It was the night before Christmas and all through the Burke house, not a creature was stirring and Peter was snoring. Elizabeth lay beside him, sleeping soundly with the plugs pushed far into her ears. The house was quiet, the night was calm and cool, the kind of night perfect for sleeping.
Until Peter's cell phone rang, illuminating the nightstand impatiently.
Peter continued snoring. It was Elizabeth, despite her ear plugs, that heard the mechanical ring tone. She groaned, rolled over, and nudged her husband with her palm against his shoulder.
"Peter, wake up," she murmured sleepily.
Peter snored on.
"Peter," Elizabeth groaned.
Her husband snored loudly and turned on his side away from her. Elizabeth groaned and kicked him hard in the leg.
With a yelp, the slumbering man jerked awake and tumbled out of bed. Elizabeth chuckled until the covers were ripped off the mattress. She moaned at the chilly air that suddenly assaulted her. She pressed her face into her pillow and curled her body in. Peter pulled himself up off the floor and searched her out with groggy eyes.
"What'd ya kick me for?" he mumbled.
"Your phone," Elizabeth said with a yawn, "it was ringing."
Peter wiped his hand over his face and crawled back into bed, "I didn't hear anything."
"How could you," Elizabeth asked with a deep glare, "over that locomotive running through your mouth?"
"I don't snore, El."
"I have a video recording that says different."
Peter raised an eyebrow, "You recorded my snoring."
Elizabeth smiled sweetly, "But sweetie, you don't snore," she pointed to the phone, "Look at it. The call could have been important."
Peter sighed and lazily grabbed the phone off the night stand and flipped it open. The bright light hurt his eyes and he squinted, waiting for his eyes to adjust. Just as he was able to read the name on the screen, his phone came to life.
"It's ringing," Peter said, bewildered.
Elizabeth groaned into her pillow, "Then answer it," she paused, "and give me back my damn covers."
Peter pressed the send button and put the phone to his ear, "Agent Burke, this better be good."
"Peter, it's Hughes."
"Sir," Peter frowned, "why are you calling me," he glanced at the clock, " at 2:37 in the morning?"
"We've got a situation, Peter," Hughes said, "Caffery's anklet just went off."
Peter was instantly awake, "Out of his radius?"
"No, it's been cut. Last location was a parking garage downtown."
Peter frowned, "What the hell was he doing out at this time of night?"
"Good question, I need you to find out and find him. Call Jones, he'll give you the exact location. He and Lauren are already on the scene."
"I'll be there in five, sir."
Hughes hung up and Peter cursed under his breath. Elizabeth raised herself up on her elbow.
"What is it?"
"Neal's run," Peter said. He stood and went to his dresser as Elizabeth jerked upright.
"What? That's not possible!"
"Oh, it's possible," Peter said angrily, jerking his pants out of his dresser, "I new I shouldn't have gotten so comfortable with him! Damn it, this was bound to happen."
"Peter, it doesn't make sense."
"It makes perfect sense. Caffery is a criminal, always has been and probably always will be. He was just weaseling his way in, making me trust him so he could bolt!"
Elizabeth jumped out of bed and took Peter by the arms, "Peter, listen to me."
Peter, at his wife's calm touch and soothing tone, stopped ranting. He took a deep breath and stood perfectly still in the middle of the room.
"Neal wouldn't do this," Elizabeth said, "He didn't run when Kate was right in front of him, he didn't run with the Bible and he wouldn't run now. You know him, Peter."
"Do I?" Peter asked, "Or was it just another con?"
Elizabeth took his face in her hands, "It wasn't. He's innocent until proven guilty, Peter. Give him a chance."
Peter sighed, "I have to go."
He turned and grabbed his suit jacket lying on the chair. Elizabeth sighed and crossed her arms over her chest. Peter spun around and threw up his hands.
"Where the hell are my shoes!"
Lauren sighed and turned away from the forensic officers. She walked on unsteady legs back to the SUV. Jones stood at the open trunk with the laptop open in front of him. By the frown on his face and the deep lines of confusion on his forehead, she could tell he wasn't finding what he wanted.
"Problems?" she asked in a tired voice.
"Yeah," Jones said, "big ones. This doesn't add up."
