This was one hell of a bar.
Neal stuffed his hands in his pockets and soaked in the ambiance. Everyone was dressed to the nines, no jeans or baseball caps here; the room was full of pinstripes and pocket squares, long gloves and slinky silk skirts. A torch singer crooned about lost love from the stage in the corner. Neal half-expected to see Sinatra playing cards with Dean and Sammy at one of the tables.
He just wished he knew how he'd found this place. Neal didn't remember walking in, all of a sudden he was just...there. And he knew he'd been in a hurry about something, but he couldn't remember why or about what.
Neal shrugged. Whatever it was, he was sure it could wait. He leaned against the bar and ordered a gin and tonic from the pretty bartender; she wore her hair like Veronica Lake and Neal wondered where this place had been all his life.
He picked up his drink and scanned the crowd for an empty table; after a few seconds he saw a man wave to him from the back of the room. "Over here, son! There's an empty chair here."
Neal worked his way through the crowd --- one guy was wearing a zoot suit, how cool was that? --- slid into the offered seat and grinned his thanks to the man. He was older, black with graying hair tightly pulled back and dressed in grays and blacks. Neal noticed that he'd chosen the table with the best view of door and was sitting with his back to the wall, making it impossible for anyone to sneak up from behind. "Thanks," he said, keeping his suspicions to himself. "This place is pretty hopping, huh?"
"You looked a bit lost when I spotted you."
Neal ran one hand through his hair. "Yeah, I guess you could say that. I don't actually remember how I got here. It's like I blinked and here I was. Not a bad place to find myself, though." Neal took a sip of his drink and let out a satisfied sigh. "Man, that's strange."
"My drink. It's just...it's funny. This tastes just like the drinks Kate and I had after I pulled my first...." He looked over at the older man and saw his lips quirk up into a smile. I'm guessing criminal, then. "My first con," he said, deciding to take the risk. "Convinced the MoMA that I'd found a lost Cassatt. Even had Kate pose for it."
"That sounds like it took some skill."
"It took three months. And that's not counting the months of research ahead of time. By the time I finished that painting I knew Cassatt better than her biographers."
"Forgive me if this sounds judgmental, but it seems to me you could have put that talent to some more legitimate endeavors."
Neal leaned back in his chair. "Yeah, maybe. Even thought about it once or twice but...it was a lot of money." He still had dreams about that first check sometimes; he'd never before seen so many zeros in one place. "Once you see that much cash, minimum wage starts to lose its luster." He tapped his fingers against the glass. "And I'd promised Kate better."
"It sounds like you loved Kate very much."
Neal remembered her smile when he'd put down the final brush stroke. "You know, I've stolen a lot of things over the years. Art, jewelry, that car Steven McQueen drove in Bullit --- I couldn't resist --- more than I knew what to do with out of a while. But all the time, Kate was all I ever wanted." He felt the heat from the explosion on his back and squeezed his eyes shut.
"I'm sorry, son. For whatever happened."
Neal shook his head. "I was supposed to be there. She was waiting for me and I just...wasn't there." He let out a long, shaking breath before getting the ache in chest back under control. "I'm telling you all this and I haven't even introduced myself. Neal Caffrey."
"A pleasure, Neal. The name's Book."
Neal noticed the open book in the man's hands; the writing looked Chinese and he couldn't make out the title. "What's that you have there?"
"This would be the Good Book."
Neal blinked. "Wait...like the Bible?"
Book chuckled. "Yes, that is generally what people mean like that." He closed the Bible and cocked his head, studying Neal. "Is that a problem?"
"Well, no. I guess it's just an unusual thing to be reading in a bar. Especially in a bar like this."
Book steepled his fingers. "Why this bar, specifically?"
Neal just shrugged. "For one thing, there's a craps game going on in the corner. I keep expecting to turn around and see the Rat Pack behind me."
Book blinked as if he didn't understand the reference, then leaned across the table. "Out of curiosity Neal, what exactly are you seeing?"
Neal frowned, drumming his fingers across the table. Okay, I'll play along. "Like the bars in old noir movies from the '50s, only better. Fedoras and card games and cigarette smoke. No Ed Hardy shirts. Everything I've always wanted from a bar."
Book took a sip of his own drink --- Neal noticed for the first time that he was drinking sake --- his eyes far way. "My perfect bar was always the little place down the road from the monastery. A place made for reading and thinking. Quiet and perfectly peaceful. Well, except for the last day of the month in the Alliance garrison came in on liberty for lack of anything better to do. My Superior would always console us that chance was good for the soul."
