It took but a moment for Elizabeth, her heart breaking for Neal's anguish, to kneel down on the floor and wrap her arms around her friend, his body shaking with his sobs. Huddled there together, rocking slightly, Elizabeth was much more worried for Neal than herself. Whoever went first, the other would suffer just as much, she knew that about both of them. Something had to be done and quickly. If they weren't rescued immediately then it was up to the two of them to figure something out. Unfortunately, Neal was in such a bad place right now he was giving up before 'the game' began.
"The game," she said to herself, remembering what Neal had told her just that afternoon. The only thing was, could Neal pull it off. Well, she just had to convince him that he could. If she had faith in him, maybe he'd have that same faith, and she did have faith in Neal. That was no con. And he trusted her, despite his assertions, that wasn't a con either. She held him, comforting him for a few more moments as he struggled to control himself.
"I'm sorry, Elizabeth." Neal said, pulling away from her, humiliated to have broken down in front of her. "I, I guess I got you all wet and a little bloody as well."
"Don't be silly, Neal, If anyone needed to just let go for a while, it's you. I was not about to tell you to cowboy up."
Neal chuckled at that but sobered quickly. "I don't know what to do, Elizabeth. I'll keep them away from you as long as I can but..."
"Stop that. Stop that right now Neal Caffery."
"What?"He couldn't believe she was angry at him?
"Neal, we're not going to let them do this to us. We have to come up with a plan. You have to come up with a plan. That's what you do."
Neal looked dully at her. "They'll come in, tie me to this chair, point a revolver with one bullet in the barrel in it at my head and shoot at me. Maybe I'll live, maybe I'll die but they'll keep at it until I tell them what they want, which I can't because I don't know where the music box is, and this will continue until my luck runs out. Either way, it ends just the same. No, it's different. After they finish with me, then they'll start on you."
"No, hon, that's their plan. Come on, Neal. This is your nightmare only it's here, it's real, and it can't haunt you anymore. There's nothing more to be afraid of because you are face to face with it and you can see it for what it is. It's pain, it's torment, but there are no more surprises.
He looked at her as if she'd lost her mind.
"What? You know what they're going to do and you've lived through it, worse for wear but you're still here. Remember you told me, you were never afraid of guns, just the lack of options. Well, think about it. All they've got is a gun and you are not afraid of guns. But you Neal, you're the greatest con man that ever lived. They're afraid of you because they don't know what to expect of you because you've got options."
"What are our options?" Neal hopelessly shook his head. "We have none."
Elizabeth wanted to smack him. "You know, the only reason you're saying that is because you're letting them play with real guns and you won't use your real magic wand."
Neal looked sharply up at her, surprised. Elizabeth continued. "What, you think I couldn't tell that the 5-year-old who liked fairy tales and used a magic wand because it gave him options was you?"
Neal smiled at her through his remaining tears, his eyes brightening for the first time in weeks as her words hit home. He'd been afraid, but not of the gun, afraid because he bought into their game, that he had no options. Yet that had never been how he'd operated before. They had conned him into it.
His smile grew and his eyes twinkled in the darkness as a switch flipped in his mind.
"You know, you're beautiful, brave, brilliant, sexy as hell and absolutely terrific," he said as he wiped the tears from his eyes and face. "Even though you're married to Peter, if I didn't know he'd kill me for doing it, I'd steel you away in an instant."
"You'd have to steel Peter away too, we come as a set. Now let's just think."
It was then that they heard people at the door.
"Got a plan," Neal said and groaning, quickly got up of the floor, pulling a startled Elizabeth up with him. He sat down on the chair that had been an instrument of his torture, and pulled Elizabeth down onto his lap.
"That was quick," she laughed, putting her arms around him to give him a quick hug, though she could feel him still trembling. He was terrified, and she couldn't fault him for that. She was pretty scared herself and had never lived through anything like what was to come. But Neal was going to face this through, and there was no more anyone could ask of him.
He smiled, "Back my play," he whispered in her ear and kissed her on the cheek. "I'll get them to take you out of here and give you a phone. No matter what they do or say, just call Peter."
"Neal, no, that's not what I meant," thinking he'd decided to go through this alone."
"Please, Elizabeth, I'll be alright, I promise, please."
She knew he would not be but there was no more time to protest as men filed in and Neal nudged her up. She bullied Neal into coming up with a plan and he did. If Neal was to have any chance she had to play along.
To the men entering, while they were promised a broken, terrified, shell of a man to observe and enjoy his last moments of torment, what they found instead was a genial, if somewhat worse for wear host, greeting his guests.
"Welcome, welcome gentlemen. It's so nice to see you all again," Neal said grabbing their hands, shaking them, giving them hugs of greeting, even to the man with the scar on his chin as he entered behind the rest.
