The knock on the backdoor is hardly audible.
At Peter’s feet, Satchmo lifts his head, pricks his ears and sniffs the air. He thumps his tail against the floorboards in a moderately excited rhythm before yawning widely and returning his muzzle to its resting position across Peter’s right loafer.
Peter makes no move to get up from the couch. He chokes his beer bottle in both fists. The bottle is empty, tepid and sticky, like the air in his un-airconditioned house, like the stagnant darkness of the godforsaken night that surrounds him. With the lights turned off, the night has seeped into his living room, blackness barely warded off by the single scented oil nightlight that is plugged into an outlet at the top of the staircase. It is what he needs right now. He wants the darkness to dull his vision and focus his mind. He needs his head to stop spinning out of control.
Across the room the knock is repeated in the same nondescript staccato but delivered with more determination. Peter doesn’t bother getting up. He knows who is outside. He also knows that whenever that someone knocks on his door, he does so to announce his entry, not to request it. Neal Caffrey has never asked permission. Not to come into his home, or into his life, for that matter. Why should tonight be different from any other day in the – how long has it been?
The door slowly swings inward. The timer switch to the backyard lights has clicked off at midnight, and Peter can scarcely make out the contours of the person slipping inside his house. He doesn’t need to. He would recognize that man anywhere, by the fluidity of his movements, by the way he becomes an immediate, palpable presence in any space he steps into. He watches in silence as Neal closes the door behind him then takes a few steps into the room before coming to an irresolute halt. Neal’s head turns from side to side, scanning the darkened room, his gaze brushing over Peter’s furniture and over his body. Peter remains completely still. He tells himself that he is testing Neal’s observation skills while, in truth, he is holding on to a foolish hope that Neal will simply go away. Like any hope he has ever held for his consultant, this one is tentative.
“Peter,” Neal breaks the silence. There is enough ambivalence in his inflection that Peter harbors a shred of doubt that Neal is truly aware of his presence. He briefly debates staying mum and invisible when his dog settles those negotiations for him. With a languorous stretch the Labrador gets to his feet. He ambles over to their visitor and bumps his big head against Neal’s leg with enough weight to produce a dull thud.
“Hey, Satch.” Neal’s voice is soft and genial, and Peter is convinced he can hear Neal smile. He allows himself a deep breath.
“It’s two in the morning,” Peter says blankly. There is an edge to his tone that Neal won’t fail to notice. Satchmo must be picking up on the tension in the room. His nails click on the wood floors as he trots over to the bottom of the staircase to lie down.
“I was sure you’d be awake,” Neal replies. His head pivots on his shoulders again, his eyes trying to find something to lock onto in the darkness. “Do you mind if I turn on the light?”
Peter thinks Neal gestures towards the kitchen. He nods and suspects that his approval goes unnoticed. But when has his approval ever made a difference with Neal?
The small table lamp on the kitchen desk springs to life, filling the back of the house with a muted glow that doesn’t penetrate the darkness shrouding Peter on the couch. Neal turns to face the living room, takes two measured steps forward then stays in the cone of light. The shift of balance in the room is not random. Neal Caffrey doesn’t leave things like this up to chance. It is very unlike Neal to leave himself exposed while giving the opposition the advantage of anonymity. He remains silent for now, perhaps to choose his words with care, perhaps to offer Peter the opportunity to draw his own conclusions.
Peter feels a certain gratitude for this. It’s the first sentiment he has been willing to acknowledge for several hours. Suppressing any emotions stirring in him has been the only way to deal with the events of this night. Denial of his red-hot anger was the only thing that stopped him from putting his fist through the wall or, possibly, straight into his consultant’s face. The only way not to blame Neal was to insist that placing any blame was counterproductive.
Peter takes in the man across the room. Neal has foregone his trademark fedora and the perfectly coordinated suit and tie, has opted for a pair of plain black slacks and a black button down shirt, open at the neck and with the sleeves rolled up. A dark canvas satchel dangles from his left hand, the slack shoulder strap touching the floor. It doesn’t take a stroke of genius to put two and two together. Neal has always traveled light on the run.
“I spoke to Keller,” Neal states before Peter has a chance to say anything.
“What?” Peter jumps to his feet. “Did you talk to Elizabeth?”
Across the room Neal extends a palm, prompting him to stay put. Perhaps asking him to stay in the shadows.
“No. But he assured me Elizabeth is fine. Frightened but unharmed,” Neal continues to speak, keeping his tone dry and matter-of-fact. Peter equally admires and despises the other man for his ability to stay in control of his emotions.
Peter’s mind revs back into overdrive. There are a dozen questions at the tip of his tongue. He needs to know how Neal contacted Keller, wants to know why Neal didn’t insist on evidence that Elizabeth was well. He purses his lips and swallows the urge to question Neal further. It spares him the torment of uttering the name of his wife and the term proof-of-life in the same sentence.
“You trust him?” Peter asks instead. Only years of practice keep a tremor out of his words.
“On this. Yes,” Neal affirms. He squares his shoulders, injecting his stance with the confidence Peter needs to see from him right now. “It won’t matter much longer. You’ll have her back before dawn. I will make this right, Peter. I promise.”
Peter steps forward now, and Neal doesn’t beckon him to stay back.
“You cut a deal.” He says and doesn’t even try to make it sound like a question. For an instant he is ashamed of the undercurrent of hopeful optimism in his voice when he meets his consultant’s eyes that are dark with grim determination. Determination that falters in the face of Peter’s scrutiny, and Neal’s gaze swiftly drifts off to find refuge in the kitchen area.
“I’d like some water.” He points a thumb at the sink and doesn’t wait for Peter’s nod to round the kitchen island. Peter watches him shoulder his satchel in the process, as if Neal needed a physical reminder that he has somewhere to go, as if that bag, packed with a handful of belongings, also held his courage and resolution. Neal grabs a clean glass left to dry by the sink and fills it from the tap. He remains with his back to Peter as he takes a long drink. His eyes find a corner of the glass-front cabinet door above the sink, where the fingerprinting dust has left large, dark smudges. He rubs his fingertips over the stain then abandons his effort to pull a sheet from the roll of paper towels. He wets a corner of the tissue and scrubs at the smudge with renewed vigor.
“Neal,” Peter calls. “Leave it.”
He waits patiently for Neal to discard the tissue and turn to face him. Peter walks over to the dining table, pulls back a chair at the head of the table.
“Sit down for a while. We need to talk.” He keeps holding on to the back of the chair.
“Peter, I should—“ he inclines his head toward the exit.
“Elizabeth is safe for now?”
“Yes,” Neal confirms, and Peter for once is sure that Neal wouldn’t lie to him.
“Then sit,” Peter insists. “Five minutes. Sit down.”
Neal hesitates for a moment, glances at the backdoor then joins Peter at the dining room table. He slides into the chair Peter holds out for him, lets his bag drop to the floor. Peter settles into the chair closest to Neal’s, at the long edge of the dining table. He studies Neal, who sits with his shoulders slightly hunched and his bare forearms rested on the tabletop, fingers clasped. Neal looks at his hands and at the flower arrangement at the center of the table, and anywhere but at him. His face holds on to self-possessed neutrality that threatens to crack in the tight lines around his mouth. Neal waits for him to say something.
Peter stays still in his chair. He lets the silence grow oppressive around them. Neal Caffrey doesn’t handle silence well. He has learned as much. Neal prefers to be asked, even interrogated. Questions give him something to work with, give him words to contort and rearrange into the half-truths he submits for answers. Silence leaves him without tools, with an empty canvas but without brushes or paint. Silence doesn’t let him breathe. The flash of panic Peter catches in a fleeting side-ways glance from Neal says as much. Peter tightens his lips and lets Neal suffocate a little longer.
Finally, there is a defeated exhalation.
“Peter, I don’t often say that I’m sorry,” Neal says, quietly and finds the nerve to look Peter in the eye.
“That’s not true,” Peter replies expressionlessly. “You never say you’re sorry.”
Neal considers this. And nods.
“I am sorry,” he continues. “I never wanted for Elizabeth to be drawn into this.”
There is true anguish in Neal’s imploring eyes now, and Peter suddenly finds it difficult to hold on to his stone-faced composure.
“Neal, I believe you. But I can’t accept your apology. Not now. Maybe never. If anything happens to her, I won’t be able to forgive you. I need you to know that.”
“I know,” Neal replies and lowers his eyes. A different man may have taken the opportunity to smoothly transition into a self-flagellating litany, insisting that, above all, he will never be able to forgive himself. But Neal remains quiet. Silence is his self-imposed punishment. And Peter lets it settle around them again.
He keeps his eyes on Neal in his raw, unfinished state that he rarely got to see through the years. There’s a sheen of perspiration on his forehead and under the open collar of his shirt. Perhaps the humid summer night is sticking to him, perhaps even Neal is unable to hide the most basic physical reactions to plain and simple dread. Dread of what will happen should he fail to deliver on his promise and dread of what it will mean should his plan succeed. Whatever that plan is.
“The deal you made. Talk.” Peter finally requests, and he finds that his voice has softened.
“Peter,” Neal looks over and practically begs. “Until Elizabeth is safe I intend to stick to every detail of the demands Keller made. And that includes not telling you. Please, don’t ask me to endanger her any further.”
Peter nods his understanding.
“Then tell me what you can.”
Neal exhales audibly through his nose. Peter waits for Neal to sort through the facts in his head, filter the information into something vague enough to share.
“Let’s say that I entered an unholy but mutually beneficial alliance with Keller. I told him that with Mozzie in the FBI spotlight almost as much as I am, it was impossible for me to move the treasure. So, I enlist his help, he gets sixty percent of the profits.”
Peter’s skepticism that Neal would permit anyone to shortchange him in a deal must be written all over his face.
“The extra ten percent are for sparing me the burden of having to live with the death of your wife on my conscience,” Neal adds with a level, unemotional voice that makes Peter’s stomach turn.
“We’re talking about the treasure you claim not to have?” Peter states, neither failing to detect the hint of sarcasm in his own tone nor the suspiciously shifty glance Neal directs at him.
“What’s important is that Keller believes I have it,” Neal evades a straight answer. “I insisted that Elizabeth be let go the moment I meet up with him. After she is safe, it won’t matter if Keller calls my bluff.”
“When he calls your bluff,” Peter corrects. “Because you don’t have the treasure.” He is afraid to blink, lest he should miss the smallest reaction in his consultant’s face. There is none.
Peter leans back in his chair, rakes his fingers through his hair. He knows what Neal’s gamble implies. Keller won’t take deception of this magnitude lightly. And what if Neal has the treasure after all? Or if not the treasure then perhaps something of similar value? His association with a convicted murderer would prevent Neal from ever being offered leniency by a judge and jury again. Peter can’t think about the consequences for Neal yet. He needs to focus on the primary objective, getting his wife back. There can’t be any slipups. If Neal with his knowledge of the treasure walks into a trap then they will have lost the last bargaining chip they’ve had with Keller.
“What makes you so sure that Keller believes you? You suddenly partner up with him? Turn against me? Betray Mozzie?” Peter props his elbows onto the table, leaning into the conversation that threatens to turn into an interrogation after all. “It doesn’t make sense, Caffrey. Why would he buy that? I wouldn’t.”
It perplexes him that Neal suddenly smiles.
“Peter,” he says with a belittling, teacherly intonation that instantly irks Peter. “Men like Keller and I double-cross people for a living. The closer the people we con are to us, the bigger the thrill. We will never doubt anyone’s capacity of betrayal. It’s the very essence of our success.”
Peter studies the man by his side, wonders if Neal is aware of the tremendous sorrow that has bled into his eyes in spite of the harsh words that cross his curled lips. Whatever is reflected in his own expression, it prompts Neal to look away. Neal lets his head sink back between his drawn up shoulders and his smile fades. He seems to retreat into his thoughts for a moment that stretches long enough to make Peter question if anything else is forthcoming.
“Maybe that’s why you and I were doomed to fail from the start, Peter,” Neal finally continues, quietly and without emphasis, as if inadvertently voicing a random thought out loud. “I always expected the worst of you. I expected you to be like me. I needed you to be like me. It made things easier.”
“Made what easier, Neal?”
“Playing you.” Neal replies blankly as if that admission carried no weight.
Peter doesn’t know if he is supposed to be shocked. He can’t say that he is. He considers the possibility that Neal wants to deal this verbal blow to push him away, to create the distance he needs to walk out of here. Peter won’t grant him the detachment. Not yet.
“So that’s all it was for you? A game?” He challenges. Peter sits back in his chair again, stretches his arm across the backrest of the empty chair next to him.
“Yes,” Neal admits and looks as if doing so physically hurts. He shifts in his seat, wrings his hands for a few moments of uncomfortable silence. Then he qualifies his statement. “At first.”
He glances over at Peter. Peter is fairly certain that nothing in his face indicates that he is willing to weigh in at this point. Neal vents his frustration with a sigh.
“I thought once I convince you to get me out of prison it would only be a matter of days to trick the anklet, run away, find Kate.”
“Live happily ever after?” Peter offers.
“Something like that.”
“But it wasn’t that easy.”
“That’s the understatement of the century.” Neal’s hollow chuckle lacks any joy. “That damn tracker was a tougher nut than I thought. And you—“ he trails off, blinks up at the ceiling as he shakes his head and wets his lips.
“You were so damn good to me, Peter,” Neal spits out like an insult.
“And that’s a bad thing?” Peter frowns at the absurdity of it all.
“Yes!” Neal raises his voice above the muted conversation for the first time. “Because I couldn’t allow myself to like you. Not getting attached is the secret to any con. You can’t con anyone without disregarding their feelings.”
“Or your own,” Peter points out.
“Well, that’s not a problem as long as you don’t have any.” Neal shrugs.
“And you think that’s you?” Peter raises his eyebrows.
“Yes,” Neal says sternly.
“And expected me to be like that?” Peter asks with a quizzical tilt of his head.
“How could you not be?” Neal says and makes it sound like the most logical conclusion.
Peter assumes he must be staring back at him in blank cluelessness because Neal feels compelled to elaborate.
“Look, Peter, we were so evenly matched for such a long time. I didn’t really know who you were. All I knew was that there was a guy who got as big a kick out of the chase as I got out of outrunning him. How could we not be the same person on different sides of the equation?” Neal stops for a moment, his eyes wide and animated with memories of a thrilling past. He reins himself in, composes himself before he continues. “Outsmarting you was never easy, Peter, but it was the best feeling in the world.”
“And it’s not anymore?”
Neal shakes his head no.
