A/N: After Free Fall in Season 1, Peter made the comment that they were under 'enhanced scrutiny' so Neal needed to be careful. Well, sometimes thing happen and we have no control…
Neal looked over at his partner, ready to smile. That statement was so unlike Peter. And probably so not what he really wanted to say, but since they were just walking into the White Collar offices…
One look at Peter's face, however, and the smile died un-smiled. "What?"
Peter's jaw was set, his eyes fixed on the conference room. "They weren't supposed to be here for another two days."
Neal followed his partner's gaze, studying the strangers in the room with Hughes. "Who are they?"
"Department of Justice," Peter said, almost spitting the words out. "They're here to review… matters."
"Matters." Neal nodded, sighed. "In other words, me."
"I told you we were under enhanced scrutiny."
"But we just nailed that boiler room case! You said we just needed a homerun to get past that. Doesn't that case count?"
"Apparently not enough," Peter replied, adding a sigh of his own. "The man talking to Hughes? That's Walter King."
"Let's just say he appreciates rules, and abiding by them."
"So how bad do you think it'll be?"
"I don't know," Peter admitted. "Just… take it easy 'til they finish, all right?"
"Toe the line," Neal said softly, his eyes still on the conference room. "Got it."
Peter watched with growing impatience as King perused a file. Tall, heavier than Peter, a growing bald spot on the top of his head, the man had all of the files for the cases Neal had worked on in front of him.
And if his initial questions were any indication, he was prepared to go through each case file with a fine tooth comb.
At least he'd found a plausible reason to get Neal out of the office. Sending him with Jones to get a witness statement and pick up some whistle blower documents had worked out perfectly. The fact that the destination was Teaneck, NJ, was even better – it would take a while.
"This case to catch Ghovat – or, The Ghost," King said, finally looking up again. "It involved a murder?"
Peter nodded. "Yes, it did."
"But all of your files, and your statements, indicate that Neal Caffrey is non-violent," King pressed.
"He is." And Peter really didn't understand what that had to do with…
"Then if Mr. Caffrey was released to assist with cases involving his areas of expertise, why was he involved here?"
"Caffrey is assigned to the White Collar unit," Hughes said, his tone indicating that he, too, was getting annoyed with the scrutiny. "He helps on whatever case we assign him."
"And the fact is, he provided invaluable help with the Ghovat case," Peter added, thankful that his boss was backing him up. Hughes hadn't always considered Neal's presence to be a positive thing. "It was his idea to throw a Fashion Week party to draw Ghovat out."
King nodded, scowling. "Yes, I see the expense report for the party. A rather expensive undertaking on the word of a criminal."
"I authorized the party," Hughes said, his tone sharp. "And Ghovat did show up."
"And yet, the wrong man was arrested," King pointed out, the corners of his mouth turned up just slightly in a smile. "Was that part of Caffrey's plan?"
"That was not Neal's fault," Peter said, trying to keep his voice even. "Look, the plan for the party was brilliant, and he got over sixty models to show up. It was the perfect setting to draw Ghovat out, and it worked… to a point."
"I believe the point was to actually catch Ghovat," King countered.
Peter took a deep breath before replying. "We did catch Ghovat."
King flipped a page in the file, tapping a page with his finger. "But not before there was another death," he said. "Not to mention a kidnapping, and an attack on two agents…"
Peter stifled a sigh. It was going to be a long day.
"Neal, why in the world would I want to go to an exhibit of medieval manuscripts?"
Neal just stared at Jones with a look that clearly said the agent must be from another planet. "Jones, it's history. And art. History and art rolled into one. How can you not want to see it?"
"I've got tickets to the Yankees this weekend," Jones replied. "Now that's art on a baseball diamond. Just hope this rain clears up."
Neal opened his mouth to refute that artistic claim, but something caught his attention on the river below. They were halfway across the George Washington Bridge, crossing from New Jersey back into New York. And down on the Hudson…
The day was overcast, with a fine mist in the air, making visibility less than optimal. But it was clear enough to see that there was a tour boat, seemingly dead in the water. A number of figures could be seen on the deck, many of them pointing up-river – and many of them wearing what could easily be recognized as school uniforms. And bearing down on the boat was a tug-less barge, swung slightly so that the broad side of the cargo container was aimed directly at the much smaller boat.
"Oh, shit." Jones swore as he reached for his phone. "That boat's gonna get creamed." He punched in 9-1-1- and waited for an answer. "Yeah, I'm on the GW bridge, and there's a runaway barge about to run into a boat full of schoolchildren. Right, you need to get the police, the fire department – anyone you can. Just south of the bridge."
Neal was watching the impending collision, holding his breath. The two vessels were almost together… "Jones, pull up!"
"Yes, it's happening right now!" Jones insisted, maneuvering to the side one-handed. "We need help now!"
The car was still rolling when Neal unbuckled his seatbelt and opened the door. He stripped off his jacket, dropping it onto the seat. His shoes and fedora followed…
The sound of the collision reverberated through the air as Jones ended his call. "Neal!"
But Neal was already running along the railing. The bridge was angling down again, reaching the New York side of the river. He got even with the collision site, climbed onto the railing…
It was still a long way down.
He'd done cliff dives in Mexico higher than this. At least, that's what he told himself as he let go and dove for the water below.
Jones could only watch as Neal disappeared over the railing. "Shit," he muttered, freeing his seatbelt so that he could reach over and pull the passenger door closed. Sitting up again, he stomped his foot on the gas and sped toward the end of the bridge.
He'd find a place to park by the river, and get in there to help Neal.
The water came up quickly, and the force of the dive made it feel like he was falling through a sheet of glass, stinging his skin as he broke through the surface. But he knew he was a strong swimmer – and there might even have been a hypothetical water escape or two in his history – and so there was no panic. As soon as he could get his body under control, he twisted, following his air bubbles back up.