But the man with the scar on his chin grabbed Neal's wrist and held it out to all showing them that Neal's hand was shaking. "Neal, Neal, you're not fooling anyone with this ridiculous act."
Neal didn't need to look down at his hand, to know he was terrified, but kept his persona firmly in place, "I'm not trying to fool you. You gave me some time to consider my options and I have. If you let me make a call, I'll have the music box brought to you."
The man with the scar chuckled, "Just like that."
"Just like that."
"So you enjoyed our hospitality so much last time that you refused to hand over the box for a week just to remain in our company?"
"Actually, my friend and I don't want to outstay your gracious welcome and would just as soon let you have the box and go home."
The man with the scar looked back and forth between Neal and Elizabeth.
"Tell me where it is and I'll send someone to fetch it."
"Ah, no, that won't work."
"No, it won't work because as I've told you before I don't know where it is and playing your game isn't going to change that. But I know who has it. Just let me make a call and he'll bring it here."
The man with the scar laughed. "Here? No, no. You will stay here and we'll take you're lady love to a place of our choosing where she'll be left. She can make the call and help us retrieve the the box, to trade for your release" he motioned some men to take Elizabeth.
Backing Neal's play, Elizabeth hugged him, fearing that she might never see him alive again, and shook off the goons' hands walking out of the room with the men as if she were going out to shop at RedLipstick with some friends. But Neal had given her this chance and she would follow through for him.
Resisting a sigh of relief, as the door closed behind Elizabeth, Neal sat down on the chair and crossed his legs as if this was his living room and he was entertaining guests. "That will be even better," Neal smiled grateful he had at least gotten Elizabeth out of this hell.
But Neal failed to notice the grin that formed on man with the scar's face as he nodded to two of his men. They grabbed him and fastened his limbs to the chair.
"In the meantime, all that waiting will soon bore all my associates who have eagerly anticipated seeing you again. Luckily, we were able to transport all our toys here, with a few new ones I'd like to try four our amusement. We can just take up where we left off and take our little game to its completion."
This was something Neal had hoped to avoid. "But you'll get the music box," his voice cracked. "There's no reason to interrogate me further?" Neal's fear returned in full measure, the persona he had adopted gone, the options had run out.
The man with the scar on his chin tested Neal's bonds as his men finished. "It's not about the things, Neal, it's about the people. You're broken, but it will be interesting to watch you suffer, see how much pain we can inflict on you and record your reactions for posterity, knowing there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop it from continuing as long as it amuses us and there's no one who will save you."
"Clear," Fowler called out.
"Clear," said Peter. It was horrible déjà vu for Peter as hours later, he and Fowler, followed by Mozzie, warily entered the room in the warehouse and found Neal, his face bruised and swollen from a beating, his body twitching, slumped in the chair, his clothes stained in blood from the wire used to restrain him which had cut through the cloth and into his arms and legs and neck. Burn marks from a tazer gun covered the exposed portion of Neal's stomach, chest, shoulders and neck where his shirt had been ripped open.
"Neal," Peter whispered his name as he checked his pulse, relieved he was still alive. He worked with Mozzie to untwist the wires to free their friend as Fowler called for an ambulance and forensic team and then signaled El and Alex telling them it was safe to come in.
Mozzie helped Peter lift Neal from the chair and laid him on a pile of cushions which Alex and Elizabeth had quickly gathered from the chairs for the audience.
"Peter," Neal mumbled through a dry mouth and bloody lips he had obviously bitten.
"I'm here buddy; just take it easy, an ambulance is on the way."
"Is Elizabeth okay?" he croaked, "Did, did you get them?"
"I'm right here sweetie," Elizabeth took Neal's hand, yet Peter looked so angry for a moment, Neal nearly flinched afraid Peter would rightfully blame him for putting his wife in such danger.
"No, Fowler's set up back fired. They got away again and this time with the a music box, and all the rest of them scrammed out of here as well."
Fowler came over to them looking smug. "It didn't backfire, Caffery. They got away with Alex's forged music box with a tracker camouflaged into the interior lining. Unfortunately, they must have found it and it because it stopped functioning. It was the only way to find out why they want the damn thing since you screwed up so badly with this. Just as soon as we have the medics check you over, you're going back to prison. You can be treated and recuperate in its infirmary just as well as anyplace else."
"No," Peter was furiious.
"It's alright Peter," Neal moaned, apparently unaffected and accepting of his fate as he leaned back against the pillows. "Some things never change."