“Back when I thought you had Kate, when I thought you had double-crossed me, it didn’t simply feel like a blow to my ego. It felt like betrayal.” Neal looks him straight in the eye and Peter finds all emotional guards gone from the other man’s face. “After what happened with Adler, after prison, I swore never to let anything touch me again. And there you were, chitchatting with me over coffee, joking with me, keeping Kate from me, looking every bit the Machiavellian bastard I thought you could be. And it hurt. Because I suddenly realized that I needed you to be better than that. Better than me. And I needed you to like me in spite of that.”
Peter settles a hand on Neal’s shoulder and feels the other man shudder under his touch.
“Neal, I liked … I like you. It took me a while to own up to it, but I do,” Peter says. He stops for a second, trying to remember if he ever admitted to this fact out loud, even to Elizabeth. “I haven’t kept you out of prison and out of trouble because you’re a feather in my cap or because you’re convenient. Trust me, you’re anything but. Let’s face it, Caffrey, you’ve been a Texas-sized pain in my rear, Longhorns and all.”
Peter waits for Neal to shoot him an indignant glare that doesn’t materialize. This isn’t one of those skin-deep, bantering exchanges he has had with his consultant from behind the wheel of his car. This is the type of conversation Peter isn’t good at, the type that makes his mouth dry and his hands sweaty. But this is exactly the type of talk he volunteered to have, just recently, when the loneliness of the van and his concern for Neal got the better of him. He lets out a breath from puffed-up cheeks.
“Listen, Neal, I wanted to offer you a future. Not some pipedream of long-lost treasures and infinite riches, but a realistic one. And maybe in that future hard work will not always be justly rewarded, but it lets you sleep damn well at night, Neal. And it makes you feel like a better man the next morning. Not in anyone else’s eyes, but in your own. And don’t tell me that over the past two years, there hasn’t been the occasional morning when you woke up feeling exactly that!”
“Sometimes,” Neal acknowledges with a half-shrug. “But what if that’s not enough, Peter? What if I’ll never be content? What if I am not that man?”
“Give it time.” Peter urges softly. In the back of his mind the cruel truth makes itself known. Neal may be out of time to choose what man he wants to be. Neal may have forfeited his right to choose. Perhaps years ago, perhaps only recently when he set the events of this past day in motion. Peter pushes those thoughts aside. He can’t acknowledge that truth yet. He gives Neal the advice he would have put forward if Neal had come to him a week ago, even a day ago. “Neal, you’ve been on the wrong path for a long time. I know a lot of this has been new territory for you. It’s okay to get lost along the way once in a while.”
“I broke into your house.”
Neal bluntly tosses that fact onto the table, like a shock grenade that is needed to diffuse a conversation that has turned too friendly—too much in his favor—for Neal to cope with it any longer.
Peter retracts his hand from his consultant’s shoulder.
“When?” His voice hardens.
“That night after we helped out Jones’ Navy buddy. You were on your stakeout.” Neal recites the facts.
“I called you.”
“Yes, I was here.”
“I thought you were keeping something from me.”
Peter snorts dismissively.
There is no doubt that Neal knows about the U-boat manifest. He would never underestimate his criminal consultant in this regard. But could he have gotten a hand on it? Peter’s mind spools through every memory he has of buying and installing his new safe, debating if there was any way Neal could be aware of its existence. It’s unlikely. It’s entirely possible. It’s completely irrelevant now.
“Did you find your answer?” He asks bitterly.
Neal only shrugs in his typical, equivocal manner. He regards Peter closely and a trace of defiance returns to his expression, like it always does when Peter catches him in an omission of truth. It’s a look that communicates how entitled Neal feels to his lies and secrets, that makes anyone trying to break through them feel like an intruder.
Peter rubs his face with both hands. He feels tired and beaten, his nerves worn thin by the events of the day, by the unrelenting fear for Elizabeth’s safety. His head is throbbing from slamming once again into the concrete slab that Neal pulls out of thin air whenever Peter thinks he has finally gotten through to the misguided con man.
“You know what the most frustrating thing about this is, Neal?” Peter leans in again his fists clenched on the table. He wants to sound angry, but he just sounds exhausted. “That despite of what you just told me, despite of how … how violated in my trust that makes me feel, all I can think of is that I meant every word I said to you that night.”
Neal gapes at him from wide eyes and looks to have stopped breathing.
“You may not deserve the chances I gave you, Caffrey, and you may not deserve my friendship. But I still believe that you deserve some happiness. You deserve to look in the mirror one day and find that that damn smile of yours has finally spread to where it really matters.”
He reaches across the table and taps two fingers against the center of Neal’s chest. For the short moment their contact lasts, it seems capable of shattering the other man. Neal turns his face away, blinks rapidly. Peter sits back, waits for Neal to collect himself. He grants him the courtesy not to stare.
“What time is it?” Neal sounds like he is speaking around a lump in his throat.
“Almost three.” Peter replies with a glance at his watch.
“I need to get going.” Neal pushes himself to his feet and Peter is marginally aware of the sluggish weariness in his consultant’s movements. He watches Neal pick up his satchel, duck through the shoulder strap and straighten it where it stretches diagonally across his chest. Neal looks ready to go to battle, and that may be close enough to the truth.
“I need you to unlock the tracker, Peter.” He requests quietly.
Peter nods and fetches his keys from his coat before rejoining Neal by the dining room table. Neal props his left foot up on a chair, pulls up his pant leg. The act lacks any of the triumphant glee Neal typically displays in anticipation of having his leash cut. Peter stoops down and suddenly finds it difficult to insert the key. He shakes out his uncooperative fingers and tries again.
“He’s going to kill you.“
Peter hears those words leave his lips. They sound wrong and cruel, interjected by someone who wasn’t in this room a few minutes ago or who is callous enough to point out the irony of discussing a future that no longer exists. The sentence still hangs in the air, when the tracker emits its unremarkable beep as it releases Neal’s ankle.
“Not if I play my cards right, Peter,” Neal finally says. He shakes his pant leg into shape.
“You’re fooling yourself, Neal,” Peter says and straightens out to make eye contact with his consultant. “If you are bluffing about the treasure, you’re as good as dead. And even if—let’s pretend for a second—you stole the art after all. What makes you think that he won’t dispose of you the second he has his hands on it?”
“Honor among thieves?” Neal offers with a half-hearted smile.
“Caffrey, I’ve learned enough about your business to know that it’s no longer a gentleman’s game. Not for the likes of Keller. Old con men like Hale are a dying breed, Neal. You are a dying breed.”
“Maybe so,” Neal concedes and that crooked smile won’t go away. “But not tonight, Peter. Tonight I’m getting you your wife back. And you should clean up that mess in the kitchen. Take a shower, put on some fresh sheets and when she gets here you will simply be a good, loving husband for a few hours. Rumor has it, those are a dying breed too.”
“He’s going to kill you, Neal.”
Spoken a second time, those words are no longer cruel to Peter’s ears. They speak of sadness and resignation and of debts about to be repaid.
Neal inhales deeply and lets his eyes sweep around the half-lit room before they come to rest on Peter’s face again. The steely resolve he came with is back in place.
“I have to go, Peter,” he says with a calm that infuriates and frightens Peter. “You have to let me go.”
Peter closes his eyes and nods his head. For a frozen instant he envisions himself wrapping his arms around the other man, pouring all the gratitude, fear and regret that threaten to burst his chest into an embrace. He can almost feel himself take that small step forward, open his arms.
He doesn’t. The finality of the act would be too much to bear.
In front of him, Neal opens his lips and hesitates as if trying to recapture an important thought that has just escaped his grasp. Then turns, a little too rushed. He closes the distance to the backdoor, pulls it open with a firm grip on the knob.
“Neal,” Peter says from the spot in the dining room that his feet refuse to leave.
Neal turns his head, and his eyes may be pleading with him to spare him a goodbye
“I wish I could have saved you, Caffrey.”
Neal smiles at him, with sorrow and pity and tenderness.
“Maybe you tried to save someone I’ve never been.”
He closes the door and Peter knows his friend won’t look back as he marches into the night.
Peter fetches the small can of oil from under the sink and fixes the squeaky door.
Neal feels the soft jolts as the dark limousine rolls over the seams in the pavement that signify the crossing onto the deck of the Brooklyn Bridge. He has never taken conscious note of this sound before. It was nothing but another subtle detail drowned out by the cacophony of city traffic as he rushed past this point in the backseat of a taxi or in the front seat of Peter’s car. No one is rushing them at this early hour, the drivers of the few cars that pass them still too sleepy and indifferent to sound their horns in disapproval of the limousine’s slow, deliberate pace.
Neal had requested the unhurried ride. The driver had silently nodded from behind the wheel, had thrown an inquisitive glance into the rearview mirror and had pulled away from the curb without asking questions. The driver is a good man this way. Reliable and discreet. Neal wishes he knew his name. He will be his last connection to the world he is about to leave behind.
Neal leans his temple against the cool surface of the tinted, bulletproof window and looks up at the wire cables that bear the bridge’s load and his. He wonders how many wires there are. He should have tallied them on one of the countless occasions he has come this way. It wouldn’t have been difficult, even with his mind drained and idle after a long day at Peter’s office. It wouldn’t have been hard. Not for him. In a different life he could have designed this bridge, in all its artistry and its graceful utility. His mind is good this way. Creative and calculative. The mind of an architect. He and Peter would have been a good team. Caffrey and Burke - Civil engineers. Peter, with his objective, practical head, would have taken Neal’s ambitious, artistic vision and would have shaped and compacted it into the solid limestone and granite towers that anchor the construction. They would have been great together, building this bridge. Caffrey and Burke. Perhaps this sounded better on a business card than a wanted poster after all.
Neal won’t allow his mind to delve deeper. Not now. Maybe never. There is too much regret. Regret he can’t admit to. Regret he will never acknowledge, because doing so would mean spending his waking days consumed by it and by its futility.
Never look back.
Ka-donk. Ka-donk. They roll down the ramp of the bridge, past Federal Plaza, then through Chinatown with its deserted early morning sidewalks.
Leave it to Keller to pick a rendezvous site in the dingy darkness of the Lower East Side, with the waterfront at his back and the dripping FDR drive overhead. Keller is theatrical that way, never missing a chance to demonstrate that he feels at home in the murky margins of this city. He flaunts his comfort in places like this like he flaunts his blue-collar accent and clothes as testaments to the pride he has in his modest, tough upbringing. Neal suspects Keller feels superior to him in that respect. But how could he know? How could Keller know about that carefully concealed part of Neal that envies him for embracing the roots that Neal severed a long time ago, when he left his ordinary home behind and tossed his cheap clothes and his unrefined childhood accent into the waste bin of a Greyhound bus as it traveled through a different, muggy summer night like this. Neal pulls a handful of tissues from a dispenser in the back of the limousine. He blots his sticky face and neck. Keller doesn’t need to see him as anything but perfect and perfectly confident.
“We’re almost there,” the driver announces quietly and studies his passenger in the rearview mirror. “Do you need a moment? I can circle the block.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Neal replies. He discards the tissues and takes a long drink from one of the water bottles provided. “I’m ready if you are.”
The driver nods as his eyes linger for another second on the man in the backseat.
“Don’t worry, I’ll get her home safely.” the driver assures. “I’ve never messed up a job. I’m the best. That’s why you hired me.”
Neal briefly meets the driver’s eyes and believes the man. He takes a deep breath, rolls his shoulders and straightens his back as he turns his attention to the streets and to the featureless shapes waiting in the darkness under the elevated highway up ahead to their left. Three men. Keller leaning against a concrete support at the far right, leisurely dragging on a cigarette. No immediate sign of Elizabeth, but two passenger cars are parked further back.
“That’s them,” he announces. “Get as close as you can but keep your exit clear.”
“I know, sir.” The driver shoots him a quick glance that tells him to focus on his own part of the job and leave the driving to him. The limousine crosses the oncoming traffic lane, pulls off the road and creeps to a halt in the small parking lot with its nose angled toward the road.
“Let me get out first and open the door for you. They’ll want to see that I’m unarmed,” the driver says.
Neal nods. He grabs his satchel and watches the driver unbuckle and step out of the car. From a few yards away, Keller and his crew survey the car and its passenger as the door is opened for him. The guns Neal expects to be pointed at him fail to make an appearance. He climbs out of the seat, silently signals the driver to stay put and channels the puny remains of his confidence into his stiff legs as he takes several steps into Keller’s direction.
“Caffrey! My old and renewed partner in crime!” Keller calmly extinguishes his cigarette butt against the concrete pillar before strolling toward Neal. He meets him at half-distance, his teeth bared in what could be a snarl as much as a smile. The sight and sound of the man makes bile rise in Neal’s throat.
“Cut the pleasantries, Keller,” he growls. He manages to lace his voice with enough threat that the henchmen at the periphery of his vision square their shoulders and inch their fingers underneath the lapels of their jackets. “Where is Elizabeth?”
“Geesh, Caffrey,” Keller snickers, and Neal decides that the grimace in the other man’s face is supposed to be a smirk. “Sounds like someone hasn’t had his Wheaties yet this morning.”
Neal shifts on his feet and stands a little taller. He doesn’t grace the other man by offering a reply. He prays the act of defiance doesn’t look as ridiculous as it feels. Keller studies his face with his frozen perversion of a smile. Neal refuses to break eye contact until Keller relents and barely inclines his head in the direction of the parked cars.
Neal turns to see the rear window of one of the sedans lower. Silenced by a piece of duct tape covering her mouth, Elizabeth stares at him from wide, frantic eyes. Unable to move her arms that are tied behind her back, she furiously kicks the seat in front of her when the tinted window is slowly raised again. Neal’s heart sinks at the sight of her. His foolish shred of hope that Keller may have been bluffing all along, that Elizabeth may have been safe and sound somewhere else is replaced by the sobering understanding that this is real. He closes his eyes for an instant and swallows the bitter truth. Then, as Elizabeth is quickly disappearing from view, Neal raises a comforting hand and nods at her with assurance that belies the pity he feels for Elizabeth—and for himself.
“You brought it?” Keller commands his attention.
“Let her go,” Neal demands.
“After I’ve seen proof.”
Neal inhales in exasperation and reaches to open the clasp of his satchel.
“Be a good sport and give the bag to Timmy over there.” Keller stops him and motions for one of his men to approach them. Neal reluctantly relinquishes the satchel. He has the sneaking suspicion that he won’t get it back. It’s a shame. He’s had it for a long time. His eyes stay on the bag as Timmy, a sausage-fingered, shapeless hunk of muscle with cromagnid features and a receding hairline, is placing the bag on the filthy ground to search it.
“So, Neal,” Keller continues in an irritatingly affable tone. Neal turns his head to find the other man sweeping his eyes up and down his body. “I hardly recognize you without your fancy suit and tie. I suppose you think black’s your color, but you look damn depressing to me.”
