What do you think about cupcakes tonight?
Neal’s text surprises June; the hearing isn’t supposed to end for another hour, and she didn’t expect to hear from him until it’s over.
She smiles. Two hours ago she couldn’t take waiting at home anymore; now she sits by the fountain in front of the courthouse with a wide hat shading her face. Bright sunlight casts a glare on the phone display; she blocks it with one hand, preparing to reply I thought Elizabeth already made cakes when another text buzzes.
I’m thinking those meringue things we made that one time. You remember the recipe?
The smile freezes in place. She remembers.
That one time he came home bruised and bleeding with gunshot residue still on his hands, to tell her Elizabeth was safe and he was going back to prison in the morning.
It’s a code. She’s sure of it.
That one time they baked delicate cupcakes in his loft, filled with lime curd and frosted with fluffy meringue; they opened his last bottle of her favorite red. They put on Ella Fitzgerald and danced on the balcony under the stars, his face buried in her neck and his shoulders shaking, tensed and shivering and helpless like an animal in a trap.
I remember, she replies. She stands without haste, trailing one hand in the fountain as she turns. Sunlight strikes the water, throws sparks off the arcing spray; ripples distort the tiles strewn with coins, dull brown and flashing copper, hopes flung to the water and abandoned. I’ll get everything ready.
That one time she sat up with him all night; when sunrise flowed pink and gold over the balcony rail he gave her a box of things to hide before the feds arrived. He gave her an envelope with passports and cash and a few small but valuable items, and asked her to mail them to an address where Mozzie could pick them up on his way out of the country.
She memorized the address. She thought she’d never have to use it, when he came home the next night, after all.
She walks toward the street where the Jag is parked, texting the driver to say she’s taking it home herself. Then she texts Neal again, knowing this could be the only goodbye they’ll ever get: Good luck.
She learned about the hearing from Peter.
One unseasonably warm morning in early November, she came out of the back parlor to find him stamping snow off his feet on the mat in the foyer, impatiently watching the staircase. He offered her a polite smile, a shrug of apology for taking up space in her front hall. It was two weeks since Elizabeth had been rescued and one year to the day since Kate’s death and Neal was ten minutes late coming downstairs.
Finally, when they heard Neal’s door closing, Peter said, “You should let Justice know if you’re planning on making a statement.”
“A statement.” She frowned, concerned.
“Neal didn’t tell you about the hearing.” He took a breath, let it out slowly as her alarm grew. “It’s - they’re holding a hearing to discuss having his sentence commuted. In light of his service to the Bureau, and his role in the Keller case.” He glanced up as Neal hurried down the stairs. “His official role, anyway.”
Neal had said nothing about any hearing; under the circumstances she wasn’t surprised. His “official role” in that whole mess was hardly settled; Peter had yet to submit his final report on the incident. He hadn’t decided, Neal told her, what he was going to say.
June felt for Peter, after everything he and his wife had been through. That didn’t change the fact that he could say a word and have Neal locked away for good. He was seriously considering it even now, and she was in no mood to hold civil conversation with him.
But in more than three decades as a felon’s wife, she had learned many things; first among them that you did not talk back to the parole officer.
A practiced eye could see Neal hadn’t slept well last night, but otherwise he was put together and ready for work, his hands playing with one of Byron’s fedoras. Slightly pale, with dark smudges under his eyes, but that had come to seem normal over the past two weeks.
She made a decision. “Neal isn’t going to work today.”
Peter blinked and looked sharply at Neal. “He’s not?”
Neal started, turning to her. “I’m not?”
“Do you know what day it is, Peter?”
She held his eyes, waiting for it to sink in; a few seconds, and then his face went completely still. He hadn’t thought of it yet, this morning, but it wasn’t a date he’d forget. Neal drew in a tiny, sharp breath and shook his head once, a slight motion, barely perceptible; most likely he’d thought of nothing else since he woke.
She said, “Neal, darling, give us a moment, would you please?”
She gave him a look, gentle and steady, and he withdrew toward the back parlor, clearly apprehensive. Peter followed her into the front parlor where she waved him to a seat, inclining her head invitingly at the tray with coffee and pastries the housekeeper had left on the side table. She sat on the bench beside the piano.
