A/N: Okay, I had a bunch of things I had to say, but then I forgot. Got distracted by this picture: http : / / yfrog . com /2oftjp (copy and paste and take out spaces) El and 'Mario' Peter with baby Satchmo! AWWW
Anyway, I hope this story isn't too confusing. It kinda just went bleargh near the middle. And then I combined the first and second chapters to make a bigger chapter. And, hopefully, Neal's angstiness doesn't seem too OOC. It's a pretty big worry of mine.
I don't have a beta, so if there's mistakes, feel free to point them out. And if anyone thinks the rating should be upped, please tell me and I will do so.
I'll try to tie loose ends up in Part 2.
**Choices I Make**
A man sits bound in a dark room God only knows where. He certainly doesn't. All he knows is that there is absolutely no light, no fresh air, and barely any sound. He can't tell how many hours or days or weeks he has been sitting here, alone in the dark. It can't have been long though, otherwise they would have found him by now.
Loud thumping interrupts his hazy thoughts and he squeezes his eyes shut. Just in the time too, because a second later, the naked light bulb dangling above his head flickers into life. He wishes he could cover his face with his hands, to block the light and to relieve the ache in his shoulders.
One of the three men around him, the one directly in front, begins to speak, but he ignores him. He's too distracted by the glaring light after all that time in pitch blackness to listen anyway.
"Are you listening to me?" the man who had been speaking shouts. He winces at the noise and now wishes he could cover his ears also. It's too bright, too loud, and his head hurts terribly from where a metal bar had collided with it earlier. It's ironic, he notes with a kind of detached despair, how he had wished for any light, noise, or feeling during that stay in the darkness, and that now that he has all three, he wishes for the emptiness of before.
The speaker glares and kicks him in his leg, hard, so that the chair he is tied to is knocked over. He grunts when it impacts with the rough, cold, cement floor. One of the men behind him rights the chair again.
He's gotten used to the light a little bit by now. Enough to see the blood on his shoulder, which, no matter how he squints at it, he is unable to tell whether it's fresh or dried. His leg throbs.
"Listen up," the speaker says, producing a blade. Satisfied that he has his attention now, he continues, "I think you'll be glad to know we've decided not to kill you." A pause.
He's confused. Does he expect him to answer? He turns his head a little, and he can feel the blood tugging at the back of his neck where it's apparently dripped down and dried there. The man still seems to be waiting for a reply. He glares a little, which would have to do. It's not like he can say a word anyway.
The man seems satisfied. "Your treacherous hide might be worth some ransom money. Enough that we'll be able to get over your betrayal." A smile and another pause. "So let's see…how much are you worth? An agent such as you… How about 10 million?"
10 million? The smile grows wider at his obvious shock.
"We'll give them, oh I don't know. Five days? Exactly how long you were able to fool us," the man says. He claps a hand to the bound man's shoulder in a companionable way. Still smiling, he and his men leave, returning him to his world of nothingness and muted sounds.
They don't expect the ransom to be paid, he realizes. It's just a joke to them, he thinks, his life is just a joke. He can't be bothered to work up the energy to feel angry though. The past few days of stress of being undercover and then taken captive had taken its toll.
They return within a few minutes, at least by his estimates, to take a picture of him. Classic ransom photo, him holding the day's paper and a man with a knife to his throat, the point just slicing through his skin so that a few drops of red drip down his neck. To make his people understand the urgency of the situation, he is told.
"Smile," one of the thugs tells him, even though there's nothing really for him to smile about. It's just another joke to them.
A horrendously bright flash blinds him suddenly and he cries out involuntarily, first from the shock, and then from the pain in his eyes. The sounds are muffled by the foul-smelling and foul-tasting cloth covering his mouth.
"Knock him out," he hears someone order, and a heavy something hits his head from behind. The explosion of stars quickly gives way to unconsciousness, which, at this point, is blessed relief.
Later that day, FBI offices
A day. A day of frantic searches and worry when he failed to check in at the appointed time. It's morning now, though early enough so that the sky isn't blue yet and the sun can't even be seen yet. It's clear of clouds, and in the black turning to dark blue turning to purple and lightening to orange, I can still make out the faint twinkling of stars. I fume quietly to myself, the bitter worry clenching my stomach. The stars have absolutely no right to sparkle like that when he is missing.
