Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.
- Robert Frost, "The Death of the Hired Man"
The day Neal Caffrey showed up in Apple Corners, New York was the same day Peter and El got thrown out of the fund-raising bake sale for the Apple Corners chapter of the Girl Scouts.
"You said I should get to know the neighbors," Peter said, as calmly as possible, pulling up to the turn-off at the Millers' U-Pick strawberry farm.
El heaved a sigh, sounding disturbingly like Marge Simpson. "I didn't mean compiling dossiers on them and confronting Mrs. Duncan about her prescription pill addiction in front of the entire PTA."
"I don't have dossiers," Peter said stiffly. "I have notes."
"You have notes compiled into color-coded file folders with surveillance photos and Google Earth printouts. Honey, I've seen them."
"Don't be angry, Aunt El," El's niece Jessica said from the backseat, sounding more delighted than placating.
"I'm not angry," Elizabeth said.
"This was the best fundraiser the Girl Scouts have ever had," Jess went on. "Every year should be like this year."
"I left my sun hat at the school, Aunt El," chirped the small voice of El's other niece, Susan.
"Well, we're not going back for it," Peter said.
"But it was my favorite hat." There was a wobble in the six-year-old's voice.
El gave him a Look - it definitely warranted the capital letter - and reached behind her seat to pat Susie's knee. "It's okay, sweetie. Your mom will bring it. I'll call her right now and tell her, okay? Do you remember where you last saw it?"
El was still on the phone to her sister - "No, Pattie, I'm sure the Duncans didn't mean all that about suing us" - when Peter turned into the Millers' yard. There was a light on in the upstairs window, so the girls' older brother, El's nephew, must be home. Peter figured that the girls, at thirteen and six, were old enough to be home alone anyway, but given the awkward state of family diplomatic relations at the moment, he was glad to have one more reason not to risk another meltdown between the Burke and Miller embassies.
Jess collected her little sister and the girls tumbled out into the driveway. Susie scampered for the house, but Jess hesitated. "Will you show me -"
"No," Peter said quickly, because knowing Jessica Miller, the end of that sentence was almost certainly going to be "your surveillance equipment" or "your files on all my classmates", and either way, he couldn't imagine Pattie and Mike Miller saying yes to it.
"You didn't even let me finish," Jess pouted.
"That's right, because the answer is no."
"How am I supposed to learn to be a detective if you never tell me anything?"
"You're not a detective," Peter said flatly. "You're in the ninth grade. We don't - the FBI doesn't hire people who haven't graduated from high school."
Jess scowled at him. She had El's eyes, always a little disconcerting in her chubby child's face.
"Yes, Pattie, I know your brother-in-law is an excellent lawyer, but we really don't need a lawyer," El was saying in the passenger seat of the car.
When the scowl made no impression, Jess heaved a huge, theatrical sigh. "So I'll be over tomorrow morning, I guess." Her tone gave the impression that she was being dragged under duress and threat of torture. "Unless Mom grounds me, like, forever for talking to you, and puts a restraining order on you not to get near me." She brightened. "Do you think she might?"
"That's your favorite word, isn't it, Uncle Peter?"
"Yes," Peter said.
Jess's eyes narrowed. "If I work really hard and muck out all the stalls, will you show me your files on Amanda Bradshaw? 'cause I could really use some dirt on -"
"No," Peter said, horrified, and rolled up his window. It took two tries, because he reached with his right hand automatically - still, even after three years.
"Pattie doesn't think the Duncans are serious about suing us," El said, tucking away her phone as Peter pulled out of the driveway. "But just in case, her brother-in-law has a lot of experience at handling civil -"
"We're not going to need a lawyer," Peter said.
"Of course not. But just in case, I can leave him a voicemail in the morning."
They drove most of the way home without speaking. The highway was nearly deserted in the purple dusk. Peter parked in the wide, curving gravel drive of the farmhouse, turned off the ignition and sat in silence for a moment, listening to the pinging of the cooling engine and, distantly, the snorting and stamping of the horses.
"El -" Peter said at last.
"Don't apologize," El said quickly.
He couldn't leave it there, he just couldn't. "Are you angry?"
"I don't know. A little. Mostly I'm just ..." El rubbed her eyes. "I knew what it said on the tin when I married you, after all."
"What you married isn't what you have now." He didn't mean it to come out so bitter, so harsh. His anger wasn't directed at her.
El undid her seatbelt and turned to face him, her face troubled. "What I married is exactly what I have now. I don't want you to change for me, Peter. You don't think I want that, do you?"
"No," he said, startled. "Of course not."
"My mother was that kind of woman. She was a good mother, she loved my father, but I always told myself I'd never, ever be like her -"
"Oh, honey, no," Peter said, and he leaned over and drew her near, wrapping her in the circle of his arms: the flesh-and-blood arm and the prosthesis, pulling her against his chest. El rested her face in the hollow of his neck. It was his scarred side, so he couldn't feel her against his skin, but the comforting weight of her was enough.
After a moment or two, Peter said into her hair, "Is your sister mad at me?"
El snorted a soft laugh against his collarbone. "Actually, she thought it was hilarious. Pattie and Mike have disliked the Duncans for years. And Jess is right: this was a Girl Scout fundraiser that this town is going to be talking about for years."
Peter laughed. They walked to the house hand in hand, and he told himself it didn't matter that she didn't understand, that she couldn't understand. She was doing her best, and it was almost enough.
The farm outside Apple Corners was forty rolling acres of pastureland interspersed with woods and orchards gone back to tangles of unpruned vegetation. When Elizabeth had walked into the farmhouse three years ago, it had whispered home to her - possibly, she knew, because it reminded her of the converted turn-of-the-century farmhouse in which she and Patricia had grown up.
But more importantly, it was what Peter needed - at least what he said he needed. A change. Somewhere far from the city. Horses. Land. Air. And in exchange for being fairly isolated, it was inexpensive enough that they could afford to buy it outright, between the sale of the Brooklyn townhouse and the FBI disability settlement - plus it was close to El's family, and a reasonable drive from Peter's.
It wasn't perfect. The place needed some fixing up, and Apple Corners was not exactly a thriving job market. They wouldn't have been in actual trouble if Pattie hadn't been able to take El on as a partner at her bakery - they could've lived on the townhouse money and taken out a mortgage - but it would have been a much less comfortable life. El had been worried that she'd miss the fast pace of Burke Events and the bustling city, but to her private relief, she found herself sliding easily back into the ebb and flow of small-town life.
And Peter -
El watched him quietly from the kitchen as she made a quick, simple dinner: chicken and rice with a salad on the side. Freshly returned from a romp around the barn, Satchmo lay on the worn hardwood of the farmhouse's floor and watched her in the hopes that some tidbit might make its way dogwards.
"You like it here, right, Satch?" El asked the dog quietly. "This is a good place for dogs."
Satch pricked his ears and thumped his tail.
But a good place for retired FBI agents ... maybe not so much.El looked past the dog into the living room. Peter sat at the table that had come with the farmhouse - a massive wooden edifice, scarred and blackened, its feet gnawed by long-vanished farm puppies and its legs carved with children's simple messages. It was a table with a history, unlike anything in fast-paced, stylish New York City. El liked it.
The last few nights, the table had been covered with color-coded folders surrounding Peter's laptop like islands - no, more like whole archipelagos - while little volcano chains of beer bottles built up between them. Tonight the file folders were gone - Peter had wordlessly swept them into a box when they got home, and placed it in a corner of the living room. The laptop was closed. Instead he was reading a three-month-old copy of Field & Stream.
He'd been reading what looked like the same page for an hour.
The only thing that was the same was the island chain of beer bottles - already three of them, and the evening was still young. El's heart broke a little.
Peter said he liked it here. He seemed to genuinely enjoy working with the horses - right now the Burkes owned two and were boarding three more for friends and neighbors. And people did, after all, change. Perhaps it was possible for someone like Peter - driven, intense, thriving on the mental challenge of pitting his wits against the criminals he'd hunted - to settle into a new lifestyle, enjoying quiet days on a farm, brushing horses and reading books, where the most exciting thing in his week was going down to the corner bar to watch the game with the boys.
Yes, that's why he's been driving the local police and the neighbors crazy by playing amateur detective on every methhead, shoplifter and building code violator from here to Oswego.
El rubbed her forehead, where a small headache was pinging.
They'd moved to upstate New York because Peter wanted to - because New York City had become a cage for him, every memory another bar. Her heart still tight with the fear of losing him, El had come along without complaint, and to her secret relief found that she liked her new life as much as her old one.
What now? Do we move again? Start a new life somewhere else? I want to support him, I do, but I don't know how long I'm willing to keep running until he finds whatever it is that he's looking for.
El slipped quietly into the living room with a plate of chicken. She slid an arm around Peter's chest from behind, and kissed him on top of the head.
"Maybe you could consult with the police," she suggested. "Or get a private detective's license."
"Don't need it," Peter said crisply, and turned a page. "I'm done with all of that. It's just holding me back. New start, new life. Oh, look hon, they're giving away a hedge trimmer."
Elizabeth sighed, kissed his hair again, and went to drain the asparagus.
As had often been the case lately, Peter didn't go to bed when she did. After dinner, El read in bed for a while and then tiptoed downstairs. He was sprawled on one of the downstairs couches, reading what El discovered upon inspection to be the New York state firearms statutes. The line of beer bottles on the table had grown a lot longer.
"Coming to bed soon?" she asked, running a hand through his hair.
"A few more minutes."
And all she could do was take him at his word. "Let Satch out before you go to bed, okay?"
Peter nodded absently, and reached up to catch her hand with his left one, letting her fingers trail through his.
Normally she could fall asleep quickly, but tonight she lay awake for a long time, aware of the cold empty space on the left side of the bed, even more aware of the soft hiss as another beer was cracked open downstairs.
When his watch clicked over to midnight, Peter groaned and rubbed his eyes. He still wasn't sleepy, and the beer had done nothing but give him a headache and make it hard to think. He knew he'd be half dead in the morning if he didn't get to bed, though. He still couldn't stop himself from popping awake at 5 a.m. - it was a habit of too many years to break.
Like a lot of habits.
The sound of ticking dog claws on the hardwood floors made him raise his head. Satchmo wandered from his bed in the corner of the living room to the kitchen door and stared at it, his head cocked to one side. His tail lashed once, tentatively, then dropped.
"What's up, boy?" Peter asked aloud. His voice sounded too loud in the silence of the living room - he still had trouble adjusting to how quiet it was here, without the traffic noise that had become so familiar.
Satchmo whined inquisitively, and then clicked back into the living room to lay down by the couch. But his ears remained alert, his nose pointed towards the door.
Peter pried himself off the couch. Probably raccoons or something. No point in taking chances, though - there could be a prowler out there. He kept wanting to put security cameras in the driveway and the barn, but El thought it would make the neighbors think they were paranoid city folk who couldn't get used to the pace of life in the country.
He usually liked to do a round of the farm at night, anyway, to check on the horses and make sure that nothing was amiss.
Peter retrieved his gun and holster from the locked gun safe tucked behind the door between the living room and kitchen. The holster was a gift that El and her sister Pattie had made for him, specially designed not to interfere with the shoulder-control mechanism of his prosthesis - though they had made him promise not to wear it to Apple Corners social functions before giving it to him. The straps fastened with Velcro to make it more one-hand-friendly, and it hung against his ribs on the right side, a little lower than a conventional shoulder harness but still in relatively easy reach. In the upper field behind the barn, he'd practiced drawing and firing with his left hand, until it was, if not effortless, then at least competent.
He had the best wife ever.
And he couldn't help noticing, as he slid it into place, that the weight of the gun felt familiar, right, even if it wasn't on the accustomed side. There was also a satisfying familiarity to the tension starting to uncoil from his belly, the anticipation of going into the unknown, pitting his wits against an opponent.
... which was probably a deer. Still, Satch looked eager too. The dog waited for Peter by the kitchen door, his tail lashing vigorously.
Dogs were bred for this sort of thing, after all: accompanying their masters on the hunt. "You get it, don't you, boy?" Peter asked Satch quietly. He unlatched the door and let them both out into the humid night.
As always, the quiet sounds of the country night swept him back to his boyhood: cicadas chirring in the trees, the horses stamping in the barn, a distant car on the highway. It was his FBI instincts, though, that took over and made him slip quietly to the side so that he was no longer silhouetted against the kitchen light.
Satchmo took off into the yard, trotting towards the barn with the brisk lope of a dog patrolling his domain: The Dog Is On The Job, his body language clearly stated. "Satch!" Peter called softly after him, to no apparent effect. Clearly there was nothing too dangerous, or Satchmo would be acting a little more nervous. Presumably. On the other hand, Satch had never been much of a watchdog; he'd be more likely to lick a prowler's hand than to growl at him.
The night was clear, and bright enough to see easily by the light of a nearly full moon, washing out the stars. The horses had been shut in the small paddock by the barn for the night, as usual. Peter didn't usually put them in the barn except in cold weather or during storms. There was a small three-sided shelter in the paddock where they could get out of the rain, if they needed to.
Tonight they were unusually stirred up, moving around restlessly in the paddock rather than settled down for the night. Something had definitely gotten their attention as well as Satch's. Coyote? Peter thought. Stray dog?He checked them by eye: no signs of panic, no indication that any of them were injured or even frightened. Just awake and restless. The nearest two, Pepper and Donny, ambled over to the fence to see if treats or petting were forthcoming. Peter patted the soft noses and shoved them firmly back through the split rails of the fence. He checked to make sure that the gate was still securely latched. Chantilly, one of the boarding horses, had a genius talent for undoing latches and getting into things; he'd had to buy a more secure latch to keep her in, and the rest of the horses along with her. So far, she didn't seem to have figured out the new one.
Peter looked around for Satchmo, but the dog was nowhere in sight. By the moonlight, however, Peter could see where he must have gone: the barn door was open a crack.
Okay. A coyote didn't do THAT.Could he have accidentally left it unlatched? He didn't think he'd be that careless. His evening routine was pretty well set, especially when it came to the horses. He trusted himself not to do stupid things like that.
Peter slipped his hand to the butt of his gun. Perhaps all those days in the pasture shooting beer bottles hadn't been wasted. He flattened himself against the side of the barn beside the open door, and went still and quiet, listening. Soft rustling in the hay. Satchmo? Then he heard the thumping of Satch's tail, and a quiet voice in the barn said, "Hey, boy. Good dog."
Thanks a lot, Satchmo. Some watchdog YOU are.
The barn was wired for electricity, and the light switch was just inside the door. Peter waited a few seconds while he built up a mental schematic. The voice had sounded like it came from eight or ten feet inside the door. Satchmo would be there, too. He'd need his left hand to draw the gun and that was also the side of the light switch; he knew he couldn't find the switch in the dark with the prosthesis, but he could bump it on with his shoulder or elbow -
He tried not to dwell on how alive he felt as he hooked his heel against the edge of the door, waited a fraction of a second, then kicked it open. His elbow found the light switch. The interior of the barn was suddenly flooded in white fluorescence, and the intruder froze in the act of petting Satchmo.
"Freeze!" Peter roared. "This is the FB - I'm making a citizen's arrest! Don't move!"
The intruder straightened slowly, hands in the air. He was dressed more appropriately for a dinner gala than a barn; he even wore a tie, although it was loose and askew, and his expensive-looking suit jacket was torn and dirty.
And Peter knew him, but he was so deeply, shocking out of place here, in a barn in upstate New York, that it took a moment for Peter's brain to make the connection and dredge up the name.
Neal broke into one of those blinding, brilliant smiles that Peter remembered so well, the sort of smile that he'd used to charm his way across two continents and into who knew how many people's homes during his two-continent crime spree. "Agent Burke!" he said happily. "I knew that if you could find me, I could find you."
Then the confident smile slipped, coming apart in pieces, and Neal folded up and collapsed in the hay at Peter's feet.
The last time Peter had seen Neal Caffrey had been at his trial. Peter had testified against him, and all the while Neal had looked vaguely friendly and unperturbed. Actually, Neal had started grinning like a kid during the part of the cross-examination when Peter was forced to recount such incidents as Neal sending all the FBI agents on his case invitations to a gallery opening he was planning to rob, or having flowers delivered to Peter's office.
Chasing Neal Caffrey had been alternately fascinating and frustrating, and there had been plenty of times when Peter felt like he was on the trail of an overgrown ten-year-old - a boy with no malice in him, who was doing it for nothing more than the fun of the game. And if Neal had harbored any ill will towards Peter for catching him and putting him in prison, there had never been a hint of it at the trial. In fact, the very last time he'd ever seen Neal, at the sentencing, Neal had caught Peter's eye and lifted a shoulder in a shrug with a little grin, as if to say, What can you do?
Peter had told himself not to feel guilty. Neal had done the crime, and he had to do the time. His sentence hadn't been long - four years, wasn't it? Hopefully he'd do a lot of thinking in prison, and by the time he got out, he'd have reflected his way into a better understanding of consequences.
And then Peter had had a whole lot more to worry about than Neal Caffrey serving his debt to society. In fact, as he knelt and checked Neal's vitals (pulse fast but strong, breathing okay) he had to do a quick mental calculation to figure out where Neal was supposed to be in his sentence. It hadn't been four years yet ... not quite. It was possible that Neal had gotten a couple months knocked off for good behavior.
It was also possible that Neal had escaped.
And turned up in my horse barn? Peter thought, rolling Neal onto his side. That would be stretching coincidence just a bit too far.
Neal's face was white and drawn, his hair a scruffy mess, flecked with hay and dead leaves - from the look of that and the mud on his pants, he'd been crawling around in the woods. Peter drew back the flap of Neal's jacket, and sucked in his breath: Neal's white shirt was dyed red all down his side.
Pulling the jacket back further, Peter saw that both sleeves and part of his shirttail had been torn off for a makeshift bandage, but it was soaked through. It was hard to tell exactly what had happened without taking the bandage off, but Peter's money was on either a bullet or a stab wound.
"What the hell are you mixed up in, Caffrey?" he murmured, looking down at Neal's pale face. "And why are you trying to drag me into it?"
Satchmo, intrigued by the whole thing, wagged his tail and licked Neal's nose.
"Bad dog," Peter said. "Stop consorting with felons."
Neal's eyelids fluttered. "Ow." He pushed away the dog, and squinted up at Peter. "I'm not making a good impression, am I?"
"You need to be in a hospital."
Neal's eyes went wide. "No. No hospitals."
Well, that settled it in case there had been any doubt: he'd escaped. "No police either, I'm guessing?"
"No," Neal said, and then, looking years younger than any of his paperwork claimed he was: "Please."
"I'll make you a deal," Peter said. "You tell me exactly what you're doing in my barn, and who stabbed you -"
Bingo. "Right," Peter said, eyes narrowed, and Neal tried to look innocent. "Then I'll decide whether or not to call the police."
"I don't really have a choice, do I?"
"You're the one who showed up in my barn," Peter pointed out.
Neal took a few shallow breaths and then said, "Can I do it sitting up?"
"You can do it over against that wall," Peter said, jerking his head towards the end of the barn with the cabinets, sink and hose, "because the first aid supplies are there."
"First aid for horses," Neal complained. His breath caught as Peter got his arm around Neal's chest and helped him to his feet.
"They're better than the ones in the house. And I don't trust you in my house anyway."
He deposited Neal on a pile of feed sacks and went to collect the things he needed. Between his recovery after the fire, and three years of taking care of horses, he'd gotten pretty good at first aid.
It was a warm night and Peter hadn't bothered putting on a jacket over his T-shirt before heading out to the barn, so it wasn't as if Neal could have avoided noticing the prosthesis and the harness holding it on. He hadn't blinked at that or the equally visible scarring on Peter's face and neck, so presumably he'd been doing some research on Peter's life since they'd last seen each other at the trial. Well, the fact that he'd shown up here, in Apple Corners, was proof enough of that.
What have you done, Neal? And more to the point, what do you want from me?
Neal appeared to have fallen asleep, his head tilted to the side against the wall, but he opened his eyes when Peter's shadow fell across him.
"Before I do this, I'm going to frisk you."
"You know I don't carry, Peter." But he submitted to being patted down. There was nothing on him except a wallet that, when inspected, turned out to contain nothing except two IDs in two different names. Neither name was Neal Caffrey, but both had his picture.
"That's private," Neal said, holding out his hand. Peter confiscated both IDs and then placed the empty wallet in Neal's palm. Neal rolled his eyes.
"Take your jacket off."
Neal started to raise his arm and then aborted the motion, any lingering hints of color draining out of his face. "Lean forward," Peter said, and supported him while working the jacket off. Neal settled back against the wall with a soft groan and eyed the spray can of disinfectant, labeled FOR ANIMAL USE ONLY.
"I can't believe you're doing this. I can't believe I'm letting you do this."
"At least I can be reasonably sure you won't kick me, unlike most of my patients," Peter said. "Eyes up and forward; I don't need you fainting on me again. Now, we made a deal. I haven't called the police, so it's time to pay up on your end. Why are you here?"
Neal fixed his eyes on the opposite wall. "I'm not sure where to begin."
"Nice try. Pick a point and start talking."
Neal sighed. "Well, to start ... do you remember Kate?"
"Kate Moreau? The reason why we caught you? Yes, I remember Kate. What about her?"
Neal closed his eyes briefly, and a spasm crossed his face, though when he opened them again, his face was calm. "She's dead. And the person who killed her is after me."
He said it so matter-of-factly that it took a moment for the meaning in his words to catch up. Peter froze in the act of tearing open a gauze packet with his teeth, then slowly lowered it. Kate. The love of Neal's life, as far as he'd ever been able to tell.
Thank you. I never would have found her without you. Neal's words as Peter had snapped handcuffs on him, four years ago. He'd sounded grateful,the bastard.
"I'm sorry." The words seemed horribly inadequate for the magnitude of what Neal had lost. If he's telling the truth,said a small cynical voice at the back of Peter's brain.
Neal gave his head a short, hard shake, like a horse bothered by flies, and said nothing.
"Do you know who killed her?"
"Yes," Neal said. He hesitated fractionally. "The person behind it is a man named Vincent Adler."
Peter froze again. "Vincent Adler? The same Vincent Adler who disappeared with a billion dollars after that Ponzi scheme seven years ago? Never caught? That Adler?"
Neal lifted the shoulder on his good side in a small shrug.
The next logical suspicion followed close on the heels of that revelation. "Were you involved with that? Were you and Adler partners?"
Neal quirked a small smile that didn't touch his eyes. "I assure you, I had nothing to do with either Adler's thefts or his disappearance."
"So why is he after you, then?" Peter asked. He peeled the old bandage away, unsticking it carefully from the edges of the wound.
Neal's breath hissed between his teeth. His voice had a ragged edge when he replied. "Believe it or not, Peter, it's actually a misunderstanding."
"Oh right, I forgot. You're perfectly innocent. And I don't recall giving you permission to call me Peter." The injury looked like a flesh wound; the bullet had probably skimmed his ribs but didn't seem to have penetrated deeper. Which was one less thing to worry about. Still, it had bled a lot.
"Well, Agent Burke isn't accurate anymore, and Mister Burke is completely out, so - ow!"
"I'm sorry," Peter said sweetly, "did that hurt? I believe you were telling me about Vincent Adler. I'm guessing that he's not trying to kill you because you took his cab or forgot to tip him when he delivered your pizza."
Neal closed his eyes and rested his head against the wall. There were dark shadows under his eyes. He looked like he hadn't slept in a while. "Adler thinks I have something he wants." There was another slight hesitation, which put Peter's suspicions on high alert. "A music box."
"A music box?" Peter repeated. "Like, twirling ballerinas, plays Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies, that kind of thing?"
