“OK, Tim, you got that? This time, you’re going to pause at the top of the stairs before you give Neal the stinkeye and then come on down towards his desk.”
Tim DeKay looked up from his notes; he was going over all the blocking for the brief scene he was about to shoot. It was a single tracking shot of Peter rising from his desk, moving down the office stairs and across the bullpen to stand at Neal's desk for an exchange of dialogue, which had already been shot. Since this scene was being shot in a single take using a boom-mounted camera, precise timing between Tim and the camera operator was going to be the key to pulling it off. They’d done two run-throughs successfully and now only had to commit the scene to film.
“Got it, Russ.”
His friend and sometime White Collar episode director Russell Lee Fine smiled kindly. “Last shot of the day for you, and I swear we’ll get you on that plane back home to LA on time, OK?”
Tim smiled back appreciatively – his son was graduating from middle school in the morning, and there was no way in hell he was going to miss it.
“OK, take your mark when you’re ready. Clear the set!”
Standing still for a last second wardrobe straightening, Tim took up his position behind Peter Burke’s desk and centered himself. It took him a moment to get into the emotional space he would need – anger, a touch of exasperation – and, having achieved it, he waited for the set to clear and the director to call,
Face stony, Tim rose abruptly – too abruptly, apparently, because the desk chair flew back and away, crashed into the rear wall and ricocheted back at him.
“Cut!” Russell called and the scene was reset.
Face stony, Tim rose abruptly, subtly controlling the chair’s trajectory with his leg, and moved purposefully away from the desk. He was through the office door in two strides, barking out, “Neal!” as he strode to the top of the stairs.
“Cut!” Russell called. “Tim, you were supposed to pause before saying the line.”
Tim groaned in frustration at his misstep. What the hell was wrong with him today? “Sorry, sorry, everyone.”
Face stony, Tim rose abruptly, controlling the chair with his leg, and moved purposefully away from the desk. He was through the office door in two strides, paused for a beat and to breathe out forcefully through his nose, then barked out, “Matt!” and moved forward.
He was to the top of the stairs before he’d realized his flub.
“Tim?” Matt drawled, grinning up at him from his position sitting at Neal's desk, and twirling a pencil.
Marsha and Sharif laughed as Tim gave a frustrated, “Grrrr,” and, backbone going loose as he stopped halfway down the stairs, turned around and dragged himself back to his mark in the office.
Face stony, Tim got up, strode through the door, remembered to look extra imposing when he paused, then yelled, “Neal!” as angrily as he could muster. He noticed that Matt practically jumped in his chair and was secretly pleased with the effect his voice had had on his co-star. He had just hit the top of the stairs when a POP and a flash overhead made him jump. Looking up, he saw a small lick of flame coming out of one of the overhead lights, and the thing was dangling from its rigging directly over where he was standing. Caught mid-stride, he scrambled to try to stop, but lost his footing.
Tim felt his stomach drop as he realized his right foot was coming down where there was no stair. Scrabbling for the railing, he felt his shoulder wrenched as he spun around 180 degrees, but his grip failed and he fell down the stairs on his back, head first. With a sickening THUD, his head hit the floor – the thin layer of carpeting on the concrete floor of the soundstage providing no cushion whatsoever.
“Tim!” someone shouted.
Tim lay there, his legs still on the stairs, wondering how the hell he’d gotten to be on the floor.
“Tim?” he heard a voice call to him, felt a hand on his shoulder. He couldn’t make out whose face was hovering above him from all the lights shining behind their head, but he figured it was probably Marsha or one of the PAs.
“Call an ambulance! No one move him, don’t even touch him!” Tim could hear Matt yelling.
“Ow,” Tim managed to say before everything went a little grey and also a little sideways.
“Mr. DeKay?” another voice said to him, and suddenly there was another light in his eyes, but this one was like a pinpoint, and it seared into his skull viciously.
“Stop that,” he said and then blacked out once more. When he came to again, he felt like he was moving, and there were sirens. Was he in an ambulance? The light around him was strangely diffuse and everything was blurred.
“You’ll be OK, boss,” a voice said, and a hand on his knee steadied him, made the panic subside a little bit. He was trying to open his eyes to see who it was when he passed out again.
When next he woke, he was strangely aware that some time had passed. He was lying in a hospital bed, propped up in a semi-seated position. The lights were very dim, which was a relief, because his head was absolutely splitting.
“Oh, thank god you’re finally awake,” a female voice said.
Tim turned his head to the left. “El…” Elisa, he was about to say – the name of his wife; if she had flown all the way across the country, he must have been hurt pretty badly. But it was not she sitting beside him; instead it was…
His co-star Tiffani Thiessen moved towards him, trying to blink back the tears in her eyes and failing miserably. Her small hands fluttered around his arm and shoulder, straightening out his hospital gown's sleeve needlessly. “Tiff? No, Hon, we haven’t had a fight. Don’t you remember? You had an accident at work, at the FBI.”
He blinked at her, not quite understanding her words. “At the –“
She nodded and dashed away the tears that had fallen down her cheeks with her fingers. “Look at me, I’m ridiculous! But when I got the call you’d been hurt –“ Her chin began to quiver as more tears fell, and Tim could see from here that she was trembling.
“Hey, it’s OK,” he said as reassuringly as he could, instinctively holding out an arm to her. She tucked herself into him and sobbed a little into his shoulder and, he noticed with dismay, her trembling worsened. “I’m OK,” he pointed out, patting her on the back lightly and wondering why she was getting this emotional. Sure, they were close friends and even had dinner a few times a year when they were home in LA during hiatus, but surely she shouldn’t be this upset. Unless…
“Hey, I’m not dying or anything, am I?” he asked, suddenly concerned.
She sniffled and stood back from him. “You’re dying?” she asked, face on the verge of utter collapse.
“I don’t know – what do the doctors say?”
“Not that you’re dying, that’s for sure!” she said, slightly hysterical. “They just said you had a Grade 3 concussion and theywantedtokeepyouovernightandtheyneededmoretestsOHMYGOD!” Her voice was hitting dolphin-like levels of shrillness, and Tim winced.
“They said nothing,” he said firmly. “I haven’t even really been awake until now, have I?”
“I suppose not,” she said, sniffling some more. “I don’t like getting those calls, hon, I really don’t.”
“Well, thanks for coming down,” he said, meaning it, but she gave him a look.
They were interrupted as a doctor whose name tag said, “Dr. S. O’Shaughnessy,” entered the room. “Oh, Mr. Burke, it’s good to see you awake and aware,” he said in a lilting Indian accent that made Tim look between his face and his nametag several times, confused.
The Indian man with the Irish name performed some tests on Tim, who was so very confused – was he really so identified with the character he played on a USA Network show that his doctor couldn’t get his name right?
“OK, just follow the tip of my pen with your eyes… good. Now then, do you have any pain?”
“My skull feels like it’s splitting open,” Tim said. Tiffani made a moue of distress.
“How about your vision, any blurriness?”
“Good. Any halos or bright lights – perception changes?”
“I suppose if I had any changes in my perception, I might not know it, would I?” he said, feeling like a smartass but not really knowing what else to say.
O’Shaughnessy smiled blandly. “All right, Mr. Burke, everything seems to be normal, but we’ll still want to keep you overnight for observation. I’ll just talk to the nurse about getting you some pain meds, all right? I’ll be by in the morning to see how you are doing. Have a good night.” With a smile, the doctor was gone, and Tim stared after him.
“Why does he keep calling me that? Mr. Burke?”
“Well, Hon, you can’t expect everyone to be calling you ‘Agent Burke’ all the time, come on. It’s not like it’s a title like ‘doctor’.”
He looked at her sideways. “Just what is wrong with everyone around here?” he asked finally. He was so damn confused – why was everyone acting as if he was the character he played on television, including the woman who played his wife?
“Aw, I know you’ve had a blow to the head, but let’s leave the ego at the door, huh?” She leaned into him and kissed him rather soulfully on the mouth. Tim blinked at her in astonishment. “I’m off to get some coffee – can I get you anything? Water? Juice?”
He looked at her as if she had sprouted an extra head. Shrugging, she left him alone for the time being.
Tim watched her go then glanced around the room, looking for his cell phone so he could call Elisa – she was probably worried sick, and there was no way he’d make his son’s graduation now. He was disappointed to the point of wanting to cry. All he wanted to do was hear his family’s voices.
He slid over to the side of the bed and looked through the nightstand – no phone there. He got to his feet and swayed dangerously – he was dizzy, but he had to find his phone, had to contact his family and let them know he was all right. When he felt steady on his feet, he crossed to the small wardrobe that stood in the corner of the hospital room. He had just located his pants when a voice behind him stopped him in his tracks.
“Peter Burke, just what the hell do you think you’re doing out of bed?”
He turned around – too fast, because another bout of dizziness overtook him – to find Tiffani standing in the doorway. He swayed on his feet again and she rushed forward, her surprisingly strong hands grasping onto his arm and pulling him toward the bed. He was glad to have her with him, because by the time he made it to the bed, he nearly fell onto it.
“Christ,” he muttered miserably, eyes screwed shut to combat the spins.
“You got that right, mister,” she said angrily. “You’ve had a nasty blow to the head, you need to rest, and you need to stay in bed. God, you are worse than Neal when you’re sick!”
Tim was feeling too sick and weak to give her words much attention for several seconds, but his brain did eventually catch up. “Neal?” he asked.
“He’s worried sick, you know,” she said. “He thought you were dead, I think, just for a second there. Poor thing. And this hospital’s outside his radius, so unfortunately he can’t come by tonight.”
“That’s… too bad,” Tim said, mainly to get her to stop talking. Where was the nurse with those extra pain meds?
His discomfort must have been evident on his face, because she stopped talking and began to fuss over him again, pressing kisses to his face the intimacy of which was altogether more disturbing than any of this surreal experience.
At long last, the nurse came in with the medication. The pills kicked in within fifteen minutes, and he was soon drifting off to sleep.
“You need your rest,” Tiffani said to him. “I am going to head home, Hon.” She kissed him yet again. “I’ll see you in the morning?”
“Sure,” he slurred before passing out for the last time that day.
The next day dawned bright and sunny, but Tim was still confused. The name tag on his hospital wrist band read, “Peter Burke,” and, when he’d finally gotten to his pants, so did all of the identification in his wallet. He managed to locate his jacket as well, with his damn cell phone in the pocket, which he frowned at as he scrolled through the contact database. Names like “Neal” and “Diana” and “El’s Mom” stared up at him like they belonged there. Where was his wife’s number? His own parents’? His agent, goddamn it?
An orderly brought him his breakfast at 7:00 am and he asked where he was. “Bellevue Hospital,” the man said, shaking his head as if he wasn’t asked that every day. He probably wasn’t.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” Tim muttered. Why was he in Manhattan instead of a hospital near Silvercup Studios in Queens? Why would they take him here and not the hospital nearest the studio? So much of this was adding up to something that didn’t really add up, and if his head didn’t already hurt, he knew it would be anyway. Either he was embroiled in some sort of elaborate hoax – one he wouldn’t put past Willie or Eastin – but would Tiffani take part? It was that or else he was seriously more brain-damaged than they had led him to believe.
His musings were cut off by the arrival of Tiffani, yet again, at around 9:00. She went on a bit about having to postpone some meetings in the city, but it was OK because he was her husband and she needed to take care of him, and really, she was a terrific actress, but there was such a thing as taking a role too far. He’d never known her to be this Method before, not in the four years they had been working together, not even once.
He took a deep breath – even his thoughts were babbling.
By late morning, Dr. O’Shaughnessy had come by yet again and told him he could be taken home by his wife.
“You know, we’re not really married,” Tim said to him, trying and failing to keep the condescension from his voice. “We just play husband and wife.”
The doctor smiled indulgently. “Don’t you worry, Mr. Burke. There is no judging here – you don’t have to explain your lifestyle choices to me. I have a wife and two girlfriends,” he said conspiratorially before taking his leave.
Too exasperated with everyone’s bizarre behavior to put up much more of a fight, Tim gave it up and let the nurses bully him into a wheelchair, then waited curbside as Tiffani went to get the car. But when she showed up in the freaking sponsor-placed Ford Taurus, he thought that might be the last damn straw.
“Just what the hell is going on here?” he said sharply, rising from the wheelchair so abruptly his head spun, but ignoring it.