"A monastery? You're a monk?"
"More like a priest. Monks stayed behind and devote themselves to their studies, I went out into the world."
Neal's eyebrows rose. "So you're a priest."
"We prefer the term Shepherd."
Now it was Neal's turn to study him. "Really? Don't think I've heard it before."
"Give it time. I have a feeling it'll catch on."
"Guess I shouldn't have brought up all of that larceny."
"I have heard somewhere that confession is good for the soul."
"Yeah, but that only counts if I feel bad about my sins." He grinned and was relieved when Book smiled back. "You might have guessed already, but I'm not really the religious type."
Book gave him a Cheshire cat grin that Neal had a hard time placing. "Believe me son, when I was your age neither was I."
The conversation was getting awkward. Neal hateda gun, the guy has a gun Peter has his back turned, he can't see it coming but Neal sees. Ran the whole way, lungs burning, can't shout a warning no time anyway, gun already raised gotta get between one more step keep moving one step....
..like he getting punched in the chest, one hard hit. Hears Peter's voice, good, that's good, more shots, loud, never sound like TV. Staggering backward, chest hurts, smells water, feels cold, feels....
Neal gripped the arms of his chair so hard his nails made gouges in the wood. He looked up and saw Book watching him intently. "Remember something?"
He nodded, downing the rest of his drink in one gulp. "I...I think I got shot." He touched his chest but there was no mark, no wound, nothing. Not even his heart beating. He looked up at Book and didn't see any surprise on the man's face. "Am I dead?"
"Beginning to appear that way."
Neal reached down and confirmed that the tracker was gone from his ankle, then slumped in his chair. It felt, strangely, like the first time Peter had caught him; once it had finally sunk in that there was no way to escape Neal had burst out laughing for a solid five minutes. He felt that same pressure in his throat and wondering if he should just give into it; after all, if he couldn't break into hysterics after figuring out he was dead when would be the right time?
"You don't look all that upset."
"No, it's not that, it's just...." He did start laughing then, a hard, rasping laugh that hurt coming out. "It's just a lot to take in." He wiped some tears away and got himself back under control. "Is Peter okay?"
"Do you see him here?"
Neal snorted. "C'mon. Peter would hate this place. He would wear the same pair of jeans to work every day if they would let him." His drink had refilled itself and Neal downed it in one shot, wondering if he could still get drunk in the afterlife. A realization struck him and he dropped the glass to the floor. "I can see Kate again." His hands shook and his smile felt like it was going to split him in half. "I can find her. I can see her again." He looked up and saw a door outlined in gold against the far wall.
"Do you see something, Neal?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I do. I think I just realized what I was in such a hurry to do." He tipped his hat. "It was great meeting you, Shepherd Book. Good luck with the Bible, enjoy your sake, I have to...."
Book reached and grabbed Neal by the wrist. "I think you should have another drink, son."
Neal looked down and saw that his drink was back and refilled on the table. He tensed to pull his arm away but something in Book's eyes made him reconsider. He sat down and raised the glass. "I guess it couldn't hurt. The afterlife isn't going anywhere, right? One drink."
He never tasted the drink. ...quick, hide, someone's coming why is Carter talking to Danko setup setup he's dirty knew it have to tell Peter can't let him get to the rendezvous....
Neal stood up so fast his chair tipped over. "Sometimes the memories take a while to come back," he heard Book say, as if the older man were talking from miles away. "Talk through it, that'll help."
Neal swallowed. "We...we were working with this guy Carter on a case, he was on loan from Organized Crime. Peter and I tracked a forgery ring to this hitman named Danko who was high up in the Russian mob and Peter's bosses wanted us to 'pool our resources.' I got a bad feeling from the guy but Peter went to --- I don't know, FBI school with Carter and trusts him." His hands ball into fists. "Peter's undercover, he's meeting with Cater and Danko tomorrow night. Carter's dirty and he's walking Peter right into a trap. That's what I was rushing to tell him when I got shot."
Book's brow furrowed. "But if they were planning an ambush why try to kill the two of you?"
Neal shook his head. "Just him, not me. I was undercover too, they didn't know we were connected. The right hand doesn't know what the left is doing in that group," he said, remembering the shooter's face. "The guy who took the shot was Danko's best goon; he thought Danko was trying to squeeze him out and decided to take a shot at Peter thinking he was taking out his boss's new partner. That was just really bad luck."
