"…in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp 'Why?'
Replies the scorpion: 'It's my nature...'"
* * * * *
He could taste blood in his mouth.
Gagging, coughing, it was only after a few gulps before Neal realized it was because he had bitten his tongue. The same time, he realized two things:
1. The air smelled like blood
2. The blood wasn't his
He couldn't remember how he got here.
...Okay, three things.
Neal stared blearily up at an ornate ceiling. He knew the names of the sculpted delineations surrounding the chandelier (due to a two-man con back when it was just him and Moz, and Moz was more convincing as the architect's assistant, while Neal had supposedly graduated magma cum laude from Cooper Union) but he couldn't remember them right now. His head pounded, his body felt leaden, bruised, not his. Neal painfully turned his head, the spot behind his eyes flaring hot and tight when he did. The rough cotton scraping his cheek told him he was on decent quality bedding: high thread count, just poor thread.
To his right, Neal could (barely) see the murky space of a large room, stripped of furniture, walls paler in spots where something must have once stood. All that was left was a mahogany table that didn't match the space, a door opened to reveal glimpses of a bathroom and the gaping opening of a walk-in closet.
To his left...was a body.
The sharp shock that lanced through his hip was Neal's only clue that he'd thrown himself onto the floor. He sat there, chest heaving as he stared up at the bed. It was low enough so he could still see the blank-eyed corpse turned toward Neal, mouth partially opened as if he had been interrupted mid-sentence, his white dress shirt was pink with the blood leaked from a throat slit ear to ear. It left a macabre grin under the gray face.
Neal's breath quickened. He had never seen that man before. Why was he here? Better yet, why was Neal here, in the bed, the dead and the living lying side by side in a—where was this place?
Peter. He needed to call Peter.
As Neal shakily got up on his knees, he patted himself (his jacket was gone, his trousers' pockets were torn) for a cell phone he knew might not be there. He spied an unfamiliar one, glistening wet and red on a nightstand Neal hadn't noticed before. He grabbed it and dialed Peter's number. It took him two tries.
The ringing was a relief. Neal rested his head against the side of the bed, thought better of it, then shuffled over to lean against the nightstand instead. He couldn't walk away. He couldn't stand and somehow, even down here, Neal could feel that empty stare finding him from that bed. He turned his shoulder and stared at the scuff marks on the patchy carpet instead.
The phone picked up after three rings, long enough Neal found himself shaking, quick enough Neal didn't have enough time to question why his first instinct wasn't to get the hell out.
"Burke." Peter's clipped voice had scarcely registered when Neal sagged against the furniture.
At Neal's voice, Peter exploded into a tirade; something about the radius, marshals, missing for hours. Neal flinched at the anger. His eyes darted left and right, up and down, until they steadied on his legs. A tiny sound strangled out from the back of his throat and the buzzing by his ear stopped.
"My tracker's gone," Neal blurted. He stared at his bare ankle, purple bruising striping where a GPS should have been; the dark trouser sock that normally camouflaged the tracker into a lumpy ankle was torn and sagging. He started to shake harder.
"I-I don't have my..." Neal blinked rapidly. The floor blurred then sharpened, only to blur again. He clutched the phone closer to his face. He gagged because even that smelled coppery. "I don't know where I...you can still find me without it, right?"
"What's going on? Are you all right?" Peter seemed to have shot back into another tirade; however his voice changed to something less livid but no less frenzied.
Neal closed his eyes. "I don't know. I...it's gone. I don't know..." Neal curled a hand around the cell, the other around his bare ankle. The grip on the clammy skin gave little comfort, but the weight around it was a vaguely reassuring one.
"What do you mean you don't know? Neal, we lost your tracking info an hour after you left the office. What the hell happened? Neal? Neal!"
"My anklet," Neal mumbled. His hand curled tighter around his ankle. Why didn't Peter get it? It was like that time he'd tried to explain the significance of Kahlo's self portraits to him.
"Neal!" Peter sounded frantic for some reason. "Are you hurt?"
No, he didn't think so. Neal pulled up his hand and dully plucked at the frayed thread where a trouser button should be. No, he was numb, no pain, so he couldn't be hurt, right? Not like that. Besides, it wasn't his blood.
"Blood? What blood?"
Oh, he must have said it out loud. Neal's shoulders hunched and his chin lowered. He wanted his jacket. He wanted his tie to close the gaping shirt, its buttons worriedly gone, leaving his exposed throat chilled.
"I don't know where I am," Neal mumbled. He wished his head didn't feel so heavy. He wished he didn't feel so blank right now, emptied of everything he'd learned that would have gotten him away from this place. All he knew, all he could concentrate on was the phone he held to his face that was tattooing him with someone else's blood; it was the only thing keeping him tethered to someplace safe.
Peter had gone silent and Neal began to gasp. Did he lose the connection? He didn't want to risk pulling the phone away to check. Maybe if he could get closer to the phone—wait, that didn't make sense. Neal closed his eyes and swallowed convulsively. None of this did.
"You'll find me, right?" Neal whispered into the phone. He nearly dropped it when Peter's voice returned, just as low, but a buoy more solid than the nightstand Neal was propped against.
"Damn right I will."
* * * * *
The address Jones called out didn't make sense. How the hell did Neal get all the way up in Hamilton Heights when his tracker signal stop at Tribeca?
Hell, Neal wasn't making any sense.
Peter was jerking his arms into his shoulder holster, darting around agents standing dumbfounded because their manhunt had suddenly become a search and rescue: an agent-in-distress. Hughes must have heard him hollering from his office down the hall. Hughes had heard enough of Peter's side of the conversation to tell Diana to call off the marshals and then he gang pressed a few agents bulked out in Kevlar to pile into a van and follow Peter.
"Left," Jones said even as Peter's GPS agreed in a flat, mechanical voice that tried for sultry and failed. "Looks like he's in the Folgers Row," he added. He braced himself with a palm flat on the car roof as Peter made a hairpin turn throughout Broadway, past Coliseum Books and into Columbus Circle, bisecting the newly carved bicycle lane and "Right turns only" roads.
"Uh..." Jones swallowed the rest of what he was going to say when Peter sped up and cut in front of an aging, gray dappled horse indolently pulling a carriage of tourists. If there was a camera flash or two in his wake, Peter ignored it.
The van of Kevlar-wearing agents doggedly stayed on Peter's tail, even as New York's finest joined in from Riverside Park and bookended them with a pair of wailing patrol cars to provide backup. Another raced ahead to clear cross-town traffic, but despite its help, it irked Peter because he wasn't going fast enough.
Red lights were ignored. Cars braked abruptly.
And Neal made tiny, hitched noises in his ear.
"Neal, we're five minutes away," Peter spoke into his Bluetooth. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Jones about to argue. The GPS screen read ten.
"Five minutes, buddy," Peter repeated when all he heard was the quickening of aborted exhales, as if breathing out would be fatal.
"Just hold on. We're almost there."
The thump that knocked hard against his ribs stole his voice for a second. Peter swore in his head, stood harder on the gas and heard Jones mutter a prayer.
"Neal, find someplace to hide. We're coming."
The line was quiet. Then there was a scraping sound, a gasp.
Silence replied mournfully in his ear.
* * * * *
At first, he thought the body moved. Then Neal realized it was just telegraphing his body shaking against it.
Neal's heart was doing a strange staccato against his ribs vibrating up to his ears. The thrumming felt like it was coursing up his body, pressure collecting in his head.
The distant footsteps were getting closer. The tread sounded heavy, measured and not alone. Definitely not alone. There were two pairs of them.
Neal gulped. He tried to tell himself this was like the time at the Musée de l'Orangerie; he stayed scrunched inside an air vent for three hours, waiting for the building to empty so he could get his hands on a Modigliani. Moz wasn't impressed. Then again, he was more Kandinsky than Modigliani.
The feeling of the cell still pressed to his ear drew him out of the thoughts spinning around like a rip current. There was instruction in there. Somewhere. What was wrong with him? Neal scanned the room. The floor underneath him staggered and swayed. Maybe it was from his position on the ground, but everything looked too far away and he could hear voices now, sharp and gruff and rapid. Whoever they were, they were arguing. Arguing about killing him? Neal didn't want to wait around to find out.
It wasn't clear if Neal actually heard it or the echoing in his head had shaped into some form of coherency. Either way, Neal found himself nodding, stopping when the nausea doubled and his throat burned sourly with the effort not to vomit.
Neal struggled to get up.
Knees buckled and he dropped the phone as he threw out his hands to soften his landing. He heard a soft snap and felt the subsequent tearing pain that burned across his left wrist as surely as if he took a sharp edge to it.
The phone clattered to the ground. Loudly.
The footsteps halted. The voices silenced.
Neal backed away on his good hand and knees until he realized there was nowhere left to go. The bed blocked his way like the rock of Gil—
Neal glanced over his shoulder at it and spied the crumpled, wadded up lump of his navy three-button jacket. It had been kicked under the bed like an old sock—a poor way to treat a genuine Devore. Neal crawled backwards into the space his feet were tucked into. It would be tight, but Neal has been in tighter spots than this—literally and figuratively.
The phone's screen was dark with inactivity when Neal snatched it off the floor. He nearly dropped it as he fumbled to cancel its sudden ringtone.
The footsteps started again. Slower, purposeful.
Neal pulled the jacket up to his chin as he wiggled quietly under the bed. Something soft skittered against his ribs, another squeaked and several out-of-focus black spots scampered away. He didn't think about it. He could feel the frame against his tailbone, the ground hard and pressing up to his torso. Breathing was doable so long he didn't fully expand his chest. He could move his arms against his sides, but bringing them forward would trap them between him and the floor. Neal moved on his belly, feeling like the snakes he'd seen on all those nature documentaries. He moved in an S pattern, traveling inch by inch until his toes hit the wall.
Breathing shallowly, Neal curled into his jacket, hiding his face, his exposed hands. He bit back a moan as he shrugged shoulders, rounded his back and wound into a fetal position. The bed was unyielding against his shoulder. Neal huddled behind his camouflage, the cell phone hugged to his chest facedown, so the gleam of the screen didn't shine like a beacon.
Beyond the bed, he heard the doorknob jiggle.
Neal sucked in his breath, exhaled slowly, mutely because he was too tightly sandwiched between the bed and the floor to draw in much air.
Neal twitched when he heard an unfamiliar voice. The newcomer swore.
"How the hell did he get out?" Another, higher—younger?—voice snapped.
"I don't know," the first one barked back. "Thought you said that shit lasts a good twelve hours."
"We should've checked him."
"Think he's got it?"
There was a harsh, grating bark; a chuckle dragged over gravel. "The other guy didn't."
"Check the room." A floorboard creaked. "Should we call—"
Neal caught words, bits and pieces. They didn't make sense, but Neal listened as best as he could because he suspected it would make sense later. He pulled the jacket higher to hide his face. He peeked around it and stared with foggy vision at the long strip of light marking the border of the bed.
Doorways opened and shut, a painted shut window was pried opened. It groaned.
Neal shivered—no, don't move—as he tucked his hands under his arms. His wrist throbbed at the contortion, but Neal was afraid his exposed skin would glow in the dark. Neal cautiously exhaled shallow breaths into the jacket's collar.
Footsteps stopped. Neal froze as the gleaming tips of polished but worn leather shoes appeared, breaking the line of light. Neal pulled the lapels higher over his ears. He bit his lower lip as he peeked under the spots his jacket couldn't completely cover.
An anonymous, pale face, with a narrow, unsmiling mouth and squared chin, crouched by the bed. Neal's breath quickened. He clenched, willing his limbs to lock painfully in place; he pressed his lips together to keep the pounding of his heart from escaping his throat.
Something dripped onto his cheek from above. Neal bit the inside of his mouth. Another drip. It was warm and thick, lazily trailing down to his Adam's apple.
Don't move. Don't move.
Neal could feel the phone digging into his sternum. A stray thought—that the cell would slip out from his cover—overwhelmed him.
From under the jacket, Neal caught the face slowly turning in his direction. Neal tensed. Had he been spotted?
Above him, the bed shifted and moved as the other climbed on it. Another warm and wet trail.
Neal could feel the eyes trying to stare through the darkness.
"You see anything?"
No, Neal fervently thought.
The pale face under the bed canted, but it was still watching Neal's corner like a cat lying in wait by a mouse hole.
"See anything?" a voice demanded. Too many cigarettes had roughened the voice to a harsh timbre.
The face glanced over his shoulder.
"I think I need a flashlight."
"What? Do I look like fuckin' Bob Vila?"
"Give me your cell phone then."
The smoke-grated voice coughed out a scoff. "Use your cell phone."
Neal watched, his throat working as a cell phone screen brightened. Its meager square of light slowly rotated from one end, heading toward him.
He couldn't move. His joints burned with the strain of being bent far beyond what they should, but he couldn't move. He could only watch, illogically feeling that anemic beam approaching like a flame, its heat crawling up his ankles, to his tucked knees, soon to his…
A small dark mass broke free from his enclave of shadows and darted out from under the bed. The face disappeared and the phone dropped with a tiny shatter.
"Geez!" The black shoes did a quick two step in front of Neal. "Rats! God damn furry diseased—"
There was a squeak, the sound of something soft hitting a distant wall. Neal swallowed.
"Did you see anything?" the other rasped, unmoved by the pest.
"Did you not see that? No, nothing. He'll have to be fricking Houdini to fit in there." The bed above Neal gave a creak. "You searched the body?"
Another something that Neal didn't want to think about dripped to the corner of his mouth. He fought not to gag.
"Twice. It's not with him, damn it."
"Check upstairs," the smoke-roughened voice ordered. "I'll check downstairs. Pretty boy couldn't have gone far, not with that much shit in him."
Neal heard footsteps obey the commands; two pairs of black leather shots stomped past the bed and out the door. He laid there as they went down the hall, growing fainter and fainter until he couldn't hear them anymore.
But he still couldn't move.
Neal dropped a cheek to the floor. The carpet scratched his jaw and filled his nostrils with the dry, smothering odor of dust and damp. His legs spasmed. His wrist ached. But he still couldn't move.
Neal tugged the jacket closer to his face and fought the overwhelming urge to pass out. Tucking the silent cell phone to his chin, he waited for it to come back to life.
Yes, he was hiding. Now, he was waiting. Neal couldn't remember for what, but deep down, he knew if he waited long enough, it would be okay. It would. It would.
Above him, the bed wept another thick, coppery tear down his face.
* * * * *
"All units, be advised search pattern for grid..."
"Air support ETA five minutes..."
"Roger, Central. Davis Mary Three and Five report to SAC Burke on—"
The first thing Peter thought of as he scrambled out of his car with one wheel parked on the curb, was what was he going to tell Elizabeth? His second thought? It was more of a promise about what he would do to those responsible.
"Close off this block," Peter bellowed. He impatiently took the vest Jones was using to bar him from bolting up a random building or dashing in front of one of the NYPD patrol cars screeching to a halt. Peter struggled with his vest one-handed, the other still holding the only lifeline he had to Neal in case he called again. But the phone was apparently taking Caffrey lessons and choosing to be uncooperative.
"Which one, Agent Burke?" one of the agents asked, breathless as if he'd been running.
Folgers Row was a strip of aging brownstones the city had taken through eminent domain after the last mafia purge in a fit of economic ambition; sepia-toned buildings had once been owned by the city's notorious, once been used for the unspeakable. Real estate developers had aspired to turn them into a small city of high rise condos and gleaming big box stores like Whole Foods and Gap. But between landmark committees, neighbors petitioning for more affordable housing and the district's assemblyman joining in during his election year, the cluster of short buildings had hung in limbo until it became too expensive to fight for it any more.
Somewhere, in those languishing and forgotten buildings, was Neal.
Peter slapped a hand over his Kevlar-padded chest, double-checking the plates were in the right position as he stared up at the row of five story buildings. Five stories, possibly six rooms each, six buildings equals to—Damn it.
"Peter?" Jones stood off to his left. "Which one? Did Neal call back?"
"No," Peter said tersely, not bothering to elaborate which question he was answering. Jones's eyes flicked toward his face and wisely chose to not press.
"All right." Peter tried not to think this was one step worse than eenie, meenie, minny, moe. "Clark, you take Sanchez and Lewis to the one on the—"
Peter's head snapped around in time to see three LEOs giving chase after two shadows slithering out between 45 and 47. Like greyhounds with a rabbit, the officers bolted into action two federal agents tearing for the corner to catch the perps on the other side.
Peter's muscles tensed; his initial reaction was to give chase as well. With effort, he steeled himself and turned to consider the buildings where the shadows had emerged.
"Clark," Peter said grimly, "you take your team into 47. Jones and I will take the LEOs into 45."
* * * * *
Peter and Jones pressed their backs on either side of the doorway that opened up to a hallway of—great—more doorways. He could hear NYPD shouting "Clear!" one by one downstairs, the heavy pounding of their boots sounding a little like heartbeats.
A rat skittered out of the hallway, squeaking, escaping to some hole behind Jones' feet. Jones made a face and pulled a foot back.
Peter pointed two fingers toward himself, then to the air above his head. Jones nodded, acknowledging it with a finger to himself and to the floor.
"One," Peter mouthed silently.
"Two." Both their arms tensed and their guns steadily rose.
Together, Peter high and Jones low, they entered the hallway, muzzles first. Classic Quantico, textbook entry, yet Peter's mouth was dry as they took one step, then another deeper into the corridor.
Everything was stripped from the walls, white patches where paintings must have hung, random patches of eggshell wallpaper peeling like autumn bark, the intricate patterned carpet bare and thin in spots.
Peter eyed the white lines that cut into the once royal red carpet, dust on either side of the tracks thick and gray.
Ice writhed and lumped into stone in his gut. Something was dragged. Recently. He refused to think of what that might have been.
The drag marks led to the last door, but Peter and Jones needed to check the others first. It was a morbid countdown, each taking turns to quietly call out the all-clear.
One by one the rooms were examined and dismissed, their stride careful but hurried, until they reached the last door.
And that's when the smell hit them: metallic and heavy, almost burning their nostrils.
Clark's voice crackled quietly into their earwigs. Nothing had been found in 47.
Peter ignored the alarmed look he could sense Jones had thrown him. He set his jaw, rested his palm on the door and shot a look at his agent. Jones gave him an aborted nod before he kicked down the door.
At first, all Peter registered was the body. He stumbled back a step. When he heard Jones mutter a prayer (or a curse), Peter took a closer look. Bleach-blond, sightless brown eyes, square jaw...
"It's not Neal," Peter exhaled. He dropped a hand on Jones' stiff shoulder. "Clinton, it's not Neal." He grimaced as he took another glance at the bloody tableau.
Jones gingerly poked at the knife with the muzzle of his weapon. His junior agent made a face and backed away. White Collar usually meant less dead bodies and more mortgage frauds.
Neal said it wasn't his blood, Peter told himself. He sighted Neal's tie, a crumpled thin banner of blue and silver silk limp trapped partially by the body. He grimaced and averted his eyes.
"Get CSU in here." Peter looked down at the phone his hand had automatically fumbled out of his pocket the moment he realized it was a stranger dead on the bed. "Have local PD widen the search grid."
Jones, his hand to the earpiece, was nodding to both Peter and to whoever was on the line. "Barrigan's on her way with the backup team."
Peter couldn't help but smile grimly at that. Good ol' Diana. "Go. I want the surrounding buildings searched. Send up the coroner as soon as he gets here. See if we can get a better idea where Neal called from and get me an update on those guys NYPD chased on foot."
"You got it."
Peter was already dialing the last number as Jones left. He gritted his teeth as he listened to the voicemail connect.
Peter started. He pressed his ear into his phone, even though he knew deep down that it didn't really do squat.
"Neal?" Peter said urgently. "Where are you?" He scanned the room. He found himself riveted to the body. The victim stared vacantly toward him, arms out flung, mouth agape as if he wanted to share a secret.
Knees suddenly shaking, Peter staggered a step, but didn't dare lean on anything and accidentally destroy evidence.
"Are you all right?" Peter demanded. He was unsure as to why his voice was sharper now, louder, echoing in his ears, especially since the ice in his chest had loosened at the sound of Neal's voice. "Neal, where the hell are you?"
Peter could have sworn the silence cringed. He heard the rapid breathing and swallowing.
Not good. Not good, Peter's head was chanting. He swallowed as well but the lump had reformed and was now lodged in his throat. He breathed through his nose and tried to calm down because Neal's voice was growing tinier and fainter and impossibly not Neal Caffrey.
"Hey," Peter said calmly, as light as he could make it, "we're here. You called us. Neal, I know I told you to hide, but you didn't have to do that good of a job. You'll ruin my track record."
The panting in the phone slowed a fraction.
"Come on, Neal," Peter coaxed. "Where—"
Peter's brow knitted. The echoing in his ear was getting worse. Peter pulled back the phone. Full bars. He took a step back. The floor creaked.
Something creaked tinny in his ear at the same time.
It wasn't an echo.
Peter's eyes zipped to the closet, but there was no door. Gaping wide open, Peter could see there was nothing inside except for a few broken hangers.
Carefully, Peter stepped over the spot again. Sure enough, it creaked both under his feet and in his ear. Peter's eyes drifted to the bed. He studied the bed skirt and toed it up to reveal the narrow space underneath.
A muffled gasp, both in his ear and under the bed could be heard.
Peter swallowed. He eased down to his knees, crouching low until he could peer under. Geez, he could barely fit into the space. How the hell...? Peter squinted into the dark, but he couldn't see anything. When he tried to move, maybe work his shoulders in, he heard a choked sound.
The screen blazed into a patch of light when Peter tapped on his phone. He pointed towards the back. He oscillated from corner to corner until he caught a glimpse of a white face before something pulled over it and his phone's backlight shut off.
"Jesus," Peter murmured. He cleared his throat, tried to stretch out an arm, but the sound of Neal trying to wedge himself further into the corner under the body stopped him.
"Neal..." Peter whispered into the phone. It was odd to hear himself in some weird, imbalanced stereo. "Come out from there. It's all right. You called me, remember? You asked me to find you." He smiled shakily even though Neal couldn't see it. "Well, here I am." Neal made another sound, barely audible to discern its intent. Peter's eyes burned. Damn bed was dusty as hell.
"Come on, Neal," Peter told the dark now. The phone was set down on the floor. He reached out an arm again, wiggled in until his shoulders were caught between the bed and the floor. He got in close enough to feel a trembling, chilled ankle before it jerk away.
"Hey...you trust me to find Kate's killer...you can trust me it's safe to come out."
Because Peter knew where Neal generally was, Peter could now make out the different patches of shadows as Neal pulled away whatever he used as cover. Peter's mouth stretched painfully across his face. His right shoulder ached as he kept his arm stretched out, twisted awkwardly to stay palm out, loosely curled and as non-threatening as possible.
"Come on, buddy," Peter coaxed. He was rewarded with the feel of shaky fingers drifting across his palm.
Even though Peter just wanted to snatch them, drag Neal out, Peter forced himself to wait until he felt the cold fingers travel down to curl around his wrist. Peter wrapped his hand around Neal's, felt the already too rapid pulse leap as Peter pulled.
Neal emerged silent, shaking, limp when Peter was finally able to get him out from under the bed. The wide blown pupils told Peter all he needed to know and explained some of Neal's behavior. It didn't make him feel any better though.
"Easy, easy," Peter soothed as he tugged Neal further away from the bed. He checked the lines of blood smeared on Neal's face and discovered no wound. His gaze flitted over to the body on the bed, but he averted his gaze when he caught Neal trying to track what he was looking at.
Neal sat half-slumped against Peter's arm. He shivered, his teeth chattering loudly, one hand curled tightly around a phone, the other purpling and swollen, cradled protectively against his stomach. He jerked violently when Peter tried to pry the phone out of his hand.
"Are you hurt anywhere?" Peter asked. His mouth soured as he caught a glimpse of Neal's undone trousers, his shirt twisted around him, the bruises on his throat. Peter gripped him tightly on the shoulders. "Neal? Neal, do you hurt anywhere?"