“I am taking you home,” Tiffani said in a steely tone. He realized she was looking at him with a hard glint in her eyes. “And if you object to my using your car, then you should have thought through using mine as a decoy in that case out in the Hamptons last week. The dealer still hasn’t gotten the fish smell out of the upholstery, you know.”
“And while we’re at it, Agent Burke, I think it’s high time you act just a little bit appreciatively today. I know you’re hurting, but you’ve been a huge asshole ever since yesterday. And if you don’t want to have to take a cab home, I suggest you rein it in a little, mister.”
Tim had to admit she looked kind of scary in her four inch heels with her hands on her hips, glaring at him, so he shut his mouth and got in the car. He stared broodingly out of the window as she drove through midday traffic, lost in thought, and barely registered that they were heading for the Brooklyn Bridge and not uptown toward his place on the Upper West Side. When they pulled up in front of the familiar house on DeKalb in Brooklyn, he blinked up at the façade, open-mouthed, and wondered when, exactly, this practical joke was going to play itself out.
He fumbled with the plastic shopping bag with his personal effects that the hospital had given him and stood on the sidewalk staring up at the house as Tiffani pulled keys out of her purse and headed for the front door.
“Something wrong?” she asked, and the slightly annoyed, passive face she wore morphed into a worried one. “Can you make it up the steps? Oh, Hon!” She swept down the stairs and took him by the arm, supporting him as he mounted the stairs.
He resisted as well as he could – wouldn’t the Wangs be home? Wasn’t it bad enough that tourists came to gawk at their home since it was featured on a national TV show, and here they were barging in? He was about to say something to that effect when he stepped through the vestibule and into the living room.
Of course it was different from the real house, whose front room was slightly smaller than this one, which was what made him gape. There was more light here than the original house as well and, as he wandered inside, he saw that the kitchen, which had been a tiny utilitarian thing in the real house, had been built out and remodeled – exactly as the one had been on set.
Tim’s eyes boggled as he moved slowly through the house. Yes, it was the set for the Burke home he had become so familiar with – and yet not. The furnishings were much more solid and better-finished since they weren’t parts of a set. Gone, too, were the dings that marred the furniture from being moved and repaired constantly. The place smelled different – homey, with flowers and undertones of old cooking smells like garlic and herbs. And –
“Woof!” came a low snuffling bark of a sound as a yellow Labrador rose from a dog bed near the back door and ambled over to investigate. Tiffani ignored him, but Tim reached down to greet him – he briefly wondered which of the three dogs they typically used to play Satchmo it could be since they all looked alike to him – but when the dog neared him, its head snapped up and he growled.
“Oh!” Tim said, standing up abruptly and pulling his hand away.
“Satchmo!” Tiffani admonished the dog, giving it the stinkeye. Satchmo whined to be held under such scrutiny and avoided her cold stare. Silently, she pointed to the doggie bed and the beast retreated to it, lying down with a complaining whine and a grumble.
“Sorry, Hon, but you know, he’s getting old.”
“I probably smell like the hospital,” Tim said lamely.
She smiled. “You should sit down. Do you want something to eat?”
“Sounds great.” He noticed that she’d taken a lot of stuff from the fridge – which appeared to be filled with actual fresh food and not the past-due horrors it was typically filled with; you only made the mistake of pouring that milk into your coffee once! In the last three minutes she was a fair way towards concocting what looked like a formidable omelet and his stomach growled.
She made him sit at the dining table and they began to eat, she prattling on about the business of running an event management company, and he wondering just when she’d had the time to do all that research, being a working mom and all. By the time they were halfway done with the meal, he’d given it up, and his head had begun to throb painfully, and felt like it was splitting open.
Tiffani seemed to notice. “Oh, Hon, you look so pale. We should get you to bed,” she said, and led him to the stairs.
The bedroom was as he remembered it the last time they’d shot a scene there (complete with the fireplace on the wrong wall given the construction of the place), and the inviting blue bedding that was a lot softer than he remembered. He stripped down to his undershirt and shorts and climbed under the covers, wondering which side he was supposed to take; a pair of reading glasses and the latest James Patterson thriller on one of the nightstands clued him into which side must be “Peter’s,” and he sank down into the fluffy pillows with a groan. Lying on his back, he saw the antique ceiling light hanging just above – not the light rigging he’d have expected to see instead – complete with a very thin strand of a cobweb bobbing gently in the air currents in the room.
“Poor thing,” Tiffani said, sitting right beside him and rearranging his hair to her liking. The gesture was so intimate, so loving, and just so wrong he literally didn’t know how to react, so he just lay there. “Get some rest, Peter,” she said.
She leaned forward to kiss him on the tip of his nose then left, shutting the door quietly behind her.
When he woke hours later, the traffic sounds outside lulled him into believing he was in his apartment in Manhattan for just a few seconds – until he opened his eyes. Sitting up in the bed, he looked around the alien-yet-familiar room and yawned. Pushing the comforter off of himself, he got up and decided to explore. The closet was packed with women’s clothes, but one of the dressers in the room clearly belonged to a man. There was a worn-out-looking T-shirt from his own alma mater, LeMoyne, that the wardrobe people had let him use once. Picking it up, he noticed it smelled freshly-laundered. Further exploration of the upstairs showed that most of Peter’s clothes – his suits, jeans, sweaters and such – were in a closet in the guest room across the hall from the master bedroom. He chose a comfy-looking pair of jeans and a soft, cranberry-colored, cotton sweater, saw that they were his size, and pulled them on. Heading up the stairs to the third floor – he’d never been up this far when they’d filmed the Pilot episode – he found an additional guest bedroom that clearly pulled double-duty as a man cave, and a home office.
The man cave was an interesting space. On one wall was a futon that would convert into a Queen-sized bed; perpendicular to this was a very expensive and comfortable-looking Barcalounger-type thing in hand-tooled leather with a perfect view of the rather high-end media center set up along the opposite wall. Another wall was taken up by shelving on which a variety of memorabilia both personal and collectible was to be found, including a few diplomas, some family photos of himself at various ages posing with people he’d never met, the famed ten-year FBI service pin set in a pinky ring he always thought was butt-ugly, and a few baseballs that had been signed by various Yankees, from Mickey Mantle to Don Mattingly to David Cone. There was an old desk beside it with a well-worn chair and he decided to take a seat and explore.
The desk was old and battered – clearly some sort of family relic that had been handed down and actually used. There was an old-fashioned blotter on the top of it, inside of which was shoved a variety of letters and bills; the file drawers were stuffed with personal papers like tax returns and the detritus of home ownership – old mortgage statements and insurance premium notices and the like. Each one was addressed to Peter and Elizabeth Burke. An older model personal computer was stowed beneath the desk, and when Tim fired it up he found a browsing history filled with personal and professional searches – everything from coin forgery to restaurant reviews. The email account was a similarly detailed glimpse into the life of a man Tim embodied but clearly did not know; he opened an unviewed email from an uptown art gallery at random and read through it quickly:
Dear Mr. Burke,
I’m happy to let you know that the space you are interested in for your function is, in fact, available on the 19th of September, and you can call me with a credit card number to secure the reservation. I’m sure your wife will be thrilled with her birthday surprise – I’ve attached a few menus from some of the better caterers we’ve worked with for your information.
Tim shut down the pc and sat back in the chair – if this was a practical joke, someone had gone to an awful lot of trouble, and if it was a hallucination or a dream, it had a lot more texture and reality to it than any he’d experienced before. As crazy as it seemed to him, he found himself now in a place where Peter Burke was real, a place where this man’s life and deeds affected others and had made a real impact.
Hell, maybe he was Peter and had been all along, and Tim DeKay was the dream, the fantasy character, as ridiculous as it seemed to him. At any rate, if he was going to be here, living this man’s life and walking in his shoes, then he’d better at least play along.
He wandered back down the stairs to the second floor and ran into Tiffani – no, her name was Elizabeth – coming up from the first.
“Thought I heard you puttering around up here,” she remarked. “Everything OK?”
“Yeah, I – was catching up on my life,” he said, lamely adding, “you know, email and things.”
“Oh? I guess you’re feeling better after your nap?” He nodded. “Well, come on down and have some dinner. I picked up some steaks from the market.”
“Steak?” he asked, brightening; was it his favorite here, too?
“Don’t get too used to it, Mister, it’s only because you were hurt,” she chided, and preceded him down the stairs.
Dinner was delicious – Elizabeth was a much better cook than he ever remembered Tiffani being on the occasions he’d been a guest in her home – and he helped her clear the table while listening to her vent about a problematic client. She made him sit in the living room afterwards with a cup of herbal tea (no alcohol or caffeine with a head injury) and he flipped through the channels half-heartedly, looking for something interesting. He settled on a rerun of CSI:Miami when he realized it wasn’t the episode he’d done a guest shot on.
Elizabeth joined him minutes later, taking the remote from him when he offered it, and they passed another couple of hours watching nothing particularly interesting. Soon she was yawning loudly. “Gosh, I think I’m going to go to bed, Hon. I didn’t get much sleep last night.”
He made sympathetic, apologetic noises as she pushed herself off her end of the couch. She leaned over and kissed him. “You coming?”
Tim froze, then attempted to cover by squeezing her hand lightly. “Nah, I’m not really tired yet – that nap took care of that.”
She shrugged and smiled, then toddled on up the stairs. Tim breathed a sigh of relief to see her go; while she was pleasant company and he genuinely liked her, she was not Elisa, not his wife who he loved, and he couldn’t really share a bed with her, not even just to sleep.
He fell asleep on the couch watching Letterman and woke with a crick in his neck.
Tim sat in the living room with the blinds drawn and the TV’s sound turned down low, not-watching a morning talk show that was not exactly, not quite The View. Not-Barbara Walters was interviewing someone that wasn’t at all like Tommy Lee Jones about a movie he was co-starring in with a person that didn’t at all resemble Diane Keaton. His head was thankfully less tender and pained today, with less throbbing and overall agony, but he still felt off, and the bright sunlight filtering through the front windows was giving him a migraine.
He roused himself when there was a knock at the front door. “Ma-Neal!” he stuttered when he’d opened it.
“Hey, buddy! We missed you at the office.”
“I’m on sick leave.” Tim stepped aside and let his friend in; how strange it was going to be to interact with “Neal” and not Matt – would he be all that different?
“You’ve been out for two days.”
“I’ve had a brain injury,” Tim pointed out.
Neal just looked perplexed, then shrugged as he held up a shopping bag. “I brought lunch.”
Lunch was delicious baguette sandwiches with German potato salad and Tim reflected that these people certainly ate well enough. “This is really good,” he commented. “Thanks for bringing it by – it was really generous of you. I mean, you must be on a pretty fixed income, right?”
Neal’s brows furrowed. “I am. Thanks for noticing.”
“And I mean, you came all the way to Brooklyn, and in the middle of the day, too. Traffic must’ve been murder. Did you take a cab?”
“A friend dropped me here,” Neal answered slowly.
“Well, I really am grateful.” Tim shoveled a forkful of salad into his mouth and smiled appreciatively.
“I’m a thoughtful guy. You feeling OK?”
“Still get kinda woozy, but the doc said that’d be normal for another day or two. I don’t think I’ve ever slept this much in my life, either.”
“I’m sure it’s all very restorative.”
“Listen to me talking all about myself – how are you? Gosh, I’m sorry if what happened the other day was scary for you – Elizabeth said the hospital was outside your radius, and you were worried.”
“Well, it was kind of hard to see you that way, Peter. And in the middle of this big case and all…”
Of course, Tim thought, there would naturally be a case-of-the-week. “Sure. The case.”
“Because the Secret Service agents have been running roughshod over everyone, taking over your office, the conference room. It’s driving everyone nuts.”
“Yes. That’s. Unfortunate.” Tim said blandly, wracking his brain for past scripts and plotlines from the series – he couldn’t remember one case, really, where the Secret Service had been that heavily involved. “But you know, they’ve got a job to do, too. So.”
Neal put his sandwich down and stared at him, his blue eyes suddenly shrewd and calculating. Tim felt like the other man was looking right into his soul; he shifted uneasily in his seat and struggled not to look away.
“Tim?” Neal said a full minute later.
Shocked, Tim looked at him with his mouth hanging open for several seconds before he found his voice. “Matt?”
The other man shook his head. “Nuh-uh. Neal. But… shit, don’t tell me this is happening again? Not now, not this week.”
“What do you mean, ‘again’? This has happened to me before?” Tim suddenly felt light-headed.
