Author's note 1: I'm trying to finish all of the stories I've started on here now that I'm getting my life back together. I hope that this chapter is enjoyable to those who read it. Thanks to all those of you who were supporting this story. Let me know what you think- J
Author's note 2: Ok for those who can remember that far back when I left off writing this we were in the middle of a flashback sequence which is going to explain why Neal is in the middle of doing something so 'out of character' and why he feels so damn guilty.
Chapter 5: When it all goes wrong.
Neal adjusted the metal framed spectacles so they sat a little unevenly on his face and then juggled the paper with the scribbled address and the package he was carrying so that they were in a more awkward carrying position, then he deliberately hyperventilated just long enough to make his breaths shallow and increase the perception of his nervousness.
It was something he had learned to do when he wanted to portray anxiety; his natural confidence in most situations had always been a barrier. It was as though there was an invisible aura surrounding him that coloured how people saw him despite how he acted. He used it to his advantage most of the time but there were definitely times when it got in the way. So he had learned little tricks, ways to fool other's perceptions of that invisible 'whatever it was'. Hyperventilating threw your system out just enough that people would sense something was off, then you just added the act on top and 'hey presto' a convincing case of nervousness that worked on every level.
Of course it could be dangerous if you hyperventilated for too long, it could dull your senses, make you lose focus, at worst black out completely, but Neal knew what he was doing. He slowed his breathing back to normal and ran his hand over his slicked back hair, taking a last glance at his reflection in the glass of a window, the heavy dark curtain behind it giving him a good view of the nervous nerd that now inhabited his skin. He was as ready as he'd ever be, one last nervous swallow, perfect. He turned and headed for the building across the street.
The door was answered on the second knock, his first had been deliberately tentative, the second a little stronger. It was answered by a large heavyset man, dark hair, late thirties. The man couldn't have screamed hired muscle more if he'd been hired as 'thug number 2' in an episode of an eighties detective series. His gruff "Yeah," gave him away as eastern European, the accent heavy even on that one word.
Neal, awkwardly moved his glasses and tried to scan the piece of paper in his hand, almost dropping his precious package in the process. Anyone who knew Neal would be amazed that someone who normally moved with such grace could display such clumsiness. Of course, anyone who knew him would also know it was all part of some elaborate con as well. Thug number 2, however just displayed impatience.
"What do you want?"
"Is this, apartment 4b in. . .apartment 4b in," Neal tried once again to juggle the piece of paper and adjust his glasses at the same time, only this time he was clutching the brown paper package much more tightly.
Thug number 2 snatched the paper from his hand, ripping it in the process. He glanced at it. "You've got the right place," he snapped, "Now what do you want."
"I.. I. .I. . er I have a delivery," Neal stuttered, proffering the package he held and making it clear that the thug's intimidating persona was actually working on him.
Thug number 2 eyed the package suspiciously then looked up again. "We are not expecting delivery. What is it?"
"Inks" Neal replied, still nervous, he pushed his spectacles back on his nose. "Highly specialised inks, I was told. . ." he paused, the thug wasn't listening. He was thinking, and such elaborate multitasking as listening and thinking at the same time was clearly beyond him. Neal watched as the synapses connected, this could be difficult if. . .
"Inks huh!" thug number 2 grabbed the package. "Okay, yes you can. . ."
"Please, please you need to be more careful," Neal made a grab back for the package pulling it away from the thug by shear virtue of the unexpectedness of the move, there was no question in Neal's mind that if the guy had really held onto it there was no way he would have taken it, let alone the nerdy weakling he was portraying, but he was selling the part, and weedy nerd who was stepping onto the wrong side of the law for the first time wasn't going to give up his precious package without a fight. It worked well, there was just the right amount of shock and surprise on thug number two's face to give Neal a chance to get to what, no whom, he wanted.