Neal cracked an eye open in weary amusement. "It's a little more expensive than something your grandmother picked up at a rummage sale in Schenectady."
"Why is it so important to him?"
"I have no idea," Neal said. "As far as I know, it's just a music box - a fancy one, but nothing special."
"Do you have it?"
"You just frisked me," Neal pointed out. "Did you find a music box? Like I told you, there's been a complicated misunderstanding."
"Does part of that misunderstanding involve you escaping from prison?" Peter asked, and saw Neal flinch. "Yeah, I thought so."
Neal opened his eyes and fixed his gaze on Peter. "I didn't have a choice, Peter. Kate was in trouble. I had to find her."
"Now ..." Neal closed his eyes again, sinking against the wall as if all his remaining strength had finally deserted him. "Now Kate's dead, the U.S. Marshals are after me, Adler's after me ..."
"And you're in my barn."
Neal huffed a small laugh.
"Why me, Caffrey?" Peter asked quietly. "I'm just the agent who put you away four years ago. And, as you've so tactfully pointed out, I'm not even with the Bureau anymore."
Neal let out his breath in a long sigh. "Because ..." His voice was almost too soft to hear. "Because I have nowhere else to go. And I thought you might listen. Or at least listen long enough not to turn me in immediately."
Damn it. Damn him. Peter finished taping down the gauze and then sat back on his heels. "You really should see a doctor, you know. Actually, what you ought to do is turn yourself in. You'll be looking at more prison time, but Adler can't touch you, and I'll speak on your behalf. You might get off with another three or four years."
He expected outright refusal, but instead Neal said in a voice so weary that Peter barely recognized it, "I don't know. I can't make a decision like that right now. I just needed a place to stop for a while."
There were a lot of things Peter wanted to say: What's the rest of the story you aren't telling me? and Who do you think you are, leading trouble to my door like this?Instead, he heard himself say, "When was the last time you ate something?"
Neal shrugged, one-sided. Then his eyes opened. "Peter. Are you offering?"
"We have enough leftover roast chicken for an army, and I'm not going to let you starve to death in my barn."
"Does this mean I can come in the house now?"
Peter'd had every intention of making him stay in the barn, but Neal contrived to look as wilted as possible. Peter sighed. "Fine, provided you don't wake up my wife. But in the morning, you're going to tell Elizabeth everything that you told me in the barn, about Adler and Kate and the music box. This isn't my house and my farm, Neal; it's our house and our farm, and if there's trouble chasing you, then my wife needs to know about it."
Elizabeth opened her eyes into her pillow, then raised her head and squinted at the glowing numbers on the clock. Her alarm was about to go off. She'd developed a sixth sense for it over the years. She shut it off to avoid waking Peter, then rolled over and found that the bed beside her was chill and empty.
El ran her palm across his pillow, closed her eyes for a moment, and then shuffled off to take a shower. Falling asleep on the couch after too many beers - she'd thought they were past that part of the adjustment process. She'd hoped they were past it. Damn it.
Dressed for the day but still toweling her hair, she trotted downstairs. Pattie would be here soon to pick her up for work and drop off the kids. She'd need to wake Peter or he'd be grouching at the poor kids all morning, but she could let him sleep for just a little longer -
El stopped at the sight that greeted her at the bottom of the stairs.
The furnishings in the living room had come with the house: massive overstuffed recliners and two long sofas, all of them scruffy and well-used and comfortable. Peter was asleep in one of the recliners, his head twisted to the side. He'd fallen asleep in the prosthesis and she winced on his behalf; she knew he'd be feeling that when he woke.
Seeing him like this, she felt a rush of affection for him, as always: his hair tousled, his cheek pressed against the puffy wing of the chair like a worn-out child. God, she loved that stubborn man of hers.
But he wasn't alone. A stranger was sprawled on the couch, asleep. Something about him nagged at El's memory, as if she had seen him before, or maybe seen a picture of him. He was young, his hair dark and falling loose across his forehead. The colorful afghan that El's aunt Betty had given Peter and El for a wedding present was thrown across his legs.
There were two coffee cups on the table, and a plate with crumbs and a fork. Peter had let the stranger in and fed him. Someone with car trouble?El wondered. Out in the country, people helped each other, and she and Peter had fallen into that pattern as well. Perhaps the stranger didn't want to bother his family or friends by calling for a ride in the middle of the night.
Satchmo, lying on the floor between the two men, raised his head and thumped his tail, then jumped up and darted into the kitchen. El heard his toenails click on the linoleum over to the door. His morning priorities were clear.
The stranger flinched. His eyes opened and he squinted blearily at the ceiling, then at El. She could see his focus sharpen in an instant, his whole demeanor changing from lazy post-sleep lethargy to an all-over alertness. She caught herself tensing, too. She did not know this man. Being out in the country didn't mean that all strangers were harmless.
Then he smiled at her, a winsome, winning smile. "You must be -"
El touched her finger to her lips and pointed at Peter.
"... Elizabeth," he finished in a whisper.
El nodded. She pointed to the kitchen. The stranger started to sit up, halted with a grimace, and then made his way slowly and stiffly to his feet. He was wearing an oversized Le Moyne sweatshirt with the sleeves rolled up; it looked like one of Peter's old shirts. In fact, she recognized the stain in the front: it was one of Peter's shirts. The mystery deepened.
In the kitchen, she let out Satchmo and put on a pot of coffee. The stranger seated himself at the kitchen table with deliberate care; she noticed that he favored his side. "Are you all right?" she asked quietly.
His smile was a little rueful. "Long story." He held out a hand. "Neal Caffrey."
El couldn't stop a delighted grin from breaking through. "The Neal Caffrey? The one I heard about every day for all those years that my husband was chasing you?"
"The one and only," Neal said, grinning broadly.
She shook his hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you at last. But what are you doing here?" With a frown at his shirt, she added, "Wearing my husband's clothes?"
"Uh. Long story. I'm sure you'll hear it from Peter."
"I'd rather hear it from you." She put on a kettle of hot water for her morning tea. "Would you like some coffee or tea? Perhaps orange juice? It's good for you - full of electrolytes."
"Orange juice. Sure." He dragged a hand through his hair, smoothing it into some semblance of order. "I won't be here long. I wasn't really planning on coming here in the first place."
El poured orange juice into a glass. "Why did you?"
"I don't know. I guess I had nowhere else to go. Someone is looking for me." He glanced up at her. "His name's Vincent Adler."
El shook her head. "I don't know that name. It sounds a little familiar, but ..."
"No reason why you would. Peter can probably tell you more. Anyway, he's not a nice guy."
He studied the glass of orange juice as if it held all his answers. From everything that Peter had said about him, the man was a criminal mastermind, devious and dangerous. Right now, he looked sleepy and vulnerable and barely old enough to vote.
Gravel crunched under car tires outside. "My sister's here," El said. "We can finish talking about this later. There's cereal in the cabinet, milk and eggs in the refrigerator; Peter can show you where everything is."
Peter woke with a start, his arm cramping fiercely. Half-awake, still muzzy with sleep, he reached for it to rub out the cramp, and his fingers slid across plastic and metal. He could feel it anyway - could follow the twisting path of the cramp across the forearm he no longer had.
His face was mashed against the side of the recliner, early morning sunlight streaming into his eyes. He'd fallen asleep in the harness, and it was digging painfully into his shoulders. His first thought was Why am I sleeping downstairs? He didn't remember El kicking him out of bed ...
Caffrey. Neal Caffrey, in his barn. Neal Caffrey, on his couch.Oh hell.
Peter raised his head and blinked at the afghan in a rumpled heap on the couch. Neal was nowhere to be seen. Outside, a car door slammed and he sat upright with a bolt of adrenaline racing through him.
Right. The Millers. El's sister stopped by every morning around five-thirty to pick her up and take her to the bakery - and to drop off her two oldest children, who were earning summer spending money by helping out around the Burkes' farm. Normally Peter exercised the horses with the kids and then, as the heat of the day grew more oppressive, drove them home.
But the absolute last thing he needed today, with a wanted felon somewhere on the farm, was Brian and Jess poking around.
Peter vaulted out of the chair and shot into the kitchen, where a startled-looking El was filling her travel mug with tea. Peter glimpsed Neal at the kitchen table and snapped, "Stay there! Do not move! Or speak!"
He whipped open the kitchen door just as El's sister raised her hand to knock.
Pattie Miller was a slightly older, slightly plumper vision of Elizabeth. El had mentioned that she and her sister were sometimes mistaken for each other in high school, and Peter could see why; around the face they were nearly twins, although Pattie's not-entirely-convincing blonde curls reduced the casual resemblance somewhat - while making her look even more like a stereotypically wholesome farm wife. The first time Peter had met the Millers (taciturn Mike, bubbly Pattie, the three then-small and apple-cheeked children) he'd boggled at them: they were straight out of Farm Family Central Casting.
Right now the two teenagers sulking behind Pattie looked a great deal less wholesome and more like they'd been dragged out of bed at five a.m. during summer vacation and were not happy about it. Peter had learned by experience that the only thing to do with them in that mood was to put them to work, which, luckily, was exactly what he needed to do this morning - as far away from the house as possible.
"Pattie! Morning!" He squeezed out without opening the screen door more than a foot - Satchmo wove his way deftly at Peter's heels - and pointed at the barn. "Brian, Jess, horses."
The kids gave him identical death glares and headed for the barn, Brian sneezing as he went; he was allergic to everything, including horses. And dogs - Satchmo romped happily after the kids.
"Don't forget to take your Zyrtec!" his mother called after him, and then turned a beaming El-style smile on Peter. "Good morning, Peter! Is El ready?"
"Oh yes, yes, she's just - Here she is! Hi, hon!" Peter beamed at El, hauled her out the door before she could open it fully, and kissed her quickly. "Have a great,very normal and uneventful day at work, okay?"
"Okay," El said, wrinkling her nose at him. "A perfectly normal day. Absolutely. 'Bye, hon."
"'Bye, hon." He kissed her nose, made an abortive move to hug Pattie and ended up clapping her on the shoulder instead, and ducked back through the kitchen door before she could say anything. He sidestepped quickly to the window and cracked the blinds with two fingers to watch Pattie and El leave the porch.
"Very smooth, Eliot Ness," Neal said.
"I told you not to talk."
His missing arm still hurt fiercely, a sharp spiraling pain twisting through his nonexistent forearm. He hadn't had phantom pain in months, but then, he didn't make a habit of falling asleep with the arm on, either. Peter shrugged off the harness and leaned against the wall, massaging the stump absently while he watched El and her sister through the kitchen blinds. He didn't relax until Pattie's SUV turned out of the driveway. Okay, one obstacle down. All that was left was ... the rest of the entire town, since if there was one thing people in Apple Corners liked to do, it was poke into their neighbors' business.
Which made them total hypocrites for objecting when someone else did it to them- but, no. Letting it go. Letting it go.
He turned around to look at Neal. It was too bizarre, having a felon (that he'd chased for three years) sitting in his kitchen drinking his orange juice from a glass with cheerful painted orange slices on it.
"Okay, we need some ground rules for damage control," Peter said. "Just having you in my house makes me and El accessories. You realize that, right?"
"I know," Neal said. "I really am sorry about that."
He sounded sincere, which was, in a way, the worst part. "If you were really sorry, you wouldn't have come here in the first place. Anyway, ground rules. I don't want any more people getting sucked into this than absolutely have to be. El's niece and nephew are out in the barn, and I want you staying in the house and out of sight while they're here, got it?"
"Shower's upstairs on your right. First aid kit's under the sink, and you can get something to wear from the left-hand closet in the master bedroom. Don't touch anything," he added hastily, "that you don't have to, and if I catch you stealing from me -"
"I won't," Neal said quickly. "I know I'm asking a lot. I owe you for this, Peter."
"Yes," Peter said. "You do. Now I need to go make sure Pattie's kids haven't set the barn on fire." He shrugged back into the harness.
They hadn't set anything on fire, although in the absence of adult direction, neither of them had managed to accomplish a whole lot. Jess had dragged out one of the saddles and was sitting on it with a compact mirror in one hand and an eyebrow pencil in the other. Jess's parents had flatly vetoed any possibility of piercing anything other than her ears until she was twenty-one, so she'd taken to drawing lip and nose rings on herself with eyebrow pencil whenever her parents weren't around. She'd also removed the loose, oversized Neon Trees T-shirt she'd been wearing when Pattie had dropped her off, revealing a very tight mesh blouse that barely covered her tiny sports bra and extreme lack of breasts.
Her brother Brian, Pattie and Mike's eldest, was sitting on a hay bale, playing some kind of game on his iPhone. Brian was a skinny, pallid fifteen-year-old who vastly preferred being inside at the computer to any sort of outdoor activity. Peter had often reflected that his own father would have had no idea what to do with Brian. Burke Sr. had been very firmly of the opinion that there were two kinds of boys: proper boys who played sports, and pansies. He'd had enough trouble with Peter majoring in math.
Mike, Brian's dad, was very much cut from the same cloth as Peter's dad where that sort of thing was concerned, and Peter was fairly sure that Brian's part-time job at the stable was mostly an attempt to get Brian to buck up and behave like Mike's idea of what a boy should act like. Peter had a lot of respect for both his dad and for Mike, but no desire whatsoever to emulate either one of them in squashing Brian's ... whatever it was that Brian had going for him. Unfortunately he had no idea how to do that, since he had little in common with the kid. They'd developed an informal agreement where Brian took the gentlest horse in the stable for daily rides and, otherwise, Peter found things for him to do inside.
Jess was a more outdoorsy kid than Brian. One of the horses, Pepper, belonged to the Millers, though since none of them were horse people except for Jess, the horse was de facto hers. She enjoyed working with the horses, but Peter got the impression that the real draw of working on the farm for her was the opportunity to talk to a Real! Live! FBI! Agent!
She seemed to enjoy following him around asking questions like, "Did you ever shoot somebody? You know, like a criminal? Or a bystander, or whatever."
"No," was Peter's standard response to all questions of that nature.
"No one?" Jess's expression had made it plain that she did not believe him. "Ever?"
"I was in the White Collar unit. We caught forgers. We didn't exactly see a lot of shootouts."
"Oh, you mean the boring unit."
"That's it, no letter of recommendation to Quantico for you,Nancy Drew."
And that was Jess. Peter thought that Brian wouldn't notice a grenade going off behind his head unless pictures were posted on Facebook. Jess, on the other hand - he could only imagine the nightmare that would result if she ever decided that the Burke household had something mysterious going on that had to be investigated. Jess had to be kept away from the house at all costs.
"Morning, team!" he announced. Jess kept applying eyebrow pencil; Brian slipped out one of his earbuds but otherwise remained fixated on the iPhone screen. "Jess, put your shirt back on; you're not going out like that. Brian, take your headphones off and look at me. That's better. All right, team: let's get ready for today's mission. Up, up. Jess, get Chantilly saddled. Brian, you've got Ladybug. Hup! Move out!"
"Did one of the horses get hurt, Uncle Peter?" Jess asked.
Peter's heart skipped a beat. "What?"
Jess stuck the eyebrow pencil behind her ear. She seemed to think it made her look intellectual and sophisticated. "The Betadine was left out, and there are gauze wrappers in the trash."
"Why are you snooping through my trash? No, don't answer that. It was -" he cast about wildly for something plausible "- the neighbor's ... cat. Bitten by a raccoon." Did raccoons bite cats? Well, he was committed now; nothing to do but soldier on. "The cat's fine; don't worry about it. All taken care of."
"It must have been a heck of a bite, Uncle Peter," Jess said. "Or a heck of a cat. You used enough gauze to cover -"
"Do I see you saddling horses? No? Let's roll, team! We're burning daylight! Where are your helmets?"
A few minutes later, from the back of Chantilly - a tall leggy bay with a fractious personality - Jess looked down and said, "I wanted to ride Pepper."
"Get Chantilly exercised first. She's bored and she's been acting up, bothering the other horses. You can take Pepper out on the jumps when you get back."
Pepper was an AQHA quarter horse, a fast little buckskin whose full name was American Yellow Bell Pepper. She'd been too old for serious competition when the Millers had bought her, but Jess liked working with her, and Peter and the kids had set up a training course in an unused part of the upper field. The best way to deal with Jess was to distract her, and Peter figured that between exercising Chantilly and riding the obstacle course with Pepper, she ought to be too busy to do too much snooping.
"Aren't you coming with us, Uncle Peter?" Brian asked, mounting gentle Ladybug, El's horse.
"Not right now. Things to do. Just take the horses on the trail by the old mill. When you get back, Brian, fill the horse troughs, and Jess, take Pepper out."
Jess cast a last suspicious glance over her shoulder, and the kids trotted off towards the woods, Satchmo frisking along behind them with puppylike excitement. Peter headed for the house, hoping that Neal hadn't had enough time to steal anything important or run up an astronomical credit card bill in the meantime.
He hadn't, but he was on Peter's laptop at the living room table, wearing a fresh set of oversized sweats, with his hair wet from the shower. "Hey," Peter said. "No computer for you. Get off that. What are you doing?"
Neal backed off. "I'm not causing any harm, trust me. I just wanted to check the news, see if anything had happened since I left the city."
Peter had glimpsed him closing a browser window, and made a mental note to check his browser cache later. "Anything? Like what? Are you expecting something newsworthy to happen?"
"Well, you never know, do you? Adler's a guy who doesn't pull punches." Neal tried to slouch casually against the back of the couch, and utterly failed to look either casual or comfortable. From the way he was moving this morning, he was in a lot of pain.
"Stay off my computer, and I'll fry a couple eggs. I can also get you some painkillers. You look like you could use 'em."
"For horses?" Neal asked, eyes narrowed.
"No, smartass." Peter thought about bringing Neal upstairs with him, then reconsidered making him climb the stairs. Instead he tucked the laptop under his arm and bounded up the stairs: the less time Neal was left alone in the living room, the better. He contemplated the Vicodin in the bathroom medicine cabinet - a half-empty bottle; he'd tapered off it over a year ago - but went for the less felonious Tylenol option instead. He also took the time for a quick look around the master bedroom. Nothing was noticeably out of place, but then, nothing would be. Neal was an expert.
When he got back downstairs, Neal was looking at pictures of El's sister's family on the old-fashioned mantelpiece in the living room. "They look like great kids," he said, sounding wistful.
"They're teenagers," Peter said flatly. "Here. If you need heavier stuff I've got it, but I'm not supplying narcotics to an escaped felon if these are enough." He went into the kitchen and got out a skillet.
Neal followed him into the kitchen, pouring several capsules into his hand. After swallowing them with the dregs of the orange juice, he leaned against the sink and watched Peter break out the omelet fixings. Peter knew exactly what he was looking at; the only unexpected thing was that Neal had managed to contain his curiosity as long as he had. Peter was sharply aware of Neal's eyes tracing the dual cables on the prosthetic arm, watching the way that it shifted when he moved.
Still, he was surprised when Neal spoke. "Hey, Peter? Do you mind if I take a closer look at that?" When Peter paused, turning back from the refrigerator with a carton of eggs in his left hand, Neal added quickly, "I won't if it bothers you. I just want to see how it works."
After a moment, Peter unlocked the elbow and extended the arm. Neal laid his fingers between the two hooked claws, studying the cable that hooked to the articulation point, then tracing it with his eyes back to the shoulder harness. Peter closed the claws as gently as possible, trapping Neal's fingers between them.
"Cool," Neal said, heartfelt. "Your arm muscles do that?"
Pattie's kids had reacted much the same: open curiosity and questions, unlike most adults, who pretended not to see it aside from occasional wary glances when they thought he wasn't looking. Peter preferred the curious approach. It was honest, at least.
Neal examined the metal claws before slipping his fingers out of Peter's grasp with his usual light grace. A mischievous smile made his eyes crinkle. "Can you get a switchblade attachment?"
Peter would have swatted him if he didn't have a carton of eggs to set down first. "What do I look like, Inspector Gadget?"
Still grinning, Neal limped to the coffeepot and poured himself a cup. "If you don't mind a little more impertinent curiosity -"
"That never stopped you before."
"Touche," Neal said. "I was just wondering why you don't have one that looks like an actual hand. But I think I figured it out."
"Did you, Freud?" Peter cracked eggs into the skillet, left-handed. "I do have one, actually. A social arm, the physical therapy guy called it. It's upstairs in the closet, where it has been ever since we moved here. Useless hunk of plastic. I prefer an arm that I can use to actually -"
"Pick things up?"
"I would have thought it'd be too much like lying for you," Neal said. "Like ... Tofurkey at a vegetarian Thanksgiving, or something."
Peter stopped and stared at him. Because Neal was right. And he'd never told anyone that, not even El. He didn't just hate the social arm because it was immobile and basically useless, although that was part of it. More critically, though, he hated it because it could pass inspection at first glance. It was a polite social fiction. A lie.
"It was the best metaphor I could come up with." Neal hid a grin behind his coffee cup. Again Peter was reminded of Neal's resemblance, in certain respects, to an overgrown kid.
An overgrown kid who was devious, slightly ruthless, and wanted by the U.S. Marshals. Sobering thought.
"So," Peter said, shaking it off and whisking the eggs, "when do you plan to tell me what you were really doing on my computer? Hand me that loaf of bread."
"I told you: I was looking up the news. And sending an email," Neal added without looking him in the eye.
"An email to whom?"
"No one you know," Neal said. "A drop box, that's all. Just letting a friend know I landed on my feet."
Peter gave him a pointed look: the borrowed clothes, the way he was slightly hunched over and not touching his side.
"... sort of on my feet."
"I had no idea that you had any friends."
Neal topped off his coffee and Peter's. "That's cold, Peter. By the way, you need to stop buying the cheapest store brand of everything. Even in a town this small, you can probably find a decent Italian roast."
"I like my coffee. Tell me more about this friend of yours."
The kitchen door slammed. "Hey, Uncle Peter!" Jess called. "Brian wants to know where you put the - oh, wow, hi."
For a moment, no one moved. Neal and Jess stared at each other. Peter stared at both of them.
"He's my ... cousin," Peter said. "From Schenectady."
"Sweet," Jess said, still staring. She stuck out a hand. "I'm Jessica! Wow. Hi."
Neal moved to take her hand; Peter glared at him until he retreated back to the counter. "You were looking for something," Peter said pointedly.
"What? Oh - yeah. We can't find the big spray head for the hose."
"On the shelf above the feed sacks." When Jess didn't move, Peter added, "In the barn."
"Right. Yeah." Jess finally tore her eyes away from Neal. "Nice meeting you, mister -"
"Neal," Neal said. "Neal -"
"Burke," Peter inserted. "Neal Burke. Jess, tell Brian I'll be out in a minute."
The screen door slammed.
"Cute kid," Neal said.
"Yeah. You're not allowed within five hundred yards of her. Don't look at her or talk to her."
"Peter. She's what, twelve? What do you take me for?"
"Thirteen. Stay away from her."
"Your niece's honor is safe with me, Peter."
"It's not her honor I'm worried about. It's the fact that she's thirteen and thinks she's Nancy Drew. If you want your every waking move meticulously documented and your every secret brought to light -"
"Then I'll just keep spending time around you," Neal said.
"Funny. See me laughing."
Elizabeth expected to be given the third degree - Pattie was no idiot - but fortunately the Girl Scout bake sale was the topic on everyone's lips, including Pattie's. And then they were caught up in the whirlwind of the morning rush, as farm wives and commuters on their way to work stopped in for a donut and a cup of coffee, or a sandwich to save for lunch.
