It all happened so fast; later, he was never sure exactly where the plan had gone wrong.
The day should have been a high point, the culmination of a long, complicated investigation into the leader of a violent mob family. When the warrants had finally come through, Ruiz had thought they'd be celebrating by now. Organized Crime would rack up another victory. And Frank Fazzili, along with most of his top lieutenants, would be behind bars.
The plan was simple. Fazzili always hosted a family breakfast at his restaurant on Sunday mornings, before the business opened to the public. Granted, that meant that there would be civilians in the building, but his team could handle that. And the fact was that Fazzili, despite his lethal and ruthless reputation in the mob world, was also a devoted family man, unlikely to risk a shootout with family members in the room.
Yeah, should have been perfect…
And it was all going so smoothly – well, except for all of the yelling – until some of Fazzili's men tried to make a run for it. Ruiz's agents, naturally, pursued. It was messier than what he had hoped, but his agents were well trained. They stopped two of the men in the kitchen, one trying to get out the back way by the restrooms, and one hiding behind the host station.
The last man was cornered in the office. Ruiz had followed that chase, and his eyes went wide when he entered the room – the large walk-in vault was standing open. Just imagine what secrets might be held in there… But in his last act before being subdued and handcuffed, the mob man had slammed the door shut.
And that led to the problem he was facing now.
Fazzili's daughter, Lois, had come running into the room, pushing past a couple of the agents who had instructions not to let anyone in. Ruiz had turned to face her, ready to tell her off…
But something about the panicked look on her face held him back.
"Where is she? Where's Bella?"
Ruiz looked at his agents, getting negative indications from all of them. "Who's Bella?" he asked.
"My little girl, Isabella," Lois answered, nearly sobbing. "She likes to play in her grandpa's office. I know she came in here."
A quick look around the room showed no little girl. "Ma'am, she's not in here."
Lois shook her head. "No, I saw her. Please, she's not even two!"
The Bureau certainly didn't need the bad publicity of hounding a toddler, so Ruiz took another look around. There was no one under the desk, behind the sofa, or in the coat closet. That simply left nowhere else in the room…
Except the vault.
There were monitors on the side desk, black and white video feeds displayed from security cameras. "Tremain, is there a camera in the vault?"
Libby Tremain sat down in the desk chair, studying the security displays. She punched at a few buttons, the displays changed, and then she found the right one. The top-left monitor switched feeds and now they were looking inside the vault…
And right there, standing in the middle of the secured room, was a little girl. Light colored curls fell down around her shoulders, and she looked dressed for a party in a flowered jumper. Fortunately, she looked fine – except that she was crying.
And even without sound, it wasn't hard to read the word 'mommy' on her lips.
Lois sobbed, pushing past two agents to the door of the vault. "Bella!"
Ruiz sighed and shook his head, running a hand through his hair. "You!" he demanded, pointing to the man they had arrested in the room. "You know the combination to the safe?" The man hesitated, but then shook his head. "All right, get him out of here, and bring Fazzili in."
It wasn't supposed to go like this.
This was how Sundays were supposed to be.
Peter smiled as he looked over at Elizabeth. She was curled up on one end of the couch, busy looking at all of the events listed for the city over the next week. Several of the largest, he knew, were being organized by none other than Burke Premier Events. But El always liked to keep up with what her competitors were bringing to the table as far as events went as well.
For his part, Peter was finishing with the sports section of the paper, catching up on all the latest box scores. The baseball season was still in its early going, with lots of games left to play. But those early results could often predict how a team would do in the playoff chase. And when he finished with the sports, the Times crossword puzzle was waiting. He already on his pen set out on the coffee table.
With that thought in mind, Peter reached for his coffee, taking a sip. He winced as the now somewhat bitter, and definitely cold, liquid hit his tongue. Maybe he'd have to give in and get up for a refill before tackling the puzzle.
Yup, a lazy, quiet Sunday, just El and Satchmo to keep him company…
The ringing phone put a jarring end to that thought.
Sighing, Peter got to his feet, stepping over a yawning Satchmo on his way to the table.
"Hello… Ruiz? You do know it's Sunday… Why does Organized Crime need my help? Can't you… All right, fine. Give me the address… Yeah, about half an hour… Right, see you then."
Peter disconnected the call, staring at the handset for a moment. Then he looked over at Elizabeth, an apology in his eyes. "Honey…"
"Peter, don't tell me you have to work today!"
"Afraid so," he said, offering her a small smile. "You know the Bureau can't survive without me."
Elizabeth matched his smile, and raised an eyebrow. "Oh, I know. What is it this time?"