Peter asked, “How’s he doing?”
She didn’t laugh, though she was tempted. You didn’t talk back to the parole officers. You said “yes, sir,” and you smiled and you offered tea or coffee when they came by. You welcomed them to examine your house and pass judgment on your character, to make notes in their files about whether or not you were “a good influence”; you choked back your pride and abandoned all thought of privacy.
Of all the parole officers she’d known, she knew Peter Burke was one of the good ones; she’d dealt with enough of the other kind to appreciate this.
He still had the right to carry weapons into the sanctuary of her home at any hour of the day or night, for any reason, and tear away part of her family.
“I understand you still haven’t written up your report on the recent incident with Matthew Keller.”
He paused, lifting the little French press; a shadow crossed his face as he poured coffee into two small mugs.
“There are a lot of factors to consider,” he said finally; he handed her a mug, quietly polite. “I’m trying to make a fair assessment of all of them, but it’s a complicated situation.”
“I’m sure.” She sipped slowly before setting the mug on a coaster; the coffee was hot and fragrant. “I only ask because it’s hard, waiting.” Over the past two weeks, she had watched the faint line of the cut healing on Neal’s forehead. His hands had been slower to stop twitching, still feeling the gun and flinching from the memory of the recoil. “Not knowing if someone I love is going to be taken from me.”
The mask cracked, there; his face hardened, his eyes dark; she had a sense of approaching a line she shouldn’t cross, but she didn’t back down.
“One year ago today, I got a call from a clerk in the Marshals’ office telling me Neal wouldn’t be coming home.” She kept her voice level as a thread of steel crept in, running taut beneath the words. “They told me he’d been taken back to prison. That he’d been standing this close to a plane when it exploded. Said he was fine, said they’d call back when a doctor had looked at him, but no one ever did. They wouldn’t let me see him for more than a week.”
The parlor was silent for a long time; she could hear the ticking of the old grandfather clock, the faint scratching of Bugsy’s claws on the wood floor in the hall. She made herself take slow sips of coffee, banking her anger low with the skill of long practice. Finally Peter said, in a strained but gentle voice, “We can manage without him for today.”
“Thank you.” She stood and walked him to the hall; when he started away from the door, toward the back of the house, she stepped in front of him.
“I’m just going to talk to him for a minute.”
“No,” she said. You don’t talk back to them, the little voice of years of caution scraped at the back of her mind. But the anger was back, flaring high and bright and unexpected; the next words were quiet, iron-hard. “You can talk to him when you have a decision to give him on the Keller case. I want an answer by the end of the day. One way or the other.”
“June -” he started, and she took her courage in both hands and interrupted him.
“It’s been two weeks, Peter.” And she felt for him, she truly did, despite her anger, and so she didn’t say the world stopped when your wife was taken.
The world had stopped, or at least the New York FBI office and half the rest of the city’s law enforcement. Elizabeth Burke was an upright citizen and married to a federal agent; she was a loving wife and daughter and a generous and loyal friend; June had met her, and liked her.
And she and Peter both had been through hell in the past few weeks; June knew that, and so she didn’t say you ransomed her with stolen property, after you gave Neal lectures about doing the right thing while he planned to steal that music box to ransom Kate.
No one could have held Elizabeth hostage for eight months while the authorities looked the other way and the man she loved tried desperately to convince someone, anyone, that she needed help. And no one ever dared suggest, as Peter had repeatedly suggested about Kate, that Elizabeth and her captor were in this together to split the take.
Elizabeth Burke was a person who mattered.
Neal adored her; he would never question that she was worth all the time and pain and treasure spent to bring her home, the swift and powerful response of every government agency in the area mobilized at once to find her. And he would never speak of it, in his remorse over his own part in all this, but he had to wonder - in the still, bitter watches of the early morning, when he woke up alone from the nightmares she knew he still had - he wouldn’t be human if he didn’t wonder why Kate wasn’t.
“You’ve dragged this out long enough.” She advanced a step, holding his eyes; it was ironic, she thought, but only now when she was furious at him did she realize how far she’d come to trust him.
