Find Me If You Can
Rating: PG13/R (for violence)
Disclaimer: White Collar is the property of Jeff Easton and USA Network. I make no profit in the writing of the story, but I sho nuff had me some fun. Hope you enjoy reading it.
"Am I late?"
Neal looked up from his day old copy of the New York Times. "Elizabeth," he said with a forced joviality he hoped she could not see through. He offered his most winning smile, all teeth and sparkling eyes, but nothing, he knew deep down, was going to make this meeting easy. He tucked his silk mauve tie inside his snug vintage jacket and stood to pull out a chair for her.
"Such a gentleman," she said as she sat, "in a world where the art is sadly fading."
"Not as long as I'm still alive," Neal said. "You don't mind sitting outside, do you? We could get a table inside if you prefer."
"This is fine. It's a gorgeous day. Let's soak up a little bit of sun for a change."
"Sounds like a plan," said Neal as he gestured politely for a Waitress to attend them.
"So, this is your favorite place?" Elizabeth asked, looking around.
"One of many," he said, then ordered two iced teas from the waitress.
Café Lautrec was elegant and understated, with perfect white linen table cloths and napkins that seemed mysteriously immune to the city's soot. Every table had a small orchid blooming in a small baby blue pot. And there was plenty of foot traffic in a neighborhood full of small and unique specialty shops and boutiques.
"Wait till you taste the food," Neal added, offering her a small leather-bound menu.
"Actually, I'm not that hungry. But I am curious. What did you want to talk to me about?"
Neal nervously twirled the crystal salt and pepper shakers on the table. "I shouldn't have called you," he confessed.
"What has Peter done this time?" she asked. Her eyebrows were low, genuine concern showing on her sweet round face.
"You two talk, right?"
"Has he talked about me?
"All of the time. Usually quite loudly."
Neal looked away for a moment, distracted by an unusually slow moving black SUV with tinted windows holding up traffic. Horns were blaring like crazy, as other drivers demanded the SUV move faster or get over and out of the way. It occurred to him that such vehicles with tinted windows were illegal, and that whoever was driving it was not out for a mid-morning joy ride but planning some nefarious deed. He smiled ruefully when he realized how completely his F.B.I. Consultant identity was quickly replacing the old Neal Caffrey, art thief/bond forger/conman.
He quickly turned his attention back to Elizabeth.
"I don't know how to put it," he said, "but Peter's not talking to me. He's hiding something from me."
"What do you think it is?" she asked.
"It may be about Kate's murder."
"Or…something completely different. Thought you might have some insight."
"Did you try asking him?"
"Didn't work. He pulled the 'need-to-know' card, and left me hanging. That's not like him. Something's up."
Elizabeth reached out and gently put her hand on Neal's. His agitation subsided a bit, and he sat back, took a deep breath and looked away.
"The thing is, I don't even know what I've done this time," he continued. "I thought we'd worked things out after the last misunderstanding."
"Misunderstanding? Neal, you stole an F.B.I. squad car and took it on a joyride."
"Commandeered," he corrected, genuinely offended. "It's not stealing if it's in the line of duty. And it wasn't a joyride. I saved Peter's life, and the lives of a few other agents. So much for gratitude."
She laughed, remembering the hour-long tirade Peter had subjected her to, tearing through the house as he barked out his promise to bring the full extent of the law down upon Neal Caffrey's thieving head, only to admit that no one but Neal could have pulled off such a stunt and turned the case around for the Bureau.
"What do you want me to do, Neal?"
He thought about it. He really didn't know. He only knew he had run out of ways to ask Peter himself.
"Peter talks to you about everything. Maybe he mentioned something in passing, hinted at it. Brooded about it over his delicious cereal at breakfast. I just want to know why he's stopped including me. I'm stuck in the office, doomed to nothing more than reading mortgage case files and old news clippings about petty frauds. It's as if I've been taken off the active list. He won't even let me out of the office, much less out of his sight."
"You're out of the office now."
"Yeah, but he doesn't know about it. Not yet anyway."
"Neal, are you saying you snuck out?"
"No," he said. Then, "Yes. I knew he'd be in a meeting with Hughes for at least an hour, so I took advantage of it. Soon as he's out I'm sure my phone will start ringing."
Neal's phone rang.
"Speak of the devil…." He said, picking up the phone, checking the caller I.D., but not answering it.