"Not really sure on the details," Peter said, heading for the stairs. "Something Organized Crime was working on, and they're asking for help."
"Do you think you'll be home for supper? I wanted to try that salmon recipe I told you about."
Peter started up the stairs as he answered. "I'll give you a call once I know what this is all about," he said. "But I think I should be home. Hard to imagine what kind of emergency Ruiz walked into that so urgently needs White Collar's help on a Sunday."
Peter pulled up to the address Ruiz had given him, taking a moment to wonder at the destination The Famiglia Amore restaurant certainly didn't look like a hotbed of criminal endeavor – but right now it certainly boasted a lot of law enforcement activity.
He parked and wove his way inside, where he found one of the agents he vaguely recognized. Allen? Alvin? Something like that. "Where's Agent Ruiz?"
"Back hall, in the office," the man replied, pointing.
Peter nodded and headed that way, threading a path among the tables and the various agents and police officers gathered in the dining room. A long table along one side held the remains of a meal for a large group, but none of the other tables were even fully set.
The back hallway branched, with a sign indicating restrooms one way – leading Peter to turn the other direction. And the first door on the right did, indeed, turn out to be the office. Ruiz was standing near the large mahogany desk that dominated the room. "Ruiz, what's going on?"
"Frank Fazzili. Heard of him?"
"Yeah. Big name in the mob world. Wasn't he implicated in that dockyard scandal last year?"
Ruiz nodded. "That's the winner. We finally found someone who could link Fazzili and most of his top guys to the dock thing, and some other business. Today was take-down day."
"Congratulations," Peter said. "But what does this have to do with White Collar?"
Ruiz sighed and motioned for Peter to take a look at the monitors by the desk. Most of the screens just showed the agents, except one…
Peter's eyes tracked from the monitor to the vault door off to one side. "She's in there?"
Ruiz nodded glumly. "Yeah. Isabella Marlowe – Fazzili's granddaughter, age sixteen months."
"And what? He won't give you the combination to get her out?"
"Actually, he gave us the combination," he admitted. "But the vault's on a time lock, and can't be opened again until seven tomorrow morning."
Peter nodded, realizing now what Ruiz wanted. "You're hoping Neal can open it before then."
"For the little girl's sake, yeah. Think he can do it?"
Peter reached for his cell phone. "Probably."
"There's just one more thing."
Peter already had Neal's speed dial number keyed in, but he paused just before starting the call. Something about the tone of Ruiz's voice… "What?"
"According to Fazzili, the door is rigged. Anyone messes with the timer, the inside of the vault goes boom."
If there was such a thing as heaven on earth, this might be it.
Neal wandered along the walkway, experiencing the displays with all of his senses. He could see the art, of course. Although he couldn't actually smell the paint – the Great Upheaval pieces were a little too old for that – there were other scents. The floors were freshly waxed, the fixtures scrubbed to a gleaming brightness, and above it all there was the slight odor of ozone from the security system. And even though the museum staff would frown on touching the paintings – and Neal honestly had no desire to test their resolve to stop a hands-on experience – the excitement was palpable, something he could actually feel.
This was an incredible exhibit, bringing together artists from the early twentieth century – artists who had helped expand the world's definition of art, all of them bringing new techniques to their work. He was in front of a Kandinsky now, just down from a Picasso. And then there were the works by Chagall, Brancusi, Marc…
He scowled, interrupted by the vibrating of his cell phone against his leg.
Should have turned it off, not just set it to silent.
But now that he had been interrupted, he might as well see who it was…
He moved off to the side, away from the display wall, and answered. "Hello, Peter."
"Neal, where are you?"
Neal scowled at the phone for a moment before answering. "Inside my two mile radius. Enjoying my day off."
"Neal, this is serious! Where are you?"
"I'm at the Guggenheim, Peter. Is there a problem?" He could hear Peter passing that information on to someone else before the agent came back on the line.
"We need you on something, Neal. It's urgent."
"What is it?"
"I'll explain when you get here. I'm sending someone to pick you up. Be at the main entrance in five minutes."
But the line was dead.
Neal took one more look around the room, savoring the exhibit. It hardly seemed fair that his day was being interrupted by work. Still, there was something about the urgency in Peter's voice…
With a deep sigh – and a promise to himself to come back and complete the exhibition as soon as he could – Neal turned and headed for the main lobby.
"Is he coming?" Ruiz asked.
Peter nodded. "Yeah, he'll be here."
"I hope he's as good as you think," Ruiz said quietly
Peter's eyes were locked on the feed from inside the vault, and the scared little girl it showed. "He is."