She would never have dared to speak to any of Byron’s old parole officers this way.
“Elizabeth has been safe at home for two weeks. Kate is never coming back. And I am out of sympathy and losing patience.” She let out a slow breath, clenching her hands behind her back. “Now you’re just torturing him. And me.”
His eyes darkened and his jaw set, a whirl of mixed emotions playing across his face, but she continued smoothly before he could put words to any of them. “By the end of the day.” And then, over her shoulder to the housekeeper, in a voice like iron, “Helen, please show Agent Burke out.”
It wasn’t until the door closed and she heard Neal’s footsteps in the hall behind her that she realized she was shaking.
“It’s all right,” she said, when he took her arm, alarmed. “I’m all right, darling.” And then, as she heard the car pulling away from the curb: “Let’s go out. It’s a beautiful day. Bugsy would love a trip to the park, don’t you think?”
Of all the parole officers she’d known, Peter was one of the best; no matter how angry he might be at her, she knew he wouldn’t take it out on Neal.
They picked up Samantha and took Bugsy down to the park. The sidewalks were wet, snow melting in puddles, piled in shrinking humps along the street. The fence around the park was already draped with gold tinsel and fake evergreen; inside the paths and playing fields formed a patchwork of slush and sucking mud, all drenched in bright sunlight.
She and Neal found a quiet bench; they let Samantha chase Bugsy down when he took off after a squirrel, listening to cheerful shouts as the pursuit took her past a group of other children.
“Tell me about this hearing,” she said at last, when his silence felt stretched too thin.
“I was going to tell you,” he said, apologetic, and she shook her head, it’s all right.
It would have been too much to process and too soon, she thought, on top of everything else. She imagined he’d shoved the thought of commutation aside, the very idea of freedom too fragile to touch and too sharp to hold and too bright to look at, hope unexpected like sun-glare leaping from a handful of broken glass.
“It’s not for another three months.” He glanced down at his ankle, once, then quickly away; his hands clenched and then opened, slowly. “Then I get to try to convince DOJ that I’ve changed.”
She laid her hand over his on the bench; he sat very still, soaking in the park, Bugsy’s high-pitched barking and the chattering squirrels, children’s footprints in ragged lines across the muddy grass and dirty snow. His face was open and unguarded, filled with something that wasn’t quite longing, wasn’t quite resignation; he stared as if looking at some dreamscape, knowing when he moved or breathed it would disappear.
“Do you think I’ve changed?”
“Yes.” Her answer was swift and certain.
He blinked, with half a flickering smile, there and then gone. Seconds later Bugsy came barreling toward them, jumping up onto the bench and snuffling at his hand.
Neal had changed; she could see it, even if no one else could. She was far less certain the changes had all been good ones; she wasn’t sure even the best were worth the price.
Water dripped from dead branches arching overhead, the promise of spring in the sound, but June knew lasting warmth was far off yet.
She calls a cab driver she knows, one she trusts to take Neal where he needs to go without calling it in. She hears Neal moving upstairs as she enters the house, but if he had time to speak to her he’d have called out when he heard the door. She retrieves an envelope from the back of her armoire, moves to the back parlor where a few logs glow orange on the hearth. Draws the blinds and shifts the fire screen aside, feeds newspaper and small twigs into the grate until flames leap up to lick the opening of the flue.
The weather report said it would be cold tonight. They might have sat up late beside the fire, after cake at the Burkes’, sharing a drink and the silence.
She doesn’t hear him coming down the stairs, meets him unexpectedly in the front hall; he has a messenger bag over his shoulder and two packets of papers in his hands.
“Burn these.” He hands her one; the words are soft, hoarse, though no one is here and there isn’t, yet, any need to whisper. “Send these with the others.”
She tucks both packets into her coat. He tugs up his pants leg to show her his left ankle, bare, and grins at her, reckless and sad.
It’s dark; the sun is sinking and the blinds are already pulled at both ends of the hall. More light, still, than she and Byron had the second time he fled.