The Good Eatin' Bakery was located right on Main Street in the heart of the old downtown, convenient for locals and easy to find for strangers from out of town. Apple Corners, Elizabeth always maintained, wasn't quite as tiny as Peter claimed - there was a little sprawl of businesses around Main Street, and another cluster across the railroad tracks, where the "new" construction was located: the library, the Wal-Mart, a few chain stores. It might be a step down from the city (okay, a big step down, maybe a whole flight of stairs) but there was certainly enough business to keep the two sisters in business - and on their feet in the mornings.
As the usual morning crowd began to thin, a stranger came through the door. They always got a smattering of pass-through traffic off the highway, and El pegged him immediately for a cop. She'd been married to an FBI agent for much too long not to recognize law enforcement when she saw it. He was a big guy with a ginger crew cut.
"Cup of coffee," he told her, smiling. "And a question."
"Sure," El said, pouring his coffee. Pattie didn't hold with notions of espresso: all the coffee at Miller's Bakery was fresh-brewed in a pot. "Go right ahead."
"She's married, if that's what you were going to ask," Pattie put in, as she breezed past with a tray of fresh pershings.
"Pattie! Stop. She's my sister," El explained, handing over his coffee. "She has to tease me. It's her job."
The out-of-towner smiled. "Yeah, I can see the resemblance. Actually, your sister might be able to help me as well. You two probably know everyone in town, and I'm looking for a guy." He unfolded a piece of paper from his pocket. "He's a fugitive, and I'm tracking him. Have you seen this man?"
Pattie shook her head immediately. "But I think I'd remember if I had. Wow. What'd he do?"
"You don't want to know," the cop said smoothly. "He escaped from prison, and he's dangerous, possibly armed. It's very important that we find him as soon as possible." He turned his attention to El. "You haven't seen him, have you? Or heard of a stranger in town?"
El managed to laugh. "The only stranger I've spoken to this morning is you, I'm afraid." She hoped she sounded convincing. It was almost true. Neal wasn't a stranger; Peter had told her everything from Neal's romantic history to his shoe size over the breakfast table during those years of pursuit.
She tried not to look at the printout in the cop's hand, and Neal's face smiling at her from it, for fear that she'd give something away.
"Well, thanks for the help. Can I leave you my card?" Both women nodded, and he passed them each a little square of white cardboard. "Please call me if you hear anything. And if you do see this man, don't approach him. Like I said, he's very dangerous."
"Is it likely he's in the area?" Pattie sounded more fascinated than afraid.
"Not really, but we're taking no chances. What do I owe you ladies for the coffee?"
"Oh, it's on the house," Pattie told him. "You're doing good work. It's the least we can do."
As the bell in the bakery's door tinkled behind him, she turned to El, bright-eyed with excitement. "Isn't that amazing! A fugitive! Like something out of a movie, El."
"Like something out of a movie," El echoed. She turned over the card in her fingers, reading the name: GARRETT FOWLER, FBI.
She needed to talk to Peter.
Given the way his life had been going lately, Peter was entirely unsurprised that despite his efforts to keep Pattie's kids away from Neal, the four of them ended up eating breakfast in the Burkes' kitchen together.
"You work for him?" Neal said to the kids. "What's that like?"
Jess gestured with her fork. "Total slave driver."
"Total," Brian said. "It's like having a drill sergeant."
Peter stared at them. "What? You work three hours a day! Mostly riding horses!"
Neal leaned close. "Does he still do that thing with his face when he's ordering people around ..." He pulled a face and the kids broke into giggles.
"Ohhhhyes," Jess said.
"I do not do a thing with my face! How do you know about any thing with my face?"
"Hey, you weren't just watching me," Neal said. "I was watching you, too."
"Keep this up," Peter said, "and you're going straight back to pr - Poughkeepsie."
"I thought you were from Schenectady, Uncle Neal," Jess said.
Peter sputtered. Neal looked vastly amused.
"He's not your uncle. I'm your uncle."
The kitchen door opened and El came in, stopped at the sight of the group at the table, and then broke into a brilliant grin. "Well, look at all of you."
Peter rose to give her a quick kiss. "What are you doing here? It's not even nine."
El shrugged and dropped her purse on the countertop. "I hated leaving you to deal with ..." She glanced at Neal. "... everything all by yourself. After getting Pattie through the morning rush, I let her know I needed a couple of hours for personal stuff. I'll go back for the lunch crowd." She rolled her eyes pointedly at the kids, then at Neal.
Peter began collecting plates from the table. "Brian, Jess, how would you guys like to knock off a bit early today? I'll run you home. Hon, do you want to come along?" Though that would mean leaving Neal in the house alone. He wasn't sure what was less appealing: leaving Neal unattended in the house, or unattended with his wife.
"That's fine, honey," El said, smiling at him. "Neal and I ought to talk anyway."
"Hey, wait ..." Neal protested, as Peter, with an uncertain backward glance at Elizabeth, shooed the kids towards the door.
"I'll be back in a few minutes; they don't live that far away. El will keep you out of trouble." He smiled at his wife, then leaned close and murmured into her ear, "Don't believe a word he says."
After Peter left with the kids, Elizabeth gestured Neal towards the porch. "Come on," she said. "It's nice out there. Let's talk a bit. Would you like some lemonade?"
"Sure." Neal let himself be ushered to a sagging couch, a little musty-smelling and flecked with dog hair. While she went back inside to get the lemonade, he tried to take advantage of the opportunity to marshal his brain. The Tylenol had taken the edge off the knife in his side, but he was still sleep-deprived and hazy, his thoughts running slower than usual.
Being left alone with Peter's wife was an unforeseen development he wasn't quite sure how to handle. He was on much easier footing with Peter, even though they'd never had more than a few words of actual conversation before last night. Theirs had been a strange relationship, but a oddly comfortable one. There had been rules that both of them understood, and even if their cat-and-mouse almost-friendship had been taken to a new level now, the game was still afoot, their wits and wills still crossed like swords. But Elizabeth - he didn't know where he stood with her, what he was to her. Normally he would look at it in terms of what he wanted to get from her or learn from her, and this wasn't always in pursuit of a con. A lot of times he just liked to talk to people for the pleasure of it, because people were fascinating.
But he was in her power, as much as he was in Peter's. He didn't know how to relate to her from that angle.
He still couldn't explain the impulse that had made him run here, of all places. He'd looked up Peter Burke after escaping from supermax, of course, just to see what his old nemesis had been up to in the years he'd been incarcerated. Through the dry text of old newspaper clippings, he'd learned of the fire and Peter's subsequent retirement from the FBI. It was strange to see the reality after reading the stories: the horse ranch lying somnolent in the July heat, the old farmhouse with its well-worn furniture and the history embedded in its walls. And Peter, his broad, tanned face remapped with a pale tracery of scar tissue. It was one thing to read the headline: FBI AGENT INJURED, 3 KILLED IN WAREHOUSE FIRE. It was another to be faced with the reality, and he felt oddly guilty about it, even though he'd had nothing to do with it. As if, being there, he could have prevented it. But that was silly: even if Peter hadn't caught him, he wouldn't have been there. He'd have been living in the lap of luxury somewhere else. Peter's problems weren't his problems.
"Sorry to make you wait." Elizabeth nudged open the screen door, her hands full. The dog pushed his way out behind her, and jumped up onto the couch beside Neal as if it were his due. Neal thought about getting up to help her, but by the time the thought could settle, Elizabeth had already seated herself on a wicker chair in front of him and pulled up another chair to serve as an end table.
As well as two glasses of iced lemonade, she'd brought a small plate of variously shaped cookies, arranged in an artful spiral. "One thing about working at a bakery, you end up bringing a lot of baked goods home." She smiled. "Peter says I'm trying to make him fat. Now I get to make you fat instead."
Neal cautiously took a cookie with pink icing. "Thank you ... I think."
"There was a man asking about you at the bakery this morning," El said, and Neal stopped in mid-bite. "He said he was with the FBI."
Neal chewed. Swallowed. Then he said, "What did he look like?"
"He looked like an FBI agent," El said. "I know the type, believe me; I've been married to it for long enough. He was a big man. Light-colored hair."
Neal closed his eyes briefly to mask the despair. Fowler. He should have known. Maybe he should've been more up-front with Peter in the beginning, because this was not going to go over well. But the more the Burkes knew about his situation, the more danger they'd be in. And the more they knew, the more damage they could do to him if they decided to sell him out to Fowler and Adler - or turn him in to the police.
"He said you were dangerous," El said quietly. "He was showing around a picture."
Suddenly her delay inside the house - getting lemonade, arranging cookies on a plate - made sense to Neal. She called the police. Or, worse, Fowler. She's waiting for them to arrive.
"I'm not," Neal said. "I swear to you, Elizabeth. I've never hurt anyone, and I don't mean any harm to you and Peter."
It was so damn hard to think and plan. He'd only had a couple hours' sleep in the last two days, on Peter and El's couch this morning. Ironically, it was the first place he'd been in a long time that he felt safe enough to sleep.
Still, he couldn't blame her for turning him in. Fowler said I'm dangerous. Of course he did.
Possibly this whole fugitive thing would be a lot easier if he were dangerous. Neal let his eyes dart around the porch and tried to think like a dangerous, wanted felon. What would such a person do? There were no weapons in sight. Maybe he'd smash his lemonade glass, hold the sharp edges against El's throat, and ...
... die in a hail of gunfire, probably. Those things never ended well. Besides, El had been kind to him, and she was Peter's wife. The idea of hurting her made him sick.
Elizabeth's eyes were too astute, seeing right through him. "I believe you," she said. "I'm not sure why, but I do. After all, I did hear quite a lot about you while my husband was chasing you. He was very adamant that you were not a violent person. Not harmless, precisely, but not violent. And I don't believe he would have let you in the house if he was afraid you'd hurt me."
"I won't. And I don't want to see either of you hurt, either," Neal said. Despite all the things he wasn't certain about, that he knew for sure. He leaned forward and tried to infuse all the sincerity that he possibly could into his face and voice. It helped that it was true. "I'd rather leave than have you and Peter come to harm because of me. Do you want me to go?"
"No, I -" She pressed the cold glass of lemonade against her forehead for a moment. "I almost lost my husband three and a half years ago, Neal. I don't know if you know what happened to him, or if you understand how close I really came to losing him. I want to know that I'm not going to risk Peter, or my sister, or anyone else that I love because of you. I want to help you, but - I'm afraid,Neal."
The lemonade rose in the back of his throat. For an instant all the walls that he'd flung up and buttressed in the last two days trembled on the verge of falling, but that was something he couldn't allow to happen. Not here. Not now. Kate, he thought, and then, Breathe in. Breathe out.
When he was able to look at Elizabeth again, he saw her studying him with a frank curiosity tinged with worry. "Are you all right?" she asked.
The irony of her asking him that made him laugh softly. "I guess so," he said.
"Is this FBI person telling the truth, then? Are you a fugitive?"
Taking a deep breath, he pushed onward. He owed her the truth. Some truth, anyway. "Yes. I escaped from prison. And I told Peter this last night. He already knows."
"I thought you said this Adler person was after you ...?" Questioning. Testing his story. Wanting to believe.
"Yes," Neal said. "The FBI agent you talked to - Fowler is his name - works for him."
"Oh, Neal," Elizabeth sighed. "Peter did warn me about you ..."
"I'm not lying," he said quickly. "Fowler is an FBI agent, but he's dirty. He's squarely in Adler's pocket. Fowler is the one who -" He stopped, fighting to get the words out. He needed truth to get her on his side. Not all of it. But the parts of the truth he needed to dig out - those parts seared his throat like acid. "He killed my girlfriend Kate two nights ago. That's why I ran, why I came here. I didn't know he was that close behind me. He's bad,Elizabeth. Bad news. Don't get near him."
El gazed at him levelly for a long moment. He recognized the look on her face; it was the expression of a mark struggling to decide whether to believe one of his more outlandish, heartstring-tugging stories. And he recognized, too, the moment that she fell from querulous uncertainty into belief, into trust. She reached out a hand and placed it over his. "Oh, honey."
Neal let himself go with it - let a little of the pain show, enough to make his voice crack, his eyes come close to welling up. He was afraid to let more of it out because he was already balanced on a knife's edge of self-control, and the last thing he wanted was to break down crying in the arms of Peter Burke's wife. It might even help with his credibility - but, no. Just, no.
"Does Peter know all of this?" El asked.
Damn it, they were bound to compare notes, so he'd better be honest. "Not about Fowler. I didn't tell him because I figured there was no need to get you two deeper into this than you have to be. The less you know, the safer you'll be."
And because it changes everything. If there was one thing Neal knew well, it was the brotherhood that existed between law enforcement officers of all stripes. Peter might be a decent man, all things considered, but he would never take the word of a con over one of his brothers. In explaining the situation to him last night, Neal had selected the facts of the situation in order to present it in terms of con vs. con - and Adler was a much bigger con than Neal himself, a much better score. Peter might help Neal in order to get Adler, but Neal could imagine the way his face would have shut down if Neal tried to claim that the FBI manhunt for him was a conspiracy orchestrated by dirty cops. No cop was ever willing to believe that another cop was dirty unless they had the evidence right in front of their eyes, and sometimes not even then.
Elizabeth would find that out for herself as soon as Peter got home.
I'm going to have to run again.
At least his little detour at the Burkes' had provided him with a hot meal, a change of clothes, and some first aid supplies. And there was also the roll of cash tucked into the pocket of his borrowed shirt. He'd found it in the toe of one of Elizabeth's nylons - really, such an obvious hiding place; he'd think Peter would have taught her better than that.
The Burkes had been kind to him, and if he managed to survive this, he planned to send it back - with interest - in an envelope with no return address as soon as he pulled off his next big score.
But in the meantime, he had to look out for himself. No one else was going to.
"Why didn't you tell me this last night?"
El had tried to press a glass of lemonade onto Peter as soon as he'd shown up, but he was having none of it - he could see just by looking at them that something was up. After they'd told him about Fowler, Neal and El both sat on the ancient swaybacked couch while Peter paced with short hard steps from one side of the porch to the other. Satchmo had slunk off to the barn.
"Because I didn't want to get the two of you into -"
"Can it, Neal," Peter snapped. "Let's assume for a moment this whole thing is true - crooked FBI agents, homicidal crooked FBI agents. God. Not telling us about it doesn't keep us out of trouble, it gets us into even more trouble, because we wouldn't have known what was coming after you, after us,until it was too late. And on some level you must know that, or you wouldn't be telling us now."
Neal clammed up.
"Honey -" El began.
"Don't." Peter held up a finger at her, waited until she made an elaborate lip-zipping motion (accompanied by a small eye-roll), and turned back to Neal. "We're helping you, Neal, at risk to ourselves. We've opened up our home to you, aiding and abetting an escaped felon in the process, and in return, you lie to us."
"For the record," Neal said, "everything I told you last night was the absolute truth, Peter. I never -"
Peter raised his finger again, and spoke over the top of him. "And what it makes me wonder is, what else is Neal Caffrey lying about? That's what I'm wondering now, Neal."
"Look," Neal said, when Peter paused for air. "I'm leaving, Peter. Okay? I'm out of here. I didn't know Fowler was that close behind me. You're right, he's dangerous, and I never meant to lead him to your doorstep."
He started to rise. "Oh no you don't," Peter said, swooping to intercept him and pushing him back down onto the couch. "You stay right there." He whipped out his cell and began scrolling through the list of saved numbers.
Neal chewed his lip. "Honey," El said, "please, let's think about this. Fowler is -"
"What makes you think I'm calling Fowler?" Peter flashed them both a quick grin.
Diana answered on the first ring. "Boss! Hey!"
"I'm not your boss anymore, Diana; you can actually call me Peter, you know."
"I know," she said. He could hear the grin in her voice. "But I'll always think of you that way. How are things in Grover's Corners?"
"Apple Corners. They're good. Well, maybe not so good. I need some information."
There was a pause on the other end of the line. "I know I'm a civilian now," Peter said, trying to make it sound like it didn't hurt. "I'm not asking you to tell me anything that isn't a matter of public record. It's just that ..."
"It's faster to call me?"
"Well, given the nature of the request. There's a guy up here poking his nose around who says he's an FBI agent."
"You think he might not be?"
"I think there might be something else going on. At the very least, I'd like to know what division he works for, and anything else about him that might be ... you know ..."
"On the public record?"
He gave her Fowler's name, and Diana promised to get back to him as soon as possible. "And be discreet as possible. If what I'm hearing about this guy is accurate, you'll want to stay away from him."
"As a twopenny nail. Allegedly. But all I've got is hearsay, nothing I could take to OPR without being laughed out of the building. So keep your head down, and like I said, don't give me anything I couldn't get -"
"- through other channels. I'll get right on it. Peter."
"Thanks, Diana. You're the best. There's going to be a baked-goods care package coming your way as soon as things calm down around here."
When Peter hung up, he found both El and Neal watching him. Neal in particular was studying him with a baffled expression, as if Peter had suddenly grown a second head.
Neal shook his head helplessly. El rose and cupped Peter's face between her hands, and kissed him on the lips. "Have I mentioned lately that you're a good man? Also very hot."
"I guess I can live with that," Peter said, grinning back at her.
"Neal, come with me," El said over her shoulder. "You hardly got any sleep last night, and you look completely done in. Let me go make up the guest bedroom for you, and you can nap a little this afternoon. I need to get back to the bakery. At least for now, Fowler's not getting any closer, and we can tackle this again once you've had some rest."
Neal, moving like a sleepwalker, let himself be herded into the house. While El fluffed up pillows and unfolded sheets, Neal drifted closer to Peter. "Why are you helping me?" he asked quietly, with uncharacteristic earnestness tempered with helpless bafflement. "Either of you?"
"God only knows. Maybe I need to take up skydiving for a hobby, because my life is clearly lacking in stupid risks."
"Do you believe me about Fowler?"
"That he's in Adler's pocket? I don't know. At the very least, it's a bit suspicious that he shows up right after you do, but with no sign of backup, no announcements on the news regarding an escaped felon, no indication of a manhunt in progress. Just Fowler, all by his lonesome. That's a little weird, don't you think?"
Neal met Peter's eyes, and nodded.
"You're still on thin ice, you know," Peter added warningly.
This drew a tiny smile. "Was I ever off thin ice?"
"It's not a joke," Peter said.
"No. I suppose not." Neal looked thoughtful. Then he dug in his pocket and tucked something into Peter's with a quick flick of his wrist. Peter pulled it out, and stared at the roll of cash in his hand. He could feel temper building like a storm front.
"Neal, did you steal this from us?"
"If I were stealing it, would I be giving it to you? Just testing your security systems. You might want to have a discreet word with Elizabeth that every burglar over the age of twelve looks in the sock drawer first."
Now the temper storm was building a series of thunderheads. "You stole from my wife?"That'd teach him to trust a con. He should've called the cops last night, he really should've. "Neal, so help me, if every single dime isn't here -"
"It is," Neal said. "It is, really. Count it. You can search me if you don't believe me."
Peter stared at him, caught between fury and disbelief - what game was he playing now? Neal looked sincere. But, of course, he was good at that.
"Don't tell her, Peter, please," Neal said softly. "Just put it back."
Afternoon, and the damp July heat that came along with it, settled on Apple Corners like a muffling blanket.
Downtown, all two blocks of it, was nearly deserted. The Good Eatin' Bakery hadn't seen a customer in over an hour.
Across the railroad tracks and a mile or so down the road, the Wal-Mart and its associated shopping district had a few cars. It always did. The chain stores that had moved in along with the Wal-Mart - a NAPA Auto Parts, a Taco Bell and so forth - marched in a neat line to the wedge of park outside Apple Corners' tiny municipal library.
Jessica Miller perched on the edge of the WWII memorial fountain in the park, her skateboard dangling from one hand, kicking her feet. Brian was sitting in the shade of the fountain with his back against the concrete retaining wall. Occasionally one of Jess's dangling sneakers would hit her brother in the shoulder, ear or head. Brian ignored her. Having lived most of his life with younger siblings had given him an extremely high tolerance for that sort of minor torment. Besides, he was working on a high score in "Meteor Blitz".
"So, do you think that guy is really Uncle Peter's cousin?"
"I'm not even sure if you're really my sister," Brian muttered.
Jess kicked him in the side of the head, on purpose this time.
"Ow! I don't know! Stop kicking me." Brian coughed. "If Dad doesn't pick us up soon, I'm waiting inside the library. It's air-conditioned and not full of pollen."
"He said to wait in the park."
Brian sighed, and texted, DAD WHR R U?
HUNG UP FEED STORE, SORRY, FEW MINUTES came the reply. He held it up wordlessly to show his sister.
Jess heaved a sigh cranked up to maximum dramatic intensity, dropped her skateboard onto the sidewalk and then herself after it.
"Don't go anywhere," Brian called after her.
"Where am I gonna go? There's nowhere to go!"
Brian watched her skateboard down to the Wal-Mart parking lot and do some loop-de-loops before he felt comfortable going back to his game. If there was any trouble to get into on a lazy July afternoon, his sister would find it.
Brian, on the other hand, preferred to avoid trouble as much as possible. Jess was wildly curious about the mysterious stranger staying with Aunt El and Uncle Peter, but Brian just wished the stranger would go away. What if he turned out to be some kind of ax murderer? Uncle Peter had never mentioned a cousin before, and Jess had been spinning far-fetched theories all morning. (Witness protection! Mafia! Aliens!) With every new, increasingly gruesome idea that Jess came up with, Brian wished more wholeheartedly that he'd never heard of Cousin Neal Burke.
A shadow fell across him, and Brian looked up from his game, startled. The person standing above him was a big guy with wide shoulders and a sweaty, rumpled suit. This guy was definitely from out of town, probably the city. Nobody dressed like that around here.
"Hi there, kid," the stranger said.
"Hi," Brian said warily. He scrambled to his feet, acutely aware of how weedy and small he was next to the stranger's bulk.
"Don't get scared, it's okay." The stranger pulled out a wallet and flipped it open. Brian was surprised to see a badge, sort of like on TV. GARRETT FOWLER, it said. "I'm with the FBI."
"Are you here for my sister?" Brian asked. He looked wildly around for Jess. If anyone could get in trouble with the FBI, it was Jessica.
"No," Fowler said, looking startled. "What did your sister do?"
"Nothing that I know of," Brian said. He glimpsed Jess, still down in the Wal-Mart, catching air with her board. "Yet."
Fowler followed his gaze, and smiled. "No, I'm not here for your sister. I'm looking for a very dangerous fugitive who escaped from prison. And if there's one thing I know, it's that kids notice stuff grownups don't, right?"
As soon as Fowler said "very dangerous fugitive", Brian got an awful sinking feeling in his stomach, and his stomach fell right to his toes when Fowler unfolded a computer printout with a somewhat grainy picture of Cousin Neal on it.
It was on the tip of his tongue to blurt out a full confession, but then an even more terrifying thought occurred to him: would Uncle Peter and Aunt El go to jail? That would be awful. Maybe he should talk to his parents first. Or Uncle Peter, and find out what was really going on.
"What did he do?" Brian asked. His voice emerged a little shaky. His palms were sweaty too. "Did he kill somebody?"
"I'm really not at liberty to talk about it," Fowler said. "Tell you what, kid, why don't you ask your friends and see if anybody's seen him around town? And you can have them call me if they do."
He handed Brian a card with an embossed FBI logo. "Um, thanks," Brian said, and cleared his throat, pointing to the picture. "Can I take that, please? I can, um, show it to my friends, and stuff."
"Sure." Fowler handed it to him. "Thanks a lot, kid."
Brian sank down on the concrete retaining wall, spreading out the picture on his bony knees. His mouth was horribly dry. He heard Fowler walk away, but didn't dare look up for fear his face would give away the awful, all-consuming guilt he was feeling.