Neal stepped outside onto the sidewalk along Fifth Avenue. He took a moment to look back over his shoulder, marveling at the circular design towering above him. Just seeing the building was an artistic experience in and of itself.
He turned his attention back to the street. Peter had said 'someone' would pick him up. But as to how he'd recognize this someone…
Someone called his name from off to his left, and Neal turned to look – somewhat surprised to find two uniformed NYPD officers standing there. But a quick check through his recent activities turned up nothing that should have attracted the attention of the police. "Yes."
"We were told to pick you up here and bring you to the crime scene."
So this was the ride Peter had mentioned. "The crime scene," he said, following them toward a patrol car double parked a few vehicles down. "Can you tell me about it?"
"Don't really know much about it ourselves," one of the officers said as he opened the back door of the car. "Rumor is it was some big mob bust. But we were just doing traffic duty when we got sent out here."
Neal hesitated just a moment – he really hated these doors without handles on the inside. But the officers weren't making any move to handcuff him or otherwise indicate he was under arrest. And again, he really hadn't done anything – recently – to warrant that. And this really did seem to be the ride Peter had said would be forthcoming.
He could almost hear Peter's voice telling him to 'cowboy up' and get in the car.
He took a deep breath and slid into the back seat, trying not to focus on the handle-less door as it closed. And then the officers were in the front, they pulled out into traffic, and the driver turned on the flashing lights and siren.
Wow, he'd been chased with sirens a time or two, but he'd never been on this side of it. Whatever the case was, it really must be urgent.
They traveled through Manhattan, heading for Queens. And Peter must have called the marshals, because the anklet didn't alert when they passed what Neal knew had to be his two mile limit.
Finally, the cruiser pulled up on the side of the street near a restaurant called Famiglia Amore. "Family Love," Neal said softly as one of the officers opened the back door.
"What was that, sir?"
His back was partially turned away from the officer, so Neal allowed himself a small smile at the idea of the police calling him 'sir.' Yeah, that was a new one. "Just translating the restaurant name," he said. "Family Love. This is the crime scene?"
The driver nodded. "They're waiting for you inside."
Neal crossed the parking lot, filled now with police cruisers and the type of unmarked vehicles that screamed 'law enforcement' to anyone who cared to notice details. Someone opened the door for him as he approached the building and he ducked inside.
Coming in from the bright sun, it took a moment for his eyes to adjust. His other senses picked up information about the location though. There was a tantalizing hint of garlic lingering in the air. The carpet under his feet was thick, luxurious. He could hear the tinkle of glassware from off to one side, where the bar area was being searched. But then, across the room, he saw Peter step forward, motioning for his attention, and he moved that way.
Neal didn't catch up until Peter had led him into an office. And also there… "Agent Ruiz." Not one of his favorite people, but he could play it polite.
Ruiz nodded. "Caffrey."
Neal turned his attention to his partner. "What's going on, Peter?"
Peter was motioning toward the vault door. "We need to get inside," he said.
Neal walked over, studying the door. "This is a serious piece of work, Peter. You're sure you can't just get someone to give up the combination?"
"We've got the combination," Ruiz said. "But the timer won't open until tomorrow morning."
"And we can't wait," Peter said, motioning for Neal to come over toward the desk. He pointed at the monitor showing the interior vault feed.
Neal felt his breath catch as he looked at the little girl. "How long since the door was closed?" he asked, moving back toward the vault.
Ruiz looked at his watch. "Ninety two minutes."
"Do you know the dimensions?"
Ruiz nodded to Tremain, who stepped forward, holding out a sheet of paper. "We got the original design information."
Neal quickly looked at the size of the vault, doing some calculations.
"What do you think?" Peter asked, stepping in to look at the diagram.
"Probably around six hours of air," Neal said. "Maybe a little more, since she's small." He paused, looking more closely at the vault plans. "Wait, it's booby-trapped?"
"Fazzili says if anyone tampers with the time lock, the thing is set to blow a charge inside, obliterating the contents of the vault," Ruiz confirmed.
"Including the little girl," Neal said softly.
"Fazzili seems really broken up about this," Tremain said. "Swears he doesn't know a way to disable the explosives."
"Neal, do you think there's a chance to get the door open safely?" Peter asked.
"Maybe." Neal let out a deep breath, running his hand through his hair. "I'm going to need some equipment."
"Whatever you need," Ruiz said.
Neal went to the desk, grabbing a notepad and a pen. "First, someone needs to go to a hardware store. We'll need two electric drills, the highest torque rating they have." He paused, writing something down. "And these drill bits, a few of each size in case something breaks," he added, holding up a list.
Tremain reached out her hand. "I'll go, if that's all right," she said, looking to her boss. Ruiz nodded and she hurried out of the room.