The bedroom drapes had been pulled and they’d run practiced motions in the dark. Little light needed to find the switch for the hidden panel in the wardrobe, to feel for cash and passports beneath the false floor in the bottom drawer of her vanity table.
Less still had been needed for a kiss, leaning in toward the smell of Byron’s cologne, his breath and the brush of his beard on her face, his hand in her hair and his whispered, “Be brave,” against her lips.
It had been six months before they caught him, that time, and they’d found nothing at the house to put them on his trail.
Some things don’t change; she knows the light of runrunrun in Neal’s eyes, knows the instinct to fly is always just below the surface. June raised two daughters in this house, watched her grandchildren play in its halls, buried three beloved dogs in the narrow grassy courtyard at the back. She travels these days with three suitcases, and waits on a valet to carry them. But she still keeps a small satchel with three passports and a few thousand in cash tucked behind her vanity table. Old instincts die hard, and if she had to leave all of this on a moment’s notice, she could.
She hears a car pull up, catches his face between her hands.
“It’s done. There’s a cab outside. Be safe.”
He makes a soft, wrecked, indescribable sound in his throat as she pulls his face down to kiss his forehead.
“All my love to Mozzie. Go.” And she releases him, turns and walks briskly away down the hall without looking back. Mozzie will look after him now; she trusts him; she has to, though she hates being helpless like nothing else. This is what Neal needs from her now, the push to go, when lingering over goodbye could cost him everything.
Neal brought it back to her, the excitement of this life, the thrill and the joy of a well-wrought plan and an elegant heist. Now he has brought back the grief of it, too, but she’s always known one doesn’t come without the other.
He brought warmth to fill a house empty of all but memories, and she took care of him as long as she could, him and Mozzie both. June has been a lookout and a hand to hold, a shoulder to cry on and a getaway driver; now when nothing else is left she knows how to hold the retreat.
She’d been in Malibu four days when Peter called to tell her Mozzie had been shot.
Gulls wheeled lazily over the deserted beach as she waited for coffee and breakfast on the restaurant balcony; big grey rollers tumbled over each other, white-fringed and boisterous and impatient, running up onto the sand; she saw Peter’s name on her caller ID and instantly she was a thousand miles away.
A call from him, at 6:45 in the morning on her vacation, was a shot of pure adrenaline as good as any espresso.
“He just got out of surgery two hours ago,” Peter told her, in a rough and sleepless voice.
“Is he -?” She swallowed, but her free hand was already signaling the waiter, digging in her purse for her credit card and tucking away the mystery novel she’d been about to open. She’d been thinking of suggesting it for their next book club. “Will he -?”
“Too soon to tell,” Peter said. “His heart stopped when they brought him in. He lost a lot of blood.”
“Do you know who shot him?”
“We have a pretty good idea.”
She snapped her purse shut, caught at her hat before the brisk salt wind could tear it away. “Is Neal all right? How’s he doing?”
Peter was silent long enough to scare her. “June, there’s -” He stopped, and when he spoke again he sounded bone-weary and shaken. “There’s something else you should know.”
Family emergency, she told the desk clerk canceling the rest of her stay, because it was and they were, both of them. She caught a standby flight to Houston, sat for six hours waiting for a flight to New York while all her calls to Neal’s cell went straight to voicemail. She got to the hospital after ten, long after visiting hours were over, but she’d slipped through tighter security.
The ward was quiet, except for the hiss of the ventilator and the slow beep of the heart monitor, cold reassurance that it was; she made no sound in the doorway, but some instinct told Neal she was watching.
“June.” He stood to offer her his chair; she crossed the room to stand beside the bed, leaning in to brush a light kiss against Mozzie’s cheek.
Mozzie looked dead, was her first thought, and she pushed it back, fought the sting of sudden tears. His hands were limp and his face without expression; only the faint rise and fall of his chest showed otherwise, and that powered by a machine.
“I leave you boys alone for one week.” Her voice caught.
Neal stared at her, something stunned and startled in his eyes, like he couldn’t believe she was here. His face was pale under two days’ stubble, his eyes wide and dark and lined with purple shadows. “You’re back early.”
He blinked and looked quickly away, focused on Mozzie’s hands. In a voice like ground glass: “He told you about Moz?”