My reflection looks exhausted, dark bags under the tired eyes. Cups of the office's awful coffee sit in various positions around his desk. Special Agent Diana Barrigan comes into the office. She shakes her head at my hopeful look and hands me a photograph instead. The worry unclenches and fear settles in a dead weight instead.
The picture is dark and kind of grainy, but the man in the center, bound and gagged, with his illuminated face looking pallid and drawn, is instantly recognizable. How had he gotten himself into this mess? I think resentfully. I can't tear my eyes from the dark drops on his throat, where the knife has pricked him, or the darker stains on his shoulder almost hidden from view. His eyes appear slightly unfocused and I wonder if he has a concussion.
He's supposed to be better than this. The best doesn't get caught. Yes they do, a little voice reminds me, Just take a good look at yourself. I ignore it. Undercover work, while skilled at it, was hardly his area of expertise. I knew I should have argued harder that I was fine and able to do it. I mentally cursed the jewel thief from out last case who had panicked and shot a bullet into my leg. If it weren't for him, we wouldn't be in this mess.
"At least he's alive," I say, and I flinch inwardly at how cold my voice sounds. I can't stop my hands from trembling as I hand the photo back to her, not even caring if she notices or not.
"Ransom demand will probably come soon," she says.
I take one more look at the photo before Diana leaves the office and wonder how he can look so calm with a knife to his throat.
Ignoring her order to get some rest, I sit down in the chair instead. This counted as resting, I supposed. After a moment, I put my feet on his desk and wished he would come into his office and grumble at me to get out of his chair, to leave his crossword alone, or even to threaten to send me back to jail for some prank I'd pulled.
I wonder what the ransom will be. How much do they think his life is worth?
Peter's left alone for most of the time. The rope that had bound his hands behind the chair has been replaced with a cord. Whoever tied it had been a lot harsher, pulling the thin but strong cord cruelly tight around his wrists. He can feel them cutting deeper each time he moves.
He has nothing to do all day but think. Briefly, he wonders if the FBI is having any luck finding him, or of getting together the ransom money. He doubts it. The people who are holding him are not amateurs. He knows this much at least from working undercover among them for five days. If he's been moved out of the country, say to Mexico, where he knows they have a base, then he's in even more trouble. Especially since border control is a lot more worried about who or what is coming in than going out these days.
He thinks back to his vague memories of being tossed into a vehicle half unconscious, still bound and gagged, and the sensation of movement from where he lay on the cold metal floor.
At least a day or two has already past, which out of five, is not very encouraging. He doesn't know how long he was out for and so can't be sure. Plus, they keep him in total darkness so that he doesn't know what the room he is held in looks like and is disoriented.
There isn't much point wondering how Neal or Diana or Jones or Hughes or the White Collar unit or the FBI in general is doing in their search for him. There isn't much he can do for himself either. Peter's used to action, not waiting around for his team to come rescue him because he had somehow managed to blow his cover.
They have him bound all the time, save for the one time he was fed, where he still has one had tied behind his back and a man holding a gun on him impatiently while he tries not to inhale the meager rations too fast. At least they bothered to feed him. He knows that the human body can sustain itself for quite awhile on simply water, and definitely for the few days the ransom demand limits his life to. Hopefully it's not the only time. He needs to be alert and on the lookout for escape, but the lack of enough food and water makes him feel exhausted and weary.
Peter tests the bonds again, but stops when pain lances up from his wrists. Fresh blood drips down his hands, wet and sticky. The chair's probably bolted to the floor because it hadn't even shifted from his short struggle. Not that that was very useful information.
If only he still had the transmitter hidden in a watch he'd been given for the mission. He tries to feel if it is on his wrist but his hands were starting to numb. There's a good chance that it was taken so that they could contact the FBI for hostage negotiations. He sighs. Too much of what he "knows" is guesswork, which, in his experience makes for a very bad case.