Neal turned back to Peter. "For the rest of it, I need to borrow a car."
"I can take you…" Peter started.
"The people I need to deal with won't talk with a Fed there," Neal said. "And Peter, even in jeans, you come across as a Fed."
Peter sighed and reached into his pocket, pulling out his keys. "Not a scratch," he warned.
Neal just nodded as he accepted the key ring and dropped it into the pocket of his suit coat. "Right," he said. "Oh, and you have to promise not to track me, or the car. I won't risk my sources."
For a moment it looked like Ruiz might object, but Peter answered first. "You have my word. No tracking."
Neal nodded, turning for the door. "It shouldn't take me very long to get back. But in the meantime, you might want to get the bomb squad in, because that part is definitely not my area of expertise."
"The NYPD bomb guys were on a training exercise at Fort Dix," Ruiz said. "They're coming in, along with a couple of Army guys."
"Good," Neal said, stepping through the doorway. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
Peter watched as Neal disappeared out into the restaurant and then turned back to look at the monitor. The little girl – Bella – was sitting down on the floor, still crying, and it just highlighted how much different this scenario was than what they usually faced in White Collar. Granted, they used Neal's rather unique skill set all the time, but it was rarely a life and death situation.
But if anyone could get that door open, it was Neal…
It suddenly struck him – when he had handed over his keys, he'd also handed Neal something else. The electronic fob that opened the tracking anklet was also attached. It had simply been hanging on the key ring for so long now that he hadn't even thought about it.
For a moment, he struggled with the urge to run out the door, try to catch Neal before the younger man discovered what he had. But with a deep breath, and an extreme amount of will power, he stopped himself. Neal wouldn't run, especially not with Bella's life on the line.
He needed to trust his partner…
It took a few minutes to find Peter's car among all of the official vehicles in the lot. And when he did finally locate it, it turned out to be blocked in on three sides.
Running up and over a curb and a grassy median didn't count as scratching the car, right?
He pulled the keys out of his pocket, ready to use the remote to unlock the doors. And that's when he saw it…
The electronic key to his anklet.
He paused, running his fingers over the fob. The last time he'd had one of those in his hands he'd used it to remove the anklet and go after Fowler…
Yeah, that hadn't necessarily been his brightest move ever.
But now he not only had the key in his hands, he had a vehicle. And with much of the FBI intent on the crime scene here, he could be long gone…
He shook his head, clearing those thoughts as he pushed the button to open the doors. It was probably natural to think about running, especially now that he had the method and means literally in his hands. But motive? Not really. As he'd told Peter, he had a life here, a purpose – even if it did come with a restricted radius.
Besides, there was a little girl's life at stake.
Sliding into the car, Neal started the engine and fastened his seatbelt. Then he pulled forward as far as he could before putting the gear selector in reverse and pressing the gas to give him enough momentum to make it up and over the curb defining the edge of the parking lot. The car bumped and rocked, but handled the movement, rolling on over the grass until finally dropping off the other curb and onto the street.
Neal straightened out onto the side road, navigated around a few police cruisers, and then turned onto the main road that would take him back toward Manhattan. And even though he wasn't usually a fan of people who talked on their phones while driving, in this case he decided he'd need to be one of them. The little girl in that vault didn't have time for him to follow all of the niceties.
"Moz… Yeah, I'm sorry to interrupt your brunch preparations… Moz, this is important… Mozzie, there's a little girl trapped in a time lock vault and she's running out of air… Right, a legally sanctioned safe cracking job. Listen, do you still have that scope set? Russian surplus… You're at Saturday, right? I'll pick you up… Yeah, bring that too. And then we need to go talk to Walt…"
Armed with the equipment he needed, Neal headed back toward the restaurant. He dropped Mozzie along the way, near a storage unit business where one Victor Moreau happened to keep a locker.
Walt's help didn't come cheap – Mozzie would be busy liquidating some items to cover the tab.
By the time he got back to the restaurant, some of the police cruisers had left the scene, and he was able to pull up closer to the entrance. He got out of the car, popped the trunk open, and convinced a couple of officers to help carry his acquisitions inside.
Ruiz and Peter were waiting in the office when he walked in. "Yeah, right over there," he said, pointing toward the corner nearest the vault as the officers brought in their items. "What about the bomb squad?"
"About fifteen minutes out," Ruiz replied.
Neal nodded, stripping off his suit coat and tossing it over the chair behind the desk. "Where are the blueprints?" he asked, rolling up his sleeves. The blond agent who had volunteered to go to the hardware store stepped forward, holding the plans out. "Thanks, Agent…"
"Libby. Neal Caffrey." He offered her a smile, and his hand, shaking quickly. "You got the drills?"