Neal shook his head hard enough he pitched forward before Peter braced him. His head shot up when a rush of footsteps brought in Jones and an unfamiliar man in zippered sterile coveralls.
Jones took one look at Peter, at Neal and pivoted around to his companion.
"Not now," Jones said flatly.
"We need to see the bod—"
Neal made a sound, his head drooping and suddenly, Jones was escorting the coroner with a fist to the back of his collar. Moments later, he popped his head back in.
"Ambulance is three minutes away," Jones said quietly. He didn't enter the room but before he left, he crouched down to slide his FBI windbreaker across the floor to Peter. The arguing outside the room rose but then abruptly stopped with a squawk.
Jones was not a particularly large man but his jacket buried Neal's form as it huddled against Peter. The shivering didn't lessen, but Neal curled fingers around the jacket and pulled it closed around him.
"You're going to be okay..." Peter murmured into the sweat-flattened, dark hair. Neal nodded, his head butting up under Peter's chin. Peter absently rubbed a hand up and down the bowed back as he tried to iron out the tremors he could feel underneath Jones' jacket.
"I don't know.... How did I get here?" Neal stammered. His teeth clattered too violently to let him form a proper sentence.
"We'll figure it out, big guy." Peter felt a hand now tugging at his sleeve. "Help's coming." Peter never thought he ever hear anything as beautiful as the distant siren wail.
"I l-lost my anklet..."
"I'm...I'm sorry...I don't know how I—"
"Sh, sh, sh. Don't worry about it. It's fine."
Even semi-lucid, Neal clung on with a tenacity that usually exasperated Peter. Neal tried to raise his head, but it lolled into Peter's chin. "What happened?" Neal mumbled as he slumped further against Peter.
Peter wrapped an arm around Neal's shoulders. He stared over Neal to the body and thought of his partner, cowering under the bed, under the body.
"That's what I like to know," Peter murmured as Jones returned with the paramedics.
* * * * *
She stared out the rainy window like she was posing for a study of Hopper's "Hotel Window". It wasn't clear if she was waiting, if she was bored, or if she was just looking out the window. There was nothing remarkable about the painting: the subject's linen blouse billowed off the frame, her hair gleamed dark and wet against her pale skin, her eyes hooded by the shadows created from the dip of her chin.
Perhaps the artist decided to apply some Occam's Razor to his thick oil strokes. Maybe, as viewers tried to analyze the elegant slope of a slender neck, the direction her dark locks curled behind a shell-like ear as something meaningful and purposeful, the artist just wanted to paint Kate looking out the window.
Neal blinked, peered down at his glass of Monte Rose. The 2008 vintage was a poor sibling to its 2007 predecessor and while it was complimentary, he still felt like he had overpaid for it. He set it on the tray of a server who patrolled by. The server flashed Neal a dirty look, which quickly colored into a blush when he bestowed her an appropriately sheepish smile. When timed right, it usually forgave him of a lot of things.
Except for bond forgery and other "alleged" things, that is.
Neal plucked a long stem of champagne instead as another server did a graceful waltz around a crowd, more interested in the scandalous ménage à trois hanging around the corner. Neal took a tentative sip. His eyebrow arched high when he tasted not sparkling wine, not prosecco, but actual champagne. At least the owner of Blackman Galleries had spared no expense in this while showcasing its newest collection.
Fortified with better than expected libations, Neal turned back to the painting again. He had come, two blocks shy of his radius, because the gallery was presenting the best examples of neo-expressionism for one more week. It was good to run a refresher in his head: spotting security flaws, noting guard rotation times and planning the best way to switch out the unexpected Rauschenberg hanging as the gallery's centerpiece, maybe even a vignette or two. Or three.
But instead of imagining himself hanging upside-down from the East wing skylight with a spray can and a scalpel (because a box cutter felt inelegant), Neal found himself staring at the painting no one else cared to look at, no one bothered bidding for, that had been tucked in a quiet corner with improper lighting by the hallway that lead to the offices, currently doubling as the caterers' kitchen.
It made him mad for some reason.
Neal took a long sip from his glass and tamped down the urge to pull the fire alarm to save her.
"I think you're in the wrong place."
Neal flicked his eyes to his left; the only reaction to the throaty voice that solidified next to him, a little too close to his personal space.
The champagne the slim newcomer held was a shade lighter than his hair. It made a startling fusion of golds when it was tipped back. Neal knew it was a deliberate choice when the man took a sip of it and grimaced.
Neal smiled politely before taking a sip of his own. No grimace on his part.
"I'm pretty sure this is the Blackman Gallery." Neal smiled politely as he gestured to his surroundings with his flute of champagne.
The man laughed a little too loudly for Neal's taste. He ran a palm down a tailored, two-button brown herringbone suit, smoothed back the slicked back hair tousled deliberately away from his face. He flashed a toothy smile that normally would have Peter hollering for a warrant and Mozzie for a new burn phone.
"No, no, I meant everyone else seems to be riveted by Canning's interpretation of a…dinner party." He nodded toward the painting in front of them. "Compared to that, this one seems so...ordinary, in the background." He neared it, squinted at its lower right corner at the signature. He ghosted neatly trimmed fingers along the back of its gold-gilded frame but stopped short of setting off the alarms. "It seems quite plain compared to the frame it's in."
Neal studied the painting. "But doesn't that make it even more extraordinary?"
Chuckling in agreement, the other stuck out his free hand. "Michael Docks."
Neal fought back the blink of surprise. "You're pretty brave to be wandering around Tribeca, Mr. Docks." He canted his head toward the top-heavy, not entirely inconspicuous man lurking around the partition of self-portraits.
"Then again, with the US government as your date, I suppose you can be a bit more courageous."
Docks shrugged, one hand out in a "What can I say?" fashion. Docks looked like he was still shuffling millions to and from Giraldi's accounts in a shell company on Wall Street. He tugged at a double-cuffed sleeve. "House confinement is so...boring."
The plastic weight wrapped around his left ankle had Neal nodding despite of himself. "I can imagine." He smiled brightly at the agent half-concealed behind the wall. How did anyone expect to be invisible if they're constantly checking in with their earwigs? Neal turned to drink to cover the roll of his eyes.
"Grand jury is in a week." Docks sighed dramatically. "And then it's no more Michael Docks, accountant to the stars."
Neal swirled the remainder of champagne in his glass. He doubted Peter Burke would see the Mafioso Andre Giraldi as a star. But he just made a sympathetic sound.
"You never told me your name." Docks' smile broadened, just short of a leer.
Neal sighed to himself. Great.
"Nick Halden," Neal introduced himself as he reluctantly stretched out a hand.
A sticky hand wrapped around his and squeezed. Hard. Neal pulled his hand back the moment it was released. He wrapped his fingers around the stemware in hopes the lingering condensation would wash away the tackiness Docks' grip left behind.
Cool green eyes swirled into a starling deep brown as they considered Neal.
"Nice to meet you…Nick," Docks said, his voice lowering to nearly a purr.
Perfect. This was exactly what Neal not needed right now. Or ever. He glanced around quickly to pick another painting to look at, preferably in a crowded spot. He quickly ran through all the politic ways to excuse himself when Docks smirked.
"Nick Halden. Nick Halden. Hm. Are you sure it's not Neal?"
Neal's smile never dropped, but his shoulders tensed at the knowing twist on Docks' face.
Docks held up both hands, his stemware pinned between two fingers. "Don't look so cornered...Neal. I heard so much about you. We're pimping out for the G-men. You and I are on the same team."
Three counts of alleged assault, money laundering, two counts of suspected murder and Docks should have gotten fifty years in prison. Instead, he has a WitSec customized future of anonymity in exchange for information on every Giraldi's account here and abroad.
"No," Neal said evenly. "I don't think so."
Docks' face fell, but it smoothed out immediately into a deceptively guileless expression Neal suspected had lulled two of his victims into complacency before he raped and strangled them. Of course, no one could prove it. Christine Laders and George Arron were never found. The third survived and retracted his statement when they found him in a hospital six days later, four states away.
"I was just thinking this is my last week as Michael Docks and it would be nice to have dinner with a fellow jack-of-all-trades such as yourself before I'm sent away to a life of obscurity."
"Better than a shortened life," Neal pointed out. He took a step back.
Docks took a step forward.
"Maybe a toast is in order, instead?" Neal sighted a server drifting, ignored by everyone, two remaining glasses of that unpalatable Monte Rose balanced on his tray. Neal took two steps toward the server, swapping out their glasses with the two remaining drinks. He held one to Docks, his smile strained when Docks brushed fingers against his before accepting the drink.
"Farewell to Michael Docks," Docks toasted with a smirk. He winked at Neal. "May better days lie ahead."
Neal ignored the look and took a sip. He grimaced at the taste—it was even worse warm—and at the stare he could feel pinned on him.
Then the painting twisted and warped before him. And Docks' face loomed.
Wincing, he felt heavy, leaden, tied down...
A grip on his arms, weight crushing him, he knew something wasn't right...
"Sir, you can't come in here!"
Unfamiliar voices hot in his ear. A rumble underneath him. A car horn blared.
"Caffrey! Caffrey! Wake up, you son of a bitch..."
Something hot curled around his ankle, tugged his leg straight. No!
"Sir, if you don't leave now, I'm calling security."
"And if you don't leave now, I'm arresting you for obstruction of justice!"
Something cool snicked bitingly tight around his ankle. No, wait, something else should be there...
"Hold him down, damn it!"
Acid filled his mouth, his throat, his nose. He couldn't breathe. Next to him, a shriek, a gurgle, but he couldn't move, couldn't speak...
"Hold him down! Caffrey, you're only making it worse for yourself!"
A slap rang hard against his jaw. He couldn't tell if it was real or phantom as the sensation of cool, large hands curled around his throat and pressed.
"Son of a bitch bit me!"
Neal's eyes flew open as he felt his right hand yanked back and cuffed to something rattling next to him. A broad, flat face with a bleeding mouth was inches from his face. Neal reared back. Only he couldn't. A mattress yielded against him and the sensation of it charged his limbs.
The face contorted, burned redder, as he gripped Neal's left hand. Fire raced up to his elbow. Neal bleated in pain, yanked his arm free, only to have it held down by two hands now. He bucked, blinking eyes filling with agony and he squinted watery at the face not far from his nose.
"Neal Caffrey," the stranger snarled, spit splattering Neal, "you're under arrest for the murder of Michael Docks." The face above him scowled, thick eyebrows low over deeply set gray eyes.
Neal stared. Swallowing couldn't get his throat to work; his tongue was thick and uncooperative. He croaked, "What?"
"You heard me, Caffrey." The face retreated, but the view wasn't any better. The man had a barrel-chested body that would automatically excuse his demeanor.
Neal grimaced, shaking his head, but it only seemed to make him dizzier. "I don't…who?"
"Michael Docks, Mr. Caffrey." His companion finally spoke up, barely audible behind the tower of vibrating anger looming over his bed. The other looked like a young intern with premature silver on his temples, eyes too large for his face, giving him a permanently shocked look.
Neal again didn't know where he was. That the first thing that came into Neal's mind. The next was that he was in a hospital, cuffed to a bed.
Oh, the things he could say right now.
Apparently, the man wasn't interested in introductions, witticisms, or had thought to help Neal out by explaining how and why he was in a hospital (whatever it was, he didn't do it!). He just went right into reading Neal his Miranda rights. Neal wondered how beneficial it would be if he offered to recite it back to the man in reverse.
"What's going on here?"
Elizabeth sailed into the room, dark hair half-piled and half-spilling on top of her head. Dressed in a form-fitting, burgundy cowl-necked sweater and jeans, eyes blazing, one hand curled over a coffee cup, Neal thought all she was missing was a halo and a pair of wings.
"Who are you? What are you doing in here?"
"Agent Tom Dunbar," the second introduced himself. His pitched voice matched him. He flashed Elizabeth his badge. He gestured toward the other man who dwarfed him by a good head. "This is Agent Henry Rook."
"We're reading the prisoner his rights," Rook said, not even looking at her (mistake one). His eyes were nearly colorless with rage as he stared at Neal. Rook went right back to his recitation; the FBI's version of their ABCs. "You shouldn't be in this room, ma'am."
Ma'am? Mistake two.
Elizabeth glanced over to Neal; her hard gaze that would even cow Peter eased a fraction when she saw he was awake. Her eyes narrowed into slits to match her mouth when her gaze drifted to the handcuff encircling his right wrist.
"First off, he's not a prisoner," Elizabeth said slowly, in a tone that gave the others pause.
"If you give up that right..." was trailed off into a cough behind a fist.
"And secondly…" Elizabeth drew up to her full height. The scowl on her beautiful red mouth barely reached Rook's chest. "Since Neal's not a prisoner, there's no need for handcuffs."
Rook's expression twisted. "Neal?"
Dunbar waved pale hands at her, trying to assuage her. "Look, he was alone, unescorted by a federal agent. As a prisoner under work-release, we have to secure him."
"Securing the prisoner by handcuffing him to the bed?" Elizabeth said tightly.
Neal wearily lifted his leaden foot.
"And his ankle?" Elizabeth added, her voice rising. "Were you afraid that a man, who was unconscious for thirty hours, was going to cartwheel out of bed?"
Wait. Thirty hours?
Rook took a deep breath.
The two agents exchanged a glance. Dunbar cleared his throat delicately. "Excuse me. Burke as in Peter Burke? So you're—"
Neal blinked heavy-lidded at the door. Peter stood in the center, arms folded across the chest, looking very much like he wanted to shoot someone. Maybe his dry cleaner? Peter's charcoal suit looked like it had gone through a couple wars. Didn't he wear that yesterday? No—she said thirty hours—day before?
A light touch on his elbow drew him away from Peter stalking toward Rook. The other agent took a step forward and Neal fuzzily wondered if this was what Moz was trying to tell him about fission: two charged atoms colliding.
Neal looked blurrily at the heart-shaped face. His chest lurched briefly when he took the dark hair and bright eyes, but when his name was repeated, openly worried, the feeling steadied as he focused. He smiled faintly when he saw it was Elizabeth. There was still an ache in his heart, probably from whatever that happened to him.
"...my case in Organized Crimes for three years, Burke..." Rook sounded like he could be foaming at the mouth.
Neal turned his head to look, morbid fascination overriding common sense. The touch on his elbow turned to a squeeze and drew him back.
"Do you want some water?" Elizabeth asked gently. There was a look in her eyes Neal hadn't seen since she and Peter took him to the gravesite they helped him choose for Ka...for her.
"There's no reason to believe he had anything to do with it!"
Do with what?
"Bullshit! You reported to the marshals when his tracking went dark. He was off your leash for sixty-two minutes! I want to know what Caffrey was doing with my key witness! What the hell kind of deal was he making? Was he getting Docks out of the country?"
"Here you go, sweetie."
Neal grimaced as he tried to lift his head higher to sip at the spoon of ice chips. His neck felt like rubber, his head like it was strapped down with weights.
"There is no evidence Caffrey had any dealings with—"
"So he just accidentally woke up next to his body?"
The echo of someone pleading bit his ear. His nostrils flared at the suffocating smell of blood, but no one else seemed to smell it. Something to Neal's right beeped loudly. Elizabeth turned sharply to the three men verbally going at it by the foot of his bed.
"Peter..." Elizabeth tried, but Peter held up a hand. She heaved a sigh. Elizabeth was not having a good day today.
"We don't have enough evidence..."
Rook stood toe to toe to Peter. Dunbar looked like he wanted to be handcuffed to the bed instead of Neal.
"CSU verified it was Caffrey's prints on the murder weapon."
The monitor next to him bleeped again. Neal's throat suddenly felt tight once more. The room shrank around him.
"That doesn't prove anything—it's clear it was self-defense!"
Phantom hands applied weight over his throat again. More hands clenched bruising and heavy on his hips.
"Hold him down, damn it!"
There was a flash of silver, caught in the light. A shadow above him, around him, hands crushing him down on the bed. There was screaming, begging.
"Get his mouth open!"
He bit the finger digging into his jaw, prying his mouth open and something acrid and thin flooded in where air should be. He gagged; he choked.
Someone was screaming by his ear.
Now a machine to his left beeped. The right, not to be outdone, began to pick up its chime more frantically.
Elizabeth wrapped her hand around his fingers. They felt chilled and she was staring wide-eyed at Neal, but for some reason, he couldn't get his fingers to work properly to squeeze hers.
"Honey," Elizabeth said, still looking at Neal, but it didn't look like she was talking to him.
Peter swore under his breath and suddenly, he was grabbing Rook by the arm, pulling him toward the door. Rook growled, Dunbar jumped back, hands up to keep the two agents apart and Neal suddenly felt like he was drowning.
"Get the doctor!" Neal heard and his chest clenched.
Was Elizabeth hurt? His hand spasm around hers, Elizabeth gripped hard back, as if she was in pain. She was wavering in front of him. Peter's voice rose to shouting but he was still too far away.
There were footsteps, more footsteps running in and Neal suddenly realized how open he was out here on the bed. Hide, he was supposed to hide.
Elizabeth's hand jerked away, but before he could grab it back, something cold, sharp and unyielding bit into his wrist, into his ankle as he fought.
No, don't go! Don't get on the plane!
The machines on both sides now wailed around him, the room spun into a misty white that laid over him, an unwelcome weight. Hands, hands he didn't know grabbed him.
"Hold him down, damn it!"
Neal felt something cool and damp over his mouth, a prick in his arm and as he spiraled, he heard one last scream.
"No, no, please! Don't kill me!"
* * * * *
"I thought I told you two Caffrey was off limits!" Peter spun around as soon as he stepped out into the hallway. If his voice was inappropriately loud it was because it was better than assaulting a fellow federal agent. If it happened to drown out the beeping and the doctors and Elizabeth's soothing voice urging to Neal to calm down, well, that was just an added benefit. "Hughes said no one was harassing Caffrey while he was recovering."
The frenzied activity they were just thrown out of hadn't defused Rook. He squared his wide shoulders to brace himself against Peter's ranting.
"That was before CSU finished processing the scene." Rook jerked his head toward Neal's door. "We held off getting his statement—"
Peter took a step into Rook's space and growled, "You call handcuffing him to the bed 'getting his statement'?"
"Damn it, Burke. I don't know what you Ivy Leaguers in White Collar are doing, screwing with our case—"
"We weren't screwing around with your case!" Peter started to shout again, but a nurse squeezed by them to get into Neal's room and shot them a dirty look. His voice dropped to a hiss. "There wasn't a case for us. I don't know what exactly happened here, but it had nothing to do with anything we're working on, or some pissing contest you think we're having here!"
Dunbar stepped between them, playing peacemaker. Thin, almost skeletal fingers held up three digits in front of him. "Agent Burke, we'd had Giraldi under investigation for three years. He picked up what was left of Giotti's empire and ran with it."
"Murder, racketeering, human trafficking, drugs," Rook took a step forward, pinning his partner's shoulders between them. "We couldn't even pin him for those god damn fake Coach bags on Canal Street."
Dunbar nodded, but kept darting eyes at his partner to ward him off. It didn't seem to work.
Rook kept clenching his jaw. "NYPD picked up Docks on suspicion of—"
"Kidnapping, rape and murder. I know," Peter cut in harshly. He could still hear Elizabeth's outrage when she learned of the deal the federal prosecutor gave Docks.
"We don't have proof of murder," Dunbar said hurriedly. "Local PD had DNA samples, some closed circuited images, but no bodies."
"The Ronn statement," Peter reminded him. He read the file Diana had accidentally taken instead of the Groening insurance scam. How she mistaken a red file from a blue file she'd never clarified.
Rook shot him a dark look. "That wasn't public knowledge and he retracted it."
Peter scoffed. "After disappearing for a week and shown up in South Carolina half-beaten to death." He scowled. "Docks was a depraved psychopath—"
"And also Giraldi's money man," Dunbar jumped in before Peter could continue with what everybody thought of Michael Docks. "He offered the FBI every single bank account Giraldi has under various shell companies here and the Caymans. A total of $129 million in liquid assets. There's enough in there to convict Giraldi with over a hundred counts of money-laundering alone."
It took effort to control his expression but Peter couldn't temper his voice. "In exchange, you turn a blind eye to murder."
Rook's nostrils flared. "The DA didn't have enough proof for murder. Laders and Arron—"
"Oh come on, we didn't need Corpus delicti for Hawkes or Fraser!" Peter pursed his mouth. "You just wanted Giraldi more."
Rook grunted, neither confirming nor denying. He glanced over his shoulder at the room, still shut.
Peter checked the door as well. It was quieter now, the doctor and nurses inside talking in murmurs instead of shouts. It was a good sign, right?
"It's moot at this point," Rook said tightly. "Your pet convict killed our star witness. Our case is shot."
Dunbar gave Peter an apologetic look as he pulled out a file from the briefcase he carried under his arm like a wayward toddler. Peter flipped it open, making a face of his own at the photo of a bloody switchblade, its handle stained with aluminum powder and the clear elongated circular shape of a thumb at the base where knife met the handle. He peeled the photo back. Tucked behind it was the AFIS printout and Neal's grainy prison photo. Neal had often complained he hated that photo.
"We have a good full set. All fifteen points check out," Dunbar said, his voice was steady, low, an odd contrast to Rook's. He handed over a flimsy fax sheet. "And the blood on Caffrey's shirt and..." Dunbar coughed quietly into a fist. "…trousers were tested. Definitely Docks."
"You know what I think?" Rook spoke up.
No, but I'm sure you'll tell me, Peter thought wearily as he stared at the photo of the bed Neal found himself on. Christ, Docks' blood had flowed all over the bed. It left nothing untouched.
Rook's blunt finger stabbed the air between them. "I think Docks went looking for Nick Halden to get a ticket out of the country. Docks offered him a piece of Giraldi's pie, except Caffrey wanted all of it. He shakes a piece of ass, got Docks' tongue wagging and—"
Something hot flared and flew out of Peter's throat. "Now wait a minute." He slapped the folder on Rook's chest.
The agent looked at it like a fly he wanted to swat away.
"You saw the bruises," Peter said low, his eyes narrowed, daring them to contradict him. "Whatever happened; it wasn't his choice." His jaw set, blocking the words from coming out. Somehow, it felt like everything would be better if he didn't voice it out loud.
Rook grunted, unimpressed. "Doctors said there were no signs of sexual assault—"
"I know what they said. I was there when I asked them to check for it, damn it." Peter glowered at Rook's and Dunbar's unmovable expressions. "What? You think he planned all this? Somehow get himself OD on flunitrazepam to the point he went into respiratory distress, slip into a coma for thirty hours for some con?" Peter was breathing heavily from the effort not to shout.
"I wouldn't put it past him," Rook sneered. "He nearly flew out of the country a few months ago with that girlfriend of his. Heard he changed his mind and broke it off with her. Permanently. Seemed to have gotten over it pretty quick. For a piece of $129 million, I think Caffrey learned to be flexible."
Later, Peter wasn't sure if it was the smirk Rook made mocking Kate, the lewd insinuation, or just because he really hated the guy. He drew his fist back with the vague notion that hitting that huge chin was going to break his hand.
Neal's door cracked open. On cue, the two men backed away from each other. Dunbar breathed out. Peter's fist dropped.
"Peter?" Elizabeth's eyes darted between him and Rook like she would when Satchmo stole something from the dinner table.
Peter shoved his hands in his pockets. "How's Neal?"
"He would feel better," she said tersely at Rook and Dunbar, "if he wasn't cuffed to the bed."
Rook opened his mouth to argue when Elizabeth continued.
"So…" Elizabeth's lips curved sweetly.
Rook and Dunbar looked at each other then at her warily.
"Neal asked me to return these to you." With a finger, she held up two sets of handcuffs.
Peter bit back a groan and the ridiculous urge to smirk when Dunbar accepted the cuffs. Rook's head was too busying trying to boil itself off his body. He took a step in front of Elizabeth and could practically feel her rolling her eyes at his back for it.
"If Caffrey's making a statement, it's to me," Peter grounded out. "I'm his handler. So back off."