"It does," Lauren said, "just not to the answer we want."
"Yeah," Jones agreed with a heavy sigh.
Lauren heard the echo of a car's engine and turned to watch Peter pull into the garage. He wasn't happy, or so she judged from the haggard expression and the way he slammed the door. He scanned the crowd of moving agents, spotted them and headed their way. Lauren hung her head.
"You going to tell him, or should I?" Jones asked.
"Let's draw straws," Lauren said.
Peter stopped in front of them, the picture of impatience, "Someone tell me what's going on, now."
Lauren looked up at Jones who dropped his head and dug his fingers into his eyes tiredly. Lauren closed her eyes briefly before squaring her shoulders and looking at her superior.
"We pulled up Caffery's record of movement for the past six hours," she said, "but there are some discrepancies."
"Discrepancies," Peter repeated, "What kind of discrepancies?"
Jones turned the laptop toward him, "Caffery was stationary from nine o'clock until midnight. Then he traveled south, seemingly in a car from the rate of travel. But then he stops and the tracker is cut."
"Where's the discrepancy?" Peter asked.
"He travels with the tracker for another mile," Lauren said, "then tossed it out the window."
"How do you know it was tossed?"
Lauren reached behind her into the trunk of the SUV and pulled out a plastic evidence bag containing the ruined tracker. She handed it to Peter.
"See the dents and scratches on the module? They seem to be caused by pavement."
Peter turned the tracker over in his hands, examining the scratch marks, when he suddenly froze. He looked up at Lauren.
She nodded, "There's more, Peter. Follow me."
Peter gulped, "More?"
He followed Lauren to where the forensic scientists buzzed and hummed with activity. She cut between them and stood beside a concrete pillar, hugging herself and looking away from the scene. Peter pushed past a scientist and gasped at the scene.
"What the hell?!"
He recognized Neal's coat, thick and warm. His stomach turned at the glistening blood soaking it. Speckles of blood littered the ground in a pattern and beside the coat was the fedora Peter had grown so used to seeing. He was horrified to see the rim blood stained.
"We think…" Lauren paused and swallowed hard, "we believe Neal's been…"
"Kidnapped," Peter murmured.
He knelt down and carefully picked up the hat, not caring that he wasn't wearing gloves and that he was breaking protocol. His hands tightened into fists and he turned to Lauren.
"We need to go to Neal's apartment."
Peter felt his stomach twist and his supper revolt as he walked into the apartment. It wasn't because the door was hanging on its hinges, really nothing more than splinters. It wasn't because he knew he was right and Neal had been attacked and taken.
It was because of the metallic stench filling the air. And the red coating the apartment.
"Oh god," Lauren gasped. She turned out of the apartment and dashed into the hallway. She barely made it to the potted plant in the corner before she lost her battle with her stomach.
Peter only wished he could do the same.
He walked through the apartment, stunned into a trance. He saw the over turned table and the splintered chairs. He saw the blood smears and handprints on the counter and tiled floor. He saw the dark puddles on the carpet, but it all seemed like a dream. Or a nightmare come to life.
"Agent Burke! We've got something!"
Peter dashed across the room to the TV where the agent stood. In his gloved hands, he held a transparent DVD case containing a single silver disc. Peter didn't miss the bloody smudges on the case.
"Was there a note?" Peter asked.
The agent shook his head, "No, sir."
Peter turned to the TV and said solemnly, "Play it."
The agent put the disc into the player and turned on the TV. Peter braced himself, sure he wasn't going to like what came next.
The screen remained black and Peter was beginning to wonder if the disc was blank when a hollow, haunting voice came from the speakers. It had been disguised mechanically and was undistinguishable as to sex or inflections.
"If you are watching this, Agent Burke, then you have likely discovered your pet is missing. No doubt you are wondering about his health given the massive amount of blood found on both scenes, as I'm sure you've discovered the tracker. But rest assured, the human can loose quite an amount of blood and survive, particularly if the blood is replenished."
Peter felt his anger swell. He wanted to yell at the disembodied voice, demand answers, but he knew it would be useless. So he let his anger simmer and listened.