I just lied to an FBI agent. Oh, sure, nothing that he said had been a direct lie, but didn't Uncle Peter always say that lies of omission were just as bad as regular lies? I could go to jail,Brian thought, and he started shaking even harder.
The sound of Jess' skateboard wheels scraped on the pavement, and Brian hastily crumpled up the paper and stuffed it into the pocket of his shorts. He had to think, and if Jess saw this, he'd never have a chance to think at all. He'd just be caught up in another of his sister's wild schemes, like always.
"Hey, who's that guy who just went into the library?" Jess said. "City dude or somethin'?"
"I don't know," Brian said, and oh fudge, now he was lying to his sister too.
Jess frowned at him. "Are you getting heatstroke or something? Maybe you ought to drink some water."
He was saved from even more lying when Dad's pickup pulled up to the curb. Jess scooted over to the middle of the bench seat, and Brian got the outside, being the oldest. The air conditioning vents poured cold air over him, which helped calm him a bit.
Dad was complaining about the latest feed prices, and Jess told him about how she'd finally learned to do a flatground ollie, whatever the heck thatwas. Brian wedged against the window and wondered miserably if they sent kids to prison and why on Earth two very law-abiding people like Aunt El and Uncle Peter would be hiding a dangerous escaped felon in their barn.
Maybe he should just call the police. Or that FBI guy Fowler. He wanted to ask his dad, but he couldn't get a word in edgewise with Jess's chattering. And the more he thought about it, the more scared he was that if he told his dad, they'd all be in a lot of trouble.
How did he get himself into these things? He was just minding his own business. He wasn't a trouble magnet like Jess.
"Hey, look, a hitchhiker!" Jess said, leaning into Brian's space to point out the window.
"Big whoop," Brian muttered. It was pretty common to see the older teenagers hitching in and out of town, usually getting rides from their friends. But he looked and saw that this was another stranger: a guy wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a flat, soft-brimmed cap like somebody might wear in a really old movie.
Great. More mysteries. As they whipped past him, Jess bounced in her seat. "Dad! Aren't you gonna pick up that guy?"
"There's no room in the truck, sweetpea. Someone will pick him up, wherever he's going."
Jess heaved a sigh and went back to talking about her skateboard tricks. Brian twisted around and peered out the rear window. Sure enough, a big truck carrying hogs was slowing down on the side of the road. The hitchhiker was dwindling in his field of vision as they pulled away, but Brian could still tell from his body language that he was less than thrilled.
So the guy would get to wherever he was going, big deal, and Brian hunched down against the window again. When he got home, he was gonna Google this escaped felon until he figured out what was going on. You could find anything on Google. You just had to try hard enough.
Neal woke slowly from a deep, heavy sleep, haunted by vague shadows of unpleasant dreams that he couldn't quite remember. His side hurt abominably, but it hurt a lot less if he didn't move. Also, napping in the middle of the day always left him kind of fuzzy, so for a while he just lay on top of the quilt covering the bed, watching tree branches sway in the sunshine out the window and cast their dappled shadows on the floor.
It was unbelievably peaceful and idyllic here, more like something out of a movie than a place people actually lived. He figured that it would probably take him less than a week to get thoroughly bored with the place - it was amazing that Peter hadn't gone stir crazy in three years - but as a temporary haven, it really couldn't be beat.
Occasionally he could hear creaking from the living room, the banging of the screen door, the low murmur of the TV. Peter was still here. For some reason that made him feel more safe, rather than less.
What am I doing here? This wasn't a place for Neal Caffrey, con artist and high roller - in so many ways. He shouldn't be putting the Burkes in Adler's line of fire. He didn't belong here.
But it had been so long since he'd been able to stop moving without having to watch his back. Since he went to prison, in fact. And since he'd escaped ... well. It had been nothing but one long nightmare: searching for Kate, trying to dodge Fowler and the U.S. Marshals as he dug his way closer to the truth surrounding Kate's disappearance - and then -
But he wasn't ready to think about that. He wasn't sure if he ever would be.
What mattered was that he felt safe here. And he didn't want to examine the emotion too closely, for fear that its flaws, magnified, would cause the illusion to fall apart, as such things usually did. He'd felt safe with Kate, too, once upon a time.
Something rustled outside the window.
Neal went still. He wasn't familiar with the sounds of the country; maybe that was a perfectly normal sort of noise. But it seemed ... furtive, somehow. He listened. More rustling. Then a shadow appeared and disappeared at the window: it was backlit by the sun and he only glimpsed it, but it was definitely someone's head, and he didn't think it was Peter's.
Neal rolled off the bed - or tried to; he was brought up short by the tug of the healing injury in his side. Moving more slowly, he slid off the bed and sidled over to press himself against the wall. He edged to the window just as the prowler popped his head up again.
It was so completely the last person he was expecting to see here that for a moment all Neal could do was stare through the window with his mouth open.
Mozzie stared back at him, then began mouthing urgently at him.
"Shhh!" Neal hissed back at him, and began wrestling with the window, trying to get it open. He dislodged some dead leaves and a few annoyed spiders, and pushed it up a foot or so.
"Thank God! I thought I was going to have to look in every window on the ground floor, which is not an easy feat, believe me, without being spotted by the suit with the attack dog. And that's assuming you weren't being held on the second floor, or in the basement -"
"I'm not a prisoner, Moz," Neal whispered back. "What are you doing here?"
"What's it look like? I got your email and hitched north to Mayberry here."
"I didn't tell you to come! Moz -"
"Oh, what? Now you want me to hitch back?Did I mention the hog truck? That's not a metaphor, by the way."
"No, I want you safe," Neal whispered, but it was clear that nothing was getting through. He sighed. "Hang on, I don't plan to have an entire conversation through the window. I feel like Juliet at the balcony. C'mon in."
Between the two of them, they managed to wrestle the window high enough to admit Mozzie, though it was a struggle to get him over the sill - Mozzie wasn't the world's most athletic person, especially since he was hauling what looked like an army surplus duffle with him. He ended up tumbling to the floor, duffle and all. Neal managed to step back in time to avoid going over with him.
In the living room, Satchmo barked.
"Oh great," Neal whispered, as footsteps approached rapidly in the hall. "Closet!"
Mozzie vanished into the closet with silent speed, just as Peter tapped on the door. "Neal?"
"Nightmare!" Neal called. "Gonna try to go back to sleep."
"Well, don't sleep too long," Peter said through the door. "El's on her way home, and I've got a pot roast in the oven."
Neal tried to wrap his brain around the idea of Peter Burke, badass federal agent, cooking for him.His brain simply would not do it, so he gave up. "Yeah, gimme a few minutes to wake up."
Peter's footsteps retreated, along with Satchmo's clicking claws. Neal listened for a moment, and then opened the closet, letting out Mozzie along with a waft of musty rosewater and mothballs. Mozzie brushed himself off and then looked in a sort of horrified disgust around the room, which was decorated in Early Farm Cliche, complete with stitched samplers on the walls and a rocking chair in the corner.
"What in the world are you, of all people, doing on Happy Acres Farm here? I thought the countryside was your Kryptonite."
"We don't always have a choice about where we land, Moz." Neal sat on the edge of the bed. "What's in the duffle?"
"My gear," Mozzie said. "Don't leave home without it."
"Especially when you're being hunted by crooked feds and worse?" Neal asked rhetorically. "Except you're not,Moz, and I told you to stay out of this. I don't even think Adler knows about you, and I'd like to keep it that way. There's more than I told you in my email, more that's come to light: Fowler knows I came up this way. He's nearby."
"Kate?" Mozzie asked gently. "The word on the street -"
All Neal could do was shake his head, waving off any unwanted sympathy that might be forthcoming.
"Damn," Mozzie whispered. He sank down onto the other bed, rumpling its gingham quilt. "When?"
"Two nights ago. That's when I ran."
"You ran to Burke."
Neal could only shrug. He didn't fully understand it either.
"You could've gone to me."
"No," Neal said. "No, Moz. I don't even want you here.Adler's been a step ahead of me the whole way. Among other things, he's managed to force me to use up most of my funds, and cut me off from the rest. He's trying to isolate me and make sure I have nowhere to go. That's why I had to get as far away as possible from the places he'd expect me to be. I could feel the trap closing around me in New York."
"What about the musi -"
Neal raised a hand. "In a safe place. That's all I'm going to say. And that's more than you should know, really."
"You could probably trade -"
"I'm not making deals with Adler," Neal said flatly. "Not now. Not after - no. No deals."
Mozzie took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "Where are you going from here?" he asked quietly.
"I'm not sure. Canada, probably. If I can get to another city - Toronto, Montreal - I can start to set myself up again, gather enough resources to make another jump to Europe or Asia. Lose myself on another continent. Adler'll never find me."
Mozzie slipped his glasses back on, and studied Neal intently. "You are running, then."
"It's that or stand and die, Moz." But behind the words was the truth he could not bring himself to acknowledge: that he had nothing left to lose. Kate was gone, and the other friends and contacts that he'd had before he went into prison had either vanished, or Adler had managed to cut him off from them. Besides, the last thing he wanted was to drag them into this mess along with him.
Maybe, in truth, that was why he'd run to the Burkes' farm, rather than seeking one of his old friends: because he'd been gutted already by Kate's death, and he couldn't risk anyone else he cared about. He'd had to go to ground somewhere though, and then, and then ...
His hatred of Adler and Fowler was a physical thing, crouching in the back of his mind. And he dared not give in to it, because the grief lay that way, too. It was all tangled up together, a black monster that would roar up and crush him.
Nothing left to lose.
Except Mozzie. And the longer he stayed with the Burkes - the longer he had to deal with their willingness to help him, their cute niece and nephew, even their damn dog - the more they mattered. He couldn't afford that kind of entanglement right now. He needed to go.
"Neal?" Peter tapped on the door. Neal jumped. "El's home. You think you might be ready for dinner soon?"
"Give me a minute!" Neal called.
After he was reasonably sure that Peter wasn't listening outside the door, he said quietly, "You can stay in here. I'll see if I can sneak out some leftovers for you later."
"Oh no." Mozzie rose and slapped his cap back on his head. "I'm not staying in the house of the Man. I will seek accommodations elsewhere."
"Where?" Neal inquired dryly, gesturing to the window, where sunset was casting a ruddy tint over the leaves of the shade tree. "It's not like we're in a thriving metropolis. The Burkes do have a decent barn, though. Comfortable."
Mozzie groaned as he heaved his duffle out the window. "Barns. Barns.The things I do for you."
Mozzie turned back.
"Thanks," Neal said, and if his voice broke a little, it was only because he was still exhausted from the last couple of days. "Thanks for coming."
Mozzie held out a hand. Neal hooked his fingers in his friend's. Then Mozzie was out the window into the shadows of the evening.
Neal sighed and went to have dinner with the Man.
Neal was quiet and distracted at dinner. Peter figured this wasn't surprising, given everything the kid had been through lately, but it made for a subdued atmosphere.
"Pattie said that Fowler man has been talking to everyone in town," El said. "Neal won't be able to show his face in public without someone noticing him."
"El, he's a stranger in Apple Corners. He wouldn't be able to do that anyway."
El acknowledged his point by pursing her lips.
Peter looked at Neal. "This is ridiculous. We're just reacting right now, letting Adler and Fowler make all the moves."
"He's right. We need a plan, Neal," El said, idly tapping her fork on the edge of her plate.
That finally made Neal look up from picking at his food. "We?" He looked startled, but otherwise his expression was hard to read, his eyes shadowed. "We, no, there isn't - Look, I'll be out of your hair in -"
"A day or two, yeah, right." Peter rose and began clearing the table. This was something he'd told El early on that he wanted to be his chore - there was nothing like the threat of breaking dishes to help teach him to coordinate between his natural and artificial arms. In the beginning they'd lost a few plates and glasses. These days, not so much. "Neal, listen. I've been stepping easy because I know you've just been through something really rough. But if I'm going to help you, I need to know more than just the bare bones of what happened. I need the whole story. You, Adler, Kate, Fowler. Everything."
"I didn't ask for -"
"Help? Right. Like Fowler and Adler are just going to stop looking for you and stop bothering us if we let you walk away."
"They probably will," Neal protested. "They have nothing to gain by getting other people involved, and everything to lose. Just stay out of their way and you'll be fine."
"Right, because I've made a career of staying out of the bad guys' way."
"It's not your career anymore!" Neal said to his back. "You can walk away from this, Peter. I never meant to get you involved."
"Uh-huh." Peter turned around and fixed Neal with a stare. "Last night, you gave me a handful of selected facts. Tonight I want the whole story, Neal. Nothing held back."
After a long moment, Neal said, "Let's talk."
Peter got a beer from the refrigerator, and a screw-top bottle of wine from the cabinet over the sink. "Hey, hon? Wine?"
"Why do I get the feeling I'm going to need it?" El sighed. She picked up the wine bottle along with two glasses from the dish rack. After some thought, Peter fetched the whole six-pack of beer - he figured he was going to need it, too.
El and Peter snuggled up on one of the oversized couches in the living room, and Neal settled carefully onto the one opposite, with a glass of wine that he eyed dubiously. Satch stared wistfully at the empty spot beside Neal, until Neal gave him a little grin and patted it. The dog jumped up happily.
"Okay, let's go back to the beginning," Peter said. "And I want the whole story this time. How did you meet Adler?"
Neal's smile was crooked and a little strange. "He's the man who made me who I am today."
"Say what?" Peter sat up straighter, nearly dislodging El. "I thought you said you didn't work with him."
"I didn't. I worked for him." As Peter's expression flattened out, Neal said, "Peter, you have to believe me, I had no idea he was doing any of the things he was doing. I honestly thought I was scamming him. I ended up ..." He hesitated, looking faintly embarrassed. "I ended up being taken for a ride instead."
"He conned you?" Peter tested the sound of it.
"You don't have to sound so pleased about it."
"He conned you."
"Can we move on, please?" Neal twirled his wine glass between his fingers. "The point is, he knew me, but I didn't know him. Not like I thought I did. And he didn't come back into my life until about a month ago."
"When you escaped from prison," Peter said. He could feel the tension in El - she was listening intently.
"Yeah," Neal said. "When I escaped from prison."
"Kate came to see me while I was incarcerated. Every week."
It was surprisingly easy to talk about it. The trick, like the trick to giving the exact right emotional responses in so many of the cons he'd pulled, was pretending it was all happening to someone else. It was like a movie, not really his life at all.
"And then she stopped coming. And I escaped to find her."
"From supermax." Peter sounded unsurprised.
"Took me a month and a half," Neal pointed out.
Peter snorted a soft laugh and opened another beer. He'd slipped off the prosthesis and its harness - more comfortable without it, Neal assumed - and tossed it on the back of the couch. He tucked the beer under the stump and twisted off the cap, practiced and easy, obviously something he did a lot.
"How'd you escape?"
"Is that really relevant?"
"Probably not," Peter conceded. "I'm just -"
"I was going to say curious."
"Boys," El said, wrinkling her nose. "We can get to that later, can't we? Anyway, Neal, you left prison to look for Kate, right? And you found her."
Peter looked down at the top of her head. "You make it sound like that's a good thing."
"I think it's sweet." She tilted her head back, and kissed his nose. "Like you wouldn't come looking for me."
Neal looked away, carefully tamped his emotions down again. "Yes, I found her. Eventually. She didn't make it easy for me. She was running, and she took me on quite a hunt. The fact that I was having to keep an eye out for the Marshals at the same time didn't help." A faint grin slipped out. "Not that any of them came close. You're still the only one who's caught me, Peter."
Peter answered with a small grin of his own. "Was she running from you?" he asked. "Or from Fowler and Adler?"
"She went out of her way to make me think it was me she didn't want to see. But it wasn't. They were threatening her, trying to use her to get to me. Well, Fowler mostly. He's Adler's cats' paw. If anything, Kate was trying to protect me." At least, that was how he'd reconstructed it in his head. He'd never know for sure now. If Kate was also playing her own game - well, concern for him was part of it. Most of it. Had to be.
"And they wanted you because they thought you had the music box," Peter said.
"Which I didn't have."
Peter eyed him skeptically before taking a slug of his beer. "Oh, no. Completely innocent, I'm sure."
"Peter, I swear to you, even though they thought so, I did not have the music box: not when I was in prison, and not stashed somewhere to pick up when I got out. It was one of those things - word on the street was I had it, and I never corrected them. Does that make sense?"
"Gives you the street cred without actually doing the crime. Sure. Makes sense." But Peter was still giving him an intense look - his FBI Special Agent Burke look. Peter was too damn smart, and given the music box's current location, Neal couldn't let the line of questioning continue down this road. So far, he'd managed to skate by on the truth - not the whole truth, but enough of it that he still had plausible deniability for the things he hadn't said. This conversation was now teetering on the brink of something he might not be able to come back from, so he wrenched it to its inevitable conclusion.
It's just a movie. These things happened to someone else.
"To make a long story short," Neal said, "Kate and I didn't trust Fowler to honor the deal he offered us. Things went south. Fowler killed her, shot me, and that's how I ended up in your barn."
"Oh, sweetie," El whispered.
"You could maybe make the short story a little longer than that," Peter said.
Elizabeth twisted her head to frown at him. "Peter Burke, this isn't an interrogation. He's lost someone he loves. Give him some space."
Peter opened his mouth, closed it, and Neal saw his jaw clench. "Sorry," he said, surprising Neal. "But you've got to understand, I need to know what happened in order to get anywhere. I know it's rough on you, but we can't tiptoe around everything."
"I know." Neal poured himself more wine. It was cheap and lousy, but he could feel its warmth spreading through him, offering the false promise of insulation from pain both physical and mental. He forced himself to go easy on it. He couldn't let himself slide into a bottle right now; not until he was alone, anyway. Which hopefully would be soon. Keeping himself in emotional check sapped energy he didn't have.
"Fowler tried to make a deal with us. The music box in return for bulletproof cover identities somewhere else. He claimed he had FBI backing for it, though I realized in retrospect that was probably a lie. Kate and I talked about it, though, and we knew that if we took Fowler's deal, he'd always have leverage over us." Weeks of running from the U.S. Marshals had given him an idea of what that kind of life would be like. It wasn't freedom that Fowler had offered them, but a different kind of prison.
He hesitated, trying to decided how much to share with them. How much was safe to tell. Clearly they couldn't know the entire story of what had happened at the hangar. But whatever he said had to be plausible. And he still didn't want to lie outright - their trust was a hole card that he didn't intend to squander lightly.
"So you two told Fowler you weren't taking his deal," Peter said.
Neal nodded. "And he -" He stopped. Swallowed.
"Took out Kate. And shot you." Peter's voice was unexpectedly gentle, despite the brutal truth of the words.
"Yes." Give or take a few key details. "And I ran. Bought a Greyhound ticket in cash, ditched the bus in Syracuse and hitched up here."
"Any idea how Fowler tracked you down so quickly?"
Neal shook his head. "I assume he started with the bus. I shouldn't have done that, but I couldn't think of a better way to get out of the city quickly. Rental car companies don't take cash anymore, and I couldn't get enough on such short notice to pay for a cab all the way out of the city. Boosting a car would have been - illegal and therefore not an option," he said quickly, at Peter's look. In reality, it was way too conspicuous in the city, with the combined forces of several branches of law enforcement after him. In retrospect, it probably would've got him farther and with less of a trail than the bus. He just hadn't been thinking clearly at the time.
He hadn't meant to take the bus all the way to Syracuse, either. He'd passed out, drowsed - lost some time, certainly. He'd intended to ditch it as soon as he was far enough from the city to have a good shot at boosting a car that no one would notice missing for a day or two. Instead he'd ridden all the way to the Syracuse Greyhound terminal, giving Fowler and the U.S. Marshals an excellent start on finding him. Stupid, stupid. It was so much easier to think of options now that he was no longer scared, in pain and - he could admit it to himself, if not to anyone else - so shaken up about Kate that he hadn't been thinking straight. All he could think was Run, run, get somewhere safe. And for some reason the Burkes had been the only thing he'd come up with.
"Does he have any reason to connect you with us?" Peter asked.
"I can't think why -"
"Like the birthday cards you sent me every year, for example."
"... well, there were those. But I sent them to your old address. I didn't even know you'd moved until I was out of prison."
"Escaped from prison," Peter pointed out, gesturing with his bottle of beer.
"No, not semantics, Neal. It means that you can't take this to the police, even assuming you have evidence - do you have evidence?" he asked, raising his eyebrows. Neal shook his head. "Yeah. Thought so. But even so, with Fowler in Adler's corner - that's why you were so resistant to the idea of turning yourself in, isn't it? Fowler will step in and take over jurisdiction from the local LEOs ... and you'll never make it to trial."
El sucked in her breath.
"One of many reasons," Neal said.
Peter sighed and set down his half-empty beer to press his fingertips against his eyes.
"All right," he said. "The one thing I guess we have going for us at this point is that Fowler doesn't seem to have called down the Marshals on your ass yet. He could've, and he still could - if he thinks you're somewhere around here, he could have roadblocks and announcements on the six o'clock news. He hasn't done that. Which probably means he's planning on dealing with you himself, without getting due process involved -"
"Thanks for the pep talk, Peter."
"But it also means that his resources are extremely limited. And that makes him easier for you - and us - to avoid. I'll call Diana back in the morning and see what she's found out about him. We may be able to start an internal investigation, give him something else to think about, anyway." Peter hesitated. "Neal, I think you should at least consider cutting a deal. I still have a lot of friends in the Bureau. I can get you to someone above Fowler."
Peter sighed. He looked older than Neal remembered. And of course he was - but it wasn't just a matter of time's inexorable passage. Especially in the lamplight, he looked like an altogether different person from the cocky FBI agent, flushed with success, who had arrested Neal three and a half years ago. "Neal, compared to Adler, you're small fry. If they can make a deal with you and take down Adler, they'll go for it in a heartbeat. You'll probably be out in a year or two. No more running; no more looking over your shoulder."
"No," Neal said again.
"What's the matter with you? It's the best you're going to get, and you know it. Are you protecting Adler? Or planning on going after him on your own?"
Neal threw an arm over his eyes, lying back on the couch. "I don't know, Peter. All I know is that if I put myself in Fowler's hands, I may as well take your gun and stick it in my mouth. That's what I'd be doing."
After a moment, Peter said, "We'll do it your way, for now. No plea bargains. Yet. But in the morning, as well as checking with Diana, I'm calling some old friends at the FBI and starting the ball rolling on an investigation of Fowler. If he really is as dirty as you say, then there has to be a trail, and with luck, it'll lead back to Adler."
Before bed, Peter wanted to do a final sweep of the farm to make sure everything was as it should be. If he thought it was strange that Neal insisted on coming with him, he didn't say anything about it. He brought his gun.
Neal was braced to cover if he needed to, but Mozzie had apparently gone to ground so thoroughly that Neal would never have guessed he was there. If he even was there; maybe he'd gone off to find a hotel somewhere. Neal had hoped to slip some food out to the barn, but Peter seemed to be watching him as intently as the dark farmyard, so there was no opportunity to do more than look helpful and vigilant.
Satchmo seemed unusually interested in the barn, but when Peter flicked on the light and glanced around inside, Neal couldn't see anything visibly out of place. Not that he would recognize "out of place" in a barn unless it was really blatant. But there were no, say, suspicious loafers protruding from under a pile of hay.
Peter closed the barn door. A couple of the horses, slow and sleepy in the dusk, wandered over to the edge of the paddock to see what they were doing.
"Hey, lady," Peter said, reaching over the top bar of the fence to stroke the nearest horse's neck and then push her nose away. "Got nothing for you tonight. Go back to bed."
The other horse was black, and in the dark, Neal was barely aware of it, until it reached over the fence and lipped at his arm. He recoiled. So did the horse.
