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A Corner on the Limbo Market

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There were three freshly-painted blank walls in Neal’s new prison cell that were just crying out to be drawn on, and Neal had come by a bit of pencil his first day back.  But four days had passed and he still hadn’t figured out what to draw.

He didn’t even have the excuse that his hand hurt, anymore, and the shaking had passed off as well.  But the only image left in his mind was one that defied pencil lines.

In desperation he started on an abstract: a miracle of dissonance and resolution, lines embodying and containing chaos.  Slowly the work absorbed him, so that he almost didn’t hear the footsteps slapping toward him.  He turned just as the guard appeared.

“Caffrey, you’ve got a visitor coming.”

A visitor.  Not, Someone’s come to get you, not, Get ready, you’re being moved today.  With two words Neal could read the situation outside the prison without effort.

“Okay,” he said.  “I need to call my lawyer.”

*

Peter took out his phone and called Elizabeth.  “I’m being deposed by Justice in the morning.”

“How bad do you think it’ll be?” she said, grimly.

“No idea.  But I guess this time tomorrow we’ll know if I still have a career.”

“You know what, let me take you shopping this afternoon.  You could use a few new shirts to go with your new suit.”

Peter tried to smile.  “Okay.  Worse comes to worst, I can always wear them to job interviews.”

“That’s the spirit,” Elizabeth said, with affectionate sarcasm.

*

Neal went back to his abstract, thinking.  Even if Peter was just coming as a visitor, at least something was moving, instead of just hanging suspended like a dust cloud of debris in the air.  And once Neal had seen him, he’d know what way to take to get his feet on the ground and running.

After that, though, Neal had no idea.  It was better not to think about that yet.

The lines under his pencil were looking too much like flames.  Neal corrected them with more and straighter lines.  Peter was right, it was better to step back than to run headlong toward them.  Better to step back.

*

“Neal, get back,” Peter shouted.

But the words were just scraps of debris in the burning maelstrom, and Neal struggled free of his grasping hands, and reeled forward.  There had to be a way to get close enough for rescue, but Neal’s velocity passed through cold mist and smoke to infernal radiance that brought him to a final, forcible halt.  His throat was raw, either from shouting or from the superheated air, or both.  When Peter got hold of him again, he was on his knees, blindly feeling out for a way to crawl forward, and not finding it.

In the end he had to let Peter lift him and drag him back out of the burning air, back under the shelter of the hangar.  Time passed in speeding bursts: at first there was only the two of them—only the two of them—and then there were sirens and flashing lights, and steam swirling with the mist and the smoke; and then he was propped standing against a car that hadn’t been there before and Peter was talking to him, wrapping his hand in the handkerchief that Peter carried more for handling evidence than hygiene.  Neal supposed his hand must be evidence of some kind: he looked down and saw that his palm and fingers were an angry red.  Further down, the knees of his trousers were scuffed and scorched.

His hearing was muted, as if his eardrums had retracted past function.  Peter said something that sounded like, Neal, look at me, and Neal tried, but he couldn’t get his vision to stop jumping.  He felt as if his whole consciousness had been sucked in on itself.  He shook his head, but it didn’t help.

There were more people, and more voices: suits and uniforms, and the remains of the burning jet were obscured by fire trucks with all their lights going.  Peter’s handkerchief was damp in his hand; Peter must have dipped it in water before wrapping his hand in it.

Time zipped again, and Peter was arguing with a fed who stood before them with a pair of cuffs in one hand.  The cuffs must be meant for him, which made sense to Neal.  You have a disaster.  You call the fire trucks and the paramedics.  Then you call the police and the feds and arrest the felon on the scene.  That much was obvious.

But Peter wasn’t having any of it.  All at once, with a hollow snap, Neal’s hearing came back, and Peter’s voice shouting was a thing he had never heard before, like something tearing, rending itself over and over, and he could hardly register the words.  Something in Peter had been let off the chain, and Neal was frightened.

“Peter!” he said, and as if by miracle Peter broke off and swung toward him, his face flushed, his eyes deadly dark.

“Peter, don’t,” Neal said.  “It’s okay.”  He looked at the fed.  “It’s okay.  I’ll go with you.  I’ll do whatever.  It doesn’t matter.”

“Neal—” Peter started. 

The fed scrutinized Neal and said, “Is this a confession?”  Peter drew a furious breath, but Neal didn’t need him.

“No,” he said.  “I’m not responsible for this.”  Existentially speaking, he was, but even in this state Neal knew better than to say that.  “But I’m the felon on the scene, right?  I know how this works.”

How his voice could sound so level and firm when Neal himself had been incinerated and blown away, he didn’t know; but even the fed seemed to recognize the total lack of bitterness in his tone.  He nodded, and they moved toward one another; but Neal was stopped by Peter’s grip on his shoulder.

