A door in the middle of the woods leading underground … Crouched in front of it, Neal couldn't help but be skeptical.
At the same time, he could tell the patience of their captor was wearing thin… Neal's attempt at running had further exacerbated the tension. His requests were getting more terse, and Neal had a sense that unless they followed his command, there would be no good outcome…
It wasn't lost on him that just moments before, he'd had a brief but possible chance to get very far from here, albeit on foot. Yet now here he was, being asked to do something that if he complied would only facilitate getting them even closer to wherever this stranger wanted them. Cornered. Out of sight and potentially out of range.
Still, he couldn't think of a witty or compelling rebuttal, wasn't ready to try to run again, and saw no other real alternative other than risking non-compliance.
There was no 'con' here that he could think of.
Non-compliance was an option, but he wasn't sure he was ready for that risk. He had just tried that tactic, and the bullet that breezed past his temple had been a jarring reminder of what was at stake.
So he slowly gave the appearance that he was willing to comply and that he was following orders.
The metal handle was rounded, appearing well used over many years based on its texture and discoloration. Neal slowly curved his hand around it. It was slick to the touch from the rain, the rain that continued to fall down across the forest and reach them through the trees.
It felt wrong to open this door. There were lots of times he'd purposefully opened doors he wasn't supposed to – he'd been excited about those. This one truly felt wrong.
He was angry at himself for being in this position to begin with. He should have kept running and called the man on his bluff. After the first shot, he should have just changed up his direction. The further he could have gotten, even just a few more feet, he could have used the trees and heavy brush to his advantage.
"Go ahead and pull it open," the stranger directed, tone even more impatient than before. "Use the handle. It's not that heavy."
Neal lifted his head just slightly, taking in the sight of the man's shoes several feet away, a sturdy looking pair of boots covered in thick mud. He wondered if they were steel toed...
As he studied the shoes, raindrops falling, his hand lingered on the metal handle. Maybe he could buy them time somehow, or at least throw off the man's plan in some way to allow them to get back some sort of leverage. If this rain picked up again, visibility would be darker… He could rush forward from his current position and try to overpower the man, take out his legs…
As his mind raced, all these thoughts within seconds, he couldn't help but wonder: was this really Peter's plan? To just let this play out? He considered turning his head to try to get Peter's eye contact, but hesitated. Peter still really hadn't addressed him since he had tried to run.
"What the hell are you waiting for?" the other man asked angrily. "You dumb or something? I just told you, you're on your last chance."
Neal saw the muddy feet take a step closer.
"Neal," Peter said, a tone of caution.
Neal didn't turn to look at him, though he wanted to do so to express frustration. He glared at the handle in his grip instead. He had every intention to get Peter to explain to him later why submission was a default tactic. Was this what it said to do in those infamous rulebooks? This was protocol?
"Can you tell me what's behind the door at least?" Neal asked. He remained crouched down but tilted his chin up further to look beyond the shoes and directly at the stranger. The rain was heavier again now, and Neal felt it against his face as he looked up. He added, "Then I'll open it." Despite the boldness, his heartbeat remained calm. His hope to get a better look at this man's face in doing so was futile, as shadows remained the other's convenient accessory.
"You're really not good at listening, aren't you?" the man snapped at him, nearly a growl. He shined the flashlight directly in Neal's face, causing him to avert his eyes and look back down. "I'd open the door myself, but I'm not turning my back on you again after the stunt you just pulled." He then took another step towards Neal, raising his other hand with the gun higher, threateningly. "Then again, I wouldn't have to worry about that if I take care you now." He took yet another step.
"Enough," Peter interjected, raising his voice. "No one needs to get hurt."
"Then open the door and go inside."
It was Peter's turn to ask questions. "What's down there? What is it you want from us?"
"Us?" the man echoed, shifting the flashlight over to Peter. "You mean you. He's just the unfortunate chump that happened to come here with you." He paused. "Or maybe I'm the unfortunate one considering how goddamn helpful he's been."
"And why am I here?" Peter persisted.
"Still don't have a clue, Peter? Well, you brought yourself here," the man replied. "You chartered a trip here. It was all your own doing. I was simply the catalyst."
"For what?" Peter replied. "We came here to specifically investigate a location. What does that have to do with you?"
"I chose that location," the man answered back stiffly. "Now let's go." The light shifted back to Neal, who was now rising to stand. "No, Neal, don't even think about it," the man reacted brusquely. "Get back down and do what I told you. Open the door."