She nodded, pointing to a side table. "My dad's a contractor, so I asked him the best kind to get."
Neal picked up one of the drills, nodding. "These are perfect," he said. He opened one of the largest bits and started to fit it in the chuck.
"Anything else you need?" Peter asked.
"Something to stand on – even a flat chair will do. Actually, two."
Peter nodded, heading for the door. "I'll find something."
Neal opened up one of the bags he had brought, pulling out something that looked like an elaborate stethoscope. He hooked it around his neck and then picked up the blueprints again and went to the vault door, measuring in his head.
Peter was back a moment later with a chair from the dining room. "They said there's a step ladder in the kitchen. I'm going to go look."
"Great, we can start with this." Neal pulled the chair close to the vault door and stepped up onto it. Using the plans and the stethoscope he checked the top right corner of the door carefully, finally taking a pen from his pocket and making a mark.
"The timer's up there?" Ruiz asked.
Neal shook his head, jumping down to the floor. "No. Actually, there's nothing up there – no electronics, no mechanical works. So it's perfect." He turned to face Ruiz. "I'm going to need help."
Somewhat to Neal's surprise, the agent didn't argue. Instead, he stripped off his combat vest and nodded. "What do you want me to do?"
Neal pointed to the chair as he grabbed the drill with the large bit. "Drill a hole, right where I marked."
Ruiz looked confused. "But if there's nothing there…"
"That's precisely why you're drilling there," Neal explained. He pulled out a pair of safety goggles from a bag and handed them over. "It'll take a while to get through, but when you do, we can communicate with the girl. And get air in, because the rest is probably going to take much longer."
Ruiz climbed up onto the chair, taking the drill from Neal. He pulled the goggles on, set the bit against the mark, and started to drill.
Neal went back to the table, selecting another drill bit and starting to attach it to the other tool.
"Anything else you need?" Libby asked.
"We should try to keep the drill area cool because of the explosives. You could get some cold water from the kitchen, and something to dip it with."
Libby was just leaving on her mission when Peter reappeared carrying the promised step ladder. "What else?" he asked.
Neal was using the stethoscope again, listening intently, so he didn't answer for a long moment. "I'm going to try and get a hole in here," he finally said, marking a spot. "If we can get a scope in, we can see exactly what's going on with the explosives."
"What about the timer?" Ruiz asked.
"Timers," Neal corrected. He picked up the plans again, pointing. "There are two."
"So it's twice as complicated to open?" Peter asked.
"Not really," Neal answered, setting the plans aside and picking up the drill. "There will always be at least two so there's a backup. In case of power failure, or the batteries die, depending on the type of timers. Otherwise you'd have a lot of vault owners needing to go through what we're doing now. Minus the little girl, hopefully. And the explosives."
"But you have to get both timers to move?" Ruiz asked. He paused his drilling for a moment, wiping some sweat from his forehead.
Neal shook his head. "No, only one, if it's built right. That's the beauty of having the backup system. One timer has to move to make it possible to open the door."
"You make it sound easy," Peter said.
Neal just shrugged. "It wouldn't be that complicated – if it wasn't for the explosives."
Peter was nodding, obviously thinking about something. "So that private gallery job in Geneva…"
Neal gave him a little half smile and a shrug of his shoulders. "Let's concentrate on getting the little girl out, shall we?" he said. He pulled a pair of goggles on, stepped onto the first rung of the stepladder, and started to drill.
It was painstaking work. Ruiz was trying to force the carbide-tipped drill bit through several inches of solid steel, making slow but steady progress. In the meantime, Neal was attempting to drill through the outer layers near the locking mechanism, forced to work slowly due to the presence of the explosives. The plasma torch he had procured sat nearby, untouched, too much of a danger to use until the booby traps had been dealt with.
The bomb squad had arrived, and several members milled nearby, either in the office or just out in the hallway. Once Neal had a hole drilled, and they could get a scope in to see exactly what was waiting, their expertise would be called upon.
Neal was on his second drill bit. Trying to work slowly put extra pressure on the bit, and the first one had snapped. But he was drilling again now, with Libby Tremain ladling cold water over his work area to keep the heat, and risk of a spark, down.
Everyone else could only wait.
The drill jerked as the bit reached open space, and Neal quickly let go of the trigger. Reversing the direction, he carefully extracted the bit and climbed down from the stepladder.
Libby handed him a towel, which he gratefully used to wipe some perspiration from his brow. Even with the air conditioning on, the combination of the intense drilling and the pressure of trying to get to the little girl were making him sweat.