There's absolutely nothing for him to do, and if he lets his mind wander he's afraid that it will go all too quickly to how out-of-control his fate seems at the moment. So he forces himself to write an informal mission report in his head. It's not the most pleasant of memories to think back to, but it's better than thinking of El, of her love and support, of how she is the most amazing woman he's ever met or will meet in his life. He wonders guiltily how she's holding up in this mess, even if the situation isn't his fault.
Then there's Neal. He doesn't want to think about the charming conman, with his constant smile, his endless enthusiasm for the most random of things, and of course, his ridiculous hat. Peter finds himself wishing that he could tell Neal just how much he respects him and values their friendship. He doesn't think that's he'd ever told him that he's as much his family as El is. Stop it, he orders himself, desperately trying to regain his self-discipline. There's going to be plenty of time for that when they find him. Or at least he hopes. Unbidden, the insurance investigator's, Sara's, dubious words echo in his head, "the Bureau's recovery rate is less than one in twenty."
He's forgetting about Neal though. The conman had always been good at stealing what couldn't be stolen. And his team had stood by him through countless harrowing cases. This gang stood no chance against them. He just hopes that they didn't take much longer, because he doubts that even Neal could steal him back from the dead.
I'm still slightly in shock thinking about the demand. There is no way the Bureau is going to send $10 million to a gang of smugglers to ransom Peter. At least, not immediately. For huge money grants like this. The order would eventually come but not quickly enough, although Hughes had raised my respect for him by another notch by staying in his office and attempting to harass his superiors into giving us the money grant. There's a lot to be said about loyalty to one's team.
I'm reminded all of a sudden by the differences between my world's and Peter's. On a job, you had to be careful of not only the mark but also your own team. They could betray you to another group or take whatever thing you were stealing together and run. Like how Alex did? It's amazing how that little voice in my head sounds so much like Peter. She brought it back, I argued. Only because she was protecting herself or because she wants something from you Neal, you know that.
Rather than continuing that unhelpful argument with myself, I take a look around the bustling White Collar unit. Every agent is engaged in the search for Peter, given the seriousness of the situation. That's the good part about working on this side. You know that if you're caught, you team won't just say, "Oh well, that's too bad. Bigger cut for me now!" and leave you there to figure a way out on your own.
I think even Mozzie would agree with me that for the loyalty part at least, the Feds have it down much better than we do.
There's not much that I can personally do to help though, and it's annoying me. My injured leg still aches and though I try to ignore it in the hopes that they'll actually let me do something, so far, my requests for fieldwork have all been denied by Hughes. He says that I'm not allowed to leave my two-mile radius without Peter. Given that Peter's currently being held hostage, I can only watch as the rest of his team moves in and out of the office searching for possible locations. I can't tell whether I've been turned down because he's concerned for my injury or if he wants to keep me in the office to keep an eye on me and make sure I don't get into trouble.
After I asked Mozzie to work his contacts for word of Peter, I've just been sitting here in Peter's office staring at his desk. It's a strange feeling, this mixture of utter boredom and uselessness and desperate worry. There's also guilt because I'm not helping at all. All those times my own missions have gone awry, Peter was always there to kick down the door shouting, "FBI!" at just the right moment. Like seconds away from my head getting splattered by some psycho.
And my uselessness is my own fault. For once, I don't have much knowledge about this particular group and I'm still annoyed at myself for not paying attention to them earlier. All I know is that they have a medium-sized operation that smuggled not very prominent, flashy things that would get them too noticed, but added up in bulk earned them a hefty amount of money. I preferred things that were more of a challenge to steal. They most likely moved the goods out of the country, I think. That's what I do if I can manage it. If they moved goods across country borders, then why not a person?
If they had already moved him, it'll be a lot harder to find him. But still, it's better than what we've got right now—nothing.
I pull up the group's files on Peter's computer and start reading. After a few minutes, the door opens.
"What's that you're so interested in Caffrey?"
