Sorry."
"No need to apologize," Harold told him. "I'm certain it was... unpleasant."
"Mike's gone. He started running when his dead buddy stood up."
"That's an understandable reaction."
Reese took a deep breath. "Got any explanation for this, Finch?"
Harold quirked his mouth up at the corner. "Have you watched many horror movies, Mister Reese?"
"Funny," answered Reese with an expressionless voice.
"I'm hoping you can find some additional information from the security office there. I assume you haven't had a chance to locate it so far?"
"No. I've been otherwise occupied."
"I keep coming back to the research papers Ralston published when he was working for the hospital. He was interested in using viruses to deliver genetic modifications. He was working to try and strengthen patients who had muscular weakness-" Finch stopped talking to find a link he wanted.
"Muscular weakness?" Reese's voice had an odd tone. "So his goal was to increase muscle strength?"
"That would be the objective, yes."
A sigh and then, "Victor was really strong. If I hadn't been trained, I doubt I could have taken him down. And shooting at him didn't do anything."
Harold had to ask the question that occurred to him next. "You don't have any broken skin, do you?"
"No, I was careful. That was part of what made it difficult-keeping his head away from me."
"We have other problems right now," Harold told him.
"Four other numbers. Three of them don't have obvious current employment and they had all worked in the medical field before."
Reese said, "Mike told me that there were five bodies on the ground when they got here: the gunshot victim, Ralston, and three with bite marks."
"I think I can account for the other one. A woman waiting for a bus was bitten yesterday."
"What happened to her?"
"She collapsed there, was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead."
"But she wasn't?"
Finch frowned. "There's nothing contradicting the report of her death, but that hospital had a number of violent incidents reported several hours after she was pronounced dead."
Reese was momentarily silent as he absorbed the information. "So she woke up but no one corrected the death report in the confusion she caused."
"I'm not sure that wake up is the right term here, Reese. Do you know much about the rabies virus?"
Noise from more doors opening and closing came through the speakers. Reese must be looking for the security office now. "Not really. It occurs in mammals and it's spread by biting."
"A bite isn't actually necessary, just the exposure to the saliva into the bloodstream. What matters here is that the virus takes over the host via the nervous system. The infected animal basically becomes a mobile virus-spreading machine."
"Found the security office," Reese reported. "Do you think this is some version of rabies, then?"
"Doubtful. Rabies has a long incubation period, weeks or even months. What I'm thinking of is the potential connection to the nervous system and how Mister Ralston and Victor died. Really died, rather."
Reese put the pieces together. "If I interrupt the nervous system at a key point, it could stop someone who's already infected."
"You'll get to check out the theory soon enough. When you're done in the office, I think I have a location for two of our current numbers. They still have their cell phones, apparently."
A sigh came over the phone line. "This is big, Finch."
"I know. I'd call in Fusco, but..."
"Regular police aren't really equipped to handle this," Reese agreed. "I've downloaded everything I can find from the office and I'm about to send you some pictures as well."
"I'll text you the two locations," said Finch, and disconnected the call. Time to use other resources to locate the other two.
Reese called him forty-five minutes later. "A shot to the back of the neck," he said.
"I was able to take them both down with a hunting rifle using a shot to the back of the neck." Before Finch could say anything-congratulations seemed a bit out of place, he thought-Reese continued talking. "We've got more problems, though."
"More bite victims?"
"I saw at least four bodies on the ground near them. All of them had been bitten."
Finch rubbed his eyes. "The Machine gave us six more numbers in the last twenty minutes," he admitted.
"Six?" Reese's tone was quietly incredulous.
"I think the Machine is now using their reawakening as the parameter for lethal intent. After all, I did program it to learn from what it observes."
Reese was reloading a weapon; Finch could hear the familiar click of metal against metal.
He had so many unanswered questions, so many things he needed to tell Reese, but they were losing time. "Mister Reese," he said, deliberately using his most formal tone. "I need you to dispatch the bite victims that haven't been... reanimated."
Finch heard a sharp breath, but John didn't answer.
"Severing the spinal cord would probably suffice."
"It would," Reese finally said. He didn't argue or protest.
"I'm sorry, John," he quietly told him. Reese disconnected the call without saying anything else.
Finch wondered how many people John Reese had been ordered to kill with the same kind of justification: that it was for the greater good. Sacrificing a few for the sake of many.
He doubted it was much comfort to John that it was so obviously true this time. Taking that kind of action-Finch knew he could do it in theory, but would he have the fortitude to follow through? He didn't have to find out; just asking Reese to do this left a sour taste in his mouth, a wrenching feeling in his gut.
At least one thing gave him a brief sensation of hope: he'd figured out the probable location of six of the eight active numbers, using a combination of cell phone tracking systems, police incident reports and surveillance cameras.
Reese started his conversation with a direct, "Took care of Hughes and Sharma, plus five more infected. Where to next?"
Finch read off the location for the closest of the active numbers and sent a picture of the subject; then he said, "I've made a report to the NYPD and HMH. You may see some teams out there. I'll try and coordinate it so that you're working different parts of the city."
This was getting too big. Too much for one man, even a trained agent such as John. Too hopeless without knowing if anything could be done to those already bitten to halt the viral infection.
"How many numbers came in?" asked Reese, his tone wary.
