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"You didn't say this would be in the middle of nowhere," Neal complained as they drove out of Queens, heading northeast on Long Island.

Despite his words, though, he looked excited. Just getting out of the city was a treat for him these days. He didn't even complain (much) when Peter tuned in ESPN on the radio. After they turned off the freeway, Peter rolled down the window a crack to let in the smell of fresh-cut lawns and garden flowers.

Their target this time was a veterinary clinic that specialized in horses. Horses of the rich and famous, Peter thought: the clients were mostly upper-crust types who wanted their pretty, pedigreed racing Thoroughbreds and weekend riding horses to be as pampered as they were themselves.

The problem was that one of the veterinary assistants (allegedly) had a nice side job selling drugs on the black market. After halfheartedly pursuing chains of black-market antibiotics and painkillers coming into the city for months, the FBI had finally gotten a good tip on a vet tech named Jason Reyes who had been funneling painkillers, antibiotics and sedatives into New York's drug scene.

The vet clinic looked more like a country club, with rolling landscaped grounds and a paddock where healthy-looking equine patients were exercising under the attentive care of several equally healthy-looking young people in brand new, expensive sportswear. As they pulled in, Peter said, "It's like a spa for horses."

"Only the best for Satchmo, son of champion racehorses," Neal agreed with a straight face.

"I'll have you know that Satchmo is a direct descendant of three Triple Crown winners."

"Let me guess, the Triple Crown of fetching, rolling over, and digging up El's flowerbeds?"

Peter fought down a smile and reached into the backseat for a clipboard. He handed it to Neal, who stared at it as if he had no idea what it was for. Peter rolled his eyes and stuck a ballpoint pen into Neal's other hand.

"And what am I doing with this?"

"You are my dedicated amanuensis --" He shot Neal a "see what I did there?" smirk; Neal smirked back "-- who will be taking notes on my behalf."

"Peter, no one uses clipboards anymore except plumbers and home inspectors."

"Well, I guess Peter Lassen, horse owner and CPA, is a traditionalist." Peter pointed at Neal's watch. "Is that thing working?"

Neal touched the watch to his lips, then held it towards Peter's face. "Testing, one two three. Big Brother, are you listening?"

"Not at the moment," Peter said, lightly swatting Neal's hand down. "You can record up to thirty minutes of audio if you need to, but it's mostly the GPS feature that we need today." Well, that the U.S. Marshals needed. Peter hadn't wanted to try to explain Neal's anklet to the staff of Shady Maples Veterinary, and this was the only condition under which Neal had been allowed to leave the city without it, even though Peter had sworn up and down that Neal would be in his presence at all times.

Peter straightened his tie and opened the car door. The warm breeze, laden with the scents of hay, horses and stables, took him back to his childhood. He could close his eyes and imagine himself back in Syracuse, working a summer job at a local stable to save up for college.

This place was nothing like old man Olsen's ramshackle horse farm, though. An impeccably tailored receptionist greeted them, and Peter slipped smoothly into working mode while trying to keep an eye on Neal. This was useless as usual; Peter took his eyes off him for one second, and when he next looked around, Neal was out by the horse paddock, chatting with someone who -- Peter tried not to stare too openly -- looked very much like their suspect, Reyes.

... it was like herding cats. It really was.

He managed to restrain himself from his first two impulses, which were: a) march over there and drag Neal away by the arm, or b) find a nearby place to lounge against the fence and eavesdrop. This was, after all, Neal's area of expertise, and exactly why Peter had brought him along. Neal was brilliant at insinuating himself with people, getting them to open up. And, as long as they had been working together by now, it was no longer an effort (much) to relax and trust Neal to know what he was doing. Peter just wished that Neal would maybe, just once, discuss the plan with him beforehand.

 

***

 

"Looks like a real stuffed shirt, your boss," Reyes said, glancing over at Peter talking to one of the clinic's owners.