“Not to you – to me,” Neal said, leaning forward and peering into his face. “Hey, calm down, you look too pale.” He picked up a section of the New York Times that sat nearby and started fanning Tim with it.
“You suddenly found yourself living inside the fictional world of the television character you portray?”
“No, the opposite – I woke up on a set that looked exactly like my apartment.”
“I dunno, there was an episode where I was supposed to shoot you with a sniper rifle?”
Tim noticed that Neal was extremely uncomfortable. “I remember that day – you got sick and wound up in New Jersey or something – we had to delay shooting for three days. That was you and not Matt? You coulda fooled me.”
“I guess I’m a better actor than I thought.”
“Guess I’m a worse one. How’d you know I wasn’t Peter?” Tim was disappointed in himself – if anyone ought to be able to nail a Peter Burke characterization, it ought to be him.
“Nothing you did or anything,” Neal replied, clearly backpedalling.
“Come on, I can take it,” Tim said in a surly tone he suspected made it sound like he couldn’t.
“You were too nice to me. And appreciative. Peter’s… not, usually.”
“Oh,” Tim said, brows furrowed. “Nice to hear I take you for granted.”
“Not you! Peter!”
“And he doesn’t, not really! It’s just – he’s a lot more gruff. Or something. I should shut up now.”
“Great, my character’s a total douche bag.”
“He’s not! He’s my best friend!”
They looked at each other for a beat and then Tim picked up his fork again.
“So… the case?” Neal said.
“What about it?”
“We still need to work it.”
“You need to work it. I need to try to figure out a way to get back home.”
“Don’t be that way.”
“What ‘way’? I’m not an FBI agent, Neal.”
“But you play one on TV.”
“Hardy-har-har. I’m serious – what I know about law enforcement I learned guesting on Law & Order and CSI. You don’t want me anywhere near that office, believe me.”
“But it’s a really interesting case. Counterfeit currency – you know you love it.”
Tim raised an eyebrow. “I know nothing. What else?”
Neal gave him an innocent look. “Nothing.”
“There’s an angle here – you need something else.”
“You’re more like him than you think,” Neal muttered.
“I have eyes, Neal. Spill.”
“Fine. Those Secret Service agents are assholes and they hate me and treat me like a second class citizen.”
“That’s supposed to convince me.”
Neal frowned, as if he was thinking something over. “Fine. Peter needs to be there, Tim. I don’t have to tell you how much being seen to be successful means to a man’s career – you’re an actor, you get that, right?” Tim nodded. “Well, after the whole Cape Verde debacle, Peter really needs a box ticked in the win column. This case could be it – it’s big, a real career highlight.”
Tim squirmed – of course he appreciated how much a moment like this would mean to Peter; he thanked god and his agent every single day that he could be a working actor and make his living doing what he loved so much. “Fine. I’ll go to the office tomorrow morning.”
Tim got a later start than he wanted to the next morning, having fallen asleep too late on the couch again. Elizabeth woke him with a kiss and a mug of coffee, which he drank too quickly when she made to kiss him again and burnt his mouth. Kissing her still felt like cheating, and while he saw a hurt expression pass fleetingly across her face, he didn’t know what else to do.
He blearily made himself trudge up the stairs for a shower and a shave before getting dressed. He frowned at the contents of Peter’s closet – the suits really were abysmally ill-fitted, and he found himself missing the Hugo Boss ones he was typically given, the ones tailored to his build that fit him like a glove. At least the shoes were comfortable and worn-in.
He contemplated taking the subway, but then thought better of it since he might need the car later. Surprisingly, there was no traffic on his way, and no commercials on the radio when he found a station he liked, and he got a parking spot right next to the elevators when he arrived at Federal Plaza. He wondered if it was always like this here.
Neal was already sitting at his desk when Tim arrived, and he rose with a smile and followed him to his office like an eager puppy. “What?” Tim asked.
“Nothing – I’m just happy you made it.”
Tim gave him a look and surveyed Peter’s office. Where normally it was tidy and orderly, today there were files and papers strewn all over the small meeting table in the corner. “What’s all that?” he asked.
Neal groaned. “Agent Braxton from Secret Service,” he said ruefully. “I told you I didn’t like her, and her lack of tidiness is the least of it. Want me to have a probie get it all out of here?”
“Well, I mean, I wouldn’t want to inconvenience anyone,” Tim said.
Neal gave him a look. “You want me to have a probie get it all out of here, trust me on this.”
“OK, fine.” Tim reasoned the less exposure to other agents while he was adjusting to being Peter Burke the better. When all of the materials had been boxed up and dumped on an unused desk in the bullpen, Tim sat down at the meeting table with Neal across from him and took a deep breath. “Tell me about the script – I mean, the case.”
“Well, it’s a pretty ingenious thing, really, I wish I’d thought of it.” Neal looked at Tim with the ghost of a smile on his face, then looked disappointed when Tim didn’t pick up the bait he’d just laid down. “Anyway, these guys are counterfeiters and they’ve been amassing large quantities of one dollar bills.”
“They’ve been bleaching them.”
Tim was confused. “Why would they bleach money? I mean, I’ve left some in my tennis shorts when they’ve gone through the wash, but –“
“So they have the right kind of paper.”
“But then they’ll be useless.”
“Not if you print on them, they’re not.”
“What would you print on them?” Neal looked at him, slightly amazed, and Tim felt a bit defensive. “Not a law enforcement professional here, Neal!” he felt compelled to remind him
Neal spoke slowly. “If they have an old plate for, say, a hundred dollar bill…”
He looked at Tim hopefully.
“And the right kind of ink…”
Tim’s face remained blank.
Neal rolled his eyes and sighed. “They could print hundred dollar bills on top of the paper they have, Tim, and no one would be the wiser. The paper would be legit, the dates old enough so that the modern security measures won’t be in place, and they’ll be very rich people.”
“Really? People would do that?”
“You are adorable,” Neal deadpanned.
Tim scowled. “Gimme a break, huh? I only just got here. So what’s our involvement?”
“To catch them?”
“You’re going to have to stop being sassy. Plus, I’d have thought that counterfeiting of US currency would fall under a different agency’s jurisdiction.”
Neal smiled. “A good point – you are learning. Counterfeiting money does, in fact, fall under the jurisdiction of the United States Secret Service, which is why the odious Agent Braxton has been darkening our door. She brought the case to us, but since the suspects may be looking for someone to help them with the finer points of the operation, and they appear to be operating in New York, they came to the best person to infiltrate the bad guys’ organization.”
Tim looked at him, a curious expression on his face.
“Me! They need me to go in undercover. Jeez, you sure you’re at all familiar with the central premise of our work here?”
“Sometimes I wonder. But what’s our ‘in’? It’s not like Neal Caffrey was a world class counterfeiter on top of everything else.” Neal's eyes slid to the side. “Is Neal Caffrey a world class counterfeiter on top of everything else?”
“Well, no, but Steve Tabernacle is.”
“Isn’t that convenient.” When Neal made a yeah, well, face, Tim went on, “You are well-rounded. I mean, I always thought it was a little too good to be true, but you forge paintings, bonds, whiskey…”
“Who told you about the whiskey?”
Tim continued, ignoring him, “You’re an accomplished con man and bank robber, and, oh yeah, you fence competitively in your spare time. Now you’re telling me you can counterfeit US currency. When do you take the time to actually sleep?”
“I usually sculpt shirtless to relax. Anyway, Steve’s specialty isn’t the plates, it’s the inks.”
They were interrupted by a small commotion in the bullpen. Looking up, Tim saw a petite brunette in a power suit standing beside the desk where Neal had moved all the files from Peter’s office, hands on her hips and tapping a Manolo Blahniked foot on the floor.
“Ugh, the dreaded Agent Braxton,” Neal said, looking genuinely discomfited.
Tim watched as she glared up in the direction of his office and headed for the stairs, teetering precipitously on her five inch heels. “Just what is the meaning of the relocation of my files to that desk, Caffrey?” she asked in a posh British accent as soon as she arrived. They both stood as she entered the room.
“They were taking up room in Agent Burke’s office,” Neal pointed out.
Her large, hazel eyes flashed at him. From this close, she couldn’t have been older than 23; Tim was reminded of his pre-teen daughter. “You think I give a fig? I need somewhere to work, and this was the only acceptable spot,” she said arrogantly.
“Except it’s someone else’s office,” Neal pointed out. “And there’s a bunch of desks available in the bullpen, which you are very welcome to use.”
“The day I take orders from a convict will be the day I die.”
“Tell me how you really feel,” Neal practically sneered.
She stepped into his personal space, about to say something, when Tim cleared his throat.
“Where I come from, it’s common courtesy to respect your hosts,” he pointed out dryly.
She looked at him as if seeing him for the first time and took a step back, composing her expression with obvious effort. “I’m sorry, we haven’t been properly introduced. Amanda Braxton, Assistant SAIC in the Financial Investigation Division at Secret Service. And you are?”
Tim pushed his chest out, freeing up his diaphragm – an old trick he learned in grad school that he knew would make his voice deeper and more resonant. “Special Agent in Charge Peter Burke. I kinda run the place.”
She blinked at him, her eyes going wide. “What a pleasure to finally meet you, Agent Burke,” she said, mustering as much charm as she could, which seemed to be a struggle for her. “Your staff have been – almost accommodating,” she said as she gave Neal the stinkeye.
“They’ve got important jobs to do, Agent.”
“Well, let’s hope catching a violent gang of counterfeiters can be fit in, hmm? There’s a meeting to discuss tactics at 10:00, I do hope you will be able to make it? I understand you’ve been under the weather.”
“But I’m fine now. I mean, what’s a little traumatic brain injury between friends?” Tim said lightly, taking an instant dislike to Agent Braxton; it was like she was drawn from some sort of misogynist’s cookbook of clichés.
“Smashing,” she said. “See you in the conference room in an hour, then.” She turned on her heel – and looked like she’d come unbalanced for a brief second there – then left the room.
“Wow, you didn’t lie about her being unpleasant,” Tim said to Neal.
“I wonder if she’d melt if we threw water on her.”
“Be nice,” Tim admonished. “Now what was that about these guys being violent?”
Neal waved his hand dismissively. “Meh, they may have committed a murder or six down in Miami.”
Tim’s eyes boggled. “Neal! We can’t send you in undercover if you’ll be in danger. Think of the liability! It’s not like you’ve trained for this!”
Neal looked confused. “I do this all the time.”
“Yeah, but, I mean, Diana and Jones and the others – they’ve been through years of on the job training, right? Plus, they’re armed, and they earn hazard pay if they go under cover. What do you get? Does the FBI even provide health insurance?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? How can they employ you and not offer basic benefits? This is a travesty, Neal, honestly.”
“Well, thanks for caring, Tim, but I really – it’s all OK.”
“Is it?” Tim asked, and Neal's face fell – clearly these were things he hadn’t considered.
Tim felt compelled to fill the uncomfortable silence that ensued. “So I guess you need to fill me in on the players in this case, Neal. Wouldn’t want Agent Braxton to have a reason to bad mouth us.”
“No, we would not,” Neal replied, clearly relieved to be on more solid ground. They sat down at the table again and Neal gave him the run down.
“So who are we going to meet with again?” Tim asked, hurrying to keep up with Neal, who led him on a shortcut through Central Park at a pretty decent clip; he realized that since there were no cameras to keep track of them as they walked and talked, going as slow as he and Matt usually did wouldn’t have made much sense. He marveled at the pace Neal set.
“Mozzie’s friend, Jimmy Chin. If anyone’s heard about these guys being in town, it’s him. There are only so many guys that can do what he does.” Jimmy owed Neal a favor and Neal hoped he’d be able to persuade him to provide the information they needed.
“Oh? Is he some kind of underworld kingpin?”
Neal gave him a look. “What? No, he’s one of the few guys who still works on the old school presses. Most of them are like, forty, fifty years old, so they take a lot of care. Jimmy – he doesn’t ask too many questions and he works fast.”
“You sure do know a lot about it.”
Neal shrugged. “I get around.”
Tim was going to ask him to explain when his attention was caught by a soccer game going on in a playing field adjacent to the path they were walking. He slowed his pace as he saw the players were young girls. The goalie, a little slip of a girl who couldn’t have been older than nine, was throwing herself after the ball with the kind of abandon that reminded him of his own daughter’s approach to playing the game. His heart clenched in his chest, and not in a pleasant way.