It's Agent Mannings. He's one of the agents from the Organized Crime unit that has been sent over to help, because apparently they have more experience in dealing with this type of group. If that's so, why didn't they just take the case in the first place? Then Peter wouldn't be in this mess. They're not very friendly, at least not to me, and each time a casual, but blatantly suspicious is tossed in my direction, I find myself wishing Peter was here. It's not that I need his protection, but frankly, they are starting to make me lose my temper, and I hate losing control of my emotions. Besides, I don't think it'd go over very well if I started shouting at them.
"Just doing my part to help find Pe-Agent Burke," I reply, trying for a friendly smile.
"And what could you possibly need to do on Peter's personal computer?" He's obviously determined to find something wrong with what I'm doing. And the use of Peter's first name hasn't slipped by me. I hope he's not one of Peter's old partners. Or friend.
I attempt to speak, but I'm cut off. "As a matter of fact, are you even allowed to be here? Why are you in his office?" My temper flares up for a second and I glare at him. I'm about to retort when the door opens again and Diana walks in. I hadn't even realized she'd gotten back to the office.
"You find it?" she asks, nodding a greeting to him in passing.
"Yeah, and I have a feeling I know where they took him," I say smoothly.
Scowling at her interruption of his interrogating me, Mannings crosses his arms as I pitch my theory to Diana.
She closes her eyes for a moment, "I can't believe we didn't think of this earlier. I think I might even though the exact location too." She types on the computer, furiously scrolling and scanning the screen until she finds what she is looking for.
I lean in to look. It's a map.
Pointing at the screen, she says, "This group's base is in Mexico, but pretty close to the border, near a city called Piedras Negras. Now, unfortunately, there are three different suspected locations. The owner of the major iron and steel industry here practically controls these towns. He pays his workers well-enough, and they don't ask questions. We think that he has a hand in either funding or leadership with this group."
"If you suspected, why didn't you just take him down earlier?"
She looks amused, "The FBI isn't all-powerful Neal. We suspected but had no proof. Not enough to launch an investigation on. Besides, they're rarely a nuisance in America and our jurisdiction stops at the border, remember?" I did remember. It'd helped me slip out of Peter's clutches several times in those years he'd been hunting me.
Diana quickly calls a meeting to bring everyone up-to-date. "Right, any questions? No? Okay then, back to work," she finishes.
"Hang on," everyone stops to look at Agent Collins, who is Manning's partner and who seems to dislike me even more than he does. "You're basing your conclusion on what, his hunch?" he steps closer to me. "Burke's pet con," he says, emphasizing the last two words. He stares at me coolly. "I don't know what he sees in him, but that man's a criminal. For all we know, we could have used to run with them. How can you trust what he says?"
Despite myself, his words and their implications sting. "I would never—" I begin hotly when Diana intervenes.
"Peter trusts him, and so do we. If you're not going to help, then at least stop harassing the people who are," she says, staring him down. He looks away first. The rest of the people in the conference room quietly file out and get to work.
I return to Peter's office. It's almost the end of the second day, and I know that no one's going to be getting much sleep. Seems to me that I've been walking around in Peter's shoes way too much lately and making a mess out of it. I'm not an FBI agent. I don't know how to negotiate for a hostage release, manage higher-ups who don't want to spend $10 million to save a life, or raid a smuggling ring's base when everything blows up in your face despite all you've done.
Suddenly, I'm afraid that this is one case we won't be able to solve. The previous ones, I knew that I could outsmart, outlie, outcon them, but this, this I'm in over my head. They might not find him in time, I realize, especially if my hunch is wrong. And if they don't find him and they don't have the money by the time the five days are up, then… My mind refuses to finish the thought.
I see Hughes in his office slam the phone down in disgust. He shakes his head when Diana glances up inquiringly at the sound and her face falls.
I take out my phone and call my Mozzie. "Hey Moz."
"You find the suit?" he asks without preamble.
"Never thought you'd care so much about Peter."
"You care about him, and you've been a mess these last few days," he says. Almost as an afterthought, he adds, "For a Fed, he's not so bad."
I want to grin a little at that, but I don't.
"So what do you need?"
"I don't think we're going to get to him in time."
There was a moment of silence at the other end. "So what are you going to do?"