"Yeah, you know the type," Neal agreed. "No sense of humor, pays me half what I'm worth -- but with the job market these days, what can you do?" There was some commiserating nodding, and Neal said, "I'm looking into some sidelines, myself."

"Sidelines, huh." Reyes sounded interested.

Neal snorted. "You think I'd work for this guy if I wasn't playing a couple of angles on the side? And I don't mean his wife ... though she's a looker. Hubba hubba."

He wondered if he was maybe laying the sleazebag on a little too thick, but Reyes seemed to be eating it up with a spoon. They strolled back towards the clinic. By the time they got there, Reyes was already making overtures towards taking on Neal as a city contact for his drug dealing, and Neal had quietly turned on the watch's recording feature. This guy, Neal thought, was a total amateur. It was probably in Reyes' best interests that the FBI would be arresting him shortly. He might get a few years in the federal pen, but it was a lot better than a one-way trip to the bottom of the East River courtesy of the Mob or one of the city's gangs. Heck, he'd probably cut a plea deal and be out in a year or two.

Neal couldn't help feeling a bit smug. While Peter was sitting in the air-conditioned clinic sipping expensive coffee, Neal was out here doing the actual work -- and solving the case. Another win for Caffrey and Burke, Neal thought cheerfully. But mostly for Caffrey.

"Can I see the goods?" he asked Reyes.

"I don't know, man. I usually come in at the end of the workday, when there aren't so many people around. Gotta play it safe, you know? Why don't you come back tomorrow evening and I'll run you through the whole procedure."

"I can't. The boss is taking off tomorrow for a week-long conference in Chicago, and guess who gets to be his Man Friday." Neal toyed with the pen between his fingers. "C'mon, a quick peek won't hurt, right? Just tell 'em you're getting something for the horses." At which point he'd have everything he needed to take back to Peter.

Sometimes he wondered about this aspect of himself -- the part that liked showing off for Peter. It was this part of him that Mozzie always worried would get him killed someday. But he couldn't seem to help himself; he loved putting that look of surprised delight on Peter's face. Like delivering a gift, a case all wrapped up.

It still surprised him how much he liked doing this. It wasn't that different from pulling a heist -- well, okay, the key difference was that at the end you had to give the jewels or art or money back. But for him, that had never been the important part anyway. He wanted (craved) enough money that he'd never have to worry about it, but beyond that, he wasn't like Keller; he didn't care about having things just to have them. It was about the challenge and the thrill -- and part of the thrill, now, was seeing that electric snap in Peter's eyes, that little tug of shared exhilaration when the two of them managed to be in exactly the same mental place at the same time. It wasn't about being patted on the head, no matter what Mozzie sometimes claimed. It was about --

-- making Peter happy, maybe. Or making himself happy. Or perhaps that was the same thing these days.

"I guess it couldn't hurt," Reyes said, and Neal smiled.

They went into a surgical suite at the back of the clinic. It wasn't being used today; everything was sparkling clean and nicely tucked away. The room as big and well-appointed as any hospital's surgery; there were only a few incongruous elements, primarily a gleaming steel-and-cable hoist that Neal guessed was meant for maneuvering sedated thousand-pound patients around. Reyes avoided the actual surgery and instead led Neal through a small scrubbing-up room into a large, immaculate storage area.

"The good stuff's in here," Reyes said, patting the stainless steel door of a large refrigerator and then opening it to display rows of bottles and dated packages. "The trick is that it's basically a shell game. You just keep moving stuff around and make sure no one has an opportunity to do a full accounting."

He said it like he'd come up with it. Probably he thought he had. Just a dumb kid from the suburbs, Neal thought, who saw an opportunity to make a quick buck and had no idea he was messing with people at the other end of his supply chain who'd literally skin him alive if they thought he was trying to rip them off.

There were footsteps in the outer room and a ponytailed female vet tech stuck her head in. "Jason?" she said, with a glance at Neal. "What are you doing back here?"