"Agent Burke," Dunbar tried, placating, "Mr. Caffrey was the last person to have seen Docks alive."
"He made sure of it," Rook muttered under his breath. He met Peter's glare unflinchingly, no remorse for having been overheard.
"You want to talk to Caffrey, you talk to Hughes first." Peter folded his arms in front of him. "I'll be sure to pass on whatever Neal tells me." He bared his teeth in a grin. "Intradepartmental cooperation and all."
Rook looked like he wanted to say something more, but Peter knew the agent couldn't come near Neal without Hughes' say-so. Though he also knew once Ruiz and the DA heard Neal was finally awake, the federal prosecutor would be howling for something to keep their case against Giraldi afloat.
After a deep breath that seemingly drew Rook taller by a few inches, he made a sound like grinding molars. "Caffrey can't hide in this hospital forever," He seethed and pivoted around. "This isn't over," Rook snarled over his shoulder as he stormed off, Dunbar hurrying after him.
"Didn't think so," Peter murmured. He felt El's arm quietly slipped around his middle. She gave him a squeeze.
"Everything okay with Neal?"
Peter kissed the top of her head so he didn't have to lie to her face.
* * * * *
"So any plans tonight?" Peter asked casually, not looking up from his file.
Neal doubted that the classic whiplash Medicaid scam was that fascinating of a read. He decided to humor Peter though, pausing as if to give it some serious thought.
"I was thinking of going to Valley National," Neal remarked as he pinched the knot of his tie, straightening it from the lopsided position he could see on the glass wall's reflection. "Thought maybe I would check out their security systems, their entry points, see when Brinks makes their deliveries." He turned around, grinning toothily. When Peter's head predictably shot up, Neal added, as the coup de grâce, "For old times' sakes."
It was proof Neal's skills were slipping when Peter's shoulders relaxed instead. "Last I checked, bank robbery wasn't one of your MOs."
"MOs? As in plural?"
Peter rolled his eyes. "Correction. Allegedly."
"That's what my counsel advises."
Neal caught Peter shaking his head, his mouth forming the word "Mozzie." Neal's grin broadened.
"Besides," Neal couldn't resist adding, "I enjoyed my soiree as a bank security consultant during the Architect case. I want to keep my skills sharp."
"Any sharper and you'll be drawing blood," Peter muttered. Almost immediately, he grimaced and peered up at Neal.
The smile on Neal's face began to hurt. He checked his watch, making a point not to look at Peter. He spied Peter relaxing, having believed Neal hadn't heard. Neal smoothed down his tie, a multi-toned gancinos Salvatore Ferragamo he bought to replace the one she'd stolen for him. She had just been practicing what she'd learned from Moz, a bit of showing off combined with wistful window shopping because weeks before, still under Adler's payroll, she would have gotten this for Neal during her lunch hour. Neal bought this one because he'd lost the original somewhere between his arrest and his first incarceration.
Peter's quiet query drew his eyes away from his fingers ironing out the broader part of the tie. It must have been too long because Peter was no longer reading his file, but was half up from his chair like he was going to come around his desk.
Neal retreated. His shoulders met the cool glass wall that encompassed Peter's office.
Peter's brow furrowed.
"Sorry, what was your question again?" Neal asked as steady as he could. He made himself look at his watch again.
Huh? Startled, Neal looked up. "Roast beef?"
"El's making roast beef. She wanted to see if you want to come by for dinner tonight." Peter shrugged as if it didn't matter to him either way. "I'm supposed to pick up dessert if you say yes."
It should have touched him; Elizabeth always found a way to include Neal in things that felt sincere, not obligatory to feed her husband's CI. Today, however, he had an urge to snidely suggest to Peter he could pick up dessert at the "Greatest Cake." And that odd, out of nowhere, knee-jerk reaction made Neal take another step back to put some safe distance between them.
Neal smiled. He chuckled awkwardly as if he was caught in a lie. Maybe he was. Maybe he wasn't. "I'm fine" was getting easier to say to everyone these days.
"No. Thank you. Actually, I was thinking of going down to Blackman's Galleries on Hudson. They're doing a show on neo-expressionism. Saw an article on it. This is the last week."
"An art gallery?" It was comical how high Peter's eyebrow went. This time, he did look worried.
Neal flashed teeth at Peter. "There's this nice life study that's by the fire exit, under this low skylight..." Neal smirked.
Peter glowered. "Very funny." He eyed his paper folded to the crosswords. "It was in today's paper?"
There was a brief twist in his chest when Neal realized Peter would see the brief article in the arts section, the gray-scale miniature photo of one of its pieces. He knew then the well-intended, misplaced questions, the looks and the invites to roast beef would increase tenfold.
"Would you like to come?" Neal offered, or challenged, as he spied Peter studying Neal openly.
Neal suspected Peter knew if he accepted, he ran the risk of Neal appointing himself docent in the gallery.
To his surprise though, Peter delicately cleared his throat. "Well, if you want..." he hedged.
Neal's smile faded. "That wasn't a real invitation," he said stiffly. Neal rubbed his thumb along the pattern on his tie. He took a deep breath before meeting Peter's eyes squarely. "You don't have to keep doing this, Peter."
To Peter's credit, he didn't pretend to not know what Neal was talking about. He lifted one shoulder. "El worries."
"Just her?" Neal sighed. He resisted running a hand through his hair. "I appreciate you guys, all of you, thinking I need...I'm fine," he stressed. He'll be better when her murderer was found.
"It's only been three months—"
"I know," Neal interrupted before Peter could tally up how many days it has been since he failed her. "I know."
Peter nodded, agreeing to what, Neal was afraid to ask.
The corner of Peter's mouth quirked up. "A gallery, huh?" he drawled.
It was easier to smile at that one. "What can I say?" Neal shrugged, tipped his hat over his head and smiled crookedly as he smoothed out the brim with two fingers. "I like art."
"Tell me about it," Peter groused. He made a shooing gesture at Neal. "Go. Do your art thing and don't complain if you have to eat the leftovers El is sure to make me bring over tomorrow."
"I like her leftovers," Neal protest.
"Uh-huh." Peter chuckled. Thankfully, he sat down and reopened the file he was pretending to read before.
"Well, I'll see you tomorrow. If you change your mind…" Neal slyly added.
"I'll know where to find you," Peter snorted, waving him off.
It was with a sense of déjà vu Neal woke, blinking up at the fuzzy white, flat nothingness which could only mean a hospital ceiling, the languidly rhythmic chirping telling him his heart, his breathing was regular. The medical gauge of normalcy.
He didn't feel normal though.
Neal lay there, blinking tiredly as the doctor (blue scrubs, white coat, drone voice, face still round with youth--he was either a doctor or a very ineffective candy stripper) entered, introduced himself and competently listed his injuries like a shopping list. The doctor assured him the bruises on his throat, hips and ribs were going to be sore, but non-life-threatening. The flunitrazepam overdose was going to leave him a bit unbalanced though. Neal was trying to decide if there was a double-meaning in that.
There should be no lasting side effects.
With time, he should recover.
He looked to be okay after everything that happened.
He was fortunate.
For a foggy second, Neal wondered if the doctor was talking about Docks or Kate.
And good news (the doctor offered with a smile that looked too restrained to be sincere): there was no sign of what everyone avoided saying like the word was a verbal landmine. Neal nodded politely as the doctor rattled off the things he didn't have—no tears, no bleeding, just a lot of hurt—to come to the conclusion Neal's been trying to tell everyone who would listen.
He was fine.
When the doctor paused, Neal wondered if he was supposed to thank him.
"We have someone here if you would like to talk…"
Neal stared at him blankly. It felt like he turned the channel to the middle of a different show. "I'm sorry. I don't understand."
The doctor pulled an appropriate sympathetic face that made Neal cringe. "The hospital offers trauma counseling." After a beat, the doctor added, "We have a female counselor if you want."
Neal wondered if laughing out loud right now would wipe the "I know how you're feeling" textbook look off the doctor's face. It was the same look the prison staff gave when he was returned to the Super Max like an overdue library book. But he coped then. He could cope now.
"You just said nothing happened," Neal pointed out, smiling.
The doctor looked taken aback by the smile. "Yes, but it may be helpful to talk about what happened."
"But I don't remember anything. How can I talk about something I remember nothing about? Especially if you're telling me it didn't happen." Neal folded his hands on his lap. "Thank you, but no. I don't think my insurance will cover that." Seeing the doubt that flickered over the previously impassive face, Neal added, "Most likely, the FBI will have me go to therapy once I'm discharged." Or throw him back in jail. Neal tried not to think hard on why that didn't seem to bother him at this time.
"Well…why don't I send up a resident from the psychology department to chat with you first?" The doctor glanced at the clipboard. "See how you're feeling before we decide anything?"
"I feel…" He felt nothing actually, haven't for months. "I feel tired." Neal pulled his covers up to his throat and felt better for it being covered up for some reason. "I would like to sleep if you don't mind."
"If that's how you feel," the doctor hedged.
"Yes," Neal said firmly. "That's how I feel."
* * * * *
The coffee tasted like crap, the shirt Peter hastily changed into that morning clung on his back in all the wrong places because he didn't iron it the night before. And with Elizabeth gone—sleeping in the chair in Neal's room, he woke up cranky from three hours of sleep, his stomach churning from the crusty sugary bear claw he'd eaten for breakfast.
"Hey," Diana poked her head into his office. She, of course, was looking properly attired in a dark purple and gray pantsuit. Peter was feeling rumpled, like he's been walking into the middle of meetings all day and it was only ten.
Neal, not Caffrey. Everyone had been asking the moment he stepped off the elevator. The concern both warmed and alarmed him. Organized Crime wasn't making too much of an effort keeping the Docks' case under wraps. He caught Jones waving his arms at a pair of agents huddled with their heads bent together between the archive shelves.
"He's sleeping." Peter adjusted his tie using the reflection off the photo of him and El. No one commented it was the same blue and white striped tie from days before. Neal would have been cheeky enough to point it out and, when Peter found himself pausing expectantly for the criticism, only to receive none, he dropped his hands from the knot.
"Boss?" Diana's brows knitted.
"Doctors said he was going to be sleeping on and off until his system clears out everything. El took a few days off to keep him company. June's away visiting grandchildren." Peter gestured to the folder in her hand. "Is that it?"
Nodding, Diana entered his office, her arm extended. "Building's owned by Markham Construction, which is—"
"Which is owned by Giraldi's Management," Peter read. He scowled. "NYPD couldn't get an ID on those two slipping out of there?" He didn't look up. Diana's sigh was answer enough. "How about the prints in the crime scene?" It felt better to refer to it as the "crime scene" although Neal wasn't here to appreciate the euphemism.
Peter glanced up when Diana didn't answer immediately. His junior agent stood there, her lips pursed.
"Ruiz?" Peter guessed.
"They took everything we have last night."
Peter swore under his breath. His chin jutted out as he stared hard at the flimsy folder on his desk, pretty much the only thing they have left.
Diana cleared her throat and Peter slowly grinned. He stuck out his hand and Diana dropped a folded piece of paper into his waiting palm.
"This came in this morning and I couldn't really find the agents in charge of the Giraldi case, so…"
"This should have been forwarded to Organized Crimes." Peter schooled his expression to something more disapproving. Diana wasn't fooled.
Diana's shoulders lifted briefly. "Didn't realize we still had this and since Agent Rook only demanded what we have last night…"
"You've been hanging around Neal too long," Peter told her. He didn't bother biting back his grin.
Diana mock scowled. "If that was supposed to be a compliment…" She nodded toward the paper. "CSU pulled off four sets of prints: Neal's, Michael Docks' and…"
"Our two runaways," Peter finished as he opened the paper and studied the results. "One print is an unknown but the other is a Tommy Bonelli."
"Three priors for assault and extortion," Diana offered. "His tax records have him working for Giraldi as a security consultant."
"Think they were working for Docks?"
Peter shook his head. "Maybe. But why didn't they stop Neal before he killed Docks." He pinched the bridge of his nose.
Diana sat down. She rested her elbows on the desk.
"Jones told me Docks wasn't able to finish what he was going to do to Neal," she said quietly. Brown eyes stayed on Peter's face as she carefully asked, "You think Neal killed him? In self defense?" The higher lilt at the end revealed her disbelief.
Peter almost smiled at that. "The evidence certainly suggests it."
"But you don't believe it." Diana offered it as a question and a statement. "Does Neal remember any of it?"
Peter sighed. "It didn't look like it. We never had a chance to really ask. Rook and his partner interrogated Neal the moment he came to. The doctors threw us out when he had a panic attack." Peter couldn't get the high-pitched beeping from Neal's heart monitor out of his head. "With that much flunitrazepam in his system, chances are he might never remember."
"That might not necessarily be a bad thing," Diana tentatively suggested.
Deep down, Peter guiltily agreed.
* * * * *
White walls. White ceiling. It didn't look like he'd been taken anywhere. Rook must be disappointed.
Neal blinked until things cleared enough to pinpoint Elizabeth sitting on the edge of his bed. She smiled. He tried to smile back, but it was probably more like a grimace.
The noises and the colors and the taste of gummy dryness in the back of his tongue didn't bother him as much as Elizabeth looking at him like she wanted to sit closer, maybe on his lap (and wouldn't that have Peter sending him back to prison), but also looking afraid that if she breathed on him, Neal would reenact the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhythm.
Neal blinked. For a brief second, it sounded like Elizabeth spoke without moving her lips. It would have been impressive; even more so because it sounded exactly like Peter. But then Peter stepped from behind Elizabeth. While Elizabeth's credibility as a talented ventriloquist plummeted, the look on Peter's worn face made one of the monitors bleep faster again.
Peter scowled or made an unconvincing forgery of his usual "I'm annoyed with you but won't admit it" contortion.
"Stop that." Peter went around Elizabeth, a hand trailing around her back, settling on the curve of a shoulder as he stood by Neal's head. He nodded toward a machine beyond where Neal could see.
"Last thing you need is to get those doctors back in here again." Peter crouched by his ear. "Calm down, Neal. You're all right."
But he couldn't be all right because Peter was talking to him low and careful, as if for some reason Neal might not understand him. Neal blinked at him again and caught the heavy whiff of sweat. The bruises around his throat began to throb.
"Hold him down, damn it!"
"No, please! You don't have to do this! I have money!"
"Shit, I thought you said this stuff will keep him—"
"Don't! Please! Help! Help! Don't do this! I—"
"Get his mouth open!"
Neal reared deeper into his pillows, although it took more effort than it should and he probably didn't even move much, but Peter jumped back like Neal had shoved him away with both hands. Dismay bleached Peter's face.
"Hell, Neal. Sorry. I didn't—"
"It's fine," Neal rasped because watching Peter fumble for words wasn't amusing as it should be and made his stomach knot and tug like he was seasick.
"Nothing happened," Neal said. He caught Elizabeth wince and suddenly she was determined to get Neal the best glass of stale water from the mustard yellow pitcher on the tray table by the foot of the bed.
"Yeah, it didn't," Peter said, too quickly. He rubbed the back of his neck. "So you remember?"
"No." Neal smiled and felt the corners of his mouth burn as if they were cracking. "I don't remember a thing. But I would know." So it's okay. Nothing happened. Whether he remembered or not.
"What do you remember?" Peter asked.
Everything about nothing, Neal wanted to say. But he doubted Peter would appreciate irony at a moment like this. He pushed up on his elbows. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Peter fidgeting like he wanted to help, but it was Elizabeth who slipped an arm around Neal's shoulders to give him the extra leverage he needed to sit up.
Peter stuffed his hands into his suit jacket's pockets, looking almost constipated and something hot writhed in Neal's chest.
"Nothing happened," Neal repeated tightly. When Peter opened his mouth, probably to agree, Neal added with a grimace, "I'm sure the doctors would have noticed something if you don't believe me."
Sure enough, Peter's mouth snapped shut. His head bobbed jerkily. He glanced over to Elizabeth, who wrapped Neal's hand around a sweating Styrofoam cup and slipped out of the room.
Peter sat down on the edge of the chair closest to Neal.
"Neal," Peter exhaled, clearly unhappy, "I have to ask."
"It's all right," Neal said quickly but the frown lines on Peter's expression wouldn't go away.
"Yeah," Neal acknowledged. His face pulled when he smiled, but he did anyway, because he needed Peter to look like Peter again not…not Peter. It was why Neal hadn't seen anyone after he'd been thrown back into prison for a second—no, that was the jewelry theft—third time. "What do you need to know?"
Peter studied him before he said slowly, "Tell me everything."
"There's not much of everything when I remember nothing."
Peter slanted a look at Neal.
Sighing, Neal leaned back into the pillows piled behind him: three flattened, depleted pillows that totaled to a lumpy ache digging into his spine. Neal squirmed and caught Peter sitting higher.
"I'm fine!" Neal snapped. Immediately after, though, he felt heat flood his face. What was he doing? Neal averted his gaze. "Sorry," he muttered.
Peter nodded curtly.
"So what's the last thing you do remember?" Peter prodded.
"The gallery?" Neal tried. "I was looking at the collection. It was crowded. Saw Michael Docks there." He furrowed his brow.
"He knew who I was," Neal murmured. At Peter's frown, Neal added, "I introduced myself as Nick Halden and he knew that wasn't my real name. He called me Neal."
"You introduced yourself as Nick Halden," Peter repeated. "Your alias."
Neal glanced over. "Yes, why?"
Peter breathed out loudly. "The agent assigned to his protection detail overheard you two."
"Docks was going to a grand jury next week." Neal sipped the water, mouthed a shrinking ice cube so it could melt under his tongue. He felt marginally better. "What was he doing wandering around Manhattan when Giraldi likely placed a price on his head?"
Peter grunted; which meant he didn't know either and wasn't looking forward to finding the answer. "Docks has—had an ace up his sleeve."
"Giraldi's accounts," Neal murmured.
Peter's head whipped around. "What do you know about them?" he asked sharply. "Neal?"
"Nothing. I heard you and Agent Rook talking…" Yelling, actually. Elizabeth, once the doctors injected whatever it was into Neal's IV, had looked tempted to take his IV pole and start swinging it at someone. "They think Docks has Giraldi's accounts?"
"Word is Docks had a list of every transaction, password and account number of Giraldi's money. Guy's been squirreling his boss' money away into other accounts for a rainy day. He was going to premiere it in a big flashy way to the grand jury."
"But no one knows where he kept that list." Neal shrugged at Peter's look. "Makes sense to me. A life insurance policy."
Peter scowled. "A lot of good that did him. His protection detail lost sight of Docks in one section of the gallery. Didn't even notice where you went. Security cameras were disabled in the alley." Peter cleared his throat. "We found your tracking anklet seven blocks away from there. And we didn't get an alert that Organized Crime put out an APB on Docks, so no one made the connection."
Neal's hand felt sticky, like Docks' hand had slyly slipped around his fingers again. He rubbed his palm on his lap.
"Rook believes Docks looked for Halden to funnel a ticket out of the country." Peter exhaled loudly. "What were you doing going around introducing yourself as Nick Halden—?"
"I wasn't introducing myself as Nick Halden," Neal protested.
An eyebrow rose high. "So you didn't say you were Nick Halden?"
"No, I did."
"Damn it, Neal."
"But only after he asked for my name." Neal watched Peter folded his arms across his chest. "It wasn't intentional. I just…" Neal shrugged and smoothed out the blankets covering his legs. "He didn't…I mean…"
Peter lowered his arms and leaned forward, stopping himself midway as if he remembered something and leaned back. "Neal?"
"I didn't want him to know who I was." Neal made a disparaging laugh. "Figured he would move on and that would be the end of it." Neal knuckled one eye. His limbs felt like they were tied down with weights. "Last thing I remember was toasting him with the worst-tasting Monte Rose I ever had and then…" He swallowed.
"Agent Rook said I killed him."
"In self-defense," Peter said quickly. "Neal, doctors found high doses of flunitrazepam in your bloodstream."
Neal made a face. "Flunitrazepam?"
Something pulled taut in his chest. "I know what it is," Neal said tightly. Peter glanced away and Neal dropped his head. What was the matter with him? "Sorry."
"Forget about it," Peter mumbled, suddenly fascinated with the heart monitor beeping quietly behind Neal's head.
That's what I'm trying to do, Neal wanted to shout. He could feel his right hand trembling and he tucked it into the folds of his blanket.
"That's why I can't remember anything," Neal muttered.
"Hold him down, damn it!"
"Get his mouth open!"
There was a screaming that wouldn't go away in his left ear, like a ringing, like the time he miscalculated the timing of that cathedral's bells and was caught up in the steeple with the Antioch manuscripts. The carrier pigeons did their job, but the gong bellowing in his ear wouldn't go away for days. Mozzie had laughed about it for weeks.
Neal canted his head to the left and absently stuck a finger in his ear.
"Hm," Neal murmured as he stared at his other hand on the bed. The fingers curled but he couldn't remember the sensation of a wooden handle—Wait, was it a wooden handle? Maybe it was metal? Or did he remember and that was why he'd automatically known it was wood?
Neal raised his head and flinched.
Peter withdrew to his chair.
"I don't remember," Neal said. he hated how weak it sounded even to his own ears.
"I think that was the point." Peter pointed to his own throat. "Docks must have tried to…there are marks on your throat from where he tried to choke you and…" Peter's jaw clenched. "There are scratch marks, bruises from where he must have tried—"
"Yeah," Neal interrupted. So there was an advantage to not remembering after all. "He tried. I must have grabbed the knife and…" Neal stared at his hands curled loosely on his lap.
"Rook doesn't think so."
"Well, I don't care what Rook thinks," Peter grumbled. He studied Neal. "Did you know Docks was going to be there?"
Neal couldn't find the energy to be indignant for the question. He shook his head.
"Hell of a coincidence he was there, too." Peter made a face. "Unless he knew you were going to be there."
Neal's mouth twisted. "I'm flattered."
"What did he say?" Peter pressed. "Exactly?"
Neal told him, as best as he remembered, even the taste of Boursin cheese still ashy and bitter in his mouth, the almost vinegary bouquet of the wine sour on his tongue.
Peter listened, his mouth pursed in concentration, elbows on his knees, eyes hooded. When Neal was done, Peter shook his head. "Damn it," he muttered, wiping a palm across his mouth. "I don't like it."
Neal sank deeper into the pillows and wished it was the poster bed in his apartment at June's.
"When can I leave?" Neal yawned. He tugged at the top of his covers, pulling at them as he watched Peter watching him, like he was trying to see through Neal's latest scam. Neal drew the blankets higher.
"Want to go home, huh?" Peter commiserated, a wry smile quirked on his lips.
"Hadn't gone back in years," Neal murmured as he burrowed deeper into the covers and shivered.
Neal blinked blearily at Peter.
Peter shook his head. "Never mind. Not for another two days, big guy. You got all that junk in your system. Doctors say your balance and coordination is going to be shot for a few days. And you're going to be playing for the narcolepsy team for a while. Better you stay put."
"So no more tightropes," Neal yawned. The blankets were growing heavier and his fingers plucked idly at the top edges of the pilling material.
"Tightropes, huh?" Peter remarked. "No, Neal, no circus acts for the time being."
Peter was growing fuzzy around the edges. Neal warned him to get a shave but for some reason, Peter chuckled.
"Yeah, think you're staying put, buddy." Peter rose from the chair.
Neal jolted and a hand snagged Peter's sleeve.
Peter stilled, looked down at Neal's hand and sat back down on the chair.
"Hey," Peter said quietly. A warm weight curled around his wrist. "How about I sit here for a bit?"
"If you want." Neal covered the next yawn with a hand.
"Might as well. I'll be stuck in traffic if I leave now."
Neal nodded solemnly. That would be bad. Traffic hates Peter.
"You need a shave," Neal told him. "Your fuzzy are getting ears."
"Whatever you say, Yoda."
Yoda? That wasn't one of his aliases and it wouldn't make a good one because it wasn't generic enough. It didn't even have a surname. It made a horrible alias, Neal warned him.
"I'll keep that in mind. Go to sleep."
