SAVE ME IF YOU CAN
Rating: PG-13 for violence. I may upgrade to R later, again, for violence. Disclaimer: All rights belong to Jeff Eastin and the White Collar guys. He is da man, and I wish he'd give me a job writing for WC.
Summary: Neal's four years are up. Off comes the anklet. And he disappears. After months of exhaustive searching and finally giving up, Peter finds Neal…in the worse way imaginable.
Note: Thanks to all who read "Find Me If You Can." I know I need to finish it, and I will! I promise. But this story idea came up and I couldn't resist.
Café Insomnia was never the kind of place you came to for the coffee. It had deep dark corners where people could handle their shady business or forbidden liaisons with severe discretion and privacy. Waitresses in worn yet trendy black clothes, with hair that was rainbow bright on one side and shaved on the other were more often tipped well not for their good service or their smiles, but for keeping their mouths shut. Book shelves covered two of four walls, all dusty, musty and ancient tomes that hadn't been touched or read in years and weighed down the rotting wood. The few old, soft cushioned couches made it difficult for anyone to rise without some embarrassment. And the smell of stale, old coffee was thick in the air and deep in the faded walls, in the tattered curtains, and in the brittle, yellowing lampshades that covered dusty low watt bulbs which gave a sick, jaundiced tint to everything.
This is where Peter was told to come.
This is not the kind of place he would ever expect to find Neal. Not the Neal he knew.
He had been sitting at a small table for nearly an hour. He came early, deliberately. He wanted to case the place first, before the meeting took place. His white chipped white cup and mismatched saucer sat untouched, the coffee in it long gone cold and tasteless. Peter kept watching the door, hoping that every time a shadow bounced against the glass mosaic door, it would be Neal. Bells would tinkle, greeting bleary eyed insomniacs who arrived with newspapers, laptops or stacks of old hardback books or the occasional Kindle. But none of them were Neal.
Peter looked at his watch. Was this some kind of con? He would give him five more minutes, he decided, and took a deep, frustrated breath to seal the deal with himself. Five more minutes, and he would be heading out the door and on his way home, back to the warmth of his wife and his bed. And Neal Caffrey would remain at the top of his crap list.
Anger burned in his chest. How could he - after everything Peter and the Bureau had done for the ungrateful, trouble-making con artist – how could he just walk away like that and say nothing? Peter had bent over backwards for him, even bent the law for him. How could Neal just disappear like that? Two months of nothing. Not a word, not a phone call, not even a birthday card (even though Neal always managed to send one to Peter while he was still in prison!). No goodbye, no thank you, not a single word. As soon as his four years was up, his obligation to the Bureau complete, and no sooner than he had ceremonially handed Neal the key to unlock and remove his tracking anklet, Neal took a walk, and never returned. At first Peter was concerned that Neal had been the victim of foul play. But there was no word on the street, no dire warnings from Mozzie, no evidence that Neal had been taken anywhere either injured or under duress. After a month, the Bureau decided to drop the investigation. It was determined that Neal had apparently conned them all, that he was kicking back on some exotic, uncharted island laughing at the hard working good guys and spending some ill-gotten gain from past cons. Peter imagined he would never hear from Neal again unless he somehow showed up on the Bureau's most wanted list again. In which case, he was prepared to arrest him for the third time.
And then, a few hours ago, Neal's phone call, just as he was lazily falling asleep snuggled next to Elizabeth. Two minutes before midnight. The call was short and to the point, no sentiment, no "Hey, buddy, did you miss me? Sorry I disappeared on you." Just "meet me at Café Insomnia in half an hour. Please."
He did say please. At least he said please.
Peter had jumped out of bed and into his street clothes, apologizing to Elizabeth the entire time, promising and assuring her that his midnight rendezvous was innocuous (not regarding an open case) and innocent (not a liaison with some tawdry mistress). He kissed her and swore to be home quickly, and that he would reveal all to her upon his return.
Bells tinkled and Peter looked up from where his forefinger had been absently tracing the sticky mosaic pattern of the table top as he brooded.
It was Neal.
Peter stood, wanting to greet him, shake his hand. Hug him. But he also wanted to deck him, slap some sense into him. And then Neal stepped closer, passing a dim wall sconce that gave Peter some idea why he had not heard from Caffrey until now.
Gaunt. That was the first word that came to mind as Neal got closer. He'd lost weight - as if he could afford to - maybe as much as fifteen pounds. His face looked ghostly pale, though that could have been due to the light. A dark, thin beard shaded his face, making his sunken cheeks seem all the more hollow. His eyes, big as bright blue saucers already, were now huge with so little face left to support it. They were also red and wet with unshed tears. The ex-con's hair, which was usually stylishly cut and held just so by over-priced product, hung limp and oily down his forehead, over his ears, his neck. He wore a brown overcoat (brown!) that appeared to be two sizes too big for him. Under it, a cheap white tee shirt and denims. Denims. His shoes were well made cowboy boots that were worn and scuffed, but still holding up. At least he'd kept one concession to vanity.
"Peter," was all Neal was able to say without choking up.