“I didn’t know there was a dress code,” Neal replies stone-faced.
Keller clicks his tongue.
“Funny you should mention it, Caffrey. There is.” Neal feels a puzzled frown sneak onto his forehead as Keller signals his second man to approach. Lurch, as Neal instantly christens him, is a tall, hollow-cheeked skeleton with soulless eyes that cut right through Neal as the henchman joins them with a black duffel. He passes the bag to Keller. A moment later a pair of dark blue overalls are pushed against Neal’s chest.
“Change,” Keller orders.
“Right now? You’re kidding?” Neal refuses to accept the piece of clothing. “I didn’t come here to be humiliated. We are partners, remember?”
“And to protect our partnership I need to know that you’re not wired,” Keller presses the overalls harder against him.
“They have detectors for that,” Neal retorts sullenly.
“What can I say, Neal? Call me old-fashioned.” Keller’s smirk is back in place and makes Neal’s fist itch. “Change. Now!”
“I’m not an idiot. I’m not wired.” Neal remains rooted in place, his jaw set, his eyes locked with Keller’s.
“Then this shouldn’t be a problem.” Keller doesn’t budge. “Now stop acting like a blushing virgin. We both know you’re not shy. Change your clothes before I get Ray over here to do it for you. Or perhaps you’d like me to ask your ladyfriend to help. We can arrange that. Don’t tell me you’ve never thought about tapping that. This might be your last chance, Caffrey.”
“Don’t talk about her like that.” Neal snarls and envisions Keller’s head snapping to the side the instant his knuckles connect with the man’s chin. Keller’s complacent grin lets him know that his thoughts are spelled out all too clearly across his face. He despises Keller’s talent for bullying him into losing his temper, for proving time after time that underneath that cool, smooth exterior Neal Caffrey is an impulsive hothead. Keller has always had an uncanny ability to pinpoint his weak spots like no one else. No one other than Peter, Neal admits. But, unlike Keller, Peter would never relish in pressing his thumb into a sore spot just to watch Neal go off. Peter doesn’t need this kind of cheap satisfaction. Keller doesn’t deserve it. Neal unclenches his fingers. He takes a step back, leaving the overalls in Keller’s hand.
Neal begins to unbutton his shirtfront. He moves swiftly but without rush as he shrugs out of his shirt and hands it to Keller, who heedlessly discards it onto the ground. Neal grimaces and silently vows to refrain from wearing high-end threads to future meetings with kidnappers. Neal searches his trouser pockets, pulls out his cell phone and a few bills.
“They’re counted,” he remarks and surrenders the cash and the phone before undoing his belt and slipping off his shoes. He steps out of his pants, kicks them over to the side to join the crumpled shirt.
“Socks,” Keller says and doesn’t try to conceal his amusement with the scene unfolding. Neal strips off his socks then stands tall in his black boxer briefs with his palms turned forward in a challenging gesture. He ignores the two henchmen who regard him from their positions off to both sides. He doesn’t think about the trusty limousine driver at his back. He doesn’t let his gaze flit over to the car window that hides his friend’s wife. He stares straight at the man who has started a psychological war Neal refuses to let him win.
“Turn,” Keller commands.
Neal rotates a full turn and feels the gritty pavement under his bare feet. He tries his best to keep his frame relaxed, and his face indifferent. Nothing in his body language will give Keller the pleasure to see his humiliation and anger. Neal wraps those feelings tightly, files them away where he can retrieve them later, when Elizabeth is out of danger. For now he revels in the memory of how good it felt to catch Keller off guard with a swift, dead on target punch back in Raquel’s apartment. The blow had made his fingers hurt and had been worth every second of that pain.
“Satisfied?” Neal asks with his eyebrows raised when he comes face to face with Keller again. “Or do you need to see more?”
“Don’t worry, Caffrey. It’s pretty clear to everyone that there’s nothing to find there.” Keller tosses the overalls at him and upturns the bag in his hand to let a pair of sneakers drop out.
The meathead to Neal’s right snickers like a middle schooler. Lurch’s ability to smile must be confined entirely to the inside. Neal grabs the navy-blue overalls, steps inside and zips up the front. The nametag says Frank. He knew a Frank. He’s hated the name ever since. He shoves his feet into the athletic shoes that are a size too small. He debates whether the shoe size was a conscious choice by Keller and decides that it is safe to err on the side of Matthew Keller being a dirty weasel.
“Look at you, Caffrey,” Keller jeers. “Finally leaving everything white collar behind. How’s it feel to be a free man? And to think that all you needed was a friendly nudge from an old bud to lose that anklet.”
“Are you done?” Neal asks coldly. “’Cause I’d like to get on with our business.”
“Not quite,” Keller replies and that crooked smirk on his face makes Neal instantly wary. “I feel I need to settle a score before we can move forward. You know, clean slate and all.”
Neal’s comprehension of what is inevitably to follow comes a split second too late. The hook to his jaw leaves him stunned and staggering to his left. Through the ringing in his ears he stays present enough to avoid losing his footing. He sways on his feet and blinks the blurry pavement into focus and the back of his hand that is smeared with blood after wiping his lips. The hand is shaking, with adrenaline and with anger at his stupidity to let his attention slide. He stuffs the traitorous hand into his pocket as he straightens up and locks eyes with Keller. He fears the other man can hear his heart hammer in his chest. He swallows the coppery taste in his mouth.
“Are you done?” Unexpectedly, his firm voice defies his rattled composure.
“I am now.” Keller says and looks as if the punch failed to deliver the expected gratification. With a disappointed sigh, he extends a hand to the side and Timmy takes the cue to pass him the small, paper wrapped package he pulled from Neal’s bag. “Is this what I asked you to bring?”
“Of course,” Neal replies and blots at the corner of his mouth with his sleeve. “Early Vermeer. The painting disappeared from a private collection when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands.”
Neal glances at the oil portrait Keller holds in his hand. More than 350 years old and as beautiful as the day the young artist had conceived it. Keller had wanted proof. Proof that Neal had access to the treasure. Proof that the treasure was still within his grasp. Keller had waited until an hour ago to let him know which of the paintings that he had spotted on the video feed weeks ago he wanted to see. An hour was just enough time to retrieve it from the storage unit. He didn’t want to give Neal time to produce a forgery.
Keller scrutinizes the small painting, then raises it to smell the canvas. Neal wonders if Keller still isn’t convinced that Neal didn’t just paint it in the back of a moving car. Perhaps he just wants to know if it smells like the two million dollars it is worth. Its price tag is the extent of the appreciation the other man will ever have for this masterpiece.
“It’s the real deal, Keller.” Neal says and grows increasingly impatient. “Now let her go.”
“Fair enough.” Keller shrugs and casually spits into the dirt next to Neal’s shoe.
He signals Lurch who makes his way over to the car. The lanky man opens the back door. Leaving her hands bound behind her back, he seizes Elizabeth by the upper arm and none too gently helps her out of her seat. She stumbles in her heeled shoes as he manhandles her over the uneven pavement. Neal can hear her protest from behind the gag. He feels instantly proud of her unbroken spirit and endlessly relieved to see her unharmed. It is difficult to keep his steps below a jog as he hurries to meet her halfway across the parking lot.
“Take your hands off her,” he demands sharply.
Lurch glances over at Keller and releases Elizabeth’s arm.
“Hi, El. Everything will be fine,” Neal says softly. He briefly squeezes her shoulders before passing his hands over her hair and cupping her face. “Are you okay?”
She nods and tries to say something as her eyes look up at him, tired and worried and frustrated.
“Cut her loose!” Neal barks at Lurch without taking his eyes off of Elizabeth.
“Shhh, it’s alright.” His thumbs stroke her cheeks. He gently works his fingers under the corner of the duct tape and slowly peels back the tape. He grimaces in sympathy when the adhesive sticks to her skin. “Sorry. It’ll just be another second.”
Another second until what? The fingers that remove her gag suddenly hesitate. Another second until she unleashes her anger? Until she shouts the disappointment that was carved into each tired line on Peter’s face earlier this night? Is he ready for this? From her?
“Is Peter okay?” The first words out of Elizabeth’s mouth are rushed and breathless and are an endless relief for Neal.
“Peter is fine. He’s waiting at home,” he assures her.
Elizabeth gasps in discomfort when Lurch yanks at the ties around her sore wrists. Her arms are suddenly free to fly around his neck. He wraps his around her back and pulls her against his chest, hesitantly at first, then without restraint. She shakes in his arms and Neal is convinced that this is the only sign of weakness anyone has seen from her all night. This feels good, holding her with the certainty that this will all be worth it in the end. For the first time in hours the feeling of dread that has been turning Neal’s stomach eases.
“It’s almost over, Elizabeth. You did great,” he whispers into her ear then breathes a fleeting kiss against her temple. He gently withdraws from her embrace. She lets him step back but refuses to release him entirely.
“He got you pretty good.” She touches her fingertips to his jaw.
“It’s not that bad.” His attempt at a nonchalant smile is curbed by his swelling lip.
“We’ll put some ice on it when we get home,” she says and he only nods.
“Yes, let’s get you home.” He takes her hand in his and keeps her close as he guides her to the waiting limousine. He tips his head at the driver who opens the door for her. She climbs into the seat and doesn’t let go of Neal’s hand. He won’t budge when she slides over and tries to pull him after her into the car.
“Neal?” There is a flash of confusion in her eyes that turns to undisguised panic when she realizes that he has no intention to come with her.
“It’s alright, Elizabeth.” He squeezes her hand lightly then extracts his fingers from hers.
“You gave him the painting. Now get in!”
“Take care, Elizabeth. And take care of Peter.” Neal smiles at her sadly and nods at the driver. The other man engages the child safety lock and closes the door.
“Damn it, Neal, don’t do this to us! Please!” Neal hears her plead. The door closure rattles from the inside. Neal feels his resolve erode with every passing second.
“Touching. Almost brings tears to my eyes, you know.” Keller appears by his side. He hands Neal two prepaid cell phones. “Two on the speed dial will let your driver reach you after he’s dropped her off. He can toss the phone after that.“
Neal tests the phone before passing it on. The driver pockets the cell and tips his head curtly before sliding behind the wheel and pulling the door closed. The engine springs to life a moment later. Keller raps his knuckles against the roof of the limousine as it slowly pulls away.
Neal watches the vehicle disappear down the empty road and feels lost. He doesn’t mean to flinch when Keller’s hand comes to rest on his shoulder.
“You’ve never been good at the whole goodbye thing, Caffrey,” Keller says and there is a hint of actual sympathy in his voice. “Why don’t you let an old buddy buy you a cup of coffee while you wait for that call. And then have a treasure to move.”
Neal sits forward, rests his elbows on his knees. Through the saggy padding he can feel the support slats dig into the back of his thighs. He hates this couch. His back is stiff and aching after having spent another restless night on it. How many has it been now? Five?
He hates everything about this warehouse. It’s too hot and too humid, for the boxes of priceless art and for him. He doesn’t like being stored. He doesn’t like being relegated to an old living room set pushed into the corner of a warehouse. He doesn’t like using the filthy shower in the custodial closet that smells of sewage. He doesn’t like to be under constant watch of Timmy or Lurch or the other two men he doesn’t care to name.
He hates not knowing where he is.
Keller had made sure of this when he had made him ride in the back of the truck along with the crates they had taken from Mozzie’s storage unit. Neal hadn’t argued. He didn’t want to delay their departure, didn’t want to give Mozzie the opportunity to put two and two together, to walk into the door and into a bullet.
Mozzie. The pangs of guilt the thought of his friend kindles haven’t eased over the last few days. He didn’t have to deceive Mozz. He didn’t have to use his friend’s hysterical concern for Elizabeth to send him on a fool’s errand while he struck a deal with Keller behind Mozzie’s back. He didn’t have to. It just made things easier at the time. Neal couldn’t take a chance. He hadn’t had the fight in him to face Mozzie and Peter that night.
After Mozzie’s treasure was loaded into Keller’s truck, Neal had left a single painting behind in the emptied space. An illustration to Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar by Delacroix. A 2.5 million dollar apology for an act of betrayal Mozzie would understand but wouldn’t be able to forgive. Neal had told Keller that they owed Mozzie as much. With sweat running down his temples, with his body aching and with his breath quickened from carrying the heavy boxes Neal had stood before Keller, determined not to be denied. His eyes narrow slits, Keller had silently sucked on a cigarette. Finally, he had blown a lungful of second hand smoke into Neal’s defiant face, had donned a pompous grin and let him have his way. Sentimental, Keller had called him. Then he had slammed the door of the trailer shut behind him.
Locked in and alone, Neal had sunken to the floor with his back against the boxes. He had welcomed the darkness and the privacy it offered. It allowed him to acknowledge utter mental and physical exhaustion for the first time in this endless day. It gave him license to wallow in his misery without having to fear Keller’s ridicule or his own self-contempt. With his eyes needlessly closed in the blackness, Neal had listened to the muffled sounds of traffic, had tried to keep a record of the turns made and the distances traveled. The effort had been futile. An hour later, the door unlatched, releasing him into the artificial light of a large brick warehouse that has become his prison.
Neal glances over the chessboard set up on the coffee table. Across from him Keller is leaning forward, studying the board and smiling. Neal knows his opponent will put him in checkmate in six moves. He knew this three moves ago. He knew this the moment Keller had taken his best friend’s wife.
Matthew Keller is certain of his victory. He looks to be enjoying every drawn out minute of it. Maybe this is why he is still alive, Neal wonders. Maybe having him here—out of options and out of free will—is as much of a triumph for Keller as taking the treasure. Keller treats him cordially. He doesn’t let him in on the details of their impending move. For his own good, Keller says. He brings him good food and good books and new clothes, to Neal’s taste, not his. He calls him partner, not prisoner. He keeps him here, another trophy amongst his prized possessions.
Neal looks at the crates stacked and waiting to be shipped out. Pine boxes full of stuff plundered by war criminals, worth billions today despite the innocent blood that was shed for it, or perhaps because of it. This is what he risked everything for? This is why he tore himself up inside over the choice of Mozzie’s friendship or Peter’s? This is what he wanted to build a new life on?
This is what left him with nothing in the end.
Nothing but the certainty that, in the end, he did what was right. For Elizabeth. For Peter. This certainty is what grounds him now, here in this limbo between his past and an uncertain future in the hands of a sociopath.
“What’s the matter, Caffrey?” Across the table Keller finally moves his knight to capture Neal’s bishop. “Head not in the game?”
Neal makes his defensive move on the board and looks up at his opponent’s confident face.