"I won't let this happen," Peter said, turning back to Neal, stunned by what he saw. Neal's tremors had increased due to the suffering he had endured through lord knew the number of times he'd been tazered. He had to be in pain from that as well as the rest of his wounds, superficial as they may be. Yet he gave a dazzling smile first to Elizabeth and then to Alex who each held one of his hands, while stroking his hair and tending his wounds as best they could. Neal looked like he was immensely enjoying the moment flirting with two beautiful women at once, which Peter wouldn't have minded so much if one of them hadn't been Elizabeth.
"Face it Burke, he screwed up," drawing Peter's attention back, as Fowler spoke as if Neal wasn't even there. "He was supposed to find out who they were and why they want the box. But don't worry. I'm a man of my word. I'll get you a partner who has some guts and brains, and isn't afraid of using a gun and you can go back to White Collar."
This time Peter did sock Fowler in the jaw, knocking him down to the floor near where Neal lay. "Neal's no coward. He's my partner and yes he's my friend and there's no way you're going to do that to him."
Fowler rubbed his jaw. "Face it, Burke. He's broken. They broke him and he doesn't even know who they are. We have to start this op again from the beginning but it will be without him. There's no other way to find out what's so special about that box without knowing who wants it."
"Will these help?" Neal put a handful of some small cards on the floor in front of Fowler and groaned as he lifted himself up slightly. "Ladies, would you help me a bit? There really isn't anyplace I don't hurt right now." They helped him sit up and Neal pulled out small cards from his pockets and dropped them on the floor in front of Fowler.
Fowler picked up some of the cards, some white, some of different colors and patterns, all with weird red markings on them, as Peter knelt down and looked at some of the others.
"Neal, what are these?"
"Oh," chuckled Elizabeth from where she sat next to Neal, "Of course, that's what you were doing when those men came in."
Neal smiled at her, "You told me to use my magic, my options."
"What the hell are you talking about?" said Fowler.
Peter picked up more of the cards, and smiled in pride at Neal's genius, "These are their business cards," he laughed. "Son of a gun, Neal, I don't know how you pulled this off but you never cease to amaze me." He turned to Fowler, throwing the cards he had gathered in his face. "Fowler, Neal picked their pockets, and unlike their wallets or drivers licenses, these cards won't be missed so they won't even know we've ID'd them giving us plenty of time to find them all We even have their addresses. We may even get some finger prints off of them."
Fowler grabbed the cards up looking at them."
"I know I got three cards from everyone who came into the room so you can separate them out," said Neal. "I also got some cards they had in their wallets and pockets from other people so you've got some of their associates as well. We probably have the names of all of them here."
"It's too circumstantial to prove they were here," said Fowler, rubbing his fingers and looking at the red flakes coming from the cards. "Is this blood?"
"Ah, well, that's probably mine. My bullet wound reopened when they threw us in here and when I picked their pockets I might have marked all of the cards as well as their clothing with my blood."
"You've been reading my books on evidence again, haven't you, Neal?" Peter said.
Fowler grabbed his cell phone and called his lead agent, to get arrest warrants, reading off the names of the cards as he picked them up from the floor.
Peter watched, amused as Neal kept emptying his pockets, sleeves, pants legs, even socks and shoes, of all the cards as Fowler grabbed them up. "And that will tie them all to kidnapping and assault and a ton of other charges," Peter grinned, "Awfully sloppy work for you, Neal, leaving evidence like that, that you picked their pockets."
"Yeah, I know. I couldn't even tell when you picked my pocket on the beach last week. I'm definitely losing my touch. Guess I'll have to turn in my union card to united pickpockets international," Neal relaxed back down onto the pillows.
"Well, that will make my life a lot easier," said Peter.
"Peter?" Neal's voice held a hint of worry that hadn't been there before.
"Fowler, said all I had to do was get the names, right?"
"So no prison?"
Fowler closed his cell phone. "No, no prison Caffery. You did your part under difficult circumstances. So I'm offering you a place in OPR permanently if you want and I'll have the rest of your sentence nullified so going back to prison won't be held over your head any more. You'll be working directly for me and your first assignment will be to help with interrogating these guys about why they want the music box. I know you've been having difficulties making decisions lately so take the time you need to recuperate and you can give me a decision then. When do you think you'll be ready? "
"No difficultly in making this decision, Fowler. I'll work for you again when prosciutto can be caught in a butterfly net. Peter?" he turned to his partner.
"Yes?" he chuckled.
"Do you think we can end this beach front sojourn and get back to the relatively boring job of solving white collar crimes? I mean it, I don't know how you guys survive this. As a criminal, I never took a vacation and now I know why."
"Broken, useless, a coward because he doesn't like guns," Peter laughed, "I don't think so, Fowler. Maybe he's just a little bent, but then, that's what makes him Neal Caffery."
Thank you for reading and a special thank you to everyone who reviewed this story. It's gratifying to know the work is appreciated.