Neal felt his eyes drooping but as the bed gave under him, he turned his head to his left. Empty eyes gaped back at him and he became aware of the stickiness that clung his shirt to his back. Neal jerked.
"Sh, you're okay."
Neal looked again and it was just a white wall. His eyes slid shut; the room dimmed for what felt like only a brief moment when he opened them again. He smiled drowsily at the heavy, dark-framed eyes now staring back at him.
"Hey, Moz," Neal slurred.
"Did you know this hospital had two cases of MRSA last year?" Moz returned crossly. He yanked at the covers until Neal could feel them scratching the bottom of his chin.
"Hallmark would love to have you on board, Moz," Peter deadpanned.
Moz was staring at Neal, wide-eyed, pale, looking like Neal just told him the FBI had managed to wiretap his glasses.
Neal reached over a hand to give him a pat on the arm. He missed. "I'm okay," he said. The words rolled out strange from his mouth.
"Of course you are," Moz replied immediately. Tentative fingers tapped over Neal's hand before retreating. MRSA, after all. "Go back to sleep, Neal."
Neal let his eyes shut completely. Of course he was okay.
Why did it feel like no one believed him?
* * * * *
"Nice coat, Doc," Peter drawled.
Moz glowered at him through his glasses. He tugged at the white lab coat on him, too perfect of a fit to be "borrowed."
"The hospital and I have an ongoing disagreement on how they should sanitize their facilities." Moz brushed a hand down a white sleeve. "It would be prudent if I entered this institution covertly." He shrugged out of it, revealing a plaid hornstooth jacket and a bowtie. He folded the lab coat, tucked it in his briefcase.
"In case Mr. Caffrey is in need of his attorney," Moz informed him solemnly. After a moment's hesitation, he swapped out his glasses for the exact pair.
Peter arched an eyebrow but said nothing. Asking would only subject him to a long enough explanation that would only turn him around.
Moz adjusted his glasses and gave Peter an expectant grin, but when he only received an eyebrow, Moz harrumphed. His scowl faded as he looked down at Neal.
"Heard he was with Michael Docks," Moz said, carefully as if giving Peter a chance to correct him. His Adam's apple bobbed. "Heard he tried…" Moz picked invisible lint off his collar.
"Heard?" Peter repeated.
"I might have glanced at his medical file." Moz rubbed a hand over a spot on Neal's bed, stopped, scrubbed his hand on his jacket and went back to running a nervous hand on the bed again. "Also heard Docks is dead."
"Good," Moz said with surprising ferocity. He fidgeted, clearly discomfited by his own outburst. His brow knitted. "Is Neal in trouble?"
When is he never? was at the tip of Peter's tongue but his throat closed up. He swallowed drily. Rook didn't appear impressed or even remotely sympathetic as he scanned the medical photos.
"Maybe, Moz," Peter murmured.
* * * * *
He was surrounded by starlight.
Through the veil of his lashes playing everything out like a kaleidoscope, streams of light zipped past him.
Opening his eyes felt difficult, herculean and each time he tried, his eyelids drooped further down instead after giving him tantalizing glimpses of shadows moving in front of him. Ghosts?
"…ate?" he heard himself moaning. He tried to reach for her, but his right arm felt weighted down. His left arm was pinned. He could vaguely feel a head and part of a shoulder butted up against him.
A large hand clamped over his ankle.
Waking up to darkness took time to get accustomed to. Neal learned from many years of watching his own back—night time is when someone takes your stuff, your money, your food, your life—to sleep lightly. Moz snaps awake at a floor creak, Neal had learned to do the same, but in New York where old buildings with noisy floors are called "historical townhouses," he honed in the ability to differentiate which sounds were good, which were bad.
Something bad had woken him up.
Neal stared up at the same white ceiling now softened by the dim hospital lights. He could hear voices outside his room, hushed, not urgent, fading as they shuffled past like he was the center of a Doppler. There was a squeak of a bucket, the slosh of a mop, the rattle of a cart, the sawing rumble of a vacuum.
Sitting up, Neal hazily wondered how he could still have vertigo if he could barely see his hand in front of his face. He rubbed his eyes, turned to where the pitcher of water should be.
There, just below the sounds of a muted hospital, was breathing. Low, measured, careful not to be heard.
Neal whipped his head around, but all he saw were blocky shapes of machines, the low squatting shape of a chair, the thin line of light outlining the bottom of a door.
Staring into the dark, Neal blinked rapidly but the black just writhed into different shades of gray, like a monochromatic version of Picasso's Red Swirls Dream. Neal sat higher.
"Peter?" he rasped.
The breathing stuttered.
Of course it wasn't Peter. Neal vaguely remembered a warm, familiar weight dropping over a covered foot, a gruff murmur promising to be back in the morning.
Neal finger combed his dark hair but even without a mirror, he suspected it was a wasted effort. He grimaced when his left wrist throbbed. Painkillers had worn off, Neal calculated, so it must be close enough to morning. He tried to gather his thoughts, but they kept escaping his grasp.
"Moz?" he tentatively tried again.
Now it was gone completely. Maybe it was never there.
Neal reached for the pitcher again, but his hand was shaking. He snatched his hand back, curled around it with the other and tried to ignore the smell of burning fuel and of blood. He grimaced, his right hand trembling, banging into his bandaged left.
Stop it, stop it, stop it.
His hand eventually settled within the haven of its twin. Neal absently shook his hand loose, glancing at the corners of the room, at his bed, at the empty chair, at…
Docks staring at him, his mouth and slit throat agape.
Neal jolted, rearing back into the bed rail, his hip striking it low. Momentum pitched him over and he fell out of bed. His shoulder slammed into the room-issued set of drawers. The pitcher on top tottered, failed to regain its footing and tipped over. Lukewarm water bled over his head. Lights blazed on around him. Neal threw up a hand. His eyes teared.
A hand curled possessively around the back of his neck.
* * * * *
The moment his cell phone squirmed helplessly across the nightstand, Peter was awake. El murmured sleepily and her arm drifted over to curl over his chest as if pinning him down so he could get more than the three hours of sleep. Peter absently caressed the arm as he snatched the phone and grunted a "Burke."
"Peter, it's Diana." Diana sounded alert despite someone waking her up at five in the morning.
Her next words got Peter sitting up in his bed.
* * * * *
By the time Peter arrived at the White Collar Division, he could see Jones and Diana were already there.
Unfortunately, so was Rook and Dunbar.
Peter took the steps two at a time. He spied Dunbar was taking notes—of what, Peter couldn't figure—and Rook jabbing the table across from Neal, who was sitting in ill-fitting blue scrubs with someone's FBI windbreaker draped over his shoulders. He sat there, smaller than he really was, his ankles tucked and crossed under his seat. The new tracker blinked against a bony, exposed ankle. It was that glimpse, Peter found himself storming into the conference room faster than he expected.
"…want to know where it is, Caffrey," Rook was growling in Neal's face.
"I don't have it," Neal said in a weary voice.
"Mr. Caffrey, you're the one Docks sought out deliberately." Dunbar's pen seesawed in his grip, his voice mild and reasonable.
"You can't con the FBI, Caffrey. Just because you have everyone in White Collar fooled, doesn't mean we can't put you back in Super Max. You're going to miss those fancy suits of yours when you trade them in for orange jumpsuits—"
"Hey!" Peter barked as he stormed into the conference room. He took a deep breath, but it came out in a whoosh when he caught the glint of silver around Neal's wrists, the bruise at the corner of his mouth.
"Morning, Peter," Neal said, raising his hands up to wiggle a greeting. The cuffs jangled as Neal dropped his hands. He smiled brightly, appearing oddly young with his ill-fitting borrowed clothing, dark hair hanging over red-rimmed blue eyes. His face was pale save for the bruise on his cleft chin. "You're here early."
"What the hell is this?" Peter snapped.
Dunbar cleared his throat. He checked with his partner.
"Caffrey," Rook drawled, relishing the words, "was caught trying to escape his hospital room."
Peter arched an eyebrow. "Dressed like that?"
Neal gave Peter a withering look.
Peter pretended he didn't see it and dropped down pointedly in a chair next to Neal.
"The guard posted outside his room, heard Caffrey out of his bed," Dunbar explained.
"And when he went in, Caffrey attacked him." Rook smirked, folding his arms over his chest.
Peter arched an eyebrow at Neal. "How was he even going to get out of a fourth story room?"
"You could use IV tubing or the air ventilation," Neal volunteered.
Peter mentally slapped a hand over his face. Dunbar looked fascinated. Rook looked like he wanted to take that as a confession. At least Neal didn't suggest jumping down to a bakery awning.
"Look, Burke. We have six days left. Dock's list is the foundation holding up our case against Giraldi. Caffrey better cough it up—"
"I don't have it," Neal repeated.
"Why do you think Neal has this list of yours?" Peter demanded.
"We've checked Docks' belongings in all of his properties," Dunbar replied. "He'd implied the list was in a small drive or a media card of some sort, but we didn't find it anywhere." He stared at Neal with an apologetic grimace. "Given Mr. Caffrey's previous criminal endeavors as Nick Halden—"
Neal held up his hands to Peter.
"Look at him, Burke!" Rook gestured sharply at Neal.
Neal made a show of glancing down confused at his chest.
"He's a con! He eluded you for two years—"
"Three," Neal helpfully corrected.
"Neal," Peter sighed again.
Neal shot him an unconvincing baffled look.
"Docks went to Blackman's gallery with the sole purpose of meeting Caffrey." Dunbar gave Peter the security logs despite Rook's glower. "Security kept track of Docks' movement, twenty-four seven."
Rook tapped a file on the table. "Protection detail got the request from Docks he wanted to go to this specific gallery on Hudson Street that night. Nowhere else."
Peter glanced over to Neal. The other stared back blankly.
"Your CI went off his leash an hour after Docks arrived." Rook counted down. "Then he shows up all nice and cozy with his dead body in one of Giraldi's buildings?"
Peter bristled when Rook turned back to Neal.
"Then Caffrey here tries to escape his hospital bed. Why? Going back to get the list you stashed? Retire somewhere in some island with no extradition agreement?" Rook straightened his top-heavy torso with a snort. "You're clever, I'll give you that. Trap Docks in his own perverted ways and get away with millions and his murder—"
"Now wait just a minute—" shouted Peter.
Rook slammed both hands down on the table but only Dunbar started. "How did Docks contact you on when and where to meet?"
Neal met Rook's gaze unflinching. "Carrier pigeon?"
Dunbar's pen stilled. Rook tensed like he wanted to vault over the table and attack Neal.
Peter gritted his teeth. The overwhelming urge to gag Neal fizzled, however, when he caught Neal huddling deeper into the windbreaker.
"Look," Neal said patiently, but it only seemed to rile Rook more, "I don't have this mystical list. Docks never contacted me. He was just there. A coincidence." Neal rubbed at his throat ruefully.
"There's never any coincidences with you, Caffrey," Rook barked. "Of all the galleries in Manhattan, you two show up in the same one?"
Neal shook his head. He looked wearily bemused.
"I don't know what to tell you. Do you want me to take a polygraph?"
Rook's upper lip curled back. "Fat lot of good that'll be with someone like you."
"Enough." Peter pushed the file back at Rook. "So far, all you've been doing is barking around Neal without any evidence. No warrant, no polygraph." Peter ignored Neal's eyebrow cocked toward him. "And get those damn cuffs off him."
"No, it's fine," Neal interrupted cheerfully as he set the handcuffs on the table and slid them away.
Peter inwardly groaned when Rook stared at Neal, the flush going past his neck.
"I want that list, Caffrey," Rook said low.
"I don't have it."
"Mr. Caffrey, the federal prosecutor is willing to offer you immunity for the files," Dunbar interjected in that smooth, collected voice of his. He even smiled at Neal to compensate for Rook's growl.
Neal was starting to show his frustration, his voice cracking a little in the end. "I don't have it."
Rook grunted. "So you and Docks—"
"Were having a drink. That's all," Neal finished, calmer now.
Rook's upper lip curled as he leaned forward on an arm. His mouth stretched to a curved slit from ear to ear.
"Oh, I get it. Cheap date, huh?"
"What the hell?" Peter roared, on his feet. "Rook, you seriously need to back—"
When it happened, no one expected it, apparently not even Neal. Rook rose in challenge. He lifted up a loose fist to shake at Peter, took a step forward and Neal…
Neal reared back in his seat, his arm lashing out and shoving Rook back. He could only reach Rook's torso. He lost his balance as his chair toppled. By the time Peter reached Neal, Neal was butted up against the corner under the wall plasma screen, chest heaving, his eyes wild.
It should have been comical the way Rook froze, his hand still up in the air, mouth slightly opened. Dunbar was half his size and pathetically trying to rein him back with a hand around his forearm.
Rook stared down at Neal, then at Peter when he'd planted himself between them. His mouth snapped shut. His eyes flicked to Peter then back to Neal.
"Don't," Peter growled.
"Agent Rook," Dunbar said just as low and urgent.
Rook's jaw worked. Something cooled in his eyes, but they never strayed from Neal.
Neal sat there; the arm he had up to protect his throat hung frozen, mid-chest level. His eyes, the palest blue Peter had ever seen, were glued to Rook's fist.
Slowly, Rook's arm lowered.
"This better not be a con, Caffrey," Rook managed before he elbowed past Jones and Diana crowding the door. At Peter's look, his junior agents scattered, mumbling something about coffee and breakfast downstairs.
Dunbar stood there, abandoned by his partner.
"Agent Burke, you have to understand. This case…" Dunbar began but nodded when Peter shook his head jerkily. He left, prim suit, notebook and all.
Peter scrubbed a hand over his mouth. He turned to find Neal already standing, his shoulders braced on the wall as he rose.
Neal blinked at Peter. He brushed hands over his front. "Sure." Neal nodded clumsily as if he had no control over his head. "That worked better than I thought."
"That was all an act?" Peter narrowed his eyes, noting the minute trembling in Neal's fingers.
Neal shrugged. He fumbled out of the jacket over his shoulders and buried his hands into the folds. He looked like he was prepared to do the perp walk with his distant eyes, his hands hidden away from the cameras.
"Want to tell me what that was all about?" Peter tracked Neal as he took care to straighten the chair before dropping into it. Peter found himself unable to look at Neal's hospital issued slippers. They seemed wrong somehow.
"Rook is not a morning person." Neal sat there, hands hidden on his lap under the table. He quirked his brow at Peter. "Like someone else I know."
"That's not what I was talking about." Peter chose to sit next to Neal instead of across the table. He relaxed his stance, lowered his voice.
"What happened at the hospital, Neal?"
"There was a guard outside my room." Neal rubbed his forehead and squinted myopically at him. "I thought I wasn't being charged with murder."
"Doctors thought the GPS would interfere with the machines." And he sure as hell wasn't going to cuff Neal to the bed. "And you're not being charged with murder."
"Rook seems pretty determined."
"Rook is a non-issue," Peter said firmly.
Neal grinned toothily at him. "Has anyone told him that?"
Peter stared at him, waiting.
The smile faded. Neal looked down at the table.
"I thought…" Neal nudged the cuffs on the table with a finger. "I woke up. Thought I heard something. Thought someone was in the room." With a shaky grimace, Neal continued, "There was... the guard. I thought he was…" Neal met Peter's eyes. "I wasn't trying to escape."
"What did you think you heard?" Peter prodded.
"Nothing." Neal's face stretched to a pained grin. "Seems to be a running theme today."
Neal held up a hand. "I don't even remember what it was I thought I heard." Neal covered a yawn with his hand.
Peter considered the weight of the paper folded in his back pocket.
"You found out something," Neal guessed. He tracked Peter's hands as the paper was pulled out and wordlessly slid over to him.
"There were four sets of prints where we found you," Peter told him quietly. He spied Diana and Jones peering into the conference room, twin frowns that retreated when he gave a small shake of his head. "Yours and Docks were two. The other two… we only got a match to one so far. Tommy Bonelli."
Peter watched as Neal gingerly picked up the sheet like an artifact.
"Agent Rook didn't mention him."
"Agent Rook hasn't ID'd him yet." Peter shrugged when Neal's eyes flew up. "He'll know soon enough." If they even bother checking other avenues, that is. Rook needed to take off his blinders first.
"Meanwhile, Jones is going through Bonelli's phone and bank records." And Mozzie—well, Peter wasn't sure what the little guy was doing. After some hard thinking, Peter had texted Bonelli's name to the undisclosed number Moz gave him in the hospital. Moz texted back, twenty four hours you'll have his head. Peter sincerely hoped Moz wasn't being literal.
Neal stared intently at the grayscale photo on the sheet.
"Look familiar?" Peter quelled down the tiny voice in him that said, I hope not.
"I don't know. He genetically looks like every henchman I know." Neal set down the sheet. "I don't know. Maybe." He knuckled one eye and tried to stifle another yawn. He failed.
"Was he one of Docks' men?" Neal gestured toward himself. "You think he got me to that place, served me up to Docks? Took the list while Docks was distracted?"
"I'm thinking that's one scenario." Peter winced. He wished Neal didn't put it so blithely. He pushed the paper closer to Neal. "Can you place him on the scene?"
"Does it matter?" Neal returned wearily. "You have his prints. That should be enough even for the FBI to make an arrest."
Peter scrubbed a hand over his chin, rubbing over the bristles and feeling like he could sleep for a week. Neal looked like he should. Probably will, according to his doctor. He studied Neal. "You doing okay?"
Uh-huh. Peter took back the paper, carefully refolding it. He was acutely aware of Neal watching, but when he looked up, Neal's eyes were elsewhere.
"You said one scenario."
"What?" Startled, Peter's fingers stilled over the final crease.
"You said," Neal treaded carefully, "that was one scenario. What were the others?" Neal's mouth twisted. "That I took the list and killed Docks under the guise of self-defense?"
"No." Peter caught the flicker of gratitude in Neal's eyes at his immediate response.
"It is a possibility," Neal pointed out. "At least Agent Rook thinks so." He canted his head, thinking. "We know what Docks was capable of, the type of victim he went for: dark hair, blue eyes, slim build. I was his…I was his type—"
"Oh, so you put your head on the chopping block for a couple of bucks?" Peter challenged.
"There's one hundred and twenty-nine million of those bucks," Neal reminded him.
Peter threw his gaze toward the ceiling. "You are your own worst defense. Are you trying to convict yourself, Neal?"
"I'm just saying." Neal's eyes dropped. "What if I have those files everyone's talking about? I don't remember—"
Bile sharpened Peter's tongue. "Neal, you stopped breathing on the way to the hospital. I watched them stick a tube down your throat because all that crap in your system made you forget how to breathe!" Peter grimaced at Neal's open-mouthed expression. "You telling me you would pull something like that, murder someone, to pull this off?"
When Neal didn't answer, Peter glanced over.
Neal was still staring at him with that caught fish look.
Neal's mouth snapped shut. "You were in the ambulance with me?"
Peter harrumphed, but damn it, he could feel the tips of his ears burning. "You needed to be accompanied by a federal agent," he muttered.
"Did you hold my hand?"
"Neal," Peter growled but he couldn't hold the glare at the sight of Neal's cheeky grin. Peter shook his head as he smirked.
"Shut up," Peter shot back with little heat. He punched Neal in the arm. Neal rocked back from the non-existent blow.
"Thank you, though," Neal said, sobering. "In answer to your question, no, I wouldn't. Not for $129 million, not for $129 billion."
Peter grunted. He folded his arms across his chest. "I never thought I ever needed to ask, you know."
When Neal offered him a rare shy smile in response, something uncoiled in Peter's gut.
It faded though and Neal's face shadowed once more. "So what now?"
"Now, we get Bonelli, get him to roll on his buddy and Giraldi and give him to Organized Crimes."
"Then it's back to business as usual," Neal concluded.
Was it really that simple? Peter studied Neal. Catching the Architect felt like a panacea, but Peter sensed Neal drifting afterwards during the lull. They never went back to "business as usual" before this whole mess. They hadn't been "usual" since the plane exploded and Peter'd had to tackle Neal to the tarmac before he could dive into Kate's funeral pyre.
When Neal squinted at the table, Peter shuffled his chair closer.
Neal looked cross. "Apparently."
"Did you get much sleep before?" Peter studied Neal and the smudges that seemed to have grown bigger than before. He was ashen, more so under the limp, dark bangs plastered over his forehead. Hell, Neal had looked better when he was in a coma.
Neal shrugged and rubbed his eye again. He blinked, bloodshot and dazed, at the table as if he couldn't remember what it was for.
"You want to go back to the hospital?" Peter quietly offered.
Neal paused, thinking it over before he slowly shook his head. His left hand, banded in gauze, reached up to smooth down a tie, but when Neal realized there wasn't one, the lost look on his face was a punch to Peter's gut.
Peter exhaled. "Okay," he murmured, rubbing a hand up and down Neal's slouched back. "Okay."
* * * * *
Satchmo chased its tail twice by Neal's feet in greeting before a nudge from Elizabeth got the Golden Lab out of the way. She stood by the doorway, bundled in her lavender terry robe, her tousled hair messily tied back but her face alert.
Elizabeth looked at Neal up and down, her elegant brow high.
Neal shrugged and shuffled inside because the back of his neck cramped from the wind blowing across his exposed skin.
"That's a new look for you," she said in lieu of a greeting. She settled a hand on Neal's shoulder as she tipped her head to accept a kiss on the cheek from Peter.
"Casual Fridays," Neal offered as he staggered toward the couch. The floor pitched and he tottered, the wall not where he thought it would be. Peter's firm grip on an elbow steadied him enough to finish the journey. Neal gingerly sat down into the nest of pillows.
"Today's Wednesday," Elizabeth pointed out. She arranged a throw pillow under his bad wrist. Neal smiled gratefully as she perched herself on a plump armrest.
Elizabeth rolled her eyes, swatted at his shoulder and rose. "I made breakfast. Guest room's been made up if you want to sleep, Neal. Oh, and Mozzie already dropped off an overnight bag with some of your clothes."
Neal brightened. Behind him, Peter sputtered.
"How did he know we were coming here?" Peter eyed his living room as if he could see cameras and bugs and all the toys Moz favored.
Neal chuckled drowsily to himself. "He's Moz."
"Uh-huh." Peter didn't sound too impressed by Neal's explanation. He checked over his shoulder toward the kitchen before sitting on the coffee table. He eyed Neal critically.
"What?" Neal asked warily.
"Neal. Why were you at the art gallery anyway?"
The words rolled practiced out of his mouth. "I told you. There was a—"
"A show on neo-expressionism." Peter smirked. "See? I pay attention." He sobered. "What about Docks? Did you know he was going to be there?"
Neal shook his head.
"Did you mention to anyone you were going to be there?"
"No. It was spur of the moment. I saw the article on the paper and—"
"What was in the article?"
Neal shrugged. "Talked about the collection. It was the last remaining part of the Masterson Estate's art collection being sold off. Odds and ends, bits and pieces."
"There wasn't a Monet or a Picasso lurking in there?" Peter drawled.
Neal smirked tiredly. "Picasso is so pedestrian, don't you think?"
"They were just paintings. From no one special. Nothing of value, just portraits, landscapes, self-study, vignettes…"
Peter flapped a hand toward him to ward off a potential lecture on the finer qualities of American art. "Were you talking about it with anyone in the office? Bathroom? Outside?"
"No one." Neal had to breathe through his nose and wait for his vision to merge back to only one of everything. The nausea settled. "Only to you. No one else." A thought occurred. "Bugged?"
Peter shook his head. "After finding the bug in my house?" His mouth pulled at the memory. "Been checking my office. Besides, OPR pulled Fowler. No reason to listen in."
Yes, there is, Neal thought. The music box was with the FBI now, beckoning Kate's murderer like a siren. But he bit back what he wanted to say because it would only invite more concerned looks and "Are you okay?" questions.
Neal sank back in his seat. The couch felt unusually plush and deep today, its fat cushions molding to his spine. Neal tipped his head back on the sofa and stared up at the ceiling. Dimly, he thought a plaster relief medallion would do wonders on their ceiling.
