Peter couldn't sleep. His brain was on overdrive, and no counting of imaginary sheep was going to shut it down any time soon.
Elizabeth stirred next to him, propping her head up on one elbow. "Honey, this tossing and turning needs to stop if you want me to catch any sleep tonight."
"Sorry," he muttered. "I can move to the guest room if you want."
"No, I want you to catch some sleep too. What is it that's got you all worked up?"
She studied him in the half-light. "It's Neal, isn't it?"
"Am I that predictable?"
She smiled and nodded. "So what is it? Mozzie seems to be doing a lot better. Is Neal still having a hard time? He hasn't been around lately."
"Yeah, and there's a good reason for that."
"What do you mean?"
"I told you about the evidence he stole from the crime lab, right?"
She nodded again.
"Well, what I didn't tell you is that Neal has sort of been confined to June's house ever since."
Peter breathed out a long sigh. "Yeah. El, I just didn't know what to do with him. He keeps breaking the law whenever he thinks it'll benefit him. Is it too naïve of me to think that maybe some day he'll learn something from all this?"
"Honey, you've always been an idealist. But Neal is not a lost cause. I think deep down you know that. It's why you keep trying. Besides, have you ever considered his side in all of this?"
"I'm not sure he deserves to have a side in this."
There was a certain edge of exasperation to Elizabeth's voice. "Come on, you know it's not that black and white. Maybe you need to get off that law-abiding high horse of yours for a moment. Think about it, put yourself in his shoes. If someone had killed me in cold blood, couldn't you at least entertain the notion that you may want revenge? And if someone had tried to assassinate your best friend, wouldn't you want to find out who did it?"
Peter just grunted, silence stretching on. Elizabeth knew he was contemplating the idea. After half a minute, he said, "Okay, let's just say there's a part of me that gets all of that. I'm still not sure it justifies what Neal did."
"You know what? I think you do know that it justifies what he did, you just can't condone it. And that's the problem. Your concepts of right and wrong aren't the same."
Peter's voice was now raised. "The law has no right and wrong, El. It's the law. One size fits all."
"Yeah, but sometimes it leaves wiggle room if you remove some of the excess lining."
"Oh, Neal's had plenty of wiggle room. Wiggle room is what made me not put him back in prison after he threatened Fowler with a gun. Wiggle room is what made me confine him to his house instead of booting him back to Supermax."
"And yet, you're lying in your bed at 1 AM, losing sleep over it."
"Yeah, why is that?" he asked, annoyed at himself.
"Because maybe you consider him a friend and part of you thinks you've been too harsh on him."
"I don't know. Have I?"
"Is that Agent Burke or Peter Burke asking?"
"It's a little hard to separate them right now."
"Then ask yourself this: After you confined him to June's house, did he violate that agreement? Did he do anything to make you suspicious?"
"Oh, I'm sure he and Mozzie are conspiring and plotting behind my back when I'm not looking." He sighed. "Which is to be expected. To answer your question, no. He's not violated that agreement. In fact, he's been very compliant with the whole thing. He's called in every single time he went to see Moz. As far as I can tell, he's not been anywhere other than his apartment and the hospital."
"And what does that tell you?"
"You think I should loosen the leash, cut him some slack?"
"Sometimes all it takes is a leap of faith."
Peter sighed again. It's not like he hadn't tried that before. And been disappointed before. Still, at least it seemed that recent events had rattled Neal's cage enough to smack some sense into him. Peter made his decision.
"All right. I'll have him come into the office tomorrow. Maybe it's time to give him his 2-mile radius back."
A smile spread over Elizabeth's face. "That sounds really good."
Peter lifted his head off the pillow and leaned over to plant a soft kiss on Elizabeth's lips.
She raised her eyebrows. "What was that for?"
"For putting up with my tossing and turning."
"In that case, you're welcome. Can we go to sleep now?"
He turned over to lie on his side. "Yes, I think we can go to sleep now."
"Good," she mumbled, already halfway there.
Peter tried to look for the usual Caffrey swagger as Neal walked through the bullpen and straight up to Peter's office. It was there, only just barely, if you knew where to look.
The truth was, he didn't know what to expect from Neal. They were still walking a tightrope, but the net underneath was being reinforced little by little.
The door to Peter's office opened and Neal walked in. Peter squinted his eyes for a brief second, trying to figure out if the serenity on his face was another carefully crafted Caffrey mask. He couldn't tell.
Neal smiled at him. "You called. Here I am."
"Take a seat," Peter gestured to the chair opposite him. He handed him a printout. "Do you know what this is?"
Neal studied it, catching on quickly. "Looks like my GPS tracking data overlaid on a map."
"And what does it tell you?"
"That I've pretty much not been anywhere other than June's house and the hospital? Though this," he pointed at a dot a block from June's house, "was me getting groceries."
"Which you cleared with Diana first."
