The world had dissolved into slow motion, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He saw the thief running away, carrying the bag of diamonds he had scored. The fire door burst open into the alley, and the man ran out.
He saw Peter in front of him, and they were running, running toward that door. He saw the shadow blocking the door, the shadow of a man much larger than the thief they had been chasing. He saw the gun in the shadow's hand.
Desperately he reached for Peter's shoulder, trying to pull the other man back. Peter was so much closer to the door, and in harm's way. But then he saw the shadow raise its arm, the gun coming to bear. There was a loud BANG! that echoed off the narrow hallway, and then…
Peter fell back into his arms, limp, and there was a hole in his chest. Blood, thick and red, pumped out at what seemed to be an alarming rate, but Neal didn't have time to think about it for long. The shadow had stepped into the hallway, taking the form of a man now, and the gun was coming up again and…
For a moment Neal was surprised that he hadn't felt the bullet hit him as surely it must from this distance. But then he looked down and saw Peter's gun in his own hand, the slight wisp of smoke curling away after just being fired. And as if in a dream the big man stiffened, twisted, and fell to the floor.
Neal set the gun down by his leg and bent over Peter, pressing his hand against the other man's chest, desperately trying to staunch the flow – the gushing flow – of blood. His other hand fumbled for his cell phone, which even now was buzzing against his hip. He flipped it open and, not even knowing who was on the other end, he yelled, "Get an ambulance!"
"Neal?" Diana's voice came through the speaker, small and tinny. He heard her call back to someone to get help and then she was on the line again. "Neal, we lost you and Peter. Where are you?"
Where were they? He struggled to remember, the only thing clear in his mind was the blood trickling through his fingers. "Pawn shop, next to the diamond mart. Back hall… alley… hurry." He set the phone aside so he could use both hands to try and hold the blood in.
"Neal, we're on our way. Hang on!"
Yes, they should hurry, because no matter how tightly he pressed, the blood kept coming. Peter's eyes were flickering, his mouth moving as though forming words, but there was no sound. "Hang on, Peter," he whispered, leaning close. "Please."
Footsteps… running footsteps… he could hear them, and they were coming closer. Some were behind him, and then there was another shadow in the doorway to the alley, but he didn't dare take his hands or his eyes off of Peter. If someone was going to shoot him…
Voices. Voices all around him. Giving orders, calling to each other. He felt a hand on his shoulder and Diana was there, leaning over him. "The ambulance just pulled up. The paramedics will be here in a moment."
Neal nodded, hoping that Peter had a moment. So much blood…
Other people came running, people in uniforms. Two of them rolled a stretcher into the hallway and came to kneel down by Peter. One of them tried to move Neal's hands, but he just held them tighter to Peter's chest.
There wasn't so much blood coming out any more, so maybe…
"Neal, you need to let them work." Diana's voice was speaking to him again, and he felt her hands pulling gently on his arm. He stumbled to his feet, and might have fallen if Jones and Diana hadn't been right there.
Jones bent down and picked up the gun from where Neal had been kneeling. "What happened?" He picked up the phone too, snapped it shut, and held it out. When Neal didn't even appear to notice, Jones slipped it into the other man's pocket.
Neal didn't answer for a moment; he was too busy watching the medics put paddles on Peter's chest, and then a shock… He nodded in the direction of the big man's body. "He shot Peter, and I shot him." What more was there to say really – especially when one of the medics was shaking her head and saying something about no pulse…
The medics applied the paddles again, another shock. Neal vaguely heard the words "he's back" and then they were putting Peter onto the stretcher, rolling him into the alley…
Neal started to follow but Diana grabbed his arm. "Come on, we'll take the car."
"But…" Peter disappeared around the corner, and there was nothing Neal wanted more than to be with him.
"Neal, come on," Jones said, taking his other arm.
He felt surrounded, but he let himself be led away. Around the corner…
The ambulance raced by sirens wailing and lights flashing. And he thought, that must be a good sign. Because if Peter was gone…
The ambulance disappeared around a corner, and time seemed to go back to normal. Neal took a deep breath and looked around. Diana and Jones were there, looking worried.
He took another deep breath and nodded, shakily. "Yeah."
Diana had pulled his jacket back and was checking him. "Was… was all that blood Peter's?"
Neal had to think for a moment, but a quick internal check told him he was fine – physically anyway. He nodded. "I'm not hurt."
Jones reached the car and opened both doors on the passenger side. Then he ran to the driver's side and climbed in as Diana led Neal to the vehicle. He climbed into the back, numb in his actions. She shut the door, climbed in up front, and Jones had them moving before she could even get the door fully shut.
The drive seemed to take forever. Neal tried leaning forward, willing the car to go faster. In the recesses of his mind he knew Jones was doing the best he could, and he was vaguely aware of squealing brakes and an occasional curse around them as the agent pushed through the city traffic. But it was still taking too long.
Neal sat back, staring at his hands. There was so much blood… Blood all over his clothing too, dripped on his shoes. He had a random thought that he was probably getting blood all over the car too, but then the FBI must have people to deal with that, right?