She waited for him to look up again, waited to hold his eyes before she answered. “He told me everything.”
He stilled as if awaiting a blow, too weary or too weak to try to dodge or even brace himself, something so blank and lost and hopeless in his eyes she felt her breath catch and her throat close up.
She had no words for this.
She held out her arms; he stared in bleak incomprehension for what felt like nearly a minute before his eyes closed and he swayed into her. She pulled him in, supporting half his weight and bracing him as his knees wavered; he was shaking, his arms hanging at his sides and his head fallen on her shoulder, gulping air in harsh, choked breaths against her neck.
It seemed a long time before he could return the embrace, his arms coming at last to clasp her shoulders as she rocked him; then he hung onto her like a lifeline, like a rock in a storm, like she was the last solid thing left in the world.
And still the tears wouldn’t come; sometime much later, when he could stop shaking long enough to let go of her, his eyes were dry and bloodshot like he couldn’t even bring himself to cry.
She dragged a second chair beside the bed, caught his right hand in her left as he sank into it; her other hand wrapped around Mozzie’s as she sat. She wanted to say it’s all right, wanted to say he’s going to be fine, but she’d never lied to Neal before and she wasn’t about to start now.
Instead she pulled their hands into her lap, Neal’s still trembling and Mozzie’s frighteningly limp and cold.
Peter was still in a suit when he arrived, looking like he’d come from the office, despite the fact that it was almost midnight. Neal was asleep by then, finally, his head tipped sideways against her shoulder and his mouth slightly open. June had no hands free to put a finger to her lips, but Peter’s eyes went straight to Neal and his voice, when he spoke, was barely a whisper.
His eyes met hers in a look of such profound gratitude she could only blink in confusion. And then it hit her.
Peter had expected her to throw Neal out of the house.
She buried the quick flash of anger; he was clearly relieved she hadn’t. His eyes, watching Neal, held nothing but concern and compassion. And so she didn’t say where else would I be?
She didn’t say Byron would have done the same for me.
She took no joy in the thought, any more than she imagined Kate would have; she did not find it at all romantic. Byron was not a violent man; such an act would have destroyed him, as surely as it almost destroyed Neal. It was simply a thing she knew, something Peter wouldn’t understand.
She knew Peter had tried to find Kate. She knew he’d tried to keep the investigation into her death alive, long after Homeland Security and the FAA had buried the whole thing under phrases like “mechanical failure” and piles of red tape, most likely encouraged by a large amount of untraceable cash. And as Neal was sleeping on her shoulder now and not in prison, she suspected Peter’s report on this recent incident had been selective at best, if not an outright fabrication.
But she also knew the unspoken assumptions made in the months leading up to Kate’s death. The girl was a con and a thief; once a con, always a con; she’s playing some angle, pretending to be a hostage; she doesn’t love him, it’s his money she’s after. No one but Neal had believed Kate was in danger until she was dead.
June was a thief and the wife of a thief, and she was not born in a fine house with a Jag; she knew too well the limits of justice for a young woman with nothing, with no family and a criminal past and no one but a felon to speak for her. And she was grateful beyond words that Peter had found a way to reach Neal, to talk him down; this was not a thing Neal would have come back from.
But she understood what drove him to it, better than Peter ever would.
“You gonna stay here all night?” he asked.
“You have my cell,” he said. “Call me if anything -”
“I will.” And she was touched, still, by his trust in her. “Go home to your wife, Peter,” she said, gently. Go home, and hold her, and tell her you love her. Tell her while you can.
She would stay and hold onto Neal and Mozzie; she clasped their hands tighter, settling in for the long vigil, and vowed to the silent ward she would fight any darkness that tried to claim either one of them.
Once Neal is gone she sits in the back parlor by the fire, as the adrenaline of the flight fades and she feels old and tired and alone.
She has time now to worry, to wonder what went wrong and if they’ll make it, as she feeds the papers slowly into the fire without looking at them. Tall shadows dance along the paneling of the walls, chased by the leaping flames, until the lines of the grain in the wood seem to ripple and twist.