"I don't know why he was there," Neal said heavily. "It felt like he was waiting for me, but we didn't talk about anything. He mentioned the grand jury, how he was going into WitSec, how we were both alike."
"You," Peter's voice thinned, "are nothing like Docks."
Neal smiled faintly but didn't look away from the ceiling.
Somewhere in the back, Satchmo barked. Elizabeth shushed him.
There was a pat on his knee. "Why don't you take a nap up in the guest room? You could grab breakfast later."
Neal wanted to decline, but on cue, his eyelids started pulling down. His thoughts were tumbling away from him, leaving him numb.
"Think I'll just sit here," Neal murmured. "Watch the game."
"Uh-huh." Peter rose to his feet.
Neal fought back the knee jerk reaction to look away when Peter towered over him.
Abruptly, Peter sat back down. "You sure you don't want to go upstairs?"
The thought of the room, away from the muted high notes of dishes clinking against each other made his blood pound loud in his ears.
Peter grunted as he rose to his feet again, but stepping back this time. His disembodied voice surrounded Neal. "Never mind. I'm not looking forward to hauling you up and down the stairs."
"Bad knees?" Neal quipped half-heartedly.
A throw pillow knocked him gently on the head.
* * * * *
"This guy has some kind of GPS tracker." Someone growled by his ear.
He could feel a calloused finger rubbing along the edge of his anklet and an odd feeling of panic beat hard deep in his throat. He kicked feebly but the grip was steady. It tightened around his ankle, jerked his leg up and his pant cuff was pushed back. He pulled his leg away.
"Le' go…" His leg was yanked straighter and he cried out. A hand cuffed him in the mouth, glancing as if an afterthought.
"You little shit…"
Another blow, like a giant paw and he sagged sideways. But still, he twisted feebly to pull his caught ankle free from the hand curled around it.
"I thought you said this stuff lasts." A harder yank and he found himself sliding down what he now realized was a car seat. The unattached seat buckle dug painfully into his lower back. "He's coming out of it."
Whatever was muttered back sounded rude.
Something thin, cold and very sharp glided down to his ankle. He froze. A jerk and the weight around his ankle broke free. A tiny frantic beeping began racing along with his heart.
He felt a breeze and the beeping went softer as it drifted farther away. A whine of a window and the salty tang of moist air was gone.
Water. Ocean? River? He heard cars honking. East River? Hudson? Either way, he must be out of his radius. The light, untethered sensation around his newly naked ankle was more obvious than the tracker itself. How ironic.
Beneath him, the car rumbled to a stop and up front, an annoyed mutter about traffic. Traffic lights. So they were on West End highway then. The FDR was a path of uninterrupted concrete except on Monday mornings.
He rolled toward where he thought he heard the window, numb fingers fumbling for where the car handle should be. It gave as his knee knocked into the fleshy part of a gut. Someone swore, another shouted and he felt the heat of car exhaust as the car door yawned wide open.
His collar shrank around him as it was jerked from behind. He gagged as his collar worked like a garrote under his chin, robbing him of oxygen long enough that he couldn't break free of the fingers prying his mouth open. Sweet acid stung as it was poured in to drown him. The car under him rumbled back to life, he kicked at the door as he arched his back, trying to cough out whatever was forced in, but a hand clamped over his nose and mouth, forcing him to swallow and swallow.
He clawed at the hand still smashed over his face as the body over him leaned all his weight on the hand. He thrashed. His nose burned as some of the liquid recoiled. He felt like he was going to vomit.
"Come on, come on," a voice chanted.
He managed to bite down on a bony joint. The hand jerked away and an expletive exploded above him. It was the opening he needed as he gagged, spit out what he didn't swallow, coughed to try and force out what he did.
The car shimmied, fishtailed briefly, as he bucked out from under the weight and lunged for the car door again. Something grabbed him by the hair and slammed him forward. His forehead smacked the icy cool surface of the window. His fingers lost their already fading strength. He was yanked back, mouth pried open and suddenly, he was drowning again.
"Get him to swallow!"
"Son of a—"
His limbs were numbing, the heavy feel of empty pulled at his skin like the hands that sprung out of the car seat to drag him down. He spiraled. No! He threw out an arm; it was blocked easily. His ankle, bare, never felt stranger against him. He tried to keep his eyes open, saw a face he'd never seen before scowling at him, looking starved, pinched and angular like he was drawn wrong. The hand pressed down harder and he whipped his head, but he was going deeper, the buckle now a vague notion of shape under him.
And as he sank, his head lolled to the side.
Michael Docks stared back at him.
Neal woke, gasping, hands flying out to push away the presence breathing hot on his face.
Oh. Neal blinked furiously until his eyes cleared. He vaguely made out the sloping head of a Lab who went back to patiently licking his right hand with its tongue.
"Sorry about that, Satchmo," Neal mumbled. He tried to guide his trembling hand over to the furred head. It took a few times, only connecting when Satchmo helped by gently butting his hand with his snout.
"Sorry," Neal breathed, but now he wasn't sure if it was Satchmo he was talking to now. His fingers ran shallow furrows through its soft short fur. Satchmo's quiet panting calmed his own. He squinted, recognizing the rug he was lying on, the sturdy sofa he was backed up against.
Neal had spent most of the day napping on and off, while Peter, Jones and Diana huddled around the kitchen table like it was a war room. It was strange, though; it was Wednesday, but no one seemed to be rushing off to work.
Elizabeth recruited Neal into taking Satchmo for a walk; only around the backyard though, with someone peering surreptitiously through the little side window.
Then, Neal was volunteered (too enthusiastically by Peter) into tasting and vetoing pates and terrines—it was terrifying how many bad ones were out there.
Neal's list of duties ended with a roasted chicken dinner Neal had tried really hard to finish under Elizabeth's watchful eye. He couldn't; his throat felt like it had clamped shut and swallowing brought up vague sensations of a cool band squeezing tight around his throat.
Neal tried to compensate for his lack of appetite by drying the dishes. But after dropping too many since the sink was never where he thought it would be, Peter took over. He ended up back in the dining room, poking a fork listlessly into a bowl of melting pistachio gelato. He pretended not to notice the looks Jones and Diana kept exchanging over his head.
It was exhausting trying to ignore what was right in front of him. The urge, the need to find a dark corner somewhere to think or not think was making his hands shake again. Neal wanted to get up and leave. But when he tried, he ended up crashing into the hallway bookcase. He snapped unfairly at Jones and Diana when they tried to help him up from the mess of books and broken CDs on the floor before Peter wordlessly prodded him up the stairs into the guest room.
Peter didn't comment when Neal wove straight (sort of) for the shower. He stayed until the tackiness of blood washed down the drain and when he emerged, Peter was gone. There was an old SUNY sweatshirt and drawstring sweatpants folded on top of his duffel bag on the bed. The sweats were still warm from the dryer. The pants were a little too long and covered his feet.
After waking up twice huddled by the bed, not on it, Neal knew it was a lost cause. When he unsteadily made for the stairs, Peter was again there, bedraggled but alert, arms full of bedding.
Thankfully, Peter decided silence was the best option as he steered Neal toward the couch. He unceremoniously threw the blankets on top of Neal, then planted himself on a dining chair to skim through foreclosure scam files with light flickering from the television. Sure enough, Peter found a game somewhere.
Neal fell asleep to the sound of papers crinkling quietly and to the sensation of Satchmo, who had ambled over despite Peter's hissed, "Bad dog," and dropped its regal head on Neal's knee.
Satchmo looked at Neal solemnly as Neal debated if trying to get up off the floor was worth the effort. Neal pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes and breathed slowly. He took a deeper breath because he needed to know he could.
A creak above him made Neal look up. Great. He woke up Peter and now they were once more going to go through the painful progress of talking without really talking.
"You okay, sweetie?" Elizabeth stepped out of the kitchen, bundled in her lavender terry robe, hair hastily clipped into a messy ponytail, a glass of water in her hand. She made no comment about Neal on the floor as she came over and set the drink on the coffee table. She sat on the couch and tilted her head to peer down at him.
"Satchmo snores," Neal joked weakly.
Elizabeth chuckled. "He gets that from his father."
"El?" Peter called out worriedly from upstairs.
"We're fine," Elizabeth returned. She watched Neal drain the glass.
"Thank you." Neal rolled the glass between his hands, wincing as his tender wrist twinged.
Neal decided to put the glass down before he accidentally broke it. He took his time setting it down before it was safe enough to reply, "Yes." He shrugged one shoulder. "Tired."
"Not surprising," Elizabeth murmured. "It's been quite an interesting few days."
"Few months actually," Neal muttered. Satchmo poked him in the ribs with his muzzle until Neal gave the Lab a light scratch behind its ear. Satchmo made a soft snorting sound and dropped to lie beside Neal.
"Satchmo," Elizabeth chided.
Neal gave Satchmo's paw a rub. "It's fine," he assured her. "I don't mind."
"If he's bothering you…"
"He's not," Neal said quickly. Dogs did not ask questions, not verbal ones at least.
Satchmo abruptly sat up and shook his head, floppy ears pulling back as it straightened to all fours. He stared intently at the front door.
"What is it?" Elizabeth glanced at the door as well.
"Maybe Timmy fell down a well?" Neal joked lightly. His stomach flip-flopped though.
Satchmo began to growl low in his throat.
The length of his arms prickling, Neal struggled to his feet. Satchmo's shaking body pressed against his calf.
"Satchmo?" Elizabeth leaned toward the dog. She started when Neal grabbed her hand.
"Get Peter," Neal whispered to Elizabeth. He blindly reached behind him, searching for the iron poker he'd seen many times before. "Get Peter and then stay in the bedr—"
The front door splintered open. An alarm wailed.
Barking furiously and snarling, Satchmo lunged at the first of the two men. The intruder shrieked when Satchmo's jaws crunched around the wrist holding a gun.
Elizabeth grabbed a statue from the mantel and threw it at the second. An empty thunk. The intruder cursed, crashing onto the coffee table. He got up drunkenly, a hand deep into his pockets. Neal swung the poker he'd finally snatched like a sword. The gun in the intruder's grip clattered to the floor where it spun and slid under the sofa.
Peter could be heard shouting, running. Neal felt a fist on the back of his t-shirt just as he reached for the man still screaming and trying to shake Satchmo off. His other hand pointing his gun wildly.
The gun went off.
A thread of heat zipped past Neal's cheek. He jolted.
"Run!" Neal shouted toward Elizabeth's direction.
Coffee table guy was back on his feet. Even unarmed, he stood broad as an oak tree, massive limbs whipping out to snag Elizabeth by the wrist.
Neal tackled him around his middle. It looked easier on TV. Coffee table guy didn't go down, but he did release Elizabeth. Neal hopped away, nearly tripping over his own feet from a ham-sized fist swung his way.
Satchmo yelped. Neal spun around in time to see a kick had finally knocked the Lab off the arm he was mangling. Satchmo didn't get up. Neal threw the poker before the man could connect with a second kick. It struck him in the knee. The man howled, which cut off abruptly when Peter launched off the last few steps of his staircase and landed onto his back.
Neal crashed into Elizabeth as she tried to turn back. The room reeled but Neal kept moving, shoving and pushing her through the back door.
"Neal, wait, Peter's—"
"Neal, get her out of here!" Peter bellowed.
"No!" Elizabeth protested.
Neal muttered an apology as he wrapped his arms around her waist, picked her up and manhandled her out the door.
There were two more waiting outside.
Neal felt Elizabeth pulled from his grasp. He twisted, reaching, but an arm wrapped around his throat and jerked him back. Elizabeth blurred in front of him.
"Okay, Caffrey, enough of this hide and seek shit. Giraldi doesn't think this is cute anymore," a voice hissed by his ear. "Where the fuck is the list?"
Neal clawed at the iron band choking him. He stumbled back into the porch railing. His attacker grunted, falling back and pulling Neal with him. They both toppled over. Neal fought free and ran to Elizabeth. Her attacker yelped after a strategic kick that almost made Neal felt sorry for him.
But then a fist snatched her by the arm and she cried out.
Neal thought he smelled burning fuel, smoke and his chest seized. Neal took off, crashing into the man.
"Run!" Neal shouted as an elbow knocked into his chin. His head snapped back. Everything dimmed for a breath. He saw her frozen there, in the middle of the yard, dark hair tumbled out around her white face.
Fire flared in his gut and welled up his throat.
There was a flash, light striking a blade like a diamond sparkle. Neal made a grab at it. A face with a blunt jaw hovered.
I know this face…
The knife edged closer to him. Neal's left wrist burned as it rallied to force back a thick wrist. Someone screamed his name. A loud bang…
A scream aborted into a gurgle. Warm blood sprayed against his face. The reed thin sound of something fragile tearing filled his ears. There was another scream.
The surface he laid on grew damp, hot and tacky, coppery film that stuck the shirt to his back. He tried to move, his legs kicking feebly. Next to them, he thought he could feel a body bucking, arms flailing as the surface he was on bounced and heaved.
"He's waking up!"
Silver glinted high above him, lashing down out of the corner of his eye. He tried to turn his head, choked at the thick taste that collected and congealed around him. A face blocked the light, claws on his jaw and he felt like he was being held underwater. Everything rippled as he saw red rain fly across his view, a hand with a flash of steel stretched out high, before dropping out of sight.
A hand caught the fist he threw, pulled it to his chest and held it there. He swung his other hand but that one was easily captured, too and crushed to his chest with the other. He bucked.
"We can make a deal! There's money! Don't do this!"
A body straddled his legs, pinned him. He thrashed. A fist yanked at his tie. Buttons flew. Hands slammed down on his shoulders. Trapped him. Choked him. More fingers wrapped around his throat and squeezed. He shouted soundlessly, angrily for air. Next to him, a shrill voice screamed then abruptly cut off.
A low rumble thrummed in his ear, repeating a sound over and over again until it formed definition.
"...Neal…okay, big guy, snap out of it. Neal…come on…"
Neal blinked and the litany in his ear stopped. The grip around his fists loosened. He felt another hand on his knee and saw Elizabeth hugging her robe tight around herself with one arm, smiling watery at him. And just like that, Neal slumped. He suddenly felt exhausted, depleted. The grass felt cool and damp under his sweats and he shivered.
"Neal?" Elizabeth looked at him wide-eyed.
Neal nodded as he tried to catch his breath. The ground underneath him staggered and reeled briefly. When it righted, he found his voice.
"Okay?" Neal slurred.
Elizabeth nodded. She used a dirt-smudged hand to push back an errant strand of hair. She looked like she'd stood under the gusts of a nor'easter and the clip that held up her ponytail was gone. She looked scared, furious and her mouth was pressed into a thin white line, but she was alive. They both were.
Immediately, Neal remembered the yelp. "Satchmo?"
Elizabeth hesitated; Neal struggled to sit up from whatever he was slumped against.
Peter's voice, deep and rock steady, was gruff in his ear. "He's going to be fine."
Hands bracing him told Neal that Peter was the one playing furniture. His grip curled tighter around Neal's biceps when footsteps could be heard filling the house, "FBI!" and "NYPD!" bouncing on and off the walls.
"I'm fine, by the way," Peter groused good-naturedly. Neal chuckled wearily. Elizabeth hugged Peter then him.
"Peter!" Jones, swathed in Kevlar, skidded to a halt by the back door. "You guys okay?"
"They broke my door, kicked my dog and are now bleeding all over my newly mowed yard. What do you think?" Peter ground out as he released Neal.
Neal smiled at Elizabeth as she rested her forehead on Peter's shoulder.
"I think that was no," Neal volunteered aimlessly. He took a good look around the small yard, lit up by police flashlights and the lights flooding out of now awakened neighbors' windows.
"NYPD had air support up immediately after you made the 911 call, Peter," Jones reported as he holstered his gun. "Do we know who are they?"
"One of them." Peter nodded brusquely at the man groaning as both paramedics and police hauled him up.
"Mr. Bonelli," Jones greeted cheerfully, "we've been looking for you!" He trailed the procession, serenading Bonelli with his Miranda rights as he was led away.
Neal absently rubbed at his ear. It felt like the skin was sunburned. "He asked about a list."
Peter's head whipped back toward him. "Docks' list?"
"He didn't say Docks, specifically, but he did mention Giraldi."
Peter muttered something under his breath. Neal wasn't too keen in finding out what it was.
Jones whistled when he returned. He considered the remaining attacker as he was hauled up and cuffed.
"Two dead in the house, two out here?" Jones looked at Peter, amazed.
"What makes you think it was all Peter?" Neal grumbled as he rubbed a spot where an elbow had poked him. He coughed. At Jones' look, Neal acquiesced, "All right, but we helped. She kicked him." He pointed at the one walking away bow-legged.
As Jones chuckled, Neal watched Elizabeth tug her robe tighter around herself, Peter grimacing as she experimentally dabbed at his cut lip with her robe sleeve. Neal swallowed. He dropped his head in his hand but the ground still rolled under him.
"You hanging in there?" Peter asked quietly. Elizabeth had left with the paramedic, assuring everyone she was all right.
"Sure," Neal answered immediately.
Neal stared at the grass as Jones picked up a switchblade with a latex glove. He tasted blood in the back of his throat. His ears rung.
Neal turned a heavy head toward Peter when he felt a hand on his back; it fortified him as he swayed.
Peter's frown deepened. "What is it?"
Neal ran the tip of his tongue across his lower lip. He opened his mouth, but the words tasted funny on his tongue, so he snapped it shut. But then he heard the screaming again. Neal squeezed his eyes closed, took a deep breath before opening them again and found Peter crouched beside him, waiting.
"I didn't kill Docks."
* * * * *
"I didn't kill Docks."
Peter sighed as he considered the conference room that was starting to get too familiar for his comfort. Satchmo was at the animal clinic with Elizabeth. Leaving his wife to sit in a waiting room with Jones was the last thing he wanted, but Giraldi wasn't a name to ignore.
Rook was frothing at the mouth, talking (arguing) with Hughes in the other room, drowning out Dunbar, loud enough that half of the division had collected underneath like rubberneckers on the accident-riddled LIE. Diana came in with a tray of coffees and sandwiches from the café downstairs. Neal emptied the first, ignored the second. Then, after making a face at Rook's bone-crunching voice, Diana shut both doors to Rook's ranting about Neal, cons and orange jumpsuits. God, did he sound like that to Neal few months back?
"I didn't kill Docks," Neal repeated tightly. He stared hard at the photos he insisted on seeing with a set mouth.
Peter thought he looked a little too much like he was fighting bed time. He swallowed that feeling with a large bite of his bagel.
Diana glanced at the photos and grimaced. "Neal, I know you didn't want to. You had no choice. The evidence is clear. Docks…"
Neal made a frustrated sound, his shoulder shrugging away her hand.
"I didn't kill Michael Docks," Neal repeated, his voice growing louder. His hands floated up, like he was trying to contain something. His fingers curled and uncurled. "I…I've been remembering more and…" Neal shook his head.
Unease stirred in his gut. Peter rolled his chair closer to Neal until their knees touched. Neal had insisted (whined) in changing into the clothes Moz had packed up for him: a dark charcoal suit, white shirt, skinny black tie. Neal looked like he normally would. Or at least the Neal Caffrey that Peter suspected Neal wanted everyone to see.
"I was in a car," Neal said, his voice too detached and flat for Peter's taste. "I remember coming to…sort of and someone grabbed my leg."
Peter's mouth soured. He glanced uneasily at Diana, who made a move to leave. "Neal," he said carefully, "you don't have to…"
"It wasn't Docks."
Peter felt his stomach lurch. "There was someone else?"
Neal was watching Peter out of the corner of his eye, giving him a small grimace that Peter suspected was meant to be a smile. As if what Peter feared was remotely amusing.
"Don't worry," Neal answered, that half-smile turned up a little before dropping completely. "I wasn't their type." Neal waved toward his left ankle. "They found my GPS tracker and cut it."
"They?" Diana caught the pronoun Neal let slip so casually.
"Two. One of them was driving." Neal's brow furrowed. "I heard power windows. I think the seats…backseat; I was in the backseat with him."
"Docks." Neal swallowed convulsively as he recalled. "He was in the backseat with me and the other guy." He looked up, his blue eyes widening a fraction at what he saw on Peter's face. "No, nothing happened there except for my tracker being cut off."
"One of Docks' flunkies?" Diana suggested as she grabbed a legal pad. "Which one was in the backseat with you?"
"Bonelli." Neal rubbed at his jaw absently. "He was the one who kept forcing the drug on me." He glanced up. "Is he…"
"I only winged him," Peter bit out. "He should be out of Beekman soon."
"Bonelli's not talking," Diana added. A dark look crossed over her face. "He's asking Ruiz for a deal first."
Peter's teeth clenched. Once Bonelli was discharged from the hospital, he wanted to have a talk with Giraldi's enforcer.
"Do you remember seeing the other one?" Diana asked.
"Think you can sit down with a sketch artist?" Peter added. When Neal shook his head, Peter rubbed the back of a bowed shoulder. "Anything would help."
"I don't think I ever saw the other one."
"Neal." Peter leaned forward.
Neal's eyes were cloudy, distant as he cradled his left wrist to him.
"Are you sure about what you're remembering?"
Neal frowned to himself. "Everything is hazy, but I know I saw Docks next to me in the car. Tied up. Gagged." Neal chewed his lower lip. "Whatever happened to me at the gallery, Docks didn't do it."
"Bonelli wasn't working for Docks then," Diana concluded. "He was working for Giraldi."
"Or for himself," Peter agreed. "Docks' list would have been a hell of a pay raise."
"But what did that have to do with me?" Neal pointed out. "How did I go from the gallery to ending up with Docks?"
"Maybe they drugged you to kill Docks," Diana guessed.
"I didn't kill him," Neal came close to shouting. When he heard himself, saw Diana's face, he deflated.
Peter dropped a hand on Neal's arm. He could feel the arm flexing under his palm.
"All right," Peter murmured low, only for Neal's ears. "All right."
Neal coughed, fidgeted away from under Peter's hand and reached for his coffee. He tipped it back, even though Peter knew it was empty.
Peter picked up one of the photos. Docks' body laid out, limbs akimbo, the blade between where he and Neal would have been positioned.
"Boss? You see something?"
"Hold this," Peter ordered, rolling a pen at Neal. He shook his head when Neal picked it up, cradling it within the loop of three fingers. "No, no, like you would a blade." At Neal's eyebrow, Peter amended, "If you were using one."
"Here." Diana rose, drawing out her Swiss Army, missing Neal tensing as she pulled out the knife utility. "Try it with this."
Neal's hands curled and uncurled over his knees. When he realized Peter was watching, Neal swiveled his chair away from him as he reached for the weapon Diana had left on the table. It looked benign, but Peter caught the tremor of a fingertip when Neal's hand drew closer. It was gone by the time Neal curled his hand around the thick handle. He held up the weapon, his other hand gesturing toward it in Vanna White fashion.
Peter scoffed, pretended to clap and nodded toward the photos.
"Boss?" Diana leaned in, rolled her eyes at Neal's bright showman act and studied the blade. Uncertainty flitted across her face. She checked with Peter again.
"Look at the forensic photos," Peter suggested. "Of the blade."
Neal's smile wavered, dropping completely as he and Diana peered at one photo from the batch.
Peter could track both pairs of eyes as they darted up and down the blade. It was an automatic blade, a stiletto, carbon steel sharp enough to make clean entry wounds with a single stroke and stayed sharp despite having sliced through muscle and bone. The city had banned them for a reason.
"These are Neal's fingerprints." Diana shot Neal a look. "Sorry, Neal." She pointed to the smudges near the base of the blade. "Key factor is your thumb here, your other four fingers here." Diana moved her finger lower. "You have a double loop whorl here and an arch here; matches your file perfectly."
"Neal." Peter drew his attention away from the photo before Neal's gaze could wander to the dead body pictures under it. "How would you have done it?" He inwardly flinched when Neal stared at the blade in his grip.
"I don't think—" Diana spoke up.
Neal set his jaw, squeezed the blade tighter and jerked it up in the air. He dropped the Swiss Army blade immediately.