Diana twisted in her seat to look at him. "Neal, the man you shot, that wasn't Polk. What happened?"
Neal clenched his fists, trying to stop his bloody hands from shaking. Maybe it would work for his voice too. "Polk got into a passageway off the diamond mart, and into the pawn shop. Peter and I went after him. He was running down that hall, and into the alley… and then that guy was there, with a gun."
"Did he say anything?"
Neal shook his head. "He was just like this big shadow blocking the door. Then I saw him raise the gun, and I tried to grab Peter, but he was too far ahead. And then…"
Jones looked back at Neal in the rear view mirror. "So you never saw this guy inside, and he just shot without saying anything?"
Neal nodded. "Peter fell back into me, and I was trying to catch him. Then I saw the guy raising his gun again. I don't know… I just grabbed Peter's gun and pulled the trigger." He stared down at his right hand and rubbed his fingers together, as if he could see the imprint of the gun there.
"We're here," Jones announced as he swung the wheel hard and pulled into the emergency entrance. He left the emergency light spinning on the dash and the three of them ran inside.
Diana went directly to the desk. "FBI Agent Peter Burke. He was just brought in."
"The doctors took him right up to surgery. Fourth floor. There's a waiting room just off the elevator lobby."
Neal led the way to the elevators, stabbing the button repeatedly, hoping to speed up the car's arrival. It finally came, and they got on. This time Jones beat Neal to the buttons, pushing the number 4 only once.
There was another reception desk on the fourth floor and Jones went there to check in while Diana steered Neal toward the lounge. He let her lead him to a chair and he sat down heavily. She went to the water cooler, filled a cup, and brought it over, placing it into his hands. "Drink."
He obeyed without even thinking about it, though he hardly even noticed the liquid going down his throat. And then, suddenly, it hit him. "Elizabeth!"
He fumbled for his phone, finally finding it in the pocket where Jones had dropped it. "She should know, be here…"
Diana reached over and put her hand on his. "Hughes was going to pick her up. They're probably already on the way here."
Jones came back with something in his hands. "Here," he said, holding out a clean set of scrubs. "You should change, get cleaned up – especially before Elizabeth gets here."
Neal looked down at his hands again, at the blood still there, dried and cracking now. He nodded and stood up.
Jones was looking at the blood too. "I'll carry these," he offered. "They said you can use the staff locker room down here. I'll show you."
Neal followed him down a hallway until Jones stopped and pushed a door open. Neal stepped inside and was greeted by lockers and, beyond that, showers.
Jones walked back toward the showers and set the scrubs on a nearby bench. Neal followed and started to empty his pockets, laying out phone, wallet…
And the FBI Consultant folio that Peter had had made for him. He took a deep breath, running his fingers over the leather a couple of extra times, before laying that on the bench too.
"I'll be out with Diana," Jones said, turning to leave.
"Jones, if anything…"
"If we hear anything, I'll come get you. I promise."
Neal watched the door close as the agent left and then turned back toward the work at hand. It was true, he definitely didn't want to Elizabeth to see how much of her husband's blood he was wearing. He located a rack of towels and took a few to use. Then he started to strip off the clothes. The blood had dried, making them stiff, and most likely unsalvageable, even by the excellent dry cleaner he had found near June's. With a sigh he tossed piece after piece of clothing into the nearest trash container. Except the tie…
It was bloody like everything else, and it wasn't even something Neal would have chosen for himself. But it had, in fact, come from Peter, a Christmas gift. That made it worth trying to salvage.
Naked, he wrapped a towel around his waist and stepped into the shower area. There was a supply shelf at one end and he helped himself to soap and shampoo before entering a stall. He turned the water on as hot as he could stand it and stepped in.
Almost immediately the water pooling in the bottom turned a rusty color as the blood covering his hands, his face, his hair, and even his chest, started to wash away. He opened the bar of soap and scrubbed, removing more of the dried residue. And then he opened the shampoo, lathered his hair, and rinsed, watching the rust-colored water run down the drain. He lathered his hair again, and this time the runoff stayed clear.
It was tempting to stay in the shower – there was something relaxing, warm, and safe about it. But the reasons to get out of the shower were powerful too – first and foremost, he wanted to be there when Elizabeth arrived. He turned off the water, wrapped the towel around him again, and used another towel to dry off.
The scrubs Jones had gotten were teal, really not a bad color he decided. The fit, of course, left a lot to be desired. His mind briefly went back to a glorious con a few years back when he'd been posing as a wealthy surgeon and he'd had scrubs custom made.
Of course, this time it wasn't a con – it was real, life and death. He tied the drawstring waist of the pants, and pulled the shirt over his head. He carried his shoes over to the sink and turned the water on, using his hand to scrub as much of the blood off as he could. It would ruin the leather, of course, but at least he wouldn't be running around barefooted.