The light caught Neal's face, and Neal made it a point to keep his expression emotionless. With the brightness in his eyes, everything else was veiled in darkness. He could make out no figures, and not even the shoes. He knew there was little choice.
He'd bought as much time as he could.
He begrudgingly crouched back down onto his heels and reached again for the handle.
This time he gripped his hand around it more firmly, bracing himself, and pulled.
The man had been right – it wasn't heavy. The door creaked open with little effort, hatch opening slowly towards him, more lightweight than the heavy looking board had suggested on first impression. Neal slowly stood as he pulled it, taking steps back with it, leaves and forest debris sliding off the wooden board as it rose. Once he had it raised to a ninety-degree angle, he let it drop down the rest of the way onto the ground with a thud in front of his feet.
He peered over, looking into the entranceway he'd now uncovered with curiosity and apprehension.
He could see a series of wooden stairs leading down into what looked like a dimly lit hallway. At the end of the hallway appeared to be a brighter light, but he could see no further than that.
"Go," the stranger told him harshly, taking a step around to the other side of the entranceway, a few feet across from them, keeping his flashlight on Neal.
Neal was getting tired of this constant direction. As soon as they did something, there was another command. He stood solemnly, staring down into the underground hallway. He wondered of the origin of this place, considering they were in the middle of nowhere without any civilization in sight. Who would have built an underground shelter, or whatever it was down there, and why?
"We're running out of time," the stranger said curtly. "Now go – both of you – before I use a bullet to coax you."
Neal jumped slightly as he felt a hand brush against his shoulder from behind, but realized it was just Peter beside him. He immediately felt stupid, chiding himself – who else would it have been? Raising his hand to his face to briefly block the view of his lips, he whispered to his handler, "What do we do?" Despite the effort, he knew the stranger could likely tell they were talking – a light was shining on them – but he didn't care.
"We go," Peter responded, voice equally low and only audible to Neal.
"But—" Neal cut himself off as Peter's hand dropped lower, digging his fingers in Neal's side. It didn't hurt, it was more of a warning.
"No running," Peter told him gruffly in a whisper. "Stop trying to think of another option right now."
Neal hadn't been planning to run, but he didn't say otherwise. Neal wasn't happy about it, but he also wasn't willing to challenge both his handler and this stranger. He eyed the stairs to another unknown warily.
The flashlight jerked, the light lurching, illuminating them both in turns in an impatient gesture. "Enough conversation. Let's go."
Neal's mind once again raced with options. He envisioned Peter and himself both acting at once, a telepathic coordination, overpowering this guy. The gun would go off as the stranger made an attempt to fight back, but the weapon would be unsuccessful in finding a target, as they had his arms pinned down, aiming the weapon into the night sky.
Peter's fingers nudged Neal gently, bringing him back to reality. "Go," he said softly.
Daydream fizzling into the evening, Neal slowly edged towards the stairs. He could feel Peter close behind him.
A couple steps down, Peter moved from behind to beside him and leaned in close. "They'll find us, Neal; we just need to get to daylight. We can buy time until then by going along with him. Let me figure out who he is, and in the meantime try not to aggravate him."
We just need to get to daylight, Neal repeated Peter's words in his head. While it was indirect, Peter was essentially admitting for the first time that help wasn't coming tonight. Neal wasn't sure why that spoken out loud was a chilling statement to him. He'd known it all along. Ever since the other helicopter had passed, even when Peter tried to assure him otherwise. There was just something about Peter saying it himself.
Simple statement, but one that was daunting considering current daylight had only just diminished. What did the next hours have in store? Was following the lead of this stranger the right call?
He continued to walk down the stairs. There was a weird sensation as he took each step down. Some sort of pang, hard to describe, that hit him in the gut. It was reminiscent of something…. He was trying to place it, when it suddenly hit him. He felt a similar feeling to when he first stepped foot into prison.
The parallel association made him uncomfortable.
He paused, again wishing he'd run when he had the chance.
"Keep walking," came the voice behind them.
Neal hadn't realized he'd stopped. He forced himself forward, down another step.
They were reaching the last couple of stairs. Keeping his view frontward, Neal became more curious about what was ahead. His current view gave him a better look into the short hallway, and it was clear there was an open door and a lit room beyond that in front of them about fifteen feet.
Finally down the stairs, he stood in the dark, damp underground hallway, eyeing the walls on both sides that appeared to be constructed with cinderblock reinforcement. His eyes caught sight of a faded yellow sign on one of the walls, and he stepped towards it. He stared at the vintage image designating a fallout shelter, and slowly reached out to touch it, expecting it to be metal.