His head broke the surface, and Neal sucked in a deep breath. And then he took his bearings and started to swim.
There was still some grinding, as the two vessels continued to bump together. And above all, there were screams as the boat's passengers were dumped into the water.
Ahead, he could see a few children slowly making their way toward the shore. And he'd bet their parents were going to be thankful they'd spent the money on swimming lessons. But more were clustered around the sinking vessel, holding on to whatever they could to stay afloat.
Finally, he reached the area, pulling in a couple of life vests floating nearby. He slipped one over a little girl's head. A little boy watched, wide-eyed, hanging onto an empty cooler. Neal slipped the second vest over the boy and then pulled the two children together. "Hold hands," he said. "And kick your feet," he added, giving them a push toward the New York shore. "The vests will hold you up. Just keep kicking for land."
He watched as the pair began making slow progress, and then he turned back to the boat. There were so many…
The tires squealed, throwing up dust as Jones pulled the car to a stop and jumped out. He followed Neal's example and ditched his jacket and shoes. Hurrying down to the water, he helped the first couple of children out of the water, directing them off to one side. "Just sit down," he ordered. "Help is on the way."
There was an abandoned boat just upstream. The huge gash in one side made it worthless as a rescue vehicle – but there were still a couple of life rings hanging on the side and he grabbed those and then waded in.
When the water reached his chest, Jones stretched out and began to swim. The rings made it a little awkward, and he'd never really been a fast swimmer anyway. But the screams pushed him on.
As he got closer, he could hear something else as well. Neal's voice carried, calm and firm, directing the adults to help the kids, giving instruction.
Jones could also hear the sirens getting closer as he reached the collision area. Pushing the life rings out ahead of him he swam closer to Neal. "Found these on shore," he said as they met up.
"Good, that's good." Neal grabbed one ring and turned to two young girls who were still on the sinking deck of the boat, clinging to the railing. "It's all right," he said, holding a hand out. "Come into the water, and I'll help you."
One girl finally let go, sliding under the railing. She cried out as the cold water hit her, but then Neal had an arm around her and was pulling her hands onto the ring. "Just hang on," he said, turning to hold his hand out to the other girl. "Come on, you can do it."
The girl looked anything but sure about that, and Jones could see her hands shaking, and the tear streaks on her face. But Neal just held his hand steady and she finally slipped down to join her friend in the water.
"You're doing great," Neal told them, turning them toward shore. "You just hang on to the ring, and kick your feet."
Jones took the other ring and found two more children nearby. "Grab onto this," he called. "It'll hold you up." He got them hanging onto the ring, and then he turned them in the right direction. "Just like those two girls," he said, pointing. "Kick your feet."
They started off, and Jones turned to find Neal right beside him. Neal pointed to what looked like a floating locker nearby. "I think there are life jackets in there."
Jones nodded. "I'll get it."
Neal was pointing back toward the boat, which had sunk even lower. "I think there may be people trapped inside. I'm going to check."
Neal nodded, and Jones watched as the other man pulled himself up onto the deck. And then he turned his attention to the locker.
"Now, about the time he jumped out of a judge's chamber – from four stories up?"
Peter stifled a sigh – something that was getting harder and harder to do as the session wore on. King seemed determined to cover every single case since Neal had started, and in great detail. Always looking for any little flaw, of course… "His form was impeccable," he commented.
King didn't seem to appreciate the humor, his scowl deepening. "Yes, you witnessed the event, I believe."
"But you didn't stop him?"
"It all happened pretty fast. He jumped, dropped to the sidewalk, ran to the van, and was gone." King really didn't need to know about the moment when he and Neal had made eye contact, communicating more in that glance than most people could in an hour of conversation…
"You were armed, weren't you?"
Peter was glad to see that even Hughes looked mortified by that suggestion, and considering that gave him the moment he needed to get his anger in check. Physically throttling the DoJ inquisitor probably wouldn't be good in the long run – though it would make him feel better right at the moment. "I hope you're not suggesting that I would ever shoot an unarmed suspect."
"He was a fleeing fugitive," King insisted. "At least a warning shot…"
"Neal was only fleeing because he knew he was being framed, and no one was listening to him," Peter shot back. "Most importantly, *I* wasn't listening to him."
"Yes, the file does indicate that someone else was ultimately arrested for the theft," King admitted, almost dismissively. "Still, Mr. Caffrey was guilty of yet another escape from legal custody. I would have expected, at a minimum, to see that there was a hearing to add to his sentence."
"Given that Caffrey was ultimately cleared of the charges, I considered that excessive," Hughes said. "I did, however, give him a stern lecture."
Peter managed not to smile as he remembered that 'lecture.' It had basically consisted of the older man telling Neal to never do something like that again, because Hughes' ulcer couldn't take it. "Given the assistance Neal provided in identifying the real thief, I don't think any additional punishment was warranted."
King bent low over the file, scribbling some notes. "Caffrey did, however, flee the jurisdiction," he finally said. "I see he was reported in Geneva…"
"No." Peter cut in quickly, shaking his head. "He was not out of the country."
King pulled out a page from the file. "This report…"
"I don't care where he was reported," Peter said, barely managing to keep his tone civil. "Before I caught him the first time, Neal had the marshals chasing him on the Mexican Riviera, when I know for a fact he was in Cleveland. He's good at misdirection, which is why it took so long to catch him in the first place. But this time, he never left New York."
"And you know this how?" King challenged.
"Because he told me," Peter said. "He jumped out of that window only because he had been wrongly accused, not to escape."
"Hmmmmm." King bent over the file again, making more notes. Then he reached for another folder. "What about the time…"
Neal pulled himself under the railing and onto the deck of the sinking boat. The craft was listing to its port side, making the going tough. But he got around to the back of the cabin finally, finding the door blocked by a bench that had slid against it. From the inside, he could hear pounding and cries for help, so he braced himself the best he could and tried to lift.