“Hey, come on, we’re gonna be late,” Neal said, having doubled back when Tim completely stopped to watch the girls play.
“Yeah. OK,” Tim said, but made no movement.
“What is it?” Neal asked.
“It’s nothing, I – I was supposed to be at home right now, In L.A.”
Neal looked at the children and then back at Tim and was able to put two and two together. “You’ve got kids?”
Tim nodded. “A boy and a girl. I miss them so much when I’m working and now – am I ever going to make it home?”
“You will, you have to believe that,” Neal said, squeezing his arm. “But we really should be going, because Jimmy closes up shop at 3:00.”
“Jimmy!” Neal greeted the unassuming, late-middle aged Chinese-American man warmly as they entered his machinist’s shop.
Tim looked avidly around at the equipment and took in a deep breath, savoring the aroma of metal and grease – he’d worked in a tool-and-die shop in college and itched to get his hands dirty.
“Neal – Moz said you might stop by,” Jimmy said, and eyed Tim cautiously.
“This is my partner, Peter Burke,” Neal said, and Tim was surprised he hadn’t tried to manufacture some sort of alias for him.
“The FBI guy, huh?” Jimmy said, eyeing Tim.
“Something like that,” Tim replied.
“This’d better be good, Neal.”
Neal shrugged. “More like a public service. We’re looking into this new boodle ring that just hit town. You hear anything?”
Tim noticed that the friendly smile had left Jimmy’s face. “Nope. Nothing.”
Neal raised his eyebrows. “Come on, Jimmy, you’ve got the world’s worst poker face; now I know you know something.”
“What if I do?”
“Well, if you do, then you can tell me all about it, maybe introduce me around – that’s how this works,” Neal said reasonably. “Besides, if you do, then maybe there’s a box of Cohibas in it for your trouble and inconvenience.”
Tim thought he could see Jimmy’s resolve falter, but then his eyes turned steely. “No, I can’t – these guys are dangerous, Neal.”
“I know, that’s why we want to get them off the street. Come on, Jimmy – I’ll throw in a bottle of McCann whiskey.”
“Neal, bribing me will get you nowhere – these are bad guys.” He looked around fearfully as if just thinking about it was bad enough.
“Jeez, it sounds bad,” Tim said. “Who are we talking about here, the Russian Mob? Yakuza?”
Jimmy dropped his voice to a whisper, “Worse, man: Canadians.”
“Canadians?! Shit,” Neal said, forming his right hand into a fist that he rapped against the counter. “Well, that complicates matters considerably. Thanks anyways, Jimmy,” he said and moved to collect Tim to leave.
“Hey, Neal?” Jimmy called as they reached the door. Neal turned around. “If I told you where these guys like to hang out, would that help?”
Tim was surprised at the unease on Neal's face as he turned back to face Jimmy – it was as if he now wanted him to come up with nothing now. “It might,” he said reluctantly
“There’s this after hours joint down in the Village – The Beach – you know it?”
Neal's shoulders slumped as he closed his eyes. “Yeah.”
“That’s where you’ll find them most nights.”
“Thanks, Jimmy – look for those cigars in a week or so.”
“Sure thing, Neal. Thanks!”
Neal took Tim’s arm and led him out of the shop and down the street. “So what’s our next move?” Tim asked.
“We report in and –“ Neal stopped suddenly and punch at the air with his fists. “OH GODDAMMIT!! I guess I’m going down to Little Toronto tonight. God!”
Tim stopped walking, shocked at Neal’s tantrum. “We’re talking about Canadians here, right? Canadian Canadians?”
Neal looked at him like he was thick-headed. “Yes, Tim. Of all the factions in the criminal underworld, the Canadians are the last ones you want to piss off.”
“Or they’ll do what? Feed you butter tarts? Polite you to death?”
“I’m pretty sure ‘polite’ isn’t a verb.”
“I know, but I mean, Canadians?!”
“Shhh!! Not so loud! Now come on, we need to get back to the office so we can make a plan.”
Tim and Neal arrived back at the FBI before 4:30 and called the “Harvard Crew” plus two of Agent Braxton’s subordinates together in the conference room for a debriefing. Braxton herself was nowhere to be found. But Neal's announcement about the purpose and urgency of the meeting met with only silent agreement, and no one objected to continuing without her. Tim decided to defer to Neal's judgment on this one.
The room fell into stunned silence when Neal broke the news about the identity of their perpetrators.
“So what are we going to do next?” Tim wondered aloud, earning a bit of a glare from Neal. “I mean, er, suggestions? On what we do next?” He looked at the two agents from Secret Service. “We’re very collaborative here at the White Collar division.” They stared back at him blankly.
“As you were suggesting earlier, Peter, I guess it’s another night in the van for you guys while i go down to Little Toronto and try to make friends,” Neal said.
“Probably the best option – good thinking, boss,” Jones agreed. “I’ll get started on the warrant for the wiretap.”
“I’ll call down to tech services for the equipment,” Diana added.
“I guess I’ll see if Mozzie’s turned anything up,” Neal suggested.
“We’ll reconvene here at 9:00 and then head out,” Tim said, and was relieved when everyone seemed to think that was an adequate decision.
The meeting broke up soon after, and Tim walked through the adjoining door into Peter’s office, realizing he ought to call Elizabeth and tell her he wouldn’t be home for dinner. He got no answer and left her a voice mail.
“Agent Burke?” He looked up to see Agent Braxton standing in the doorway.
“I got a tip from one my own CIs – we think we’ve uncovered a potential link to our counterfeit ring.”
“Really?” Tim said, momentarily relieved – maybe they wouldn’t have to go out in the van that night; he didn’t want to think how he’d handle a situation where he would have to command these Federal agents.
“We’ve got the suspect in an interrogation room – I thought you’d like to do the honors.”
“Interrogate the, uh, suspect?” Tim asked, suddenly breathless.
Agent Braxton didn’t seem to have noticed his dismay, luckily. “Of course – your interrogation techniques are famous, Agent Burke – even across agencies.”
Tim glanced at Neal, who had been hanging just inside the doorway from the conference room, and tried not to panic.
“And rightfully so,” Neal piped up. “Just wait’ll you see him in action – it’ll give you chills.” She beamed at Tim. “We’ll be right down, if you don’t mind – I have just one thing to discuss with Agent Burke first.”
She scowled at Neal’s impertinence, but left readily enough.
“What the hell, Neal – I can’t interrogate some suspect!” Tim suspected he was whining, but he didn’t much care.
“Sure you can. Come on, if I remember correctly, events in this reality are pretty much reflected in yours.”
“More or less,” Neal replied with a wave of a hand. “And I’ve seen Peter interrogate a suspect before – hell, I’ve been on the receiving end of it more than once. Don’t you remember any of those scenes?”
“Well, sure, but I mean, it’s all written beforehand, and we rehearse it, and the other guy – he’s an actor too. I can’t do this, Neal, I won’t.”
“You have to do this – for Peter, remember, Tim?” Tim shook his head, not willing to go through with it, and not willing to give the reason why, either. Neal pulled out his smartphone. “Besides, I’ll help you through it – just keep your phone handy and I’ll text you tips if you need any.”
Tim didn’t think it would work, but he didn’t know that he had much of a choice, and let Neal lead him from the office and down the hall to the interrogation suite.
Tim entered the room where their suspect – a kid of no more than 18 whose name was McKutcheon – sat at a small, rectangular table around which were arranged four chairs. Like the set back in his reality, this room was inconveniently glass-walled, so anyone could watch what he was doing if they walked by. Neal, along with Diana and Agent Braxton, was standing in a nearby room, watching over the CCTV feed, even if Tim couldn’t see them.
He took a deep breath and wished he’d thought to bring a glass of water with him – his mouth was suddenly dry.
McKutcheon looked up at him warily. Tim slowly removed his watch – he’d seen Dennis Franz do it once on NYPD Blue and it seemed cool at the time – and laid it deliberately at the edge of the table, then set his phone down beside it. He rolled up his shirt sleeves, slowly. McKutcheon licked his own lips, clearly unnerved. Tim picked up a chair and turned it around, intending to straddle it manfully. Unfortunately, it was a wheeled conference room-style chair, bottom-heavy and too wide, so he instead pushed it to the other side of the room and sat himself down in another chair on the adjacent side of the table. This put him, essentially, right next to the suspect, which seemed a bit chummier than an interrogation ought to have been. He hoped it was playing as menace.
He glared at McKutcheon. And squinted his eyes – he thought he looked really calculating when he squinted his eyes. “You have something to tell me?” he asked at last.
“A little birdie tells me otherwise.”
“That birdie’s wrong.”
“You know we’ve got enough on you to convict, don’t you?”
“Like, um, charges. Of criminal acts.” Damn it, he’d forgotten to ask Braxton exactly why they’d brought the guy in here. Luckily, his cell phone vibrated lightly from an incoming text. Tim wanted to lunge for it to read what Neal had sent him, but needed to keep it cool. He stood abruptly and walked around the room behind McKutcheon, pausing at the far end of the table where the phone was. He glanced down at it quickly.
Tell him you’ll go easier on him if he talks.
“Listen, I’m prepared to go easier on you if you’ll just talk.”
“Uh-uh – no way. I’m no rat.”
“Well, that’s –“
The phone buzzed again.
Tell him you’ll put it out there he talked anyway, then you’ll cut him loose.
Shocked, Tim looked up at the camera mounted on the ceiling in the corner.
Tim swallowed. “Doesn’t mean your boss won’t think you’re a rat.”
“What are you saying, Fed?”
“I think you know what I’m saying.”
“No, I really, really don’t.”
Tim put a hand on his hip and explained reasonably, “I’m saying that if you don’t tell me what I need to know, I’ll let all your criminal friends out there think that you talked anyway. Then, when I let you out of here, you’ll be in certain danger of retaliation at their hands. QED.”
“That’s extremely not cool.”
“Yes, well, I’m sorry, but crime doesn’t pay. Also: stay in school.”
The phone buzzed again, but Tim didn’t dare look at it, instead sticking with his dramatic choice to stare the kid down. He was about to think it had been a poor one – his eyes were drying out – when McKutcheon looked away and his shoulders slumped.
“Fine, I’ll talk.”
Tim suspected he failed at hiding his surprise. “You will? I mean, you will!”
After that, McKutcheon gave up not only the name of the head of the counterfeiters – some guy named Roger Campbell – he helpfully wrote down addresses of known haunts for the man and drew an org chart of the parts of their organization he knew about.
Once they were done, Tim left the room feeling slightly proud of himself; Agent Braxton beamed with appreciation at him, practically bouncing on the balls of her feet – it was a big break in the case – and Diana even gave him a thumbs-up. His euphoria was short-lived, however; when he caught Neal’s eye, the conman was glaring at him. Then Tim remembered he hadn’t read Neal’s last text to him, so he glanced down at his phone.
We clearly have some work to do it said.
“Peter lessons?!” Tim protested. They had a break for about the next three hours before they’d have to send Neal in to try to set up a meeting with Campbell. Neal insisted they pick up some dinner and head to his place.
“Yes. Peter lessons. You, my friend, are in need of remedial education. STAT.”
“Awww come on! Didn’t I get McKutcheon to spill his guts?”
“I got McKutcheon to spill his guts! Listen, so far we’ve been able to keep your hands off of this –“
“Not from where I’m standing,” Tim interrupted.
“But still, do you really think the real Peter Burke would sit back and let me?”
“Why wouldn’t he? You’re doing really well.”
Neal’s face softened momentarily and he smiled shyly. “Thanks for saying that – it helps to have the validation, you know? But still, we need you to be on point – I’m not always going to be able to cover for you.”
He handed Tim the bag of Chinese takeout and pulled out his keys, letting them both into June’s mansion. Once inside, Tim whistled low as he took in the opulence of the place. Of course, he’d been here before – when they’d shot the pilot, they’d used the actual Schinasi Mansion, and then again when they’d filmed another episode – but it had been over a year since he’d been here, and it always took his breath away. He followed Neal up the stairs to his third floor apartment and took a moment to admire the view – the real one, not the scenery reproduced on the soundstage at Silvercup.
“Wow,” he said as he set the food down. A moment later, Neal handed him a beer and he sat down and began to unpack their dinner.
“So what’s our first lesson?” Tim asked some time later, once he’d downed half his beer along with his eggroll, and felt somewhat resigned to the idea.
“Attitude. Stand up.”