"Yes, I did." He looked at Peter inquisitively. "What, are you disappointed that I didn't break our agreement?"
That prompted Peter to look at him. "What? No." Peter pointed at the map again, his finger tracing a circle that was marked on the printout. "You also know what this is?"
"My 2-mile radius."
"Yes, and you can have it back." He met Neal's eyes again. "Provided you don't do anything stupid."
There was guarded skepticism in Neal's eyes. "Really?"
Peter nodded in confirmation. "Really."
Neal still frowned, but he was willing to take the offer at face value. "I... well... Thank you."
Peter smiled encouragingly—and maybe there was even a tiny bit of self-satisfaction in there—before his expression grew more stern, a clear warning in his voice. "But, Neal, there will be no clandestine plans with Mozzie. Or anyone else, for that matter. You know that I'm going to monitor your anklet data. No more dubious activity like, say, breaking into crime labs. No looking for Mozzie's shooter either."
"Come on, Peter, what am I gonna do? Mozzie's confined to a hospital bed. The evidence from the shooting was completely useless and you won't share your intel with me. I got nothin'."
"Neal, I know you. And I need to know that you're not—" Dammit. He'd held that speech too many times. There was no way Neal would not look into events, but he hoped he'd stay within the confines of the law this time. Or at least within the gray areas, though Peter surely didn't like the gray areas. Still, with Neal Caffrey, you had to learn to appreciate them if you didn't want to constantly arrest the man.
He pointed a finger at Neal. "You know what? The next time, just think before you act. Consider all the options. And if there's ever—and I mean ever—an inkling of doubt in your mind, you call me, okay?"
Neal raised an eyebrow. "I do think, you know? It's been known to happen."
"A little too much sometimes."
There was a brief moment of silence. Peter thought this had gone well.
"Is there anything else?" Neal asked.
Peter felt a pang of guilt at not sharing with Neal what they'd found out about Larssen, but Peter wasn't ready to go there. "Nope. You're free to go."
"Okay then." Neal got up from the chair. "I'm going to the hospital."
"Neal, you don't need to report to me any longer."
He smiled. "I know."
Peter mentally added, I'm telling you anyway, so you know I appreciate the confidence you're placing in me. He sincerely hoped that Neal would not disappoint him.
Neal did, in fact, not disappoint him—at least not over the next few days (and maybe he should add, at least not that he could tell). Of course Peter checked the tracking anklet data, and unless Neal had tampered with it, there had been no irregularities. Neal was being a good sport. And Peter didn't know if it was a good sign or just the calm before the storm.
The beeping of his Blackberry indicated that someone was calling him. Peter wasn't usually much of a gadget person, but he sure loved the Taurus's hands-free capabilities. He saw Diana's name on the display, and hit a button on the steering wheel to answer the call.
"Diana?" Please don't tell me Neal's in trouble.
"Hi Peter, can you talk?"
"Yes, I'm actually on my way to the office."
"Good, because I have something to show you."
"Should I be intrigued?"
There was a short pause. "I think 'intrigued' might not be the right word. There's been a blip on the radar about Larssen, but it's not exactly what we've been hoping for. I'll need you to take a look at it back in the office."
"All right, I'll be there in fifteen."
Entering the White Collar Crime Unit twelve minutes later, he gave Diana a pointed look as he passed her desk. She waited a few minutes before she walked into his office with a light blue folder in her hand.
Sitting down on the chair opposite Peter's desk, she handed him the file. Peter opened it, his brow creasing as he read the document on top.
"An autopsy report? Are you kidding me? How can Larssen be dead? Looks a little too convenient to me."
She met his eyes. "I checked. It's him."
"Yeah, it's his face on the photo. I can see that too."
"No, I mean, I went there to check."
"You went to the morgue?"
Peter was impressed. "And you looked at the body?"
"Yes. It was him. Unless he had an identical twin or they had someone surgically altered to look like him."
"Was there any evidence?"
"They found nothing but the clothes he had on him. No ID, nada."
The frustration in Peter's voice was clearly audible. "Damn. Another dead end."
Diana shrugged helplessly. "Looks like it."
The knock on the Burke's door wasn't entirely unexpected. Neal had called earlier and announced a visit, if that was all right. Peter went to open the door, not in the least surprised to see the (hopefully) reformed ex-con standing in front of it, clad in a stylish, black jacket and a pair of rather casual slacks. Well, casual by Neal's standards.
"Come on in," Peter said and stepped aside.
Neal smiled a complacent smile and gracefully took off his jacket, draping it neatly over the armrest of one of the chairs at the dining table.
El emerged from the kitchen, her face lightening up considerably upon seeing Neal.
She went over to him, drawing him into a hug without waiting to see if he would actually welcome it. "Neal, so happy to see you."
If he was uncomfortable with the physical contact, he didn't show it. Classic Caffrey practice. Another inscrutable mask—possibly. His smile was genuine when she let him go. "Elizabeth, happy to see you too."