The bench was heavier than he expected, and it didn't make things any easier that gravity was helping to push the thing against the door as the boat sank. He looked out quickly, trying to spot Jones. But the other man was fully occupied, getting more passengers into life jackets and sending them toward the shore, so Neal turned back to the task at hand, alone.
This time he put his back against the door, managing to squeeze his feet up against the bench. Thus braced, he pushed with his legs, finally managing to budge the bench a little bit. He reset himself, took a deep breath, and pushed again.
Little by little, the bench inched back from the door. Finally, there was enough room so that he could get the leverage to tip the bench, sending it onto the side and away from the opening.
Of course, by that time the boat had sunk even further, and by the time he pulled the cabin door open, the interior was almost filled with water. Reaching in, he quickly pulled the people out who were closest to the door. "Can you swim?" he asked, addressing the one adult and four children. The woman – probably a teacher, he guessed – and two of the children nodded.
Neal gently steered the two children who could swim to the edge of the boat. And the edge was getting closer as the boat sunk lower. "There are people on shore to help you," he said, pointing. And there were emergency vehicles pulling up on the bank, police and fire personnel hurrying to pull people out of the water. "Can you help one of the kids?" he asked the woman.
She nodded, taking a deep breath. "Yes, I can do that." She leaned in, brushing a soft kiss on his cheek. "Thank you," she whispered. "You're my hero." And then she took the smaller boy's hand, helping him to slide into the water.
Neal watched them for a moment, and then looked back to where Jones had been. To his relief, it looked like the agent had taken care of all of the other passengers already in the water and was, in fact, making his way toward the boat, dragging several life vests behind him.
Neal pointed the older boy toward the railing. "Hang on to that," he said. "That man is going to bring you a life vest, and you'll be fine."
The boy's eyes were wide with fear, but he nodded, grabbing onto the railing for dear life.
"Jones!" Neal called, pointing at the boy. He waited until the agent waved in acknowledgement, and then he pointed toward the cabin. "I'm going inside."
He didn't think he'd ever been so weary in his life, but it was amazing what desperate times could spur someone to do. Jones swam the last few yards to the boat on sheer willpower, reaching up gratefully to grasp the railing on the boat. Even if it was sinking, the craft still provided a brief respite.
He handed up one of the life jackets to the boy hanging on near him. "Put this over your head," he said, watching as the boy complied. "All right, come into the water," he continued, holding up his free hand to help the child down.
Just then he saw Neal struggle back onto the deck, pulling a little girl with him. "Over here," Jones called, lifting up another vest.
Neal helped the girl to the side, lowering her to the water as Jones slipped the vest over her head. Then he reached a hand down and Jones gratefully grabbed on, letting Neal help him up onto the deck.
"There are a few more still inside," Neal said, coughing up a bit of river water as he finished. "I'll bring them out, you get them into vests."
Jones nodded. "Got it." He pulled the remaining vests up next to him, waiting.
It wasn't long before Neal reappeared, this time with a boy in tow. They made the transfer, with Jones helping the boy into a vest even as Neal disappeared back inside.
The pattern repeated three more times, and then finally Jones got the news he was waiting for. "Just one more," Neal said. "Then it's empty."
Neal ducked back into the cabin, pushing toward the back. There was one more girl inside, hanging desperately onto a light fixture to stay above the rising water. He reached her, gently prying her fingers loose, and they started for the door.
Just then the boat rocked even further to one side, and something bumped into him, knocking him temporarily off balance. He managed to keep the girl's head above water, but when he tried to move, he found he couldn't.
The door was almost in reach, but his left foot was stuck…
Pushing the girl toward the exit, he watched until she grabbed onto the frame. Then he sucked in a deep breath and dove under. The water was too murky to see much, but his fingers found the problem.
Something had hooked around the tracking anklet… and he couldn't get it free.
Jones helped the last girl into a vest and sent her on her way. There were more emergency personnel on shore now, some of them heading into the water. And he could see a police boat speeding their way from upriver.
He turned his attention back to the cabin. Why hadn't Neal come out with the last girl? He'd said there was only the one child left.
The boat lurched again, settling deeper into the river. "Neal?"
There was no answer.
Still no answer, and now that was a worry. Slipping against the sinking deck, Jones scrambled for the door. He looked inside just in time to see Neal take a deep breath and disappear under the water.
Forcing his way inside, Jones made his way to the other man, reaching him just as Neal came up, gasping. "Neal, we need to get out."
Neal was shaking his head. "I can't. I'm stuck on something."
"The tracker – it's caught on something. I can't get it free."
Neal took a breath and disappeared under the water again. A moment later, Jones followed.
He could barely make out Neal's form in the shadows, but his hands found the other man's body, following the contours down to his ankle. But even with both of them trying, the anklet remained firmly hooked on something.
They came up for air just as the boat lurched again, the cabin filled almost to the ceiling now.
Neal took a deep breath, shaking his head. "Jones, you need to get out."
"No way, man. I'm not leaving you here."
"Look, you can get help…" Neal's voice dropped off, and he coughed. The water had risen enough that he was having trouble keeping his head out of the water.
Jones shook his head, digging into his pocket. "No time," he said. Hopefully it hadn't been lost in the river… No, he had it! He pulled his hand out, a pocket knife in his fingers. "I'm going to cut it," he said, opening the largest blade. Good thing his scout training made him keep the knife sharp. "I'll try not to cut you…"
"Just do it," Neal said, in a voice that seemed almost too calm for the circumstances. "I trust you."
Jones, nodded, took a deep breath, and then submerged. Knife firmly clasped in his right hand, he put his left hand out, following Neal's body down to his ankle. And then as carefully as he could, he grasped the anklet, slid the blade in, and started to cut.
It seemed to take forever, but finally the band came free. He could feel Neal pulling his foot up, and then both men's heads broke the surface.
They just held there for a long moment, both of them breathing hard. "Thanks," Neal finally whispered.