You hold onto them as long as you can, until you have to let them go. She told her oldest daughter that, when Cindy left for college.
She wanted her daughters raised in a stable home; she made sure they never knew the uncertainty and pain of her world and Byron’s and Neal’s and Mozzie’s. But tonight she misses having someone close who understands.
The last of the papers turn black, edges curling tight; she stirs the charred remnants with the poker until they’ve crumbled and waits for a knock at the door.
She doesn’t wait long.
“Have you seen Neal Caffrey?”
She recognizes Philip Kramer.
“He was here earlier, but he went out. He had that hearing to go to.”
Peter follows Kramer into her front hall, four other agents trailing him; she recognizes Barrigan and Jones.
“He cut his anklet, June.” Peter sounds exhausted and heartsick, but his eyes hold hers like he’s trying to read her. “He ran.”
He knows she knows more than she’s saying. Which makes two of them; she can tell he knows more than he’s saying, too.
“I don’t understand.” She doesn’t need to; partings like this are rarely granted the luxury of explanations. He had to go. That was all that needed to be said. “He was about to be free.”
“Not likely.” And Kramer is holding out a search warrant. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Ellington. We’re going to have to search the entire house.”
They all flinch at a burst of high-pitched barking; June catches Bugsy’s collar as he scrambles down the stairs in a skittering tumble of claws on polished wood. It’s almost night, and there are strangers invading his territory. Dogs do not make very good con artists; Bugsy will not pretend to welcome this man.
Peter says, softly, “I’m sorry, June.” She wonders what for.
He’s a good man, and he loves Neal. But he is sworn to uphold the system hunting Neal, and he is not a man who holds his promises lightly. She knows his loyalty has its limits.
She feels for him, but she doesn’t know how far she can trust him.
They are professionals, all of them; she doesn’t think they break anything outside of Neal’s loft, where they gouge at the floor searching for hidden compartments. But they are very thorough. They take care with her fine china, setting it carefully on the table before knocking at the back of the hutch, listening for a hollow place.
She is not concerned about the china, or the hutch. These are things and nothing more. She has learned to hold far greater than things lightly.
Kramer says, “Don’t worry, we’ll catch him,” as if she blames Neal for this violation of her home.
Halfway through, as Kramer’s agents are spreading the contents of her top dresser drawer on the wide four-poster bed, she catches a look on Peter’s face that’s pure worry and nothing else. He doesn’t like Neal being out of reach, where he can’t protect him, any more than she does.
She recognizes that gnawing fear. What might happen to him, to both of them, out in the world on their own?
She understands; she’d hardly dared spend a single night out of town for more than six months, after Mozzie was shot.
Every light in the house is on, by the time it’s fully dark outside. As they’re leaving, she hears Kramer say, “A leopard doesn’t change his spots, Pete.” His tone is one of mingled pity and contempt.
Once they’re gone she follows Bugsy as he runs throughout the house; he goes into every corner, sniffing every place the strangers touched, every corner of his territory invaded and upended and overturned; he, too, is very thorough. By the time he’s calmed, she is mostly calm, too. Enough to call him after her into the back parlor, where she holds him on her lap in front of the fire, scratching his ears absently. Trying, for the first time since Byron passed, to remember the prayers her mother taught her.
Let them be free. Let them be safe. Let them be happy.
They had recognized each other from the first, she and Neal.
She’d seen the way he approached her like a mark, seen the wide-open, genuine grin as he realized she was one of his own kind. She set few rules, when he moved in, and those were more like guidelines; she never asked where he was going, or what he was doing, and she would never have considered a curfew. She knew he wasn’t dangerous.
She’d spent most of her life around criminals; if she couldn’t tell at a glance who was a threat and who wasn’t, she would not have lived this long. She only made sure he understood that she’d know if he lied to her.
He never did.
She’d been reminded of the months after Byron got out that first time; she’d wanted to cling to him, then, to know where he was at all times, while what he’d needed most was space and autonomy and respect. In between all the required meetings with the parole office, the fingers of a vast bureaucracy prying into the details of his life, he’d needed at least one person to treat him as a man and not a wayward child. It had been a slow dance and a hard lesson, learning to be there when she could and withdraw when she couldn’t.