Neal grasped the package to his chest dusting it off and inspecting it as he babbled. "It's OK I don't think you. . .These are very fragile. . . very very expensive, if you knew what I did to. . . but they should be. . .that is if you handle them. . . I mean you shouldn't take them from me. You need to be more. . ." Neal looked up and swallowed, the expression on the thug's now attentive face could only be described as menacing. ". . .careful." he finished, just to fill the silence as he met thug number 2's gaze. He pushed his glasses back on his nose.
"Vlad?" the voice came from Neal's left and he gave a slight start as he turned. "You have problem?" Again the accent was heavy on the eastern European.
Thug number 2, Vlad, turned his gaze to the new arrival and took a small step back, relaxing his stance slightly. "Problem? No. No problem here Dimitri, this young man just came to deliver us some inks but now he does not seem to want to hand them over."
"I see," Dimitri said, scrutinising Neal as he moved towards him,
Neal held the precious package close to his chest, moving it almost imperceptibly away from the new arrival as he approached.
" Delivery boy does not want to deliver," Dimitri spoke slowly drawing out his words as he circled behind Neal, slow, deliberate, intimidating, "curious."
"I am not a delivery boy," Neal started with some indignence, but as he met Dimitri's gaze he appeared to lose what little nerve he had. "Look you don't understand. I was paid a lot of money to bring these inks here and show someone how to use them. They're highly specialised, highly," he paused looking first at Vlad then back at Dimitri, "secret," he finished, dropping his voice theatrically. "Very few people in the country know how to make the mix right for. . that is I'm one of the few people who could. . ." he paused again this time as though searching for the right word "advise on their use." He swallowed, giving the impression that he was bolstering his courage. "I can't just hand them over. I need to show whoever is going to use them how to use them. It's what I've been paid for, and much as I do not want to upset either of you. . " the pause was just the right length to be insulting if you had the intellect to understand the nuance, "gentlemen, I want to upset the person who paid me even less so if you could just. . ."
"Vlad," Dimitri interrupted him, he had apparently heard enough, "take him to Sam, let him show him how to use his precious inks."
Neal let out a sigh. "Thank you, you won;t be. . "
"You have half hour," Dimitri stated, focussing his attention back on Neal "then you will leave."It was clear that there would be no negotiating. He moved out of the way gesturing for Neal to pass. "Vlad will help you unpack your box." -code for, 'we will be checking the contents of that package no matter how precious it is to you.'
Neal nodded his assent. "Of course," he stated, breaking off his gaze as one who had been intimidated should, then he followed Vlad from the room.
He was escorted through two doors and then down a narrow corridor in a building that had clearly been a dump even when newly built, unfinished woodwork, bare brick, and then a poor paint job that was now flaking off in places. The door they stopped in front of had the only new looking items in the place, two new locks on the door. Vlad took out a set of keys, opening both locks slowly whilst Neal did his best to look nervous.
Then Vlad pushed the door open "Sam, you have visitor," he shouted, "He has brought some new inks for you." As he spoke Vlad turned and practically pushed Neal into the room before closing the door behind both of them
Sam pushed himself up from the wooden workbench where he had been working and turned to face them, regarding Neal curiously as he stepped forward. "Inks?" he asked his gaze resting on the parcel which Neal was still gripping protectively as he did his best to recover from the stumble the rough push had caused.
Neal met the younger man's gaze as it drifted up from the parcel and felt the instant connection as clear green eyes stared into his blue ones. Aside from the difference in eye colour Neal could have been looking at a younger version of himself, not that he'd ever had quite such an unruly mop of brown hair as the kid had, but then he'd also never been a prisoner of Eastern European thugs either so a few allowances on the personal grooming stakes could be allowed, but in other aspects Neal just knew they were a match, a boyish cuteness to Sam's features, even though he was clearly well on his way to manhood would give him the same advantages as Neal had always had, at least when it came to using his charm and Sam moved with a grace that was innate and not taught. Neal just knew from watching the young man take a few steps that he would be an excellent cat burglar, second story man, whatever you wanted to call it, Sam could be trained to do it and do it well, that's if he didn't know already, after all his forgery skills were already superlative, who knew what else was in his background.