"I'm not sure yet," I reply. Seeing Diana approaching, I say quickly, "I might need your help later. Gotta go. Bye."
"What've we got?" I ask her.
"Nothing," she says, disgusted. "They won't even give us part of the ransom money because we'd have to get at least half to buy some more time. And we don't know which of the three locations he's in. And to make matters worse, it seems the guy who owns the factories has some clout with the government. They're being really uncooperative, anyway." She sighs heavily.
Hughes calls a meeting in the conference room. I share a apprehensive look with Diana as we head over. "I don't think I need to remind you how serious this situation is. Unfortunately, it's about to get even worse. This has gotten bumped up pretty high up the command ladder, and now it seems that the director is taking a personal interest in this." A the confused looks he says, "He wants to make this part of his new 'we're not going to give an inch to terrorists' policy. Which means no ransom money from the government at all. Also, he doesn't want to offend the Mexican government. Which means we aren't allowed to go in unless we have proof of where he is."
That's the part that Peter's side don't have right. They might have teammates that care and are willing to help, but they have to obey the chain of command. And all too often those higher up on the hierarchy have their own agendas that they might be willing to risk the lives of their people on, all while hiding behind the law and "proper procedure." Well, the cons I used to run with don't. I suppose organized crime might be like that though. But at least they're upfront about it and don't make excuses for their behavior.
"How are we supposed to get evidence if we can't go look around?" someone finally asks. "We can't rely only on satellite!"
"That's what we're going to have to do. Check for all vehicles leaving the building where Peter went undercover, since a few hours before he went dark up till yesterday. Pay attention at tunnels and places like that where the vehicles are blocked from view because there's a very good chance that he was switched into different vehicles. And watch the suspected locations for movement. Try to match the cars."
Everyone nods, and leaves.
I call Mozzie again. "Okay, I need your help…"
A little into the fifth day, after over two days of frantic searching and eyes glued to the screen, I walk up to Diana.
"We need more time."
She whirls around, frustrated, and snaps, "There is no time!" She backs down and apologizes. "I'm sorry…It's just…Time's up."
"We'll just have to buy some more then," I say.
Agent Mannings approaches. "With what?" he asks savagely, "The agency won't grant us any money!"
I hesitate, then admit, "I have $3 million in cash."
"What?" Mannings shouts. "You had money all along and you didn't offer earlier? How could you be so selfish?"
Diana steps in. "Stop yelling. It's not helping." She still looks at me accusingly, but lets me explain.
"I didn't want to get your hopes up, and I was hoping that you'd find him first," I admit. "Anyway, I had to get Moz to gather up the money. It's hidden in staches all over the place. You don't really think I'd hide it all in one location?"
Mannings is still glaring at me, but Diana just looks relieved. "Whatever. I'm just glad that we have something to bargain with." Agent Collins, alerted by his partner's raised voice, comes over just in time to hear the last part.
"What do we have to bargain with?" he asked tiredly.
"Caffrey's got three mil in cash," Mannings says.
I brace myself for the anger that I saw in Mannings eyes, but Collins doesn't say anything for a moment. "I thought the director says we aren't to pay the ransom. That then we'll practically be funding them."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "How can you say that?" I hiss. "This could buy us enough time to get Peter out! How can you be talking about playing this by-the-book?"
"I don't expect a criminal to understand that none of us are above the law," he sneers. He looks to Mannings for support. To my surprise, he doesn't say anything.
"There's no law against paying a ransom demand," I snap. "The director only says that the agency won't give us a grant. This is my money." I couldn't believe we were having this argument right now. Izquierdo, the leader of the ring that Peter had been dealing with, would be calling any second.
The undercover operation was to feed the smuggling ring, which had seemed to be expanding their operations in the U.S., false information by pretending to be a dirty cop. Originally, their plan had been for Neal to go under but he'd gotten shot in the leg on the last case and although it hadn't been serious and had mostly healed, Peter hadn't wanted to send a man whose leg still randomly twitched from pain into a gang of roughneck smugglers. Besides Peter actually was a cop, or at least more of one than Neal was, and, as Neal had quipped once he stopped protesting, it wouldn't be that hard to pretend he was dirty. Peter'd just rolled his eyes and focused on memorizing his cover story.