"I'll be damned," Peter said. "Put your hand out. Fingers together, so he can't bite you."
"Bite?" Neal said, stopping in mid-reach.
"Ness is a good horse, deep down, but he doesn't trust anyone," Peter said. "He hardly even lets El get near him. I've never seen him take to somebody like this. Let him sniff you."
This was less than comforting, but Neal felt that there was no way to back down without embarrassing himself, so he followed instructions and held out his hand. The black horse had danced away from the fence. Now he moved back, reaching his neck out cautiously to snuffle around Neal's hand. His nose was velvety soft, though a little damp.
"Wish I'd brought a treat to give him," Peter said softly. "I've never seen him do this with anyone he doesn't know. Or most people he doesknow, for that matter."
Getting a little bolder, Neal tried lifting his hand, slowly and carefully, to pet the horse's shoulder. The horse put up with that for only a few seconds before trotting off.
"Well," Neal said, "he didn't bite, at least."
Peter slapped the other horse's neck and led the way back to the house.
"You named your horse after Eliot Ness?" Neal said. "Why does that fail to surprise me."
Peter, uncharacteristically, hesitated before speaking. "No one's really sure what his name was before. He's a rescue."
He paused on the steps to the porch, looking back through the darkness at the paddock and the barn. "When we first moved out here, El and I knew from the beginning that we wanted to foster and rehabilitate rescue horses. Ness is the first one we took in. We didn't plan to keep him, there's just something ..." He shook his head.
"Something?" Neal said when Peter didn't go on, because he'd just be damned if he'd let an opportunity to find out a little more about Peter Burke slip away.
"I don't know if you can really understand it unless you've been through it," Peter said. "When he came here, he was afraid of everything, half-starved and skittish. And slowly, over time, he started warming up to us. The day that he let me saddle him for the first time - there just aren't words for that feeling, seeing an animal that used to be so afraid of human beings learning to trust again. It was the first time since I left the FBI that I felt like -"
His mouth snapped shut.
Neal was suddenly glad that it was too dark to see Peter's face and whatever was revealed there.
They stood in silence for a moment. Then Neal said, "It was a bomb."
He couldn't see Peter's expression, but could tell from the shift in Peter's posture that Peter was listening.
"It was a bomb that killed Kate." Neal swallowed hard. "There was a private plane, supposed to take us out of the country. Fowler arranged it. Well, Adler did, through Fowler. We were both supposed to be - but instead it was just her. I watched it happen."
Peter swore softly.
"In the chaos, I ran. Fowler shot at me. Winged me." His hand went automatically to his side, still tender, but healing. "I didn't even realize it until later."
"Sometimes you don't feel it at first." Peter sounded like he was speaking from experience.
And sometimes you do.He'd felt Kate's death, felt the scalpel that had cut her neatly out of his life, as if it had been cutting his own flesh.
After a moment, Peter reached out and touched his arm. Neal jumped, expecting - and prepared to brush off - awkward sympathy, but instead Peter pointed out into the barnyard. When Neal opened his mouth to speak, Peter gestured him urgently to silence, and then reached down to put his hand on Satchmo's head, keeping the dog still.
Neal wasn't sure what he was supposed to be looking for, or whether he should be alarmed. Then he saw movement in the shadows beside the barn. He tensed, but it was small, not a human being, certainly.
With exquisite grace, the animal darted out into the moonlight, and Neal saw that it was a fox: little, dainty, delicate. It made no noise at all. The wide, fluffy tail floating behind it was almost as big as the fox's catlike body.
It was no more than twenty feet away from them.
Satchmo quivered, and made a tiny frustrated sound in his throat. Peter hooked his fingers into the dog's collar.
The fox froze, its head up. It looked around. Neal could swear that its eyes, shining in the moonlight, met theirs for an instant. Then it trotted off, not alarmed but purposeful, like a dog going about its business. It vanished behind the house.
The spell was broken. They could move again. Peter said in a soft voice, "She's been coming around for a couple of years. El calls her Sue."
"How do you know it's a girl?" Neal asked.
"Saw her with kits last summer. For all I know, this might be one of Sue's kids. I can't tell them apart. Anyway, foxes don't bother the horses, and we don't have chickens or anything, so we like having them around."
Their voices were still hushed. Speaking loudly seemed somehow disrespectful. Neal couldn't help thinking of the steady calmness of the fox's gaze. There was intelligence behind those eyes, a mind and a purpose, albeit an alien one.
Though he'd never seen one in the wild, he'd always felt a kinship with foxes, and other archetypical trickster animals. Con men, by and large, were a superstitious lot. Neal had never considered himself so, but he wondered what Mozzie would make of it.
"Anyway," Peter said. His voice was lighter and more cheerful than it had been. He opened the kitchen door and pushed Satchmo inside; the dog still wanted to go investigate. "Long night. Early morning. You can sleep in the guest bedroom."
El appeared in the kitchen doorway in a fluffy bathrobe. "Sue's out there," she said softly, her eyes sparkling with delight. "I just saw her."
Peter nodded and grinned. It lifted years off his face. "We were watching her from the porch."
"And you had Satch out there with you? I'm surprised."
"He's getting used to it." Peter ruffled the dog's ears. Satchmo was still on high alert, his head and tail up. "Probably thinks we're the world's worst hunters, though."
"Well, he'd be right about that." El laughed. "Neal, I left some more of my husband's clothes in the guest bedroom, along with clean towels. There's also a spare toothbrush, clean and unused, I promise. If you like I can see about picking some things up in town tomorrow. My sister's husband isn't any closer to your size than Peter, but I'm sure there must be someone around who's the right size. Or I could stop by Wal-Mart on my way home."
Neal hoped that his horrified blanch at the word "Wal-Mart" hadn't been too visible. "Thank you," he said, but the words seemed inadequate - the magnitude of what they were doing for him was starting to hit him, along with a crushing awareness of the debt he was incurring. "I mean, really. I'll pay you back for all of this, I promise."
Peter, who was locking the kitchen door and window, looked skeptical at that - well, Neal thought, let him. He'd see. The next big heist, I'll do more than just pay back what I borrowed,Neal promised himself. He had a feeling that if he dropped a box of cash in the mail, Peter would never accept it, but he'd think of something. Maybe set up a trust fund in their name? Donate to a charity? Buy them a villa on a small Caribbean island? He promised himself silently that he'd come up with something suitably extravagant, because they'd earned it.
El gave him a hug. "Sleep well." She caught hold of Peter's hand and the two of them vanished into the living room.
Neal got himself a glass of water and went off to the bedroom. Flicking on the light, he was struck once again by the overwhelming kitschy homeyness of the room.
"What am I doing here?" he murmured to himself. This wasn't a place for Neal Caffrey. Neal Caffrey was a man made - literally made - for designer suits and expensive brandy sipped in penthouse apartments. He hadn't been in a place like this since -
- since his name hadn't been Caffrey. But that was a very long time ago.
He rustled around, brushing his teeth, changing the bandages on his side, and making plausible getting-ready-for-bed noises. Then he turned out the light and waited a half-hour or so to make sure the Burkes were safely asleep. Perhaps because of his nap, he was still wide-awake, though tired and aching. The wine hadn't helped; the effects were wearing off, leaving him even achier than before. He took another couple of Tylenol, then slipped out of his room. The whole floor was a series of creaky floorboards scattered like land mines, but he crept along the walls and tried to move as quietly as possible. The healing bullet wound tugged at him whenever he twisted or moved too quickly, which made stealth difficult.
Satchmo, lying on the living-room couch, hopped up at the sight of him and trotted expectantly into the kitchen.
"No," Neal whispered. "Bad dog." This had no visible effect. Satch watched hopefully while Neal collected bread and leftover pot roast onto a plate, then pressed close at his heels when he opened the kitchen door. Worried that the dog would scratch and whine if he left him behind, Neal let Satch out into the warm, humid night and then followed him.
Compared to the city he was used to, it was so dark and quiet here that it made him uncomfortable. Anything could be lurking in those shadows under the trees. The chirring of cicadas rose and fell as he waded through ankle-deep damp grass to the barn. He looked around for the fox, but it was nowhere to be seen, although Satchmo snuffled busily around the yard where it had been.
"Moz?" Neal whispered, tapping lightly on the door. "Moz, it's me."
"What's the password?" came a sharp whisper from the other side.
"There is no password, Mozzie, for crying out loud."
"That'll do," Mozzie whispered, and the door slid back just enough to admit Neal and Satchmo.
The barn was lit dimly by a small Coleman lantern sitting in one of the stalls, a piece of canvas shielding it so that it let out just enough light to illuminate Mozzie's little foxhole - a fat paperback book, a tin cup and a bottle of hand lotion were neatly arranged on a handkerchief next to a pile of hay with a blanket thrown over it. Judging from the indentation in the blanket, it was being used as a chair.
"Don't set fire to the Burkes' barn, please." Neal handed him the plate of leftovers. "They're doing a lot for me. I don't want to repay them by destroying their farm."
"I'm not an amateur." Mozzie sneezed and brushed ineffectually at the straw clinging to the shoulders of his jacket, then began making himself a sandwich. "I hate the country, have I mentioned that lately? Rurality of any flavor is not my scene. The only sensible thing to do is pave over it. Why are we still in this horse-infested hell hole?"
"Because we've got nowhere to go, Moz." Neal's legs were getting shaky - he was still feeling his convalescence a lot more than he liked. He sat down on Mozzie's blanket-covered pile of hay. It felt like a prickly beanbag chair. Getting up wasn't going to be easy. "At least, I don't. You're a different story. Just get out of here before Fowler catches sight of you. No one knows about you, and I'd think you'd like to keep it that way."
Mozzie crouched down opposite him. "How are you holding up?" he asked quietly.
"I'm fine," Neal said. "Just fine."
"I don't want to talk about Kate."
Mozzie watched him a moment longer, his eyes too knowing. Neal stared at him until Mozzie gave up and began to pace. "We need a plan."
We. We. What is this thing with people putting themselves in danger for me?"Peter wants me to turn myself in to the FBI."
"Once a suit, always a suit," Mozzie said in disgust. "They stick together. I hope you're not considering that kind of madness."
"I don't know, Moz. It'd be quick, at least, unlike anything Adler has planned for me."
Mozzie's look was fast and horrified. "Don't give up on me, man."
"No, I'm not considering it. Not that I have a better plan."
Satchmo, hovering at Mozzie's feet in the hope of crumbs, raised his head suddenly and trotted towards the door with his tail wagging.
Mozzie extinguished the lantern, plunging them both into darkness. "Great," he whispered. "Were you followed?"
"I don't think so," Neal began, when the overhead lights in the barn came on. Neal squinted against the glare and was completely unsurprised to see Peter in the doorway, armed; his hand hovered near the butt of his gun, though he hadn't drawn it. Satchmo frisked happily around his master's feet. Mozzie was nowhere to be seen.
"Neal," Peter said.
"Just hanging out in the barn, talking to yourself?" Peter looked pointedly at the lantern, book and other evidence of occupation.
Neal sighed. "Moz. C'mon out."
After a long pause, Mozzie sidled out from behind a stall divider. "Judas," he muttered in Neal's direction.
The look on Peter's face was a blend of suspicion and a sort of resigned amusement. "And you are?"
"A neighbor," Mozzie said promptly. "I live up the road. I was checking on the ... horses."
"Uh-huh," Peter said. "Let's try this again. Are you by any chance the friend that Neal was using my computer to email this morning?"
Mozzie shot a quick, sharp look at Neal.
"Yes," Neal said wearily.
Mozzie's expression was one of betrayal.
"C'mon, Mozzie, you're hiding in his barn," Neal pointed out. "I don't think either of us have much of a choice about trusting him at this point."
Peter gave him a cool look. "Given the fact that I'm hiding you from the police and making myself and my wife accessories to your crimes, I don't think a little reciprocal trust is too much to ask for."
"Believe it or not, Peter, I was trying to protect you. Both of you."
"You have a funny way of showing it."
Mozzie took advantage of the opportunity to sidle away. He made it halfway to the door before Peter noticed. "Oh, no you don't." Peter pointed to the hay bales in the corner. "Pull up a bale. Let's sit. And talk. Again.I want to know what you're doing here and what you two are planning."
"We're not planning anything," Neal said, and at Peter's narrow-eyed look, "No, honestly, we're not. You showed up before we could."
Peter jerked his thumb at Mozzie. "So why is he here? Moral support?"
"Do I look like the fighting type to you?" Mozzie said.
"You know, I don't know what to believe anymore." Peter sat on a hay bale and rested his arm across his knees. "Two days ago, I was running a horse farm and the last time I'd heard from anyone at the FBI was when they gifted me with a 'see you later, Peter, have a nice life' wristwatch. Now I have crooked FBI agents talking to my wife and two con men in my barn - that's what you are too, right?" he asked Mozzie.
"I admit nothing."
"Oh, for God's sake." Peter ran his hand over his face, and looked up at the two of them. Satch laid his head on his master's knee, and Peter absently fondled the dog's ears. "Guys, I can't deal with this tonight. I just can't. Let's all get some sleep, and in the morning, we will allmake a plan. Together. You - he called you Mozzie, right? That's your name? You can bunk with Neal tonight. There's a second bed in the guest bedroom."
"I'll be fine out here," Mozzie said quickly, even though, Neal thought, he'd been complaining about the barn mere moments ago.
"Oh no you don't. I want you where I can keep an eye on you."
As soon as the creaking sounds of Peter on the stairs had died away, Mozzie threw back the covers on the second twin bed - he was fully clothed underneath, including shoes - and headed for the window.
Neal propped himself up on his arm. "C'mon, Moz. Let's sleep in here and figure this out tomorrow."
"I believe I mentioned that I'm not sleeping in the house of the Man?" Mozzie pushed up the window. "I have everything I need in the barn. I'm footloose and fancy-free, a veritable rolling stone. A man with simple needs. I'll be fine."
"Not if Peter finds you," Neal muttered, and sank face-first into his pillow.
As silence settled once again on the Burke farmhouse, Neal forced his mind blank, seeking the oblivion of sleep. It wouldn't come; the more he sought inner stillness, the more that everything he'd been trying to hold back pressed against the walls keeping it at bay. Talking about it hadn't helped.
There is going to be one hell of a reckoning, sooner or later, Neal thought.
He rose and padded into the kitchen, found the bottle of wine and took it back to his room. After closing the door, he moved a chair in front of it.
Then he drank the wine straight from the bottle. There was still two thirds of the bottle, and he emptied most of it in probably fifteen minutes. Dinner had been hours ago, and he hadn't eaten all that much of it. The alcohol hit him like a freight train.
He didn't cry. That surprised him. He'd expected to sob until his throat was raw. Instead he lost himself, sank into a depression as black and deep as a bottomless well.
Hate was the lifeline he found in the pit. Hatred of Adler, of Fowler. It was the only thing he had to hold onto.
Somewhere in that black emptiness, he must have slept, because the smell of burning jet fuel filled his dreams.
Peter woke to the sound of yelling outside. He groaned, rolled over and looked at the clock. He'd been so tired that he'd slept right through El's alarm.
5:30. Jess, Brian and Pattie must be here.
"Oh shit," Peter mumbled into his pillow.
He lurched to the window and poked his head out just in time to hear Jess shout at the top of her considerable lungs, "- stranger sleeping in the barn!"
"For God's sake," Peter muttered. "I can't leave any of them alone for a minute." He pulled on the nearest pair of sweat pants and stumbled downstairs and out into a chaotic assemblage of Millers in the yard. Mozzie was there, looking half-asleep and disgruntled, but Neal, to Peter's relief, was nowhere to be seen. Hopefully he'd stay that way.
El was trying to calm down Pattie, but still managed to shoot Peter an eloquently worried/annoyed/exasperated look. Peter gave her a helpless shrug.
"He's trying to steal the horses!" Jess was saying.
"Why would I want a horse?" Mozzie retorted.
"I'm calling the sheriff," Pattie announced.
Peter plowed his way into the middle of the group. "There's no need for that. This is - a friend of ... my cousin's brother-in-law, and he has a ... condition. He can't sleep indoors." El just stared at him, wide-eyed, clearly not buying a single word. Peter mouthed Tell you later at her, and leaned closer to Pattie. "You can see he's not entirely right," he murmured to her.
Pattie nodded, though she was still frowning. Peter kissed El's cheek. "Sorry to give you guys a scare. Honey, it's fine. Go to work with Pattie. Everything will be all right."
El's expression said that it was far from all right, but she kissed him and hustled her sister towards the car. The look that she gave him over her shoulder promised that explanations would be forthcoming later.
Peter looked at the remaining three: Jess glaring daggers at Mozzie, Mozzie giving Peter a disgruntled look, and Brian looking scared and miserable, which was his usual expression when people were fighting around him.
"Where's Neal?" Peter asked.
"Who's Neal?" Mozzie said. Peter resisted the urge to kick him in the shin.
"Here," Neal said behind him, and joined the group. He was wearing one of Peter's shirts with the sleeves rolled up. He looked like hell; the blue shadows under his eyes were darker than ever, and he kept blinking in the early-morning sunlight. His smile, though bright as usual, looked somewhat pasted on. "I just woke up," he said, and yawned. "I missed El's sister, right? Too bad. I'd like to meet her."
Uh-huh, Peter thought. At least Neal had the sense to stay hidden some of the time.
"You!" Jess said. "I have questions for you!"
"No one is asking or answering any questions yet," Peter snapped. "We'll talk in a minute, but first I'm gonna put on shoes, and then we're going for a horse ride. All of us."
"Excuse me," Mozzie said. "It sounded like you said 'we'. And 'us'."
"I did. There are five horses and five of us, counting Neal. And if I'm going to have freeloading con artists living in my barn,they are damn well paying me back by exercising my horses."
"I don't ride," Mozzie said.
"You do today." Peter snared Neal's elbow. "Walk with me."
"You need help putting on your shoes?"
"No, I don't need help putting on my shoes." Peter glanced over his shoulder, realizing too late that he had not one con man to corral this morning, but two. The kids and Mozzie were already on their way to the barn, Jess dragging Mozzie along and chattering a mile a minute, while Brian slouched behind. Damn it. Well, he'd just have to hope that the little guy was better at improvising a cover story with the teenagers than he had been last night in the barn, because he wanted a minute to talk to Neal alone.
"Do I want to know how many bottles of wine I'm going to find missing?" he asked, holding the kitchen door.
"Just the one," Neal said. At least he didn't try to deny it. His voice was scratchy, and Peter was familiar with the stale smell of a next-day drunk.
"If you puked anywhere, you're cleaning it up."
Neal's laugh was hoarse, but genuine. "Give me some credit."
The thought percolated slowly through Peter's conscious mind that he really was worried about Neal, and not just because of the possibility that a depressed, self-destructive Neal might be a danger to himself and El. If even half of what Neal had told them last night was true, the poor kid had just walked through a metric ton of shit, and Peter had a feeling that the aftereffects were only now starting to hit him.
"Look, I'm the last person in the world to give someone else advice about self-medicating with a bottle, all right? Just ..." He wasn't sure what he wanted to say. He wasn't Neal's friend. He was the guy who put him in jail, for Chrissakes. "Eat something before you go out there, at least. You'll feel better."
Neal winced. "Yeah, food's not high on my list of priorities right now."
"It'll be worse if you don't. Take it from a veteran of a lot of hangovers. Half a piece of toast, maybe. And drink some water. I'll bring down a bottle of aspirin."
"Yes, mother," Neal said to his back as he went upstairs.
Neal still looked uncharacteristically bleary, but a little less flattened, by the time they made it out to the barn. Mozzie was regaling the kids with a story that seemed to involve an armored car, a bucket of ball bearings, a Shriners' convention and a weasel - Peter decided that he really didn't want to know any more than the little he'd heard. And naturally, no one had accomplished a thing in his absence. He sent Jess off to get the horses.
While Jess saddled gentle Ladybug for Mozzie, Peter showed Neal how to saddle Donnybrook, a well-trained American Saddlebred that the Burkes were keeping for one of the other neighbors. Cinching the saddle straps was one thing that he still had trouble with. Some things were just a whole lot easier with two hands. Neal, though, was still favoring his side - Peter was pretty sure that Neal thought he was being inconspicuous, but he was definitely limping - so Peter did it for him, though he had to do it over when the strap slipped. He hadn't had that happen in awhile. At least Neal had the prudence not to say anything.
"Have you ridden a horse before?"
Neal nodded. "Just once. At a resort north of - well," he demurred with a smile, "yes, I've been on a horse. Just for a short pleasure ride around the estate."
"Well, at least I can assume we're not starting from zero. Unlike some people." Mozzie's complaints were audible from the far side of the barn. Fortunately he was the kids' problem. Peter had seen them give riding lessons to other kids from school. They were good at it, and, though he'd never admit it because he knew better than to give them an inch, he trusted them not to be reckless with the horses' welfare. Elizabeth's horse Ladybug was the gentlest horse in the stable, and if anyone could put up with Mozzie, she probably could.
Peter flipped over a feed bucket to give Neal a step up without wrenching his side.
"Heels down. Your posture's good, but sit a little looser - yeah, that's it." Peter took him through a quick "how to get your horse to go where you want it" primer and then turned him loose to walk Donny around the pasture while he saddled Ness. By the time he turned the Friesian towards the other horses, it looked like Neal, hung over or not, had gotten the hang of steering Donny - he'd either been downplaying his horse-riding experience or he was a natural at this, like so many other things.
Mozzie had at least managed not to fall off. Yet. Both the kids looked frazzled. Trying to keep Mozzie on the horse managed to keep the three of them from talking about anything other than horses, though, so Peter figured it counted as a win.
They rode single-file into woods dappled with early morning sun. Patches of mist lay in the low spots. Satchmo romped cheerfully in the brush alongside the path. Jess was riding Chantilly because she was the most experienced rider besides Peter and the only other one of them who could handle the hard-mouthed bay, but Brian had trouble holding the frisky Pepper down to a walk, so Peter let the kids go ahead. This gave the kids a break from Mozzie, and Peter a chance to speak to his two houseguests alone, exactly how he wanted it.
"I think this thing is about to throw a gear," Mozzie complained, sliding around in the saddle on Ladybug's back. "Can I get an upgrade?"
"No whining," Peter said. "If your horse was any more calm, she'd be dead."
"I'm not part of your little world-domination empire," Mozzie said. "I don't have to follow your orders. Are there bears in these woods?"
"Is he always like this?" Peter appealed to Neal.
Peter shook his head. "I guess that's my answer."
After passing through a band of woods, they rode into the edge of the upper field, still cloaked in patchy morning fog. The log jumps that Peter and the kids had constructed for Pepper reared out of the silver mist like islands in an alien sea.
Jess called out to Brian, and the two kids veered their horses sharply to the right and raced down the field in a thunder of hoofbeats, teenagers and horses alike delighting in the crisp morning air. Peter held up a hand to stop his companions and waited for the kids to burn off their energy. Ness tugged at the bit, wanting to join them. Peter patted the horse's glossy dark neck. "Not today, bucko."
"Well, I don't know about the rest of you, but that looks like fun," Neal said, and without waiting for permission, he nudged Donnybrook and urged the horse down the field after the others.
"If he tries to take a jump, just let him," Peter called after him. "Don't yank the reins, you'll go right over his head - are you even listening to me?"
Donnybrook, recognizing his rider's inexperience, settled into a beautiful gliding canter. Neal bent low over the horse's mane. His seat was loose and easy. He definitely had the makings of a good rider, Peter thought. A lot of riding was nothing more than empathy: understanding the horse, anticipating it, responding to it. Empathy was what had made Neal such a good con man - the ability to form connections to other people, and to read them like open books. Perhaps it wasn't surprising that he could do the same with horses.