She’d recognized that same need in Neal from the day he arrived; Neal loved people, she could tell, but prison had left a burned-out place inside him and a need, sometimes, for solitude and quiet.
She’d left him his space and eventually he reached out to her, like a scarred stray cat coming in from the cold.
Mozzie had moved in gradually, not long after. She knew he had bolt holes all around the city, but by the time the leaves turned that first year he was on Neal’s couch three nights out of every week. He was not someone any parole board would consider a good influence, she knew.
She also knew Neal would have been lost without him.
When winter set in hard that first year, when Kate was dead and Neal was gone and the house empty under the snow settling on the window ledges, lying thick and soft and untouched across his balcony, looking out on black ice in the street below, Mozzie came over for drinks nearly every afternoon. They’d started their book club then, discussing mystery novels over mimosas in between going over the latest developments in the forest of red tape between Neal and freedom.
All the while knowing that even if the papers cleared, none of it would matter if Neal still refused to sign them.
Don’t make me keep coming here, she told him, every week. She never suggested she’d stop. They’d both know it was an empty threat. It was hard to guess how he was really doing, in an hour’s visit. She’d never met Kate, but she knew how the thought of finding her had driven Neal; she could only imagine the ragged wound her loss had torn in him. I’ve spent too much of my life tied to this place. I can’t bear to see it swallow you, too.
She’d made it clear to Mozzie, when he finally brought Neal home, that he was welcome to stay over any time he wanted.
“It’s cold in the storage unit this time of year,” Mozzie said, after he’d been there, more or less constantly, for the first week. He’d been a rock, as she’d known he would be; Neal leaned on him in a way he wouldn’t let himself lean on anyone else. “All the rats come in where it’s warm.”
“You should get a cat,” Neal said, with a rare flash of a smile. Mozzie would be a cat person, she thought; quiet, affectionate and acknowledging no rules but his own.
“I’m allergic,” he said, and they all knew he wasn’t. But Neal hadn’t been sleeping well, and he might argue but they all knew he didn’t want Mozzie to go, either.
The cold was only an excuse for Mozzie to be there on the bad nights (and there were seldom any good ones, those first few months). Those nights when the nightmares were bad enough that Neal needed someone to turn on the lights and pour the wine and set up the chessboard, to be there to offer companionship and a diversion. They never woke her; Neal never made a sound; too much time in prison would have taught him to wake silently from dreams like that. But June knew the signs.
She woke early the next morning to see a bar of yellow light under his door, leaking a slanted patch of gold onto the hall floor. At 5 AM it was late to go back to sleep, but Helen wouldn’t be up for another hour; June wrapped her robe against the chill and headed toward the kitchen.
“June?” Mozzie answered when she knocked softly; his voice was barely above a whisper.
Neal slumped over the table, his head down and resting on a closed book, breathing soft and even. Mozzie, sitting across from him, studied the array of pieces on the chessboard, his hand moving first toward one piece, then the next.
Through the French doors, she could see the winking constellations of the city spread below, many-colored lights that shone steadily through the silence, though the stars were wrapped and hidden behind thick grey clouds.
A thin band of orange glowed toward the east, weak and cold as the amber streetlights below.
June set the coffee tray at the edge of the table with a quiet smile. “Stealing a few moves while he’s asleep?”
Mozzie gave her a hurt look that had obviously been practiced. “Would I do a thing like that?” And then, reaching toward the tray for a blueberry muffin, “It’s a challenge. To see if he can figure out which pieces I moved. Makes the game more interesting, that way.”
She took care to sit quietly, without scraping the chair against the floor; still, even sleeping, Neal could feel when he was being watched.
He sat up abruptly, blinking several times to focus, his hair rumpled and sticking straight up on one side; the imprint of the book showed red on his right cheek. “June.” His voice was rough. “Moz.” And then, frowning suddenly at the chessboard, “I didn’t move the rook.”
Mozzie’s eyes slid over to June, a shared conspiratorial glance as he poured coffee for the three of them; Neal’s eyes sharpened, alert and suspicious as he stared at the board.