"No problem," Jones returned, clasping the other man's shoulder. And then, with a glance at how close the cabin was to being completely filled with water, he started for the door. "Come on."
They made it outside, and off the deck of the boat. Very little was still above water.
Just then the police cruiser reached them, and Jones gratefully reached for the rescue ring an officer was holding out. He was pulled onto the boat, and a moment later Neal joined him, and the driver headed for shore.
Jones took one glance back as they left the scene, watching as the small tour boat sank completely into the river.
"So, tell me about the gun."
Peter just stared at King for a long moment before he spoke. "Do you mean the gun Avery Phillips was going to use to kill Neal and me in that vault?"
Somehow, Peter managed not to laugh at the exasperated look King gave him. "I mean the gun your report indicates Mr. Caffrey shot during this case."
Peter shrugged. "I believe it was a shotgun."
"As a convicted felon, Mr. Caffrey is prohibited from all firearms."
"He was undercover," Peter pointed out. "And he nailed both skeet targets."
Before King could respond with yet another inane question, there was a soft knock and the door opened just enough for Lauren Cruz to stick her head in. "Peter, a moment?" she said quietly.
"This isn't a good time, Agent Cruz," Hughes said.
"Yes, sir, I know. But it's kind of important," she replied.
"Well, in that case, come in and tell all of us," King said. "I'm sure we'd all like to know if there's something that's more important than this meeting."
Lauren stepped just inside the door, looking as though she was ready to make a quick escape. "I apologize. Maybe it really can wait."
"Just tell us, Cruz," Hughes said.
She took a deep breath and nodded. "Well, it's just… Neal's anklet was just cut."
Peter found himself just staring at Cruz, and he knew his jaw had dropped. Neal, what the hell…
"Are you sure?" Hughes demanded.
Cruz nodded. "I just got the call from the marshals."
King had gotten to his feet. "Agent Burke, did Caffrey know what this meeting was about?"
"He knew his role was being examined," Peter confirmed quietly.
"So he knew his role was being examined, and yet he chose this time to escape custody."
Peter was shaking his head. "We don't know that…"
"Oh, I think I know everything I need to know," King replied. He closed the folder in front of him and turned to one of the agents with him. "Morrissey, call the marshals service. Tell them that Caffrey's release has been revoked. They're to start a search for him right away."
"This doesn't make sense," Peter said, trying to convince himself as well as the others. "Lauren, try calling Jones."
"I did, before I came up here," she answered. "Twice. There was no answer. I tried Neal's phone too, and he didn't answer either."
"I hope your blind attachment to this criminal hasn't cost the Bureau an agent, Burke," King said, heading for the door. "You'll be up on charges if it has."
Peter watched as King and his two agents, one still on the phone to the marshals, walked out of the conference room. And then he turned to Hughes. "Reese, there has to be more going on. There's no reason he'd choose today to run, not knowing that King was already stirring things up. And there's no way I'd believe that he would hurt Jones."
"Then you better hope you can get through to Jones or Caffrey quickly and find out what's going on," Hughes replied. "I'll make a couple of calls, but King outranks both of us. If the marshals find Caffrey first, I don't know if there's anything we can do."
Peter watched as the older man headed for his office, and then he pulled out his phone. Come on, Jones, answer…
The rain was pouring down by the time the police boat nudged ashore. Neal and Jones were helped off, and wrapped in blankets by emergency personnel as soon as their feet touched land.
Paramedics approached, trying to get them to come and be checked out, but Neal waved them off. "Jones, where's the car?"
The agent looked around, finally pointing between two fire engines. "Right over there."
"What's the matter?"
"I need to get back to the office right away. King's there, looking into every detail of my release. And with the tracker cut…"
"Shit," Jones agreed. He looked over at the car again, shaking his head. "It's gonna be a while before I can get out. And it was a choice between cutting the anklet and letting you drown."
"I know, and believe me, I appreciate what you did."
"Look, I'm sure it'll be all right. I mean, you're a hero."
"Still, the sooner I get back, and prove I'm not running, the better."
Jones nodded, looking around. Then he spotted a police officer with lieutenant's bars on her uniform and headed that way. "Lieutenant Carr," he said, reading her badge. "Clinton Jones, FBI." He showed his badge – which, fortunately, had remained clipped to his belt through the whole ordeal. "My partner needs to get back to the federal building right away, and our car will be blocked for a while. Any chance you can help us out?"
The woman smiled and nodded. "For the heroes who just saved all those kids? Yeah, I think we can do that." She waved over a young officer who was standing nearby. "Malloy, you were one of the later units called. Can you get your cruiser out?"
She pointed at Neal. "I need you to take this man to the federal building right away."
"Sure thing, Lieutenant."
"Thanks, Jones," Neal said, turning to follow the officer.
"No problem," the agent replied. "I'll be back as soon as I can get the car out."
As it turned out, several US Marshals were already at the federal building, just wrapping up a task force meeting. So it wasn't long at all before they were on the twenty-first floor, taking over a couple of empty desks and asking questions of everyone.
Peter watched all of the activity from his office, where he was still trying to reach his agent and his consultant. Why wouldn't either one of them be answering?
He ended his current attempt when Neal's voicemail greeting came on again, and then looked up as Hughes came in.
"Still no answer from either of them?" Hughes asked.
Peter shook his head. "Nothing. Anything on your end?"
"I keep getting passed around. No one yet who can pull rank on King. But I've left some messages."
"This just doesn't make sense," Peter started. But then he stopped, his attention caught by someone coming into the office…
The younger man looked half-drowned, his clothing dirty and ripped, his normally well-coifed hair plastered against his head. But there wasn't much time to even consider what might have happened before three of the marshals were on Neal, forcing him down against a desk, searching him thoroughly, and cuffing his hands behind his back.
It all happened so quickly that Peter hadn't even made it all the way out of his office before the whole procedure was done, and Neal was pulled upright, none too gently.