“Why am I still alive?” He asks. “You have what you wanted.”
Keller is momentarily taken aback. Neal doesn’t break eye contact when Keller sits back in his chair and considers his question. For a second, Keller opens his mouth as if to deliver an honest answer, then he closes his lips and smirks. He makes his next move. Four more until check mate.
“You’ve been spending too much time around the Feds, Caffrey,” Keller finally replies. “A word is a word among partners, hell, among old friends.”
Neal bristles. Matthew Keller was never his friend. They were never partners, never equals. Not morally.
“You don’t know the first thing about friendship, Matthew,” he says quietly as his queen maneuvers into retreat on the chessboard. Speaking Keller’s first name has always felt odd to Neal. He never truly understood why. They’ve been acquaintances, even accomplices for a long time. Why was he uncomfortable to acknowledge this familiarity with the simple utterance of a given name? Why was Keller still Keller, when Agent Burke had always been Peter?
“Oh, and you think you do?” Keller’s chuckle is insulting. “Is that what Peter Burke has lead you to believe? That you’re friends?”
Neal feels his face harden.
“You’re a damn fool to believe you were anything but a prisoner, a convict who was more useful kept on a leash than behind bars. You were defeated with your own weapons, Caffrey. They knew prison walls or a tracking anklet couldn’t keep you under control but words could.”
Neal scrutinizes his opponent. What is Keller’s game? Is Neal’s surrender not enough? Does Keller try to chip away at his crumbling foundations? Does he want to pull the threadbare rug out from under his feet by stoking fears Neal thought he had put behind him. Or does Keller simply echo what Mozzie has long tried to make him see?
“It wasn’t like that.” Neal replies and is reasonably confident that his face doesn’t give away his smoldering doubt.
“Are you telling me that you couldn’t have lost that anklet as soon as it was on? Made a run for it?” Keller continues. “Come on, Caffrey, you had the resources.”
“Are we here to play twenty questions? Because for some reason I thought this was a game of chess?”
Keller only grins smugly and Neal feels anger flare up in the pit of his stomach.
“It wasn’t that easy, okay?” Neal finally says, his tone more tetchy than he intents.
“Oh yeah? What did Peter do to make you stay? Threaten you with jail?”
Neal narrows his eyes and bites his tongue. He won’t give Keller the satisfaction to witness his self-control slip further.
“Of course, he did,” Keller continues and leans forward a little. “That man knows every page in your book, Caffrey. He knows that for a guy like you prison wasn’t all birthday cards and Tiffany lamps. He knows that when sweet Neal Caffrey goes to the Big House he’ll sooner or later find himself spooning with a white supremacist from Kansas City who won’t take no for an answer.”
Keller pauses to study his reaction closely. He doesn’t look satisfied with what he sees in Neal’s face.
“Am I right?” Keller challenges. “I bet if I asked around my old buddies who did time with you they’d tell me that there were good times to be had with you, Caffrey. I bet in your first few months in there the infirmary had a bed reserved with your name on it for when the boys took it too far once again. Am I right?”
Neal remains silent and fights the crippling feeling of nausea. It’s the same festering fear that welled up inside of him every time Peter reminded him of the years of unserved prison time that loomed over his head. He had coped with the paralyzing fear by making Peter’s threats an ongoing joke, by challenging the agent to voice that threat one more time, to repeat it over and over until it no longer carried true menace.
“And when the threats no longer worked,” Keller carries on and Neal fears that his thoughts are reflected too clearly in his face, “when you went behind his back regardless, what did Peter Burke do? Did he start talking to you about partnership and trust? Did he treat you like a friend? Did he treat you like family? Did his wife cook you dinner? Did they make you feel like you’re better than the scum his people think we are?”
What had Mozzie called it? Stockholm Syndrome? Neal’s heart is hammering in his chest now. He wants to shake his head vehemently in denial. He doesn’t move. Keller’s lips curl when he briefly lowers his gaze to make his move. Check. Three moves to checkmate.
“Peter is not an idiot. You of all people should know that, Neal.” Keller relaxes back into his chair. “He knows your weaknesses. He knows you get attached to people. To Kate, to Mozzie, to Adler. You can’t help it. It’s quite pathetic, you know. Makes me wonder how you ever amounted to anything as a con man.”
He pauses and Neal takes the opportunity of avoid his scrutiny by moving his king to safety. He hears Keller’s affected sigh.
“But I’m not complaining, Caffrey. If you didn’t have the abandonment issues of a stray puppy, I wouldn’t be sitting here, looking forward to an early retirement.” He gestures widely at the stacked crates. “If it wasn’t for your misplaced conscience, none of us would be here. You and the short guy would be sipping cocktails on some island and Peter would be manning a desk in the bullpen until the blemish in his career is polished away.”
Keller surveys the chessboard again and moves his queen to capture Neal’s. Check. Two moves to go.
“Is this why you stayed, Caffrey? To protect Peter’s career that he built on capturing people like you?”
“Maybe Peter had something to offer,” Neal replies, his tone defensive. “Did you ever consider there was something else to strive for than wealth?”
Keller laughs out loud.
“Yeah, like what?” Keller taunts. “What did he dangle in front of you? A career? Neal Caffrey—International Superagent? Get real, Neal. You’re a highschool dropout with a criminal record two miles long. Did you really believe you had a future beyond your duties as a consultant?”
“There are options,” Neal quietly adds, although those options elude him at the moment. He moves his king yet again. When he looks up Keller is shaking his head with an expression akin to pity.
“I have to give Peter credit. He sure did a number on you, Caffrey. How long did it take him to brainwash you?”
“You don’t know the first thing about Peter,” Neal says from between tight lips.
“I suppose we all need our heroes,” Keller sighs. “Fortunately, most of us grow out of them by the time we’re twelve. But not you, Caffrey. You spent the last two years standing on top of the garage with your bed sheet for a cape, trying to decide if you want to be like your hero or stay true to your nature. And we both know that you can’t fly, Neal.”
With a fingertip Keller slowly pushes his queen across the board.
“Make your move,” he requests.
Neal stares at the board. It will be his last move. Checkmate is inevitable. No more options.
His hand reaches to tip his king and stops mid-air. His eyes wander to Keller and over to the crates.
Maybe this is what he deserved, to spend the rest of his life surrounded by riches but with nothing of value. Without love and without friendship and with his worst enemy as his only confidant. How long would he last until Keller grew bored with him? Was this his sentence? Was he to live out his days as a dog among wolves because he proved incapable of living as a man among men?
He doesn’t know. What he deserves is not for him to decide, even if his younger self would want to convince him otherwise. His younger self from a week, perhaps even a day ago. The only thing Neal knows is that Keller doesn’t deserve to come out the victor through all of this. The treasure doesn’t belong to him. No more so than it belonged to the men who stole it half a century ago. No more so than it was ever truly Mozzie’s or his own.
He can’t let Keller walk away with the spoils of a battle he didn’t fight. He can’t let Keller walk away like this, with him or without him. He has one more trump to play. One more card concealed in his sleeve. He had been saving it. For when, he wasn’t sure.
Neal retracts his hand from above the chessboard.
“You want to know why I stayed?” It sounds like a challenge, rather than a question.
“Enlighten me.” Keller looks bored as he sits back in his chair.
“There’s a manifest.”
“Of what?” Keller’s brow furrows.
“Of that.” Neal tips his head in the direction of the wooden crates.
He has Keller’s full attention.
“There was a manifest on the U-boat,” he continues. “The FBI has it.”
“And you know that how?” Keller sits forward, his eyes narrow slits.
“I’ve seen it. DC Art Crimes came to pick it up. One of their agents dropped the portfolio and I saw a page. There were many more.” Neal pauses, lets his words sink in. “Potentially every item in those boxes will be on the watch lists of the FBI and Interpol. You may be able to move a handful of paintings before things get so hot that none of your fences will want to touch them with a stick. And you know it won’t end there. Sooner or later a buyer or a fence will flip on you.”
Neal watches Keller carefully. He studies every tense line in the other man’s face, waiting for him to snap.
“You want to know why I didn’t take the treasure and leave, Matthew?” Neal repeats calmly. “Because it’s like the Holy Grail in that Indiana Jones movie. It can’t be moved. Can’t be sold. Worthless. All of it.”
“You’re lying,” Keller snarls.
“I can prove it.”
“My phone. Do you still have it?”
Without taking his eyes off Neal, Keller signals Lurch to approach from his guard post by the rear entrance.
“Get me Caffrey’s phone,” he orders brusquely. They wait in silence for the tall man to return and hand the cell phone to Keller.
“Check the pictures.”
Neal looks on as Keller opens the phone’s image directory and scrolls through the files. He stops and squints at the image on the small screen.
“There were dozens of sheets,” Neal says. “This is the only one I could snap a picture of.”
He flinches when the phone shatters on the wall behind him. The edge of the coffee table hits his shin as the chessboard and pieces come flying at him. Neal doesn’t dare to move as Keller hovers over him. He doesn’t avoid Keller’s furious eyes. He waits for the first blow to hit. It doesn’t come.
“Don’t let him out of your sight,” Keller addresses Lurch. “I’ll be back soon.”
When Keller returns hours later, it is dark outside and Neal has nodded off on the saggy sofa under the watchful eyes of Lurch. The voices that filter into Neal’s sleep-dazed consciousness are gruff and agitated. Neal opens his eyes to find Keller barking orders at his crew before he makes a direct beeline for the couch and his prisoner. Whatever Keller did to verify Neal’s claim of the manifest’s existence, the results of his research did not come out to his liking. He is livid.
Neal’s systems are on full alert immediately. He doesn’t have time to get to his feet before he is hurled up and off the couch by the fists that grab him.
“You son-of-a-bitch!” Keller half drags half lifts him away from the sitting area.
“I take it you made some calls?” Neal asks and struggles to keep his legs under him. “Found out that the manife—“
The punch to his stomach doubles him over.
“You set me up!”
“I gave you what you asked for,” Neal grunts between short breaths. “You should’ve asked the right questions.”
Keller yanks him upright by the shirt collar. Neal backs up until the brick wall stops his retreat. Keller moves in on him until their faces are inches apart.
“Is this what Burke and you hashed out? Wait for me to sell? Wait for me to walk into your trap?”
“No!” Neal shakes his head.
If the slap to his face is any indication, it is not the answer Keller wants to hear.
“No!” Neal insists. His hands clutch at Keller’s arms as he tries to free himself from the other man’s grip. “Peter doesn’t know that the art survived the explosion. He suspected. He suspected that I had it, but he didn’t know.”
The hold on his shirt shifts to his throat. Neal’s eyes widen as his air is cut off. He frantically claws at the choking hand. Stars begin to dance around the periphery of his vision and Keller tightens his grip further. Neal closes his eyes to the sound of the blood rushing in his ears. In a last ditch effort to hang on to consciousness, Neal jerks up his knee, hitting Keller where it hurts. He swings his fist in a wild and uncoordinated but ferociously desperate punch that glances Keller’s cheekbone and collides with his nose. The other man stumbles backwards, awkwardly bent at the waist and nursing his bloody nose.
Gasping for air, Neal steps away from the wall. He may not be an expert in hand-to-hand combat, but he knows that being cornered is never a good position to fight from. Neither is being outnumbered, he admits uneasily when Lurch, Timmy and the unnamed third encroach in defense of their rattled boss.
“Look at yourself, Caffrey.” Keller looms over him. “Still a bleeding heart for an unsellable piece of junk.” He wrenches the unframed, mounted canvas from the pile of shattered crate. He looks at the portrait, a jagged hole gaping in place of the subject’s face. Then the canvas’ support cracks as it is smashed against the edge of another crate. Keller holds the mangled remains of the masterpiece in his hand, the jagged edges of the broken mounting frame jutting from shredded canvas. Neal watches the other man’s frame quiver with rage, his chest rising in heavy breaths. He has never seen Keller like this, his cool almost gone. The man is dangerous on any day. Maneuvered into a tactical dead end he is a ticking time bomb.
“You can still walk away from this,” Neal says, his voice hoarse but his tone level. He doesn’t dare to move, the shattered pieces of the packing crate digging painfully into his back. “Take the gold and jewelry. Melt it. Pay off your goons. Leave the country. And never come back. Because if you do, Matthew, Peter will find you. You don’t know him.”
Mercifully, the assault stops. His hand clutched to the stinging wound over his eye, Neal blinks Keller’s blurry image back into focus as the man towers over him. The mangled Rembrandt is tossed aside and Neal quietly moans with relief. He swallows the taste of bile in his mouth.
“You shouldn’t have taken her, Keller,” Neal says huskily. His voice sounds odd to him. Too confident. Too unafraid. “When you took Elizabeth you crossed a line you should never have stepped over.”
Keller seizes him by the front of his shirt, lifts his shoulders off the floor.
“And what line did you cross when you stole all this?” Keller replies coolly, not a trace left of the madman from merely a minute ago.
“Let me go and let me find out,” Neal whispers.
“Be careful what you wish for, Caffrey.”
Keller releases his grip, discarding Neal back onto the warehouse floor. Neal watches him warily as Keller straightens out, tugs his jacket back into shape then rakes his fingers through his hair. He looks around the room, at the crates of stolen art and at his men who have drawn closer, temporarily abandoning their posts to gawk at the scene.
“Have at him,” Keller orders calmly without another look at the man on the floor. “Leave him alive. Then pack up the trucks. We have a ship waiting.”
Neal frantically clambers away as two of the henchmen approach him. He briefly manages to get his feet under him before a punch sends him stumbling into the bony frame of Lurch. The minutes that follow are a blur of knuckles and boots and taste of blood and dirty warehouse concrete. The sound of his cries and pleas slowly grow fainter in his ears as he slips into welcomed oblivion. His eyes drift shut with the chilling understanding that the only thing capable of bringing a smile to Lurch’s stony face is to feel another man’s bones break under his fists.
The surface pressing against his back and legs feels soft. Soft and smooth.
The familiar weight around his left ankle.
No. Somebody moans.
Hammering in his head. Throbbing in his chest. Dull in his stomach. Excruciating when he tries to move. Blinding when he briefly cracks an eyelid that feels too heavy to lift.
Not the pain. The light.
He tries to concentrate. How hard can it be to simply open a pair of eyes? It’s ridiculous. He chuckles. The searing pain that shoots into his side does the trick. His eyes fly open.
He stares at the white ceiling.
Peter rolls onto the Brooklyn Bridge. Traffic is creeping along sluggishly as people head home to their families and out with their Friday night dates. The city is still hot and loud outside his windows. Inside the cocoon of his car he is barely aware of the heat and the noise. He has cranked the A/C and tuned the radio to the local public radio station, half listening to the sonorous voice relaying an anecdote that is supposed to be thought-provoking and witty and is neither in Peter’s distracted mind.