He towel-dried his hair, then ran his fingers through it to smooth it out. Then he picked up his few personal items, including the tie, and headed out. A quick stop at the nurse's station, and a smile he didn't feel but could still turn on like a light, and he netted a small mesh bag to put his things in.
Diana and Jones looked up when he rejoined them in the lounge. "Feeling better?" Jones asked.
"Yeah. Thanks for arranging that."
Jones just nodded in response.
Neal glanced toward the end of the main hall, where large signs warned that only Authorized Personnel were permitted. "Nothing yet?"
Diana shook her head. "Still waiting."
"Hughes called," Jones offered. "He has Elizabeth and they're on the way."
Diana leaned forward, hands clasped around one knee. "Neal, what you told us in the car about the shooting. Is there anything else?"
He tried to remember what he'd said and found it pretty much a blur. "I don't think so. I mean, I never saw the big guy before. He was just there all of a sudden, and he shot Peter without saying a word. Then I shot him."
"The police have some questions about that," Diana said softly.
"About…" Neal stopped short and stared at her. "What, because I shot the guy? It's not like I was carrying a gun! It was Peter's."
"They got a hit off the guy's fingerprints," Jones explained. "Jorge Ybarra. Turns out he's an associate of your old pal Keller's."
"Keller…" Neal considered that for a moment. "So the police think he might have been after me?"
"Or that you might have been after him," Jones supplied.
"Wait, they think I took Peter's gun and shot that guy first?"
"It's a theory."
Diana cut in first. "I believe Ybarra shot Peter and was going to shoot you but you shot him first."
"That's what I believe too," Jones added. "Just warning you there are going to be some questions."
Neal's own questions were cut off when the elevator dinged and Elizabeth stepped into the hall. He was on his feet in a single fluid move, and heading toward her.
Elizabeth fell into his arms as he reached her. "Oh, Neal. Have you heard anything?"
"He's still in surgery."
Hughes took her arm and pointed toward the lounge. "Let's sit down."
Neal kept one arm around Elizabeth's shoulders as they walked, and he took a seat on one of the couches so she could sit next to him. She was shaking, and Neal tried to hold her tighter.
"I don't understand," she said, her voice breaking. "Peter said it was just a stakeout, some low-level thief who was setting up a score. Was he wrong? Was he… was he lying to me?"
"He wasn't lying," Neal said quickly. He glanced over at Hughes, who nodded, and Neal took that to mean he could continue. "It was just a low-level jewelry job, at least that's all we knew going in."
"But he shot Peter?"
"It wasn't the thief we were following, no. Someone else…"
"Who? Who shot my husband? And why?"
Hughes jumped in. "We're still working on that, Elizabeth. We have a name, but that's all right now."
"Are you questioning him?"
"He's dead," Neal said, very softly. "I shot him."
"What? Neal, you… shot…"
"He shot Peter, Elizabeth. I took Peter's gun and shot him."
He took her hand and held it, not sure what else to say. At some point the fact that he'd killed a man would really hit home, but there was still too much shock right now.
The elevator dinged again, and they all looked that way. Two uniformed officers got out, followed by a man Neal would have pegged as a detective even without the shield hanging from his jacket pocket. Average height, barrel-chested, salt-and-pepper crew cut – he was a cop right out of central casting. Having played the part more than once, Neal figured he should know.
The three men walked up to the group in the lounge and the detective stopped in front of Neal. "Neal Caffrey?"
The man flashed his badge. "Detective Morrissey, NYPD. We've got a few questions for you. If you'll come with us…"
Neal felt Elizabeth's hand close tightly on his, and he shook his head. "I'll answer whatever questions you have, but I'm not going anywhere until Peter's out of surgery."
"Really, Mr. Caffrey, it would be better if we did this without fuss."
Hughes stood up, opening his own credentials. "I don't think there's any need to do that now."
"Look, FBI or not, we've got a dead body, and information that an ex-con pulled the trigger. We need to investigate now, test for gunshot residue, things like that."
"You can do that here," Neal said. "But there's no need. I did pull the trigger."
"So you're admitting you had a gun?"
"It was Peter's – Agent Burke's – gun. I used it after he was shot. I'm sure you'll find my fingerprints on the gun."
"About that," Morrissey began. "We didn't recover Agent Burke's gun at the scene."
"We have it," Jones said. "I bagged it at the scene."
"The murder is NYPD jurisdiction."
"We'll give you full cooperation," Hughes promised. "Later."
Morrissey shook his head. "Not good enough. I don't take kindly to being stonewalled by the FBI, especially when I've got an ex-con admitting to a crime."
"Funny, I only heard him admit to self defense," Diana remarked.
Hughes drew himself up to his full senior-agent-in-charge height, with a glare to match. "Detective, I understand you have a job to do. But you understand this. Caffrey was working for us, and I'm not just going to toss him to you at your whim. Right now, I have an agent who… who's very seriously injured." He stumbled for a moment, as if he'd been about to describe Peter's condition in more dire terms. "That man was Caffrey's partner, and none of us – none – are going anywhere right now."