Book sat back, looking up at Neal. "If your friend Peter meets with Carter and Danko, what will happen?"
Neal could only stare. ...bring what's left of the agent up in pieces Neal wants to gag he hates bodies was supposed to be appraising a painting can't work like this but Peter won't leave. Knew the guy Diana tells him autopsy says it took two days Danko everyone says, Danko's M.O second one this year.... "They'll kill him."
"Your friend sounds very resourceful, I'm sure he can...."
"He doesn't know. I told you, he trusts the guy, I'm the only one who...." It didn't seem right his mouth could feel like sandpaper when he was dead. "I'm the only one who can tell him."
"But you were just shot. I'm sure he'll postpone the meeting."
"You don't know him." Neal tried to imagine what could make Peter back off from an investigation and only came up with worldwide apocalypse. "This'll just make him more determined. He'll take me...me dying personally. He'll make sure he'll meet that rendezvous." He started to pace. "I have to warn him."
"Neal, you took a bullet for the man. What else could someone possibly expect you to do?"
…El's crying "Tell me you're going to keep him safe. Promise me." Then she pulls away before he can answer she looks just like Kate when she cries and Neal can't believe he's never noticed that before. "I'm sorry," she says, "That's not fair, I can't ask you that."
She shakes her head. "You can't promise something like that."
He tips her chin up. "I promise."
"They fought the whole day about Peter taking this case," he said, remembering that long, excruciating afternoon. "Kept trying to get me to take sides. I'd rather go back on the run than get in the middle of that again." He tried to imagine El getting the news that Peter had been killed and felt like throwing up. "Hughes would have to do it. God, she'll know the second she sees him at the door." He shook his head, forcing the scene from his mind. "I can't let her go through all that. I promised her I wouldn't."
"It seems to me you have a choice to make, son."
Neal wheeled around. "What do you mean? I was shot, I'm dead. This isn't the Princess Bride, I can't be mostly dead."
"Well," Book said, drawing out the word. "It is a bit more complicated than that. Neal, how long would you say you've been here?"
Neal shrugged. "A while."
Book smiled. "Time moves funny, here. That you and I are in the same time and place is proof of that. Now I'm all the way on this side, so I can tell those who aren't. And you aren't. Not completely."
Neal jumped on the hope like…well, like a dying man. "So you're saying I can go back. I can warn him."
"I'm saying you have a choice to make."
Neal remembered the door outlined in light. "Kate." It just wasn't fair. "So it's Peter or Kate. Again." For a moment he could almost feel her arms around him, her whisper in his year like they were back at the beginning. He'd never told Peter but he was tired. It had always been for Kate, all of it. Without her he couldn't even tell what the point of it was anymore. Staying here, seeing her --- for a second Neal didn't know how to turn that down.
Except getting her back required letting Peter keep that rendezvous. It meant letting him die alone and in pain because Neal had read that file too and he knew what kind of animal Danko was. It meant ripping El's heart out when he'd promised he'd never let that happen.
That wasn't a choice. "I wasn't there when Kate needed me. I can't do it to Peter, too. "
When Neal did he saw another door, ordinary and uninviting and growing fainter by the second. "Why didn't I see that before?"
"You weren't looking for it."
"Right. Obviously." Book flashed him a grin like he was enjoying this metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. "This is going to hurt a lot, isn't it."
Book sighed. "I wish I could say otherwise but yes, it will. A gunshot is not the kind of pain you forget."
Neal didn't know what it said about him that he was more afraid of that than he'd been of being dead. "Why did you help me? If you hadn't called me over, if we hadn't talked I wouldn't have remembered. You don't even know me."
Book's eyes shadowed. "I know the look of a soul with unfinished business."
"Everyone's business is unfinished. What's the real reason?"
Book smiled. "Perhaps I've missed the company of thieves." He sighed and met Neal's eyes. "I died violently, both giving and receiving violence. Deep down I always knew that was how it would happen but I'd hoped I'd find another way. Don't think I had time to fit in all of the atoning I needed to do. So," he said, gesturing to the room, "since I'm waiting for some friends to catch up with me if I can do a good turn for someone I do."
"Will you wait for me?" Neal shrugged. "Y'know. If this all goes bad anyway. I might need you to look out for me again."
"I would be happy to. As long as promise to humor an old man and do some reading," he said, tapping the Bible.
"Sure. But I'm not promising any big spiritual awakenings, okay?"
"Sounds like a deal. Now go, before you lose your opportunity." Neal turned and saw that the door had faded almost to invisibility. "Joo How Rin, Neal. Yi Lu Shwen Fohn."