She hadn’t moved any of his things, while he’d been gone; an old woman’s superstition, perhaps, or only a refusal to give up hope.
She stirred a spoonful of sugar into her coffee, watching him. He’d come back to her, this time. Even then she knew better than to believe he always would.
Peter comes by the house, sometimes; she doesn’t ask why.
Most likely he comes to sit up here for the same reason she keeps all of Neal’s things, draped under dust sheets but ready at a moment’s notice for him to return, for the same reason Bugsy still runs up the stairs and sniffs, forlornly, under the door.
Kramer has gone back to DC, now that he’s turned her house and her life inside out.
It was perhaps inevitable that she’d end up giving shelter to the lonely young con who washed up on her doorstep like an orphaned puppy in a storm, lost and hurt but not quite broken yet. She’s not sure how she also ended up quasi-adopting a federal agent into the bargain.
Still she finds herself telling Helen to bring him coffee, and then following her upstairs.
“I was just - checking something,” Peter says, as Helen sets the tray on another chair before leaving quietly.
June rests her arms on the back of the chair and shakes her head. “It’s all right.”
The room feels bare and empty. She notices small details, the patterns in the rich grain of the wood floors, the dust motes floating, catching fire in the sunbeams slanting from the skylight, now that all Neal’s things are hidden.
“I’m going to find him,” he says; he can read the worry she tries to hide.
The thought of Neal found is less than reassuring. She misses him fiercely; she didn’t lie, when she told the parole board he’d become a son to her. But he’s most likely safer where he is.
“If I can bring him home -” he starts, and she thinks, don’t.
Neal loved New York; he loved his life here. He wouldn’t have abandoned all this unless it was the only way he could stay safe and free. Peter needs to see that.
And yet even she keeps his things under dust sheets, ready for him to return.
So she only says, “He’s always welcome here. You know that.”
“Neal was changing,” he says, and she’s not sure if he’s speaking to her or only to himself. “He was building a life here. He was building something good. He’s not the same person he was two years ago.”
In the past two years, June thinks, Neal lived through one dear friend shot and almost killed, another kidnapped; he watched the woman he loved die right in front of him. He still blames himself for all three. She wants to say how could he be the same?
But Peter was there, through all of that, and Neal is not the only one these past two years have changed.
Now he shakes his head. “Kramer didn’t – Kramer couldn’t see that.”
Kramer is a highly intelligent man; she knows that from the brief times she spoke to him. But it’s an easy mark who sees only what he wants to see, and he knew what he’d see in Neal before he even met him.
Peter sees Neal for who he is, the good and the bad and the incomprehensible; this is why Peter caught him, and why Kramer won’t. This is why Peter will always be dangerous to him.
“Let me know if there’s anything you need,” she says, turning to leave.
“Do you think people can change?”
The question surprises her. She stops in the doorway, caught by compassion, unexpected.
She remembers the first day Peter came here, the look on his face when Neal came down the stairs in Byron’s suit and Byron’s hat and Byron’s dazzling grin, catching her heart in an exhilarating, painful mix of joy and nostalgia and regret.
Peter saw none of that. The work I do, he’d told Neal then, equals certain things in the real world.
But it was Peter, not Neal, who’d been living in a fantasy. One where hard work is rewarded, evil caught and punished, and we all, eventually, get what we deserve.
June has never lived in that world. If Neal ever did, he was ripped from it years before she met him.
“I don’t think they can stay the same,” she says. Remembering an FBI agent who came to her door and knocked politely, a man who believed law was the same as justice and no problem was beyond solving if you only did what’s right. “Sometimes I wish they could.”
She remembers a boy who came to her with nothing but $700 and two miles and an empty bottle, who still believed true love could conquer all.
And June could spout platitudes about maturity and taking responsibility and awareness of consequences all day long for the parole board, but she misses that boy.
“I didn’t take him in as a rehabilitation project,” she says at last. “I took Neal into my home, and my heart, for who he was. Not for who I thought he could become.” She straightens beside the door and holds his eyes. “And so did you.”
She closes the door quietly and leaves him to the silence.