They bought it, with the reservation that anyone bribing law enforcement would naturally feel. For the next few days, Peter fed them information that the FBI wanted to be spread around. He didn't actually see any smuggled goods, other than numerous boxes and crates that were shipped in and out of the building in large white trucks daily.
The smugglers accepted him, but there was something off about how they treated him. He couldn't really describe it, but it seemed familiar almost, although he couldn't remember anyone treating him that way before. The next time he talked to Neal though, it hit him. And then every time he caught that specific emotion with any look they gave him, he had to hide a flinch.
When the conman had first proposed the deal to him, he'd been skeptical, and after they'd finalized it and Neal was set loose under his watch, he'd never imagined that they'd become partners and even friends. He thought back to those days when the world wasn't drawn in shades of gray, before he'd met the man who changed the lines to black and white and Neal Caffrey. In the beginning he hadn't known how to treat him. He couldn't treat him like a friend because he wasn't, he couldn't treat him like how he treated his team because he wasn't exactly that. Just how was he supposed to treat a consultant that he'd spent three years hunting and then sent to jail?
But he hoped that he'd never treated Neal the way these smugglers treated him. It wasn't dislike, or callousness, or hatred. It was more of a casual sort of disdain, the kind that cut deeper because the person wasn't even trying. They saw him as a traitor to his people, a greedy sleazebag who would sell out his own for some cash, and they treated him accordingly. How ironic, he thought, to be seen as immoral by criminals.
Thinking back though, there were plenty of incidents, though, mostly with agents from other divisions. Peter hadn't realized, and Neal had never said anything. That was one thing he had to make right, he resolved, as he received another level stare from a smuggler whose face was almost completely hidden by a cloud of smoke from the cigarette clenched between his teeth. No one should have to deal with this, and especially not someone who was under his protection.
Then, of course, came the day when the younger brother of Izquierdo, who hadn't liked Peter from the moment he saw him, came running into the room where he was talking with the leader, shoved a file at his brother, and pointed an accusing finger at Peter and said triumphantly, "He's a cop!"
Izquierdo, for his part, had merely glanced down at the folder and didn't even bother to open it. "Yes, we know," he said patiently, as if talking to an idiot.
Almost hopping with impatience, the brother snapped, "No, he's a real cop!" and at that, Izquierdo had straightened. Peter's mouth was dry as he watched him read the file slowly. Some of his thugs had unobtrusively taken up position around Peter. At last, he'd looked up and his gaze was cold. And then Peter's vision slid to black when something hard hit the back of his head and he collapsed in a heap on the floor.
Well, that was a rather unelegant way to get caught, he thinks ruefully. Peter still hasn't figured out how the foolish younger brother had managed to get a file that had convinced Izquierdo.
Thumping footsteps come closer, a light also flickering into view. He squeezes his eyes shut as the lights are turned on. "Peter," a voice he recognizes as Izquierdo says, "You're looking well." His thugs laugh and he waits for Peter to open his eyes before he speaks again.
"Your five days are up, and it's time to call your friends to see if they were willing to buy you back." That's a question Peter would like to see answered too, although he'd have preferred it if they had managed to locate and rescue him.
The smuggler boss takes out the transmitter, which looks like it's been butchered. Of course they had to make it untraceable first. "So have you put together my ransom money yet? I would like to be $10 million richer, but I wouldn't mind killing your friend instead."
Diana's voice crackles through. "We need more time to get the money together." Peter closes his eyes for second. Izquierdo's looking at him when he opens them again.
"I'm sorry, but I don't think your friend has much time left," he says, pulling out his knife and ghosting it over Peter's throat.
"We have $3 million. In cash," he hears her say bluntly, "We can get you the rest too, if you just give it some more time. We'll deliver it a little at a time, but I want to speak to him first."
Izquierdo holds the transmitter close to Peter's face and pulls the cloth off of his mouth. "Diana," he gasps hoarsely.
"Are you alright?" she asks, her voice tight with concern.
"I'm fine. How'd you manage to get the money?"
