Neal Caffrey slipped through the warehouse door, holding the handle as it swung shut. It made a whispery sound as it closed, but no one else was there to hear it. The lights were on, which was kind of strange.
The entire interior stood illuminated before him.
It was very, very shiny.
Neal had to force himself to move and get to work.
He’d made an unspoken deal with John Dublin. Neal was only going to take the Assyrian artifacts. It was unspoken since he hadn’t bothered to tell Dublin of this plan. He’d found them first and Dublin had been completely unsportsmanlike to sneak off with them. Neal was just taking back his rightful – for certain definitions of ‘rightful’ – property.
Dublin would find out how violating it felt when a competitor robbed your cache. Bastard.
Neal filled his duffle bag with his property. He might have accidentally dropped some Babylonian pieces in, as well. Dublin was a bastard for having loot from Iraq, anyway.
Suddenly, he heard shuffling just outside the door. Neal zipped up the duffle and retreated behind the shelving, surprised. He’d scoped this place out. Dublin was too cheap and stupid to have guards or a decent security system.
Except there were guards. Two big, mean-looking guys in typical all-black henchmen costumes, and they were dragging a third person between them.
Neal shrank back in his hiding place, alarmed.
Dublin wasn’t the nicest guy, but he wasn’t in the kidnapping business. Unless he’d diversified his specialties recently.
Stealing people was not cool.
The thugs dumped the person – a woman, from the size – just inside the door. They didn’t talk to her, or hit her, or anything. The guards left, slamming the door.
Neal waited for a few seconds, watching. The woman pulled herself into a sitting position. Her arms were cuffed behind her back, so she had trouble. It looked like she was gagged, tape wrapped twice around her brunette head.
Once upright, the prisoner’s shoulders heaved. Neal thought she might be sobbing, but then her foot smacked the concrete floor. She wasn’t crying; she was mad.
It didn’t look like the guards were coming back, so Neal crept out of hiding. He walked up behind her, not trying to sneak but afraid she might scream if she saw him.
She did try to scream. Her blue eyes went huge when she saw him and she jerked away. The gag muffled her cry, but Neal wrapped one hand around her face to mute it further. He used the other to lift her, half-dragging and half-carrying her away from the door.
The woman wiggled like crazy in his grasp. He was going to let her go once they were far enough from the door, but she somehow twisted around in his grip, bringing her knee up with poor aim but vicious purpose at his groin.
She hit him close to the balls, and it hurt enough for him to drop her, immediately.
He grabbed himself. “Ow!”
The prisoner started scrabbling away, heading back to the door. At least she wasn’t screaming.
“No, no, no!” Neal whispered, giving chase. He hauled her back behind the shelving, avoiding her flailing, dangerous knees. “No!” She tried to scream again and he pressed both hands firmly over her duct tape gag. “No!”
Finally, she shut up. Stopped moving, too. Held totally still and glared at him with big blue eyes.
“No screaming?” he requested. “Please? I’m not going to hurt you. I’m not with whoever tied you up, I promise.”
She continued to blink at him, then slowly tilted her head as she tried to withdraw from his hold. He held on to her face.
“No screaming,” he said again. “The guards don’t know I’m here.”
The woman nodded, once. Then went back to pulling her face away. Slowly, Neal let her go. She didn’t scream and he almost sighed in relief. “Okay.”
He got a better look at her, now. She was young, probably only a little older than he was. She wore what had once been a stylish, expensive pantsuit, now ripped in the knees and covered in dust, and closed-toe business pumps.
“Mmm,” she said, behind the gag, and looked at him pointedly.
“You want me to take that off?” he guessed. She nodded emphatically. “Are you going to scream?” She shook her head. “Promise?” That made her look like she wanted to kick him again, so he reached for the gag. “This is probably going to hurt,” he warned.
He tried to rip it off fast, but it was hopelessly caught in her hair. He had to pry with his fingers ‘til finally her cracked, irritated lips appeared. The thugs had stuffed a bandana between her teeth and he carefully tried to pull it out without sticking his fingers in her mouth.
She spat and coughed, wiped her face on her shoulder.
“Thanks,” she said, when she could speak.
“Who the hell are you?” was her next question, not all that friendly.
“My name is Neal,” he answered, giving her a big, not-scary smile. “I don’t have anything to do with those guys. I was just here…” he trailed off. “Shopping.” She didn’t look like she understood. “What’s your name?”
“Elizabeth,” she said.
“Okay, Elizabeth,” Neal said, warmly. “How did you end up in here?”
“I’m an event planner,” she replied. “I was checking out a museum for a reception location, and those guys showed up to rob it.” She looked at him. “I guess they were shopping, too. They took me as a human shield. The cops didn’t even show.” Her eyes went a little wet and Neal felt for her.
It did sound like typical Dublin. Stupid, rash, and ultimately completely unnecessary.
“I’m sorry.” Neal clapped his hand on her shoulder, gently. She looked at it suspiciously and he took it away. “I’ll get you out of here.”
She stared at him. “How?”