Their eyes met as Peter stepped onto the walkway, and he could see the confusion in the younger man's eyes.
"Peter, there's an explanation," Neal started.
Peter started slowly down the stairs, but King stepped in first. "Is your tracking anklet currently on your ankle?"
Neal shook his head slowly. "No."
"Then that's really the only explanation I need." King waved his hand at the marshals. "You can take him."
With a marshal firmly gripping each arm, Neal was turned toward the door. But then he pulled back slightly, looking down at his ruined clothing. "Do I have to go like this?" he asked softly.
Hughes stepped in before King could say anything, addressing the marshals. "No. Take him back to his apartment first, let him shower and change."
"Fine," King huffed.
This time, Neal walked out quietly with the marshals. But as they waited for the elevator, he looked back into the office, and his eyes met Peter's.
And Peter knew he'd never seen a look of betrayal so complete…
Peter dropped into his chair, put his elbows on his desk, and rested his head in his hands. His gut – the one that rarely failed him on the job – felt like it was twisted into one gigantic knot.
He looked up as his boss walked in. "We should have given Neal a chance to explain."
Hughes sat down, sighing. "I know you want to believe in Caffrey."
"Reese, he came back here, walked right into the office. He wasn't running."
Hughes nodded. "I'm not comfortable with this myself. But I still don't have any authority to overrule King."
"But this is just wrong."
"As King just reminded me, Caffrey's release was specifically made 'at will' – at our will."
"I don't care what the words on a piece of paper say. Look, I know he hasn't stayed perfectly within the lines we drew, but the fact is, he's done good work for us. We owe him more than this."
Hughes nodded and got to his feet. "I bought a little time having the marshals take him back to his apartment. And I'll make a few more calls. Any luck reaching Jones yet?"
Peter shook his head, reaching for his phone. "I'll try him again."
It took longer to get clear of the scene at the river than Jones had anticipated. He had to repeat his story to several levels of authorities, and fend off numerous reporters. To each of them he was polite, but firm, in telling them that he couldn't possibly do an interview without the man who had first seen the impending disaster, and reached the scene first.
But he now had a number of business cards from reporters, with requests to call when both he and Neal were available.
Finally, he was able to get to the car, and thread it carefully around the remaining emergency vehicles.
Just as he was pulling into traffic, he heard his cell phone ringing. But it seemed to have fallen out when he tossed his jacket into the car, and the ringing was coming from somewhere under the seat. There was no way he could reach it now.
It wasn't that far back to the office –he'd check messages then.
Neal felt like he was still in shock when they got to June's. The handcuffs pulled his shoulders at an unnatural, and uncomfortable, angle. He could have gotten out of the cuffs, of course – but the three very serious marshals wouldn't be so easy to slip.
And really, if no one was even willing to listen to his explanation, what was the point?
The side door was open, which was good because his keys were in his suit coat. Hopefully someone would find them and return them to June.
Even better, they didn't run into June or any of the staff on the way upstairs.
Once inside the apartment, they finally released the handcuffs. He was allowed, under close supervision, to find clean clothes. And he carefully picked items he owned, nothing of Byron's.
He dropped his shoes and socks by the table, and then one of the marshals followed him to the bathroom, performing a thorough search of the room. Apparently no weapons were found, and the window was confirmed to be too small for him to slip out, because he was finally left alone to shower.
Neal stripped his clothing off, making a note of what he was going to owe June for the ruined pieces. That was something he could have his attorney take care of after…
After he was back in prison for cutting his anklet instead of dying.
The hot water hit him and he breathed in the steam, standing still as the mud of the river washed off. And then he leaned back against the wall, arms wrapped around himself, trying to keep from shaking.
He could almost understand King not wanting to hear an explanation.
But why had even Peter refused to listen…
Still no answer from Jones…
Peter hung up, more puzzled than ever. Whatever corners the con man turned consultant may have cut during his time with the Bureau, there was simply no way Peter could believe that Neal would have done anything to hurt Jones.
Of course, that still left incapacitating…
But wouldn't he have seen some sign if Neal had really been planning something? And why had Neal come back to the office, bedraggled but seemingly under his own power, if he had really done something like that?
King probably should have asked about the missing agent before having Neal hauled off.
Actually, King should have asked about a LOT of things…
Activity down in the bullpen caught his attention, and he looked up just in time to see Jones walk in.
Peter was out of his chair and heading down the steps before he even had time to think about doing it. Jones looked like he'd gone a few rounds in the wrestling ring, his clothing torn and muddy…
Much as Neal's had been.
"Hey, Peter." Jones tossed his jacket over his chair and then looked around, holding another jacket, a pair of shoes, and a hat. "Where's Neal? He should have been back a while ago."
Peter watched, trying to process the situation, as Jones calmly walked over to Neal's desk and put the clothing items down. Obviously, Neal hadn't done anything to him… "What happened?" Peter asked, avoiding the question Jones had asked.
Jones looked around, noting the crowd that was forming. "What, Neal didn't tell you?"
The tenor of Peter's voice definitely got the junior agent's attention. "You're seriously telling me no one has had the news on?" He looked over at Cruz. "Lauren, you have CNN up? I'm sure it's on there by now."
Lauren hesitated, and then opened a new browser window, pulling up the news site. She found the live feed site and started it as the others gathered around.
And even with the sound turned down, there was no mistaking the headlines and the main story. Peter's eyes skimmed the words, gathering the main idea. A boatload of schoolchildren, a runaway barge, a collision on the river.
And video of Neal and Jones getting off a police boat, the title 'Heroes of the Hudson' superimposed over them…
The knot that had been in Peter's gut seemed to have worked its way up into his throat. "Jones, Neal's anklet was cut."
"Yeah, I know." Jones looked around, seeming a bit unnerved by the looks on the faces around him. "Neal left way before me, heading back here. Where is he?"