He glances over at the passenger seat and at the open banker’s box holding his consultant’s possessions that were pulled from a Lower East Side dumpster almost a week ago. A pair of shoes and the clothes Neal was wearing the night he showed up at his house, the shoulder bag and its contents: fresh shirts and underwear for two days, a ziptop bag with a disposable razor, a toothbrush and a miniature bottle of Bvlgari shampoo taken from some upscale hotel bathroom. Nothing of relevance.
A handful of photographs. There’s a worn one of Kate. A strip of photo booth snapshots of Neal and Sara, silly and playful and kissing. A sepia mug shot of Mozzie with a wig and a glued-on mustache, taken at one of those faux vintage photographers found at popular tourist attractions. The picture Elizabeth took of them in their tuxedoes. Peter didn’t know that Elizabeth gave Neal a print. Then there’s a candid of himself and El and Satch, taken in their backyard some time earlier this summer when Neal kept fiddling with a new camera that Peter had prayed wasn’t stolen. Nothing of relevance to their investigation. Nothing relevant. Except that, to Peter, it is.
There’s a small, faded photo of a toddler, no older than two, holding a man’s hand, the owner of the hand torn from the picture long ago. It would be almost impossible to recognize the child if it wasn’t for the trademark Caffrey smile. The boy’s name wasn’t Caffrey then. Peter is certain of this. It probably wasn’t Neal, either. He wonders how many people are left who know his identity, who would recognize the boy in the picture when they saw the man he had become. Peter wonders if Neal carries this photograph as a last reminder of who he was before he started living strangers’ lives. Peter may never know. The boy’s secret disappeared with the man a week ago.
The search for him had turned up nothing but the items sitting in Peter’s passenger seat. The site of the hostage exchange that Elizabeth had led them to had yielded nothing of value. A small parking lot in a public place, busy with joggers and construction crews and tourists by mid-morning. The traffic cams had picked up two vehicles fitting Elizabeth’s description leaving the scene, only to be lost among early commuters within blocks.
Mozzie had been no help. Paranoid as ever. Headless with concern for Neal and with anger at Peter. Mozzie disappeared a few days ago, off to look for Neal by means that Peter and the FBI weren’t privy to. Peter suspects Elizabeth knows how to contact him if need be.
Peter doesn’t press her for details. She has been quiet since her rescue. She assures him that she is fine and seeks normalcy in her job and her chores at the house. She does his chores, too, giving him time and space to let the search for Neal consume him. He worries about her, worries that whatever price Neal paid wasn’t enough to keep her safe.
Ka-donk. Ka-donk. Someone leans on the horn as he rolls off the bridge, bringing his attention back to the traffic that has picked up in front of him. Peter offers an apologetic wave to the impatient driver at his rear and steps on the gas to hurry home.
The FedEx envelope is waiting on his door stoop when Peter reaches the house. He checks his watch. It is already after 8 pm. An immediate surge of panic wells up in his stomach. The delivery truck wouldn’t have stopped by later than 6. Elizabeth should have been home about thirty minutes ago – she should have found the shipment before him.
“Elizabeth?” he calls loudly through the closed door, pinning the envelope under his arm and struggling to insert his key into the lock. Inside, the dog is barking excitedly. “You home, hon?”
“Peter?” The door swings open from the inside, sending his key ring to the concrete floor and revealing his puzzled wife. She wipes her hands on the dishtowel in her hand. “Something wrong, honey?”
Peter puffs out a relieved breath and stoops down to pick up his keys.
“Nothing. I just thought you weren’t home,” he says and offers her a self-conscious smile. “I didn’t mean to make a ruckus. The neighbors are probably thinking you kicked me out.” Peter glances at the row house next door where the curtains in one of the front windows have been pushed aside. He raises a hand in a tentative greeting, prompting the curtain to fall back into place.
“Come on in, honey.” Elizabeth smiles warmly and steps aside as he slips inside.
“You look like you need to relax. You’ve been a nervous wreck for days.”
“Tell me about it.” He rakes his fingers through his hair. “I saw that envelope out front and thought you hadn’t made it home.”
“Peter, we spoke on the phone thirty minutes ago. I was on my way back from the grocery store, remember?” She helps him out of his jacket. “You need to stop worrying about me every second of the day.”
“I know, hon.”
“And that envelope wasn’t there when I got here,” she continues and makes her way back into the kitchen. “I must have just missed the delivery guy when I let the dog out back. I’m surprised they left it without a signature.”
She grabs a bottle of beer from the fridge, uncaps it and pushes the bottle across the kitchen island.
“Thanks, El.” Peter raises the bottle to his lips while throwing a disinterested glance at the envelope. He stops mid-motion, puts the bottle down, flips the envelope over and back. “There’s no shipping label on here. FedEx didn’t drop this off.”
For the second time tonight his heartbeat jumps to his throat.
“Do you think Neal…?” Elizabeth gives voice to his thought.
His small shake of the head means I don’t know. He reminds himself to stay calm, to not let his hopes flare up, as they have been with each insubstantial lead his unit has picked up since Neal walked out of his house a week ago. At the bureau, he has been successfully hiding behind a mask of professionalism. Here in his home, his stoic self-possession is unraveling at the seams. The small cardboard tab slips through his fingertips twice before he succeeds in pulling back the seal strip to release the top flap of the envelope. He exchanges a rushed glance with Elizabeth before prying the cardboard open.
The envelope is empty but for a small thumb drive.
“I’ll get your laptop,” Elizabeth says, leaving Peter to stare at the run-of-the-mill piece of electronics in his palm. Neal didn’t send this. The thought materializes in Peter’s head with a certainty he cannot rationally explain. Nothing about this piece of black plastic feels like Neal, whose calling cards were often brazen and sometimes foolish but never ordinary.
“Here you go, honey.” Elizabeth slides the laptop in front of him then retakes her position on the opposite side of the kitchen island.
“This is probably just a spreadsheet left by one of my informants.” Peter tries to sound unconcerned. He folds the laptop open, turning it so that Elizabeth doesn’t have a view of the display from her position. “You know, exposing the next trading scandal of pork commodities.”
“I know, Peter. Oh, and I’m making pork chops for dinner.” Elizabeth starts leafing through a cooking magazine, making it a little too obvious that she wants to avoid staring at Peter’s face as he inserts the jump-drive with his eyes glued the screen.
The few seconds it takes for the display to power up are distorted to minutes in Peter’s head. An application wants to launch from the external drive and engages the notebook’s security suite. Peter stares at the pop-up warning, his finger momentarily frozen over the touchpad as the cursor hovers over the Accept prompt. When his fingertip touches down, Peter doesn’t truly expect stock charts and transaction reports to pop onto his screen. He mentally prepares himself for disappointment or anger or even insult—anything but the bone-chilling horror that grips him at the sight filling his high-resolution display.
On the padded floor Neal lies sprawled on his back, his head toward the wall that carries the high-mounted camera. He is naked but for a pair of gray boxers. The only other item on his body is a metal shackle, clamped tightly around his left ankle and tethered to the far corner of the room by a chain no more than two feet in length. The symbolism of the restraint doesn’t escape Peter. Neither does the fact that Neal’s clothes have been removed to offer him an unobstructed view of his consultant’s beaten body.
As Peter takes in the condition of the man on the screen he feels all blood drain from his face. His stomach turns at the sight of the dried blood crusting the skin under Neal’s nose and around his mouth. There’s a cut over his left eye, bruises covering his cheekbone and temple and disappearing among the roots of his unkempt hair. Contusions are spreading over Neal’s chest and abdomen, heavily concentrated on his left ribcage and flank. There’s a long, deep scrape across his chest and smaller ones on his shoulders and arms. His right forearm is held close to his body, the swelling and the awkward position suggesting more than superficial injury. The ligature marks on his wrists seem minor in comparison. Peter wants to believe they are a testament to Neal’s determination to flee his captors. He doesn’t want to consider that he may have been helplessly bound when his injuries were inflicted.
Peter finishes his survey with the large patches of discolored skin on Neal’s thighs and the scuffmarks on his knees and shins before his eyes travel over the padding on the room’s floor. The white vinyl bears smudges of rusty red where Neal must have crawled. Or was dragged.
Now Neal remains motionless. Peter stares at his chest, watches it rise and fall in quickened, shallow breaths that are the only signs of life in the room. Peter searches for any irregularity in the picture to convince himself that he is not looking at a looped recording but a live feed. The digital counter in the bottom right corner of the screen says as much.
The timer is counting up.
“Peter?” Elizabeth says softly. “You’re white as a sheet.”
He tears his gaze away from the screen and meets her wide, apprehensive eyes. Elizabeth slowly steps around the kitchen island. Peter knows he should stop her, shouldn’t let her see what’s been done to the man she’s come to think of as their friend. He doesn’t hold her back. He takes her hand and watches the tears well up in her eyes as she silently stares at the laptop display.
“He…” The words refuse to leave his dry mouth. “He wants me to watch him die.”
Two hours later Peter has rolled up his sleeves and is bracing his arms on the FBI conference room table. His laptop is positioned in the center of the table, surrounded by his team. They are an oddly mismatched bunch, with Jones in his gym clothes flanked by Diana and Christie in their Friday dinner date attire. Elizabeth buzzes around them, filling their mugs with fresh coffee, then she settles at the far end of the table. She looks out of place here in his office space. Peter knows he couldn’t have convinced her to stay home if he tried.
“Okay, folks, tell me what we know,” Peter requests. He is relieved to hear a semblance of confident authority return to his voice. It helps to have his team here, to have them look at him for leadership as they struggle to deal with the images of a man they’ve often considered one of them. “Jones?”
“Nothing yet, Peter.” The agent continues to rapidly enter code into his own laptop that is now connected to Peter’s notebook. He looks up for a moment, his eyes alert and focused under the visor of his baseball cap. “I haven’t been able to pin the origin of the camera feed. I’m bouncing from one IP address to the next, all over the tri-state area and as far as Korea. Our IT specialists are on their way in and should be here any minute. They may have better luck. Whoever set this up knew how to cover his tracks.”
“I highly doubt Keller has the expertise to do this himself, but he has a knack for enlisting the right kind of muscle and brainpower,” Peter muses and locks eyes with his wife. “Any word from Mozzie, El? He could ask around his circles. Whatever happened to his hacker girlfriend? Maybe she has some insight into who helped set up the feed.”
”No luck so far. He’s not answering my calls. I’ll leave another message.” She hits redial on her phone once more.
“Thanks, honey.” Peter moves on to the next person. “Diana?”
“Using Neal’s height as a reference I’m estimating that the room is about 7 feet wide and at least 11 feet long. No visible windows or doors. My best guess is that access to the room is via a door on the wall the camera is mounted on. We might be looking at a storage unit or utility room.”
“A cell?” Peter suggests. “A mental facility? What about the padded walls?”
“It’s possible, but the padding could have been retrofitted to any room,” Diana replies. “We can’t see the ceiling. There might be an access hatch there, which means we could be dealing with a basement. Without a sound feed from the camera we don’t have any ambient noise to help us pin the location. ”
“What about a shipping container?” Jones chimes in. “Those could be parked anywhere.”
“If it is, it wouldn’t be outside,” Christie quietly points out, drawing everyone’s attention. “It’s been 95 degrees all day. The temperatures in a closed container would have been too high for him to survive.”
“Good point. Let’s concentrate on indoor locations.” Peter offers her an encouraging nod. For a civilian, inadvertently torn from a Friday night movie and drawn into an FBI investigation, she has been admirably composed. Peter glances at the laptop screen then back at Christie. He had been hesitant to ask Diana to bring her girlfriend along when he had interrupted their evening together. Peter respects his colleagues’ need to keep their jobs out of the safe havens that are their personal lives, but he knew the young physician’s expertise would be of value. Diana hadn’t objected. Everything about this situation is personal.
“Christie,” Peter is reluctant to ask what must be asked. His hesitancy has nothing to do with Christie or the boundaries overstepped when he brought her in. It has everything to do with the man on the screen and the cruel reality Peter is unwilling to face. “Could I ask you for your professional opinion on Neal’s condition?”
“Of course,” she slips into a calm, neutral tone that Peter assumes she reserves for dealing with anxious relatives of her patients. She pulls the laptop closer. “The facial trauma suggests that he took several blows to the head. That makes us concerned about cerebral hemorrhage or a possible concussion. Without a proper neurological assessment, there’s no way for us to know. I would have a better idea if he were awake. I haven’t seen him move since we arrived, but let’s assume he is asleep not unconscious. Unconsciousness would be very worrisome at this point. Internal bleeding is our second big unknown. The abdominal bruising is fairly severe, but his muscle tone may have offered some protection. We’re probably dealing with a fractured right arm or wrist, possibly several rib fractures judging by the extent of the bruising on the lateral torso. His respiratory rate is a little elevated, but otherwise looks good. That gives me hope that we can exclude a pneumothorax and that his lung wasn’t punctured. Most of the other injuries appear minor at first glance. Abrasions and bruising on the extremities. His knuckles are bleeding. Looks like our boy didn’t go down without a fight.”
She briefly looks up at Peter. His grim expression mirrors the distress in every face around the table. His nod asks her to go on.
“Assuming none of the injuries are acutely life-threatening and assuming there is proper oxygen supply, we need to worry about dehydration on the long run,“ Christie continues and points to a corner of the image on the screen. “It looks like there’s a small bottle of water. If he drinks and does so judiciously, it will buy us some time. There are a couple of large empty bottles, I’m assuming to relieve himself. I’d like to see him use them.”
All eyes turn to stare at her blankly.
“To see that his kidneys are functioning, that there’s no blood in the urine.” Christie adds. “I’m not going to lie to you, Peter. Monitoring him superficially from afar won’t be very helpful. But it may give us an idea of what timeframe we have to work with.”
“Could you venture a guess?” Peter says and his voice is unsteady for the first time since they’ve assembled here. His thoughts race back to a courtroom years ago, where he sat with mixed emotions and waited to hear the sentence imposed on a brilliant young criminal. The punishment was just and fair then. This is neither, and Peter’s feelings couldn’t be more certain.
“If it wasn’t for the injuries and given that there is at least some water provided, I’d say a man in his physical shape could last for a few days. Depending on temperature and exertion. If he is seriously hurt, then we’re looking at significantly less than that. Hours perhaps.”
“How bad is the pain?” Elizabeth asks quietly.
Christie exchanges a helpless glance with Diana and then with Peter.