Neal passed the towel up to Ruiz, who seemed to be having it even worse. Of course, the agent was higher up, where the warmest air would be accumulating.
Setting the drill aside, Neal went back to the equipment bags. The next step was to get a look at the explosives inside the door. He pulled out the scope Mozzie had provided, and a monitor. It only took a couple of minutes to get everything hooked up, and then he motioned to the leader of the bomb squad. "You'll want to take a look at this part."
While the other man called some of his team into the room, and they busied themselves donning vests and other protective gear, Neal carefully threaded the thin head of the camera into the hole he had drilled. The first part, fortunately, looked like the inside of any normal vault door.
The two bomb disposal soldiers came into the office and one of them approached Neal, holding out a heavily padded vest. "You should put this on, sir."
Neal took the vest, looking up at the soldier. "You really think this will help if it blows?" he asked.
The soldier shrugged, pointing at the matching vest he was wearing. "Can't hurt."
"True." Neal started to pull the vest on, watching as the other soldier passed a vest to Ruiz. Then they were both handed helmets.
Three of the NYPD bomb squad officers came in, joining the soldiers, and they all gathered around the monitor. Neal went back to work with the scope, gently working the probe further into the door…
And then it was through, and instead of the inner workings of a vault and timers, there were wires and a clay-like substance.
Neal concentrated on keeping the scope clear of the bomb works while Ruiz kept drilling the air hole and bomb disposal experts gathered around the monitor, discussing options.
His hand was going numb from holding the scope steady for so long.
Neal wanted nothing more than to let go, flex his fingers. But given where he had the tiny camera positioned, any movement could be a problem – a BIG problem.
And he did understand the need of the bomb disposal team to be cautious, and very sure before doing anything. Still, if they could hurry just a little…
Almost as if reading his mind, the bomb squad leader spoke up. "All right, we know what to do with the first set of explosives. How do we cut the wires in there?"
Neal nodded his head toward one of his bags. "Blue bag. There's a laser scalpel tool that we can pass through the tube."
Peter had come into the room and he stepped up as close to Neal as the bomb squad would allow. "Is that a medical scope kit?"
"Russian surplus," Neal confirmed, smiling as Peter rolled his eyes. "Hey, the Russians come in very handy."
"I'll bet," Peter said. "You doing all right?"
"I could really use some water before we do this."
Peter nodded. "Be right back," he promised.
One of the officers brought the scalpel attachment up. "That plugs into the side of the monitor for power," Neal said, watching as the other man unrolled the cord and plugged it in.
Peter was back then, uncapping a bottle of water. "Here," he said, holding it up to Neal's lips.
Neal drank down several deep swallows, then finally pulled back, nodding. "Thanks."
"Anything else?" Peter asked, capping the bottle.
"No, I'm good."
"Sir, you should step out now," one of the soldiers said, addressing Peter.
For a moment it looked like Peter was going to argue, but then he finally sighed and nodded. "Be careful," he said softly, resting a hand briefly on his partner's shoulder.
"Always," Neal replied, flashing a smile. He watched as Peter walked out into the hall, and then he reached for the scalpel tool, starting to feed it through the scope tube. "Let's do this."
The tiny laser tip finally appeared on the monitor, and the bomb squad leader took over with instructions. "The red wire," he said. "Cut as close to the plastique as you can."
Neal nodded, taking a deep breath as he positioned the tip. And then he pressed the button, triggering a narrow red beam…
They were over five hours in…
That was the foremost thought in Neal's mind as he worked on drilling another hole. They had cut three wires so far, deactivating one of the bombs. But the plans still showed another trap, and it couldn't be reached from the first hole.
Meanwhile, Ruiz was still working at the top of the door. Tremain had spelled her boss for a while, but the head of Organized Crime was back on the chair now. From the looks of things, the drill bit had to be almost all the way through…
All of a sudden, there was a change in the pitch of the noise coming from the drill, and Ruiz stumbled slightly against the door. "Got it!" he called, starting to reverse the bit out.
Peter had been watching the monitor, and he was on his feet almost immediately, heading for the hallway. "They're through. Get the oxygen in here."
Two paramedics came running in, a modified oxygen tank in hand. One of them climbed up onto the chair, a plastic tube in hand. Threading the tube into the new hole, he looked down and nodded at his partner, who turned a valve and started the air flowing.
"Well, that buys a little time," Ruiz said softly, standing by Neal's side.
Neal nodded, allowing himself a moment of relief. "Yeah, it does," he agreed. "And we still have a ways to go."
They had managed to cut three more wires on the second bomb. But one live wire still connected it to a timer, and there just was no way to get the laser tip close enough.