Before his hand could reach the sign, it was slapped away as the stranger intercepted and then stood between him and the wall. "Keep walking," the man told him. "Don't touch anything."
"The sign," Neal spoke. The hood of the man's jacket still shadowed his face. "Is that what this place was?"
The man shoved him forward, towards the other doorway.
Stumbling slightly at the force, Neal was irked at the sound of his name coming from this unknown person, but without a choice, moved forward.
Diana looked up, frowning at Jones' statement as he entered the conference room. "Moving?" The couple of other agents in the room remained silent but also looked up, attentive to the discussion.
"Neal's tracker," Jones explained. "It's no longer stationary."
"Then where is it?"
"It's not far," Jones acknowledged, "but the coordinates have changed. We're looking at a new location for when we try to go in at daybreak. We'll keep monitoring it."
"I thought we didn't expect them to try to make it anywhere on foot," Diana said skeptically. "Gerry said they couldn't see a thing when they passed over before. That it's thick woods for miles."
"He did say that," Jones agreed.
"And it's dark. Getting darker." She gestured at the window where the dusk was upon them.
"Also a fact," Jones answered. "Just keeping you up to date…" His tone made his underlying message clear. She didn't need to remind him of the obvious.
She took a deep breath and then let it out. "I know."
One of the other agents in the room, a younger man, cleared his throat. "How do you know they're both on the move?"
Diana turned to him, brow furrowed slightly. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, what if only Caffrey is?" the junior agent continued. "Isn't the tracking device on him? Isn't he a flight risk?"
Diana glanced over at Jones briefly. She then shook her head and gave the younger agent a forced, stern look. "No, they're together," she stated.
They have to be, she finished the thought in her head silently.
The stranger trailed closely behind them as they followed his direction and moved past the corridor, into the next room. It was clear he was taking the 'not turning his back' commitment very seriously.
Neal was intrigued as they entered the doorway. The room in front of them appeared to be some sort of… living space. He frowned.
"Shoes off," the stranger told them as soon as they stepped inside.
"What?" Peter asked, frowning. He also seemed intrigued by the room.
"Shoes," the stranger replied. "Off." He was with ease pushing his own boots off without even an effort of loosening laces. The muddy, sturdy shoes got kicked to the side of the door to a clearly scuffed and worn part of the floor beside a pair of shabby looking sneakers.
Silent but acquiescing, Neal and Peter followed suit, a little more slowly pulling off their own wet shoes while standing, one foot at a time.
As he went through the motions, Neal took in as much detail as he could. The room was basic in décor, yet concurrently overwhelming in detail. A glimpse at the technology in the room caught Neal's eye initially. While there was a lot to digest – a couch, an old storage trunk, some tattered posters on the barren walls – an impressive looking computer setup in the corner caught most of Neal's attention. Dual monitors were situated on an l-shaped corner desk, complemented by a sleek keyboard, and an old desk chair that, based on the worn, scratched floorboards surrounding its immediate proximity, had seen a lot of usage. There were piles of papers on the desk.
"You. Over there."
Neal knew that the command was directed to him as it was accompanied by another firm shove, pushing him in the direction of the far corner of the room, where he eyed another doorway with a closed door. Neal had slid a bit in wet socks, but catching his balance, he turned and looked up at their captor, suddenly realizing they were in normal lighting in this underground room. Dusty light bulbs above provided a welcome change to the early evening lighting upstairs.
The man was still hooded, and his face remained shadowed, but without the contrast of the pitch-dark backlight from the flashlight amongst darkness, the image of the man was more detailed than before.
The man had a beard.
And his eyes –
"What are you looking at?" the man spat, pushing him again. Now the gun was raised. "Go. Over there."
"Where?" Neal replied.
"There," the man directly, pointing his gun towards the other side of the room again.
"And what?" Neal asked.
The stranger turned the gun on Neal. "And sit. You ask too many goddamn questions. That's the last one I'm answering." He enunciated his words with the gun.
"Put the gun away," Peter interjected, stepping forward and raising his arm between Neal and their captor. "We followed you here. We're following now. There's no need for that."
"This is what you call following?" the man retorted, jerking the gun this time towards Peter. "Are you kidding me?"
Neal took in the sight of Peter now for the first time in a few hours. His handler looked tired, his clothes dirty and wet. Soaked. His hair was matted down, dripping. He could see a bruise on the left side of his head, a dark purple. Neal doubted he looked much different himself. In fact, he felt even more wet, the result of his run through the pouring rain earlier. He shivered.