“It’s hard to tell without knowing the full extent of his injuries,” she finally replies. “But unless he’s medicated, it would be substantial.”
Uncomfortable quietness fills the room as Jones stops typing for a moment.
“Okay, everybody,” Peter announces and injects his voice with the assurance they need from him. “Caffrey’s situation isn’t good, but it’s not hopeless. We’ll figure this out! Jones, keep working on tracing the signal. Get every techie with a laptop you need. I don’t care that it’s the weekend. Diana, get a team to check into the leases of every storage facility that rents rooms of the approximate size. See if anything connects to Keller or one of his aliases. Start in Manhattan and work your way out. Check upholstery companies. Find out if anyone was hired to install vinyl wall padding in the past week. I know it’s a mammoth task, people, but it’s all we got. The clock is ticking.”
His head feels too heavy to lift from its resting position in both of his hands. His knees are sore where his elbows are digging into them. He has been sitting in the same spot long enough that he is convinced that he has worn a permanent dent into the sofa cushion. His eyes feel dry and gritty, his lids heavy, but they refuse to close.
“You need to go to sleep, Peter.”
Peter finally musters the energy to straighten his back and raise his eyes. He wonders how long Elizabeth has been standing there, watching him in the glow of the laptop display that is the only source of light in the dark room.
“Hey, honey.” He yanks his eyebrows up and blinks at her rapidly. “Sorry, did I keep you up? What time is it?” He glances at the bare patch of skin where his watch is usually found. He took it off hours ago. The only time that still matters are the hours, minutes and seconds on the screen.
She sighs heavily as she folds the front of her silk robe closed and ties the belt. Her eyes briefly scan the coffee table. His water glass is full and the plate of fruit is untouched. His mug of coffee is empty, but he can tell that she has decided to no longer be his pusher for an escalating caffeine habit. Elizabeth drops onto the couch by his side. She takes a cursory look at the computer display, at the white room and at the bruised back of the man curled up in a corner of it. Peter watches the flicker of pity in her eyes. She has been guarding her emotions well these past days, hasn’t permitted herself to break down in front of him. She wants to be strong for him so that he can be strong for Neal. Peter knows she will crack under the pressure soon, and he’ll be here for her then. Soon, but not now. Her focus is back on Peter.
“He’s asleep. You should rest too,” Elizabeth says softly. “It’s been three days. You can’t keep this up any longer.”
“He’ll wake up again soon,” he replies and looks at the screen instead of her. “I think the constant light is messing with his head.”
Neal is only dozing off for short periods of time now, two hours at the most. He wakes increasingly disoriented. He gave up trying to slip his shackle two days ago. The cries for help that Peter can see but not hear stopped yesterday. Neal hasn’t been able to get to his feet since this morning. This afternoon he finished the last of his water. Peter was there to watch it all, to bear witness to every bitter milestone in the life that is fading in front of him.
He doesn’t want to watch. He doesn’t want to see the confusion in the other man’s eyes whenever he wakes from his fitful sleep. He doesn’t want to watch that confusion turn to despair when the man passes a hand over the vinyl tufted walls and slowly realizes that his nightmares are an inescapable reality. He doesn’t want to see that man curl up in pain and shield his eyes from the glaring light.
Peter can’t bear to see his name on his friend’s soundless lips.
Sitting in his house, staring through this 15-inch window into the artificial brightness of The Room, Peter wonders what Neal is hearing in his soundproofed prison. He tries to imagine faint elevator noises and droning air conditioning units—anything but the punishing silence that the camera transmits. Neal doesn’t deserve to die in isolation with nothing but his hazy thoughts and his unheard shouts to keep him company.
Elizabeth’s fingers curl around his lower arm and Peter jerks out of his reflections.
“Then you need to keep a clear head for the both of you,” she says in reply to something he thinks he uttered hours ago. “Lie down, Peter. Please. Just for a while. I’ll watch Neal.”
She scoots to the far end of the couch, pats her lap in an invitation for Peter to rest his head there.
He capitulates with a noisy exhale.
“You’ll wake me if anything happens?” He asks.
“I promise,” she says and gestures him to get moving. She cushions her thighs with a pillow.
He kicks of his shoes and is ready to settle onto her lap.
“Take off your shirt and tie. Pants too,” she requests in no-nonsense tone and ignores his querulous frown. “Trust me, you’ll be more comfortable.”
His muscles protest the work required to get up from the couch. Under the watchful eye of his wife Peter strips down to his t-shirt and boxers. He tosses his clothes onto the floor in an immature act of protest to being told what to do. He climbs onto the sofa, stretches as best as he can on the piece of furniture not built for his tall frame. His head sinks onto the pillow with a contented sigh.
“Nope,” Elizabeth isn’t satisfied just yet. “Face the other way. I don’t want you looking at that computer.”
Peter reluctantly turns over and is rewarded by his wife’s tender fingers raking through his hair. She pulls the thin afghan over him and continues to caress him gently. The effect on his exhausted body is almost instantaneous. He tries to hold on to conscious thought, but his focus drifts the moment he closes his eyes. Sleep is pulling him under and Peter is ready to let it claim him. Then the quiet sobbing at the edge of his consciousness pulls him back.
“El?” He struggles to open his lids halfway.
“I’m sorry, Peter.” She says, her voice raw. “Go to sleep. I’m fine.”
Peter sighs and wonders why he surrounds himself with people who are convinced that he is incapable of telling the difference between fine and thoroughly miserable. He rolls onto his back to look up at her, finds her tear-filled eyes trained at the display.
“Honey?” It is a tenderly spoken threat.
“I should have been more careful,” she says. “I shouldn’t have let him take me.”
The guilt in his wife’s voice makes his heart ache.
“Elizabeth,” he infuses his voice with all the conviction he can summon. “Don’t you think for a second that any of this is your fault. You became a pawn in an egomaniacal game of chess that Caffrey started with Keller years ago. Don’t beat yourself up over this, El. Be angry with Keller. Or with Neal for never knowing when enough is enough. Or with me for letting Neal get close enough to us to put you in his enemies’ crosshairs.”
“I liked having Neal in our lives,” she admits quietly.
Liked? Peter stumbles over her words. Is she willing to acknowledge what he dares not think about? Is Neal’s end a foregone conclusion in her eyes? Or is it the end of their friendship, as she knew it, that she has resigned to? Does she secretly know that, regardless of the outcome of Keller’s sick game, there will be no going back? If Elizabeth, the steadfast apostle of his friendship with a criminal, the eternal advocate of everything good in Neal, was faltering, how could Peter still hope?
“I know, hon.” Peter simply says and softens his tone. He pulls her hand to his chest and entwines his fingers with hers. He looks up at her saddened face. He wants to tell her that he liked having Neal around too, as a colleague, a protégé—as a friend. He stays quiet.
“I tried, you know,” he continues after a long pause. “I tried to get through to him. I wanted to offer him an out from the trajectory his life was on.”
“I know.” Her palm smoothes the wrinkles on his forehead. “But you can’t give up. Neal may need more than a friendly push in the right direction. Let’s face it, he needs a team of oxen to drag him down the right path.”
Peter chuckles, politely and with immense relief. She hasn’t abandoned Neal. She hasn’t abandoned her hopes for their friendship and for a future. He squeezes her hand and doubts she will know it to be the gesture of gratitude that it is. He takes a deep breath. Then his brow furrows again.
“Wait. Am I the ox in this scenario?”
Elizabeth takes her time to reply.
“No, baby,” she finally says, with a somber voice but a twitch in the corner of her mouth. “We’re a team in this scenario.”
She bends down to kiss him.
Peter sits stooped over his office desk. He hasn’t looked at the laptop screen for almost five minutes. He doesn’t have to to know the numbers on the counter.
126:34 and change.
Peter’s eyes are glued to the map in front of him and at the ten by twelve block rectangle drawn on it in heavy marker. So close.
They have Mozzie’s hacker girl to thank for that demarcation line. She had been able to pinpoint the origin of the webcam feed to this area in Lower Manhattan. Pinpoint. On a map of the state, even of the five-borough city, that term would certainly apply. In reality, searching an area of that size in one of the most densely populated and built up cities in the world amounts to the proverbial search for a needle in a haystack. Every dot on this map means another high-rise, another vertical stack of offices and apartments and storage closets. The odds of finding Neal are next to impossible.
They’ve waited in vain for any word from Keller, for a gloating phone call, for a ransom note, for another move in his sinister game. There was none. Keller’s game is over. Leaving Neal to die right under Peter’s helpless hands isn’t a strategic maneuver. It is a victory lap.
Peter looks around the nearly deserted office space. Every available man and woman is out, determined to beat those odds. Hughes made the search the unit’s top priority, put every other case on hold. Perhaps because Hughes knows that everything else can wait because it won’t have to wait for long. Their efforts will be over soon. One way or another.
Peter sweeps his eyes over Neal’s empty chair in the bullpen and back to the laptop screen on his desk. Neal hasn’t been conscious in hours. He is almost gone now, his breathing nearly imperceptible. The only other sign of life are the tremors that intermittently run through him as his body is trying to shake the man inside awake.
“Hang in there, buddy,” Peter says to the screen and to himself. His words sound foolishly trivial and as awkward as the slug on the shoulder he would deliver along with them if Neal were here. Peter wishes he could have been more forthright in showing his fondness of his friend. He wishes he could have found it in himself to comfort Neal better when he needed it, through the death of Kate, through the hours when Mozzie’s life hung in the balance. Maybe it would have made a difference, would have helped the other man to drop his guard and let Peter in.
Peter sighs. Who is he kidding?
He looks at the still man on the screen. This thief, who was always generous with other people’s possessions and who walked out of Peter’s life willing to pay his debt with the only thing that was truly his. The only thing that mattered. His life. Peter hopes that Neal will find some peace in this thought in these final hours, that his last act of consequence was one of giving, not taking.
“Damn it, Caffrey!” A wide sweep of his arm clears stacks of paper and his pencil holder from his desk. The act is senseless and largely dissatisfying. It beats doing nothing. Peter gets out of his chair, paces his office, trying to revitalize his weary body. He doesn’t remember when he slept last. He couldn’t if he tried. Not until all is over. Perhaps not even then.
The phone on his desk rings. He answers it in a hurry, steeling himself for another No luck, boss.
It’s Delaney from the Counterterrorism division a few floors down. Peter has lost interest in the conversation already. He drops back in his chair, pinches his nose and waits for the other man to stop talking.
“So, can my guys borrow it for a couple of hours?” Delaney ends his explanation.
“Sorry, what?” Peter rubs his forehead.
“Your surveillance van.”
“Sure, um, when?” Peter switches windows on his laptop, briefly checking his teams’ whereabouts on the map.
“Now,” Delaney replies and sounds about as annoyed with Peter’s inability to listen as Peter is with his insistence to keep talking.
“What? No,” Peter frowns. “Both of our vans are out. One of my boys went missing. Try me again in a week. Alright?” He is ready to hang up.
“Come on, Burke,” Delaney grunts. “I parked my car next to your van five minutes ago. I’m still on the elevator up from the parking garage.”
Peter looks at the screen again, trying to figure out what the man on the line is talking about.
He hangs up the phone without another word, dials Jones’ cell on his way out the door, requests an ambulance before reaching the elevator.
Peter exits the elevator on the lowest parking level and stops to survey the rows of cars. His eyes lock on the far Northwest corner. It couldn’t be. Keller wouldn’t have. He wouldn’t have brought Neal here, trap him right under his nose, leave him to starve right under his desk. Peter’s blood runs cold. That is exactly what Keller would do.
Peter’s head whips around when the second elevator pings behind him. The unsuspecting security guard who steps through the parting doors stops mid motion when confronted with the agent.
“You!” Peter calls out and flashes his badge. “Find me something to break that van open. Now!”
The guard briefly looks around the garage, nods without any grasp of the situation but dutifully retreats back into the elevator. Peter turns on his heel, takes a half step then changes his course. He heads over to the vending machine by the stairwell access, hastily searching through his pockets for change. He comes up a quarter short. He slams his hand against the side of the machine, cursing the extortionist who determined that it is acceptable to charge three dollars for a bottle of water. A moment later the glass front of the vending machine shatters under the butt of his gun. He grabs two waters and rushes off in the direction of the parked van.
His steps slow as he approaches the vehicle, his legs suddenly reluctant to cooperate. His heart is beating in his throat. He slowly circles the van. It looks perfectly ordinary. The paint job, the model year, the FBI license plate. He peeks through the window. The view of the back of the van is blocked by a sheet of plywood. The sinking feeling in Peter’s stomach is suddenly sickening. Peter pulls a penlight out of his pocket and drops onto his front. He scans the underside of the vehicle. Concealed by the bumper, a power cord snakes under the vehicle and disappears. He takes a second look, for explosives or wires or anything that hints at a booby trap. Nothing else catches his attention. Peter is back on his feet instantly. He tests the side door of the van. It is locked. He backtracks to the rear of the vehicle.
Peter stares at the door latch then slowly wraps his fingers around it. Keller wouldn’t have. He wouldn’t have left Neal here, chained only inches away from an unlocked door. Peter takes a deep breath and pulls the latch. The van’s backdoor opens without resistance.
A wave of stagnant air hits him before the door is fully open. Then he stares into the white box that has been his consultant’s personal hell and his. He squints in the garish bright light, lets his eyes brush over the padded walls before he has the courage to look at the man curled up by the far wall.
“Neal?” Peter’s voice wants to fail him. His legs aren’t faring much better when he climbs through the door. Lying on his right side with his back to him, Neal doesn’t move. Peter drops to his knees behind him, slides two fingers against the pulse point on Neal’s neck.
“Come on, Neal,” he pleads and exhales in relief when he picks up the throb of the carotid artery and notices the shallow expansions and contractions of Neal’s chest. He rests a hand on Neal’s shoulder, superficially assesses the state of the other man’s body. Up close the injuries are more shocking than Peter is prepared for. He forces himself to look, to accept that what he stared at for days were more than pixels on a screen. He carefully touches his fingertips to Neal’s grossly discolored left side. The broken and scraped skin over the bruised tissue has begun to scab over and feels rough under his touch. This feels real. This was done to Neal. To destroy him. To ruin both of them.
“Neal?” Peter calls with more urgency. “Caffrey? Can you hear me?”
There is no noticeable response. Peter moves down Neal’s body to inspect the chain that tethers him to the corner of the van. The terminal link is welded to an anchor in the floor of the vehicle. At the other end of the two-feet chain a heavy bolt closes the metal ring that is clasped tightly around Neal’s left ankle. He grabs the head of the bolt. It is slick from Neal’s desperate attempts to free himself. Peter wipes his fingers on his pants. They will need a heavy-duty wrench to undo the bolt if not a saw. He sighs and crawls over to Neal’s head again.