The dirty look Diana gave Peter would have made him—and definitely Neal—smile any other day. He came over and dropped his hands on Neal's shoulders and gave the rigid muscles there a brief squeeze in apology. He felt Neal relax.
"What was wrong with that picture?" Peter interrupted Neal. "Besides the obvious?"
Diana frowned at the abandoned blade. She picked up the photo of the crime scene. Her eyes darted from the photo to the knife and back.
"The angle is wrong," Diana declared with grim satisfaction. She flipped the photo face down and directed Neal's attention to the blade. "Coroner said Docks died from multiple blows in a downward strike into his torso, the fatal blow came from the severing of his jugular." She tilted her head to get a better look at the photos. "With Docks on top of Neal, there's no way Neal could have reached the torso or throat properly." She offered Neal an apologetic grimace as she went on, "Not unless Neal was on top of him."
"But your prints on the blade indicated you were holding it up. You could probably get to that angle but you'd have to do some creative flexibility to pull it off without hurting yourself. Doped up with that much roofies? I highly doubt it." Peter scowled at Neal, who opened his mouth, most likely to remind Peter he could pick locks under the influence. Useful in organ trafficking clinics, not useful to share here.
Neal poked the blade. "So what I remembered…"
"You were probably coming out of it during Docks' murder. They probably had to drug you again, hence the overdose, but there's a few minutes gap where some of what was happening would have stuck. Bonelli and his partner had you hold the knife to get your prints then used your tie to mimic Docks' MO." Peter narrowed his gaze when Neal touched his throat briefly.
"But they didn't kill Neal," Diana pointed out.
"Not that I'm complaining," Neal added quickly.
Peter scowled at the blade. When his scrutiny wandered to Neal, the heat that churned at the base of his throat quelled at the sight of Neal fighting to keep his eyes open.
"You were the distraction." Peter's jaw worked. "One murder, it can look like a job gone wrong. Two murders? People start looking more closely."
"With me still alive, everybody would naturally assume I was pulling a con that went wrong or was unlucky enough to be Docks' latest victim," Neal muttered.
Not everybody. Peter's mouth set.
"You mentioned a car," Diana spoke up.
Neal nodded, almost to himself. "A car, maybe a sedan. Not a van. I know I could feel the front seat. Power windows…"
"So late model," Peter guessed. "Anything about where you were going?"
"Water. I smelled a river." Neal rubbed his throat repeatedly.
Peter nudged his coffee towards him.
Neal drained it before continuing. "There was traffic though. And we stopped at one point, I think, for a red light."
"West End highway," Peter guessed.
"I thought so, too." Neal laughed strangely. "I think I tried to escape. Didn't work. Too slow."
The fact Neal could move at all was miraculous, Peter thought. "Anything else?"
"Docks wasn't drugged like me." Neal swallowed. "He was definitely awake and scared."
"They wanted something from Docks. Most likely the list he was going to offer the grand jury next week," Diana looked up from the notes she was furiously taking.
"So was I part of the plan or unlucky?" Neal wanted to know.
Probably both, Peter frowned to himself.
"Anyway, I don't think they got it," Neal muttered, his eyes on the photo Diana had turned over.
Peter exhaled. "No, but apparently they think you did."
"I didn't," Neal said immediately.
"Doesn't matter," Peter told him. "Giraldi thinks you have it. He's not going to give up that easy."
"He hired someone to get the list, maybe kill Docks after; he's going to try and track Neal down and get that list," Diana said.
"So let him."
Peter turned sharply to Neal. The back of his neck pricked at the tired smirk Neal sported. It was just a shadow of the cocky, self-assured Neal Caffrey that had harassed Peter before. Peter wasn't sure if he was disturbed because he was seeing it again or because it was only a partial piece.
Neal sat back in the chair. He folded his arms across his chest.
"Let's give him the list."
* * * * *
"This is not the room we ordered."
The Upper East Side's Pierre Hotel was not one of Peter's picks. He had been sure Hughes would agree to it either. It was six hundred for a standard room alone. But Neal made an unusually valid (and suspiciously well-practiced) argument on its security and its proximity to five police precincts within a seven-block radius. Not that it would matter: there was a "maintenance van" parked across the street of the austere limestone and glass structure and two agents reading today's newspapers in the lobby.
Then there was Neal's clincher: since it was to get Giraldi, Organized Crime would be responsible for the bill. Peter regretted he hadn't been there to witness Hughes telling Rook. Neal had suggested a camera but Peter'd had to veto it.
Besides, when Jones returned with Elizabeth, he'd promised to record it with his cell phone.
Peter eyed the complicated-looking coffeemaker in the wall alcove that the suite offered as a pantry. "Neal," called Peter, louder, when it appeared Neal conveniently didn't hear him, "this isn't the room we ordered."
"Hm? Oh. I was given an upgrade," Neal said distractedly as he turned a critical eye to the paintings on the wall.
Peter glanced over uneasily, but the paintings were only generic portraits of the Manhattan skyline. Still, Neal was staring at them as if they were hanging on the walls of the Met.
Peter covered his mouth with a hand as he took in the high ceilings, picture window and the statue balanced on a marble table at the foyer. It looked authentic enough that Peter pursed his lips at Neal, who was circling it with an unconvincing look of disinterest.
"You or…" Peter checked the ivory cardstock statement the concierge handed to him in a complimentary leather portfolio, "Henry Turner?" He glowered at the offered toothy grin. "Cute, Henry." He gestured to the large suite with the statement clutched in his hand. "Neal, this isn't a vacation."
"Not in Manhattan, amigo."
"Mental health day?" Neal asked hopefully.
"I need one of those."
Neal sighed and poked his head into the mini-fridge in response. With a little triumphant sound, he waved a tin over his head.
Peter stared. "Is that…?"
"Yup. Beluga." Neal tilted the tin up, eyebrow up in invitation.
"No thanks. I like my fish grilled and my eggs scrambled." Peter folded his arms across his chest. "The FBI is not paying for this, Neal."
"That's the idea." Neal's smile faded. He sat down on the couch and cradled the tin of caviar between his hands.
"And what idea is that?" Peter asked slowly as he dropped down next to him.
Neal checked Peter out of the corner of his eye. "Someone knew I was at your place. Docks knew my aliases or at least about Nick Halden." Turning back to the tin in his hands, his knuckles whitened briefly around it. "He knew about me."
"And you think it's someone in the FBI," Peter concluded. At Neal's nod, Peter shook his head. "Giraldi thinks you have his millions. There are ways to find out things with that kind of desperation, Neal."
"Like with someone in the FBI," Neal countered.
"Look, not everyone in the FBI's dirty."
Peter's words died in his mouth.
Neal averted his eyes. "Sorry. That wasn't fair."
No, Peter thought heavily as he rubbed his palms on his thighs, it probably was.
"Giraldi could have been watching Docks at first and I wandered into his crosshairs," Neal reluctantly agreed.
Peter wished Neal's acquiescence made him feel better, but now his mind was rattling out scenarios he didn't like. "He was probably waiting for a chance to get that list. Killing Docks would have automatically drawn suspicion on him."
"Unless everyone thinks someone else killed him." Neal gripped the tin in his hands until it shook.
Peter nodded curtly. "But then someone gets away with the list before Giraldi could and pins it on you."
There was a quicksilver smile that was an applause-worthy effort. "Everyone is focused on me and the real murderer gets away. Classic Kansas City Shuffle," Neal commented. "I'm impressed."
"I'm not," Peter bit out. He scratched his jaw, looking elsewhere, when Neal shot him a knowing smirk.
Peter wanted to say this was good; it proved that what they feared had happened, didn't. But looking at Neal studying the dull, flat can like it was something to forge, his words felt woefully inadequate.
A quiet knock on the door made them both look up. Peter stuck a finger to his lips and waved Neal back.
Peter glided up to the side of the door and pulled out his gun. He sharply waved Neal back when he spied Neal trying to peek around the corner into the foyer.
"Who is it?" Peter asked cautiously against the door frame.
"You should have a secret password, Suit."
Peter rested his forehead on the door before glaring over at Neal, who was still looking out from the bedroom. Neal's head ducked back in.
"What are you doing here? How did you get pass my agents?" Peter groused as he peered into the peephole (just in case) and opened the door to the last person he'd expected.
Moz stood there, still dressed in that damn jacket of his, hands clasped in front of him.
"Better to remain silent and be thought a fool." Moz smiled enigmatically.
Peter frowned. "What?"
Moz pursed his lips like a social studies teacher he'd once had. "You should answer with—"
"How about 'You have the right to remain silent,' Mr. Clemens?" Peter offered archly.
Moz appeared to actually give it some thought—for about three seconds before he entered with that narrow, almost robotic stride of his. He paused over the statue, his head canted speculatively until Neal cleared his throat meaningfully. Moz didn't miss a beat and continued on to the mini-fridge.
Peter spread his arms wide toward Neal. "All right, what's he doing here?" He aimed that question at Neal because the little guy was now blustering outraged over the poor caviar selection and something about the true amounts of mercury samples. Peter didn't want to know.
"I thought we could pick our brains together and figure out where Docks' list really is."
Peter's stomach lurched. "No."
"Everyone's thinks I have it anyway—"
"And if you do get it, guess what will happen to you if Giraldi catches up to you?"
Neal stared blankly at him.
"Isn't that the point?" he countered. "The hotel room? The van outside? To make it look like I have the list so Giraldi or his men—What?"
Peter motioned Neal to sit down. He didn't.
"He's not coming to this hotel," Neal said flatly.
There was a pounding behind his eyes. Peter tried to ignore it as he met Neal's accusing gaze. "We have another hotel room, by Riverside, under the name Nick Halden."
"Who's taking my place?"
Peter cast about the room. Moz huddled like a safecracker behind the wooden panel of the fridge.
Peter met Neal's narrowed gaze squarely. "Diana and Agent Levens are in the room."
"You're pulling a shell game?"
"Amateurs," Moz commented from behind the fridge.
Neal made a sound that was supposed to be a laugh but it died too abruptly. "You're wasting your time." He veered around Peter, avoided his extended hand when he swayed, and staggered into the bedroom.
Peter held up a hand when he sensed Moz straightening up. He rubbed the back of his neck before he followed Neal in.
Neal didn't look up when Peter entered. He was struggling with the zipper of his overnight bag. The zipper was winning.
"You want me to—"
"I got it," Neal said tightly. With a jerk, the zipper surrendered and Neal started pulling out shirts, ties, a tie clip—Geez, didn't he have any normal clothes?
"I would think," Peter remarked quietly.
"I would think you would prefer to just sit tight and let someone else do the dirty work."
Neal's shoulders raised a fraction.
"Just…I don't know…watch a movie…" On the large flat screen. "Read a book…" On the suite's library—who the hell has a library in their hotel room? What do genius cons do in their spare time—maybe plot to take over the world?
Neal made a face at each suggestion. He sagged when Peter dropped a hand on his shoulder.
"Look," Peter reasoned, "you've still got all that stuff in your system. You're not a hundred percent. By all rights, you should be in the hospital—"
"Hah!" Moz commented from outside.
Peter tried counting to ten but lost track after he heard a clang and a pop when Moz discovered the suite's complimentary wine bar and reviewed the selection out loud as not being "too disastrously pedestrian."
Neal had the decency to look embarrassed.
"While I appreciate the initiative to find yet another way to put your neck under the guillotine," Peter went on, "I'd rather you find other less life-threatening ways to distract yourself." He knew he struck a nerve when Neal's eyes slid away. Peter gripped Neal's shoulder. "Let me handle it. Get some rest."
"Or I could look for the list for real," Neal said low.
Peter's hand tightened over Neal's shoulder. "No." He dropped his hand when he felt Neal try to fidget away. "Neal, let me handle it."
"I don't like sitting around doing nothing."
Peter nodded. "Well, you'll like a gun pointed at you even less." He sighed when Neal kept on emptying his duffle, but at least he was taking care to sort them into piles now rather than tossing them onto the bed like they were grenades.
"Why don't you lie down on the bed and get some shuteye?" Peter suggested. He caught Neal's knuckles turning white around the shirt he was holding. Neal wouldn't look at the bed and when Peter glanced at it as well, the back of his mouth soured. Yeah.
"Or we could see if there's a game on," Peter continued casually.
Neal gave him a longsuffering look. "There's always a game on."
Peter smirked. He threw an arm over Neal's shoulders and led him into the living area.
* * * * *
Sure enough, there was a game on. And, shockingly, Mozzie didn't object. He sat in the armchair to Neal's left, the tiny players running from one end to another reflecting off his glasses as he gingerly thumbed through a leather bound book. Peter warned Mozzie it better still be here after the case was over. He didn't look appeased when Moz scoffed.
Neal sat on the couch, staring blankly at a spot above the screen. He tried hard to pay attention, pointedly staring at the screen because he could feel Mozzie and Peter staring at him. Plus, Neal figured if he stared hard enough, the increasing roil and toil of his stomach would leave him alone to feel safe about standing up.
The late afternoon sunlight streaming in from the picture window was warm against Neal's skin. He could feel its progress gliding languidly down his side as time passed. He wondered if he looked outside, would he catch the sunset. He wondered if a bridge was available against the skyline. He wondered if the hotel offered a thousand dollar hamburger and what Rook would say if he ordered six.
"What's so funny?" Peter grumbled next to him, disgruntled because one tall player in a blue shirt threw the basketball to another tall player in a blue shirt in an apparent egregious move.
Neal tried to gesture toward the television but he couldn't hold up his leaden arm long enough. It flopped back down onto his lap after a few inches. It looked more like he was referring to the carpet.
Peter grunted in agreement to what he thought was Neal's ire over the game. He sat there, a newspaper folded to the crossword propped up by a knee. He alternated between the television to 40 across and to Neal when he thought Neal wasn't looking.
Neal could feel his eyes closing. He jerked.
"You okay?" Peter murmured, riveted to the screen but Neal knew better.
"Yeah." Neal stretched his eyes further open. The corners burned with the strain. "Peter," he murmured after a few moments of trying to focus on who threw what and their importance.
Peter straightened from his slouch next to him.
"How…" Neal pinched the bridge of his nose. "How did Giraldi know I would be there? Or Docks?" He could feel Peter tensing. "Even…" Neal's yawn interrupted himself. "Even if Giraldi was watching Docks, how did Docks know where to find me? He must have planned this ahead of time."
Peter heaved a sigh. "Neal, it doesn't mean someone in the FBI did it."
Moz muttered darkly about the "brotherhood."
Neal forced his eyes to open wider. The television blurred to orange and blue dots zipping left and right. "It doesn't mean someone in the FBI didn't do it."
The couch shifted under him.
"I'll have to go back to the office and check," Peter said finally. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but you might have something there."
Moz began to hum Sousa's Semper Fidelis under his breath, but Peter turned in his direction and the humming stopped.
"I don't like leaving you alone here."
Neal bit back a smile to that. Peter would squirm otherwise. "You have agents outside and downstairs."
"And we're not indefensible," Moz announced. "I'm carrying."
"What?" Peter just missed getting whiplash. He rolled his eyes when Moz pulled out a pair of chopsticks. Neal offered him a fraction of a shrug when Peter shot him an exasperated look. Moz mumbled something about "ninjas" and slipped them back into his jacket.
"Right," Peter said in a long drawl. "You're in safe hands."
"There's no one else I can ask to look into this," Neal said quietly. He squinted toward Peter.
Peter cleared his throat. Knowing Peter and his steadfast fidelity to the law, he was going to defend his fellow agents. His throat worked.
To his surprise, Neal felt a hand on top of his head, but it was so brief that, when he glanced up, Peter was already getting up to his feet.
"Let me check in with both teams first."
Neal tracked Peter back and forth as he called every agent posted on both hotels. It was hypnotic, Neal decided, the pacing like the pendulum swing of a pocket watch. Oddly fitting, considering Peter's often obsessive attention with time down to the second. Actually, Peter's manic punctuality could be useful in a heist.
A warm hand wrapped around Neal's ankle and scattered his musings of Peter, a Matisse and a Gregor V900 alarm system. He started.
"Easy," Peter rumbled by his ear. "Just trying to get you comfortable here, buddy." Carefully, hands swung Neal's legs up onto the couch. Something heavy floated down across his body.
Neal's eyes cracked open. He was confused as to when he had closed them, but was tempted to close them again. The faces were getting increasingly out of focus, moving too languidly to be real, but the voices that hovered over his head soothed the cold unease knotting prickling under his skin.
"You keep the door locked," Peter was telling someone. Who? Oh, right. Mozzie. "Go ahead and order room service if you want. One of our guys in the kitchen will bring it up."
"Oh, I feel much safer knowing that."
"Funny. And keep those chopsticks to yourself. The only thing I want you waving those things at is a pile of sweet and sour pork."
Neal smiled drowsily at Moz's scoff. "Unlikely. I'm allergic to what they put in there."
"The salt substitute they secretly put in to replace MSG."
Peter sighed. "Just be careful, all right? Watch yourselves. Don't go anywhere, do anything or even think about doing anything."
"That sounds restrictive."
Neal murmured wordlessly, agreeing.
A warm weight dropped carefully on his shoulder.
"Stay put, Neal," someone whispered, low and reassuringly deep. When Neal nodded, his eyes sliding shut, a hand made a messy swipe at his hair.
"I'll be back."
"Bye, Arnold," Moz quipped.
Neal wanted to say something as well but what came out instead was a yawn. He gave up, figuring he could say whatever he was going to say to whoever it was later.
* * * * *
Satchmo was a dog obsessed.
Peter observed his Lab limping over to Neal's desk, most likely guided by his nose. He walked slowly, mindful of the minor bruises the vet said Satchmo would easily recover from.
His tail hung low between his hind legs, Satchmo paused as yet another sympathetic (and female) agent snuck him treats. He would wag its tail briefly, as if it pained him, get another treat, maybe an "Aw," before he continued his apparent painful trek to Neal's desk.
Satchmo sniffed Neal's chair, the carpet underneath it and circled the spot twice before curling under the desk. Only his tail was visible now, wagging whenever an agent peered over the desk to check on him and maybe offer a scratch or two behind his ears.
"You're going to have a hard time getting him out from under there."
Peter glanced over to Elizabeth on the other side of his desk. Somewhere between home and the animal hospital, El had lost her ponytail and a messy, tangled dark curtain draped down to her shoulders. She didn't have makeup on, she wore Peter's sweatshirt dug out from the bottom of his locker and she looked at him with half-mast eyes. But she was alive. And she never looked more beautiful.
Something swelled in his chest, but it shriveled when he remembered her scream, only one floor away, but it might as well have been miles. He tried so hard not to bring the worrisome part of his work home with him. Look how well that had turned out.
"If you want, I can get Jones to take you home and stay there with you," Peter heard himself saying. From El's expression though, it sounded half-hearted to her as well.
"You can put me up in a nice hotel room, too," El suggested, but the wan smile on her pale face contradicted her words. She wasn't going anywhere.
"Are they the ones who hurt Neal?"
Peter glanced down at the file in his hands, Bonelli's bloodbath typed out in an unsympathetic timeline.
"Maybe. Part of them."
El made a face at the file but her expression softened when her gaze drifted to their photo Peter kept on his desk.
Peter reached for her hands. "El, I can't say anything more. Believe me, if I thought there was any danger, I never would have—I'm sorry."
"Don't be." El got up, walked around the desk and kissed him on the cheek. "Just be sure you get them."
"I will," Peter promised fervently. "They sent people to our home, used Neal like a…I'll get them, El."
Her eyes looked fathomless when she studied him. He was humbled by the fact there was no doubt in them, only trust. Peter's throat constricted. Two people trusted him to fix this.
"Promise me one more thing," El said suddenly.
El rewarded his immediate response with another silken brush of lips on his jaw. As she pulled away, she whispered into his ear, "You, me and Home Depot next Sunday."
Peter blanched. "Home Depot?"
"We have some home repairs to do."
"But on a Sunday?" Peter turned toward El. "Can't I just promise to catch the bad guys?"
Laughing, El captured his hand in a squeeze. She winked. "Honey, you always catch the bad guys," she told him and left his office.
Peter tracked her down the stairs to Neal's desk. Satchmo leapt to his feet (much too many agents' astonishment) and loped obediently to her into the break area. Peter shook his head ruefully, but when he returned his attention back to his desk, that loose, warm that infused his gut chilled considerably.
The files he had Jones quietly pull were lined up on his desk: Bonelli's records, the case against Giraldi and files on Rook. That last request left a bad taste in his mouth.
"Peter." Jones stood in Peter's doorway but didn't enter.
Peter sat up straighter, the files forgotten. "Rook's finished with Bonelli?"
"He say anything?" Peter set his jaw when Jones' head now swiveled left to right. "Damn it."
"Rook pretty much hounded Bonelli about Neal's involvement."
"Damn it," Peter grumbled. "What about the other guy?" He regretted shooting the last two now. Maybe.
Jones' expression mirrored what Peter knew was on his face. "Lawyered up. Rook got him in Interrogation, too, before Hughes could transfer him over." He looked short of kicking Peter's doorway. "Rook is claiming we can't investigate because it was first Organized Crimes' case."
"That was until they kidnapped one of our people," Peter said in a voice that really wasn't fair to Jones.
The expression on Jones' face shifted. "Rook filed a complaint with OPR. Said we shouldn't be involved anyway since Neal is one of their prime suspects. Gomez heard he was petitioning a judge to transfer Neal into their protective custody."
Because they did such a great job last time.
Peter scowled. "Rook's been chasing his own tail since the beginning. The case is going nowhere if Rook stays fixated on Neal."
His eyes drifted to Rook's folder.
"Unless that's what he wants," Peter muttered.
"What?" Jones checked behind his shoulder to see who Peter might be talking to.
"Nothing." Peter tapped Rook's file on the desk. His jaw worked as he considered it. His mind was made up when Satchmo returned to Neal's desk with El. The dog stood on his hind legs, put his front paws on Neal's desk and stared woefully at a mug filled with pens.
Peter tucked the Rook file into a desk drawer.
Damn it, Neal. I hope you're wrong about this.
"Jones, where's Bonelli now?"
* * * * *
"Nothing." Something kicked his legs, nudging them out of the way. He could feel himself moving but not of his own accord. Large hands slipped under his back and rolled him to the side.
"You're an idiot, you know that? World class idiot. Told you grabbing that knife was a lousy idea. How're we supposed to find it now? Hold a fuckin' séance?"
He was dropped down on something that bounced. He frowned to himself, or at least he thought he did.
"We could ask him. He had the bright idea. Maybe he knows where Docks hid it."
"Yeah, call him. Go ahead. He's going to get so pissed. His suit might wrinkle."
Twin sneering barks burned his left ear.
"Boss isn't going to like this either."
"Hey, he could fix it. Boss is paying him more than Uncle Sam ever has. He should get his money's worth."
The tiny musical tones of a phone followed. Talking that was too fast for him to follow. There was a voice inside of him that said to move. His left knee shifted.
The surface he was on gave underneath. He could feel hands on his collar, his tie tugged loosed around it. A hand drifted to his trousers and yanked hard, hard enough his hips jerked up. He tried to move his hands; move anything but he was pinned by an invisible weight. He could feel cool fingers slipping inside his collar and wrapping around his throat.
The solid warmth of someone straddling him was not a sensation he thought should be there. He fidgeted.
"Sorry, Caffrey," a voice said, coarse, like rolling over rocks. "Nothing personal. Gotta make it look good."
Before he could try to form a question, the hands around his throat began to squeeze.
It took a few seconds before Neal realized the binding around his legs was only a blanket.
It took a few breaths before he remembered where he was. Another to remember that this time, it was of his own choosing.
Neal pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. When he could easily feel his lungs expanding and throat contracting, Neal lowered his hands. He scrubbed one eye and focused.
It couldn't have been long; the sun was only now saying farewell. The random pattern of skyscrapers piercing the horizon reminded him of van Gogh's Willows at Sunset. Neal gave the view just a fleeting glance though. Today, it looked too much like blood for his comfort.