Her tone was suspicious, and Neal was reminded that someone from the clinic had tipped off the FBI, although Peter had said he didn't know who their informant was. Clearly Reyes wasn't as subtle as he thought he was.

"I don't have to account for myself every minute of the day," Reyes snapped. "I was just going to take a look at Midnight and need to settle him down." His hands went into motion, reaching for a syringe and drawing something from one of the bottles -- blatantly obvious busywork, Neal thought. And a cover story that could be easily checked. SUCH an amateur.

"Okay," the vet tech said, frowning, and the ponytailed head withdrew. Neal heard her steps going very quickly across the floor of the scrub room.

"Damn it!" Reyes snapped, and started after her. Neal caught his arm.

"Hey, you're not done showing me --"

"Forget it!" Reyes said. "That bitch; I know she's been following me around. Help me stop her!"

Neal checked to make sure his watch was still recording.

 

***

 

The owners of the clinic were a husband-and-wife team, both with veterinary degrees. The husband was out of town, but Peter met the wife, Mary Beaumont. In contrast to their opulent surroundings, she was a sturdy, no-nonsense person with short-cropped graying hair and laugh crinkles around her eyes. Peter liked her immediately.

She gave him a tour of the clinic. Neal had yet to turn up again, which was starting to worry Peter. Mary Beaumont had just poured him a cup of expensive and very good coffee when one of the young horse-exercisers from the pasture darted into her office.

"Dr. Beaumont, he's at it right now!" she said breathlessly, then saw Peter and did a double take. "Oh, I'm so sorry, but -- Jason, he's --"

"It's all right, Audrey." Mary rose from her chair. "I'm sorry, Mr. Lassen, but there's something I need to attend to. You can wait here; I'll be back in a moment."

And Peter decided to take a leap of faith. If things were going down now, Neal was undoubtedly in the middle of it. "I think I'd better come with you," he said quietly, and showed her his badge. Audrey's eyes went round as pinballs. "I'm with the FBI. My name's not Lassen, it's Agent Burke. We're investigating a suspected theft of drugs from your clinic."

"Well, it's about time someone took it seriously," Mary Beaumont said crisply. "Audrey, where is Jason?"

Audrey was still darting nervous, awed glances at Peter. "In the cold room, Doctor. There's a stranger with him."

"Probably my partner," Peter said with an inward sigh, already moving towards the door.

Before he saw them, he heard voices raised in argument, one of them definitely Neal's. "You've still got plausible deniability if you don't do anything stupid," Neal was saying.

He and Reyes both spun around when Peter and Mary Beaumont appeared in the doorway. Reyes had a syringe in one hand. Behind them, Audrey cried, "See, Agent Burke, he's stealing things right now!"

"Agent?" Reyes snarled.

God save me from helpful civilians, Peter thought, reaching under his jacket for his gun. "Reyes, don't do anything stupid."

"You son of a bitch!" Reyes snapped at Neal. "You're with him, aren't you?"

"Got you on tape, too," Neal said.

Peter was already drawing his gun as Reyes spun around and stabbed the syringe at Neal's face. Neal brought up his arms automatically to shield his head and the needle plunged into his hand as Reyes slapped the plunger down. It all happened in a fraction of a second and then Peter was looking at Reyes down the barrel of his service weapon, swamped in cold fury. "Step away from him right now," he barked, and Reyes, looking as shocked as the rest of them, stumbled back. Neal yanked the syringe out of his hand and dropped it on the floor.

"What was in that?" Peter demanded, swapping his gun for his handcuffs. Reyes didn't put up a fight to being cuffed, though he was scowling bitterly.

"Horse tranquilizers, that's all," Reyes muttered. "Aren't you going to read me my rights?"

"You have the right to shut up," Peter informed him, and something in his tone must have told Reyes that it was a good idea to obey.

Mary Beaumont moved forward smoothly and took Neal's hand, examining it before picking up the syringe. It was mostly empty. "What exactly was in this?" she asked Reyes in a low, dangerous tone.