"He is following," Peter countered, voice calm but terse. "We both are. He's just asking questions. He's no threat to you. Please put the gun down."
"Please?" the man echoed condescendingly. "You were always so polite, Peter."
Neal watched Peter, and realized the man was also avidly studying the stranger as well, now that they were in better lighting. He was actively trying to better visualize this person - to place him.
The stranger picked up on this as well.
"Trying to recognize me, Peter?" the man replied, chuckling. "No luck yet? It's a shame… I thought you'd have better recall than that."
Peter frowned, yet said nothing.
Shaking his head briefly, the stranger said, "Well, I'm going to give you some reminders. But first…" Then once again he pointed to the other door and fixated his gun a second time on Neal. "You. Go there. Sit and don't move. It's Peter I need to speak with."
Neal felt conflicted. But there was a gun pointed at him. There wasn't much choice. He could also one again sense the patience of the man waning further. Neal was considerably sensitive to the aura of others – that's how he often found advantages – and didn't miss the warning signs nearly pulsating off this other man.
Neal looked towards Peter, but Peter's eyes were fixated on the stranger, on the gun.
Neal slowly walked, leaving wet footprints each step, towards where he'd been directed. Towards a barren wall of the room. He reached the end of the floor, roughly fifteen feet he estimated, and then turned and faced them.
"Sit," the stranger told him again.
Musing that there was a battered couch just ten feet away from him that would have been an option, though less than ideal based on a superficial look at its condition, Neal began to lower himself to the floor. "Sitting," he said.
A moment passed, the stranger staring at him on the floor.
"Peter," the stranger then spoke. He dropped his arm to his side, lowering the gun. "Desk. Top drawer on the left."
Peter paused at the instruction. "What?"
"Drawer. Now," the man persisted.
Seated on the floor, Neal stretched his legs out straight in front of him. He then placed his hands on the ground, which was concrete and cold to the touch. He watched the scene in front of him, frowning slightly as Peter followed the instructions, slowly but steadily. Peter moved the few feet towards the desk, reaching for the drawer that was specified. He pulled it open.
Peter raised his eyebrows, turning to view the hooded man.
"You should know what to do with those," the stranger told him.
Peter let out a sigh, and then glanced back towards Neal. "It's really not necessary."
"It is," the stranger replied stiffly. "He hasn't shown an ability to follow direction or shut his mouth yet. I don't need him trying anything while we talk. This will make sure we're not interrupted."
Feeling a pang of confusion and uncertainty, Neal continued to watch. Peter's motions were slow but deliberate. However, he resisted the urge to roll his eyes when he saw Peter reach into the drawer and pull out a pair of standard issue handcuffs. That was it?
"It's okay," Neal voiced aloud, resisting a further quip. He didn't fear handcuffs.
He didn't miss the warning glare that Peter shot him at voicing the sentiment.
He shut up.
"Do it, Peter," the stranger said. "And no messing around. We have a lot to discuss."
Peter reached into the drawer and took the cuffs in his grasp reluctantly, exhaling silently. He then walked slowly across the small room to reach Neal. He unhurriedly lowered himself down in front of him on his haunches, making direct eye contact as he reached to his eye level. Neal didn't respond, but connected his gaze with his handler. "Hands," Peter told him softly.
Neal raised his hands up obediently, holding his wrists close enough together to make the next step easier.
"Hurry up. And I'll know if you don't lock 'em," the stranger persisted. "I'll hear it."
Peter sighed yet again. He broke eye contact briefly with his CI to slowly move the cuffs around Neal's wrists, his fingers pressing into his skin as he did so. "Nothing stupid," he whispered to him under his breath. His fingers squeezed Neal's wrist particularly hard as he made the statement. The metal of the cuffs moved more gently. "Trust me."
"Mm-hm," Neal murmured back. He watched the cuffs secure around his wrists, familiar of the process and its feeling, and then remained stoic at the familiar metallic clicking sounds of them cinching tighter.
Peter did a quick tug on the metal, slipping a finger between the metal and Neal's skin. Neal mentally noted that Peter had never left a finger's worth of space on his cuffs before. He was now confused. Wasn't that an invitation to do something?
Peter patted Neal's wrist quickly before he dropped the secured hands into Neal's lap. He slowly stood and started to back away.
"Let me see," the stranger requested.
Neal held his hands up, showing off the bound hands. He maintained a forced look of displeasure.
"Good," the stranger requested. "Now keep your mouth shut too before I give your friend some duct tape."
Neal said nothing..
It was then the stranger moved towards his desk. "Come, Peter. It's time we get reacquainted."