There was a long moment of silence before Cruz finally bit the bullet and answered. "King had the marshals arrest him for cutting the anklet. They're taking him back to prison."
"He what?" Jones demanded, turning to his boss. "Peter, Neal's a fu… a fricking hero. Didn't he tell you what happened?"
"He didn't have a chance," Peter said, shaking his head. "King didn't give him one. And even worse, I didn't give him a chance to explain why he cut the anklet."
"Neal didn't cut it, Peter, I did," Jones said, slapping his knife down on Lauren's desk. "Neal's the one who saw the collision coming – he actually jumped off the bridge to get to those kids to help! He had almost half of them on their way to shore before I could even get there. He went inside that sinking boat, and kept going back until the last kid was out. But something snagged on the anklet, and we couldn't get it free. It was either cut it, or he was going to drown."
The lump in Peter's throat finally found its way out in the form of a low growl and he headed for the stairs, taking them two at a time and heading right into the conference room.
King looked up from where he was conferring with his aides as Peter stormed into the room. "Burke! Your presence is no longer…"
"Just watch," Peter said, his voice low, with perhaps a touch of menace. Ignoring King's outraged sputtering, he powered up the display screen and selected the television feed, pulling up a local news channel. Scenes from the river rescue filled the display. As they watched, grainy footage came on showing someone climbing onto the bridge railing and then diving into the water.
"You're watching one of the heroes of today's rescue on the Hudson. We obtained this cell phone footage from a waiter at a local restaurant who was outside on a cigarette break when he saw what, at first, seemed to be a possible suicide attempt from the George Washington Bridge. We know now, however, that this man was actually first on the scene to help the children whose school field trip went horribly awry. Carla, what do we know about this high dive artist?"
"Well, Paula, from the information we've received, he has been identified as Neal Caffrey, a consultant for the FBI. We've confirmed that this is the same man who made headlines a few weeks ago for jumping out the window of a judge's chambers."
"Quite the high dive expert!"
"Yes, apparently he is."
"And do we know what a consultant for the FBI does when he's not diving off of buildings or bridges?"
"We're still trying to verify that, Paula. Unfortunately, Mr. Caffrey left the scene very quickly after the last of the children was rescued."
"What about the second man, Carla?"
"That would be Clinton Jones, an agent with the FBI. We're trying to get an interview set up to get more first-hand information, but Agent Jones refused to appear without Mr. Caffrey…"
Peter muted the feed, turning back to King. "That's what Neal was doing while you were sitting here nitpicking every case he's helped us solve. And he didn't cut the tracker – Agent Jones did. On the last trip into that sinking boat, after he got all of the kids off, the anklet snagged on something. Jones had two choices – cut the anklet, or let Neal drown."
"Wasn't actually much of a choice," Jones said, coming into the room. He fixed King with a stare full of more anger than Peter had ever seen in the younger agent. "Neal put everything on the line to save those kids. And you repay him by yanking his freedom, without even giving him a chance to explain."
"He never should have had that 'freedom' in the first place!" King insisted, getting to his feet. "The FBI is not a halfway house for errant criminals. There was more than enough evidence just in the case files to justify ending this little experiment."
"I wonder how that's going to play when the reporters find out what's happened to one of today's heroes," Peter said, impressing himself with how calm he sounded. "Jones, how many news outlets asked you for interviews?"
"I have business cards for at least a dozen reporters."
"Get them," Peter said, never taking his eyes off of King. "I'm going to make some calls."
"Are you threatening me, Burke?" King demanded.
Peter shook his head. "Not at all. I just believe in a free press."
"I really don't think this is the kind of headline we need," Hughes said from the doorway. "I've already called the marshal service and told them to have their people hold Caffrey at his apartment, on my authority, until further notice. That word needs to come from you, Agent King."
"The release agreement has already been rescinded," King argued.
"Then tell them to release Caffrey into my custody until a new agreement can be put into place," Peter said, heading for the door. He stopped next to Hughes. "I'll be at Neal's."
"Sending Caffrey back to prison after what he did down at the river won't make any of us look very good," Hughes said quietly. "Make the call, Agent King."
Neal walked back into the main room, clad in jeans and t-shirt, his wet hair towel-dried. He sat down on a chair by the table and pulled his socks on, taking extra care with the left one.
He hadn't felt it at the time, but Jones had managed to cut his leg. Not that he was complaining, he just didn't want to disturb the bandage he'd applied and start the cut bleeding again.
He looked up from tying his shoes when one of the marshals walked toward him, handcuffs out. "Look, can I pack a few things? Just a couple of books, and some art supplies. You can check everything."
The two marshals who had come upstairs exchanged a look, and then one of them – the woman, who seemed to be the senior agent – nodded.
Fully aware of the scrutiny behind him – and the guns at the ready – Neal went to the wardrobe in the corner by the bed, extracting a small duffel bag. He opened it, demonstrating the empty interior, and then went to the bookcase, selecting two of the most comprehensive art history volumes he owned. At the last minute, he also added one on the history of music boxes.
Not that he'd have a chance to find the amber box now, but he might still find something that Mozzie could use to help Kate…
Next, he grabbed a couple of sketchpads, a set of charcoals, and a small, unframed print of a Matisse he had always admired. Then he set the duffel on the table and stepped back as the woman started to check the bag.
At the same time, the other marshal snapped one of the cuffs on Neal's left wrist. He sucked in a deep breath, let it out slowly, and then moved his right arm behind his back. The other cuff snapped into place…
The woman was just starting to close up his bag when her cell phone rang. She took a look at the ID of the caller, and quickly answered, moving off toward the corner.
She came back to the table a couple of minutes later, addressing her colleague. "We're on hold," she said. "We wait here for now."
Damn red lights – how could he be hitting ALL of them like this? Especially since he was definitely not obeying the local speed limit.
The light finally turned green, and Peter stomped on the gas, cutting over in front of the car in the next lane to get ahead. He was vaguely aware of horns honking at him, but it didn't really matter.