Neal was about to answer the question about the inks but Vlad beat him to it. "The inks are special," he pointed at Neal "He needs to show you how you will use. You will listen and learn."
Sam's gaze switched to Vlad and Neal couldn't fail to notice the fear that flashed in his eyes before he covered it, trying as hard as Neal knew he would himself in a similar situation to appear indifferent to his captor. Neal wondered if Vlad was actually stupid enough to buy it, but one glance at the thug answered his question. No, Vlad was well aware of just how scared of him Sam was and more than that he enjoyed it.
Sam turned his attention back to Neal.
"I have some vermillion blue," Neal said, "It has special elements in it that allow it to be tracked, and certain . . .erm. . .documents use it. If you want to reproduce those documents then you have to include the correct tracking elements to find out where they are but you have to know what you're doing."
Sam stared at him for a moment and Neal caught the flicker of understanding, the guarded look towards Vlad to ensure that the man had no clue that Neal had just told him that he'd got his message and that he was here to help, but Vlad was oblivious, his education had clearly never run to knowing that vermilion was red, not that Neal was surprised, only art students and fashion officianados ever bothered to call red anything other than, well, red.
Sam gave the slightest of nods, almost imperceptible. "You'd better bring them over here," he said, leading Neal back to his workstation.
Neal's eyes caught the coloured flash from the emergency vehicle lights before they pulled round the corner and Neal knew at that point that he was too late, but he tried to cling to some hope, tried to deny. . .his brain trying to come up with alternative reasons why there would be. . .but there was no denying it, two squad cars, and a black SUV that Neal recognised as belonging to Jones were parked in front of the building that he'd been in only a few hours earlier and Neal knew that he couldn't deny. . . and then all semblance of regular thought disappeared as an icy cold slimed down his skin from head to toe and his insides dropped through a hole somewhere below the seat he was sitting on.
He didn't notice Peter getting out of the car, didn't notice him moving forward to talk to Jones, didn't realise that he too had exited the vehicle and was walking towards the old building, because really nothing was registering at all, his brain had ceased to function, there was no thought beyond primitive needs that seemed to be enough to make his body take action without any higher brain functions getting involved, because he needed to go inside, needed to see what. . .
He didn't even register the hand on his arm that stopped his forward motion, barely heard let alone recognised the concerned, "Neal" that was softly spoken beside him. It took two, maybe three, maybe four repeats from Peter each slightly louder, slightly more worried than the last, before the semi trance was broken. His first reaction was to look down at the hand that gripped his arm and then follow it back to its owner and to the concerned face of Peter who was staring at him, his brow wrinkled in that funny frown he had when he was trying to get inside Neal's mind.
"Neal," Peter said again, dropping the volume back now that Neal's attention seemed to be back with him "What's going on with you?"
Neal looked to the building and then back at Peter. "The guy we came here to help?" Neal asked, and saw some semblance of sympathy and understanding in Peter's eyes. Peter for his part was thinking that he should have figured it out, should have realised that Neal would be ahead of the game when it came to figuring out what had happened here. He shook his head. "PD was already here when Jones arrived to start the surveillance. They'd found a body in. . ."
"Apartment 4b." Neal completed for him. He shook loose Peter's grip. "I have to see," he stated and started moving forward again.
It took Peter a moment to react, usually Neal was all for avoiding seeing the bodies, in fact avoiding any type of violence at all if he could manage it, and from what Jones had told him this was definitely one to avoid, Peter himself wasn't looking forward to going inside and he'd got over being squeamish a long time ago, but at least a part of him understood Neal's reaction. Neal had been in early, had called him while he was still having breakfast with El and had told him that he'd found something on the manuscript. And that he needed him to get in as soon as possible, by the time he'd made it in Neal was already chomping at the bit to get moving and it had taken the young man a lot of self control to slow down his story enough so that Peter, Jones and Hughes could understand. Hidden in the intricate pattern were a series of blue dots that held a message, an address, the building they were standing in front of and the words 'Help me.' He had been impassioned in his plea that they organise help straight away, that out there, there was someone just like him and he had to be in big trouble to be sending such a message.