“Neal,” he said, “I will fix this.”

Involuntarily Neal looked out the hangar, at the still-flashing lights and the thinning drifts of steam and smoke.  At what Peter so manifestly couldn’t fix; and Peter’s hand fell away.

“Oh, God damn it,” Peter said hoarsely, and turned away from the disaster, and Neal, and the fed who had paused to watch them.  He pulled himself together with a short, sharp breath and turned back, lifting his hands in an inarticulate gesture.

Neal’s own hand throbbed.  He unwound the handkerchief from his fingers—with difficulty, because his hands were shaking so hard he could scarcely get them to obey him—and pushed it into Peter’s hands, just as the fed reached for his wrist.  “It’s okay, Peter,” he said.  “Don’t worry.”

Peter stood blank and silent, watching Neal submit to being cuffed.  “Don’t worry,” Neal said again.  “It’s okay.”

The fed installed him in the back seat of his car and shut the door.  On the instant, Peter was there with three fingertips on the window, bending to look in.  He still looked distrait, but he was Peter again.  Suddenly Neal could focus his gaze in one place.  Their eyes met and touched.

Peter said faintly through the glass:  “I’m sorry,” and he meant, Neal knew, all the layers of that word: contrition and despair and failure and shared grief.  Neal nodded.  Then he produced for him a smile, a small one, not so hard to manage after all.

Peter straightened up and went toward the fed as to a colleague, if one who was working at cross-purposes.  He spoke, and the threat was gone from his voice, but not the steel.

“I don’t care what you think he did.  You treat him for shock when you’re taking him in.”

Without waiting for a reply, he strode off and out of Neal’s direct view.  The light in the hangar changed as he went through the personnel door, and then it slammed shut behind him, a sound somehow worse than all the rolling-to of iron doors Neal had ever heard.

*

Peter called Diana.  “I did what we discussed, boss,” she said at once, as Peter got in his car and reversed away from the hangar and the oily smoke still rising beyond it.

“Never mind that right now.  Where’s Fowler?”

At the sound of his voice, Diana switched gears instantly.  “Peter, what happened?”

“Reader’s Digest version:  The plane blew up at the hangar.  Kate was on it.  Neal wasn’t.  I couldn’t stop John Nance from arresting Neal.  Where’s Fowler?”

He heard Diana suck in a breath at the news, but she answered at once.  “Got a call from OPR.  I couldn’t hold him.  He’s gone.”

“Dammit,” Peter said.

“What are you going to do?” Diana said.

“Everything I can.”  Which was infuriatingly little.  “You’ve got it?”

“Yeah.”

“Keep it, and yourself, safe.  You can do that?”

“Yes.”

“I’m going home,” Peter said.  “Get that data decrypted as soon as you can, and call me.”

He ended the call, and his thumb hovered over the button to speed-dial Elizabeth.  But he put down the phone without calling her.  He could drive and have the shakes, or he could drive and call Elizabeth, or he could call El and have the shakes, but he couldn’t do all three.

And his face must have been as telling as his voice, because when he walked in, she turned around and saw him, and her face went blank.  “What happened?”

Peter couldn’t speak.  Instead, he went to her, took her by the shoulders, and kissed her forcefully.  She squirmed free of the kiss enough to say, “Peter, what’s wrong?”

“Everything,” Peter said, and kissed her again.  But when she made a more determined effort to hold him away, he didn’t resist.

“Tell me,” she said.

He told her.

“Oh, God,” she said, as he let go of her, shaking.  “Where’s Neal now?”

“On his way to prison, I’m sure,” Peter said. He paced across the room.  “‘The felon on the scene,’ as he said himself.”

“But is he okay?”

“Obviously,” Peter said, throwing up his hands, “not.”

“You’re yelling,” Elizabeth observed.

“I can’t help it,” Peter said, not any quieter.  “I’m sorry.”  He turned back to look at her and saw that her eyes were bright and full.  He made a helpless gesture of contrition.

She said: “And just yesterday I was thinking it couldn’t get much worse.”

“Yeah, well, it can.  And it’s not done yet.  Fowler’s taken off for God knows where, I can’t do a damn thing without my badge, and people are dead, and all because of this music box that someone wanted bad enough to make Neal steal it.”  Which was now his problem, but Peter didn’t say that.  He thrust a hand into his hair and gritted his teeth.  “I’m going to find out what’s so special about that box if it—”  He stopped short of saying the words, but he saw Elizabeth shudder anyway.  “El—”

She came to him and put her arms around him, which he wanted her to do, but he couldn’t be still, either.  “I need to….”

Elizabeth looked up at him.  “What you need,” she said, “is to sit down, and breathe, and have something to eat.  Action can wait, right?”