"My demands are very simple, Agent Burke. I want what you stole from me. However, who I am and what it is exactly that I want, you will have to discover on your own. You see, your theft cost me a great deal of pain and I want you to suffer as well. And I know how noble and heroic you are, Agent Burke. You may claim disinterest in your pet con, but he is still a human life, one that will suffer until you return what you stole."
Peter stared at the black screen, resisting the strong urge to plunge his foot through the glass. He felt the eyes of all the agents in the room on him, but he didn't look at them. He could see something on the screen, the faintest of silhouettes outlined in the blackness. He focused on that image, trying to decipher it as the voice continued.
"You have one hour to find my name, Agent Burke. Three to return what was taken. If you do not meet these deadlines, he suffers."
The black screen was suddenly cast in light and Peter saw the silhouette was Neal, tied to a chair, head hanging limply under a single naked bulb. Blood stained the front of his shirt in a warped river, running down the front of his shirt to pool at the band of his pants. And IV pole equipped with a bag of blood stood next to him, the IV running down to his left arm. Peter stifled the gasp that burst forth, just barely. He heard Lauren exclaim something under her breath and the deep curse Jones uttered.
But Peter was transfixed on that image of Neal, so vulnerable and hurt, for reason that made no sense. He was horrified to see the blood was coming from his head, running down the right side of his face, down his neck and chest. Peter felt his nausea rise and churn.
The disembodied voice said, "Do you see, Agent Burke? Do not question my resolve."
Neal lifted his head only slightly and stared directly into the camera. Peter was caught by his expressive blue eyes and was surprised to see no fear lingering behind them. He stepped forward and it took everything he had to stay on his feet, to not drop to his knees right there, helpless and despaired.
"The countdown starts now, Agent Burke," his tormentor said, "I suggest getting to work. I'd hate to have to harm Mr. Caffery further."
And Neal, weak and in pain, groggy from blood loss, focused on his captor, turning his fearless eyes to where the voice was hidden and said in a quiet, confident voice, "Go to hell."
And the disc cut out.
Peter felt a small smirk pull at his lips and pride fill his heart. Lauren stepped beside him, uncertain and cautious. She turned terrified eyes to him.
"Sir?" she asked.
"Get this to forensics and analysis." Peter said, "Call the office and have Lisa pull every file I've worked."
"That's going to be a hell of a lot," Jones muttered as he pulled out his phone.
"When the hell did they have time to make this?" Peter asked, gesturing to the TV.
"Caffery was taken from here roughly around midnight," Lauren said, "but the tracker wasn't cut until one."
"They split up," Peter said, "Damn it, that's why they held onto the tracker for another hour, to send us on a wild goose chase. They tossed the tracker and his coat to throw us off the trail."
He turned to Lauren, "Finish up the scene," he said and turned on his heel, heading for the door.
"Where are you going?" Jones asked.
"To find Neal."
And by God, he would.
"You're going to regret this."
Neal jerked as his captor tightened the bonds around his wrist. His vision blurred and overlapped as he lifted his head. It seemed as if his neck suddenly lost all muscle function as his head flopped back against his shoulders. He felt long fingers clench his hair. He grunted as his head was jerked farther back.
His head was released and he let out a sharp gasp as his chin touched his chest. He closed his eyes tightly as the footsteps echoed away from him. He heard the door shut and lock as the dead bolt slid into place. He sighed heavily.
"Any time now, Peter," he murmured, but he knew it was a hopeless wish.
Peter wouldn't find him so soon. Dimly, he wondered if that hour had even begun yet. Had they found the disc, watched it? He'd tried counting the minutes, seeking oblivion to escape his captors. He'd lost track a long time ago and hadn't started again.
All he knew was that his head was killing him and he had to keep fighting the intense need to vomit. More than likely he had a concussion. That was a given, considering the crowbar he'd seen coming for his head.
And he was tired. So tired. He remembered hearing somewhere that if you fell asleep with a concussion there was a risk you wouldn't wake up again. Neal wondered if given the circumstances that would be a bad thing.
But he knew he needed his strength, at least mentally. He couldn't think straight with his brains sloshing around his skull and his vision weaving and spinning the way it was. He needed rest. Just for a moment. One minute to collect himself.
Neal closed his eyes and gave into the oblivion calling his name.