“Hey, Neal,” he says softly. “I’m going to turn you onto your back, okay?”
Grabbing him by the shoulder and knees, Peter rolls the other man toward him. His body limply falls into the new position. Indecisively Peter settles a palm on Neal’s chest, rests the other on his forehead. His skin feels damp and too warm. He is breathing and that’s all that matters for the moment. Peter takes his consultant’s face in both hands. The thickening stubble is crusted with dried blood and conceals a discolored jaw. Peter carefully runs his fingertips over the bruising and scabbed wounds around Neal’s left temple and hairline. Then he cups his face again and strokes his cheeks with his thumbs.
“Neal. Wake up, buddy!” He demands and is surprised by the strength and authority in his voice. Neal’s forehead wrinkles. His eyelids flutter and open a small crack. His hazy eyes brush over the ceiling and over Peter’s face as if it was indistinguishable from the white padding on the wall. His lids drift shut again.
“No, no, no.” Peter pats his cheeks gently. “This is happening, Caffrey. I’m here. Open your eyes.”
Neal stubbornly ignores him.
“Damn it, Neal,” Peter shakes the other man’s shoulder now. “I know you can hear me. Now wake up. That’s an order. You don’t get to play possum with me, you got that?”
There is a small twitch in Neal’s face. Nothing more.
Peter rapidly changes plans. He lets go of Neal, leaving his head to loll to the side. Peter grabs one of the water bottles he confiscated from the vending machine. He digs through his pockets for his pocketknife. He folds out the corkscrew tool and drills three small holes into the plastic bottle cap. Peter takes hold of Neal’s chin, works the tip of his thumb between the dry and cracked lips. He squirts a small amount of water into his consultant’s mouth.
The effect is immediate. Neal opens his eyes wide.
“See,” Peter smiles softly and brushes his palm over Neal’s forehead. “Told ya I was real.”
Neal opens his mouth as if to say something, but nothing but a voiceless croak escapes his throat.
“Shhh. It’s alright, buddy. Don’t talk.” Peter soothes. He doesn’t need to hear him speak when his consultant’s feelings are evident in the moisture that wells up in his bloodshot eyes. Neal’s hand comes up to clutch his sleeve. It takes more than one attempt to keep his grip of the fabric. Peter briefly rests his hand over Neal’s for a moment of comfort then he extracts his arm from the other man’s weak hold. He slides his hand around the back of Neal’s neck.
“I need you to drink some more,” he requests and lifts Neal’s head a little while tipping the bottle against his lips. He continues to squeeze the bottle, dispensing small amounts of water at a time. Neal struggles to swallow, his parched and bruised throat resisting to take in the life-saving liquid. He coughs and turns his head. The agony the ripples of cough send into his broken bones is written all over his scrunched face. Worried, Peter puts the bottle aside for now and keeps his hand on Neal’s shoulder, hoping his gesture provides small comfort. Neal recovers slowly and blinks the tears away when his eyes meet Peter’s again.
“Where?” he speaks in a husky, feeble voice.
Peter sighs heavily and looks around the padded space. Neal must have nearly lost his mind in here, without a concept of the time passing, without a clue to what or where this room was, with a door and the answers to these questions just inches away but out of reach of the shackled man. Maybe one day Neal will appreciate the irony in Keller’s cruelty.
“Your least favorite place, Caffrey,” Peter says cryptically with a pitying half-smile.
Neal’s brow furrows.
“Tallahassee?” Neal breathes.
“Not quite, partner. Guess again.”
Neal twists his neck, trying to peek past Peter and out the opening in the wall of his prison. Peter looks on as Neal’s head sluggishly puts two and two together.
Peter can only nod his complete agreement.
“Days,” Peter states vaguely. He sorts through his thoughts, debating how much detail of the few days Neal can process right now. Did he know about the camera feed? Did he know that Peter and the FBI—Elizabeth and Mozzie—were forced to be helpless witnesses to his suffering? Neal has a right to know, but not now.
“Peter?” Jones, as he often does when his presence is most needed, materializes in the open van door, the security guard in tow. The junior agent takes a cursory look at the scene and doesn’t let his face reveal what is going on inside his head. “Ambulance is on its way, Peter. ETA in 5. Diana is waiting for them by the gate.”
“Thanks, Jones,” Peter nods gratefully. “They can’t move Caffrey until we get that chain off of him. There’s a 7/8-inch bolt closing the anklet.” Peter shudders at using that term for the heavy shackle around Neal’s leg.
“Maybe 15/16,” he continues. “That’s our best bet short of having to cut through the steel. See if you can find a wrench.”
Peter points at the toolbox the security guard is carrying. The guard silently hands over the tools and nervously stares into the van at the nearly naked, injured man sprawled out on the floor. Peter follows the guard’s line of sight. Without a word he shrugs out of his jacket and covers as much of his consultant as he can.
“Coming in,” Jones announces. He drops the toolbox by the door and slips off his jacket, handing it to Peter who folds it and slides it under Neal’s head. The junior agent grabs several wrenches and carefully steps over Neal, offering the wounded man a small nod.
“Hey, Neal, let’s get you out of here, alright?” He squats in the corner of the van, rests a hand on Neal’s shin as he inspects the shackle and the wounds Neal inflicted while trying to escape the restraint. “I’ll be careful, but this may be a little uncomfortable.”
Neal nods and doesn’t look at Jones. He looks at Peter instead, still circumspect, still worried that Peter may be nothing more than a fabrication of his clouded mind.
“El?” He asks hoarsely. He gasps in pain when Jones turns the shackle around his ankle. The fingers of his good hand clamp around Peter’s forearm.
“She’s fine. Worried about you, but okay.” Peter pats the back of Neal’s hand until it relaxes. “So is Mozzie. Well, what qualifies for okay in his case.”
Neal’s attempt at a smile is nothing short of sad. Then he grits his teeth, his fingertips digging painfully into Peter’s arm once again.
Jones shoots Peter an apologetic look.
“Sorry, this bolt is tight.”
“Do what you have to do, Jones,” Peter assures him. He pries Neal’s fingers from his forearm, lets Neal grab his hand instead. There is surprising strength in the hurt man’s grip. Perhaps the pain mobilizes the last physical reserves Neal has. Perhaps Neal needs the contact to convince himself that Peter is real. Perhaps he fears to slip away should he let go.
“I know it’s bad, kiddo. But it’ll be okay. Soon. I promise.” Peter squeezes Neal’s hand.
Neal looks at him as if his words have stopped to register.
“Tired…” he whispers and his eyes can no longer hold their focus.
“No, Neal!” Not letting go of Neal’s hand, Peter leans over his friend. He takes hold of his face, turning it to force eye contact. “Listen to me, Caffrey. I haven’t slept in days turning every filthy stone in this city for a trace of you. And you better show some damn gratitude by staying with me right now, you hear me? You get to sleep when I get to sleep. And that won’t be until some overpaid guy in a white coat has convinced me that my headache of a consultant will wake up the next morning to complain about the hospital coffee. You got that, Caffrey?”
Neal’s lips try to curl again. He opens his mouth to speak but can only nod weakly. Peter feels his friend’s fingers trying to grab his shirtsleeve but his grip slips.
“I’m here, Neal,” Peter softens his tone. He wraps both of his hands around Neal’s. “I’m not letting go. But I need your help. Just keep looking at me. That’s all I ask. And for once you’re going to do what I ask, you hear me? ‘Cause I’ll be damned if I go home to Elizabeth to tell her that I came this close and let you go.”
Neal is fighting. Peter can see that. Neal has been fighting since he was trapped in here. The white vinyl walls bear his bloody handprints. His escape attempts have done enough damage to his shackled leg that Jones’ careful touch sends waves of agony up his body. Now every ounce of strength Neal has left is consumed by his struggle to keep his eyes open.
“Where’s that ambulance?” Peter yells at the world outside the van.
“Coming, boss!” Diana’s voice sounds from a few yards away. She appears in the open van door seconds later. She tips her head at Peter and runs her eyes over the man covered by Peter’s jacket. Then she exchanges a worried look with Jones. “Do you need my help getting that thing off of him?”
“No, almost done,” Jones replies.
Diana steps aside to allow two of the EMTs to pass and climb into the van, which is suddenly as crowded as ever.
“Stay,” Neal breathes. “Please.”
“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to move.” Peter feels a hand settle on his shoulder.
Neal shakes his head.
“Sir, there is not enough room.”
“Peter,” Neal begs.
“Sir?” The EMTs hover impatiently at his back.
“I’ll be right here.” Peter squeezes Neal’s fingers. He reluctantly releases Neal’s hand and retreats to a corner of the van, giving the EMTs and Jones room to do their jobs.
Peter slumps back against the padded wall, and it suddenly feels like he needs the support to stay upright. His knees are wobbly, his hands trembling. His body screams for rest. The tension that has kept him going for days is draining from his muscles and collecting into a tight ball in the pit of his stomach. The sensation is nauseating. He can hear his pulse race in his ears. Everything else sounds muted and distant. Peter blinks rapidly, shakes his head to clear it. He wants to follow what is happening to Neal, wants to stay present for his friend, but what follows is a blur of sounds and sights.
He hears the EMTs speak to their patient with loud voices. They ask his name. Neal. Neal Caffrey is the quiet, sluggish reply. Peter doesn’t know if he expected something different. There are more questions about what year it is and what city they are in that Neal can answer. And questions about what day of the week it is and how severe the pain is that are beyond him. Peter thinks he hears his name, called in hoarse despair. He tries to peer past the busy hands that tend to his friend, that insert needles and hook up monitors and feed him oxygen through a mask over his mouth. He finds Neal’s eyes, wild and afraid and looking for him.
Then there is Jones’ triumph over the shackle and Neal’s heart-rending moan when the metal is lifted from the raw skin underneath.
They move Neal into the ambulance, and Peter refuses to leave his side. The space in the back of the vehicle is cramped. As the ambulance weaves in and out of lanes on the busy downtown streets, Peter sits quietly in a corner, keeps out of the way, wraps his fist around a grab bar as if his life—as if Neal’s life—depended on it. The sirens blare outside and he is convinced he can feel the sound throb behind his eyeballs. Inside, there are beeping monitors. Calm and regular, at first, then escalating in frequency. Then all rhythm is replaced by the agitated voices of the EMTs, by the buzz of the charging defibrillator paddles, by the thump that releases the current into Neal’s chest, by the squeaking noise the gurney makes when Neal’s battered torso arches up to crash back down an instant later. Once. Then again.
The EMT’s words enable Peter to breathe again.
“You alright, sir?” One of the technicians surveys him with concern.
Peter thinks he nods. The other man offers him a stick of gum. Peter thinks he accepts.
“A couple more minutes.” The man keeps talking to him, perhaps trying to avoid arriving at the hospital with two patients instead of one. “He a friend of yours?”
Peter knows he nods.
He is slow to surface. He doesn’t mind. It is warm and pleasant here. Wherever here is. He is not quite sure. Here isn’t real. That much is for certain. Reality looms some distance above.
Reality. He never quite understood the appeal. But he understood very early that being called a dreamer was rarely a compliment.
The cynics can go to hell. This is a good dream.
There is no pain here. And there is a summery breeze and the smell of the ocean. And there is a girl, with lips and soft hands that touch him. Everywhere. Her caresses are light and playful. He hears himself giggle when her hair brushes over his stomach and tickles. Giggling doesn’t hurt here.
Screw reality with its endless procession of concerned faces, with the prodding hands of doctors and with the FBI agents and their questions.
He wonders who the girl is today. He wants to look at her, wants to touch her. He is not allowed to. It’s the rule of the game they play. She’ll go away if he does. Her lips and hands touch his chest now and his skin isn’t bruised and broken.
By the time her kisses have traveled up his neck and along his jaw line he opens his eyes to look at her. He has never been one to play by the rules.
The eyes that look back at him are blue in a backdrop of ivory skin and framed by strands of dark, straight hair. Kate. Seeing her in his dreams doesn’t frighten him anymore. He embraces the moments his subconscious spends with her. Kate, the forever frozen image of youth and beauty that will still look at him with love and passion when his own youth has long been betrayed by his body. It is a comforting thought. His dreams are the only way of creating new memories of her. Memories that are not tainted by the violent end to their story.
She has been in his yearning fantasies longer than she has been in his life. The years in prison, the search for her after she had left him, the chase when she had become an instrument to control him. Maybe she was at home in his dreams more so than she ever was in his life. It doesn’t matter. He wants to kiss her with lips that aren’t cracked and swollen. She smiles and leans in and tastes of cherry licorice.
The voice is persistent. A rattling sound adds another layer to the nuisance.
Neal capitulates. With a heavy sigh he lets Kate slip away. He frowns, tightens his lips. Whoever has the nerve to intrude should know that he is displeased. He cracks an eye. A small plastic cup, rattling. A hand, wearing a wedding band, shaking the cup. Peter, attached to the hand.
“Four o’clock. Time for your meds, Neal.”
Neal blinks up at the man standing over him. Peter is in his beige suit and maroon tie, overdressed for a warm summer afternoon here in his backyard. He looks hot, tired and impatient. He shakes the cup again, the pills rattling inside.
With the arm that is not weighted down by a heavy cast and trapped in a sling Neal inches himself upright in the recliner. For a few seconds the stabbing pain the movement causes makes him dizzy. He grits his teeth, determines to camouflage the moan that escapes his throat as an innocuous cough. He pays the price when his ribs scream in protest. He swallows. Hard. By the time he has managed to slide his behind a few inches back in the chair and has adjusted the position of his splinted left lower leg on the footrest, he is panting. He engages the secret weapon to gloss over any imperfect performance: he smiles.
Above him, Peter raises an eyebrow and appears less than impressed. Disappointed, Neal’s grin withers.
“Shouldn’t you be at work?” He grumbles.
“Took off early,” Peter replies. “In case it slipped your mind, you should be in a hospital bed. Meds, Neal.”
The annoying cup rattles again.
“Snake oil peddler.” Neal mumbles and takes the cup. He balances it on his plastered in forearm and uses the fingers of his good hand to mine through the half dozen pills. He picks out the two chalky oblong tablets and slips them into the pocket of his Bermudas.
Neal recognizes a threat when he hears one.
“The pain killers make my head fuzzy,” he defends himself. “I’ll take a couple before bed, I promise.” He pops the remaining pills into his mouth and holds out his hand, urgently waving Peter to pass him the glass of water on the side table. It is a race against time, the bitter pills start to dissolve on his tongue.