"People like me don't ask for help," Neal had stated, he'd looked Peter directly in the eye at that point, because he knew that he had to sell this without letting anyone know that he had already seen just how much trouble Sam was in, a slave for the Russian Mob who would kill him at the slightest excuse because he had already done what they wanted, the only reason he was still alive when Neal had visited was because he had convinced them that he could make them more money with another forgery, but Sam knew that that wasn't going to happen, because as good as he was the people he was giving the forgeries to were stupid and reckless and were going to get the operation blown by being too greedy. Sam was convinced that he was already living on borrowed time and he had begged Neal to help get him out of there, but the room they were in was in the centre of the building, no windows, only one door and the air vents were only big enough for rats and cockroaches. Vlad and Dimitri might not be that bright but they were heavily armed and violent by nature. No way Neal could see an easy way past them. No, he needed Peter's help on this one. He had left Sam with a promise, a promise that he would be back, a promise that he would get him out of there. Now he had to convince Peter without giving the game away. So he held Peter's gaze. "So if I asked you for help you'd know I really needed it."
Peter met Neal's intensity, felt some of Neal's empathy for the forger asking for help, for someone like Neal asking him for help. He turned to his boss. "We need to do this," he stated.
Hughes had watched the passionate exchange and couldn't help being moved by it himself, and after that the whole department had swung into motion like the well oiled machine that it was designed to be. Jones had left immediately to run surveillance to find out what they were dealing with and who it was that needed help while Peter had remained to coordinate the research into the building and organise the backup they would need if there was indeed someone who needed rescue. Neal had been practically dancing by the time they had left themselves, a pent up ball of nervous energy.
Peter, hadn't even tried to calm him, he understood all too well his young friend's empathy, or at least he thought he did, Peter was good at reading Neal, but Neal could be very emotional when something hit a nerve and this clearly had, a major nerve. Peter didn't know that Neal knew exactly how much like him Sam was or that he knew exactly how much danger the young man was in, because at the end of the day it probably wouldn't have made that much difference to Neal's need to help, to his need to save this one. This was the best type of con, the one that wasn't really a con at all because you really meant every word you said.
But it hadn't been enough. Neal hadn't done enough, hadn't brought help quick enough. He hadn't made it in time, and now he was left with a whole maelstrom of 'what ifs' and 'whydidn't I's that were going to haunt him. So now he had to see. . .
Peter had to break into a jog to catch up with him. "Neal, stop." But Neal didn't break stride. So Peter grabbed his arm again. "Neal!" He pulled the younger man round. "You don't need to go up there." Peter stated, "This has all the earmarks of a mob hit, it's probably not even going to be our case."
Neal met Peter's gaze, appreciating for a moment the concern he saw there, but then resenting it because he didn't deserve it, this was his fault, if only. . .He drew in a breath "I have to see," he repeated, and the slight desperation was there in his tone, they both heard it.
Peter stared at him for a moment, clearly trying to figure out if his next step was going to be to give in to Neal's request or to do his best to stop him for his own good. The moment dragged before Peter finally made his decision. "Get back in the car," he said, "I'll come and tell you what we find."
Neal nodded, "OK," he said and turned.
Peter watched him take a few steps. "Neal?" He turned back. "You're going to wait until I'm out of sight and follow me up anyway aren't you?"
Neal stared at him for a moment. "I have to. . ." he started, see what I've done, see what I'm responsible for, face up to the consequences of my actions, isn't that what you're always telling me to do Peter? But none of those thoughts made it to his lips, instead there was just a quiet, "Please, Peter, don't make me explain this."
Peter gave a short sigh, it went against all of his protective instincts but if Neal was determined to do this, to punish himself for something he couldn't have prevented, then Peter would do his best to help him through. He nodded, turned and started walking toward the building, Neal falling into step beside him.
TO BE CONTINUED. . .