Tim dropped his chopsticks and stood, along with Neal.
“Give me your best ‘dammit, Neal!’ expression.”
Tim scowled at him.
Neal stared at him appraisingly. “That’s a start, but try to look less constipated.”
“What? You do this for a living – embody this character.”
“I’m not all that Method, honestly. They give me words to say and I say them.”
“But you say them with conviction, don’t you? Isn’t there some inner well of truth you have to pull from or some such bullshit?”
Tim felt his face color – this was no longer a helpful exercise, and they were heading into difficult territory. “I don’t want to do this anymore,” he muttered and turned away from Neal.
“I don’t want to talk about this – about my process.” He said “process” like he was inserting air quotes around the word. Suddenly, his shoulders and neck were very tense. This conversation was forcing him to examine insecurities he didn’t want to consider too closely.
“I get it – you don’t think you’re a good enough actor for this,” Neal said sympathetically, and Tim winced.
“I’ve always sucked at improv,” Tim said quietly. “But if I’m honest with myself, I’m just not tough enough to be him. I’m sorry, Neal, I don’t know if I make a very good Peter Burke anymore, or if I ever did at all.”
Tim turned toward the door and left.
Tim sat on the edge of one of the divans in June’s front parlor, staring moodily out of the front window at the traffic on Riverside Drive. He didn’t know why he hadn’t left, except that he really had nowhere else to go. “Home” was a townhouse in Brooklyn where a woman wearing the face of a platonic friend was supposed to be his wife. But Neal had been kind and understanding of his situation – he was not unlike Matt in that way – and he just couldn’t leave.
“You stayed,” a low voice said to him from the doorway, and he supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised that Neal had found him.
“Didn’t have anywhere to go, really,” Tim replied, picking at the nubby fabric of the furniture.
“I know you can do this.”
Tim looked at him, a sad smile on his face. “That’s just it – I don’t think I do, Neal. I’m a regular guy, you know? I go to work, I do my job as well as I can, and if I’m lucky, I get to go home in time to have dinner with my family and kick a ball around with my daughter or help my son with his math homework. I’m not winning any awards or anything. I’m just a utility infielder, you know?
“And the hell of it is, I’m not the only one who knows it. Eastin hates me – he’s the show runner you know about those?” Neal nodded. “Well, half the time, I’m convinced he’s going to write me out of the show – find someone younger. And hotter. And a vampire.”
“You sell yourself and your talent short. There’s no Neal without Peter. And in your reality, there’s no Peter without Tim. You just need to get your confidence back.”
“If I ever had it.” He recalled how Matt had wanted to recommend him for a part to his Magic Mike director, Steven Soderbergh. The part was small but integral to the plot – he was to have played a violent mobster. He knew he couldn’t pull it off and had told Matt no.
“You’ve got plenty of it, and attitude to spare. You showed an awful lot of it earlier today with Agent Braxton.”
“Well, she pissed me off.”
“So use that.”
Tim realized something. “My God, is Peter always pissed off?” He sure hoped not – it sounded like it would be pretty stressful to keep that up for an extended period, and God knew he was already exhausted from the day he’d had so far.
“Not at all, but if it gets you there, Tim, maybe it’s somewhere to start. You know, ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ is a time-honored cliché for a reason: it’s true.”
A light snort behind them alerted them to the fact that Bugsy, June’s beloved Pug, had entered the room. He waddled over to the divan Tim was sitting on and jumped on it. Spinning in place three times, he settled himself on the cushion with a satisfied grunt.
“Does June let him on the furniture?” Tim asked, surprised. Whether it was June or Diahann, Tim considered both women to be pretty formidable, and he didn’t think either of them would abide animals on the antique furnishings.
Tim looked at Neal. “Aren’t you going to make him get off?” After all, Neal lived here; he ought to be enforcing the rules.
“No, I’m not. You are. Call it your first practical lesson.”
“What? He’s a little dog.”
“Is he? Then why don’t you want to do it?”
Tim was not going to have this argument. “Bugsy, get off the couch,” he ordered, waving at the dog with his hand.
Bugsy lifted his head from his paws and began to pant, looking suspiciously like he was grinning at Tim.
“Bugsy, get off the couch!”
The dog’s curly tail began to wag lazily and he snuffled. Tim looked at Neal helplessly.
“Do you know what you’re doing wrong?” Neal asked.
“I suspect if I did then the dog would be off the couch,” Tim said, frustrated.
“See, that’s it right there. You’re frustrated, and you’re annoyed, and that’s what you’re projecting. You have to be forceful. You have to mean it. Do it again.”
Tim stood. “Bugsy, get off the couch.” This time, the animal raised his butt in the air and barked at Tim, obviously wanting to play. “How did that not work?” Tim asked the room in general.
Neal sighed, and appeared to be deep in thought. “How about this?” he began, thinking. “Remember when Elizabeth was kidnapped?”
“Yes! Man, I loved playing that scene – it was so intense. Matt got so bruised up!” Tim’s smile faded as he saw the expression on Neal’s face; he was paler than before, his eyes troubled by the memory. “Oh, I’m sorry, Neal. That really happened for you, didn’t it? I’m such a bonehead!”
“No, it’s OK, Tim,” Neal said quietly. “It, um, it’s in the past. My past. I mean, we got past it.”
He looked upset and Tim wanted to kick himself. “Anyway. I remember that performance vividly,” he assured Neal.
“Good. There was the part on the back patio, remember? It was really tense, and you were very focused – Peter was very focused.”
“He was scared shitless and madder than hell at you.”
“Yes.” Neal swallowed, but reached out to squeeze Tim’s arm reassuringly. He looked Tim in the eyes as he went on, “So anyway, you should remember that feeling, and use it. Use it on the dog.”
Tim nodded and closed his eyes, focusing on the way he’d felt the day he’d played that scene, how he’d at first slammed Neal up against a wall, but then had been able to control his temper and frustration, and use it, focus it. He held his breath, letting the feeling build. When he opened his eyes, he stepped closer to Bugsy, until he was looming over him. He waited a beat, until the dog gave him his full attention, and looked him in the eyes. “Bugsy. Down,” he ordered, and with a low whine, the pug got to his feet and jumped down to the floor, making for the kitchen and the comfy bed that awaited him there.
“It worked!” Tim exclaimed, overjoyed.
“Yep,” Neal said, a smile on his face that didn’t reach his eyes – Tim felt horrible that he was still upset over the bad memories he’d just had to dredge up. But Neal squeezed Tim’s upper arm encouragingly. “Now let’s go back upstairs and work on it some more.”
“You ready?” Jones asked Neal. They were all in the van a few hours later – Tim, Jones, Braxton, and Neal – parked up the street from the bar known as The Beach. The bar was in a neighborhood known as “Little Toronto” – which, from what Tim could tell, consisted of little more than the bar itself, a hockey rink, and a Tim Horton’s, but it was the cleanest couple of blocks he had ever laid eyes on in the city.
“Aren’t I always?” Neal replied, but there was tension around his eyes. “You need a sound level?”
Jones nodded and Neal spoke conversationally for the benefit of the wire he wore, “Testes, testes.” Since he was only going in to establish contact, the risk of his wire being discovered was considered negligible, so they’d opted for that instead of the clunky gold watch they typically used.
“It’s good,” Jones said, giving a thumbs-up.
“Hey, be careful, OK?” Tim said as Neal turned to go. Neal smiled encouragingly but it did nothing to ease the trepidation that clenched at Tim’s gut as his friend hopped down out of the van and out of sight.
Picking up a set of headphones, Tim put them on and listened in as Neal headed over to the bar. The wire was surprisingly sensitive; Tim could hear traffic noises as Neal moved, followed by the slight squeak of the bar’s door as it opened and the bang as it closed behind him. There was a bit of a creaking sound as he took a seat at the bar – the leather of the bar stool, Tim surmised.
”Welcome to The Beach, eh,” a friendly voice said. “What can I getcha?”
“What’s good?” Neal asked.
“Oh, we have everything – ale, lager, pils. What’s yer poison?”
“I, uh, guess I’ll have a Molson.”
Tim’s attention drifted for a moment and he allowed himself to take in the interior of the surveillance van. In contrast to the one used on the White Collar set – which was an actual, operational step van that had been outfitted with lightweight, removable pieces – this one was very solid, with state-of-the-art recording and satellite uplink equipment. It was quite comfortable, too, with plush cushions on the chairs and a mini-fridge built in under the console that had been stocked with a variety of soft drinks and bottled water.
“OK, thanks a lot. So I’ll just meet Mr. Campbell at the Tim Horton’s on Thursday, then? What time?” Neal was saying.
What? Tim thought – that was awfully quick. How long had his attention wandered?
“Lemme just check his Outlook, eh?” the bartender said. Tim mused that even though these Canadians were proven to be ruthless killers, they were still pretty damned organized. “How’s 4:00?”
“Sounds good,” Neal said, then Tim heard the stool slide across the floor and Neal’s footsteps as he left the place.
“Whew – that was tense,” Neal said minutes later when he’d gotten back on board; they’d driven to pick him up six blocks away – it wouldn’t do for the Canadians to see “Steve Tabernacle” getting into a power company van.
“It was?” Tim said.
“The place was crawling with unfriendlies.” He shuddered.
“So we’ve got two days,” Tim said, musing aloud and wondering what might be coming next.
“Good point, Peter,” Jones said. “So you’re saying we should spend these next couple of days learning all we can about this guy, Campbell, and build up more of a background for Steve’s interest in the gig.”
“Um, yes. And also, get all the right, uh, paperwork, uh, started.”
“Good thinking, Boss,” Jones replied. “We should probably get an electronic surveillance warrant pronto too, right? And also one for a pen register to record the voice and internet traffic while we’re at it.”
“Yep… cuz they’re Canadians…?”
“That’s right – thanks for reminding me. We should also apply for a warrant to the FISA court since they’re likely to be foreign nationals. I’ll contact the AUSA first thing in the morning about it, just to cover our bases.”
By this time, they’d made the short drive back to the FBI garage. Tim hopped out of the van, and Neal raised an eyebrow, gesturing with his head that it was time for them to go. Tim thought they might stay behind and help the other agents stow everything.
“You’re management,” Neal informed him, “don’t worry about it.”
“OK, if you’re sure.” He turned and addressed the remaining agents in the van – Jones, Diana, Braxton and one of her colleagues from Secret Service. “Well, good job, everyone. We’ll pick it up tomorrow, discuss what we’ve learned and work out a, uh, plan.” He clapped his hands together once and let Neal lead the way back to the Taurus.
“Wow,” he heard Braxton say to Jones as they walked away. “It really is thrilling to watch Agent Burke work – you must have learned so much over the years – what a leader!”
“Wouldn’t trade my job for the world,” Tim heard Jones say proudly before they were out of earshot.
Tim drove wearily up to the Burke house in Brooklyn; despite the fact it was nearly 11:00 pm, he found a parking spot right in front. He got out of the car and stretched his legs – it had been a long day and he was not looking forward to the long night ahead of him.
“You’re home,” Elizabeth said, greeting him at the door with a sweet kiss on the lips and handing him a frosty beer. “You hungry? I made lamb.”
“Sure – I could eat.”
She led him to the kitchen and before long set down a lovely kebab, some toasted pita, as well as some grilled veggies and a side of tabbouleh – one of his favorite meals, and it was just what he was craving. “Aw, thanks,” he said. She looked at him expectantly. “Hon,” he added, and she smiled happily.
As he ate, she regaled him with stories of her day – a pair of meetings with suppliers and then an update on some sort of planned home repair. Tim lost himself in the benign normalcy of it all, until that very normalcy made him miss his own home and family so badly his stomach hurt. He pushed his plate away and finished his beer, then insisted on doing the cleaning up despite Elizabeth’s protests.
They watched some television, Elizabeth curled up beside him on the couch, and when she began to make going-to-bed noises, Tim got up. “You know, I think I’ll take the dog for a walk or something. I’m just so keyed up from the day, you know?”
“OK, sure Hon,” she said. “Big case?”
“Aren’t they all? But you know, I can’t really talk about it…”
“Of course. Well, see you in a bit.” She kissed him on the cheek and headed up the stairs.
Tim stripped off the tie he still wore and went to retrieve the dog leash he saw hanging on a hook beside the front door. He turned, expecting the dog to come trotting over – what healthy dog wasn’t literally always ready for a walk – his two mutts certainly were. But Satchmo remained on his doggy bed in the corner of the kitchen and just kind of – glared at him.