Peter missed most of the answer because he was too busy dialing Diana. "We've got a suspect in custody out here and we might need a medical evac," he said over the top of Diana's "Hi, boss." He looked over at Mary with raised eyebrows, thinking, Oh God, don't let it be lethal. Neal, for his part, just looked shaken and rather numb; he'd hardly moved since getting stabbed with the needle.

"It might not be a bad idea to have an ambulance on the way, but I don't think it's an emergency," Mary Beaumont said, drawing something into another syringe. "Can I have your arm, please?" she asked Neal, and he offered it up uncomplainingly -- a clear sign of how shaken up he was.

"My hand feels weird," Neal said, and blinked. "I feel weird."

"I want my lawyer," Reyes said from the floor. Peter planted a knee in his back, pushing him down again.

"I'm giving you an opiate antagonist," Mary told him. She retrieved an alcohol pad from a small box beside the refrigerator, dabbed his arm and injected him -- all so swift and smooth that she hardly seemed to move at all. "This should counteract most of the dosage, although I'm not sure quite how much you got. Are you having any trouble breathing?"

Neal shook his head. Over the phone, Diana's voice, small and tinny, said anxiously, "Boss, what's going on? I've got my finger on speed dial -- just tell me who you want me to call."

"Go ahead and send out a couple of agents to Shady Maples, and -- an ambulance?" Peter looked up at Beaumont, who moved her hand in a "could go either way" gesture. "And an ambulance," he said firmly -- he was taking no chances with Neal's life. "I'm told it's not an emergency. Still, sooner is better than later."

"On it, boss."

"How are you feeling now?" Mary Beaumont asked Neal. "I'm not used to being able to ask my patients that," she added, smiling.

At least if this had to happen somewhere, Peter thought, it happened in a place that was full of medical equipment and people who knew how to use it.

Neal's return smile was shaky. "Dizzy," he said. "Really dizzy." He reached for the edge of the nearest counter. He'd gone so pale that he was faintly green.

Peter left Reyes on the floor, and quickly and quietly moved into position to prop him up. The thought occurred to him as he did so that the last thing Neal would want was a bunch of strangers standing around watching him dealing with this.

"Is there somewhere private we can take him?"

"There's a lounge off the main office." Mary Beaumont moved in to take Neal's other side, with the speed and self-assurance of someone who spent a lot of time manhandling large animals around. Peter pointed at Reyes.

"Someone needs to keep an eye on him."

Someone should probably be him, as the only FBI agent on the scene, but he wasn't going to leave Neal alone. If he had to explain in his report how the suspect escaped through his own negligence, well, he'd just suck it up and take his lumps.

Some of the other veterinary assistants had showed up to see what was going on, so Peter left Reyes under the guard of a half-dozen curious college-age kids, and, along with Mary, helped Neal out of the room. The lounge turned out to be a small, pleasantly decorated room with an attached bathroom. Mary settled Neal on the couch and took his vital signs, while Peter went around the room closing the blinds; he wasn't sure if the dimmer light would make Neal feel any better, but it gave him something to do.

"Respiratory depression is the main danger to look out for," Mary explained, speaking to Neal but with her words pitched for Peter as well. "You have a little respiratory slowdown but it's not too bad."

"That's good, then?" Neal asked in a faint voice.

"It's good," she confirmed.

"I'm going to go secure the suspect," Peter said. He reached down and gripped Neal's hand, remembering at the last minute to go for the uninjured one. Neal gripped back; his fingers were cold and clammy. "Can you stay with him while I do that, Doctor?"

Beaumont nodded. "Bring back gauze and antiseptic, and I'll bandage his injury."

One of the vet techs showed Peter a nice secure closet where Reyes could be locked ("I want my lawyer!") and, leaving two of them guarding the closet, he hurried back to the lounge with a probably excessive armload of first-aid supplies.