Elizabeth looked familiar. Neal couldn’t quite place her. She did kind of look like Kate, the same basic coloring. He was glad she was mostly composed. Other hostages would probably be a lot more upset. She was acting worried but not hysterical. She believed that Neal was going to get her out of the situation and that seemed to calm her down.
He just wasn’t sure how.
The guards threw a huge hitch in his plan. He could get through a locked door, but the armed men on the other side were bad news.
Elizabeth followed him at a short distance while he checked out the interior of the warehouse. There were windows. Vents in the ceiling. Not his style, but doable. Elizabeth was skinny, she’d fit.
“They say anything to you?” he asked her. “About their plan?”
“I think the plan was smash and grab,” she snapped. “They wanted to know if anyone would pay a ransom for me.”
She looked at him hard. “No,” she said, irritated. “I told them to call the FBI for tips on hostage negotiation.” Neal frowned. “They didn’t like that.”
“No, they wouldn’t.” He smiled at her, since she was still kind of glaring at him. “No FBI, no worries. We’ll be out of here in a jiffy.”
“My husband is an FBI agent,” Elizabeth told him, raising her chin.
Neal hid his reaction to that. “Well, you can tell him about this later. He can fantasize about arresting everyone.”
And suddenly he was pretty damn sure where he knew her from. It was the biggest coincidence ever to happen on planet Earth, but John Dublin had spontaneously kidnapped Peter Burke’s wife and stashed her in his cache the same weekend Neal was raiding it. He could hardly believe the odds, but he was pretty sure.
Once, for the hell of it, he’d followed Peter around New York. Reversing the usual cat-mouse patterns. It was useful for the mouse to know the cat’s habits. Neal had seen Elizabeth and been mildly surprised Peter and his Men’s Warehouse suits had such a beautiful wife. He’d never expected to see her again, and certainly not under these circumstances.
“What?” Elizabeth asked.
“Nothing,” Neal denied. He looked up at the ceiling. “How do you feel about heights?”
“Better than here,” Elizabeth said.
He went and grabbed his duffle bag, leaving Dublin a tiny origami swan with his initials penciled on the beak on the shelf he’d emptied.
Elizabeth didn’t comment on the bag, but she did roll her eyes.
“My hands,” she said, when Neal climbed up the wall and busted the vent out as quietly as possible.
Neal could have picked her handcuffs. But, he found, he suddenly didn’t trust her. She didn’t know who he was, but if she found out, he could kind of picture her trying to arrest him on Peter’s behalf. Maybe he was a little paranoid, but she wasn’t exactly a delicate flower, herself.
“I’ll hold on to you,” he promised.
“You can hold me and your loot?” Elizabeth asked, raising an eyebrow.
What followed was a dark and filthy journey through the warehouse vents, Assyrian artifacts strapped to his chest and Peter Burke’s wife wrapped intimately around his back, while he crawled forward on his belly. She held on with her knees, chin digging into his shoulder, and he kept her anchored with one hand on her hip.
It really, really sucked. The vents were pitch black and filled with dust.
Elizabeth was a real trooper. She didn’t complain, didn’t cry, and also didn’t request he ditch the heavy duffle bag that was seriously slowing them down. It might have been stupid, but that little detail actually made him really like her.
They finally hit an exit vent on the side of the building. Getting down was a little tough. Neal fell hard, landed on the artifacts, and Elizabeth fell on top of him.
He hustled her to his car, parked at some distance. The guards might check on her at any time and would be pissed to find her and the Assyrian collection gone. Probably really confused, too.
“Where are we?” Elizabeth asked, once she was in the passenger seat, duffle bag on her lap, as they drove off into the darkness. She peered out the windows. “This isn’t New York, is it?”
“Rural Pennsylvania,” he told her.
“Is that a hot spot for art thief head quarters?” she asked.
“Low storage rates,” he answered, honestly, and she chuckled.
“I want to go home,” she told him. “My guess is that you don’t like police, but…you can just drop me off.” She sounded a little worried, like she’d thought about the fact that she was in a car with a stranger, and still wearing handcuffs.
“I like cops,” he told her. “They tend not to like me.”
“I’ll take you home,” he promised. If only he could see Peter’s face when she got there.
Peter was actually closer than Neal thought. The FBI had been called in immediately, of course. They’d identified Dublin and located his lair, too. A SWAT team raided the warehouse only half an hour after Neal and Elizabeth escaped.
The other agents held Peter back while SWAT cleared the building. He sat in the van, uselessly, watching on stupid closed-circuit cameras. He didn’t see Elizabeth and his heart was seizing in his chest.
When they finally allowed him in, some of the other agents had already talked to SWAT and the three men arrested inside.
“Elizabeth isn’t here,” Cruz said, when he approached.
“Where the hell is she?” he demanded.
Cruz coughed and glanced at Jones. “Um,” she said.
“They don’t know,” Jones jumped in. “The two sidekicks are claiming they left her unhurt in the storage room.”
“Unhurt,” Peter echoed, in relief. “Let me talk to Dublin,” he demanded. By talk he might have meant “hit a lot.”