Peter shakes his head and hands him the water. Neal empties the glass and pretends not to see the worried look on his friend’s face as Peter surveys the healing bruises on his face and the wound dressing above his left eye.
“I’m fine,” Neal says when he passes the empty water glass back to Peter.
Peter snorts and looks unconvinced. He puts the glass down, shrugs out of his coat and loosens his tie. Then he drops into the chair next to the chaise Neal is occupying. Peter looks up at the patio umbrella that protects their houseguest from the August sun. Neal watches him move his chair to the side a few inches, then shift a few more inches backward until Peter is satisfied to have found the shadiest position possible. Peter grabs the beer he has brought out from the kitchen and unscrews the top. He takes a long sip, sighs contently and relaxes into his chair.
“Tough day at the office?” Neal asks.
“Not bad.” Peter’s reply is clipped. He is not the chatty Happy Hour type today. Peter looks distracted, perhaps still thinking about whatever case has kept him busy all day. Neal begrudges him the mental diversion. After nearly a week in the hospital and a weekend of idle time divided between the Burke’s guest bedroom and the recliner in their backyard, Neal is stir-crazy. He knows better than to complain. He owes his early release from the hospital to Peter’s training in conducting hostage negotiations with terrorists. Neal isn’t entirely certain whether he or the army of doctors and nurses was the terrorizing party in those deliberations.
He remembers Peter. A dark silhouette against the glaring light. Cool, dry hands on his face. Words, tender and authoritative, and eyes, worried and full of warmth. He had searched for those eyes and their comfort when the room spun too fast around him and all those hands were on his bare body, holding him down, pricking and probing, causing more pain while claiming to help.
He was searching for Peter when the world had dropped out from under him.
He had found him hours later in a hospital room, where the lights were dimmed and numbing warmth was coursing through his veins. Through the haze he had found Peter’s hand wrapped around his, Peter’s head uncomfortably resting on the edge of his mattress.
“So, how bad is the coffee?” Neal had heard himself croak.
Peter’s head had lifted with a groan. Then Peter’s eyes had met his and Peter had called him kid and had awkwardly ruffled his hair. Neal remembers liking this, despite himself. It had felt like a loss when Peter had broken his touch with a self-conscious, exhausted and happy smile.
Neal glances over at the man next to him. The exhaustion is still there, the happiness not so much. He watches Peter take another drink from his bottle.
“You’re not selling those pills on some corner in Central Park?” Peter finally remarks.
“You wound me, Peter.” Neal melodramatically clasps his hand to his heart. He sucks in a sharp breath when he hits the sore scrape across his chest. It prompts an admonishing glare from Peter.
“That’s Mozzie’s job,” Neal quickly adds. The grin he expects to elicit doesn’t materialize. Peter silently looks him over again and Neal can’t help but feel judged unfavorably. He self-consciously tugs on his loud, short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt that was a gift from Mozzie and doesn’t go with the shorts Elizabeth dug out of Peter’s college box. Peter doesn’t seem concerned with his fashion choice. His eyes linger on the tracking anklet now fitted around Neal’s right ankle.
“You don’t trust me at all, do you?” Neal says, half in joke, half in offense.
Peter squints at him, long enough to make Neal uncomfortable. The cryptic half-smile that steals onto the agent’s lips doesn’t help. Peter inhales deeply through his nose and appears to relax again. They sit in silence, listening to the noises drifting over from the street and the neighbors’ yards. It’s not as comfortable a silence as it should be. Neal knows his ill-defined unease comes from somewhere deeper than the itching skin under his cast.
“Elizabeth took the dog to the park,” he states, for the sake of saying something. Peter nods. He knows. Of course, he does. Peter knows everything.
“Neal?” Peter finally says. To Neal it sounds like his friend is hesitant to voice what is on his mind.
“The deal you made with Keller.”
“Yes?” Neal still can’t tell where the other man is going.
“He did what he did to you because your deal was a bluff?”
The wheels in Neal’s head are turning. The question is vague. Peter doesn’t have all the facts or he wouldn’t leave Neal the breathing room to offer a vague reply.
“That’s right.” Neal agrees and keeps any overt wariness out of his tone. “Of course I bluffed. I had no choice.”
It isn’t a lie. There was a bluff. About the manifest, not about the treasure. But those are technicalities.
“El says you gave Keller a painting.”
“Keep talking, Neal.” Peter glares at him.
His guarded replies are beginning to irritate the agent. Neal needs to be cautious.
“Keller wanted proof that I had the submarine treasure,” he rattles off. “A long—and I mean long—time ago I, um, copied a Vermeer that has been unaccounted for since just before World War II.”
“For purposes of practicing your art,” Peter interjects.
“Of course,” Neal shakes his head with a snort. “I offered him that painting. He had no way of knowing what may have been on the sub. I mean we only saw a handful of items when Adler sent us on our little recon mission down Dynamite Alley. Beyond that, it’s anybody’s guess, right?”
Peter narrows his eyes. Neal reins himself in. This isn’t the time to be brazen. He can’t push Peter too far. Peter suspects—perhaps even knows—he is aware of the manifest.
“Go on,” Peter says without emotion.
“You know the rest, Peter,” Neal shrugs. “Keller was convinced I had the treasure. I showed him the Vermeer. He let Elizabeth go. In the end, Keller didn’t get what he wanted. He wasn’t pleased.”
Neal nods at his body. The gesture proves effective. Peter sweeps his eyes over the bruises and bandages visible under Neal’s clothes and looks to be wavering. Neal leans back in his lounger, watching Peter from the corners of his eyes as the agent appears to settle down. But Peter’s fingers continue to fiddle restlessly with the bottle, tension still playing around his mouth.
They don’t speak for minutes. Neal waits for the front door to open, for Elizabeth to come home to liberate him from this ill-disguised interrogation. He suspects Peter may be waiting for the same thing.
His assumption proves incorrect. Peter reaches for his coat, dips into his breast pocket and pulls out a small, clear ziptop bag. It doesn’t carry the official FBI evidence label. With a flick of his wrist, he tosses the bag at Neal. Neal catches it in his lap. Neal stares at the bag. It isn’t immediately obvious what it contains. Then he notices the tiny slivers hiding in the crease of the plastic bag.
“What’s this?” His perplexity isn’t an act.
“This is what the ER doctor picked out of that cut on your chest,” Peter states.
Neal feels panic rise in his stomach. His face doesn’t show it. Unconsciously, his fingers slide into the open front of his shirt to touch the strip of gauze taped over the wound. It doesn’t hurt so much anymore, now that the infection is under control.
“He gave those to me, thinking it could be useful as evidence in your kidnapping,” Peter continues, his eyes drilling into him.
“How very thoughtful of him,” Neal says flatly.
Neal keeps eye contact with him. Whatever Peter thinks he knows, it doesn’t prove a thing.
“I had it analyzed, Neal.”
“You mean the Bureau had it analyzed.”
“You heard me.”
Neal takes a deep breath, squares his shoulders.
“Well?” He prompts when Peter doesn’t volunteer further explanations.
“It’s 17th century Dutch poplar wood, Neal,” Peter says. “You know that it is. I know that it is. The lab is ninety-eight percent certain.”
“Hm,” Neal grunts. There is a smug grin that wants to sneak onto his lips. It is a reflex he has learned to curb when necessary. He licks his lips instead. There is no reason to mock Peter. He doesn’t deserve it. Peter deserves the truth. But that truth comes at a premium Neal isn’t willing to pay.
“Ninety-eight percent, huh?” He continues.
Peter sighs, whether in disappointment or relief, Neal cannot tell.
“Lab tests change, Neal. They get better all the time.”
Neal recognizes a threat when it stares him down from piercing brown eyes.
Neal holds his gaze until Peter deflates. The agent heavily slumps back into his chair and continues to nurse his beer. Peter has nothing. For Peter, two percent uncertainty may as well be ninety-two. In the court of Peter Burke, no one gets convicted on ninety-eight percent certainty. Not he, anyway.
Neal relaxes. He closes his eyes. Maybe he can doze off for a few more minutes before dinner, before Elizabeth fusses over him and Mozzie stops by and Sara calls to insist that she really wouldn’t mind seeing him in this condition. Maybe one of those painkillers wouldn’t be a bad idea right now. It wouldn’t hurt so much every time the dog nudged him with his heavy head or every time Peter helped him hobble up the staircase to get to the bathroom or his bed. The one-man circus act of changing his clothes with one functional hand, three busted ribs and a bulky splint on his leg would certainly be less agonizing. Perhaps he could even upgrade from his wardrobe of baggy shorts and oversized shirts. Neal sighs.
“What was it like, Neal?” Peter’s quiet words put an end to his reverie of a pain-free existence.
“What was what like?” Neal blinks at Peter, uncertain if he has nodded off and missed an important piece of conversation.
“Dying.” The word doesn’t roll easily over Peter’s tongue. He stares down at the hands that cling to the bottle in his lap.
“I didn’t die, Peter.” Neal’s response is a restrained, uneasy chuckle.
Peter glances up with that tense play around his tight lips that is a sure indicator he is in no mood for jokes.
“You came pretty damn close, Caffrey,” he says grimly. “In the ambulance and then again in the ER. You were gone.”
Neal shifts in his seat. What does Peter want to know? Does he need to hear that he was terrified? That he still jolts awake at night with a feeling of falling? That life means something to him?
“There was no tunnel with a light at the end of it, if that’s what you’re asking,” Neal says and swallows the lump in his throat. “No highlight reel spooled off. No bearded guy in a white robe, reciting a list of digressions and giving me the thumbs down.”
There had been nothing. That had frightened him more than anything. No sense of peace. No Kate, waiting for him with a soft smile and open arms. Only darkness and his thoughts, tumbling over each other, folding in on him one moment, then receding fast when he tried to hold on to them.
His gaze darts around Peter’s backyard and back to Peter who watches him closely. Whatever Peter sees in his eyes must satisfy him.
“I suppose that would have been a pretty long list,” Peter adds with a small smile.
“True,” Neal shrugs. “Would have been hard to get to the end of it in the couple of seconds I was out.”
“Ninety. Ninety seconds.” Peter states quietly. He takes a long drink from his bottle and sits back in his chair. He retreats into his thoughts, appearing to have lost interest in Neal for the time being.
“You know, Neal, some people would take this as an opportunity.” Peter unexpectedly picks up the conversation. “A second chance. Not one of those third, fourth or thirteenth chances I keep giving you and that you no longer seem to value, but a real one. A real kick in the butt from...”
“God?” Neal offers.
“Sure, if that’s what you believe in,” Peter shrugs.
Neal’s hand slides into his open shirt and settles over the broken ribs that are still hurting with every breath.
“I assure you it wasn’t God who did the kicking, Peter,” he says. A trace of affront seeps into his voice. Lectures, however well meaning, have never sat right with him.
Wary of his tone, perhaps even insulted by it, Peter narrows his eyes.
“I never wanted this to happen to you, Neal,” he says. “You’ve made mistakes in your life, we all have, but this is not how you should pay for them. Keller had no right to be your judge.”
“Then who has?” Neal challenges.
“Men better than him.”
“You mean better than me?” Neal adds.
“Maybe better than either one of us, Neal.”
Peter’s shoulders sag as he returns his attention to the bottle of warm beer. The toll the past weeks have taken on him are evident in every tired line in his face. He looks disappointed, beaten, nearly defeated. Neal feels no triumph at finding himself at the root of Peter’s desolation. Seeing Peter like this stings. More so than he can admit.
“I don’t get it, Neal.”
Neal puffs out a loud breath. For a Federal agent who questions people for a living, Peter’s prompts are frustratingly obscure.
“Why can’t you walk away from it, Neal?” Peter looks at him with plain, honest curiosity. “After prison, after losing Kate and nearly dying, after … everything. Why are you still sitting here, unable to be honest with me or with yourself? Is the temptation really so great that it is all worth it?”
Neal doesn’t know how to begin answering those questions, for Peter or for himself. There are no words to describe this need in his soul, this drive, this compulsion. It is not a material need, he knows as much. Taking things is a symptom not a cause.
“Just let it go, Neal.” Peter doesn’t ask, doesn’t plead. Spoken by him, it sounds like a simple request. And perhaps to Peter it is. Then again, perhaps Peter understands irrational compulsion better than he cares to acknowledge.
“Simple as that?” Neal asks.
Peter nods mutely and with an assertiveness that Neal takes as a personal challenge.
“Hand me that newspaper and pen,” Neal demands and indicates the New York Times Peter has brought out onto the patio and folded to the crossword.
“Why?” Peter eyes him suspiciously. Neal sighs in exasperation.
“Just give it to me,” he insists. “I promise not to touch your crossword.”
“Or the sports section,” Peter warns and reluctantly passes him the paper and pen.
Neal’s good hand quickly leafs through the pages.
“How about Arts? Dance? You okay with that?”
“Sure,” Peter relents. “Not much of a ballet guy.”
Neal awkwardly pins the newspaper under his cast and tears off a small piece of paper. The pen doesn’t feel natural in his left hand. It doesn’t matter. He doesn’t even have to look at the paper as he scribbles two words onto it. He folds the note, concealing its contents.
“Come closer,” Neal requests. “Give me your hand.”
With his expression somewhere between annoyance and intrigue, Peter turns his chair and moves within easy reach of Neal’s functional arm. He opens his palm. Neal places the folded note on Peter’s hand, closes Peter’s fist, keeps his own fingers cupped over Peter’s. He knows Peter could simply get up and walk away. He knows Peter won’t. Neal tips his head at the side table, at the beach scented candle and the lighter next to it.
“Take the lighter,” he says.
“What’s on the note, Neal?” Peter asks and hesitantly picks up the lighter with his free hand.
“You tell me letting go is simple,” Neal says solemnly. “Then show me. Burn the note.”
“What’s on the note?” Peter repeats.
“I think you know what it is.” Neal smiles.
“I don’t like playing games with you, Caffrey.”
“Yes, you do.”
Peter looks at his fist and at Neal’s hand covering it. He shakes his head, swallows. Neal feels Peter’s hand twitch under his. He holds onto it more firmly.
“Neal, if you tell me you stole the treasure I will have no choice—“ Peter’s voice is even but he looks nearly panicked now.
“I’m not that stupid.” Neal smiles mildly and shakes his head.
“Not an alias,” Neal states calmly. “My real name. Fifteen minutes at a computer, a few phone calls and all those answers, Peter, all those secrets, they are all yours.”
“I don’t believe you.” Peter’s eyes search his face, looking for truth or deception. Neal is certain his face reveals neither.
“Show me, Peter, simple as that. Walk away from it. Burn it.”
Read it, Peter.
The tip of Peter’s finger settles on the lighter’s thumbwheel.