Neal hoped that meant something good. "Thanks, Shepherd. I won't forget."
Book shooed him away, smiling as he reopened his Bible.
The door was barely an outline by the time he got to it and when he put his hand on the knob Neal thought he was going to loose his nerve. Then he thought of Peter, and of Elizabeth, and he opened the door.
Neal woke up gagging with Peter looming over him. "That's right, c'mon Neal, breathe. You can do this, come on." Peter turned him on his side and Neal retched up foul-tasting water until he wasn't sure if Peter was trying to save him or finish killing him. He heard Peter say, "How many times am I going to have to do CPR on you, Neal?" and wished he had the breath to swear at him.
Peter was gentler rolling Neal onto his back again; Neal looked down and caught a glimpse of blood seeping from his chest before Peter took off his jacket and started applying pressure to the wound. "Oh. Oh. Almost forgot."
"It's not bad," Peter answered. "You hear me? Neal, look at me." Neal couldn't focus; he felt himself drift off for a second, then heard Peter snap his fingers in front of his face. "Neal! Neal! Stay with me, here." Neal looked up at Peter, forcing himself to stay conscious. "This is not bad, Neal. You're going to be fine, help's on the way. Just stay with me."
"Bad liar." He looked past Peter and saw the gunman lying still on the dock. "Got 'im?"
"Yes. Yes, I did. Don't you ever do anything that stupid again."
"Y'welcome." It felt like someone was stabbing him every time he took a breath. "Hurts."
"I know. I know it does." He felt brush his hair off his forehead and wondered if Peter knew how hard his hands were shaking. "They'll be here to take care of you soon."
Neal was shivering; it took a second to realize he and Peter were both soaked. "Why...why're we wet?"
"You fell backwards into the harbor when he shot you. For a second I thought I wasn't going to find you, then when I pulled you up I thought you'd been under too long.... Neal, you scared the hell out of me."
"See? Y'do care." He grabbed Peter's arm; he'd felt himself starting to pass out again and knew he had to tell Peter now, before he lost the chance. "Peter. Meeting tomorrow. Carter."
"Don't worry, I'll put this case away for you, I promise...."
Neal shook his head. "No. No, listen." Just the effort was making him light-headed. "Carter's dirty. Working...working with Danko. Trap. Heard them."
He saw Peter's expression freeze; for one horrible moment he thought Peter wouldn't believe him. Then he felt Peter squeeze his hand so hard it hurt almost as much as the bullet in his chest. "Good work."
The next time Neal opened his eyes he was warm and dry and in a dim room. Before he could move he felt a finger press against his lips, looked up and saw Elizabeth leaning over him. She nodded her head towards the corner; when Neal followed her gaze he saw Peter slumped over and snoring in a chair. "It's the first time he's slept in days."
His head felt fuzzy and he didn't feel any pain. Apparently working with the FBI meant they gave you the good drugs. "How long...been out?"
"Four days. The doctors say you're the luckiest patient they've ever seen."
"If I was lucky...guy would have missed." Elizabeth laughed. "Everything work out?"
"Justice has been upheld for one more day. They arrested Carter, Danko and apparently a small army of evildoers. I'm told it was all very dramatic." She held his hand and Neal could tell she'd been crying. "Thank you."
"Made a promise."
"And I'm saying thank you." She tucked his blanket more closely around him. "They're giving you two an award, you know. Peter's supposed to give a speech."
"Almost worth getting shot to see that." He saw her pick up a book from the little bedside table. "What's that?"
"I'm actually a little curious myself. You've been going in and out, and when you woke up two days ago you asked the nurse for a Bible." She turned the book towards Neal so he could see the cover. "Why?"
"Oh." The Bible even resembled the one Book had been reading. He wondered if that had been a particularly vivid dream. "Friend helped me out. Kind of promised I would give it a shot."
She shook her head in amazement. "He must be one convincing friend. I'd like to meet him someday."
"Yeah. Me too."
Her eyebrows furrowed, then she smiled and squeezed his hand. "Do you want me to read to you?"
"I'd like that a lot." He closed his eyes and settled back against the pillows. "If I die first I'll wait for you two."
Neal shook his head. "Never mind. Not important." He thought about telling her about the great bar waiting for you when you in the afterlife and decided against it. Maybe he'd tell Peter later. Neal knew he wouldn't believe it, but the look on his face would be worth it. "Let's get started. Got a lot of reading to catch up on."