Morrissey was positively fuming. "You look here…"
"No, you look!" Hughes pulled a business card out and shoved it into the detective's hand. "I will personally make sure that Caffrey is available to answer your questions – later. If you have a problem with that, you have your boss call me."
Morrissey considered his options for a moment, which appeared to consist of taking on three angry FBI agents, or retreating. In the end, he opted for retreat, but not without a parting shot. "This ain't over," he warned. "And I'll be watching you," he added, pointing at Neal."
Neal shrugged and pulled up the left leg of his scrubs, revealing the blinking light of his tracking anklet. "It's not like I can hide."
Morrissey turned and headed away, taking the two uniformed officers with him. Hughes waited until they were in the elevator and then he leaned forward toward Neal. "There isn't anything else you want to tell me about the shooting, is there?"
"There isn't anything else to say. I didn't know the guy, I don't know why he was there, or why he'd want to shoot Peter. All I know is that he did shoot Peter, and I shot him."
"All right." Hughes nodded, ending the conversation for the time being. "We'll deal with it later."
"Neal, are you all right?"
Neal looked down at Elizabeth, feeling guilty that she'd been forced to sit through that. "Yeah, I'm fine."
"What… what happened to your clothes?"
He smiled – not the full out I-can-make-you-do-anything Caffrey smile, but one that implied empathy, maybe even contrition. "They got kind of messed up. You know I hate to be seen like that." Especially with the amount of your husband's blood on them…
Elizabeth seemed to accept that, simply nodding and leaning back against Neal's shoulder.
And they waited.
It was almost two hours before the doors to the operating theater opened and a woman came out. She stopped at the desk, where the nurse pointed toward the lounge, and then walked slowly toward the assembled group.
Almost as one they rose to meet her, but the look on her face answered their question before she could say anything.
"No…" The single word came from Elizabeth, and it was a combination moan and plea.
"I'm Doctor Nellis," the woman said. "I operated on Mr. Burke. We did everything we could, but the bullet cut an artery."
Neal caught Elizabeth as her knees gave out, and he lowered her gently back onto the couch.
"I'm very sorry," the doctor continued. "His heart stopped several times, and we resuscitated him, but in the end he'd simply lost too much blood and we couldn't replace it fast enough."
"Thank you, doctor." Hughes sighed, looking as though he'd rather that someone – anyone – else be in charge at the moment. "That's Mrs. Burke," he added quietly. "When will she be able to see him?"
Nellis nodded. "We're cleaning him up now. It'll just be a little bit."
Neal held Elizabeth as they walked toward the room, supporting her even as he wondered how he was managing to stay on his own feet.
Peter was dead.
Those were words he couldn't come to terms with, and yet, somehow, he would have to. He told himself he had to be strong for Elizabeth's sake. The truth, though, was that it was for his own sake too. He hadn't had time to really process the idea himself, to know what would change.
Actually, everything would change – had changed already.
He didn't do well with death, never had and probably never would. And yet here he was, escorting a new widow to view her dead husband's body. There was this overwhelming urge to turn and run…
Except that would hardly honor Peter's memory would it? Peter, who had pushed him so hard to stand and take responsibility.
Anyway, he knew he had to see the body himself, to make it real. Part of him still wanted to believe that this was all a big joke, that Peter would spring out from behind a door at any moment, alive and well…
That idea was quashed immediately when they walked into the room.
It was definitely Peter on the table – and yet, it wasn't. The body had Peter's face, but the skin was way too pale. And the body just seemed… smaller somehow, as if death had claimed part of the body in addition to the soul.
Somehow, he managed to stay on his feet, and keep Elizabeth on her feet until she got to where Peter lay. And then the truth washed over her like a flood, and she fell to her knees, sobbing.
After a moment, he dropped to his knees too, and the tears fell.
The next few days passed in a blur. Jones quietly told him not to worry about his tracking data for the time being – the marshals wouldn't be called out if he was at the Burke house, or the church where the funeral would be held.
Staying busy seemed to be best. Neal helped Elizabeth as much as he could, making phone calls when she couldn't speak, holding her hand when the pastor walked her through planning the memorial service. He arranged for friends and relatives to be picked up at the airport, and called in favors to get them rooms at the best hotels.
He satisfied his obligation to answer questions about the shooting too. The FBI had several people interrogate him, walk him through the scene over and over. Each time he tried to figure out what he could have done differently, and each time he found no answers. During the final session, Morrissey and someone else from the NYPD – Captain something-or other, the name hadn't seemed important – sat in.
Apparently his answers had satisfied everyone involved. Morrissey left without a word, and no one tried to arrest him.
But if anyone had discovered more about Ybarra and what he had been doing in that alley, no one would tell him.
The funeral was held on a Saturday afternoon. It was a grey day, which he figured was appropriate for the occasion. Pretty much everyone from the office was there, and a few agents he recognized from other offices. Adding in the gathered family and friends, it was a good turnout.
