A/N: An alternate meeting for Finch and Reese.
Harold walked, shoulders slightly bowed, toward the library. He had failed – again. He had tried to tell a woman that her life was in imminent danger, that her ex-husband had hired some thugs to kill her in order to have sole custody of their sons, but she had laughed it off, saying her ex did not have the money or the hutzpah to do something like that. Harold had followed her, nervously wondering what – if anything – he would be able to do when the thugs showed up.
The answer had been painful: nothing at all. She was crossing the street when an SUV came seemingly out of nowhere to throw her forty feet against a brick wall before speeding off. There had been no license plate for anyone to see, and even before Harold had limped up to where a crowd was gathering around the woman, he knew there was no chance of her surviving such a horrendous trauma. He had waited with a few other onlookers until the ambulance arrived. The verdict was quick and final: dead upon impact. It was yet another nail in the coffin of guilt Harold was constructing for himself in his mind. One more Number he had failed to save. One more life that had slipped out of reach….
With his mind preoccupied with such morbid matters, he did not notice the three men skulking in the shadows of the scaffolding. Harold knew every access point of the library by now and had created a randomizing app for his cell that told him which one to use. Perhaps familiarity had bred contempt; perhaps he was simply too disheartened and discouraged to think straight. His usual vigilance wavered and he walked straight into the alley where one man stood with a lead pipe in his hand.
“Wallet, watch, and everything in your pockets,” the man demanded as he loomed suddenly before Harold.
“What? I… I…” Harold stammered, freezing in shock.
“You heard the man – empty your pockets,” said the other thief coming up behind him. He smashed an empty beer bottle against the building, the sound of shattering glass echoing in the narrow space. “Make it quick.”
“Okay, okay!” Harold answered, holding up his hands in helpless surrender. He was angry at himself for having walked into the trap, frustrated at yet another proof of his impotence in the face of crime. While he removed the watch from his wrist with trembling hands, the third man – on the lookout at the entrance of the alley – tensed as an even larger shadow lumbered toward them.
“Hurry up,” the first man growled, causing Harold to fumble and drop his wallet. He bent to pick it up, despite his hip protesting in pain, just as the shaggy hulk of a homeless man paused to take in the tableau with vague disinterest.
“Keep movin’, Wise Guy – nuthin’ to see here,” the lookout man hissed, but the newcomer did not budge. Instead, he took another swig from the bottle hidden in his paper bag and assessed the situation lackadaisically.
“This isn’t an efficient operation,” came an unexpectedly smooth voice from behind the mass of facial hair. “Three men to rob one mark? Split three ways, the contents of his wallet won’t go very far. So you have to repeat the process, but in different parts of the city so the cops don’t catch on. You’d do better selling drugs. Stay in the same area, too, so you’d spend less on the subway.”
“Mind your own business,” the man with the broken bottle snarled, shoving the makeshift weapon menacingly in the interloper’s direction.
“Well, that’s just the problem,” the homeless man continued in an even tone. “I don’t have any business of my own, and at the moment I’m a little curious about yours. Are you planning on committing your felony and then leaving? Or are you going to rough up that guy just for the hell of it?”
“What’s it to you?” the man with the pipe asked, taking a step closer to Harold.
“I might have some moral objection to that,” the homeless man replied mildly. “You’ve got his money and his watch. If you leave now, I won’t have to hurt you.”
The thugs burst out laughing. “What are you, crazy? There’s three of us and only one of you – unless you think Glasses here can help!”
The hulking man shrugged. “I’ve had worse odds before.” Before they could respond to his words, he threw his bottle into the pipe-wielding man’s face, took out the lookout man with a palm slice to the throat, then shoved the man’s body against his partner’s broken beer bottle before punching that man in the eye. The pipe-wielder raised his weapon but hit only empty air as the homeless man whirled around and landed a punch on his elbow with a sickening crunch, then removed the pipe from his hands easily. Pointing the confiscated pipe in the man’s face, almost touching his nose, the vagabond rescuer spoke calmly, his breathing not even labored. “I think you’d better leave this man’s wallet and watch here… before I decide to collect your wallets and watches.”