He just hoped Hughes had gotten his call through in time…
The silence was almost worse than anything. "Do you know what we're waiting for?" Neal asked.
"We were just told to hold," the female marshal replied.
"Any chance we could take the cuffs off while we wait?" She started to shake her head, but Neal pressed his case. "Come on, you don't know how long we're going to be here. You can sit between me and the door, and I promise I'm not going over the balcony."
The woman considered that for a moment, then offered a compromise. "The cuffs stay on, but you can have your hands in front while we wait."
"Thanks," Neal said as the other marshal released one cuff. He took advantage of the brief respite to roll his shoulders, easing out a kink, before the cuff was closed again. But at least with his hands in front his shoulders weren't pulled into such an unnatural position.
And maybe all of the swimming today, not to mention the impact of the high dive, had left his shoulders a little more tender than normal…
There was the sound of voices coming from downstairs, and then footsteps coming up the stairs, fast. The marshals were on their feet and alert, not sure what was coming their way.
Neal only wished that he could somehow have ordered up the cavalry to come in…
Instead, it was Peter Burke who walked in, badge out.
Normally, seeing Peter would have been cause for relief. But today…
"Neal," Peter started.
"I guess Jones finally got back to the office?"
"Yeah, he did."
"Trust and verify – isn't that what you said, Agent Burke?" Neal shook his head slowly. "I get that I've pushed the trust part a few times, but I thought we still had verify."
"We should have verify," Peter said. "King should have listened to your explanation – and when he didn't, I should have. Neal, I'm sorry."
"Apology noted," Neal whispered. "Look, if that's what we've been waiting for, I'd like to get going. I've had kind of a rough day, and I didn't even get lunch. If I'm not processed back in before meal service is done, I won't get fed tonight either." His voice cracked as he finished, and he coughed to try and cover it…
But apparently Peter wasn't fooled, because the next thing Neal knew, the agent had pulled him to his feet and was holding his shaking shoulders.
"You're not going anywhere, Neal," Peter said, his voice low but firm. "King has to make the call, but he will make it."
And Neal really, really wanted to believe that. He just wasn't sure he dared…
Apparently, King made the call.
It was a long, silent wait. The two marshals had never even introduced themselves, so they weren't really the talking types. Neal was too tense to feel like talking – and, fortunately, Peter seemed to understand that.
But finally the lead marshal answered a call on her cell phone, talked for a few minutes, and then got to her feet. Slowly, deliberately, she unlocked the handcuffs and handed them back to her partner. "I've been instructed that the arrest order has been lifted," she said, addressing Peter. "The prisoner is remanded to your custody."
Peter nodded. "Thanks."
Neal watched as the two marshals left, without a word to him. And then he looked at Peter. "I'm really not going back?"
"You're not going back, Neal."
Neal slumped back in his chair, finally breathing a sigh of relief. "Wow."
"Quite a day, huh?"
"Neal, I am sorry."
"I knew the agreement we had was at-will. I just always somehow figured I'd have to actually do something to get sent back." He offered up a small, humorless smile. "Of course, I imagine King could have found a reason or two in all the files."
"Well, he sure tried," Peter admitted. "But in the end, he was convinced that sending you to prison now after what you did today wouldn't send the right message."
"Great. So I can look forward to going through this all again when the publicity dies down?" He shook his head and turned to lean his elbows on the table, resting his forehead against his palms. "Maybe you should just call the marshals back now."
"Not gonna happen."
"King's just going to keep looking."
"Nothing for him to look into. He already rescinded the original release agreement."
Confusion crossed Neal's face as he looked up. "You said I wasn't going back. But if there's no agreement…"
"When I get back to the office, I'm going to have Legal draw up a new one. And this time it will require cause, and a hearing."
"Yes, really." Peter sat down in the chair across the table, leaning forward. "Should have been that way from the beginning," he added softly.
"I knew what I was signing," Neal pointed out.
"Still…" Peter shook his head slowly. "The trust thing is still going to take some time, Neal," Peter admitted. "But I promise we'll have verify."
Neal just nodded in reply.
"Neal, what you did today…"
"I was just there," Neal said, shrugging. "And I knew I was a strong swimmer, so I could help. Jones was right there too."
"I've never seen Jones as angry as when he found out you'd been arrested," Peter admitted, reaching into his pocket. "Here, he brought this back for you," Peter added, sliding Neal's phone across the table.
Neal reached out absently, stopping the phone before it could go off the edge. "Thanks."
"Your jacket and shoes – and hat – are at the office. I kind of left in a hurry."
"No problem. The rest of my clothes were kind of ruined. I'll see what I owe June."
"I'm sure she'll just be glad you're all right."
"Neal, are you all right?"
"What? Yeah, fine." He rolled his shoulders, wincing a bit. "Just tired, a little sore."
"Look, you said you hadn't eaten. We can go get something, if you want."
Neal shook his head. "I'm not really hungry." And the knot still in the pit of his stomach felt like it would rebel at any introduction of food right now. "I'll get something later."
"All right. You need anything else?"
"No, I'm good."
Peter stood up and started for the door, stopping to rest one hand on Neal's shoulder. "Get some rest. I'll pick you up at seven o'clock tomorrow morning, all right?"
Neal nodded. "Yeah."
He watched as Peter went to the door and let himself out, and he heard the agent's footsteps disappearing down the stairs. Then there was silence again and he finally stood up. It had been one hell of a day – maybe some rest was exactly what he needed.
The bed beckoned from the corner and he moved that way, stopping at the wardrobe to pull out a pair of sleep pants. He wasn't usually one for mid-day naps – well, unless they'd been out on a stake-out all night – but today seemed like a good time to make an exception.
He paused at the end of the bed, toeing his shoes off…
And that's when he realized the tracker was gone.