Neal didn't seem to have gone massively downhill in his absence. Mary was sitting beside him on the couch, and Neal cracked an eye open when Peter came in. Diana called while Mary bandaged Neal's hand, giving Peter something to do rather than hover -- she wanted to tell him that the FBI agents would take about 45 minutes to get there, and the ambulance was some ten minutes out. "This couldn't happen in the middle of town, could it?"

"Murphy's Law," Peter said.

"How's Caffrey?"

"He seems to be stable, I guess." Peter looked over at Neal, who had his eyes closed again. His chest heaved with short, shallow breaths.

When Peter hung up, Mary said, "I don't think there's much else I can do for him at the moment. His respiration is still strong, and it should metabolize out of his system fairly quickly."

"Why don't you go check on the kids," Peter said. He was thinking that they didn't know for certain that no one else at the clinic was involved. Reyes might have an accomplice who could let him out of the closet, and he wasn't about to let the bastard get away if he could help it.

Mary nodded and rose from the couch. "If he starts having trouble breathing, or falls asleep and you can't wake him up, come get me immediately."

She left the room, and Peter took her place on the edge of the couch. Neal was a limp puddle of woe, conforming to the shape of the couch as if he had no bones. "You looked like you were having more fun the last time you got drugged," Peter remarked.

"I was having more fun," Neal groaned. "I thought it felt like getting shot with horse tranquilizers the last time, but if this is what horse tranquilizers actually feel like ..." He shook his head. This turned out to be a mistake; all the color drained from his face and he gagged. Peter hastily grabbed the wastebasket and passed it to him just in time.

"She didn't say anything about throwing up," Peter said. He didn't really want to hover -- he wouldn't want to be hovered over at this point -- but wasn't sure what else to do. "You want me to get the doc?"

"No, it's just mostly the room won't stop spinning," Neal moaned, and then doubled over the wastebasket again. "Oh God, my head," he managed between spasms of retching.

Peter went to the bathroom, where he dampened a wad of paper hand towels and filled a plastic cup with water. Neal mopped his face and dropped the crumpled wad of towels into the wastebasket, then collapsed back onto the couch. "I'd like to die now," he said in a small, pitiful voice.

"Are you feeling -- you know, dangerously awful, like run-and-grab-the-doctor awful?" Peter asked.

Neal coughed and cleared his throat. "Not really, I guess. It's more like that part of being drunk where it stops being fun and everything keeps moving."

"Ouch," Peter commiserated.

He moved the wastebasket into the bathroom and then perched on the edge of the couch again, wanting to help but not sure what to do. Neal had rolled over on his side while he was throwing up and stayed that way, one arm thrown over his eyes while the rest of him seemed to be trying to dissolve into the couch. Peter had never seen Neal sick before -- at least, not quite this sick. It was no surprise to discover that Neal, like an ill six-year-old, exuded misery out every pore. He wasn't whiny about it; he was simply completely, utterly, inarguably blatant about being miserable. Just looking at him made Peter's stomach and head hurt.

Talking about the case might distract him. "You said you got Reyes confessing on tape, right?" Peter asked.

"Mmmm," Neal managed. "Uh-huh." He raised the wrist with the watch. "'sall on here."

"Good job," Peter said. He tried laying a hand on Neal's back and lightly rubbing. He wasn't sure if it would be appreciated, but Neal didn't pull away. "You did good," he added, reiterating it.

Maybe it was just the drugs making Neal more pliable than usual, but he slowly melted into the backrub, like a cat being petted, and closed his eyes.

"Did I ever tell you about the summer I spent working on a horse farm?" Peter asked.

Neal made a faint noise that sounded questioning as well as miserable, which Peter took as a signal to continue.

"It was the summer of my senior year. We had this neighbor, Rod Olsen -- really a character, the kind of guy who can carry on a feud for twenty years, but will give you the shirt off his back --"

By the time the ambulance arrived, Peter had moved on from learning to ride horses to embarrassing anecdotes from his days as a probie. He'd also helped Neal to the bathroom a couple of times; whatever was in his system appeared to be processing out through his kidneys. Neal was able to sit unaided while the paramedics examined him, though Peter kept a steadying hand on his arm. A little color had come back to his face.