Past the couch, eyes still focused on the leather bound volume cradled in his hands, Mozzie muttered, "I've determined The Federalist is encrypted."
Neal squinted one-eyed at Mozzie in the armchair. "Let me guess. Treasure?"
"Hamilton was a freemason," Mozzie reminded him.
Neal closed his eyes and let his head dropped back on the armrest. His left arm felt overheated by the pillow someone had tucked under his bandaged wrist.
"Suit left you a note," Moz added, almost begrudgingly.
Neal turned his head and blinked at the bundle of colored pencils, bound together by a rubber band with a Post-it topping it. He sat up carefully. The room gave an obligatory spin but settled quickly. Neal counted it as a victory. He pulled the yellow square off.
Diana said you might want these. P
Neal grinned. He could almost hear Peter's question in the simple line. If anyone can convey suspicion, disapproval and curiosity in ten words or less, it would be Peter Burke. He tested the weight of the bundle in his hands. They were the good pencils, too—artist grade, sharpened to gleaming, vibrant spears.
"I suppose that's code for something?" Mozzie grumbled as he scowled into his book.
"Maybe," Neal said. He eyed the paintings on the wall. The long rectangle one was an interesting shape. He rose to his feet, waited before taking another step. He shook his leg briefly to straighten out his trouser cuff. A Devore wasn't made to be napped in. The move nearly threw him off balance though.
"What are you doing?"
Neal made his way carefully to the selected wall. "Going to make use of the pencils."
"By committing vandalism?" Mozzie grunted. "That's a little puerile, don't you think?" He sat up, watching Neal anyway as Neal ran his fingers under the frame for an opening.
"Harmless distraction." Neal tapped the matte surface. "What do you think?" He nodded toward the space. "A little Hals? Bondone?"
"He started out in frescoes; thought it would be apt." Neal shrugged as he tightened his fingers on the frame. He cringed and cradled his left.
"I got it." Neal flexed his left hand and tentatively rotated it. The tightness eased and he could feel his fingers again.
"You sure? I don't think you're supposed to use your left ha—"
"I got it," Neal repeated. He grimaced at the silence that hung between them now. He forced himself to uncurl his left hand and latched them onto the frame. It wouldn't budge. He didn't see any point in anchoring a print so securely to the wall. He checked again. No, still worthless.
"How about Delacroix?" Moz quietly suggested after a few seconds.
The Death of Sardanapal, The Massacre at Chios, The Natchez...
Neal made a face. He checked over his shoulder at Moz, one eyebrow arched. "A little dark, isn't he?"
Moz's shoulders went up a fraction. "Feels apt." He looked meaningfully at Neal.
Rolling his eyes, Neal turned back to the wall. He pulled at the frame, tugged harder—did they solder them into the walls?—Neal found himself panting by the time he realized he was only jamming it deeper into its hook. He could feel Moz's stare at the back of his head. He didn't look over. He rested his head on the stubborn print, hands curled on either side of it, the floor seesawing under him like it was on rollers.
There was a loud cough as Moz got up. A beat later, Neal heard the sucking pop of the mini fridge opening.
"Beluga," Moz muttered, darkly.
Neal smiled wearily to himself. He closed his eyes briefly. When the cramping of his fingers registered, he took a steadying breath and straightened. He lifted the frame up and out. He colored at how easily it came away from the wall. He set it down and rubbed his fingers together. He made a face at the sticky dark smudges that coated the tips. They needed to clean behind them.
Neal pulled his hand away and stared at his fingers. He gave them another rub.
"I think," Neal began. He raised his fingers for show. "I know where that list is."
* * * * *
Bonelli followed Peter with his eyes and a scowl as the agent circled the table. The large man made a show of inspecting his nails despite his handcuffs. He winced, showing more pain than warranted for the graze on his bicep.
Peter had made very sure he was left as a witness.
"Taking me out early from the hospital," Bonelli griped. "Isn't there something about cruel treatment of prisoners?"
Peter ignored him as he continued his orbit.
"Hey, I'm dying here."
"I'll get you an aspirin," Peter muttered. He stopped in front of Bonelli, his arms folded.
"You know, I've seen this rerun." Bonelli smoothed a palm over his black t-shirt as if it was a five hundred dollar suit. "You got me for breaking and entering. Can't charge me twice for it. I only went into one house, fed." He smirked as he watched Peter tapping a knuckle on a folder.
"You yuppy feds wanna charge me for writing a bad check, too?"
Peter leaned toward Bonelli. His voice dropped to a whisper. "Giraldi sent you to my house to find out where Caffrey has the list, didn't he?"
Bored eyes drifted up to Peter. "List? I went in there for your stereo and your television."
"A four man team with Sig Sauers? For a home invasion?"
Bonelli gave a shrug that went up to his ears. "What can I say? Times are tough. Don't you read the papers? We're in a recession." He languidly rubbed a finger under his nose. He smirked. "I don't know anything about a list."
"Or," Peter circled the table again, "maybe you got the list, but thought to keep it for yourself. You went along with everyone else thinking Caffrey has it."
"You cook up a good story," Bonelli snorted. "Maybe you can write a book. Be famous or something."
Peter waved a hand lazily by his ear. "Nah. But I could make you famous." He leaned back on the two-way mirror, his arms folded in front, still smiling. He could see it unnerved Bonelli.
"Maybe we'll make you our star witness."
Bonelli barked out a laugh. "I'm not testifying."
"Giraldi doesn't know that. I wouldn't be surprised if Giraldi has his eye on things. Put you in the roster for the grand jury. Giraldi sees your name, Docks is dead, no list." Peter's mouth pulled at the corners. "Don't need an accountant to put those three together."
Bonelli's flinty eyes stayed on Peter's face, but after a beat, he grunted and looked away.
"Giraldi knows I won't testify. He ain't stupid," he drawled.
No, but I was hoping you were, damn it, Peter thought. He stayed where he was though, thinking quickly as he stood over Bonelli.
"You sound pretty sure."
Bonelli shrugged one shoulder. "Giraldi doesn't hire fools. He pays well."
"Must not be well enough since Docks was willing to flip Giraldi."
Pointedly, Bonelli looked past Peter's ear.
Peter's jaw ached from holding back the scowl that wanted to form. It was no wonder Rook was willing to let Peter have a go at Bonelli. The man wasn't budging.
"Giraldi must have thought he was being clever, having Docks killed and letting Caffrey take the fall. No one would be the wiser because, hey, it was Docks." Peter felt a bad taste in the back of his throat as he went on. "He was a sadist pervert. No one would have been surprised. We wouldn't even blame Caffrey for it."
"Docks was a sick son of a bitch. Maybe your boy did do it." Bonelli glanced sideways toward Peter, the corner of his mouth pulled up in a leer Peter wanted to smack off.
"Your boy shouldn't've been leading him on like that." Bonelli half-snorted, half-snickered. "Least Docks went out happy, I guess."
"You didn't hear?" Peter said, innocently.
Bonelli narrowed his gaze at him.
"Agent Rook must have forgotten to mention. Caffrey didn't do it." The AFIS printout unfurled easily from his pocket. Peter slapped it on the table.
"You thought you'd find out where that list was and leave Neal with the murder rap. Only Docks wouldn't give it up, would he?" He observed Bonelli's gaze never wavered. "You don't look like the patient type. I bet you killed him before you could find the list. We can put you and your buddy on the scene."
Bonelli didn't twitch. He even smiled patronizingly up at Peter. "With a fingerprint? That's pretty desperate."
"As desperate as Giraldi's going to be when he hears you're testifying in order to cop-out of a murder one charge?"
Bonelli stared up at him with a bland expression. "He knows I'm not testifying."
"You're putting a lot of faith in your boss," Peter remarked. "I doubt Giraldi would return the favor."
Bonelli sniffed, scratched his nose and proceeded to pick at invisible dirt in his fingernails. "Giraldi knows I ain't ever testifying."
"You sound sure about that." Peter canted his head. "No, actually, you are sure Giraldi will know you won't testify. Now why is that?"
Bonelli folded his thick gorilla arms across his chest and said nothing.
But it was enough.
Neal was right, Peter thought, his stomach sinking. "Giraldi has someone here on his payroll. He'll know if you're testifying or not."
A twitch…at the corner of his eye.
Peter retrieved the file and stared at the top of Bonelli's head. There was an urge to kick his chair out from under him.
"You've been a great help," Peter drawled. As he reached for the door, he added, "I'll be sure everybody knows that."
The flinch Bonelli couldn't hide felt darkly satisfying.
* * * * *
"I hate to admit it, but I'm with the Suit on this one," Moz declared.
Moz looked as happy as he had been about the music box job with Alex. "Giraldi thinking you have the list is bad enough. Now you want to have it for real?"
Neal beamed. "Exactly. Everyone already assumes it. Why not?"
"This is exactly why people fall for psychics. That self-fulfilling prophesy con could only spell doom."
Neal's grin faded into a glare. "Thank you for your support, Moz."
"I said I'll help you figure out where that list was, but I said nothing about getting it or painting a bull's-eye on you."
Neal pinched the bridge of his nose. Going from the wall to the couch and already his body was screaming for a nap. "Mozzie…" he said wearily.
Moz was unmoved. "Why can't you just tell the Suit? Full disclosure, he'll like that."
"There's a leak somewhere in the FBI." Neal smothered the thin edge he could feel creeping up in his voice. It didn't look like it worked when Moz held up his palms.
"While I approve your concurrence on the corruption of big government and its agents of complacency, I think we should let him know where the list is." Moz squirmed. He levered off the armchair and wandered to the window. He peeked out, his head swiveling left and right. "Send him a code. The Suit will get that. That's what they're trained for in Quantico."
Neal rolled his eyes. "Peter's FBI, not CIA."
"You say potato. I say—" Moz stopped. He leaned closer into the glass.
"What is it?"
"The van's gone." Moz closed the drapes.
Neal struggled out of the couch, his limbs sluggishly obeyed. "Are you sure?"
"Neal, it's the most conspicuous inconspicuous van in all of Manhattan." Moz's arms waved up and down like he was flagging down an airplane. "Of course I'm sure!"
Staggering to the door, Neal peered through the peephole before he cautiously opened the door.
"What are you doing?"
One hand up to halt Moz's words, Neal glanced down to the end of the hallway. In the distance, he could hear an elevator's faint ding.
His chest squeezed. Neal shut the door. He called for Moz over his shoulder, but Moz was already ducking into the bedroom. He could hear him fiddling with the connecting door to the next suite.
"Moz, it'll be locked from the other—"
The other door clicked and swung open.
"Remind me to teach you that one, grasshopper," Moz said as he came back and grabbed Neal by the elbow. "Come on."
Neal started for the bedroom. Several footsteps walking in tandem, heavy and loud despite the carpet, approached the room. He halted when he spotted the pencils.
"Let's go." Moz's tug nearly unbalanced him.
Neal looked at the door and grabbed the pencils.
"I got an idea."
* * * * *
The video wasn't the best.
Peter stood, hip leaning against a chair as he stared at the flat screen while Jones brought up the traffic cams. Sitting made him want to pace, but Peter found standing only made him want to throw things as he watched the tiny, gray Accord stop in front of a red traffic light and Neal scramble out. Peter watched, jaw working, as Neal fell halfway out with the car door, head jerking back as an arm whipped out of the car and grabbed him by his throat.
Access to the traffic cams took longer than it should have. Peter knew if Neal or Mozzie know how many letters of the alphabet he had to go through before the DOT reluctantly gave up its feed, he would never hear the end of it. Luckily, Hughes made a few calls; "calls" being the diplomatic way of referring to the yelling and gesticulating Peter spied going on in his boss' office. But as he stood here, watching the feed, he wasn't feeling grateful for getting it.
"Geez," Jones uttered angrily to himself as he stared at the laptop. Keys clacked loudly and far too rapidly as Jones pounded his request to blow up the image into the system. The computer picked the unfortunate moment of Neal's head connecting with the glass to pause on. The image blurred into blocky pixels before enlarging once, twice, close enough, Peter had to step away from the chair before he really threw it.
"Anything on that reflection?" Peter asked gruffly. He pointed to the blurred spot on the door's glass, above the dark head slumped against it.
Jones replied with a couple of hard taps. The reflection stretched to fill the screen, sharpening.
"Bonelli," Jones confirmed.
"Can you get the front? We need to I.D. the driver. Bonelli's not giving us anything."
"Maybe. Traffic cams caught the vehicle coming and going." Jones scowled at the laptop. "No plates though. Plate's missing."
Great. Peter rubbed the back of his neck, but the knot there wouldn't go away. "They probably took them off because they knew about the cameras on West End."
Jones grunted. "Everybody knows about those cameras."
Peter squinted as the screen split into four images. He took another step closer. Smirking, he pointed to the bottom of the windshield.
"Looks like they forgot about their registration sticker though."
"I think I can get it," Jones declared. He bent over the laptop. Nothing was heard from him or the assisting tech, save the demented clicking of keys and the mouse.
After a few moments, Jones straightened.
"I can only get a partial number," he grumbled. "Running them through DMV to see if we ge—"
A new voice cut in. "Don't bother. I know whose car that is."
* * * * *
The right amount of pencils under an open door gives him a door stop.
The right amount of pencils under a shut door gives him two minutes.
Neal could hear four of them shouting as they tried to break in. Moz shoved another pencil under the connecting door and then pushed the armoire over to cover it. As soon as Neal heard the door in the other room finally give, he and Moz slipped out from the adjacent room.
The carpet muffled their running, but it didn't dampen the hard hollow sound of the emergency door shutting behind them. He snagged Moz by the sleeve. Moz gave him a curt nod. Talking was not necessary; they'd spent a good chunk of their careers running, although usually from disgruntled marks.
About six flights down, Moz halted, his shoulder butting up against Neal's because it felt like Neal's legs were still moving.
Down below, they could hear running, feet pounding up the stairs.
The fire door on the twenty-fourth floor rattled when Neal slapped a hand on the panic bar. As the door took its time closing behind them, he heard an explosion of feet ten floors above them as well. But only two. Neal eyed the elevators on either side of the corridor. Both were going down, both were nearing thirty.
"Neal." Moz grabbed him by the wrist before Neal walked into the corner that he thought was more to the left.
Before Neal could dwell on it, or on how his back felt like it was unraveling with each step, they were through the other emergency exit and down the stairs, just as Neal heard one of the elevators open.
On the seventeenth floor, they found a maid who thought she was letting in a couple of forgetful guests into room 1720. They waited inside the room until they heard their pursuers dart past and took the exit opposite.
On the eleventh floor, the elevators were both stopped, their emergency buttons pushed. Neal wondered what the hotel maintenance would think when they found cobalt blue and verdant green pencils jammed into the doors' tracks.
They were nearly caught on the ninth floor. Luckily, no one bothered to pick up the room service trays there. Neal wondered if the FBI would pay for the bullet hole on 903's door.
On the fifth floor, Neal nearly collided with Mozzie when he stopped by a maintenance closet. Moz picked the door easily and they both ducked inside.
The darkness contorted around him. Neal shut his eyes and gulped as he rested his forehead on the door. It felt like there was a thin wire between his temples, twisting tighter and tighter, pulling all his senses askew.
Peter. He needed to call Peter.
There was a floaty sensation, like déjà vu, as Neal fumbled out his phone, trusting his fingers to find the keys by memory because he didn't trust his eyes even if there was light in here. He really wanted to sit down. His left wrist felt like it was three times its size now.
"Don't call him."
His cell phone was snatched out of his hand. Neal stared toward where he knew Moz to be.
"Neal, whoever the leak is might have a trace on the Suit's phone."
"We can't stay here," Neal pointed out. "They somehow called off all of the protection detail." He opened the door a crack. He heard someone squawk in protest as people darted by down the hallway. Neal carefully shut the door again.
"We need to get to the list." Neal plucked the cell phone out of Moz's double grip.
"What?" Moz lowered his voice further. "Neal, they're looking for us right now because of that list."
Neal squinted. His vision refused to sharpen enough as his numbing fingers frantically tried to make out the keys.
"Neal, we can't risk call—"
"I'm not. Not really. But we're going to need the FBI there."
"Great Morello's ghost," Moz bemoaned. "I never thought I'll see the day we want Big Brother."
"Done," Neal announced as he sent the text message. Hopefully, Peter will understand. No, he will. Neal yanked out the battery and tossed both pieces of the phone into the laundry chute behind them. He wiggled his toes in his right foot. He didn't stop to wonder why the heavy weight of the anklet felt reassuring. And the thought of his next move was knotting his insides.
"I'm going to need a knife."
* * * * *
"Tracker number 9305A is still located at Two East Sixty-First Street."
Peter grumbled his thanks and ended the call. He eyed the file in his hands and the agent standing in front of him. "Why?"
Rook peeled his eyes away from the frozen image of Neal, half pulled back into the car.
"Last night…" Rook's shoulders lost its defensive hard line as he turned toward Peter. "In here."
Peter tensed. To his surprise though, Rook's expression didn't return to the previous smirk.
"Caffrey's one hell of a con," Rook sighed, "but there's no way he could have faked that." He returned his attention to the screen. "So it got me thinking."
"Finally," Jones muttered under his breath. He ducked his head after Peter gave him a look. If Rook heard him, he gave no sign.
"Checked bank statements, LUDs, everything. He was clean. Perfect. J. Edgar couldn't have been prouder by his poster child, but then I looked into his family, dug deeper." Rook shook his head. "Guess who bankrolled his college education?"
"Giraldi." Peter grimaced. The Mafioso's claws ran deep.
"Bastard must have been feeding Giraldi all this time." Rook thumped a fist on the table. "Giraldi's own little informant from the inside, right from the beginning."
Peter looked down at the file. It was no wonder Giraldi had slipped away so easily before. "Is he under orders or on his own this time?"
"Who the hell knows?" Rook snarled, unhappy at the reminder. "You got Caffrey stashed away so it's only a matter of time before you'll find out firsthand." He grunted. "You better have enough men covering Caffrey's ass over there. Giraldi's pull can buy a lot of Bonellis."
Before Peter could comment—Neal wasn't even where Rook thought he was— his cell phone chimed in. He fumbled it out, his throat working when he saw it was a text message from Neal. His eyes scanned it quickly. His chest seemed to squeeze in a sudden vise. He swore.
"Damn it, I think Neal's going after the list."
"You said Caffrey knew nothing about that list," Rook exploded, his sympathetic lapse gone.
"He didn't," Peter shot back as he punched the speed dial for Neal. He gnashed his teeth when Neal's cheeky voicemail replied cheerfully in his ear. "He must have figured out wherever it is. He was to stay put and…" He froze. And the bottom of his stomach dropped.
"Burke?" Rook glowered when Peter ignored him as he redialed the last number.
"US Tracking Monitor Com—" As always, they were quick to answer.
"Still," Peter snapped, not waiting for the operator to finish.
"When I called before, you said 'still located.' Did someone else called before me?" Peter shook his head at the silence on the other line. "This is Federal Agent Burke, badge number 53862. I need the time of the person who requested tracking information for tracker 9305A before the most recent call."
The operator was nonplussed by Peter's tone. "Location for tracker 9305A was requested seventeen minutes ago by Federal Agent—"
The call ended the same time Peter jerked his head toward Jones. To his credit, Jones didn't ask a single question. He dashed out of the conference room and headed straight for Hughes.
"What?" Rook demanded, hot on his heels as Peter took to the stairs two at a time.
Jones was already reading the other agents in. Some were nodding curtly, others were on their phones. There was a second when Rook stood at the top of the stairs, blinking at the sudden burst of activity.
"I alerted Barrigan," Jones said.
Peter was redialing his phone with one hand, the other trying to struggle out of his suit jacket. "Get NYPD to cordon off Lexington to Fifth Avenue. I want either side of that hotel covered. Damn it, why isn't he answering his phone?"
"Burke!" Rook growled, trying to recover his brief moment of immobility as he followed.
Peter impatiently waved him off, his face contorted as he punched Neal's number again, feeling like he's been through this too many times already.
"Damn it, Burke. What the he—"
"He knew Neal's real location," Peter grated out. He talked right over Rook's sputtering. "We only let out the location you knew about, but he pulled Neal's tracking data, used his badge and got his actual—damn it."
"Peter?" El emerged from the break area, her eyes questioning, Satchmo hugging close to her calf as he eyed the activity around them with interest.
Caught with one arm into his Kevlar, Peter froze. El stared at him as if she'd never seen him before. And she hadn't. Not this way, armored, weapon in hand. Peter always made sure she only saw her husband going out to work in his suit and tie; they were both happy to pretend he didn't also need to wear his gun and holster to work.
El gripped the hand that wasn't holding the gun. Her eyes were overly bright, large and said everything she herself couldn't say. She gave him a tight nod.
"We'll be waiting here." El told him, her smile brittle.
Peter could only bring up a constrained smile of his own as he reached for her. Mindful of his team and Rook around him, he grazed fingers down her arm. He cleared his throat.
El simply nodded.
Peter opened his mouth, because he should say something anyway, to reassure her she was going to get her suit and tie husband back very soon. But Jones came into view.
"US Marshals just called," Jones reported. "Neal's tracker stopped transmitting."
"He got the list and now he's running," Rook cursed.
"Neal wouldn't do that," El argued. Others around them murmured in agreement.
Peter pulled out his cell phone and stared at Neal's text message again.
This time the invite's for real.
Peter grinned. "Jones, call Diana back. I know where Neal's going."
* * * * *
"That," Neal grumbled as he leaned heavily on a lamp post, "was not fun." He made a face as he looked around it toward their target. It was open despite the late hour.
"Everyone takes the subway," Moz scoffed. He struggled out of the reflective vest Neal borrowed from the construction site inside the short building they'd leapt onto from the hotel's third story balcony. Moz had insisted they needed hard hats in addition to complete the guise as MTA workers, but he balked at the suggestion of wearing someone else's tool belt.
"A taxi would have been just as fast."
"I can see the headlines now." Moz waved a palm across the sky. "Bystanders have throats slit while sitting in Midtown traffic." He set down the hard hat. "When in Rome."
"This is Manhattan." Neal hurriedly continued before Moz could verbally volley, "It's still open. We can go through the back service entrance."
"Do you see the federales?"
Neal checked up and down Hudson. The cobblestoned street was empty of any cars.
"No sign of Peter, but no sign of our friends, either."
"Your friends, maybe," Moz muttered darkly. He rubbed his palms briskly over his jacket to get them dry and flexible. "Okay, what's their system like?"
"Raynor Gold alarm, motion and temperature detection when they're closed." Rattling it off felt like a mantra. Neal could feel the churning in his stomach calming. "When they're open, everything's armed with pressure and heat sensitivity. Wires located on the backs." Neal frowned to himself. "Docks must have turned off its alarm that night," he murmured. He rubbed his fingers together.
Moz stepped in closer. His eyes darted across the street. "I can go in by myself," he suggested, subdued.
Neal shook his head. "Just give me a second to catch my breath, Moz."
It looked like Moz wanted to say something, but he changed his mind. "They could be right behind us," he reminded him quietly, but made no move to hurrying Neal either.
Another deep breath and Neal straightened from the lamp post. The walk sign above him clicked and hummed. It sounded like it was counting down to something no one told him about.
"Ready?" Moz stayed by Neal's elbow.
Neal focused on Blackman Galleries. It felt like he hasn't been here for a long time rather than the four days. He nodded in the direction of the service entrance.
The sign above him clicked as it switched to a green light and, like a starter's pistol, they darted quickly across the street.
* * * * *
She was still being neglected.
Neal could see her, tucked by the corner, no crowd of appreciative viewers, no lighting to cast the shadows away.
The caterers elbowed by, muttering as they maneuvered around Neal and Moz. They stood by the restroom on the pretense of waiting, hidden from public view.
"Is that it?"
Neal nodded, eyes glued to her, just out of reach. She was by no means safe though.
Something dropped over his head. Startled, Neal reached up. When his fingers felt the powdery crush of felt, he smiled.
"I wondered where it went," Neal murmured as he readjusted the fedora. He squared back his shoulders.