Peter hadn't brought a new one – and he was now, quite literally, off the leash. One call to Mozzie and there would be money waiting, a fresh set of ID. He could leave, disappear without a trace. He had the funds to lay low for a while, not draw any attention. And he had contacts, skills that were in demand.
Except, he knew he wouldn't go.
Having the FBI resources available in his search for Kate could be helpful. But it was more than that, wasn't it.
When had Peter Burke become so important in his life? Well, he wasn't sure he could pinpoint the time, but he knew the exact moment when he had realized it. It was when they were at the prison, after Fowler had had him arrested for stealing that diamond necklace. Peter had come…
You let me down.
Those were the words that had cut through Neal like a knife. And that's when he had known that, for better or worse, he had become truly committed to the deal he'd made with Peter.
Sighing, Neal stripped off the clothes he had thought he'd be wearing to go back to prison – and in something of a childish move, he kicked them under the bed. Childish, maybe, but it felt good. Then he pulled the sleep pants on and slipped into bed.
No, he wouldn't be running.
Peter hesitated just before he reached the landing, taking a moment for a deep breath. He'd taken a chance yesterday, trying to show his trust by leaving Neal without a tracking anklet. It had seemed important, after the events with King the day before.
But if he'd read the situation incorrectly, no one would answer the door…
He stepped up onto the landing, went to the door and knocked.
But he didn't have to wait long before the door opened and Neal was there, a cup of coffee in one hand, two ties in the other.
"You're early," Neal said, stepping back.
"Light traffic," Peter replied, trying to hide his relief.
Neal pointed toward the table. "There's more coffee," he offered. "I'm almost ready."
"No hurry." Peter poured himself a cup of coffee, watching as Neal selected one of the ties and then deftly knotted it around his neck.
He almost hated what he had to do next…
Sighing, Peter reached into his pocket and extracted the new tracking anklet. "Neal…"
Neal was pulling on his suit coat as he looked over and nodded. "I was kind of surprised you didn't bring that yesterday," he admitted. "I could have run," he added softly.
"Did you think about it?"
"Yeah, I thought about it."
"But you didn't…"
"Maybe I swallowed too much river water," Neal said absently, taking the anklet. He stared at it for a long moment before slowly putting his foot up on a chair.
And Peter found he was actually holding his breath as he watched Neal position the anklet, check the tightness, and finally fasten the band.
As Neal straightened up and put his foot back on the floor, Peter finally breathed again, trying to be unobtrusive about it. "Ready to go?"
There was a slight hesitation, so brief Peter almost missed it. But then Neal nodded. "Yeah, let's go."
He really wasn't ready for this…
Neal leaned against the back of the elevator, hands tightly gripping the rail. It was the only outward sign of discomfort he allowed. But apparently it was enough, because Peter was staring at him.
"What's wrong, Neal?"
He considered his answer for a moment. "What are they going to think?"
"Who? King and his men are gone."
Neal shook his head. "Not King," he said softly. "The people I need to work with every day."
"This is the second time in a just a few weeks, Peter," Neal continued. "Two times that I've been arrested, and led out of the office in handcuffs. How can I expect people to respect me, work with me, when that keeps happening?"
"I'd like to think the FBI hires agents who are smart enough to know that you've been cleared."
"But you didn't even believe me about the diamond," Neal pointed out. "And yesterday…"
"Like I said, Neal, full trust may take a while. We will have verify though."
There was a ding as the floor indicator reached twenty-one and the doors opened. Peter stepped into the elevator lobby, but for a long moment Neal didn't move.
Easy for Peter to say they'd have verify. Would the other agents agree?
He realized that Peter had stopped and was looking back at him. With a deep breath he unwrapped his fingers from the railing, straightened his shoulders, and followed the agent through the glass doors.
The bullpen was already full, with agents hard at work, or milling around. And at first, nothing happened.
But then Jones looked up, and was on his feet a moment later. His hands came together, and again…
And then everyone was standing, applauding…
Neal was still looking around in surprise as Jones came up, wrapping him in a quick hug, followed by a pat on the shoulder. Cruz was there too, reaching for his arm. The other agents gathered near, smiling and clapping.
Hughes was on the stairs, and even he was smiling.
The crowd of agents parted, and then Peter was back – and Elizabeth was with him. Between them they were carrying a large cake, which they put down on one of the desks.
Neal still felt rooted in place as Elizabeth smiled and stepped in front of him. "Hey," she said, leaning in to brush a quick kiss on his cheek.
"Hey," he managed to reply. Not his most eloquent speech ever, but under the circumstances, the one syllable was all he could muster.
Elizabeth smiled and took his arm, leading him toward the desk. And then he got a good look at the cake. White frosting was decorated with a rendition of a bridge, and the words Our Heroes were written in ornate lettering at the bottom. And there was a small nameplate on the base…
Neal had to laugh, the tension finally easing away. "You went to 'The Greatest Cake.'"
"Well, we heard they really did have the greatest cake in town," Elizabeth said.
"We dropped the proprietor's name," Peter added. "Got a discount."
"Might have to talk to management about that," Neal said as Elizabeth pressed a knife into his hand.
Jones stepped up next to him, plates in hand. "We did good yesterday," he said softly.
Neal looked over at the agent and nodded. "Yeah, we did."
Jones turned to pass the first couple of slices of cake out. "We have some interviews set up later."
"Yeah, reporters. They were kind of upset you left so fast yesterday, and I said I wouldn't talk without you there."
"I really don't think…"
"Just don't make the Bureau sound too bad," Hughes said, accepting a piece of cake. "Please."
Neal looked around the room, seeing the smiling faces, and support. All right, maybe not trust – yet – but definitely not the distrust he had feared. "I won't," he promised, loading cake onto another plate.
He paused a moment, thinking. It wasn't perfect, and it wasn't really freedom, but things could definitely be a whole lot worse.
And when he finally finished dishing out cake, and took a bite of his own piece, he had to smile again. His bakery really did make good cake.