A good turnout for a good man…
At her request, Neal had escorted Elizabeth. When the burial was finished, and most of the rest of the people had returned to the church for the luncheon the ladies' society had prepared, Neal stood by the limo and waited as Elizabeth said her final, private, farewell.
That was when Hughes stopped by.
"Monday morning, in the office."
That was the whole message before the older man moved off. Neal had nodded in agreement, watching as Hughes got into his car and drove off.
Then he leaned against the car, a stunned look on his face. What would his future be with the FBI? Did he even have one? It had always been Peter who…
Peter who had been his champion, who had taken responsibility for the ex-con whom many of the others saw as a liability.
The anklet seemed extra heavy as he thought about that.
Elizabeth stood up and came toward him just then, and he pushed the thought away. But it was definitely something he'd have to think about before Monday.
"It was a nice service."
"Yeah, I saw you up on the hill. You could have come down, you know."
Mozzie shook his head emphatically. "Too many Suits," he said. His hand went to his chest. Touching the place where Julian Larssen's bullet had pierced him not all that long ago. The whole near-death experience had made Mozzie's paranoia even more pronounced.
"Yeah, I hear you," Neal replied absently.
"How is Mrs. Suit?" Mozzie asked, totally sincere now.
"How do you think? She's a widow way before her time, and no one can even tell her why her husband died that day. I sure can't."
"Sometimes there is no meaning."
Neal looked at Mozzie in surprise – the other man usually had at least one conspiracy theory for everything. But he let that slide for now. "Did you find out anything?"
"About Ybarra? He did a few jobs with Keller some years back. But nothing very recent, and no contact I can find since Keller went to prison."
Neal shook his head. "It just doesn't make sense. Why would Ybarra be there, in that alley, at that time, with a gun? You know how I feel about coincidences."
"I do indeed."
They sat in silence, sipping wine. As usual, Mozzie had picked a fine one – from Neal's collection.
"So what happens to your deal with the Suits now?"
Neal took another sip of wine and slowly shook his head. "I don't know. Hughes told me to be in the office Monday morning."
"To work, or to be arrested?"
Neal shrugged. "I'm not sure," he admitted. "My deal was with Peter, but I've helped them with a lot of cases. Maybe…"
"Maybe you need your head examined if you think that means anything now."
That was quite direct coming from Mozzie. "You figure it's to be arrested."
Mozzie shrugged, swirling his remaining wine. He stared at the red lines that ran around the glass. "Even with the Suit around they were always threatening to send you back to prison. Without the Suit now, what's to stop them?"
Neal wanted to argue that his case work would save him, but in the end he could only nod. "Nothing," he admitted.
"So, what are you going to do?"
"I don't want to go back inside."
"And I repeat, what are you going to do?"
Neal drained his glass and set it down on the table. "Out of curiosity, and not saying I want to do this yet, how much can you liquidate by Monday morning?"
"Less than thirty six hours, and on a weekend? That makes things difficult. But I would say somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred grand."
"That's not a horrible neighborhood."
"There would, of course, be more available later, if one knew where to send it."
"I might have to get back to you on that." Neal sighed and slapped the table. "Damnit, Moz, I don't want to run! If I run I'm back to looking over my shoulder all the time. I might never know what's really going on with Keller or Ybarra, or Larrsen and the music box, for that matter."
"Hard to work on any of that if you're back behind bars too."
"Yeah." Neal rested his elbows on the table and held his head in his hands. "All right, start liquidating. And get your best suit pressed."
"You're going to the office on Monday."
"I have to know, Moz. I have to know if there's a chance I can keep my deal going."
"And if they meet you with handcuffs?"
"Then I guess I'll have to call my lawyer."
Mozzie nodded and stood up. "I'll get new cards printed," he promised as he headed for the door.
He'd never been this nervous about walking into the office, not even that first day when he had no idea how his desperate ploy to get out of prison and look for Kate would turn out. But, like he'd told Mozzie, Neal felt an overwhelming need to know – a need to know if the work he'd done for Peter would mean anything, or if it had already been overshadowed by what the tracking anklet represented. And so he took a deep breath and plastered on his game face as the elevator doors opened.
There were only a couple of people in the bullpen when he walked in. The looks they gave him told him nothing. He thought he saw pity there, but whether it was over the loss of Peter, or the potential loss of his freedom, he couldn't be sure.
He looked to the upper level, struggling with a lump in his throat as he saw Peter's office. The door was closed, the lights off – no one home.
The conference room, however, was full. He could see Diana sitting near the door, and Jones a couple of chairs down. Hughes was standing by the window, deep in conversation with someone Neal didn't recognize.
So, was he supposed to join the group? Or was he the topic the group would be discussing?
Neal tossed his hat on the desk, and hung his suit jacket over the back of the chair. He let his hand fall to the tie he wore – the gift from Peter. The cleaner had done an excellent job, removing all of the blood, and leaving only memories.