The kids hit the far end of the field like jockeys on racehorses, cornering neatly where Peter's shooting targets hung on the fence, and came racing back. Halfway up the field, Pepper made her own decision to veer off towards the obstacle course, the direction she was used to going. Jess laughed at Brian's obvious dismay but kept a firm enough grip on Chantilly to keep her going straight. When girl and horse passed Neal and Donnybrook, Donny rounded to rejoin his stablemate; Neal didn't have a chance of stopping him. The two of them galloped back to Peter and Mozzie. Meanwhile a yelp from the direction of the obstacle course let Peter know that Pepper had unseated Brian on one of the sharp turns.
"Jess, go make sure your brother is okay."
Jess nodded and trotted off. Peter turned to Neal, who was flushed and grinning. If his injury or hangover still bothered him, the endorphins seemed to be compensating.
"It's a rush, isn't it?"
He'd expected a denial, but Neal laughed and nodded.
"Thrill seeker," Mozzie told him darkly. Ladybug hadn't moved in all the excitement except to take a step sideways to crop at a better patch of grass.
"You're just jealous," Neal said, and he flashed a smile at Peter, infectious in his exhilaration.
"Sorry about that," Jess called, and reached down a hand to help her brother to his feet. At least she didn't have to chase down Pepper; the horse had stopped immediately after realizing she'd thrown her rider. "I bring her up her all the time, and we always do the obstacle course. I didn't even think."
Brian dusted himself off without complaining. He'd been quiet all morning, Jess mused. More so than usual.
"Who peed in your Cheerios?" Jess asked. She'd heard it on TV and thought it was the best thing she'd ever heard; she had to use it at every opportunity.
"No one. I mean, nothing's wrong." Brian used the lower rail of one of the jumps to mount Pepper. "I'm fine. Don't worry about it."
"Uh-huh. Something's eating you, and I won't stop 'til I figure it out."
"You want to know? You really do?" Brian nudged Pepper and urged her beside Jess's horse. "Here. This is what's eating me."
He took a sheet of paper from his pocket, unfolded it and passed it to her. Jess looked.
"Isn't that a picture of Neal?"
"Yeah," Brian said. "I got it from an FBI agent in the park, while you were skateboarding down at the Wal-Mart."
"You talked to a real FBI agent in Apple Corners and I missed it?" She couldn't believe it. Her brother had all the luck.
"Jess, the police are after this guy!" Brian glanced over towards the adults and lowered his voice. "The FBI guy said so, and when I got home, I did some Googling. I had to hunt around a bit, because his name's not Neal Burke, it's Neal Caffrey. He escaped from prison, Jess. There was a whole manhunt for him and everything."
"That is the most exciting thing I've ever heard."
"See, I knew you were going to react this way."
"What did he do?" Jess asked, leaning forward eagerly.
"He lied and cheated and stole from a bunch of people. Jess, the FBI guy said he's dangerous. What if he hurts Aunt El and Uncle Peter? What if he hurts us?"
"Don't worry," Jess said. "I'll take care of it. Leave everything to me. I can get him to confess and we'll find out what's really going on."
Brian stared at her. "Jessica, this isn't The Fugitive.This is real life. This guy isn't wrongly accused, he's actually guilty. The papers were very clear about that."
Jess smiled. "Don't worry, I won't do anything risky. Really," she added, when her brother looked at her skeptically. "I'll just get him to 'fess up. Neal won't know what hit him."
Neal was, to his own surprise, happy. Really, truly happy. He would never have guessed that riding a horse would turn out to be that much of an adrenaline high, and hadn't realized that he'd missed that feeling so much. Being in prison had been a constant bore with occasional moments of the bad kind of adrenaline, the sort where there's no particular reward except getting out of an unpleasant situation. Escaping from supermax had been a special high all its own, but ever since he'd gotten out, he'd been exhausted and worried most of the time. Maybe he should've stopped along the way to knock off a jewelry store just for fun, or something.
He didn't even hurt much, though he figured he'd pay for it later on. The aspirin seemed to have kicked in, and Peter, annoyingly, had been right about getting a little food in his stomach, because he did feel better.
The kids rejoined them and led the way into the woods on the far side of the field. They seemed to know where they were going, so Neal relaxed and let his horse follow theirs. He focused on adjusting to the gentle rocking of the horse's gait, learning to let his body sway in rhythm with the horse's steps.
Once the kids had drawn ahead again, Peter broke the comfortable silence. "So, any criminal mastermind breakthroughs last night that you two would like to share with the class?"
"Such as?" Mozzie said, a little too quickly.
"We need to figure out our next move," Peter said. "And Adler's." He looked at Neal closely when he said this. Neal wasn't sure what he was looking for, but kept his face blank, just in case. "Neal, you said that he's looking for a music box which he inexplicably thinks you have. And we know he's willing to kill for it. So what does he do now? You've vanished, supposedly with the music box. He sent Fowler upstate to look for you, and obviously he's narrowed it down to this area. Do you think Adler would come up here in person?"
Neal and Mozzie glanced at each other. "I'm not sure," Neal said. "Adler prefers to work through intermediaries. He doesn't like to take risks himself."
"But he will if the risk is worth the reward, right?" Peter said. "Like, say, vanishing with uncountable millions of his investors' money."
"Even the most cautious person will take a risk if the reward is high enough," Neal said.
"That's what people like you count on," Peter said. Neal didn't bother denying it; it was, after all, true.
Peter drummed his fingers against the saddle's pommel. "So my question to you two is this, then: does Adler want the music box enough to take risks for it? Based on what you've told me, I'd say the answer is yes."
"He doesn't have to come up here in person to make your lives a living hell," Mozzie pointed out. Neal reached over to catch a branch before it smacked him in the face. "He can hire people to do it for him. There could be an army of goons closing in even as we speak."
Both Peter and Neal reflexively glanced over their shoulders at the sun-splashed forest path behind them.
"But he'd have to trust anyone he sends not to take off with the music box and leave him high and dry," Peter said. "I'm guessing that Adler isn't the trusting sort."
Neal's eyebrows climbed towards his hairline, and he smiled. "You have a suspicious mind, Peter. I like it."
Peter's only response to that was a half-amused snort. "I'm not sure if we'd be in more trouble, necessarily, if Adler shows up in person than if he sends an intermediary to beat the location of the music box out of you. Or me. I think we need to start thinking about security, Neal. Not to mention going on the offensive. Having you lying low at the farm is all well and good, but you and I both know it's a very temporary solution for a long-term problem -"
He stopped speaking because the kids had halted their horses in the middle of the trail, waiting for the adults. As the three of them drew up behind the kids, Neal discovered that the trail dropped down a steep slope to the sprawling brown loops of a river below them. He glimpsed a ruined building draped in vines, peeking out of the woods.
Oh crap. Of all the places they could have ridden this morning, of course they'd come here. Because fate, the universe, or whatever just hated him that much.
This was the way he'd approached the Burkes' farm that first time, going through the woods rather than staying on the road. It had probably taken several times as long as it would have otherwise, but he'd been half out of his head with paranoia, fear and pain, terrified that Fowler or Adler was right on his heels.
Not such a paranoid fear after all, as it turned out.
Interesting how different it all looked in the daytime. He followed the river with his eyes to the bridge downstream - he remembered crossing it, limping and scared, two nights ago.
"Careful on the hill," Peter said. "If you have trouble, dismount and walk 'em down."
Even Brian, jolted out of whatever teenage sulk was eating him this morning, rolled his eyes at this. "Yeah, 'cause we never come here," Jessica said.
"That was for the novice riders, smart mouth."
"Yeah, I'll just stay here," Mozzie said, eyeing the steep path.
"Yeah, no you won't."
The descent wasn't bad, and soon they were on the flatter ground by the river. "That's an old mill," Peter said, pointing to a crumbling wall with vines crawling over it. "El and her sister used to climb all over it when they were kids - not that you two should be getting any ideas," he added quickly. "It's completely unsafe and they were lucky not to break their necks."
Neal made a noncommittal noise and kept his eyes moving, trying to look like he'd never seen the place before.
"Stay on the trail," Peter added, mostly to the kids but for Neal and Mozzie's benefit as well. "There are old well shafts, poison ivy and God knows what else."
A short spur of the trail went down to the water's edge. From the blackened fire circle and the scattered beer cans, it was obviously a hangout of the town's teenagers. The river was shallow here, running fast across a bed of stones. The horses drank from the water's edge, while Neal looked up at the face of the mill: the boarded-over windows, the roof collapsing at one end. A splash of neon-bright graffiti marred the otherwise eighteenth-century picture. It was a lot less creepy in the daylight than he remembered from his nighttime encounter with the place.
"It's supposed to be haunted," Brian said. He'd hardly spoken all morning. Neal wondered if the kid was sick; he looked pale and unhappy.
Jess rolled her eyes. "Oh, that's just a story that Amanda Bradshaw made up to keep her little sister from poking around and finding out that she and Jimmy Sawyer were doing the nasty in there."
"I don't know how you could do anything in there without getting tetanus," Brian said.
"Or worse," Jess said with relish.
"I think that's enough of this conversation," Peter said. He went to rescue Mozzie, whose horse had wandered off to nibble grass at the edge of the water.
Jess leaned over her horse's neck to swipe off a fly. "So why are you up in Apple Corners, anyway?" she asked Neal in a voice that was far too casual to actually be casual. Brian perked up for the first time, looking intent.
"Oh, just visiting your aunt and uncle," Neal said. He glanced over at Peter, who was arguing with Mozzie; snatches of the conversation drifted to him, enough to catch Peter's exasperated tone. "I'll probably head out in a day or two." His lazy, calm mood began to evaporate, the peaceful languor of the morning swallowed by the darkness inside. This wasn't a place for men like him and Moz. Especially not with danger on their heels. He'd had the respite that he'd needed, time to rest and recover before moving along.
"What did you do back in Schenectady?" Jess pressed.
A casual grin came naturally to him. "Tax preparer. I work for H&R Block." He'd learned that the best way to deal with a nosy mark was to offer a cover story so mind-numbingly banal that no one would bother asking questions about it. He wished he'd had the presence of mind yesterday to lay the groundwork for a more convincing and detailed cover story, but he could work with what he had.
"Are you married?"
Neal worked on keeping his posture relaxed, his smile friendly, not displaying that the question had landed like a blow. "No. You ask a lot of questions."
"I'm just being friendly," Jess said. "Uncle Peter never talked about a cousin."
"I'm sure it never came up," Neal said. "We've never been close, Peter and I. More like two ships passing in the night. He had his life, I had mine."
"So why are you here?"
"Sometimes you just need a place to go," Neal said. "You'll understand when you're older."
Jess leaned forward in her saddle. "Are you in trouble?"
Saved by the bell, Neal thought as Peter rode back to join them, leading Mozzie's horse by the reins. Jess looked disgusted. "Come on, troops," Peter said. "Let's head back to the house. The newbies are going to be sore as hell if we stay out here much longer, and Jess, if you want to put Pepper through her paces, you'd better do it while the day's still cool. I'll make one of my famous mushroom-and-onion omelets."
"While wedo the actual work," Brian said to Jess. She was still giving Neal her suspicious stare, promising more grilling later.
He'd leave tonight, he decided as they settled back into the ride up the hill. There was simply no point in staying any longer, putting Peter and El in danger, making it ever more likely that Fowler would find him. Elizabeth's sister had met Mozzie now, and word would be leaking out. There was no way that he could stay hidden on the Burkes' farm for much longer.
Peter would be pissed, but he'd get over it. He'd be alive to get over it, which might not be the case if Neal stayed in one place long enough for Fowler and Adler to catch up with him.
So enjoy the moment, he told himself, and consciously relaxed, easing into the rhythm of the horse's walking pace, the voices of Peter talking to the kids, the sun on his shoulders and the warm growing-things smell of the woods.
"That's what you call taking care of things?" Brian whispered fiercely to Jess as they rode back towards the Burke farm.
"I was interrupted. I woulda got somewhere if Uncle Peter hadn't showed up."
"We should call the police," Brian said.
"We should talk to Uncle Peter first," Jess said. "Maybe he doesn't know. This Neal guy could have told him some kind of story and got him hooked. You know what he can be like."
Underneath his grumpiness, Uncle Peter was a total soft touch for a sob story. Pattie and Mike's kids all knew it and took full advantage of it when they wanted something.
"The longer we wait, the better the chances that he'll rob Uncle Peter and Aunt El," Brian protested. "And what about this other guy, this Mozzie guy? It can't be coincidence that he's here. He's obviously an accomplice."
"He tells great stories, though," Jess said wistfully. "I wish Uncle Peter had let him finish that one about the weasel."
"We'll be heroes if we turn them in. If we don't, we're aiding and abetting a fugitive. I looked that up, too. You can't argue with the Internet, Jess."
"Just let me ask few more questions first."
"Jess, if they steal from Aunt El while you're playing Nancy Drew, Mom is going to be so mad."
"A few more questions," Jess said, stubborn, and Brian caved, because he always did.
Back at the farm, Peter set the kids and Neal to work currying the horses - Mozzie had disappeared as soon as everyone's backs were turned, but Neal seemed to genuinely enjoy working with the horses, and they liked him. Everyone likes him, right up until he takes off with their life savings, Peter thought grimly, but he caught himself smiling as he watched Jess showing Neal how to untangle the burs from Chantilly's long, flowing tail. The kids were fidgety - he'd have to talk to them later, find out what they were up to - but Neal looked relaxed and carefree and genuinely happy, something Peter hadn't seen since Neal had first turned up in his barn two days ago.
He sat on the top rail of the fence and called Diana.
"Hey," Diana said. "Hang on, I'm in the middle of something. I'll call you back in a sec."
A minute later, his phone rang, and he saw from the caller ID that she wasn't calling from her office line, but from her cell. "Sorry to keep you hanging," Diana said. "I'm in the lobby now. Hope you don't mind if I walk and talk. I could use a latte anyway."
Peter smiled grimly. "I take it you found out something on Fowler."
"I found a few things, yes. For one thing, get this, boss: he's with OPR."
No wonder she didn't want to use the office phone. "Catching Neal shouldn't be part of his jurisdiction, then. What's an OPR guy doing hunting a fugitive upstate?"
"I think that would be very interesting to know," Diana said. "He's squeaky clean, though, at least in the files that I could access without raising any flags. If he's ever been investigated for anything, it was very much on the QT."
She fell silent - a loaded, waiting silence. "But you found something," Peter prompted.
Diana drew a slow breath. "Boss, it could be nothing. Coincidence. OPR is a fairly small department, after all."
Peter felt something cold and tight coil in his stomach. Even without knowing what she was about to say, he knew he wasn't going to like it.
When Diana spoke again, the words were dragged out of her, deliberate and reluctant. "He was the agent in charge of the warehouse fire investigation."
She didn't have to say which warehouse fire. There was only one that had haunted Peter's nightmares for the last three and a half years. The stump of his arm throbbed with a sudden sharp pain. Peter told himself it was psychosomatic and tried to ignore it.
"He investigated me," Peter said. He could barely hear his own voice over the pounding in his ears. "After."
"Yes," Diana said quietly. "I wasn't able to look at any of his reports without leaving a trail. But ..."
"I know what they said, anyway. Diana, hang on for a minute, all right?"
Diana was still talking, asking him if he was all right, but Peter laid down the phone on the fence rail and for a moment he just sat there, rubbing the stump of his arm and looking out across the pasture until the red cloud across his vision receded. Blue sky. Sunshine. The kids' voices and Neal's sudden, startled laughter. The smell of horses and grass, the chirring of cicadas in the trees ... He took slow breaths and focused on these things - here, now, real- until he could push down the fury and think again.
Then he picked up the phone again. "Diana, you still there?"
"Yeah, I'm here. Boss - Peter ... don't go off half-cocked on this. We don't know that Fowler was -"
"I know that Fowler's the bastard who made sure I'd never even have a desk job at the FBI," Peter said between his teeth. "I know he's the one who tried his damnedest to pin the deaths of three good men on me."
Negligent. Careless.The worst part was not knowing if those damning words were correct. He could tell himself a million times that he'd done everything he could, that he'd been careful, that he'd followed procedure and done nothing wrong. Kramer, he knew, had argued on his behalf, and Kramer's opinion carried a lot of pull. Still, he'd been tried and nearly convicted behind his back, by people he'd trusted. At the time, he'd been in the hospital, doped to the gills most of the time and reeling as the life he'd built had fallen apart around him. Kramer had only later told him how close he'd come to criminal charges in the deaths of those men.
Three years later and the bitterness still rose like bile in his throat. He'd devoted his life to the Bureau. He'd given his damn armto the Bureau. And in the end they'd hung him out to dry, with nothing to show for all those years but a monogrammed watch and a disability pension.
"It wasn't your fault, Peter." Diana sounded like she was talking to a skittish horse. "Clinton and I know that. Everyone on your team knows that."
Everyone on my team who survived.
"You think I don't know it?" Peter said, his voice rising. Neal glanced in his direction and he forced himself to tamp it down. "Because I do. And before I'm done with Fowler, he'll know it too."
"Boss," Diana said. "I don't want to say it, but I know we're both thinking it. If - and this is a big if- Fowler had you railroaded out of the FBI on purpose ... either he waited for a very convenient opportunity to come along -"
Peter blew out his cheeks and closed his eyes. "Or he made his own."
The official investigation had found that the fire had been set by the counterfeiters that Peter's team had been chasing, to destroy evidence. But the warehouse had gone up faster than anyone had expected, trapping the counterfeiters as well. They'd died along with three members of Peter's team.
That had been one of the hardest things, actually. There was no one to chase, no one to suffer for what had happened. It was neat and tidy, all the loose ends tied up.
And if Peter had thought about it - if he'd been able to think about it rationally, to pick apart the sequence of events without shying away - he might have realized that life is never that neat and tidy.
"If that bastard Fowler is responsible for the deaths of three of us - three of my people-" Rage crashed over him in a wave. "I'll string him up, Diana. He can't run far enough or fast enough."
"Boss. Peter. We don't know.We don't know anything yet."
"Yeah, well, I'm going to find out." He looked out across the pasture, serene and beautiful in the morning sun. The borders of his little world here in the country seemed close and confining all of a sudden. Fowler was nearby, and Peter was going to nail that bastard. He could feel the sense of purpose, of certainty, taking hold.
"If Fowler wanted you out of the FBI - why?"
That was a good question. It couldn't be anything to do with Neal; he'd already put Neal away at that point. "I can still remember the other cases I was working on at the time," Peter said. "They all would've been reassigned to other agents afterwards, but I have no idea what went where. I can send you a list."
"I'll text you my personal email - I don't think it'd be a good idea to use the official one. But, yes, I'll take a look."
"Be careful," Peter reminded her. "If Fowler really did take me out for some reason - managed to push something like that through OPR, and cover it up ... there's no telling how high this goes."
"I'm always careful, boss," she said, and he could hear the smile in her voice before she hung up.
Peter sighed and stared at the phone for a moment. He missed Diana.
Then he dialed Kramer's number.
He got voice mail, which was probably just as well. Trying to explain the situation to his old mentor would be hard enough without being muddle-headed with anger as well. He left a brief message asking Kramer to call him, then tucked the phone away and hopped down off the fence.
"How's it going, crew?"
"They're great teachers," Neal said with one of his easy grins, the sort that Peter automatically distrusted.
"I think he's already better with the horses than Brian," Jess said.
Brian scowled at her with more than the usual amount of brother-to-sister venom.
"Jess, why don't you take Pepper out before breakfast," Peter said. He thought for a minute that she was going to argue with him, but then Jess gave her brother a firm glare and went to get Pepper's saddle.
As soon as he had the other kid alone, Peter asked, "Are you two fighting?"
"No," Brian said quickly. He cast a nervous sideways glance at Neal. "I'm gonna go clean the tack."
The fact that he was volunteering for this, normally one of the kids' hated chores, meant that something was definitely up. But Peter didn't think he had it in him to figure out what was wrong with the kids on top of everything else. Time enough for that later. "Come on up to the house when you're done, then. You, with me," he said, jerking a finger at Neal.
"What's got you so wound up?" Neal asked as they crossed the lawn to the house.
"Knowing that a killer's chasing you isn't enough?"
"You weren't this tense an hour ago."
Sometimes Neal's perceptiveness was really annoying. Peter debated how much to tell him. Neal sure as hell wasn't getting the whole story about the warehouse fire; it wasn't even something he talked to El about. "I spoke to Diana," he said, opening the screen door - the thought crossed his mind that perhaps he should start locking the house, something he and El hadn't done since they'd moved here. "Fowler's with OPR; that's the Office of Professional Responsibility, our version of Internal Affairs."
He looked at Neal, who looked politely blank. For all his specialized knowledge, the ins and outs of the FBI bureaucracy weren't part of it.
"So there's no logical way that he'd be involved in the search for you," Peter went on. "He's completely out of his jurisdiction, and therefore, definitely up to something."
"We knew that already." Neal toyed with the curtain pull on the kitchen window; he was always doing something with his hands, Peter noticed, the graceful fingers in constant motion. "Well, Iknew that already."
"He's managed to keep his nose clean at the FBI, though, according to Diana. I put in a call to an old friend in DC who may be able to pull strings at a higher level than Diana can, but right now we're still in a holding pattern."
Neal had visibly stiffened when Peter got to old friend in DC."How much are you planning to tell this friend of yours?"
"As much as I need to," Peter said. "I don't plan to string him along with half-truths. Kramer's the head of DC Art Crimes, and my old mentor at Quantico. He's a solid guy."
"You still think I should turn myself in, don't you? Peter -"
"Don't start with me, Neal. You're the one who came here and got me involved. As long as my family's at risk, I get a major say in the way we handle things. That's just the way it is. You want my help? You take it on my terms."
Neal's jaw set in a mulish way that Peter was becoming all too familiar with - then smoothed out, sliding into a relaxed smile. "Yeah," he said. "You're right, Peter."
Peter gave him a long, searching look. Neal's calm, friendly expression gave nothing away. Finally he turned away and busied himself laying out the omelet fixings. "Make yourself useful and chop this," he said, tossing a yellow pepper to Neal. "The one thing we need to stop doing is exactly what we've been doing so far - sitting here and waiting for Fowler to come to us, giving Adler plenty of time to make plans, gather information, and go on the offensive against us."
"Yeah," Neal said. "Good point."
Peter pointed at him with a spatula. "So we take the fight to him. I'm taking everything we've got on Fowler so far and dumping it in Kramer's lap. He's smart, he's discreet, and he has connections in the State Department and all up and down the FBI chain of command. Kramer is old school: he knows everybody,and with a compromised agent on our hands and the possibility that Adler is back in the game, there couldn't be a better person to have on our side. I knew you'd give me shit about it, but - say, why aren't you giving me shit about it?"
"Because you're right," Neal said, shrugging. "We can't handle Fowler and Adler on our own. Sitting here and letting them make all the moves gives them the advantage. So, yeah. Going up the chain of command, over Fowler's head, makes a lot of sense right now."
He started chopping the pepper with brisk, expert strokes. Peter watched him, trying to read him, but every line of Neal's body projected casual innocence. Which was suspicious all on its own.
That was too easy. He's planning something. The only question was what.
Brian entered the barn but immediately slipped out the back, where the trailer with the hay bales was. He climbed up on top of the bales of hay, which gave him a good view around. Distantly he saw the small figure of Jess on Pepper, riding for the upper pasture and her obstacle course.
Jess would kill him when she found out. But he'd had about all he could take. It was obvious that Jess planned on playing girl detective until something really bad happened, and Brian, who'd always been a little awkward around his aunt and uncle, couldn't figure out a way to approach Uncle Peter and ask what was going on. He'd held out as long as he could, and he was getting no help from his sister. It was time to let the proper authorities take over.