“I told him I’d fix it,” Peter said, looking miserably into her upturned face.  “It was a very, very stupid thing to say.”

She made a sympathetic moue.  “Yeah, pretty stupid,” she said, and Peter caught his breath on half a laugh.

“Number of things I can fix right now: probably can count on one hand—”

“Perilously close to zero,” she agreed.

“Thanks, El.  Your pep talks are—so inspiring.”  He swallowed the ache in his throat.

“We live to serve,” she said, and she drew him close, and he let her.

*

Within a day Neal was on his way back to prison, which was not a good place to go crazy, so Neal didn’t.  He did what he was told and kept his shaking spells to himself, and though he slept hardly at all, he found that the narrow container of prison life helped him keel level in the first hours.

After a few days the thought occurred to him that the world really hadn’t blown up, that everyone in here was going about his business unconcerned that a small jet had detonated on the ground on New York harbor.  It didn’t matter to them, and to Neal its significance, like the conflagration itself, was dying back to equilibrium.  Which meant he was able to think.

But the more he thought, the more he realized that he couldn’t possibly stay here.  He couldn’t do anything from a prison cell, and if the person who had killed Kate was after him, iron bars wouldn’t protect him.  He needed to get out, yesterday.

He might have to break prison again.  Peter wouldn’t like it, and he wouldn’t appreciate being forced to hunt Neal down again, but there were worse options, especially if Neal led him to Kate’s killer. 

For a moment Neal fantasized about calling Peter while on the run, but the conversation fell flat in his mind; Peter would be too pissed to say much, and that was never fun.  This was an option best held in reserve.  Besides, it wasn’t a good idea to burn bridges with the FBI if there was still a chance Neal could use their resources.

In fact, it was probably best to wait till Peter had made a move.  Then he’d be able to see his options more clearly.

*

For the first ten minutes of the drive away from his meeting with Neal, Peter fumed.  He had managed to forget, in all the worry, what a pain in the ass Neal could be.  “‘Let me get back to you,’” he muttered.  As if Neal were holding out for a cushy deal with a penthouse suite!

But that wasn’t what Neal wanted, of course, and once he hit that thought, Peter calmed down.  What Neal wanted was a free hand to investigate Kate’s death, and he knew perfectly well that Peter could offer no such thing.  Well, he would let Neal think about it, and Neal would sift his options and realize that Peter was the best one, and call him back in.

Peter hoped.

The most frustrating thing, though, was that Peter needed to strategize, and he was back to strategizing about Neal instead of with him.  He needed someone who could work in his same mental space, and he missed Neal for that.  But, he reminded himself, if the bomb hadn’t gone off, he would still be missing Neal: Neal would have flown off into the sunset with Kate and left him to solve the damn music box by himself.  Maybe.  Probably.  Peter felt kicked in the stomach every time the thought occurred to him.

In any case, Peter didn’t have Neal for this.  He called Diana.  “I’m working on getting Neal back under the old deal,” he said.

“Thought you would,” Diana said.  “What do you need me to do?”

“Nothing right now.  It’s just paperwork and waiting.  Any fallout from OPR’s request of the box?”

“No,” Diana said.  “It’s all quiet.”

“Well, keep me posted.  I want to know about any noise over that box.”

“Yeah,” she said, and hesitated.  “Peter…I’m transferring back to New York.”

“Oh, Diana.  I can’t ask you to—”

“Morris owes me a favor, and this thing is important.”  Then she added, “And working with you’s never boring.”

“Ha.  You just thought you were getting closer to the center of things in DC.  But what about your—”

“I think I can convince Christie to come with me.  She’s familiar with the Bureau, she knows the drill.”

“I shouldn’t say yes,” Peter said.  “But I’m going to.  Thanks.”

“No problem.” He could hear her dry grin.  “We’ll get ‘em.”

“Yeah,” he said, and clicked off.

Getting them by waiting wasn’t exactly Peter’s favorite strategy.

It was two interminable days after his visit to Neal that it finally paid off:  Peter’s phone rang while he was shuffling papers.  “Yeah,” he said.

“I’m to inform you that Neal is seriously considering your offer,” Mozzie said, without preamble.

Seriously considering?  Peter kept his temper with an effort.  “Did he say what he wants?” he said dryly.

“He wants,” Mozzie said, with an air of feeling his way through a prescribed negotiation, “not to be shut out of your investigation into Kate’s death.”

“Is he going to shut me out of his?” Peter said.

“May I remind you, Neal is not currently in a position to investigate anything.”

“But you are,” Peter said, “and it’s a moot point anyway when he gets out.”

“I can’t comment on that.”

“What he’s not in a position to do,” Peter said, “is negotiate.”

Mozzie sighed.  “Still, he does have—”

“Not about a federal investigation.  But personally speaking—”

“You’d have to talk to him,” Mozzie said.