“Dublin is unconscious,” Cruz said.
“He had to be tazered,” Jones added.
“Good,” Peter said. “I mean, why?”
“SWAT said he freaked the hell out.”
Peter shook his head. “He’s been arrested before. Seven times.”
“Not about SWAT,” Cruz said. “Afterwards. They brought him into the room with all the evidence and he lost it. Started screaming and resisting and biting.”
“Why?” Peter stared at her. “Elizabeth…”
“He didn’t even remember her at first,” Jones said. “He said someone took, and I quote, “the Assyrian collection,” from him. And then he went crazy and bit people.”
“And got tazered,” Cruz finished.
“Someone else broke in here, stole stuff Dublin had already stolen, and took Elizabeth,” Peter clarified. His stomach was starting to sink with worry again.
“I’m sorry,” Cruz said, sympathetically. She looked like she wanted to hug him.
“Wake Dublin the hell up,” Peter said. “He’ll know who robbed him. The circle of Near East antiquity thieves is tiny. Wake him up!”
“Will do,” Cruz promised, striding off.
“Show me the evidence,” Peter said to Jones, who pointed the way.
Agents were already in there, dusting an empty shelf for finger prints. Peter looked around at the bookshelves of exposed artifacts. “Wow,” he cracked. “This is secure.”
“Sir.” One of his agents approached, holding a sealed evidence bag. The man was new to the unit, and his face was severe. “I found this. You need to see it.” Peter froze, terrified he was being handed something soaked in El’s blood. “It’s…” He trailed off, gave Peter the plastic bag.The object inside was white and light; made of paper. “It’s Neal Caffrey.”
Peter just stared at him. “What?”
“There’s initials on the beak,” the agent said. “N.C. I’m so sorry.”
“What,” Peter said, again, examining the object through the plastic. It was an origami bird and yeah, Neal Caffrey’s initials were printed clearly on its beak. “Oh my God,” he said.
His stomach flipped the right side out again, for the first time since he’d gotten that terrible call hours earlier. He exhaled hard, and the new agent stared at him in horror as Peter let out a deep, relieved laugh.
Peter got a call on his cell phone only ten minutes later. From a blocked number, and he answered it on the first ring.
“Burke,” he said.
“You will never guess what I stole,” Neal’s singsong voice came over the earpiece.
“Is she okay?” Peter demanded. “Let me talk to her!”
“She’s fine,” Neal said, “I promise. A little dirty and kind of cranky, but fine. She’s having coffee and it’s doing wonders for her mood.”
“Where are you?”
“Thirty miles down the highway,” Neal said, the very first time he’d ever answered that question when Peter asked. “First rest stop, 24-hour diner called Bob’s. They have a cappuccino machine.”
Peter was already walking out of the warehouse, his confused agents scrambling at his heels as he went back to the van. Only Jones hopped in beside him, the rest staying behind as Peter gunned it and headed out to the highway.
“Does she know who you are?” he asked Neal.
“I think she’s figuring it out,” Neal answered. “She’s a smart lady.”
“Yeah,” Peter said, voice suddenly thick. “She is.”
“You shouldn’t talk on the phone while driving,” Neal reproached, clearly winding the conversation down.
“Caffrey,” Peter said. “Thank you.”
Neal laughed lightly. “We’re even.”
“How’s that?” Peter asked, suspicious.
“John Dublin is going to be really, really mad at me,” Neal said. “And you’re going to put him in prison for a very, very long time, right?”
“Very, very,” Peter confirmed.
“Appreciate it,” Neal said, brightly. “Talk to you later, Peter.” And then he hung up.
It took half the time it should have to reach the diner. Peter floored it the entire way and squad cars with their sirens on followed him.
All the same, Peter wasn’t surprised when the parking lot was empty save a few big rigs.
He stopped the van, didn’t even bother parking or taking the keys out of the ignition. He raced inside, brushing past the waitress who tried to hand him a menu.
She was at an otherwise empty booth, hands wrapped around an enormous, bowl-sized coffee cup. And she looked fine. He practically vaulted over tables to get to her.
Peter hugged El hard and long, only letting go when he realized she wasn’t hugging back, her hands trapped in front of her. He pulled back and looked down, realized her hands were cuffed together.
“He didn’t pick them,” Peter said, confused. Caffrey did that like a compulsion.
“Yeah,” Elizabeth said. “He did. They were behind my back. He unlocked ‘em only to put them in front.”
Peter scowled, instantly pissed. He dug into his pocket for his own keys and quickly set Elizabeth free.
El shrugged. “Honestly, I think he was a little scared of me.”
“My last name,” she suggested, smiling weakly. “Instills fear.”
Impulsively, Peter hugged her again, and this time she could hug back.
“He was teaching me how to pick them,” she continued, “before he left. Did you know it’s not that hard?”
Peter rolled his eyes. He put an arm tightly around her shoulders and started to guide her out of the diner. Elizabeth halted for a second, reaching back to the booth and snagging something off the table top. Peter glanced down and she handed him an origami flower.
~please feed the author~