No way without drilling yet another hole, that was. And they were over six hours into the saga now. Granted, they were pumping air into the vault now. But Bella had barely moved for almost an hour now.
Neal had pulled the scope back just a bit – far enough that he could let go for a moment without worrying about what the camera might hit. He reached for the water that Peter held out. "Thanks."
Peter nodded toward the monitor, where the bomb squad members were discussing options. "I know they're coming at it from the explosives end," he said. "But what about just from a safecracking angle. Any ideas?"
Neal considered that for a moment. "From what I can see, one of the timers is hard wired, the other has a battery. Pros and cons each way. That final wire definitely goes to the hard wired timer, but I can't see for sure if it goes to the battery timer too. The best way…" His voice trailed off and he moved back to the scope, sliding it down just a bit a studying the picture on the monitor. "Hey," he said, addressing the bomb squad. "I think I can cut the connections to the battery, eliminate that as a power source."
"Still leaves the hard wired timer," Greaves, the squad's leader, pointed out.
Neal rummaged in his bag, coming out with a canister. "Liquid nitrogen," he said. "We freeze it."
Greaves leaned forward, interested. "That could at least give us a little time delay."
"But how does that get the door open?" one of the soldiers asked.
"Manipulating that first timer is no problem," Neal replied. "Easiest part of the whole process."
Greaves got to his feet. "Get the blankets," he told the other members of his squad. "We might need to drape the door."
Neal watched as the two men ran out into the dining room. "All right," he said, planning the steps in his head. "I'll cut the battery first, then freeze the other timer so it can't send a signal to the bomb. Once that's done, I can move the dead timer to seven o'clock. Someone should be ready to work the combination as soon as that's done."
Ruiz dug in his pocket, pulling out a slip of paper. "I've got that," he said.
"Once the door is open, my people will drape it with the suppression blankets," Greaves said. "Bolton, you grab the little girl and clear the area," he added, addressing one of the soldiers, who nodded in agreement.
"How long will the freezing hold?" Peter asked.
"Probably not long," Greaves admitted. "But it'll be enough. Once the girl is clear, I'll try to get that final wire cut from the inside. Baker and Hollings will drape the blankets," he added, indicating the two men just coming back into the room, lugging the heavy lead-lined coverings. "Everyone else should clear the room."
Libby Tremain headed into the hallway, but Peter paused near Neal. "You're sure about this?"
Neal offered up his most reassuring smile. "Cracking safes, that's what I do," he said. "Did," he corrected quickly.
Peter smiled and shook his head. "Right," he said. "Good luck."
"Thanks," Neal said, watching as his partner left the room. Then he turned back to Greaves. "Are we ready to do this?"
They talked through the plan once more, to make sure everyone understood the steps to be taken, and then it was time to act.
Neal cut the battery free, and then he inserted the nozzle from the nitrogen tank, spraying the wired timer. Moving the remaining timer to the correct time was only a matter of a few seconds. At his nod, Ruiz dialed the combination Fazzili had provided. The tumblers fell into place, and as soon as the last one clicked, Neal swung the handle down, opening the door. Bolton slipped into the vault as soon as the opening was big enough, emerging a moment later with Bella in his arms – even as Baker and Hollings draped the heavy blankets over the door.
Bolton dropped the little girl into Neal's arms and then pushed them, and Ruiz, toward the door. At the same time, Greaves moved in behind a shield, cutting the last wire.
In the dining room, Neal handed Bella over to her frantic mother, and then the paramedics were there, checking the little girl over.
And Neal sank down onto a chair, hands rubbing his face, finally acknowledging the exhaustion of the last few hours.
"Hi, hon… Yeah, I know, it's later than I thought… I think we're almost done… Yes, Neal's with me… It's kind of a long story… Good idea, I'll ask him… If it's going to be later, I'll call you back."
Peter disconnected his call, looking across the dining room to where his partner sat, seeming quite exhausted.
Hopefully they could wrap things up soon.
"Here, looks like you could use this."
Neal looked up, offering Libby Tremain a smile as he accepted the bottle of water she held out. "Thanks."
She handed another bottle of water to her boss and then sat down at the table with them. "The medics said that Bella is a little dehydrated, but otherwise she seems to be doing all right."
Neal sucked down a long drink of water, nodding. "That's great news."
"That was really good work, Neal," Peter said, joining them.
"Yeah, it was," Ruiz agreed. "I might have to revise my opinion of this whole work release thing."
"Wow," Neal said lightly. "Never thought I'd hear that."
"Hey, I said might," Ruiz pointed out, though the smile on his face offset the gruff tone he was trying for.
