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Working Lunch

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Working Lunch

Special Agent Lauren Cruz stood alone in front of the break room refrigerator regarding the handwritten note pasted to the door with a mysterious substance reminiscent of sealing wax. In large, eclectic lettering, it read, "Would the owner of the abandoned Mediterranean Deli Sub on the left side of the bottom shelf be willing to contribute it to the feed-a-felon program? I will pay in much good karma. Love, Neal." Thoughtfully, she pulled it down, examined the sticky substance, and decided it must be something to do with document forgery, like gum arabic. She opened the refrigerator and took out her brown bag containing Marie Callendar's pasta and cheese microwavable lunch and a plastic container of sweetened grapefruit wedges. She dropped the now useless sign in the waste bin.


Special Agent Ruiz and two other agents from the Organized Crime Unit spilled into the break room, talking. Two clerks and an administrative assistant sat at one of the four small tables, eating microwaved gnocci, lunchables, tuna salad and potato chips. One agent put his hand on the refrigerator handle and paused, reading the handwritten sign. Shaking his head, he opened the door and removed his own plastic refrigerator dishes. Ruiz joined him at the open fridge, looked straight at the bottom left side, then shouldered his colleague aside, dropping the thread of conversation as he rummaged along the bottom shelf. He swore.

"My sandwich. I can't believe someone took my fucking sandwich." His colleague showed him the sign on the refrigerator door. "Caffrey!"

Within five minutes, the people in the break room, the people in the hallway, and the junior agents at the bullpen desks where Lauren Cruz sat all knew that Agent Ruiz believed Neal Caffrey was the thief who'd taken his sandwich.


Lauren put her Marie Callendar's pasta lunch in the microwave and punched three minutes, then "start." She watched the dish rotate through the grimy window. Behind her, Agent Ruiz stormed into the room, his anger a cloud she could almost feel with her back turned. He stood in front of the vending machine and fished in his pocket for change.

"You have to work with him," he said. "Aren't you afraid to leave your purse lying around?"

Lauren turned to look at him. Failing to find sufficient change in his trouser pocket, Ruiz pulled his wallet out. He gave her the force of his stormy gaze. "I hope you White Collar Crimes guys all keep your desks locked. Burke shouldn't be keeping a pet thief around. It's a public nuisance."

The microwave dinged and Lauren turned back to it.


Caffrey himself appeared at the top of the stairs. Though he'd been given a desk in the bullpen, when Peter Burke was absent Caffrey often used his office. "Did I hear my name?" he asked, innocently.

"There you are, Caffrey," Ruiz yelled. "Rifling through Burke's desk? You should be in leg-irons, you thieving piece of shit. That was my sandwich. I did not say you could have it."

"Oh, man, I am sorry." Caffrey said as Ruiz took the stairs two at a time. "It was there overnight. I put up a sign –"

"I was on leave," Ruiz barked. He reached the top of the stairs and stalked after Caffrey as Caffrey backpedaled into Burke's office. Lauren and the gathered staff heard Caffrey say, "You know, I might have saved you from food poisoning. If you hadn't eaten it until today –" before the glass office door closed.


Lauren found the records Peter Burke needed so she was with Caffrey in Burke's conference room with them when Burke returned from interrogating the accountant. He'd come through the outer office which was still simmering with Ruiz's ire.

"Neal," he asked, "what is that all about? Ruiz is saying you stole something from him?"

Neal looked up and made an O with his mouth before answering. "It shouldn't have been anything. I put up a sign asking if anyone claimed it."

"What?" Burke included Lauren in the question. Lauren looked down at her files.

Caffrey's voice took on the timber of a child explaining why he was late getting home. " The sandwich had been in there for two days. I put up a sign asking if anyone –"

"You ate Ruiz's lunch." Burke threw down the folder in his hand. "Neal, how hard is this for you? Don't take things that aren't yours." Now Burke sounded like the aggrieved parent. "Ruiz is just looking for an excuse to complain about you to Hughes. Why on earth did you eat a sandwich that wasn't yours?"

"I was hungry and I didn't think anyone wanted it. I didn't think it was stealing."

Lauren eyed the exit and wondered if she should find an excuse to leave.

Burke was unimpressed. "Oh, it's never stealing if you want it. You cannot afford to make people around here think you're a risk to them. Bring your own lunch."

"I will. Peter, I will. Starting next month. I'll never go near the break room refrigerator again, I promise."

"Don't promise me. Ruiz is your problem right now. You have to go apologize to him."