“Come on, boy, walkies!” Tim encouraged. Satchmo lowered his head to his paws. “This is a test, I think,” Tim muttered to himself, and crossed the room to stand above the dog. Closing his eyes, he mustered up all the assertiveness and badass attitude he ever did while embodying Peter Burke, took a deep breath and then looked down at the dog. “Satchmo! Walk!” He squared his shoulders, turned smartly, and walked to the front door, expecting the dog to follow. When he stopped and turned around, Satchmo remained where he was.
“I have never met a dog like you,” he said moodily, taking a seat on the couch again and flicking on a Yankees game – he wondered if they were doing any better in this reality than in his. Satchmo got up with a grunt and moseyed up the stairs without another look back.
“Stupid dog,” Tim grumbled.
“Whatcha doin’?” Neal asked, standing in Peter’s office doorway and bouncing on the balls of his feet.
“I found this book online last night,” Tim said, swinging his laptop around so Neal could see the cover.
“Law Enforcement for Dummies? Ambitious of you.”
“I dunno, I’m hoping it’ll help with procedures or something.”
“It’s better than reading Searches and Seizures, Fourth Edition cover-to-cover. Feel like a little more applied knowledge?”
“Does it involve getting out of here?” Tim asked; he’d had a rough night of it last night. He still couldn’t bring himself to sleep in the same bed as Elizabeth, so had spent the night on the couch again. He woke too early, confused as to where he was. He missed his family so badly he could taste it. He stood, stretching his long limbs.
“More or less,” Neal said.
More or less turned out to be the basement of the Federal Building, where a full-service gun range had been set up to make routine target practice easy and convenient for the law enforcement agents that worked in the building. This early in the day, it was mostly empty, and Neal had reserved them a space at the far end, where they would be able to practice unobserved.
“I know how to shoot a gun, Neal.”
Neal raised an eyebrow. “You only think you do.”
“I shoot one every week on the show, practically.”
“Prop guns shooting blanks are exactly nothing like shooting a real gun.” He gestured to the tray Tim had carried with him from the attendant’s booth; inside was an unloaded Glock and a fully loaded magazine. “Load it,” he ordered.
Tim picked up the gun and the clip and slotted them together – unsuccessfully, as he’d gotten the clip the wrong way around. He pulled it out and then shoved it back in; it slid home with a satisfying click. When he went to cock the hammer, Neal stepped forward and stopped him.
“You don’t need to cock an automatic,” Neal said, “you chamber a round.”
“Oh – that slidey thing?”
“Yes. That slidey thing,” Neal said dryly. “It’s called a ‘slide’ by the way,”
Tim felt his face color as he moved the slide; he could feel the round enter the chamber.
“See the target?” Neal asked.
“Take your stance, aim, and fire.”
Tim shoved the earplugs that the attendant had given him into his ears and, turning his body perpendicular to the target that hung something like 25 yards away, he raised his right arm and fired. The gun felt like it exploded in his hand, kicking back so hard and so fast he nearly stumbled backward.
“That was the worst example of shooting I have ever seen or will ever see in my entire life,” Neal said. “At least you didn’t turn the thing sideways like some crap Guy Ritchie film.”
“They have those here?”
“Shut up. Do you know what you did wrong?”
“Everything apparently,” Tim grumbled.
“Pretty much. First off, you need to hold the weapon with both hands, and you face the target squarely, like this.” Neal repositioned Tim’s body into just the right stance, then arranged his hands. “Brace yourself with your shoulders, and put your weight on both your feet evenly. Try again.”
Tim fired the gun and, naturally, missed.
“This time try to keep your eyes open.”
“Details, details,” Tim muttered, but his words covered up a very real frustration he was feeling. He had done this before – he’d taken two different firearms workshops in acting school, and the propmaster on the White Collar set had also shown him how to hold the gun years ago. Why was he forgetting all his training? How was he even going to attempt to be Peter Burke if he couldn’t fire the man’s service weapon? Or worse: what if he needed to use it?
He took the stance Neal showed him and fired again; the bullet pierced the upper right corner of the target, nowhere near the cartoon silhouette printed on it.
“Try again,” Neal said. He was standing just behind Peter, arms folded and chewing a fingernail. Tim fired; the bullet went too high. Neal stepped wordlessly forward and adjusted Tim’s body minutely. “Again,” he commanded. “Use the sights, it’s what they’re there for.”
Tim closed one eye and lined his vision up along one of the sights on the weapon, then fired again, and again. His last shot hit the target in the shoulder, twice. Soon, the magazine was empty and Neal brought the target back to them while he made Tim reload the magazine with rounds.
“I hit it,” Tim pointed out, semi-proudly.
“Not bad, but for certification, you need to hit him twice in the dead center of the chest. This time, I want you to squeeze off two rounds in quick succession each time, see how close you can cluster the shots. Think you can do that?”
“Do it anyway.”
“Bossy,” Tim grumbled, but raised the gun and fired some more. By the time they’d gotten through the third full clip, he could feel sweat trickling down his back and the muscles in his arms were beginning to tremble.
“Again,” Neal ordered.
“Boy, I really suck at this,” Tim moaned, took aim and fired. The two shots pierced the dark silhouette of the target – in its arm.
“Congratulations, you winged him,” Neal said. “Oops! He just shot you.”
“This isn’t funny, Neal,” Tim whined.
“Am I laughing?”
“I’d like to see you try it.”
Neal raised an eyebrow, then took the gun away from Tim, being careful to keep it pointed downward. Donning the earplugs and goggles he’d grabbed for himself from the attendant, he stepped up to the line, raised the gun swiftly and squeezed off two shots. He lowered the gun and stepped back, then pulled the switch that brought the target back towards them on its long track. Before it was halfway to them, Tim could discern only one hole in it.
“You only hit it once,” he pointed out. Then it got closer, and Tim saw that the single hole he had spotted was, in actuality, one large hole comprised of two bullet holes nearly on top of each other. “Um, wow.”
“Huh, I was off a millimeter,” Neal muttered to himself, frowning. Then he looked at Tim and his face softened. “Look, you’re new to this – you’ll get there. Now – reload and we’ll try again.”
Half an hour later, Tim could barely hold his arms out properly, but at last, he was able to hit the target twice in the chest.
“Not bad,” Neal pronounced, removing the last target from the clips it was on and handing it to Tim. Tim turned to go. “What are you doing?” Neal asked.
“Getting out of here. I need a cold drink.”
“Not before you’ve stripped and cleaned that weapon and returned it to the attendant,” Neal told him.
“I don’t know how.”
“I’ll tell you how.”
“Can’t you do it?”
“Me? I’m a convicted felon – I’m not allowed to touch a gun.”
“Peter lesson number three,” Neal was saying. “Body language.”
They had gotten a cup of coffee at a nearby Starbucks (Tim was happy to see them here), and were sitting on a bench in Columbus Park.
“Oh, this I’ve got down,” Tim said with confidence. He had, after all, created the character of Peter – at least the one he portrayed, if not the “real” one. Except he was real too, wasn’t he? But if Tim was real and Peter was real, how could that be? It made his head hurt.
Anyway, the point was he knew he could do this. He stood up. “What do you want me to do?”
“Walk over there,” Neal instructed.
Tim walked about 15 feet away, then turned, looking at Neal expectantly.
“Good, good,” Neal said. “But loosen up your spine and see what that does for your gait.”
Tim knew exactly what he meant, and made the required adjustment.
“Very good. Now, tell me to do something, give me an order.”
“I dunno – what would you normally do?”
Tim cocked his head to the side, raised an eyebrow, and demanded, “Like you’d actually listen to me?”
Tim laughed. “Sometimes you remind me of Matt so much,” he said.
“Really?” Neal shook his head.
“Nothing, it’s just – from what I could tell when I was him, he seemed kinda uptight.”
“Then you didn’t see enough,” Tim said. “He’s one of the best people I know.”
“Really? With the grey apartment? And all the juices?”
Tim laughed. “Well, the old apartment was a mistake – he was too nice to say no to his decorator at the time. He’s got a much nicer one now. And the juices are just… his body’s his temple, you know?”
“I suppose so – I guess I just can’t relate, I never really have to work out all that much.”
“Consider yourself lucky, then. He’s got a lot of pressure on him, being the star of this show, and he takes it really seriously. Like if he fails, then the entire production is let down.”
“It’s the same with Peter, you know.”
It was Tim’s turn to shake his head.
“You don’t think so?” Neal asked. “There isn’t a man or woman on that White Collar team that wouldn’t take a bullet for him, and do you know why? Because he would do the same thing.”
“I don’t know if I could,” Tim said. He wasn’t that brave, and at the core of him, Tim didn’t think himself capable of inspiring feelings like that.
“Couldn’t you?” Neal asked.
“Now, I’ve been saving this until you were more comfortable being Peter.”
“I thought I was Peter, but whatever…”
They were sitting at a café, having a late lunch later that day. Neal handed his fedora to Tim. “Invent a persona and fire it back at me. Part of being an agent is that you never know when you’ll have to go undercover. You might have to pull on another persona at the drop of a hat.”
“What’s my motivation?” Tim immediately asked.
“Motivation? You’re questioning an informant and her boyfriend – your lead suspect – comes in. If he finds out you’re a Fed, she’s dead. Invent a persona.”
Tim stared at the hat and wracked his brain, then put it on his head. “Well, ahhhh, rrrrrmmmm. Nice to meet yerr, my name is Peterrrr.”
Neal laughed. “You sound like a pirate – you got a parrot hidden under your coat? Got anything else?”
Tim laughed himself. “See heeerre, sir, I’ll have you know I haf taken menny dialect clahsses.”
“What kind of accent was that supposed to be?”
“Because there are so many Belgians around the city? What kind of dialect coach did you have anyway?”
“A Belgian one?”
Neal dissolved into laughter and flagged their waiter down to bring him another iced tea.
“Well, what would you do, if the bad guy came in and you had to fake it?” Tim asked, genuinely curious as to Neal's technique.
“Well, there are two schools of thought on that one. The first would say to give the person what you think they want to hear. In this case, I’d probably pretend I was hassling her so the guy would want to kick my ass, then get the hell out of there. No one’s more forgettable than an asshole.”
“What’s the other school say?”
Neal paused thoughtfully. “Every con has a kernel of truth in it. In this case, I personally would play up the fact I’m a criminal too – this would give the guy a false sense of security, like we’re kindred spirits or whatever. If I was you – or Peter, really – I’d pretend I was new to the neighborhood or something – me and my lovely wife Elizabeth just moved in and we’re looking for a good place for Chinese takeout or the closest dry cleaner’s.”
“I would never think of that,” Tim said, marveling. “I’d probably make up some outrageous thing, like I was her long lost older brother or something.”
“Never over-embellish a lie,” Neal said seriously. “If you put in too many details, it’s a dead giveaway, and then you’ll be wracking your brain later trying to remember all the shit that spewed out of your mouth.”
They ate in silence for a few more minutes, but Tim couldn’t keep his eyes off of Neal's face. It seemed to him that all of the plot details in his reality were, in fact, true in regards to Neal's life, and there were a few things he’d always wondered about.
“Just ask me,” Neal said finally, meeting his eyes.
Tim blinked. “What?”
“You clearly want to know something, so ask me. Did you want to know how I became a con man? Or what my first crime was? You’re not Peter, so I don’t mind telling -”
“How did you get so good with guns?” Tim blurted.
Neal looked slightly surprised by the question.
“I’ve just always wondered – it’s never been explained, really.”
Neal looked thoughtful for a minute. “You know I grew up in witness protection in St. Louis, right?”
“Well, as I got older, my mom couldn’t help but drop hints about why we were where we were. She never outright told me the whole story – I got that from Ellen when I turned 18. But there was always this implication that we were in danger, that there was a constant threat against us. Which I never really understood, you know – since my dad was supposed to have been this badass cop, shouldn’t we have been protected? But it was this vibe I couldn’t quite escape, this very palpable fear coming from my mother, and it transferred to me. So when I was old enough, I asked Ellen to show me how to shoot a gun.”
Tim whistled. “That’s pretty young.”
Neal shrugged. “Meh – lots of kids were already hunting at that age. But Ellen, she was smart. Before she let me even touch a gun, she showed me pictures of bullet wounds and crime scenes – just in case I had any ideas of acting rashly.”
“Yikes – did that deter you?”