And he meant that, because it sure was great to be able to go places without asking permission first.
"How's the cold? You still sound a little stuffy."
He waved it off. "Water under the bridge at this point."
"I'm glad to hear it. Have you eaten? I think we may have some leftover stir-fry."
"No, I'm good. Thanks."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, June already catered for me. Her Romanian housekeeper makes the most amazing pork chops."
Elizabeth smiled. "Now you're making me jealous."
He grinned one of the Caffrey 1000-Watt grins. "I'll save you some next time."
She pointed a playful finger at him. "You know what? I'll hold you to that. So, to what do we owe this pleasure? And please don't tell me it's work."
"Actually..." Neal trailed off.
"Okay," she gave her husband a pointed look. "Then I'll leave you two boys to it."
Both Peter and Neal sat down at the dining table. Peter looked at Neal, definitely curious now. "So, what's this about?"
Neal lowered his voice. "You know how you said there was going to be no looking into Mozzie's shooter?"
Peter's voice had a warning undertone. "Neal?"
Neal looked defensive. "I mean, Mozzie practically forced me into it. How could I say no to a man clearly in pain, bound to a hospital bed?"
Peter tried to look threatening, but didn't quite succeed. He'd known all along that he wouldn't be able to prevent Mozzie and Neal from running their own little investigation, short of putting Neal under constant surveillance or back in prison. He just hoped he'd made it clear that he couldn't protect either of them any longer if something went awry.
"Why am I not surprised," Peter said.
"As you already know, the evidence from the shooting didn't reveal anything. But we did manage to connect a name and a face to the shooting." Neal pulled a folded piece of paper from his jacket pocket and placed it on the table in front of Peter. The face looked maybe ten years younger than what Peter had recently seen, but he immediately recognized it.
Neal went on, "His name is Julian Larssen. He's ex-military, was discharged in—" He stopped at the look on Peter's face. "You already know this."
"Yeah. His name popped up a while ago."
Neal was silent for a moment, no doubt disappointed and upset that Peter had kept this from him. "Our trail ended pretty much after he left the military. Do you have anything more?"
"No, same thing. Honorable discharge and then nothing. Well, until this afternoon."
"You know where he is?"
Peter hesitated a moment. "Yes, but you're not going to like it. He's at the New York City Morgue. Point blank shot to the head."
"Are you serious?"
"Are you sure it's him?"
"Yes. Diana personally checked. Larssen's a dead end. No evidence discovered with the body either. These people are good."
Neal put his palms together and rubbed his index fingers along his lips. "That's too bad."
"Yeah," Peter nodded. "Has Mozzie remembered anything more about the music box code? Anything at all?"
Neal shook his head. "Nothing beyond what's on the note we have. They say post-traumatic amnesia isn't all that unusual. His memory might come back eventually."
"So we're back to square one?"
"Unless you have something else...?"
"No, Larssen was our best lead. Our only one, I should say."
"Then we need to go back to the music box code."
"Or wait for Mozzie's memories to resurface. But, Neal, I don't want you to do anything that's potentially dangerous. You've seen what these men can do. And I have a feeling this is not over. You hear me?"
"I hear you, Peter," Neal said, his voice indicating that it was indeed registering.
"Do you have any plans for tomorrow?"
Neal frowned. "Beyond sleeping in and visiting Mozzie, no."
"I think you might have to readjust your schedule. We just got a new case today, and Hughes thinks it'd be a good idea to get you involved."
"You mean, you convinced Hughes that it'd be a good idea to get me involved."
"Do you want it or not?"
There was a glimmer of an eager spark in Neal's eyes that Peter was glad to see it returning. "Does it involve mortgage fraud? Because then the answer is going to be no."
"It doesn't involve mortgage fraud, so I'll take that as a yes."
"So what's the scoop? Care to share details?"
"I think that can wait until tomorrow. 8 AM in the office for the debrief. Don't be late."
"Want me to bring coffee?"
"Low-fat latte, no sugar."
Neal beamed at Peter. "You got it."
The light in the club's back room was dim, the constant throbbing of the bassline the only sound filtering through the closed door. Two men were sitting opposite each other, one dressed completely in a flashy suit, the choice of clothes reminiscent of that of mob bosses in bad 80's movies. The other man looked as if he'd just stumbled in from a frat house party.
"Did you acquire the object?" the first man asked.
"Yes," the second man answered, holding out Mozzie's notebook.
The first man took it, pocketing it without closer scrutiny. "And the target?"
"Has been eliminated."
"Good. Now find the man who knows the code and finish the job that Larssen couldn't."
The second man nodded, the hilt of the gun in his holster gleaming in the overhead light as he left the room.
... to be continued ...
along these lines or differently (think: differently)
on USA Network
Tuesday, January 18, 2011