"Found it by the service door," Moz whispered out of the corner of his mouth. He made a show of checking his watch as a waiter paused, openly curious. "Must have been the cheese," he explained in a disgusted voice, thumbing toward the restroom. Neal grimaced.
The waiter made a face and moved on. Quickly.
The weight on his head felt reassuring. Neal reached up and ran two fingers along its brim, straightening out the dent he could feel. The taut line down his spine eased. Neal exhaled slowly.
"So what now?" Moz checked around. When he sighted the room he needed, he nodded slightly toward it.
"Remember the Loeb job?" Neal said without moving his mouth. He could sense Moz perking up. "Opposite of that thought," he added hastily and braced himself.
"What?" Moz lowered his voice when one of the servers shot them a look before she went out with more of the 2008 Monte Rose.
"I need a distraction," Neal murmured.
"For them or for me?" Moz groused.
"We're not stealing it." Neal smiled as another server drifted by. "Just stopping whoever it is from stealing it."
Moz grumbled. He sighed, his posture of the longsuffering martyr as he pulled out his chopsticks. At Neal's eyebrow, Moz brandished them at him before shaking his head and slipping away.
Neal watched as Moz easily melted into the lines of servers and guests looking for the restrooms and coat check. After counting to three, Neal politely excused himself as he squeezed past everyone. He didn't need to see where he was going, he knew where exactly she was, but he kept his eyes opened regardless. The partitions seemed closer than he remembered. And was it always this cold?
Lady by the Window hung, yet again with no bids, on the wall. She sat there, staring out a rainy window as mysterious as before. Her eyes were painted with a faraway look; the hand under her chin was pale, almost luminescent.
His chest ached. The temptation to sit down on the floor was overwhelming so he locked his knees. Just as well since he felt someone staring at the back of his head.
"Peter?" Neal whispered hopefully.
Neal spun around in time to see a tiny burst of light spark in the newcomer's hand. There was only a faint pop, lost among the chattering at the other side of the gallery and the auctioneer's booming voice.
A line of heat lanced over his head, close enough that the sudden heat jolted down to his limbs. Neal staggered a step. Almost immediately, he tasted blood trickling down the side of his face. He blinked the blurriness that sprang up to his eyes and focused on his attacker.
"Hello." Neal winced as blood dripped into his eye. "Agent Dunbar, was it?"
Dunbar no longer looked like a lost intern. His spare figure in the dark suit made him look more like a shadow.
"Well, Mr. Caffrey, you led us on a merry chase. Taking the subway, with all those innocent bystanders. My man almost lost your trail until I realized where you must be heading." The smile on Dunbar's face looked ghoulish. He tucked his arm close to his side as he gestured with his gun at Neal's head. "To show you I'm serious."
"Oh, I believed you the first time," Neal told him. He glanced around the gallery.
Dunbar tsked. "They call these silencers for a reason. Of course, if my men were to start shooting in here, it wouldn't really be silent, would it?"
"Your men?" Neal flinched as a trickle of blood crawled down his face. He could feel his entire body stiffening, as if he was trying to breathe under tight quarters again.
"Your men?" he repeated. "Or Giraldi's men?"
"Show me where the list is and they'll be my men," Dunbar answered, unperturbed.
"I guess that answered my question," Neal muttered. He eyed the partitions. Where was Peter?
Dunbar smirked, amused. "And what question is that?"
"On whom you're working for: Giraldi or yourself?"
The gun went higher as Dunbar drew closer.
Neal stepped back, his hands up. The gun poked him in the ribs.
"What do you think?" Dunbar hissed.
* * * * *
Forget the tracker, next time Peter was getting Neal a leash.
"I told him not to go looking for it, but did he listen?" Peter griped as he strapped on his vest tighter. "Does he ever listen? Don't answer that," he warned when he saw Jones open his mouth to answer.
"Gallery's open," Diana reported as she climbed up into the Tactical van.
"They're still running that Retro—Neo…show or something," Peter muttered. He looked out the driver's window. There had to be a few dozen people inside. Peter set his jaw.
"Any sign of Neal or," Peter's eyes darted to Rook, "his friend there?"
Diana's face was pinched as she considered the gallery across the street from their van as well. "No sign."
Rook, who had been surprisingly quiet the whole ride, spoke up. "You sure Caffrey's in there?"
"He's in there all right." Peter gnashed his teeth as he yanked out his cell. He held it up so they could see Neal's cryptic text. "I told him to stay put, but, no, he just had to get back into the line of fire."
"Couldn't stay in that hotel," Rook said, surprising everyone with his reasonable tone. "That bastard pulled off every one of your teams and went in after him."
Diana smoothed out her chino blazer to hide the outline of her holster. "I spotted some of Giraldi's hard hitters around the front. There's probably more in the back. Tight spot."
"Oh, Neal's been in tighter," Peter muttered as he climbed out of the van, the others following. "Ask him about the National Arts Museum, a broken elevator and fifteen feet of garden hose."
Jones' head shot up. "That was real? I thought he was just—"
"Dunbar. I see him," Diana said suddenly. They peered around the utility van to spy Dunbar walking in long strides, not looking in either direction as he headed straight for the front door.
"He's not bothering to cover his tracks anymore," Peter murmured. His throat worked. "We're going to have to go through the side entrance. He sees us and he might start shooting."
The gun was snug against him. Nevertheless, Peter patted his holster to reassure himself it was there. Diana and Jones did the same.
"Diana, you lead one team through the back. Grab every civilian you see and get them out of there." Peter narrowed his eyes at the gallery. "Jones, you have the front. Take out Giraldi's thugs quietly." A check at Rook's set jaw pretty much told Peter what the agent wanted. "Rook and I will go through the back."
There was nothing more to say. Peter filed out with everyone. He curled and uncurled his hands. Not having even a blip from Neal's tracker or a text from him was grating. Peter wanted to charge in, but years in the FBI tempered the impulse. Too much could go wrong. Too much could still go wrong even with the most careful planning. Peter had already seen how easy plans could crumble into dust. Just look at Neal and K—
A harsh mental shake stopped those thoughts, although Peter still felt a twinge for even having them in the first place. He scowled to himself. Not now.
"Maintain radio contact," Peter told everyone gathered behind the van.
Peter gripped both Jones' and Diana's shoulders before they broke off into silent hunting parties.
* * * * *
The gallery owner caught sight of Peter as they entered from the back doors, but before she could stalk over in her three hundred dollar heels, he tipped his badge her way. She blanched when Peter very quickly explained what was happening. Meek now, she was compliant when Jones and Diana quietly herded her customers out the door, gathering stray bystanders like baby ducks. He could see Rook hauling Giraldi's men and roughly passing them to the other agents.
Peter still couldn't see Neal or Moz, but he could hear Neal's calm tenor floating around a partition of tiny paintings of different faces like a macabre trophy wall.
Darting a look at Rook, Peter flattened against the wall and edged toward the voices.
Rook silently followed.
"… everyone would just think it's good old Neal Caffrey being Neal Caffrey," Neal said in an easy voice, like he was talking about the art around him. "No one would be looking for you since they would assume I have the list."
"Nothing personal, Caffrey," Dunbar did sound sorry. "Docks had his eye on you before."
"I wonder who put it there." Neal's voice held a thin line of anger.
Dunbar chuckled. "You photograph well. And I needed to lure Docks out of his nice safe five-star hotel room to see where he stashed that list. When I told him I could get him one last fun time, he was more than happy to offer a…service fee."
"Glad to be of help." Neal's bland reply cut off into a groan. "So how much was that worth to Docks? How much of a cut was he offering you?"
"Not enough." Dunbar laughed harshly. "Bastard thought he was conning me by hiding the list for himself, but I got Giraldi to bankroll a hit on Docks." Peter curled his hand tighter around his weapon when Dunbar laughed harder. "Giraldi offered me a modest share if I get him that damn list, too."
"So instead you decided to take all of it?" Neal's words choked off after a bit of a scuffle. "Everyone thought Docks was up to his usual or wanted to do business with me and things went wrong."
Dunbar grunted. "Docks was a sick bastard. It was easy to make people think he was up to his old tricks again and you had to do what you had to do to defend yourself. Only Bonelli jumped the gun and killed Docks before we could get the list first." He snorted. "You're not ugly, Caffrey. You were exactly the kind Docks preferred."
"Thank you," Neal replied flatly.
"You didn't seem surprised to see me," Dunbar went on with a tinge of regret. "And I hid myself very well for so many years."
"Actually," Neal admitted, "I thought it might be Agent Rook."
"Rook?" Dunbar snorted. "He's been obsessed with catching Giraldi for six years."
"Took Agent Burke three years to catch me."
Peter rolled his eyes.
"Smart ass," Rook grumbled under his breath.
Neal added, "It'll take him less to catch you."
"You're strangely loyal for a con."
"And you're strangely not for a fed," Neal quipped.
There was a muffled yelp of pain. Peter grit his teeth.
"Did that hurt?" Dunbar asked, conversationally. "Maybe you should have stayed in the hospital after all."
"I don't think my insurance covers—" Neal hissed and Peter wanted to break cover. He didn't. There were still stragglers around the rest of the gallery and he couldn't risk innocents in the line of fire.
"So what now?"
"Why don't we ask Agent Burke? I think he's almost done emptying out the gallery," Dunbar said pleasantly. "What do you say, Burke? It's rude to eavesdrop."
Peter craned his neck. Jones and Diana poked their heads out halfway out of a partition. They both nodded and slipped around to circle the enclave Dunbar and Neal were in.
"I have a gun pointed at Caffrey's throat," Dunbar casually added. "No point in your team tackling me. I'm sure Neal here wouldn't want another hole."
Peter froze. "Neal?" he called out sharply.
"He shot my hat," Neal said crossly. "A Devore original and he shot it."
"Next time, I'll aim lower, Caffrey," Dunbar said, still talking like they were all sitting around having coffee.
"How about I aim lower, Dunbar?" Rook snarled. Before Peter could stop him, he drew closer to the partition.
"Henry." Dunbar sounded delighted. "We were just talking about you."
"Shut up," Rook snapped. "Tom, you son of a bitch. All these years…"
"Dunbar," Peter spoke up before Rook's temper made him break cover. "We got your men. Gallery's cleared. There's nowhere to go. If you—" Peter stilled, his eyes encountering the painting that hung behind Neal and Dunbar. The subject's pale silhouette and dark hair watched over Neal with a half-smile.
Aw, hell, kid.
Neal stood close to Dunbar, overlapping him, grimacing as Dunbar jabbed his side with his gun. There was a crimson mask over Neal's left eye, streaks smeared down his jaw and throat.
"I thought you said he shot your hat," Peter barked.
Neal shrugged. "He did. My head was sort of in the way." He looked gruesome with his face half-coated in red. "It's just a graze."
"The hat finally has some uses," Peter commented.
"You're just sore because you hate hats."
"Hey, I wear hats."
"Baseball caps doesn't count."
Dunbar snorted, his head partially concealed behind Neal. "I want that list, Caffrey."
"Won't be much good to you now," Neal pointed out. He made a face when Dunbar pulled his left arm further back, bending his wrist. "It's cliché, but do you really think you can get out of here?" Neal rolled his eyes--eye, as the other was sealed shut with dried blood. "I think you're surrounded."
Twin muzzle points poked out of either side of the display wall.
"He's right." Peter nodded behind him. "Even if you walk out of here, when word gets out that you have that list, you think Giraldi will let you walk around with his money?"
"You can buy a lot of what you need with that kind of money." Dunbar smiled thinly. "New name, new face, a plane to get out of the country." Dunbar smirked and dug the gun deeper into Neal's ribs. "Minus the explosives, of course."
Neal clenched his jaw.
"Where is that list?"
"Behind you," Neal ground out. He skidded backwards as Dunbar pulled him closer to the painting.
Dunbar didn't look twice at the portrait.
"I think Docks had everything in a flash card, maybe an SD card. Something small enough that he could have kept it with him the whole time." Neal's hand opened and closed, pinned between him and Dunbar's restraining arm. "His hand felt sticky when I shook it. It was adhesive, to glue it on the frame of this painting."
"Not bad for a con. Hanging around with us rubbed off," Dunbar admitted. He actually had the nerve to sound approving. "Docks came here almost every week before he got picked up. But why this painting?"
Neal's eyes cast down. "No one was interested in her. Docks must have cut its alarm sensors one day then hid the list on the one painting he figured would still be around later for him to retrieve before he left the country."
"He was never going to testify," Dunbar agreed. "All that money…"
"Guess that's why you switched sides," Rook growled before Peter could stop him. He moved forward. "Decided to go to business for yourself, you greedy son of a—"
"Not another step," Dunbar snapped. He jabbed his gun tighter into Neal, deep enough that Neal slouched into it with a wince.
Rook halted, his foot still in the air.
"Get it," Dunbar ordered Neal.
Neal was looking gray as he shook his head. "I don't know where it is exactly. I—ouch! Okay!" He grimaced and reached up with his left arm toward the frame. As his fingers drew closer to the painting, Neal glanced over at Peter.
On contact, the painting's alarm went off. In fact, every alarm went off: every painting, every fire, smoke, exit, even the CO2 alarm simultaneously wailed.
Dunbar recoiled, limbs flailing in shock. Neal elbowed him, putting too much weight into it and they both fell to the ground.
Rook pounced on Dunbar. Jones and Diana reached the pair at the same moment Peter did. Jones grabbed Dunbar's gun, Diana grabbed his arm and Peter grabbed Neal.
"Get an ambulance," Peter ordered as they hauled Dunbar up. He watched Rook storm off with his former partner in custody.
Moz peered around the partition. When he spotted Peter and Neal, he sauntered over.
"Is this your doing?" Peter demanded. He kept a firm grip on Neal's arm when he felt him sway.
Moz bristled, "Do you know how counter-intuitive it was to do that?"
Neal shrugged one shoulder. "We needed a distraction. Dunbar was…distracted." Neal grimaced though as the alarms now whooped and honked like a flock of demented geese.
Peter stuck a finger in his ear. The storewide cacophony, plus the klaxons from the approaching ambulance was making his eyes water. "Can you do something about that?" he shouted.
"Moz, please?" Neal asked.
"Oh sure," Moz hollered back. He spun around, waving his arms as he stalked away. "Now you want the alarms turned off!"
Peter sighed in relief when moments later, everything silenced. He looked over to see Rook running his hands behind the painting.
"Got it," Rook announced. He lifted up a tiny baggie with a chip inside. The grin he had stretched oddly on his face.
"Please don't give Dunbar a deal for it," Peter grumbled, but he couldn't help returning Rook's expression.
"Deal?" Rook grunted as he neared them. He tossed the list up and caught it easily. "What for?"
When Rook's eyes went to Neal, Peter tensed.
"Caffrey…" Rook's mouth contorted but words wouldn't come out. Finally, he sucked in his breath and stuck out his hand.
Neal reached out without hesitation and they shook. Rook pulled back almost immediately. He cleared his throat, muttered something about taking Dunbar in and left.
"I never thought I'll see the day," Peter mused.
"I think I would like to sit down," Neal spoke up breathlessly.
"Oh, sure." Peter was steering him toward a row of chairs by the front of the gallery when Neal spoke up again.
"Actually…" Neal swallowed convulsively. "Now, please."
Crap. Peter eased Neal to the floor.
Neal sat cross-legged, his chin to his chest. "Thank you," he murmured. He held his head up with his right hand, his left pressed to his chest.
Standing up, Peter gazed at the painting. Her pale skin, dark hair was too painful to look at for too long. Peter averted his gaze. He glanced down and saw Neal was staring up at it. The longing on his face…
"So…" Peter stepped in front of Neal, moving a little closer until his leg bumped into Neal's shoulders. "Docks hid the list here, all this time."
"Then I came along," Neal added.
Peter was relieved to see Neal turned away.
"I think my wrist is definitely broken this time," Neal bemoaned. "And I don't think I can get this hat fixed."
"Glad it's not all bad news."
Neal's wordless reply bordered on impolite.
Peter said nothing when he felt Neal leaning against his legs. He shuffled closer.
"It's over," Neal said quietly.
I'm not so sure, Peter thought sadly when he caught Neal looking at the painting again.
* * * * *
A hand gripped him by the shoulder and shook.
Before Neal could respond, even before his limbs could tense, he heard a low voice rumbling like distant thunder by his ear.
"Easy. Don't take a swing at me again, Rocky."
After rubbing his eyes, Neal opened them wider. The darkness that greeted him quickened his breath, but a light clicked on near his feet, scattering the black into the shapes and angles of Peter's living area.
"You know the drill," Peter said. He could at least look apologetic. He lowered the volume further on whatever he was watching and moved the stack of files from his lap to the floor since the coffee table had been deemed a lost cause and tossed out.
Neal groaned but didn't try to sit up. The ice pack Elizabeth had given him after dinner was now a warm, limp weight on his left wrist. Neal had guessed wrong; luckily, it wasn't broken, but now his entire hand throbbed even when he moved his elbow.
"You're enjoying this," Neal half-heartedly accused Peter. "Rook is monopolizing Dunbar's questioning so you settled for me. It's like interrogation but without the polygraph."
"Yes," Peter deadpanned, "because I enjoy waking you up every four hours to ask you questions." He reached over and pulled the spent ice pack off Neal's hand.
"I could have gone back to my place." Neal tentatively felt around the bristly stitches buried into his temple. "The doctors said it wasn't serious. It only took three stitches." Although he was going to have to be creative while combing his hair the next week or so. Wonderful.
Peter sounded as impressed as he did in the ER. "June's not back yet and you with a concussion in the top floor of a mansion just screams trouble." He rose from his seat and headed into the kitchen. Still talking as he went.
"That was the deal, Neal. You didn't want to stay in the hospital and June's was out." Peter returned with a new icepack.
Neal gratefully took it. For a second, he wasn't sure where he wanted to put it more: his wrist or his head.
"I'm fine," Neal mumbled. The icepack stung first on contact but then mellowed into a numbing sensation on his wrist. He kept his eyes on his hand and not Peter. Envy tugged inside; he wished the icepack could numb everything.
"You shouldn't be alone."
Neal looked up at the words and caught Peter's very serious expression. His eyes dropped back down to his hand.
"So what's the first question again?" Neal asked, lightly. "I think it's my name? Or do you want an alias this time?"
"No, I think that's my answer, or did you want it in the form of a question?"
Peter sighed. But, unlike the first time he woke Neal up, he didn't play along. He turned off the television. Not a good sign. He stood by the foot of the couch, studying Neal.
"Mind not standing over me like that?" Neal muttered, not looking at Peter. He fidgeted and struggled to sit up.
There was a quiet curse and Peter sat on the armrest by Neal's feet immediately. "Sorry."
Neal shrugged. "It's fine. Just right now, you know, I…"
"It didn't happen," Neal stressed. "This…" He gestured towards Peter, towards the space over him, towards himself. "It'll go away." He wished Peter would stop nodding and agreeing with him. It wasn't Peter; it just wasn't normal. Neal wanted normal.
"Peter, nothing happened. It only looked like something did."
"Doesn't make what you feel any less important," Peter told him in the same low, understanding voice.
"I shouldn't feel anything," Neal muttered. "Nothing happened." He sat up even though his body was pleading for him to stay down. He blinked furiously at his legs.
Peter sighed, nodded again and said nothing. For some reason, that was worse.
"Shouldn't you be asking me questions right now?" Neal inwardly winced at the desperation he could hear in his own voice.
A searching gaze slid his way. "Fine…why were you at the gallery the first time?"
Closing his eyes, Neal forced out a chuckle. "I don't think that one was on the list, Peter."
"I don't care."
"I don't think my doctor would be happy to hear that—"
"What do you want me to say?" Neal shot back harshly before he could stop himself. At Peter's stunned silence, Neal swallowed.
"I saw the painting, Neal. Lady by the Window?"
There was a brief moment that Neal wanted to joke it wasn't one of his alleged forgeries. It was at the tip of his tongue, but he lifted his eyes and caught Peter staring at him, solemn, openly concerned, worry lining his brow.
Something snapped inside him, so abruptly, so loudly in his ears, Neal was startled no one else could hear it.
"Kate's dead." Neal's eyes burned.
Peter didn't seem as surprised as he was when the words escaped. He sighed, long and tired, as he nodded to himself.
"I would say sorry, Neal." Peter lowered himself to the couch. He gave Neal's ankles a gentle shove to make room. "But we've been telling you all this time." He dropped a hand on Neal's shoulder. "You didn't look like you wanted to hear it yet."
Mute, Neal focused at the stack of folders Peter left on the floor. He wondered how thick of a folder Kate's life amounted to.
Ash coated the back of his throat. Neal squeezed his eyes shut.
"I went there," Neal croaked, "because I wanted to remember her."
"I didn't think you would ever forget her."
Shaking his head, Neal couldn't speak.
Peter sat closer, close enough Neal could sense Peter's shoulder just shy of his. Keeping his distance yet not too far, like a reassuring voice on a cell phone, telling him it was okay to hide for now because he'll be found.
"I keep seeing her on that plane."
Next to him, Peter stilled.
"All I can see now is her getting on that plane."
"But that wasn't the Kate you knew," Peter guessed.
The understanding in Peter's voice this time eased the lump lodged in Neal's throat. "We were never the white picket fence sort, but there were times, when I look at her, I thought we could be." He slouched forward, his hands cradling his face. "I wanted to remember that."
"I wish you had told me," Peter said quietly. "That day, I really wish that invite was for real. I would have gone with you. I would have."
And Peter would have. The thought of it loosened the knot in Neal's stomach and infused a warmth he wasn't accustomed to.
Neal smiled disparagingly. He shrugged. "Maybe you're right. If you had, maybe I wouldn't have gotten mixed up with Docks." The hand on his shoulder gave him a brief tightening clasp. Neal looked up at Peter's pinched expression.
"Don't ever blame yourself for that. It wasn't your fault." Peter's hard face smoothed out. "What you're feeling right now either. Okay, it didn't happen, but they made you think it could have and that's just as bad."
Speechless, Neal nodded.
An eyebrow rose in response. "Really? Are you listening?"
"Trying." Neal smiled shakily.
Peter nodded, looking satisfied.
This time, Neal's smile felt more natural. "I do listen, you know."
"How you interpret it is the problem," Peter scoffed.
Neal offered a broad grin this time. "But at least I listen."
Peter made a swipe at Neal's head, pretending he missed, but Neal suspected they both knew better.
"Go back to sleep." Peter rose to his feet and stepped back as Neal slid down to reclaim the entire couch.
"Thought you have to ask me questions," Neal yawned.
"Okay. What did you do with the Landmoch Scrolls?"
Neal smirked sleepily as his eyelids grew heavy. He wagged a finger in Peter's general direction. "Now that would be telling."
"So you did take them," Peter murmured triumphantly.
"No." Neal's next yawn stretched his reply to one long syllable. He glowered at Peter when he chuckled. Neal retaliated by adding, "I said it would be telling you I took the Landmoch Scrolls, like telling you about the Regency Bibles." He wiggled deeper into the cushions of the couch.
"Wait, you took those?" Peter demanded.
"Sleeping here," Neal murmured, his eyes sliding closed.
The afghan that had been bunched by his feet was snapped out to drape over him. Neal opened his eyes again in time to see Peter settling back into the armchair. Neal wanted to tell him it was fine; go upstairs to Elizabeth and Satchmo. But he knew Peter would only grumble something about his backlog of mortgage frauds again, maybe threaten Neal with coming in on a Saturday to hunch over his dining table with a stack of his own. And for the first time in months, Neal found himself not minding.
Peter was still watching Neal from his chair. The folders laid balanced on his lap, ignored, the television remote on top untouched.
"It'll be fine, Neal," Peter said quietly. "You can go to sleep."
Neal let his eyes drift shut again. He could hear Peter turning on the television; whatever he was watching buzzed low in the background. Neal smiled to himself, letting his limbs relax further. The couch was thick under his back, the icepack cool around his wrist, the blanket soft and warm on top.
And for the first time in a long while, Neal knew he was safe.