“No. You gotta know, I was interested only because I wanted to protect my family – that was the only thing I could think about. And my mom she – “ He was thoughtful for a minute, as if weighing what he might say. “Let’s just say I needed to protect her.
“So when I still wouldn’t give it up, Ellen took me to the gun range. She spent, like, our first half dozen lessons teaching me safety – it took a month before she’d let me fire the thing.”
“And when you did?”
“I wish I could say I was instantly perfect, but it still took practice. Before long, I really did get good. So good, I competed in sharpshooting competitions.”
“Every time. It was another reason I wanted to be a cop – I knew I’d ace that part of it, and I had a really healthy respect for guns and what they could do. But I left it all behind when I left WITSEC and St. Louis.”
“Until the day I picked up that rifle to shoot skeet at Avery’s house out on Montauk, it’d been over fifteen years since I touched a gun.”
“Even after all the –“ Tim stopped himself, not wanting to insult Neal, who he had come to consider a good friend in just the last two days. He was so like Matt – kind, thoughtful, and generous – and yet so unlike him. There was a hardness to him, as well as a wary vulnerability that was just this side of heartbreaking. It was clear now to Tim in ways he’d never thought of before, how much life had actually hurt Neal. But it had also shaped the man he had become.
“All the crimes?” Neal asked. “Yes. I have always meant it, Tim – I don’t like guns. Sometimes I wonder what the hell I was doing, thinking I could become a cop.”
“I think you’d have been a great one.”
“I think I’d have been a very unhappy one.”
“Are you happy now?”
Neal gave that some thought. “I am happy with my life,” he said slowly. “Now.”
Their eyes met, and Tim could tell he wasn’t lying. “I don’t know if I am,” he said, surprising even himself with the confession.
“I have the sneaking suspicion I suck at my job.”
“What – acting? You’re great at it, what are you talking about?”
Tim could only shake his head. “No matter what, I always feel like a fraud. Like I’m just skating by, and once people figure it out, that’ll be the end of it.” This was his secret fear, one he couldn’t voice even to himself.
Neal smiled sadly at him. “I know exactly what you mean, Tim, but guess what? That’s got nothing to do with your acting – that’s life, period. All of us secretly think of ourselves as assholes.”
“And the ones who don’t?”
“Probably really are.”
“Here you go.”
Tim eyed the two boxes of files and books that Neal laid on the edge of his desk. “What are those?”
“Real FBI process and procedure manuals. Federal statutes relating to currency and counterfeiting. Jurisdictional processes for the FBI and the Secret Service. I put Post-It notes on all the relevant sections for you – just what you’ll need to get by.”
“Just what I’ll need to get by?” Tim asked.
“Well, you know, just for this case – for the next few days. I don’t think you’ll be stuck here for that long, really.”
“What makes you say that?”
“I dunno – but I think you’re here for a reason. Maybe it’s solving this case.”
“Me?” Tim asked incredulously. “What the hell have I got to offer to the investigation of this case that super agent Peter Burke couldn’t have?”
Neal shrugged. “Hell if I know – I’m not the one caught in the existential, metaphysical time warp bullshit this time.”
Tim sighed. “That is a lot of material to get through.”
“Come on, you’ve been in plays – you memorize the entire script all the time, don’t you?”
“Of course, but this is the entirety of the United States criminal code, Neal – I don’t think there’s going to be a chance to refine it in tech.”
“You’ll do fine.”
Neal helped him carry the books to the Taurus and bid him good night. “Wait, let me drop you home,” Tim offered.
“Thanks, but no – I’ve got plans with Moz. And you have got to get home to Elizabeth.”
Tim felt a wave of panic that he quickly suppressed, but Neal caught the change in his expression. “What?”
“I don’t want to go home,” Tim confessed.
“She scares me.”
“You know what I mean. That woman is not my wife. When I look at her, all I see is my friend, Tiffani, who is married to a really great guy and has a little girl who is as cute as a bug.”
Neal smiled. “She does?”
“Yes. And that’s not my house, and it’s not my dog. And I – I miss mine – all of it. I just want to hold my wife and kiss my kids, and… feel comfortable again.” He couldn’t stop the tears that welled in his eyes, and the fact that they had made him angry for some reason. “It’s so unfair.”
Neal stepped closer and rested a hand on the back of his neck, squeezing reassuringly. “I know, I’m sorry. But I promise you, it’ll be over soon.”
“You can’t make that promise.”
“You’re probably right, but you can’t stop hoping that it’s true.”
Tim hated that he was so right.
“You’re home,” Elizabeth chirped cheerfully as she came to greet him at the door. She got up on her tiptoes to kiss him; he turned his head at the last second so that her lips landed on his cheek. “What’s all that?” she asked, indicating the boxes he carried.
“Research for this case we’re working on.”
“Yikes. You have to get through all of that?”
“Not all. Neal marked the right places.”
“So Neal got through it all?”
Tim looked at the multitude of information and his mind boggled. “Yeah, I guess he did.” And when had he even had the time?
“Well, let me get you a drink while you go and get changed into some comfy clothes, then I’ll start dinner?”
“That sounds great,” he said appreciatively. She looked at him expectantly, and he didn’t know what else he was supposed to say or do, but when a look of disappointment crossed her face, he remembered. “Hon,” he added, and she brightened and headed off for the kitchen to get him a beer.
He started with the procedural manual that sat at the top of the box; Neal had been very thorough in annotating what sections would be relevant, and he kept focused on reading only those sections, even though the content was pretty interesting and he wanted to learn more. Before he knew it, Elizabeth was calling him to come to dinner, and he realized just how hungry he was when the smell of baked ziti smothered in gooey cheese and accompanied by crispy garlic bread wafted to his nostrils. He ate two helpings of pasta, but stayed away from any more alcohol, because he knew this would be a late night and he wanted to keep as alert as possible.
After they’d done eating, he moved to help Elizabeth clear, but she told him he needed to get back to work, because it was important. She was so serious when she said it, so sincere, that Tim completely understood what Peter could love about this wonderful woman. When she was done cleaning up, she brought him a tiny cup of perfectly made espresso (“Don’t get used to it, Mister, this is an emergency”), then curled up at the opposite end of the couch from him and read a book quietly while he made notes on the legal pad he’d brought home.
Before long, he realized she was yawning loudly beside him; when he looked up, he saw it was after midnight.
“I’m heading up,” she said. “Don’t stay up too much later – you need your sleep.”
He suspected she was right. “I promise, Hon,” he replied.
“And see if you can’t make it up to our actual bed tonight, Peter. I’ve missed you, you know? It’s… it’s been a while.”
Tim realized that the poor woman probably hadn’t slept in the same bed with her husband for going on the fourth night in a row, and suddenly felt overwhelmingly guilty. It wasn’t her fault that Tim wasn’t who she thought he was, and even though he still felt it was very wrong, he decided he ought to join her, at least to sleep. He may not be Peter, but he wasn’t going to leave the man’s life in a shambles, either.
“I’m sorry, Hon,” he said, standing and dropping the materials he’d been reading back into the box. He followed her up the stairs, brushed his teeth and climbed into their bed. The soft mattress after two straight nights sleeping on the couch felt almost obscenely good, and he suppressed a groan. He fought down a small panic attack when she began to snuggle up to him, but it seemed her motives were more for comfort than romance, as she kissed him lightly on the lips, settled her head on his shoulder, and closed her eyes.
It took him a lot longer to fall asleep than she did, but when he did, he dreamed of his wife Elisa.
Peter’s phone vibrated on the edge of the sink as Tim was shaving early the next morning; when he glanced over at it, the display read, Neal Cell.
“Holy shit, it’s now. The meet. Now. Fucking-A,” Neal was already in mid-rant when Tim answered.
“Calm down,” Tim said. “What are you saying? What’s the matter?”
Neal took a deep breath and then another. “I just got a call. From Bob, the bartender I spoke to the other night. Campbell wants to meet with me – with Steve Tabernacle – now!”
“Shit,” Tim muttered, a finger of panic poking him in the stomach and wiggling around like it owned the place. “What are we supposed to do?”
“What can we do? I have to go down there and meet with him.”
“But don’t we need backup or Kevlar or the van or something?”
“There’s no time, Tim. Bob the bartender said Campbell was heading up to Halifax to install solaria in all the hospitals and he won’t be back for weeks, so it’s now or never. We let this opportunity go, and who knows when he’ll be back in the country? This guy’s a killer, Tim – this could be our only shot.”
Tim’s mind reeled. “Sure, OK. I’ll come meet you and we’ll do it together.” Do what together? Get killed?
Tim had a really bad feeling about this.
“Wait, what’s the plan again? Because I can’t decide if it’s reckless, crazy, going to get us killed, or all three,” Tim said to Neal as they stood around the corner from the “Little Toronto” neighborhood where Neal was about to meet with Roger Campbell.
“It’s still a basic meet and greet, right?” Neal said, sounding a lot more confident than he looked. “I go in, try to establish a relationship with the guy, then get out. We can set up a sting later when Campbell is back in the country. It’ll be over in ten minutes.”
“I dunno, Neal, it sounds really dangerous. We’ve got nothing out here – no backup, no recording equipment.” No help.
“We’ve got this, though.” Neal held out a plastic banana.
Tim stepped back, remembering the banana-knife prop from a prior season. “Hey, watch where you point that thing.”
“I know, but look what’s at the other end.” Neal pressed a hidden button in the side of the thing and the end came off, revealing a tiny microphone and transmitter, the USB end of a flash drive, and…
“Is that a corkscrew?”
“Yeah. Handy, right?”
Tim had to allow that it was. “So how does it work?”
“Here,” Neal said, handing Tim his cell phone and a pair of ear buds. Tim saw that the phone had an app open called, “Radio Free Banana.” He slipped one of the ear buds into his ear as Neal held the banana to his mouth.
“Testing – can you hear me?”
A loud whine of feedback made Tim yelp in pain and he ripped the ear bud out of his ear, but he had also heard Neal's voice when he’d spoken into the banana. “Sorry about that,” Neal said sincerely. “If you get too close to a receiver like the cell phone, it causes a feedback loop. Russian surplus, you know?”
“I suppose it gets the job done.”
So, with Tim huddled inside the doorway of a closed travel agency, Neal made his way to the lair of the most dangerous man in the entire city.
“Welcome to Tim Horton’s, eh! What can I getcha?”
“Um, I guess I’ll have…” Neal seemed to be at an utter loss for words, and Tim’s heart sank a little – if the famous Caffrey charm was failing him now, this whole plan was doomed.
“I’ll have a coffee and a box of Timbits,” Neal finally answered.
“How many?” the man asked with polite enthusiasm. Tim wasn’t sure if he was part of the Campbell organization or not – he didn’t think so – but he thought it was wise to assume all the employees were “unfriendlies.” Or, as unfriendly as Canadians could get, which seemed to be pretty damn friendly, come to think of it...
”Ten, I guess.”
Tim could hear Neal sighing with exasperation. ”Surprise me.”
There followed the sounds of Neal's order being filled, and Tim began to feel marginally less stressed when another voice could be heard. “Excuse me, are you Mr. Tabernacle?”
“Mr. Campbell will see you now.”
“Oh, um, OK.”
“I’ll just grab your coffee, eh? Won’t take but a minute. Hey Tommy, this order’s on Mr. Campbell, all right?”
“Sure, sure, no problem, Remy. Have a good day, eh.”
Tim’s heart was practically beating out of his chest from the tension of listening to this exchange – how did Neal and Peter do this every day? He pressed the ear buds further into his ears so that he could hear better – traffic was beginning to pick up as rush hour began.
“Welcome to Little Toronto,” said a new voice and Tim couldn’t explain why, but his blood ran cold. “You should try the apple fritter next time you’re here, it’s phenomenal, eh?”
“Mr. Campbell?” Neal asked.
“In the flesh. You must be Mr. Tabernacle. Please, have a seat. No – over here, eh? There’s a draft on this side. Wouldn’t want you to catch your death or anything – it is coming up on the cold and flu season.”
Tim reflected that the voice of pure evil sounded a lot like Martin Short’s.
“Thanks,” Neal said. “And thanks for seeing me. When the bartender down at The Beaches called this morning, I thought for sure you wouldn’t be able to meet with me. I really think we could –
“The Beach,” Campbell said shortly, cutting Neal off.
“The name of the bar – it’s ‘The Beach,’ not ‘The Beaches’.”