He had just started toward the stairs when Hughes came out of the conference room. Motioning for Neal to stay where he was, the older man came down the steps. "I need you to write up your report on the Polk case," he said, holding out a folder. "Every detail you can remember. It's still an open case that needs to be solved."
"Yes, sir," Neal replied, taking the folder. His eyes strayed back up to the conference room.
Hughes noticed the look and nodded. "Yes, you're one of the topics of conversation today," he confirmed. "And I don't know, Caffrey, I just don't know."
With that said, Hughes turned and went back up the stairs. He entered the conference room and shut the door.
There was too much glass in this office, Neal decided. The space simply didn't offer anyplace to slip up close to the conference room without being seen.
Maybe he should have anticipated this, gotten in early and planted one of the bugs he'd hung onto from an earlier case…
Oh well, too late for that now.
Neal turned slowly toward his desk, the file folder feeling as though it weighed several pounds, and was dragging him down. And in a way it was holding him down. It represented the commitment he'd made… the commitment that might now be rendered moot at any point. Because the commitment had been made to Peter Burke…
And Peter Burke was dead.
The lump felt even larger in his throat as Neal sat down and prepared to work on his report.
Neal lost track of the number of cups of coffee he went through, just waiting. It hadn't taken long to do his report. All the other files of potential cases had disappeared from his desk. He found he was locked out of even the limited areas of the FBI data base that he'd been able to access before, and his heart just wasn't into the challenge of breaking the encryption. He'd be willing to bet that his badge no longer gave him access to the archive room either; that would normally pose no challenge, but he found he wasn't even interested in finding out.
So he sat at his desk, stared at the conference room, and drank coffee.
Finally, around 11:30, the doors opened and people filed out of the conference room. He opened the file and pretended to be busy, as if he wasn't curious about the meeting at all. But out of the corner of his eye he could see most of them studiously avoiding looking at him, as though afraid he might look up and try to meet their eyes.
When most of the people had headed for the break room, or taken the elevator, Diana and Jones came over, pulling up chairs. Neither of them said anything, and both looked distinctly uncomfortable.
Neal finally broke the silence. "Should I be planning my spring wardrobe in orange?"
"Nothing's been decided," Jones said.
"They haven't found anyone willing to take responsibility for you," Diana said.
"We both volunteered," Jones added. "But they want a senior agent."
"Well, thanks for that," Neal said, really meaning it. He'd miss both of them… if he ran…
"We've been going through, case by case, everything you've done," Jones continued. "And Hughes has backed it all up."
"But…" Diana started, then took a deep breath. "Neal, they also know how many times Peter put his career on the line for you, and they're just not willing to take that on."
"Yeah, I might have pushed things a couple of times."
Jones snorted. "A couple?"
Neal shrugged. "Maybe more. So, will I at least get credit for the time I've put in here?"
"If it comes to that," Diana said softly. "But don't give up yet."
Neal nodded and slid the Polk file across to Jones. "I finished my part."
"I'll see Hughes gets it."
"Am I still cleared to go to P… the Burke house?" It wasn't Peter's anymore…
"I'll make sure of it," Jones assured him.
"Guess I'll check on Elizabeth then." Maybe say goodbye… "This is like sitting and waiting for the jury to come in. It's getting to me."
"I'll drive you," Diana offered. He started to protest but she cut him off. "It's not because I don't trust you, Neal. I mean, I don't, not completely, but that's not why. I'm concerned about Elizabeth too."
He accepted that with a nod. "Thanks."
Jones stood up. "Go. I'll run interference if needed."
Neal grabbed up his jacket and hat, and followed Diana to the door. Just then the elevator opened, and Neal stepped back in surprise.
"Caffrey." Kimberly Rice paused, as if looking for the right words. "I'm really very sorry about Peter."
Rice looked as though she was about to say something else, but then she turned silently and walked into the office suite, the doors swinging shut behind her.
Neal watched her go, wondering what those unsaid words might have been. But then Diana called his name, and he followed her into the elevator.
Elizabeth greeted them, still in her robe. "I haven't been sleeping well," she explained as she invited them in.
"It'll take a while," Diana said gently.
"That's what everyone says. It's just, everywhere I look, I see him. That basketball – he'd come in swearing about all the baskets he missed, but he swore it relaxed him. The TV, how many games he watched there, yelling like he was sitting center court. When I sit at the table, I see him there, going over files…"
Neal caught her as she sagged against him. He sat down on the couch and pulled her close to him. She leaned her head into his shoulder, and he pressed his face against her hair. He held her tight as she sobbed, and her hair caught the tears that fell from his eyes.
Diana pointed toward the kitchen. "I'm going to make some tea."
Neal just nodded as he watched the agent disappear into the kitchen; he hugged Elizabeth closer, and they were still sitting that way when Diana returned.
He eased back from Elizabeth and took one of the mugs from Diana. "Try to drink this."
Elizabeth took the cup in trembling hands and managed to take a few sips. "Thanks."