Peter couldn't take his eyes off of Neal. He meant to say hello, but what came out was, "What happened…?" The agent moved closer, reaching out for Neal's arms. Neal took a step back, flinching, as if he were afraid to be touched. As if the simple touch of a friend could cause great injury.
"Long story," said Neal.
"I've got time."
Peter lowered his extended arms, the desire to pummel the younger man long since dissipated.
Both men sat down. "I didn't think you'd come," Neal said in confessions, his spindly fingers entwining.
"Why wouldn't I?"
Neal held up a hand, and Rainbow Bright the waitress came to the table, hands shoved down in her servers' apron pocket.
"Boss says no more for you, Neal. You have to pay your tab," she said sternly. "Sorry."
Neal looked away, embarrassed. He reached into his coat pockets, searching for whatever he might find to pay her. He pulled out a few coins, some crumpled singles, and an old receipt that Peter imagined may have been in the pocket of the old coat when Neal purchased it from some grungy consignment store.
"Put it on my bill," Peter said.
"No, I got this," said Neal, irritation obvious in his voice. He couldn't look Peter in the eyes.
"I said I got it!" Neal pushed the few crumpled bills across the table for the waitress.
Peter reached into his inside jacket pocket and took out a credit card.
"Just…whatever he wants," Peter told the waitress.
Neal sat staring at his own hands for a moment. Peter could see that there was a tremor. This was not Neal. Not his Neal.
"Coffee." His hurt, tearing eyes sought Peter's. "Thank you," he whispered, and dropped the crumpled cash back into his pocket.
"Neal," Peter said, moving closer, "tell me what happened to you. Why did you disappear? Why do you look…"
"Like I said…long story. One you probably won't believe. I wouldn't believe it either if it hadn't actually happened to me."
They sat in silence until the coffee came. Neal reached for the sticky sugar dispenser on the table. He put four heaping spoonfuls of the white stuff into his coffee, stirred it vigorously and drank most of it down, practically non-stop. This was not Neal.
Peter had seen this before, knew the signs. Drastic weight loss. The vacant stare. Separation, alienation, isolation from friends and loved ones.
"How long?" Peter asked, his voice catching in his throat as the realization ran from his brain, to his heart, and to the pit of his stomach, making it ache in hollow grief.
"How long?" Neal reached for the sugar again. Peter grabbed his wrist and forced Neal's coat sleeve up to the young con's elbow. Neal tried to pull away, but he had no strength.
The first horror Peter noticed were the scars circling Neal's wrists. He'd seen scarring from too-tight handcuffs before, but this was far more severe. They'd been infected, he could tell, and thus, healed poorly. Then, he found the marks…tracks… a succession of scars left from hypodermic needles. One wound seemed somewhat fresh, somewhat recent.
"Is it heroin? Or meth?"
Peter quickly counted each infected injection site…more than a dozen around the bend of his arm and following the path of darkened, collapsed veins that showed through his nearly translucent skin. His grief ran deep. Tears stung the agent's eyes. He let go of Neal's wrist and sat back and steadied his breath.
Neal pulled his sleeve back down and looked away. His shame was deep. He was trembling. Tears ran uncontrollably down his face as if they could be held back no longer. But his face remained angelic and calm.
"Trust me when I say, I didn't do this to myself," Neal whispered. "You know me, Peter. You know that this isn't a choice I would make for myself. There's an explanation."
"There'd better be an explanation, Neal. And a good one."
"Excuse me," Neal said. He rose and headed for the sign marked "restrooms" by the kitchen.
As an FBI agent, Peter had certainly seen this kind of thing before, but not so often in the White Collar Crimes Unit. And certainly not among the people he cared about most.
He wiped his face, feeling an odd numbness that frightened him for just a moment. How could Neal have done such a thing? This was not in his profile. Neal was many things – a conman, a liar, a smooth operator, a peacock…but a junkie? How does a man go from Sy Devore vintage suits and planning cons to cheap Gap knock-offs and shooting up?
Peter's gut was sending him a disturbing signal. Something was wrong. Neal was gone for a few minutes too long. Peter imagined his friend and former C.I. sitting on the tiny, filthy men's room floor, nodding off, mumbling to himself in warm, stoned comfort while a dirty needle dangled from his arm. Or perhaps he had broken the window and run for it, limping down the cold alley in a drugged daze.
Peter rose quickly and headed for the men's room. Before he could reach for the door, it opened to a startled Neal. No needles. Just wide eyed fear and shame on his life-battered face.
"Neal," Peter said, like a father would to a long lost son come home, repentant. Like a friend determined not to let another friend die another day.
Peter couldn't help it. He threw his arm around his old friend. Neal didn't fight, but he didn't return the hug either.
Neal shook and cried without shame. Part of it was fear. Part of it was relief. Peter held him, keeping the bone-thin former con from collapsing to the floor.
"Save me…" Neal whispered, his voice pitched higher than normal, so filled with pain. Between the wracking sobs that made his gut clench and his knees weaken, Neal pleaded, "Save me, Peter."
"I will." Peter held him harder, as if the hug, not his words, were his true promise. "I swear I will."
End Chapter One. Thanks for reading.