"Are you going to get that?" Elizabeth asked.
"I'll call him back."
"You should answer it."
He didn't. He placed the phone back on the table and looked into her equally bright blue eyes.
"He's sending me back, isn't he? He's sending me back to prison. I've outlived my usefulness. Or some pencil pusher's decided I'm no longer cost effective to the Bureau."
Elizabeth shook her head. "Neal, you're not going back to prison."
"What else can it be? Peter can't look me in the face, won't even talk to me…"
"You're not going back to jail! Neal, honey, you know how Peter feels about you. You're his friend. I think I know what's going on, but I don't know if I'm the one to tell you. I don't have all the facts, and I don't want to scare you needlessly, but I do know that Peter is just trying to protect you."
"From what? Having an interesting day? An interesting life?"
The phone rang again.
"Answer it," Elizabeth demanded.
He pressed a button, sending the call into voiced mail. "You were saying?"
"What is he trying to protect me from?"
"Not what. Who. The man who kidnapped you a year ago. Your old colleague, what's his name. Wilkes."
A chill ran through Neal. He felt himself shiver in response, and felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.
The last time Neal saw Wilkes, the man had sworn, like every time before, that he would kill Neal slowly and painfully. Seeing as Neal was responsible for the man being caught, convicted and imprisoned for kidnapping and credit card fraud, he imagined Wilkes had been spending most of his time behind bars planning how sadistically and elaborately he would carry out his revenge.
"Ryan Wilkes in prison," he said, hoping it was still true.
"Not according to Peter. He cut some kind of deal with the F.B.I., something like you did. Consultant information in exchange for a reduced sentence or something. He's supposed to keep his nose clean but Peter's afraid he's going to come after you. That's why he's insisted on keeping you – "
"In the dark?"
"Out of harm's way."
"He should've told me!" Neal shouted. Paranoia was beginning to creep in. He found himself watching everyone walking by, and looking to see if the SUV he had spotted earlier was still in the vicinity. So far, there was no sign of it. But if he knew Wilkes – and he did – the man had eyes and operatives everywhere.
"Peter wanted to tell you. He planned to tell you, but he was afraid you'd put yourself in danger. Play hero and go running off and do something reckless like confronting him, or try to find a way to put the guy back behind bars."
"I'm not that stupid."
"You stole an F.B.I. vehicle."
"You've got to get back to the office."
Neal stared at the white table for a beat, then reached into his inside jacket pocket, removed his wallet, and pulled a few bills from it for the tea.
"Come on," he said as he stood and reached for Elizabeth's elbow. "I'll walk you back to work."
"I'm fine, Neal. You get back to Peter and stay put."
"You don't have to tell me twice."
Neal's phone rang once more. He checked it, and his eyes rolled up to the heavens. "It's Peter again."
He pressed the button as he escorted Elizabeth to the curb.
"Peter! How'd the meeting go with Hughes?"
Elizabeth giggled when she heard her husband's angry and unrestrained voice bleeding from Neal's cell.
"Where are you?" the agent demanded.
"I just had lunch with a very beautiful woman," he said. Elizabeth suppressed a giggle. "Actually, we never got around to eating…" She laughed out loud this time and cried, "Stop, Neal. You are so bad."
"Is that my wife?"
Neal didn't answer. He wasn't smiling either. The black SUV was back. It was sitting across the street, idling. It reminded him of something alive, like some predator beast laying in wait and watching its prey, biding its time before striking.
He strained to see who might be behind the smoked-tinted windshield. It was nothing more than a black void, soulless and abysmal. The urge to flee was rising in him.
"Neal!" Peter yelled over the cell phone.
"Get back to the office, now."
"Any particular reason you want to let me in on, Peter?"
"No, Neal…just do as you're told."
Neal wanted to tell Peter about the van. But what if it was nothing? Was he just being paranoid? What if it was some would-be rap star tooling around the city in his favorite vehicle? Or just a soccer mom who didn't get the memo on the illegality of tinted windows?
"I'm on my way, Peter. Can I bring you anything back from Café Lutrec?" Neal congratulated himself. He just let Peter know – in the most non-paranoid manner possible - where he was without raising unnecessary suspicion.
"I'm sending a squad car…"
The SUV's engine gunned, roaring. It was as if it was challenging Neal now. Then he noticed – there was no license plate.
Wilkes. It had to be Wilkes.