"I'll tell you later," she says, before she's cut off. Peter's gag is stuffed back into his mouth.
"That's enough. You know that he's alive now. I will accept your offer. But I ask, and think carefully before you answer: how much more time do you require?"
She hesitates before answering, and Peter guesses that she's in discussion with the rest of his team. "Three days," she says finally.
"Is this your final answer?"
There's a pause. "Yes," she says.
"You will have to pay for this delay."
"How much?" she asks.
"No, no, you misunderstand me. I am an honorable man. I asked for $10 million, and I will not raise the price," he states firmly.
"I dont understand."
"I own several horses," he says companionably, gesturing to one of his men to step into the light. "And so of course, I also have this." The light falls on a horsewhip in the man's hands. Peter's eyes widen with horror and as two of them untie him, he struggles fiercely. His desperation gives him a burst of adrenaline and he almost manages to break free, but then his weakened body uses up the burst of energy and they drag him and chain him arms spread out to two posts.
Diana was saying worriedly, "Peter? What's going on?"
"You ask for three days," Izquierdo says, turning the whip over in his hands and calmly watching Peter's useless attempts to fight. "I am fair. Three per day."
"Three per—?" Diana asks confusedly.
Izquierdo walks over to him, one of his men following with the transmitter.
"One," Izquierdo says, and cracks the whip viciously over him, and Peter screams through the gag at the shock of agony that bursts through him at its touch. The ropes restraining him cuts through his already bloody wrists, but it pales in comparison to the flames clawing at his back. The smuggler leader looks at him with no joy, no pity, no regret, just an unsettling detachment, until Peter realizes that he is still crying out, and forces himself to be quiet. The detachment is joined by reluctant respect.
"Two," he says. This time Peter's more prepared for the blow and he clenches his teeth so hard his jaw aches. His body screams with abuse and he mentally counts how many are left, trying not to condemn his team for not choosing a lesser number of days.
"Three," Izquierdo says, and the world dissolves back into torment.
We listen to the whip cracking in silence. After the first muffled scream, there are no more, but we can hear Peter's groans as he doggedly bites them back.
"Four," Izquierdo says, and I curse silently at the man.
"Five." How many had he wanted in "payment" for the three days? Right, three for each day.
"Six." Why hadn't we decided on only two days? Or only one day?
"Seven." I knew why though, even though it hurt so much to stand here and listen to Peter suffer for our ineptitude.
"Eight." It was because we still had thousands of satellite images to go through and the director still wouldn't allow us to go in without proof, damn the man. Why doesn't he come down here and listen to this? I think savagely.
"Nine." And we need those days that Peter bought with his blood because if we fail again, we're certainly not going to get another chance. And then he's dead.
The ragged gasps coming from the transmitter suddenly grow clearer, and I realize that Izquierdo has removed the gag covering Peter's mouth so that he can breathe more easily. Of course, he had only done that because he doesn't want him to die or he'd never get his money, but I felt an unwelcome surge of gratitude nonetheless. I squashed the feeling down.
"Let us talk business now," Izquierdo says. In an undertone, obviously directed towards his men, he orders, "Cut him down, tie his feet together and his hands together and let's go."
Diana's shaking so hard that I'm surprised her voice doesn't tremble when she addresses him. "We will divide up the $3 million and pay $1 million per day. I want to speak to him each day. We will bring the money to a specific location in a black briefcase. You will personally call in every two hours to get the location. You have men here I suppose?"
"Yes," he answers, "I will have them pick it up. But you will have to talk to my deputy. I have other business to attend to."
"No," Diana says coldly, "We will deal with you and only you. Surely you can spare three days to get $3 million."
"...Very well," comes his reply. "I will call in tomorrow morning at two." He clicked his transmitter off.
There's dead silence in the room. No one wants to think about what had just happened, so they simply file out quietly to busy their minds with work.
Alone with Diana, Jones, and Hughes, I close my eyes wearily. Diana notices and orders me to go home and get some rest. Despite my protests I find myself herded to the exit, along with several other agents who had been there as long as I had. I see the despair in her eyes as I leave.