Diana's phone rang just then. "Barrigan." She listened for a moment, nodding to herself. "Right, I'll be there." She hung up and sat down on the coffee table, reaching over to take Elizabeth's free hand. "I have to go. But if there's anything – anything – I can do, you just have to call."
Elizabeth sniffed and nodded. "Thank you." Then she looked at Neal and back to Diana. "Does Neal have to go too?"
"Neal can stay. I just need to talk to him for a minute before I go."
Neal eased away from Elizabeth and stood up. "Be right back," he said, and then he followed Diana outside.
"They've asked for me back at the office."
He nodded. "But not me."
"No. And before you ask, I don't know what that means."
She took his arm, turned him until he was looking right at her. "For the record, Neal, I don't agree with what they're doing. And I do mean for the record – I said so at the meeting this morning."
"Thank you," he said, and there wasn't a trace of the con man in his voice.
"Unfortunately, my opinion doesn't seem to mean much."
"Still, I appreciate it."
"If the decision goes against you, are you going to run?" He started to shake his head, but she cut him off and continued. "That's just me, Diana, asking. Not Agent Barrigan. She's off duty."
"I don't know," Neal admitted, revising his original reply of denial.
Diana nodded, accepting that. "If I can give you a head's up, I will. Keep your phone on. And if Agent Barrigan calls…"
"I got it." It was better for her if she didn't have to say the words.
He watched as Diana got into the car and drove away, and then he went back to the house, and Elizabeth.
"Are you sure you want to do this now?"
Elizabeth paused, one of Peter's suits clutched in her hands and held tight to her face. Then with a shuddering sigh she finished checking the pockets and dropped the suit into a box at her feet.
Neal walked over to her, tipping her chin up to look into her eyes. "Elizabeth, really, this can wait."
She gave him a sad half smile. "It's not going to get any easier."
"Then let me do it. You don't have to…"
She shook her head and took his hand, squeezing it. "Thank you, Neal. But I do have to do this. As hard as it is, it's a way of saying goodbye. Does that make sense?"
He wouldn't have argued with her even if it didn't make sense – but in a way he could understand. "Yeah, it does," he said, holding her hand for an extra moment before letting go and turning back to the drawer he was clearing.
Elizabeth went back to the closet, turning around a moment later with something in her hands. "This tie was Peter's favorite… would you like… I mean, if there's any of this you can use…" She caught herself and took a deep breath. "Well, I suppose Peter's taste really isn't the same as yours."
Well, it was better than the orange he might be wearing again soon, but other than that… Neal smiled and took the tie. "I'd love to keep the tie," he said. Looking at it, he'd probably never wear it, but he appreciated the thought. "But I really don't need anything else."
"If you go on the run, something less flashy might help you blend in more," she said softly.
Neal stared at her for a moment, caught off-guard. Had Peter's death hit him so hard that he was telegraphing his thoughts? First Diana and now Elizabeth asking him about running… "Why would I run?" he asked, trying to sound casual.
"I wasn't supposed to say anything," Elizabeth admitted. "But an agent Perreau called this morning, before you came. He was asking a lot of questions about any trouble you might have caused Peter. It wasn't hard to guess that they're trying to figure out what to do with you."
"Did you tell them Peter thought I was nothing but trouble?"
"I told them anything worth noting was in Peter's official files. And that Peter thought the world of you…" Her voice trailed off into a sob.
He was at her side in a moment, holding her shoulders as she cried silently. "Thank you for that," he whispered.
A knock at the front door saved him from deciding whether to lie to her about running. "I'll see who that is."
He could see the bureau sedans parked at the curb before he actually got to the door, so it wasn't a surprise when he opened it and found Rice standing there. Jones and Diana were behind her, grim looks on their faces.
"Agent Rice," he greeted, standing aside to let her in.
She took in his disheveled hair and un-tucked shirt and raised an eyebrow. "Not your usual dapper self, Caffrey."
"Elizabeth wanted to pack up Peter's things."
"Neal?" Elizabeth started down the steps. "Is everything all right?"
"This is Agent Rice."
Rice stepped forward, right hand outstretched. "Kimberly Rice, Mrs. Burke. I'm so sorry for your loss."
Elizabeth nodded. "Thank you. Did you need to speak to me?"
"Actually, I need to talk to Neal."
"I'd like Elizabeth to hear anything you have to say," he said.
Rice nodded. "Fine."
They all took seats in the living room and Rice cleared her throat. "You know that the meeting today was largely about you."
Neal nodded. "I know. I assume you have a decision."
"Of sorts. Actually, an offer, and a decision for you to make."
"The FBI is willing to reinstate your consultant status. You'd report to me."
"I'd be a tool in your belt?"
Rice sighed and actually blushed a little. "That was… an unfortunate choice of words on my part."
"You did almost get me killed." He said the words very calmly, but the challenge was there. And he knew it might not be the wisest course, but there were things that needed to be cleared up.
Elizabeth looked worried. "Neal…"
"No, it's true, Mrs. Burke," Rice admitted. "I could tell you that I didn't know what was going to happen, but that's a cop out. I should have looked into it. But all I could see was a chance to close a high-profile kidnapping case. So I used you."