"Why don't you do that, Peter? I think we might need it."
The vehicle began to creep forward, right at him.
"You should have told me about Wilkes," he said. Without disengaging the call, Neal dropped his phone into his pocket and turned to Elizabeth.
"Go back to the café," he said, his eyes wide, almost crazed, as adrenaline began pumping and his heart quickened in his chest. Fight or flight ruled the moment. "Tell the manager to lock the door and call the police."
"Neal, what is it?"
"Ryan Wilkes. He's here."
Elizabeth saw the SUV getting closer. "Oh, God."
"It's all right. I'll find a way to keep him here until Peter arrives with the cavalry."
"I'm not leaving you to fend for yourself."
"Do you have a gun? Because they've got guns."
She shook her head.
"El, please, do as I say."
She turned and headed for the restaurant. To her credit, she didn't run. Her face may have shown the strain of fear, but she kept her cool as she walked with fierce authority toward the café, determined to get Neal the help he needed.
Once she was safely inside, he turned back toward the SUV. Tires screeched, the engine roared. Neal reflexively took a step back, prepared to run.
"Line's open, Peter. I hope you can hear me."
The SUV pulled up and Ryan Wilkes stepped out of the passenger's side. He was wearing classic Armani and a very smug smile. Beyond the loss of what Neal guessed to be about ten pounds, his old colleague and worst enemy looked like he'd spent the last year anywhere but in prison.
"Neal Caffrey!" he said jovially, pounding a fist into his palm. "I can't tell you how many nights I lay on my bunk thinking and dreaming about this moment."
"Ryan Wilkes. I appreciate the sentiment, but you gotta know I don't swing that way."
"Always with the quick retort. You should've tried stand up, funny man. You might have made fewer enemies that way. Do you know how many of your old cohorts I ran into while I was in the joint? Every single one of them would have given up a vital part of their anatomy to get their hands on you."
"What can I say, I'm in demand. Did they let you out on good behavior?"
"Let's just say maximum security ain't exactly secure to the max. They haven't made a prison yet that could hold me."
"We'll just have to keep trying."
"Actually, I didn't spring myself this time. You're not the only golden boy playing ball on the same team with the Feds these days. You're looking at the Federal Bureau of Investigation's newest Consultant Investigator," Wilkes bragged as he straightened his tie and brushed imaginary lint from his suit. "I am officially out on loan for the rest of my bid."
"Never heard anything about that at headquarters."
"You mean Agent Burke never told you? Maybe the two of you ain't as close as you thought, Super Neal. Maybe your F.B.I. buddies are setting you up, cutting you loose."
Peter never told him. The words were still rattling around in his head. How could Peter have overlooked such a monumental thing? Why would he withhold such information? Neal remembered that his cell phone was still on, inside his jacket pocket. He hoped that Peter had heard that last exchange and was regretting ever making the deal with Wilkes. So much for friends.
Wilkes pulled a small device from his pocket and held it up.
"What's that?" Neal asked.
"You know exactly what it is. The key to your electronic ankle jewelry." He tossed the key to ground. "You know what to do."
"I think I'll pass."
"That would be a mistake."
Ryan made a move, a threat to hit the conman. Neal barely flinched, just enough to make Ryan laugh out loud. Wilkes removed a Waltha PPK from behind his back, but didn't aim it at Neal. He didn't have to.
"The anklet," was all he had to say.
Caffrey knelt down and picked up the key. "How'd you get your hands on that?" he asked. In mere seconds he was handing the U.S. Marshall's property over to Wilkes.
"The length and breadth of who I have in my pocket extends father than you can possibly imagine," he said as he snatched the anklet from Neal and tossed it away. "I cashed in every chip, called in every favor, and arranged every little duck I had in a row to make this happen. Not just so I can breathe fresh air and feel the sun on my face again. But so that I could stand here in front of you and do this."
He sucker punched Neal in the gut. Neal doubled over; the wind was knocked out of him. He struggled to resume breathing, and stood back up, ready to retaliate. Until two very large men in black suits stepped out of the SUV and stood as beefy back up to Wilkes.
"You don't want to try me, Neal. These gentlemen are paid freakishly well to do one thing, beat the crap out of anyone who looks sideways at me. So do me a favor, Neal - look sideways at me. Go ahead."
Neal involuntarily let his eyes drop to the ground. Wilkes laughed, and clapped with gun in hand and with sadistic glee.