“Okay! Sure, whatever, Dude!” the criminal hastily agreed, pulling the stolen goods back out of his pocket and tossing them at Harold. The other two – one bleeding from a gash in his chest and the other blinded in one eye – were already stumbling back toward the city street. Harold managed to catch his wallet but the watch slipped through his fingers and fell to the ground. He struggled to retrieve it, and by the time he had straightened back up, there was no sign of the thugs. The homeless man tossed the pipe onto a pile of refuse.
“You all right?” he asked Harold with a slight upward nod, indicating Harold’s stiff hip.
“I’m fine – it’s an old injury,” Harold explained, still somewhat in shock. “Thank you. You didn’t have to do that, but… I’m very glad you intervened.”
The large man only shrugged. “Nothing better to do. Bottle was almost empty, anyway.”
“Uh… May I,” Harold began, hesitating momentarily but deciding to forge on. “I don’t want to encourage your addiction, but it seems only fair to buy you another bottle.”
“Do I seem inebriated to you?” the taller man asked. Harold detected a note of humor in the sarcasm.
“No. You seem… quite capable and… efficient. So I suppose it wouldn’t weigh on my conscience at all to replace your drink.”
“Damn good of you.” The man lumbered out of the alley, slowly, as though he sensed that Harold would not be able to follow at a quicker pace.
“May I ask where you learned how to fight like that?” Harold began anew as they walked side-by-side down the street.
“Why? You wanna learn some self-defense?”
“That might not be a bad idea, considering recent events, but I’m more interested to find someone as talented as you… fallen on tough times.”
The man shrugged again. “Economy’s down. Not a lot of work out there. And I’m not really ‘talented.’”
“Oh, I beg to differ – from where I stand, you’re immensely talented,” Harold countered. “You’re very capable of defending yourself. It’s no doubt a necessary skill for survival, especially on the streets, but for someone like me… it’s a very enviable talent, as you may imagine.”
The man glanced at Harold as though appraising him.
“You look like you could afford to hire that kind of ‘talent’ – a couple of bodyguards, maybe, or a well-trained driver.”
“How very astute of you; in fact, I have all of those,” Harold confessed. “I just happen to be… well, in a rather delicate business, to tell you the truth – one that requires some… anonymity. And I’m not sure my guards would continue to protect me when I’m… possibly breaching the terms of the contract I signed with their agency.”
The homeless man stopped and reassessed Harold with one brow arched. “You’re doing something illegal?”
“Not deliberately, no; and certainly not anything that would break the spirit of the law,” Harold assured him. “But I do find myself… at odds, shall we say, with some minor points of the law as far as the letter is concerned. Occasionally.”
Harold thought he saw a smile creeping into the man’s face under his shaggy beard, although it was hard to tell in the dim blue shadows of the streetlights. “I’m almost afraid to ask,” was all he said.
“To be honest, I would have to vet you before I could tell you any more,” Harold responded. “But I do think your talents might be… uniquely suited for the type of work that I’m doing. If you’re interested, I may be able to offer you a job.”
“And here I was just hoping you’d be good for a new bottle,” the man deadpanned, but Harold was now sure that his mysterious rescuer was intrigued by the offer.
“You saved me from a terrible inconvenience at best and grave bodily harm at worst,” he told him. “I think I can do better than just refill your drink. Can I interest you in some lodgings for the night? A hot shower and a soft bed, possibly some new clothes?”
The man seemed to mull it over for a second before he nodded. “My appointment calendar happens to be open tonight.”
Harold smiled, warmed by the dry wit his new acquaintance possessed. “This way, then – I’ll call for my driver to pick us up at that corner after we’ve purchased a replacement bottle for you. Consider it an earnest payment.”