This time Neal kept his mouth shut.
"The fact is, you taught me something on that one, Caffrey. You had opportunities to get away, but you stuck with the job and saved the girl."
"You didn't think an ex-con could have it in him."
"No, I didn't," Rice admitted. "Like I said, I learned something. I learned a few things about myself too, and not things I was very happy about. I took the easy way to try and solve a case, not the right way. And that wasn't who I wanted to be."
"So where does that leave us?" Neal asked softly.
"I'm the only senior agent willing to take you on. We'd have to learn to trust each other. And at this point I'm mostly inclined to keep your consultations more on point with your… talents. There would be cases you would not be involved in."
"What happens then?"
"There's an insurance company that has indicated an interest in borrowing your services. Sterling Bosch…"
"Yes, Sara Ellis," Rice confirmed.
"She actually submitted a proposal to have you work full time for her," Diana said, the first words she'd spoken since they started.
Rice nodded. "The FBI wasn't comfortable with that. But we do feel we can work out a sharing agreement."
Neal leaned back against the couch, running a hand through his hair. A tool on Kimberly Rice's belt and working for Sara Ellis… "You said I'd have a decision to make."
"Based on the work you've done, we can recommend to the US Attorney that your remaining sentence be reduced to one year. And, again, based on your work, and the fact that there are now a number of men behind bars thanks, in part, to that work, we can guarantee that you do the time in a minimum security facility."
A year in minimum security? He could do that standing on his head. And then be free to… Neal stopped that train of thought, looking around. Yeah, he could do a year in minimum security, but what would he be giving up? He wouldn't be there to help Elizabeth through this period of mourning. And he'd come to appreciate working with Jones and Diana – mostly anyway. What about June? He'd come to truly appreciate their Sunday morning brunches, and the house with the most amazing private library he'd ever had access to. Well, legal access, anyway. He could see his 'lawyer' now and then, of course, but it wouldn't be the same as sitting down with Mozzie over a glass of wine.
"What about Larrsen, and the music box… and Kate's murder?"
"The case is still open and the bureau is working on leads. When there are leads, and if they apply to your areas of expertise, you'll be brought in to assist. But you need to let the FBI take the lead."
Neal nodded, considering that. Letting the FBI take the lead didn't mean that he couldn't help things along occasionally… "What about Ybarra and the link to Keller?"
"Officially, NYPD has closed the investigation into Ybarra's death. There is, however, still an open FBI file. If you accept the bureau's offer, it's something we can work on." Rice held out her hands. "Any other questions?"
Neal considered that for a moment. An easy year one way, an uneasy path the other, but maybe a chance to get to some answers. Or take the unofficial path and run… "Do I have to decide now?"
Rice shook her head. "No, you don't. The fact is, it's going to take me a couple of weeks to get organized and get up to speed. Most of the people in that meeting wanted to send you to jail to wait, but Hughes got them to agree that you can be placed on house arrest until then. That's staying put, no two-mile radius."
"Could he serve that here?" Elizabeth asked.
"I think I can arrange that," Rice agreed.
Elizabeth looked at Neal. "Is that all right? I really need you."
For her sake, how could he do anything but agree? "Can I have a one-block radius? To walk the dog."
Rice nodded. "I'll see what I can do."
"And I'd need to get some things from my place."
"I'll take you," Jones offered.
"I'll arrange it," Rice said. "If there's anything else, Agent Jones or Agent Barrigan must escort you. But Caffrey, they are not your personal limousine service."
Neal shook his head. "No. Wouldn't think of it."
Rice got to her feet. "If that's it, we have a few things to finish up back at the office." She extended a hand to Neal. "For what it's worth, I hope you'll give me a chance. I promise to do my best to make it a fair one. I think we can both learn things."
He shook her hand. "You've given me a lot to think about."
She nodded and turned to Elizabeth. "Mrs. Burke. Again, my condolences."
Rice left, and Diana turned to follow. "If you need anything, call," she said, addressing both Elizabeth and Neal.
"And I'll stop back after we finish at the office," Jones said. "Take you over to your place to get your things."
"Thanks," Neal said. "Both of you. For everything."
"Consider carefully," Diana said, and then the two agents left.
Neal watched them go as he closed the door, and then he turned back to Elizabeth. "Be careful what you ask for, Elizabeth. You're stuck with me for two weeks."
She actually managed to offer him a small smile. "I'll take it. I need you, Neal."
Those were words he wasn't used to hearing. For most of his adult life he'd avoided emotional attachments. They got messy, especially if one had to leave in a hurry. Even with Kate… Well, even there, the relationship was far from what anyone else would consider normal.
"You never really answered."
He looked puzzled. "Answered what?"
"Not for at least two weeks," he assured her.
"I'll accept that, for now."
"It's all I can offer, for now," he said, following her back upstairs.
Everything was changing, including him. And he had a lot to think about over the next two weeks.