"Now we have an understanding."
Neal looked back up, eye to eye with Wilkes. "You want to kill me? Here I am. Do it. Get it over with."
"You don't know how bad I want to, Caffrey. So bad, I can taste it. But I have an agenda. And surprisingly, you are a part of it. Get in the van."
"I don't think so."
"Wrong answer." Wilkes hit him again, harder this time. Neal doubled over, and took his time getting back up, hoping and praying that Peter and Jones would show up any minute to save the day. He knew that once he got into the vehicle, he was as good as dead. He remembered the cell phone in his pocket again. He prayed the line was still opened and that Peter knew and was on the way.
"Where are we going?"
He grabbed Neal by his hair and slammed his head down onto the hood of the car. Neal saw stars, and felt his legs buckle under him.
"I once promised you a slow, painful death. But then, I had a revelation," he said, pulling Neal closer. "I have a plan, and you better not spoil it. Because you can't begin to imagine what I will do to you. Now… get…in…the car. Or all your F.B.I. buddies are gonna find is a street stained with your blood and brain matter. Not to mention finding Mrs. Agent Burke's corpse right beside you."
Neal felt his head spin. Felt his palms grow cold and clamming.
Wilkes pulled a Blackberry from his pocket. "Bring her out."
Instantly, the café door opened, and the restaurant Manager stepped out. He had Elizabeth by the arm and was roughly, nervously escorting her to the SUV. Her eyes, wide and teary, were locked on Neal's.
"See, Caffrey?" he said smugly. "I got eyes everywhere. I got people everywhere. You can't run, you can't hide, and you can't sweet talk or finesse your way out of this. Comprende?"
"Let her go," he begged Wilkes, pulling free of the man's grasp. "You have me. I'll do whatever you want. Let her go."
"What's this? Where's the Neal Caffrey swagger we love so well? Where's the snappy retort?" He took Elizabeth's hand and tried to bring it to his lips. She pulled her hand way.
"Man can't be a gentleman anymore. What's the world coming to? Put her in the van."
Elizabeth looked pleadingly to Neal to do something as her escort dragged her to the back and opened the door.
"Ryan! Please – this isn't about her. You've got me. I'll do whatever you say. Do whatever you want to me, but let her go."
"Why, Neal? I got a two-for-one. So long as she's here, I got an iron clad guarantee you're gonna be a good little forger and obey my every word."
"I'm begging you…"
"Keep begging, Caffrey. I like it." To his men, and the unseen driver behind the tinted glass, Ryan said, "See how far the mighty has fallen."
The restaurant Manager looked at Neal. There was a strained apology in his expression. There was also fear. "I did as you asked, Mr. Wilkes. My daughter?"
"Your daughter's fine. She'll be home from school in a couple hours. She'll never know about the sniper posted across the street from her little red school house, and you get to hug her one more day. If you can remember to keep your mouth shut. Now git."
The Manager turned and quickly ran back to the restaurant.
"Still using children, like a coward…" Neal said, but didn't get to finish the though. Wilkes slammed his gun-filled hand across Neal jaw. Neal fell against the grill, then pushed himself up and delivered a return punch, the blow cracking against Wilkes' jaw and sending the man back, but not off his feet.
"Good one, Neal!" he shouted, then spat blood on the ground. "Where'd all this feistiness come from? Time to show you I mean business. I'm gonna have to shoot that pretty woman."
"NO!" Neal yelled.
Wilkes shoved the cold barrel of a Waltha PPK under Neal's chin.
"Please," Neal said, blood trailing thinly down his own chin. "Don't shoot her. Please."
"Why don't I shoot you instead?"
"I'm seeing a whole new side of you, Caffrey. I'm not sure I like all this self-sacrifice crap. Unless it's just another con…"
"No…no con…let her go."
In the distance, Neal could hear sirens. He felt relief, for only a second.
"Let's move this party elsewhere. Get in the van. You behave, we let the lady go. You don't, and I shoot her between her big blues right in front of you. Are we clear?"
"Crystal," Neal said, and let Wilkes toss him in the back. He was shocked to see Elizabeth sitting there with a black hood over her head. Before he could even ask if she was all right, some slipped a hood over his head. Blackness.
He heard the door slammed shut. It may as well be a coffin, Neal thought, as he felt the vehicle lurch forward and drive away.
End chapter one.