"I'm fine," Neal said, seeing Peter studying him anxiously. He sounded hoarse, but a lot stronger. He waved a hand. "Go make sure Reyes hasn't gone anywhere."

Reyes hadn't -- though he was threatening to sue. Peter decided to leave him to that, and went back to find out how things were going with Neal.

Neal was, begrudgingly, being made to sip an energy drink. "He's doing fine," the head of the paramedic team told Peter, rolling up a blood pressure cuff. "He might be shaky for a couple of hours and it couldn't hurt to have someone stay with him overnight just in case, but I don't see this as a life-threatening situation. You might want to get a second opinion from a doctor."

Mary Beaumont, in the doorway, flickered a quick smile when Peter looked over at her. "Animal tranquilizers are more dangerous to humans than to animals, not so much because of the dosage but because of how they're metabolized," she said. "It couldn't hurt to take him by the hospital. I'd do that for one of my techs if they accidentally dosed themselves. But if he's feeling fine, I expect he's fine."

"Fine is pushing it," Neal muttered, but the energy drink seemed to be staying down, and he looked much steadier.

 

***

 

Between waiting for backup, and taking what felt like a thousand witness statements, and booking Reyes, and processing evidence, it was almost midnight by the time Peter pulled up outside the townhouse.

He'd let Neal go much earlier, re-ankleted. Mindful of the advice to keep an eye on him overnight, he'd dispatched Diana to drive him to Peter and El's place; Neal seemed unsure about this, but Peter was certain that Elizabeth would love having him to fuss over all evening.

The lights in the house were dim. Peter let himself in quietly, and found Neal on the couch, covered with a blanket, watching an old movie with the sound turned low. Peter was reminded briefly of Neal earlier in the day, limply draped over Mary Beaumont's couch, but he was a lot more animated this time, and raised his head when Peter came in. Satchmo, on the floor beside the couch, hopped up to greet his master.

"We do have a guest bedroom, you know," Peter said, toeing off his shoes. He kept his voice low so as not to disturb El. She said she never minded -- and he could see the warm glow of a reading lamp casting its light down the stairs from the open bedroom door -- but he still preferred not to bother her when he came in late.

"I know," Neal said. "Just not sleepy yet."

In other words, he was staying up until Peter got home, too. "Is El asleep?"

Neal nodded. "But she said to tell you --"

"That she doesn't mind me waking her up. I know. How's your hand?"

Neal flexed his fingers. "Hurts a little, but not much. El said she'd take me to emergency care in the morning to see if I need any other medical whatevers."

Peter retrieved a beer from the kitchen. He always needed some decompression time after coming home from work; his brain was spinning too busily to let him sleep even if he did go to bed. He sat on the edge of the coffee table.

"You want some couch?" Neal said, moving his legs to clear a space. He gazed wistfully at Peter's beer. "El wouldn't let me have wine. She said it might interact with the depressant already in my system."

"My wife is an intelligent lady."

"I don't think it's in my system anymore," Neal said hopefully.

"Neal, you spent the afternoon throwing up. No, you can't have wine."

Neal slumped dejectedly, then perked up. "By the way, I think Elizabeth left dinner for you in the 'fridge."

She had indeed, a plate covered with plastic wrap, with a sticky note on which she'd scribbled, simply, a heart and "Hon". Peter took it back to the living room and ate sitting on the edge of the coffee table.

"What are we watching?"

"The Man Who Knew Too Much. Hitchcock."

"Ah," Peter said, "spies, assassins, and the general message that civilians are far more competent at solving crimes than the actual police."

"Only you would get that message out of a classic tale of suspense and intrigue."

"I call 'em like I see 'em," Peter said, digging into his dinner.

"I know," Neal said, and there was something so warm and affectionate in his tone that it made Peter look at him sharply, but Neal was innocently watching the screen.