“Yeah, I’m sure that conversation will go somewhere,” Peter said.  “Is he going to take the deal or not?”

“I’m authorized to tell you that he is planning to take the deal,” Mozzie said reluctantly.

How gracious of him, Peter almost said, but instead he merely answered: “Good.  I’ll get the ball rolling here.  It may take a while.  I’ll go to see him when it gets closer to the time.  You can tell him that.”

“Okay.”

The conversation would have been over then, but at the last minute, Peter said: “Mozzie?”

“Yeah.”

“After he gets out—I want a meeting.”

“With Neal?”

“With you.”

Mozzie was silent a minute.  “Why?”

“I want a clear picture of how he’s doing.”

“I’m not going to be party to—”

“A meeting, Mozzie.  Not an organ donation.”

“You laugh, but there are—never mind.  I pick the venue.”

“Fine.”

“And I’ll courier you the protocols a week beforehand.”

“Whatever,” Peter said.  “I have to—”

“And we meet under those circumstances only, or our agreement is off.”

“Fine,” Peter said.

“Okay.”  Mozzie hung up abruptly, and Peter clicked his phone off, shaking his head.

*

By the time Peter came back to see him, Neal had filled all three walls of his cell with drawings: a panoramic landscape, a tree with leaves like flames, a Rafael angel, all cemented in with abstracts like modernist stained glass, shards-on-purpose sealed with mortar.

Neal could guess why Peter hadn’t come to see him in the interim: he was afraid of making promises he couldn’t keep.  He wanted to tell Peter not to worry about that, that he had become very familiar, thank you, with the limits of Peter’s authority; but in the end that would just be insulting.  Neal decided the best way to avoid insulting Peter would be to wait patiently for the deal to go through.

He managed the wait okay, but the patience didn’t come easy.

So when Peter greeted him in the visiting room by slapping down a thick file in front of him, Neal dispensed with the show of nonchalance and opened it.

“Wow.  This looks like a big case.”

Peter leaned the knuckles of one hand on the table and said, “Yeah.  I don’t mind telling you it’s make or break.”

Neal looked up at him from under his brows.  “Laying it on a little thick, aren’t you?”

“Hey, I’m just laying it on.  It’s already thick.”  Neal’s mouth twisted, and Peter immediately thought better of it:  “Yeah, forget I said that.”

“Okay,” Neal said.  “Can I keep this file to look at?”

Peter shook his head.  “You’ll have to go through it right now.”

So Neal did, and Peter waited.  “This guy is really good,” Neal said admiringly.  “And he’s coming to New York?”

“If his calling cards are any indication.”

Neal laughed in wonder.  “Amazing.  What are you going to do?”

“We’re going to start,” Peter said, “with testing the security of these banks.”  He flipped over the relevant page for Neal and ran a finger down the list.  “That’s where you come in.”

Neal looked at the list.  “Wait,” he said slowly.  “Are you telling me that I get to try to rob these banks with the full approval and assistance of the U.S. government?”

He looked up to see Peter grinning at him.  “Yep.”

“Wow,” Neal said, casting his gaze back down at the file to hide a smile.  “You really know how to tempt a man, Agent Burke.”

“I’ve run a successful sting or two,” Peter said.  Then he made a mock gesture of sudden memory.  “Oh, wait.  That’s how I caught you, isn’t it?”

“Lest we forget.” Neal rolled his eyes and shut the file.

“Make me a list of the things you need this afternoon,” Peter said, scooping up the file in both hands.  “I’ll have them send it to me; we’ll put it together, and I’ll pick you up day after tomorrow, bright and early.”

“Wait a minute,” Neal said.  “A day to plan an assault on a bank?  Don’t you want to do this thing right, Peter?”

“Hey, bad guy’s setting the schedule, not me.  Take it up with him.”

“I look forward to it,” Neal grinned.

“I got you, didn’t I?” Peter said, on his way out.

“You slick bastard.  Right in the wheelhouse.”

As soon as Peter was gone, Neal requested a call to his lawyer.  Peter must have greased those skids, too, because he got what he wanted without hassle.

“Moz,” Neal said, “I need to case a bank.”

“What?” Mozzie said.  “I thought you said you were going for the FBI option.”

“I am,” Neal said.

*

They let Neal out where Peter waited with his car.  Same door, same scenario; only this time Neal was already impeccably dressed and groomed, as per his list of requests.  Here we go, Peter thought.  I’ll never be bored again.

“Déjà vu,” Neal said, with his usual grin.  But Peter saw him glance up and around with an air almost of fear.

“You ready?”

“Let’s do it,” Neal said.  He paused at the car door to draw in a long breath of free air.  “Finally,” he said, “finally out of limbo.”

“That’s what you think,” Peter said.

*

finis