“Oh, um, sorry, I didn’t realize…”
“Some people think it’s plural, but it very much is not.”
“No, of course not. I apologize for my inaccuracy. I certainly didn’t mean any offense by it.”
“None taken, eh?” Campbell replied, suddenly pleasant again.
Tim let out the breath he’d been holding – dammit, when was this cat and mouse game going to be over?
“On to business,” Campbell went on breezily. “Word on the street is that you’ve got some rare talents that I might be in the market for, Mr. Tabernacle.”
“I stand by my reputation. Word on the street about you, Mr. Campbell, is that you’re a force to be reckoned with.”
“That word would be correct.”
“But why would I want the hassle? A man with my talents has more demand than he knows what to do with. How do you know you can afford me?”
Tim’s mind boggled – what the hell was Neal doing being so cocky?
“I can afford you. What’s your rate?”
“Fifteen a day plus expenses.”
“Fifteen thousand Canadian?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“That’s a little rich for my blood, Mr. Tabernacle.”
“Then we are at an impasse.”
There followed a long pause wherein Tim imagined they must have been staring each other down or sizing each other up. Or else some big lumberjack was choking Neal out, though he supposed he’d have at least heard something if that were the case. His reverie was interrupted by another voice – the second man Neal had spoken to, Remy.
“Excuse me, Mr. Campbell, but the satellite on the TV is acting all wonky.”
“Keeps going in and out – I was in the middle of taping ‘Cuts Like a Knife, the Bryan Adams Story’ for you on MuchMusic and it just started getting all pixeled, eh?”
“Oh, fer pity’s sake, did you try jiggling the thing?”
“That’s the first thing I tried.”
“You could try rebooting your receiver box,” Neal suggested.
“How do you do that?”
“Depends on the setup – you want me to take a look?”
“I’d be much obliged to you if you would, Mr. Tabernacle,” Campbell said gratefully; Tim heard the sound of two chairs moving across the floor and three sets of feet walking.
“Is this the satellite box?” Neal asked.
“You know, sometimes you just have to reboot these guys, let me just get down in there…”
There followed a screech of feedback so loud Tim thought his eardrums might rupture; he actually gasped in pain.
“What the heck was that?” Campbell said.
“I, uh…” Neal said.
“It’s coming from him, eh, Mr. Campbell!”
Tim’s heart was in his throat as he heard the muffled sounds of the banana being removed from Neal's pocket.
“Is that a banana in your pocket?”
“Maybe I’m damn happy to see you?” Neal said, then all hell broke loose.
There were shouts and accusations and sounds of shoving and blows being thrown, as Tim did the only thing he could think of and ran towards the Tim Horton’s as fast as he could, muttering, “Shit, shit, shit, shit,” the entire time.
When he arrived inside the shop, the morning breakfast rush seemed to be in full swing, but when he looked towards the back of the store, he could see that a lot of the tables there were being vacated by the customers. He heard muffled, raised voices emerging from the back, and headed back there, drawing Peter’s gun from the shoulder holster Neal had made him put on earlier that morning.
“FBI, nobody move!” he said as forcefully as he could muster as soon as he turned the corner. A pair of bakers looked up at him in astonishment; beyond them, Tim saw the doorway to another room. He stepped aside as the two men pushed past him to avoid whatever trouble was brewing and proceeded to the other doorway.
Inside, he found an impossibly large stock room for a lower Manhattan business, stacked neatly with supplies, dry goods, and packaging. At the far end was a well-appointed conference room with a glass wall, through which Tim could see an entertainment center – presumably the site of the malfunctioning satellite box. Also inside the room were two nondescript men, one of which was holding a gun on Neal, who stood with his hands raised and a terrified expression on his face.
No one had, apparently, noticed Tim’s entrance, so he ran across the stock room and repeated his earlier statement. This had the unfortunate side effect of forcing the man with the gun – Tim assumed it was Campbell – to grab Neal around the neck and shove the gun against his head.
“Please don’t come any closer, or I will be forced to kill this man,” Campbell said politely. Neal, terrified, made a gagging sound. “Ooo, sorry! Sorry!” Campbell said, loosening his choke hold on Neal so he could breathe.
Tim raised his gun higher. “Drop your weapon, Campbell, and no one’ll get hurt.”
“I don’t mean to be rude, but I am not sure that will happen,” Campbell said, pushing the gun’s barrel against Neal's head more forcefully. “I’m at a bit more of an advantage, wouldn’t you say, Mr. Tabernacle? If that really is your name?”
“It’s Neal Caffrey, actually.”
“Really? Caffrey? I’ve got a buddy named Caffrey – don’t suppose you’re related? Ned Caffrey – he’s from Mississauga?”
“Bummer, eh. Anyway, I think I still have the upper hand, Mr. FBI. Move any closer, and I’ll kill him. If you don’t let me out of here, I’ll kill him.”
Tim’s hands wavered, and he almost gave up, but one look at Neal and he thought twice about it. He couldn’t give up, he had to prevail here – just like Peter Burke did every single day. He raised his gun, squared his legs and shoulders like Neal had taught him the day before, lowered his voice a little to play up the menace, and said, “Do not make me shoot you, Campbell.”
“Yeah, please – please – don’t make him shoot you,” Neal said, closing his eyes as if bracing himself to be killed at any minute.
Tim, blood pounding in his ears, had a moment of sudden clarity. He knew how to play this, and he knew exactly what to say. He rolled his neck, feeling the joints within crack satisfactorily, and fixed as menacing a glare on Campbell as he could. “Sure, you could probably shoot us both if you want, Campbell, because honestly, I’m not that great a shot. But before you do, consider this. Consider that if I am here, then there are several more of my Federal agent colleagues right behind me, just waiting for me to give the word to take you and your gang down. So go ahead, kill him. But you’ll never get out of here, not without repercussions. And you know all those stories they say about American prisons?”
Campbell raised his eyebrows.
Tim took a step forward, drew himself up as tall as he could, and spoke with his most intimidating voice, “They are entirely true. So what’s it to be, Campbell?” He had more to say, but his instinct, in that moment, told him that Peter would just let it lie there – make the perp come to his own decision about giving up quietly, and make it his own. He squinted his eyes and set his mouth in a determined line.
Campbell stood his ground, his arm flexing around Neal’s throat, but Tim just projected his most confident air and sense of control and command, his eyes never wavering from Campbell’s.
“All right, eh, jeez!” Campbell said, relaxing suddenly and letting Neal go. Campbell turned his weapon around and held it out to Tim, who had unfortunately locked his knees into their current position so he would not fall over, so he literally could not move. Neal, luckily, had more presence of mind, and disarmed Campbell, as well as his henchman Remy, who volunteered the weapon he had hidden on him without being prompted.
Tim could feel some of the tension leaving his body, and in its wake, the adrenaline that was coursing through him made his muscles begin to quake a little. His looked at Neal, who smiled proudly as if to say, “I knew you could do it!”
And then all hell broke loose.
“FEDERAL AGENTS! NOBODY MOVE!”
The shout rang out through the donut shop outside and Tim could hear the clattering as the few patrons who’d remained behind after his own dramatic – and armed – entrance did as bidden. Neal moved to cover Campbell and Remy as Tim turned to see two of the donut shop employees who’d been working the front counter run into the storeroom with weapons drawn.
Instinctively, Tim turned toward them, shoulders open and knees slightly bent, bodily protecting Neal.
“Tim!” Neal said, but he was ignored as Tim brought his weapon up, sighted along it and began firing at the other two. Thankfully, none of his shots found their mark – he would have been mortified if he’d hurt anyone – but they were close enough to make them duck for cover. Tim squeezed off one shot after another, moving protectively in front of Neal and the others. He thought he saw Diana and Jones emerge from the kitchen beyond – he’d forgotten he’d left Diana a voice mail on his way to meet with Neal – and was about to be relieved that the real law enforcement agents had arrived – when the last of the workers’ rounds actually found its mark.
“Tim!” Neal shouted.
The bullet that slammed into Tim’s shoulder made him reel back with the sheer force and shock of it. He quickly righted himself, but all at once his limbs turned to water and he fell on his ass. Before he knew it, he was staring up at the ceiling.
The pain was beyond belief. He would be crying like a baby if he only had the breath. He may have been screaming.
Tim blinked as he focused on Neal’s face, hovering above him. “Neal.”
“Tim, Jesus Christ, what did you do that for?” Neal said urgently. He accepted the stack of clean aprons that Campbell helpfully offered to him and ripped Tim’s jacket aside to press them against the wound to staunch the bleeding.
“I dunno, it was just instinct I guess,” Tim said from between clenched teeth.
“You could’ve gotten killed.”
“It’s what he would’ve done. Peter. I did exactly what he’d have done, didn’t I? I didn’t even think about it – I knew. I just knew.”
“I told you you could do it – I knew it all along.”
“No you didn’t, not when we were at the gun range.”
“Never mind that! Do you believe it now, Tim, do you believe in yourself?”
“I suppose I do,” Tim said, and couldn’t help a small smile – he must have been delirious. “I guess I am a good actor.”
“You’re a great actor, but you’re a better man, because you risked it all for a friend. You saved my life, you know.”
“Us too, eh?” Remy piped up.
“See?” Neal said, pressing down on the bullet wound, which was bleeding pretty heavily now. One look at it made Tim feel suddenly faint, and he bit back a moan of pain. How did Bruce Willis and all those action guys ever pull this kind of shit off?
“You’re welcome,” Tim answered, screwing his eyes shut against the pain and the sudden lightheadedness he felt.
He felt like he was floating a little for a moment, and then he heard Neal’s voice again. “…coming around, buddy?”
Tim opened his eyes to find himself, once again, in a bright and cheery hospital room. He must have blacked out and missed the ambulance ride.
He was propped upright in a bed in a private room, and when he looked down, he saw that his left shoulder was wrapped and slung against his body. His head also hurt. “Ow,” he said to the room in general.
“It is good to see your face,” a familiar voice next to him said.
“Neal?” Tim looked over at the man sitting in the chair beside his bed.
“God, how hard did you hit your head?” He sat forward, blue eyes filled with concern.
Tim felt a rush of relief suffuse his body. “Matt,” he said definitively.
Matt smiled. “How you doing? You’ve been out a long time – almost all day.”
“I… fell,” Tim said, more reminding himself than anything – his tumble down the steps on-set seemed like it had happened a hundred years ago.
“That’s right. You scared the shit out of everyone, even Marsha.”
Tim smiled – Marsha had an iron constitution and nothing fazed her.
“Well, I’m glad to see you awake, I really am,” Matt said.
“I’m glad to be awake,” Tim said, the fog over his brain finally lifting and the fact he was home settling in on him. “Did I delay production too long?”
“I wouldn’t worry about that – Eastin was yelling at everyone at the studio he could get hold of for the faulty lighting equipment, and how could they almost kill the star of his show.”
“Star of the show?”” Tim said, amused.
“You know there’s no Neal without Peter,” Matt admonished, clearly not wanting to rehash the same conversation they’d have every time Tim’s insecurities about his performances would show their ugly faces. Tim suddenly felt foolish for all the time he’d wasted on that, though he was thankful for Matt’s support and friendship as he repeatedly assured Tim he was wrong.
“Those are from him.” Matt indicated the rather obscenely large arrangement of flowers on the table in the corner.
Tim smiled. “I guess nothing says, ‘Don’t sue us,’ like flowers.”
“Seriously, though, thanks for staying, Matt.”
“I promised Elisa I would.”
Just the mention of his wife’s name made tears well in Tim’s eyes. “Is she here?”
Matt noticed and smiled fondly at him. “She should be any minute – her flight landed about an hour ago. Just you and me for now.”
“It’s good to see you.”
“It’s good to be seen.”
Matt looked at him with a puzzled expression, but Tim was truly happy and relieved to be home again. He didn’t know where he’d gone – or if it had been real or imagined – but there was no doubt the experience had changed him, and he was grateful. “
Speaking of ‘being seen,’” Matt continued, “I know you said the other day you weren’t interested, but Soderbergh really wants to talk to you about being the villain in his next film, and you may not think so, but I think you’ll be perfect, and –“
“I’ll do it,” Tim interrupted.
“You will?” Matt asked, looking simultaneously surprised and delighted.
“I think I’m made for it,” Tim said with a grin.
After all, he’d looked into the face of pure evil and faced it down. He could certainly be menacing enough on the big screen.
Thank you for your time.