On the walk home, I pull out my phone and calls Elizabeth. "Neal?" she says.
"Hi, how are you holding up?" I ask even though I already know the answer.
"Well enough considering the circumstances." I'm very glad that she hadn't been there at the negotiations. It's going to haunt my nightmares for months. Her tone turned tentative. "Any luck?"
"We got three more days."
There's a pause on her end, and I can tell she's debating whether to ask how we had managed that. I swiftly interject. "We're giving him $3 million. Peter's injured though. I won't lie to you, Elizabeth, it sounded pretty bad."
Her voice quavers only a little when she replies. "You think three days is enough?"
"Elizab—El," I say, and now I'm deadly serious, "I think I can get the other $7 million."
"But they told me that there was no more cash," she says, confused.
"There isn't, not right now. But there will be."
"I don't see—Neal. They'll send you back to jail for that," she whispers.
"Yeah, for like forever."
"Cut a deal with them!"
"What if they just confiscate it all now, and I never get the money?"
"They could still find him," her voice is still a whisper.
"I can't take that risk, El. There are three days. I have to fence them now." And that's the problem. I don't have time to make a proper transaction, to make it untraceable back to me. In three days, I'll be lucky to scrape together the rest of the $7 million, even if I sell half my cache, especially since I'm in no position to bargain.
"I get my husband back," she says bitterly, "And you go to prison."
With all the stuff that I've stolen over the years that I'm now going to have to sell, the FBI is going to get enough evidence to put me away for life. But there's no turning back now. I've made a commitment. Which is why Mozzie is already finding buyers and figuring out which things will sell the easiest and quickest, and will earn the most money. I've spent my adult life, and some of my teenage years, building that collection as a weird mix of an insurance policy and trophy hoard. I added the results of my best work, my favorite pieces to it each year…until Peter caught me and sent me to a three year nightmare in prison. And now…now I'm selling it all to save his life. The irony is not lost on me.
"El, please," I plead, my resolve wavering. "Don't make this harder than it already is."
"Peter would never let you do this," she says, instead of arguing with me further.
She thinks it over. "Yes," she says carefully, "I would. And I am. But you don't need my permission, or Peter's. You are your own person, Neal. No matter what the law or a deal you made with my husband says, you can make your own choices, so long as you don't care about the consequences afterwards."
"El," I say, serious as I have ever been, "I escaped jail to find Kate when I had only four months left to serve. Peter's been there for me all this time, been on my side when I've been in trouble, even when he has no reason to. I would go back to jail to save his life."
"Oh, Neal," she sighs, "I hope you know what you're doing."
"For once in my life, I have no idea," I say, and the thought make me feel terrified. Things are spinning out of my control too fast and I can't stop trembling at the unknown future, where once I looked out at it with fierce determination and wonder. I always have a plan, and back-up plans, and back-up plans for the back-up plans. And now, nothing. There are no escape routes, no hidden passageways, no clever tricks left up my sleeve. Just a single, go-directly-to-jail pass. For the umpteenth time, I consider what I am doing. Just what exactly am I doing? And, more importantly, why?
So I guess I'm not a good person. Not as good a person as Peter. There's absolutely no reason he should trust me or be my friend. He doesn't have to go to the lengths he does to try and help me to accept and like living on the right side of the law. But he does anyway.
I've wondered before what it would be like to be Peter. Loyal, kind, tough when he needs to be. But always good. Am I a good person? I wonder to myself, and it seems like such an important question right now.
"Thank you, Neal," El says then, quietly and sincerely, accepting my decision.
"I feel a surge of affection for this wonderful woman who accept me into her family when she, like Peter, had no reason, no obligation to. It was almost worth being caught so that I could meet them.
Despite how Peter was still in grave danger, despite how I could literally seeing my life falling to pieces all around me, I feel a smile break out across my face. It feels strange and then I realize it's the first time I had smiled for days.
"Thank you, El. Good bye," I say, the words tasting of finality in my mouth. My smile fades as I hang up and stand there on the sidewalk for a long minute staring blankly into the night sky, which for some reason, was still infuriatingly studded with diamonds.