"I'm just glad it worked out," Neal said. "That was a lot of plastic explosive."
"Fazzili always likes to be thorough," Libby said.
"What do you suppose is in that vault?" Peter asked.
"The stuff of wet dreams, I hope," Ruiz replied. "Soon as the bomb guys give the all clear, I intend to find out."
Peter grinned and nodded. "I'll bet. You need us for anything else?"
Ruiz shook his head. "No, but thanks for the assist." He hesitated a moment, and then held out his hand to Neal. "Really, thank you."
Neal nodded and shook hands. "I'm glad I could help, and it all worked out. I can probably even return some of the equipment that didn't get used."
"How much did you have to put out?" Peter asked.
Neal just shrugged. "Thirty. Mozzie's taking care of it."
"Thirty thousand?" Peter let out a low whistle. "Neal…"
"I'll put in a CI reimbursement request," Ruiz said. "They usually cap it at about twenty, but I'll see what I can do."
"I'll let you know what my source credits me," Neal said.
Ruiz nodded and got up, heading back toward the office. A moment later, Libby Tremain followed, leaving Peter and Neal alone at the table.
"Neal, when I gave you my keys…" Peter started, hesitating.
"Gave me more than you intended?" Neal suggested. He offered a small smile and turned in his seat, pulling up his left pants leg – where the light on the tracker still blinked a reassuring green. "I didn't use the key," he said quietly. "It's still on the ring, which is in my suit coat pocket. If they've cleared the office, I can get it."
"I wasn't really worried," Peter said, and his voice was almost convincing. "You wouldn't have walked out on that little girl."
"No, I wouldn't."
"Still, if you can get the keys, we can go. El's invited you to dinner."
"She's got a new salmon dish she's trying out."
"I have a perfect wine to go with salmon."
"Of course you do," Peter said, grinning.
Neal picked absently at the front of his shirt. "I could really stand to change too. I was sweating a little."
"All right, we'll swing by your place."
Neal got to his feet. "Help me pack up?"
Peter grinned again as he stood up. "Sure. I'm always interested to see what thirty thousand buys."
Neal shrugged, heading toward the back hall. "It's not like I had time to shop around," he pointed out.
"And I don't recall seeing any coupons in the paper for Russian surplus surgical tools," Peter said.
"I don't know, Mozzie always finds sales on the Russian merchandise."
"Of course he does."
"The plasma cutter is usually full price though."
"Naturally," Peter said, sighing. "I probably don't want to know any more about it, do I?"
"Better if you don't," Neal admitted.
"All right, Agent Burke is off duty, in honor of the good work you did here," Peter said. "Let's get everything packed up and head out."
"Sounds like a plan."
"Unless, of course, you'd like to talk about that Geneva job."
"I'd rather talk about salmon. What kind of dish is it?"
"I don't know – salmon."
"How can you not know?"
"I didn't ask."
Neal gave a theatrical sigh as he walked into the office and knelt by his bags, starting to pack things up. "What if I pick the wrong wine? I mean, if it's a red sauce that demands a different wine…"
"I'm sure we'll make do," Peter said, rolling his eyes.
"You're a philistine, Peter."
"Not all of us can be gourmets like you."
"Well, I'd know what kind of dish it was."
"And I suppose you can cook, too."
"As a matter of fact, I can. I'll invite you and Elizabeth over for soup sometime."
"Soup? You mentioned that to Sara too."
"I make excellent soup. My specialty is French onion."
"Of course it is," Peter muttered.
Neal smiled, hiding it by bending over the bag as he closed it up. He stood, handing the first bag to Peter. "I even make my own stock," he said, walking over to the desk. He picked up his suit coat, pulled the keys out of the pocket and tossed them over.
Peter snagged the keys with one hand, started to look down…
Neal's smile turned a little wistful, and he shook his head slowly. "The key is there, Peter. Go ahead and look."
Peter hesitated a moment, then shook his head. "I know it's there," he said, hefting the shoulder strap of the bag up his arm. "You ready?"
Neal pulled his jacket on, picked up the other bags, and nodded. "Ready," he confirmed, starting to follow Peter out into the hall. "Of course, I'd be more ready if I knew what kind of salmon dish…"
NB: A couple of weeks ago there was a news article about a toddler in Conyers, GA, who wandered away from family and wound up locked inside a time-lock bank vault. So I got to thinking that if a similar thing happened in NYC, it would be a perfect job for Neal :-) (And for the record, I know nothing about cracking safes or defusing bombs, so if there are any professional safecrackers or bomb disposal experts reading this, I apologize for getting it all wrong!)