"Fourteen in the last hour."
Reese took a deep breath. "Do the teams know what they're getting into?"
"They will soon enough," Harold replied. "I've warned them, but I expect it will be a shock anyway."
Turning back to the computer screen, he winced at the familiar pain from staying too long in the same position. That wasn't going to change anytime soon, however; he wondered when either of them would have an opportunity to stop working long enough to sleep.
"Damn," Harold said to himself. He'd hoped that he could get help soon enough to stop it from happening, but it was too late. On the computer monitor he watched the dot identifying Anna Melnick leave Manhattan to cross into Brooklyn. The virus-or whatever it was-was no longer limited to the island. Apparently the SWAT team in SoHo hadn't contained her.
His phone rang again. "How many numbers now?" Reese asked. His voice sounded gravelly, the tone somehow off.
"Are you okay, Mister Reese?"
"How many active numbers?" he repeated.
"Thirty-nine." A little more than eighteen hours since the Machine gave them Daniel Ralston's number. He had spent the last few hours alternating between tracking the locations of the numbers, the locations of the SWAT teams, texting Reese with information for the next active number and contacting as many different people and agencies as he could.
He hadn't eaten anything since before the first number; honestly, he didn't know if he could keep the food down at this point.
Reese stayed silent. Finally he said, "We're losing. If it's thirty-nine with all of us out there, we're not going to stop it."
Harold didn't flinch this time when Reese stepped into the library. He'd glanced at the computer screen and noticed Reese's location moments ago.
He leaned forward and turned off the speakers connected to the phone line. "I know," he said. "I've contacted someone at Homeland Security-"
"Did you know they sent out homicide officers to investigate?" asked Reese, his expression bleak.
Finch blinked. "I guess it would be the normal routine," he said, briefly confused. He hadn't thought of what normal might be for several hours.
"Fusco's dead," Reese said abruptly. "I didn't think to warn him, so I had to stick a knife in the back of his neck."
"Oh," Finch breathed. He was left momentarily wordless.
"I need to get you somewhere safe."
"I'm perfectly safe here, Mister Reese, and I'm busy."
"You won't be busy if you're dead," Reese told him.
"I've blocked off almost all the entrances to the library. You've never seen anyone else here, have you? Plus my equipment is here and I don't have time-"
"I thought you might say that."
Reese suddenly pulled him backward and Harold felt a pinch in his left arm. "Sorry, Harold," was the last thing he heard before everything went hazy.
He woke up inside a windowless room painted a soft white. It was quiet-the kind of quiet that comes from a great deal of money, assuming he was still in New York City. A panic room.
Pulling himself up slowly, he looked around. The room wasn't decorated but it contained kitchen appliances, a bathroom, and, more importantly, a table covered with computer equipment. He walked to the door that didn't lead to the bathroom; it resembled the entrance to a bank vault, and it was locked.
Harold knew that John Reese would leave a clue, something to indicate how to open the door from the inside if needed. But since Harold was already here, he had to deal with other priorities.
He took a drink of water from the sink and walked around the room. In front of the largest computer monitor Harold saw a plate covered with food and wrapped in plastic; a note was taped to the top that said, "Eat me!"
Next to the plate was a copy of Alice in Wonderland. Apparently Reese was concerned that he might miss the joke.
He reached in his pockets and found his cell phone; his inbox was full of text messages with alerts for new numbers. Scrolling through them, he recognized a pattern that surprised him, though he should have expected it.
He called Reese. "How long ago did you plan this?"
"Shortly after we met. Don't worry, Finch, you paid for it."
He would be tempted to laugh if it weren't for the vaguely unsettled feeling that remained from whatever drug Reese had used to sedate him.
"Don't do that again," Harold told him, his voice as blunt and forceful as he could make it without pushing his body too hard.
Reese didn't respond to the admonition; instead he said, "I hope one of those chairs is comfortable. You're going to be sitting in it for a while."
Harold glanced down; the computer table had three different chairs in front of it. He grabbed the middle chair and sat down in front of the computer, in front of the plate of food he was ignoring.
"Call me back after you've eaten something," said Reese. "There's more food in the fridge and I've got plenty to keep me busy for now."
"I don't need a parent," Finch snapped.
Reese's next comment was uncharacteristically conciliatory. "You have to be my eyes and ears. I can't do my job without your help. And besides, you-I'd miss your scintillating conversation."
Harold still didn't unwrap the plate of food, but he did allow himself a small smile as he started using the computer mouse.
Reese was silent, though he didn't disconnect. Finally he said, "Harold?"
"There are helicopters and I hear the bridges are closed now. I'm guessing it's gotten a lot worse."
"The Machine stopped sending me numbers an hour ago," Harold told him.
"I told you it learned from observation. The situation has gone from irrelevant to relevant."
Reese paused and then said, "I think I still need to be out here."
It would be fighting against the tide, but Finch had seen the evidence himself; Reese was more effective than most of the teams out there. "I would agree."
He felt anticipation and dread for what John was probably going to say next. He had hoped this day would never come.
"You told me once that you left a back door to get the numbers out. I think it's time to kick that door down."
Harold deliberately unwrapped the plate of food. This might be the last ostensibly unwanted gift that John Reese would be able to give him. "I think you're right, John."