He stared at Fowler's business card for a long moment, then checked his cell for reception and, heart beating fast, dialed the number.
The gravelly voice of the guy from town answered on the first ring. "Fowler."
Brian wet his dry lips. "Hi. I'm Brian Miller - you talked to me in town. I think I know where that guy you're looking for is. His name is Neal, right?"
"Yeah," Fowler said. There was a hot anticipation in his voice, the same kind of eagerness that Brian sometimes heard in Uncle Peter's voice when he talked about his old cases. "That's right. You've seen him?"
Brian tried to push away his misgivings, push away his worry about why Uncle Peter would get involved with a dangerous guy like that. Uncle Peter always says that we need to follow the law and do what's right. Well, I'm doing what's right, even if HE'S not.
"He's at my uncle's farm," Brian said. "I can tell you where it is."
"Peter's hiding something."
"He's a fed, Neal. Or ex-fed, whatever, but once a suit, always a suit. He's hiding a lot of things."
"I mean more than usual," Neal said, sitting back on the coverlet in the guest bedroom and resting his weight on his hands. "I think his FBI friend Diana told him something that he doesn't want me to know. I'm just not sure what it is."
Breakfast had been awkward, enduring Peter's evasiveness and the kids' alternating sullenness and curiosity. Peter had finally, mercifully left to drive them home, giving Neal and Mozzie a brief window to talk alone.
"By the way, don't think that I haven't noticed you had a little party last night and didn't invite me," Mozzie said.
Neal groaned. He was still achy and exhausted, physical weariness entwining with emotional fatigue until he felt flattened, his sharp edges dull. It was awfully tempting to just flop down on the bed and sleep away the day. Maybe the week.
"Which is not to say I don't understand," Mozzie added. "This whole business - Kate and all - you know I'm not good at this, but all I'm saying, mon frﾏre, is that if you want to talk, I'm there for you."
"I know," Neal said quietly. "Thanks."
There was a brief pause, heavy with emotional awkwardness, then Mozzie clapped his hands together. "All right, on to the business of the day. Have you made a decision about leaving yet?"
"Yeah. I'm going to cut and run tonight."
"Thank God you've come to your senses. I thought Stockholm Syndrome had got you for sure. I was afraid I'd have to tie you up and drag you out of here."
"Exaggerate much, Moz?" Neal said dryly. "Yes, I've been enjoying the Burkes' hospitality, but I've been here too long already. Peter's planning to sell me out to a friend of his at the Bureau - oh, he says I can trust the guy, and I even think he might believe it, but once the FBI gets involved in any official capacity, I'm toast. The sooner we leave, the better."
Mozzie looked up. "You going to take a little starter fund from the Burkes?"
"No." The word jumped out before Neal had a chance to think. With a little more restraint, he added, "I can't, Moz. I've already taken enough from them."
"You can pay it back later. Anonymously. If you really have to."
"I said no,Moz."
Satchmo, lying on the bed beside Neal, put up his head with his ears pricked. He hopped down to the floor and trotted cheerfully out of the room. Neal heard the click of the screen door in the kitchen.
"The suit's back," Mozzie said.
Neal raised a finger, touching it to his lips. "We should've heard him pull into the driveway," he whispered. "I didn't hear a thing, did you?"
Mozzie's eyes went round.
Neal rose as quietly as possible and looked around the room for anything resembling a weapon. The closest thing he could find was the lamp off the bedside table. Trailing the cord, he crept to the door.
Mozzie sidled up next to him. "What are you doing, playing Rambo?" he whispered urgently. "Let's get out of here."
"You'll be a sitting duck in the yard," Neal whispered back. "If it's Fowler, he's probably not alone."
But the voice that spoke from the kitchen was female - and familiar. "Oh, hi, doggie. What's your name?"
Mozzie's mouth dropped open. "What's she doing here?"
Neal fixed him with a glare. "Gee, I don't know, Moz."
"She's not with me, Neal. Trust me."
Neal sighed, set down the lamp and sauntered out into the living room - keeping an eye open just in case she wasn't alone. "Alex. I see you still haven't mastered the art of knocking on strangers' doors."
Alex Hunter straightened up from fondling the dog's ears and gave him one of her brilliant, insincere smiles. As usual, she was impeccably tailored in a crisp black pantsuit and high-heeled boots: Thief Chic. She looked as out of place as Mozzie in the Burkes' rustic house.
"Caffrey. Where's my music box?"
"Nice to see you too, Alex."
"Yes, I can see you're delighted to see me. Mozzie." She nodded to Mozzie when he appeared behind Neal, then held out her hand. "The music box, Caffrey."
Neal made a show of patting down his pants. "What, do you think I've got it tucked into my pocket?"
"I wasn't born yesterday, Caffrey. I know you had it four days ago, which makes it rather likely that it's around here somewhere." Alex looked around the kitchen. "Who in the world are you staying with? I had no idea you had friends upstate."
"No one you'd know," Neal said. "How did you find me?" Because if she'd found him, then Fowler and Adler could do it the same way.
"How do you think? I followed your buddy." She pointed to Mozzie. "He never leaves the city. Ever. When he headed north, I knew he was going to you. I lost him in that awful little town yesterday, though. If I hadn't spotted the bunch of you riding horses this morning, there's no telling how long I would have been trapped in this bucolic hellhole."
"I swear, Neal," Mozzie said, holding up his hands in response to Neal's accusing look. "I had no idea she was back there."
Tires crunched on gravel outside the screen door. "That'll be Peter," Neal said. "Alex, the guy who owns this house is ex-FBI, and unless you want to explain to him why you're here -"
Alex boggled. "I don't believe this - you're hiding out with a fed?"
"Ex-fed," Neal said.
"He's lost his mind, hasn't he," Alex said to Mozzie. Mozzie gave a vigorous nod.
"Guys." Neal pointed urgently at the kitchen door. "In five seconds Peter's going to be in here. Alex, we do need to talk about the music box, but right now, you need to hide. Mozzie, get her into the bedroom."
"Will do," Mozzie said, and hustled her out of the room, an instant before the screen door opened.
"Peter -" Neal began.
It wasn't Peter.
For an instant Neal and Fowler stared at each other.
Then Fowler reached under his jacket for his gun, and Neal yelled "Fowler!" for Mozzie and Alex's benefit as he leaped backwards, crossing the kitchen in a single adrenaline-fueled leap. Mozzie and Alex had almost certainly gone into the bedroom, so he dashed for the stairs.
"Caffrey!" Fowler barked. "You're under arrest!"
Neal bounded up the stairs three at a time. He wished he'd taken the time to explore the upstairs more thoroughly. Master bedroom at the end of the hall, bathroom and another small bedroom that Peter seemed to have outfitted as a home gym. Would the windows open? They had to, right? Fire codes and all -
"Caffrey!" Fowler's footsteps pounded the stairs behind him.
Having only a split second to make the decision, he went for the master bedroom in the hopes that if any room in the upstairs was likely to have functional opening windows and some kind of fire escape ladder, it was that one. Neal slammed the door and locked it, not that the flimsy Victorian-style doorknob would hold for more than a single kick.
He looked around quickly. He'd been in here once already, looting the Burkes' spare cash (before returning it). Everything was as he remembered: bed, dresser, computer on a desk in the corner. Large opening window.
This time, though, his eyes were drawn to something at the far side of the room: a pull-down ladder and trapdoor in the ceiling. Of course. There was an attic.
Neal ran across the room, opening the window and giving it a hard shove as he passed it. If Fowler thought he'd gone out the window, it would buy some time. He stretched to grab the ladder, wincing as the movement tugged at the healing injury in his side.
"Caffrey, there's nowhere to go," Fowler said from the other side of the door. "You know what I want. We can make a deal. You were willing to deal before."
Neal pulled down the ladder and scrambled up, pushing open the trap door. The attic was a narrow dark space, little more than boards laid across the rafters, with the roof coming all the way down to the floor on both sides. Piles of boxes and random junk - an old bicycle, a dollhouse - looked like they'd come with the house and hadn't been touched in decades. There was one small dormer window, its flyspecked windowpanes admitting dim shafts of sunlight.
And, he realized, there was no way to pull up the ladder from above. If he hid up here, Fowler would know exactly where he'd gone.
But maybe he could buy enough time for Peter to come back - and for Alex and Mozzie to get away.
There was a splintering crash from below, which meant his decision was made for him in any case. Neal slammed the trapdoor and dragged the nearest stack of boxes on top of it, then added a steamer trunk so heavy he could barely move it.
The edge of the trapdoor lifted a half-inch or so before plunking back down. "Damn it, Caffrey!" Fowler yelled from below. "I don't have to be your enemy! At least I'm not the worst one you could have."
"I'm not an idiot, Fowler," Neal called. He tugged at the dormer window, but it was painted shut. "I know you're working for Adler, and youknow that any hope of making a deal with me went up in smoke when Kate died."
"Kate's death was a mistake," Fowler called back. "I regret it, Caffrey - you don't know how much. I regret a lot of things."
Neal's lip curled, scorching anger racing through him. "I'm really sorry to hear that." He took off his shoe, used it to protect his hand, and slammed it full-force against the window frame, splintering the sash and forcing the window open.
A heavy thump lifted the trapdoor an inch or two before it dropped back down, shifting the pile of boxes.
"Adler will never let you go, Neal," Fowler said from below. "Not with everything you know. Me, though - all I want is the music box. Give it to me, and I'll buy you time to get away."
"Right, like I'm supposed to believe that." Neal leaned out the window, looking down. The roof was made of shingles - old, unstable-looking shingles. "You really expect me to believe you'll just let me run, knowing enough to torpedo your career?"
"It's the best option you have. You're running out of time, Neal." There was a pause and a soft rattling sound - Fowler trying to jimmy the trapdoor - before he resumed talking. "Adler's on his way up here with someone a lot worse than me. His name's Larssen and he trained in the Special Forces with me. You don't want to be on his bad side."
"Let me guess," Neal said. "They know exactly where to find me, thanks to you." He put a foot on the sill, braced himself and slithered out onto the roof.
Whatever Fowler answered was too muffled by the walls to be heard. The ground suddenly looked a lot farther down than it had a minute ago. Neal found purchase on the shingles and sidled carefully around the window, then pulled himself up to straddle the ridgeline.
He had a fantastic view from up here. The horses in their paddock looked like toys. He could see over the trees into the neighbors' yard. Across a patchwork of woods and fields, he even glimpsed the far-off river.
I could tell him. Give him the damn music box, and split.
But that wouldn't end it. Fowler might be lying or merely deluding himself, but Neal knew without a doubt that Adler wasn't simply going to let him walk away. And the Burkes' farm was on Adler's radar now. A sudden image flashed behind Neal's eyes with stark clarity: Peter and Elizabeth and Pattie's kids, beaten and bleeding, forced to tell Adler everything they knew -
He blinked hard to chase it away. No, that's not going to happen. Peter still had friends at the FBI, friends powerful enough to protect him. The best thing you can do for them is get out of their lives, and get Adler pointed in a different direction before things go from bad to worse.
The sound of a revving engine in the driveway drew his attention. Neal couldn't help grinning at the sight of Alex in the driver's seat of Fowler's car, which she had presumably just hotwired. Impulsively he waved to her. Alex's arm appeared out the driver's window, waving back, and the car slewed into motion, sending gravel flying everywhere.
Fowler appeared from under the porch roof, running after his car. Neal flattened himself on the roof, grinning. He would love to be a fly on the wall for the conversation when Fowler tried to explain this.
There was no sign of Moz, but if he wasn't in the car with Alex, Neal trusted that he'd found a safe place to go to ground. Mozzie was absolutely brilliant at the things he was good at, and avoiding danger was definitely one of those things.
Then Fowler abruptly reversed direction and sprinted for the barn. Neal sat up on the ridgepole, confused at first as to what Fowler was trying to avoid. It became obvious when Peter's car turned into the driveway.
As he slowed down for the turn onto his property, Peter was almost run down by a silver sedan peeling out of his own driveway. He caught only a fleeting glimpse of the driver, a dark-haired woman he was pretty sure he'd never seen before.
"What the hell -?"
The urge to pursue the car, rapidly vanishing in the distance, warred with the desire to find out what the hell Neal was up to, because Peter had no doubt that Neal had something to do with this. The "find Neal" urge won.
"Peter!" he heard Neal call as he opened his car door. Neal's voice came from above him. Peter looked up, and stared.
Welcome to a new installment of Life With Caffrey, he thought. "Neal, what are you doing on my roof?"
"Fowler!" Neal shouted, and pointed towards the barn. "He went that way!"
All thoughts of mysterious women in silver cars temporarily fled Peter's brain, chased out by a hot wash of anger. He jogged up the steps and retrieved his gun from the gun safe, fending off Satch's enthusiastic greeting. Then he made a dash for the barn.
"He took one of the horses, Peter!" Neal shouted from the roof.
That, Peter could see at a glance. Chantilly was missing. Son of a bitch is a horse thief too? he thought in disbelief.
Well, there was no way Fowler'd had time to saddle her, not if Peter's arrival had chased him out of the yard. With any luck, she'll throw the bastard.
Pepper responded to Peter's whistle. After all Jess's work with her, if there was a horse in the paddock who might be semi-responsive without saddle or bridle, Pepper was that horse. Peter grabbed a lead rope dangling from the fence, clipped it to her halter for a makeshift rein, and mounted her off the fence rail.
"Time to show me your stuff, baby."
Satchmo raced to join them. Satch loved going along on the kids' rides, and seemed to think of the horses as honorary members of his pack. In fact, maybe ... "Hey, Satch, wanna go for a ride?" Peter called to the dog, and Satchmo took off like a shot for the woods. With any luck, he'd be on Chantilly's trail, running to catch up as he sometimes did when the kids accidentally left him behind.
"Did you see which way he went, Neal?" Peter yelled in the direction of the house.
Neal's small figure paused in the act of climbing down to the dormer window. "Got a glimpse of him over there, through the trees," he yelled, pointing.
That would be the trail that went behind the Sawyers' property and, damn it, hooked into the main network of riding trails around the river. Peter urged Pepper to a trot and then to a canter.
It was a strange feeling, riding the horse and knowing that he had little control over her. Like skydiving, or downhill skiing on a fast slippery slope - terrifying and yet exhilarating. Peter had never been more aware of the power of the horse under him, a runaway train of flesh and bone. Up ahead of him, Satch floated in and out of patches of sunlight, pausing occasionally to look back and see if the human on the horse was still following him.
The trail split, the right fork going off towards the Sawyers' and the other dipping down into the bottomlands along the river. Satchmo turned down the left fork. Peter directed Pepper after the dog with his knees, and she took the turn like a dream, never hesitating.
If the kids tried something like this, he'd rip them a new one. Actually, he'd probably rip himself a new one if he stopped to think about it for a minute. This was reckless, stupid, dangerous -
- exciting, thrilling, exhilarating ...
Alone in the woods, with no one but the dog and the horse to hear him, Peter let out a wild whoop of pure joy.
Neal sighed in relief when his feet thumped back onto the dusty floorboards in the attic. The adrenaline rush of scrambling out onto the roof had long since worn off; now he was just tired and worried about Moz. And, if he had to admit it to himself, Peter. Fowler was dangerous, and while he knew full well that Peter could take care of himself, there was still a part of him that, ludicrously, wanted to run after them into the woods and help.
The wood around the bedroom doorknob was splintered, and Fowler had caved in one of the bottom door panels when he'd kicked it. Great. Now I owe them a new door, on top of everything else.
"Mozzie?" he called. The house seemed very still and silent after all the excitement. Neal crossed the kitchen floor and went out onto the porch just as Fowler's car appeared in the driveway.
He ducked back into the kitchen, then saw that Alex was driving and cautiously stuck his head around the kitchen door. Alex rolled down the window and waved. "Caffrey, come on!"
"Come on where?" Neal asked, amused and surprised.
"Somewhere that isn't here," Alex said, and in an irritated voice, over her shoulder, "You can sit up now. No one's shooting at you."
Mozzie's head popped up in the backseat. "No one's shooting at me yet,"he corrected her, and scrambled out of the car, staying low. "Hang on, I have to get my stuff."
Neal laughed. Alex never ceased to amaze him. "You're going on the run in an FBI agent's stolen car? There's chutzpah and then there's ..."
"Sounds like something you'd do, doesn't it?" Alex said. "And you mean weare going on the run. Unless you want to stay here 'til Fowler comes back."
Neal opened and closed his mouth. When it came right down to it, this was probably the best chance to leave that was likely to come along. Peter was out of the way, El was at work, Fowler was busy ... And he didn't have a good reason not to go with her, except the one thing he couldn't say: the truth. I don't want to, and I'm not sure why.
"And we can have a nice long chat about my music box," Alex added.
Well, there was that.
"I don't have the music box, Alex."
"You mean you don't have it in your hands right now," Alex said. "Which I can see. But I know how you operate, Caffrey. You've hidden it somewhere, haven't you?"
Mozzie emerged from the barn, lugging his duffle. "You need anything from the house?" he asked Neal.
"No." All he owned was ... well, his shoes, actually, since he was still wearing Peter's borrowed clothes.
The Burkes had literally given him the shirt off their backs. Neal glanced at the woods again.
"Neal, come on," Mozzie said, throwing the duffle in the backseat and climbing in after it.
I was planning on doing this tonight anyway. The opportunity came along sooner than I was expecting, that's all.
He got in the passenger seat.
"Nice threads, by the way," Alex remarked, glancing at the oversized sweatshirt with its rolled-up sleeves.
"Since you're driving," Neal said, "I'd really appreciate it if you'd stop at the first clothing store we come to. And I still think you ought to ditch the car as soon as possible."
"I can see this is going to be a charming road trip," Mozzie said from the backseat.
"No one asked the peanut gallery." Alex turned the car around smartly and pulled out of the driveway.
Neal looked back over his shoulder: the house, the barn, the paddock with the horses, all receding into the distance, until they were swallowed by trees.
He'd really been looking forward to leaving. He couldn't wait to get back to civilization: good restaurants, silk sheets, transportation that didn't have hooves. He had friends around him, wheels under him, and he was leaving Fowler and Adler far enough behind that he'd finally get some breathing space - time to plan revenge for Kate without the Burkes getting underfoot. Yeah, he was running again, but he'd been running most of his life for one reason or another. This was what he lived for: being on the road, footloose and free.
And yet, it felt like he was being ripped in half.
The trail emerged from the woods along the river, and Peter slowed Pepper to a walk to let her cool down and get her wind back. Once again, she responded beautifully. He was going to have to tell Jess that she was a horse-trainer extraordinaire.
Up ahead, Satchmo gave a sharp bark. Peter looped the rope rein over the saddlehorn, keeping his hand on it but ready to draw his pistol in an instant if he needed to. Most of the saddles on the Burke property were Western-style, since he often found the saddlehorn useful in place of an extra hand.
As they came around a bend in the river, he saw Chantilly on the far bank, riderless, browsing on the scrubby grass on a sandbar.
Peter reined in Pepper and drew his gun. "Fowler?" he called.
There was no answer, no sound but birdcalls and the rushing of the water over the river's shallow bed. Peter tried to place their location in terms of the overall geography of the area. There was a road right behind the trees on the far side of the river. Either Fowler was using Chantilly as bait in a trap, or someone had come to pick him up. Or both.
"Fowler, I know you probably don't want to talk to me," Peter called. If you did what I think you did, I don't blame you." So here's the deal. I'm going to cross the river and get my horse. And then I'm riding back the way I came. We aren't going to have a problem unless you make it a problem."
He holstered the gun, dismounted and tied Pepper to a bush. For a moment he wished for two hands with a bitter, savage urgency: one to hold his gun, the other to put Plan B into effect. But, forced to choose between them, he had to admit that the gun was the less important of the two. In the middle of the river, he wouldn't even have time to get off a shot if Fowler tried to snipe him.
He drew his cell phone instead. Reception in the woods could be flaky, but holding it up, he managed to get a strong enough signal to call Diana.
"Hey, boss. I haven't had time to look up -"
"That's not why I'm calling," Peter interrupted. "I'm with Fowler right now. Or, to be accurate, I'm in the woods somewhere in his general vicinity. You're my insurance policy."
"How do you mean?" Diana asked.
"I'm about to retrieve something Fowler stole from me. I think he might be using it as bait in a trap. I want you to get a fix on the GPS of this phone while I do it. If anything happens - if you hear gunshots, if I stop answering - then Fowler either did it or he's heavily involved with someone who did. Scramble agents to this location, and call Kramer at DC Art Crimes, tell him everything I've told you about Fowler."
"I can see that civilian life hasn't done anything for your sense of self-preservation."
"I knew I could count on you, Diana."
"The GPS is showing that you're upstate. It'll take hours to get anyone there."
"I know," Peter said. "That's why I'm hoping the threat is enough."
He held up the cell, waved it in the air and called, "Fowler? See this? I'm on the phone to a friend of mine at the Bureau right now. Anything happens to me in the next five minutes, they'll know you did it and there will be agents on the way. Now I'm coming across to get my horse."
Either Fowler wasn't there, or the threat was enough. Peter waded across in waist-deep water, retrieved a reluctant Chantilly - she was having fun, and not especially interested in going home - and waded back across.
"Hey, Diana. Mission accomplished."
"I forgot how nerve-wracking it was to work for you," Diana sighed. "Did I hear you say '... get my horse'?"
"Long story," Peter said. "I'll call you from the house in about twenty minutes. If I don't call you back within a half-hour -"
"I know. Send in the troops."
The ominous silence at the house should have been a clue.
But Peter didn't catch on until he'd already turned the horses into the paddock, called Diana to give her a quick "still alive, don't push the panic button" update, and then walked into the house and called Neal's name.
The house had the still, unlived-in feeling that Peter remembered from his days with the Bureau. He knew the difference between the waiting silence of a house with someone in it, even someone sleeping, and the open, echoing silence of one that was empty. It was an overall feeling made up of little sounds, little clues you didn't even notice consciously. Learning to listen to the reptilian hindbrain, to pick up on those clues, was one of the things that separated old cops from dead cops.
And this house was empty.
He went room to room, looking for blood or bullet holes or any signs that Neal hadn't been as healthy when he'd left as he was when Peter saw him on the roof. The splintered door lock gave him pause. The ladder pulled down from the attic and the broken window offered another chapter of the story.
But Neal was gone, and when he went out to the barn, he wasn't surprised to find that Mozzie's things were gone too.
They'd done a runner.
Peter sank down on a bale of hay and leaned against the wall, suddenly weary beyond the telling. "Damn it, Neal," he said, to an audience of only the horses and the silence in the barn.
They ditched Fowler's car near Apple Corners, and Alex boosted another one, which they in turn traded for a second stolen car halfway to Syracuse.
Syracuse wasn't much of a town for high-end shopping, but at least Neal was able to buy something to wear that didn't look like hand-me-downs from his big brother. It was an off-the-rack suit and not even the best of those, but he turned around in front of the mirror and saw himself again, not whoever he'd been since Kate's death. Whoever he'd been at the Burkes'.
Alex sat watching him, legs crossed, tapping her foot. "How much of my time are you planning to waste?"
"Do you have an appointment somewhere?" Neal tried a hat, then another one. He looked at himself in the mirror again. It lookedlike him. Maybe if he kept trying, it would eventually feel like him. "We've got all the time in the world."
But in the back of his head, there was a ticking countdown. Adler and this Larssen, whoever he was, were coming up from New York. They'd get to Apple Corners, to the Burkes' farm, and find that Neal wasn't there. And then they'd -
"You might," Alex said. "As for me, my patience is getting a little thin. That's my credit card you're running up, you know."