"I said I was sorry. I just think he—"

"Go do a better job of it. He's rampaging around out there about you. He could make Hughes believe you're too big a disruption to the office."


Ruiz pulled the handle on the old-fashioned vending machine and the metal circle holding the candy in place rotated and withdrew from a Baby Ruth bar. The bar dropped with a thud to the base of the machine. Lauren watched Ruiz fish the candy bar out from behind the long door at the bottom. Ruiz wasn't her division boss, but he outranked her as head of Organized Crime. She considered for a moment whether she cared about that and decided that she didn't.

"What's your background, Agent Ruiz? Your family have money?" She opened the lid on the green container holding her cooked lunch, aiming the steam away from her.

Ruiz turned to face her with an appraising look. "We were pretty middle-class, yeah."

Lauren nodded. "We weren't. My dad had trouble getting citizenship. Kept getting deported. Mom barely supported us by cleaning hotel rooms." She found the plasticware in her paper bag.

Ruiz peeled the paper off his candy bar. "Then you've made good. Parents proud?" Condescending to make small talk with her.

"I make three times the most money my mother ever earned. And I make six times what they pay Caffrey," she told him.


Burke was smart. He'd heard it, too. He turned back to Caffrey. "Wait, what do you mean "next month?"

Caffrey shrugged. "I'll figure out how to make groceries stretch farther next month. I'm a quick learner."

"You can just buy a lunch from downstairs like everyone else does."

"I could if I had any money left." Caffrey tilted his head and grinned like he was saying something clever.

Now Lauren knew she should have left. Caffrey wouldn't want any witnesses to this confession. But it was too late.

"What are you telling me? You've spent all your money already? What on?"

Caffery sighed, no longer pretending. "Groceries, cell phone and the rest went for those cab rides to and from your place." He gave Peter an earnest look. "I'll do better with the groceries next month."

"You're out of food." Burke said it flatly.

"Yes," said Caffrey after a tiny pause.

"I thought June was feeding you."

Caffrey brightened. "She does. Her cook puts out the most amazing breakfast buffet. You've seen it." He smiled.

"But not lunch or dinner." Burke was unmoved by Caffrey's change to a chipper mood.

"I think that's more than she signed up for. Breakfast is actually more than she signed up for."

Burke slammed his hand down on the table. "Neal, dammit, why didn't you say something?"

"Say what? We've talked about my 'consultant's' fee. Whenever I complain about things you tell me to cowboy up and threaten to let me try prison instead."

"You're allowed to complain about not having enough to eat."

Lauren thought she loved Burke a little right then.

Caffrey smiled. "See, I think all my complaints are valid. I never know what you're going to think."

"What I think is you have to go make nice to Ruiz as soon as he goes into his office. Don't charm him, don't con him, just ask for forgiveness."

"Oh, come on, Peter."

"I mean it. He will make real trouble for you. Trouble we do not need. Make him a really good apology and I will buy you lunch."

"Nice lunch?"

"You can pick the place. But apologize first. And do a good job."

Lauren decided it must be time for her own lunch and slipped out the door.


Lauren stirred the pasta and sauce, still too hot to eat. "You must make even more than I do, Agent Ruiz."

Ruiz took a bite of his candy bar. "You know the pay scale. What's this about, Cruz?"

"Apparently he's been living on breakfasts only, for a week and a half." She put the lid back on. She'd eat at her desk.

"Oh, that's it, is it? You've fallen for that con man, too." Ruiz's tone dripped contempt.


Lauren arranged to be on the balcony near Ruiz's door when Caffrey, hat in hand, passed by her, managing a flirtatious almost-wink even as he went to beard the lion in his den.

"Agent Ruiz, may I please talk to you?"

Ruiz's answer was a mumble she couldn't hear. She pretended intense interest in the folder in her hand.

"I am so very sorry about what happened with your lunch—"

"Don't worry about it," Ruiz said gruffly.

"Don't worry about it?" Neal replied.

"It doesn't matter. I shouldn't have been such a prick. Now get out of my office."

"Okay," said Caffrey, bemused. "But I have a great speech ready." Lauren moved so she wouldn't be in the same place when Caffrey emerged.

"Go." Caffrey went.


Holding her steaming lunch, Lauren walked right into Ruiz's personal space. "I haven't fallen for him," she said, directly to his face. "But I do know what it's like to run out of money and food before the end of the month." She walked on, toward the break room door. "If it were my three day old sandwich," she said, "I'd shut up about it."


Lauren smiled to herself as Burke and Caffrey headed out the door, Caffrey plaguing Burke with lists of expensive restaurants he was considering for lunch.