Neal summoned his usual easy grin. "And whose was it before it was yours?"
Alex waved her hand. "Details, details. And don't forget, there's a reason I took you with me."
"I thought it was something to do with saving my life and getting me back to the city lights." Neal tipped the hat rakishly over his eye. Oh, yeah. That was better. He smiled at himself in the mirror, and wondered if that smile looked as insincere to everyone else as it looked to him right now.
"That," Alex said, "and my music box."
"Does that mean you admit you have it?"
"I never admit anything."
"This was cute for a while, Neal, but it's not funny anymore." Alex rose. "I'll be out in the car with Mozzie. And believe me, it's a sorry day when I prefer his company to yours."
As soon as her back was turned, Neal let the smile drop away.
What would Peter be doing now? Calling the police on him? In a way, Neal hoped so: it might make his flight with Alex and Mozzie a little more complicated, but it would mean that Peter was talking to the authorities, maybe getting protection so that he and his family weren't entirely at Adler's mercy.
I could call them. He'd been tempted several times on the drive to Syracuse to ask Alex or Mozzie if he could borrow their phone. Or, better yet, now that he was back in a town that actually had stores,he could pick up a cheap prepaid phone somewhere. Call Peter. Let him know that Adler was coming and that he needed to get out of the house -
- and then Peter would argue with him, and bring out the guilt, and the next thing he knew, he'd be trying to talk Alex into driving back to Apple Corners. No, he couldn't talk to Peter.
Besides, he didn't know Peter or El's number. He'd only been with them for two days. He had no way to get in touch with them, short of making physical contact again, and no logical reason to consider their welfare his responsibility.
He's got friends at the Bureau. Highly placed friends. He's better off than you are, Caffrey. Let Peter take care of himself -
But what it all came back to was that Peter wouldn't need to take care of himself if Neal hadn't shown up in his barn two days ago and led trouble to his front door. No matter how fine a point he put on it, he'd taken off and left Peter and El to face the danger that he'd led to them, and just trying to think about it made him sick to his stomach with guilt and fear.
There was also the small matter of the music box. Which Alex hadn't shut up about.
I should've picked it up before we left Apple Corners. Because now, getting it would mean going back.
But he couldn't have brought it without admitting to Alex that he had it. And Neal Caffrey was never one to play a hole card if he didn't have to.
Not to mention that it gives you a convenient excuse to go back. Isn't that right, Caffrey?
He stared at himself in the mirror. The blue eyes under the brim of the hat looked back at him. Strangers' eyes.
Adler won't hurt Peter and El. He's got no reason to. He'd only get himself in trouble, and he's too cautious for that. As far as he and Fowler are concerned, they're just a random couple who sheltered me for a couple of days, no one he should be concerned about.
I have to take care of me, and they have to take care of them, and we'll both be all right.
If he told himself enough times, maybe he'd believe it.
El looked up automatically when the customer doorbell at the bakery tinkled. At the sight of her husband, a smile broke across her face, but it faded when she saw his expression.
"Pattie, I'm going to take five, all right?"
All Pattie had to do was take a single look at her brother-in-law, and she squeezed El's arm with a sympathetic smile. "Take as much time as you need. I've got it."
El nodded her thanks, and poured two cups of coffee. She pushed one of them into Peter's hand, and steered him behind the counter and into Pattie's tiny office adjoining the kitchen.
"What's the matter?" she asked, kissing his cheek. "Is everything all right at the house? Is it Neal?"
Peter allowed himself to be pushed down into the room's single chair. "That's complicated," he said, and told her about Fowler, about his possible connection to the warehouse fire, and about Neal and Mozzie's disappearance - which involved backtracking a bit to explain who Mozzie was.
"Fowler was there? At our house?"
"Well, Neal said so." Peter went silent for a moment. "Come to think of it, all I ever had was Neal's word for that. He could've turned Chantilly loose himself - if he endangered the horses playing his games, El -"
"He doesn't seem like that kind of person to me."
"I don't have any idea who Neal is," Peter said softly. "He's whoever it suits him to be at any given moment. I don't even know if heknows."
El perched on the edge of the battered antique table that served as Pattie's desk. The air was hot and close, and smelled of sugar and cinnamon. "That's not really fair to Neal, hon. And you know it."
"I think I know him a little better than you do," Peter pointed out. "I chased him for years."
"Yes, but did you ever talk to him? I think I've had nearly as many conversations with him as you have."
Despite his obvious efforts to stay in a funk, Peter's lopsided smile appeared on the unburned half of his face. "And what are your conclusions, DoctorBurke?"
El pursed her lips in a prim and proper way. "Well, let me see, AgentBurke." The affected manner fell away, and she said sincerely, "Peter, he's young and lonely and scared. I don't think he's had very many people in his life he can trust. I'm not even sure if he knows how."
Peter leaned against her shoulder; she rested her cheek on top of his head. "So what's your recommendation, Doctor?" he asked. "Can he be rehabilitated?"
El sighed, ruffling his hair with her breath. "Oh, hon. I wish I knew. I know he likes us. I think he wants to trust us, but can't quite bring himself to it."
"And he's out there," Peter murmured against her sleeve. "Running to God only knows where. And Fowler ..."
His fingers curled into a fist. El cupped her hand over his.
"I'm going to take down that son of a bitch, El. I know Kramer will help me. I don't have any evidence yet, but I feel it in my gut - he was involved with what happened that night, to those men."
"And to you," El said quietly into his hair.
"And me. But this isn't about revenge, hon." When she squeezed his hand, Peter sighed. "Okay. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a little- but that's not why I want to see him go down. He doesn't deserve to walk around free after what he's done."
"And what if there's no way to take down Fowler without taking down Neal along with him?"
Peter drew back and looked up at her. "You don't shy away from asking the hard questions, do you?"
"Only when you're asking yourself the same questions," she pointed out.
Peter heaved a sigh.
"It would be easier to help Neal if he wouldn't make helping him such a pain in the ass."
"Gee, that doesn't remind me of anyone I know at all." El kissed the top of his head. "What are you going to do next?"
"Well, the logical thing at this point is what I should've done two days ago: talk to the police, and to the FBI."
"And Neal ..."
"Neal got himself into this," Peter snapped. "It's not up to me to get him out."
"Of course not."
"I don't even know him. Like you said - I never had a conversation with him until two days ago."
"True," El said.
"So what I'm actually going to do," Peter said after a moment, "is try again to get in touch with Kramer, and then go out to the old mill by the river."
El pulled back and frowned down at him. "The ruined mill? Why?"
"I went there this morning with the kids and Neal," Peter said. "And Neal's been there before. You could tell by the way he was looking around - or not looking around, rather. He's like a kid - insatiable curiosity. He was trying too hard not to look; it couldn't be anything but an act. And I got to thinking. According to the story Neal told us, there was a full day between the time that his girlfriend died and when he turned up in our barn. It wouldn't take that long to get up here, even hitchhiking. He'd be an absolute fool to hang around New York for twelve hours with Adler trying to kill him, so where do you suppose he was?"
"I assumed he came directly out to the farm," El said.
"Because that's what he wanted us to think. I don't know if you've noticed, hon, but whenever Neal's talking, the truth is usually in what he doesn'tsay."
Peter had the look that El thought of as his "The FBI Agent Is On The Case" expression. She hadn't seen that look in four years, and her breath caught at the realization that she'd really missed that thousand-yard stare, the laserlike fixation on something that only Peter could see.
"So let's say he didn't know where the farm was. He got a ballpark idea from whoever gave him a ride, but he couldn't exactly grill everyone in town without making a target of himself. So he ended up wandering around in the woods for awhile before he found us. If he was going to unload something he didn't want us to know about, that'd be the time."
El managed to tamp down her fond smile and focus on what he was saying. "Do you still think he was lying about the music box?"
Peter's brow furrowed. "I don't think he necessarily lied. I can't remember everything word-for-word, but I think he tried his damnedest to give the impression that he didn't have it without coming right out and saying so. Assuming he didn't have the brass balls to hide it on our property - and honestly, I wouldn't put anything past him - the mill is the next most likely place. It's close, but relatively isolated."
"That sounds dangerous. Fowler's out there, and we both know cell reception along the river is spotty..."
"I'll be careful. I'll take my gun, and check in with you every so often. The minute things get dangerous, I'll call the cops." He squeezed his arm around her waist. "You should probably get back to work."
El nodded, but she stayed cuddled against him for a moment longer.
"I hate leaving you alone," Peter said.
El laughed. "Honey, I'm not alone. No one is going to snatch me from the bakery in broad daylight. And I promise I won't so much as go to the bathroom without making sure that Pattie knows where I am and when I'm coming back, okay?"
"All right," Peter conceded, "but I'll stop by and pick you up this evening. And don't work late. As soon as the bakery closes -"
"- I'll call you. Yes. That's fair." She kissed the tip of his nose. "Be safe."
"I think I've been very patient," Alex said.
Neal looked up from a cup of coffee. They'd ditched the second stolen car and regrouped at a Syracuse restaurant to go over plans. Well, more accurately, to drink a lot of coffee while avoiding talking to each other.
"You," Mozzie said. "Patient."
"Don't start with me. I just rescued both of you from rural hell. The least you could do is stop giving me the runaround."
Neal groaned and rubbed his eyes. I'm not, was on the tip of his tongue, but damn it, he was, and he didn't like lying to friends. "I'm just not sure where to go from here, Alex. Things have been happening very fast."
"Things always happen fast around you, Caffrey," Alex said. Her smile dropped away and she toyed with her coffee cup. "So when do we rendezvous with Whatsername, anyway?"
"Kate," Alex said. Mozzie looked up sharply, and Neal felt himself flinch. She didn't know. She didn't know. "Unless you two are quits. Oh, God, don't tell me. She dumped you and took the music box. You know, Neal, if you would tell people things, I wouldn't go and stick my foot in it -"
"She's dead," Neal said. It was like ripping off a bandaid, really. Or tearing the bandage off an open, bleeding wound.
Alex stopped with her mouth open. It wasn't easy to leave Alex speechless. Under different circumstances, he would have enjoyed it.
"That can't -" Alex wet her lips and started over. "It's only been, what, four days since the last time I saw the two of you? When did ..."
"Two days ago," Neal said. "More like three, now."
Alex stared at him. "Why didn't you say anything?"
"It didn't come up, all right?" He was aware of Mozzie giving him a long look, and tried to ignore it. "Like I said, things have been happening fast."
Alex started to reach across the table for his hand, then aborted it in mid-gesture - his body language must have been giving off do not touchvibes. Instead she started taking out sugar packets and carefully rearranging them in their little ceramic holder. "Neal, I know that - well, Kate and I have never really seen eye to eye on a lot of things, but - can I ask what happened?"
Keeping himself under control was an increasing effort. His hand on the cup started to tremble. Neal locked his jaw, locked himself down. "Adler happened."
Alex's head snapped up.
"Yes, Adler. Vincent Adler. Why do you think I'm hiding out upstate, Alex? Because I like the country air?" Neal forced his voice down to a harsh whisper. "Adler killed Kate, and he's trying to kill me. This isn't like one of the cons we used to run. This isn't even like stealing the music box. Kate's dead, and I -" His vision was starting to telescope into a dark tunnel. Oh, God, it wasn't going to hit him now. It couldn't. Not here. "I'm taking that bastard down," he said, holding onto self-control by the skin of his teeth.
"I have to use the restroom," Alex said. Her face was very white. She shot to her feet and headed for the back of the cafe.
For a moment no one said anything. Neal stared at his coffee cup, which had become the center of his universe, and focused on his breathing. If you're going to lose it, Caffrey, this isn't the time and it isn't the place.
"Neal ..." Mozzie said. His voice was soft and helpless. Neal looked up at him, finally. "Do you want me to go after her?"
"No." Neal rose. He was a little less shaky, a little more himself - or whoever he'd become; he honestly had no idea anymore. "I think I could use a trip to the restroom myself."
It was the middle of the afternoon and the cafe was almost deserted: small favors, anyway. The restrooms were down a small hall beside the kitchen. Alex was leaning against the wall outside the ladies' room. She wasn't crying and she wasn't hastily putting away a cell phone, which were the two possibilities that had occurred to Neal. She looked up when he appeared.
"Let's talk," Neal said.
Alex didn't resist when he took her arm and steered her out the service door at the end of the hall. It led to a small employee parking space behind the restaurant. There was room for two cars and a dumpster, and not much else.
"I don't suppose you've taken up smoking," Alex said. Her voice shook a little. "I haven't either, but all of a sudden I could really use a cigarette."
"No cigarettes. Sorry." Neal started to lean against the wall, took a closer look and thought better of it. "Alex, are you working for Adler?"
She gave a ladylike snort of disgust. "Working for Adler? Hardly. Those days are over."
"Working with Adler, then."
Alex turned away. To the parking lot in general, she said, "We both worked for him back in the day, you know."
"Alex, I'm not judging. Believe me, I know how charming Adler is. I didn't think he was capable of something like this, either."
And if I'd realized in time, then Kate -But that was a road he couldn't go down. Not right now.
"The crazy thing is, I wasn't just doing it for the money," Alex said to the parking lot. "He said that the box was what he wanted, not you. That as long as he had it, you and Kate -" She stopped, took a deep breath and went on. "That you could both go about your lives, no strings attached. As long as I could find you and retrieve the box."
She rubbed her eyes and didn't look at him. Neal had never been a smoker except when he'd adopted it as part of a persona, but he could empathize with her craving for a cigarette. He was itching, restless, uncomfortable in his skin; he wished he had something to do with his hands.
"Neal, do you mind if I ask how it - I mean, how she -"
Yes, he minded, but it was a fair question. And maybe if he kept saying it, then it would make it more real. Or less real. Or something. "He blew up a plane with Kate inside."
Alex's mouth opened, then closed. "The explosion at the airfield - that was Kate?It was on the news. Rumor said it was a mob hit."
"No," Neal said.
Alex paced as best she could, two short steps from the dumpster to the nearest car and back. "Are you sure it was Adler?"
"I was on the phone with him when he pushed the button. I was standing right there. I saw it happen."
Kate. The plane. Fowler, gun in hand, holding a cell phone out to him. "There's someone who wants to talk to you, Neal ..."
Alex stopped pacing. "Oh, God. Neal."
"Right up to that point, I still thought I could make a deal. A better deal than Fowler was giving us. The box for our freedom, Kate's and mine." There was so much about that day he couldn't think about, didn't dare think about, not when he was clinging to self-control by the tips of his fingers. But the bone-deep shock of realization, that he'd been so wrong about Adler, for all these years, still cut like a blade.
"Instead, I found out how wrong I was. And Kate died, and I took a bullet from Fowler, and I ran."
Ran ... ran to Peter Burke, who he'd spoken to once, four years ago. Peter Burke, who'd tracked him across two continents and finally run him to ground. Peter Burke, who, when Neal's back was up against the wall, was his bulwark, his anchor, his one constant in a world gone mad. It made no sense. And yet. There it was.
"Did you have the box when you ran?" Alex asked. "The truth, Neal. I'm as deep in this as you are now, and you know it."
Neal forced himself to meet her eyes. "Yes," he said.
Nothing changed in her face. It wasn't exactly news to her, after all.
"I knew I never should have given it back to you after we stole it, Caffrey."
"To be honest, I wish you hadn't." If she'd just run with it, as she'd started to, after the four of them had taken it from the embassy a few nights ago - but, no. There were so many different turns they could have taken, so many changes large and small that could have broken the chain of events that had led them here. But here they were. And time was a one-way arrow, moving only forward.
"Where is it?"
In for a penny, in for a pound ... "It's hidden back in Apple Corners."
"Damn it, Neal!"
"In case you haven't noticed," Neal said dryly, "I'm not really the trusting sort."
"I'd always considered it one of your better traits, but now I'm starting to realize how annoying it is." Alex ran her hand through her hair. "I expect that Adler's on his way now, if he isn't there already."
"Did you -"
"Call him? No. I was planning to handle things on my own, get the box and get it back to him without tipping him off to your location. But since Fowler knows where you've been hiding, then Adler will know too."
"Yeah," Neal said. "I'd figured."
The service door cracked open. Neal flinched and started to reach for Alex's hand - cover, cover - but it was only Mozzie. "What is going onout here? I'm starting to feel abandoned."
"We've been having a very enlightening conversation," Alex said. "Clearing the air. You know. That sort of thing."
"Ah. Thatsort of thing. Want me to -"
"No," Neal said. "Stay. You should be involved in this conversation too. We were just discussing our next move."
"Among numerous other things," Alex said. "Caffrey - those people you were staying with -"
"Yes. Them. When Adler gets there and doesn't find you - how dangerous is he, Neal? How ruthless?"
And there it was, the truth that he'd been trying so hard to deny. "As ruthless as he needs to be, to get what he wants," Neal said, wrenching out the words and forcing them into the light, where he couldn't deny them anymore. "And he wants the music box very badly."
"Do they know where it is?"
"No," Neal said. "They don't even know I have it." Though Peter had suspected, he knew. And that little bit of knowledge was just enough to get Peter and Elizabeth into a lot of trouble.
Alex, ever suspicious, had brought her purse with her to the restroom, and now she took out a slim phone and held it out to him. "Call them, Neal."
"I can't.I don't know their number, and, Peter being Peter, I doubt if it's listed anywhere. I might be able to get in touch with Elizabeth's sister; I know she owns a bakery, though I don't know the name of it."
Mozzie, as always, knew him much too well. "Oh, tell me that you're not thinking what I think you're thinking."
"We have to go back for the music box anyway," Neal said, studiously not looking at Mozzie, whose silence became somehow accusing.
Alex dropped the phone back into her purse. "Yes, and the sensible thing is to wait until Adler's gone and then get it. I like you, Caffrey, but I draw the line at risking myself for strangers."
"You don't have to come," Neal said. "In fact, I'd really prefer it if you two didn't come. There's no point in all of us -"
"See what I have to put up with," Mozzie told Alex.
"My condolences," Alex said without sympathy.
Neal cleared his throat. "Is anyone listening to me? I'm not joking. Adler's out for blood - mine, and anyone near me. As far as I'm concerned, having you guys here, as backup, is a lot more useful than dragging all of us into trouble."
"My bag of surplus Russian spy gear begs to differ," Mozzie said.
"No, no, no. It's my turn to talk and your turn to listen, Neal. For the record," Mozzie said, "I think we're moving too fast. My vote is for strategic withdrawal, followed by marshaling our resources and then launching an offensive. But." He reached out and gave Neal's arm a quick, light tap. "I'll back whatever play you make, man. I've got nothing against Adler personally - hell, the guy pulled off the con of a lifetime, you gotta admire that - but when he took out Kate, this became war. It's not about the suits and it's not about the law. Kate was one of us." Mozzie looked at Alex. "Am I wrong?"
Alex twisted a strand of hair between her fingers, and wilted under Mozzie's stare. "You're not wrong," she said quietly.
Neal swallowed, his throat suddenly tight. "Guys ..."
"Don't get mushy on me," Mozzie said. "We need to make a plan. And ..." He sighed. "I suppose we're heading back to Apple Corners. Just when I thought I'd seen the last of that place."
"So I'll steal another car, then, shall I?" Alex said brightly.
Diana had nothing new to report, and Kramer's number was still going to voicemail. It would be just his luck, Peter thought, if Kramer was on vacation this week.
And for the life of him, he couldn't figure out why he was trying so hard to protect Caffrey. He ought to have dumped this whole mess on the local LEOs hours ago, let them put out an APB on Neal and haul his ass back to prison. But he kept thinking about Neal on the couch, open and vulnerable and so heartbreakingly young ... I'll hand this all off to the LEOs the very minute it starts to look like things are going sideways, he told himself. No stupid risks. Neal can damn well deal with the consequences.
He picked up his Glock at the house. He also dug in the kitchen drawers until he located the almost-unused house key and locked the doors - the last time they'd bothered was when they'd gone away for a few days to visit Peter's mother. Definitely a different lifestyle than New York City, that was for sure.
Then he saddled Ness and, with Satchmo romping alongside, headed into the woods.
"You are such an idiot!"
Brian, unbothered by his sister's fit of temper, looked up from unscrewing the back of Mrs. Sawyer's network router. "Au contraire, sister mine. I'm the only one in the family who has any sense, apparently. Hand me those wire clippers."
The Miller kids were at the Sawyers' for the afternoon; Brian was upgrading their home computer network, and the two girls had been sent along because their parents didn't want them home alone. Not that either Brian or Jess were paying much attention to their little sister at the moment - Susie had wandered off to play with the Sawyers' cat.
"You could get Aunt El and Uncle Peter in a lot of trouble," Jess sulked, handing the tool to her brother.
"Yeah, if you were really worried about Aunt El you would've called the police like a sensible person." Brian snipped a length of wire from the spool of cable in his other hand. "If they're hiding a fugitive, they deserve what they get. This is why we have laws." He looked up at his sister. "You're the one who wants to be a detective."
Jess crossed her skinny arms. "Being a detective is about solving crimes and helping people, not - not slavishly following every stupid law."
"Like the ones about not stealing people's stuff and escaping from prison?"
"You're impossible," Jess said. "I'm going over to apologize." She stomped off.
"Take Susie with you!" Brian called over his shoulder. "You're supposed to be watching her. Actually, you're getting paid to watch her, if you'll recall."
The Sawyer place was a short walk from the Burkes' via the horse trail network. Even with her younger sister slowing her down, it didn't take Jess long to walk it. The Burkes' car was in their driveway.
"Uncle Peter?" she called. "Aunt El? Neal?" Holding Susie by the hand, Jess trotted up the steps to the porch. When she tried the kitchen door, she found it locked, which made her pause in surprise. No one out here ever locked their doors.
She peered through the window but saw no one inside. Satchmo didn't seem to be around, either; whether he was in or out of the house, the dog never missed an opportunity to beg shamelessly for petting from a visitor.
Investigating the barn, she found Ness missing along with his tack. The barn had also been cleaned out of anything interesting or clueful, at least as far as she could tell. There was no sign that "cousin" Neal and his friend Mozzie had ever been there.
"I guess we missed a bunch of stuff," she said to her sister, leaning on the fence in the sunshine and petting Pepper. "So now what?"
"I want to ride a horse," Susie said.
"Sure." Jess brightened. "Let's go look for Uncle Peter. Do you want to do that?"
Susie was cheerful about the idea, and going back to the Sawyers' - and Brian - didn't appeal right now, so Jess saddled Pepper. Susie was too little to ride by herself; Jess boosted the little girl up to the saddle, then mounted behind her.
Jess wasn't entirely sure where Uncle Peter had gotten off to, but she knew where she wanted to go: back to the mill. Neal had been acting altogether too strange when they were down there this morning. She had a hunch, and she wanted to look for clues.
Peter kept his eyes open and his hand loose on the reins, ready to drop them and go for his gun if he needed to. But the forest was peaceful as usual, hushed and serene in the afternoon heat. The only sounds to break the stillness were the cicadas' hum and the wind stirring the leaves above his head.
He tied Ness outside the mill and did a cautious circuit, gun in hand. There was no sign of recent disturbances that he could see, but generations of Apple Corners teenagers had left a well-beaten path to the broken-out window that served as the primary entrance to the ruins.
Peter tried to put himself in Neal's place. Two nights ago - he'd be scared and bleeding and possibly lost. He might not have eaten since the day before. He was in a completely unfamiliar place, out of his element and still reeling from his girlfriend's death.
Peter looked around, trying to see the area through strangers' eyes. The bridge was clearly visible just down the river, hazy in the afternoon heat, which meant that the mill was visible from the bridge, too. He didn't even notice it anymore, it was so much a part of the familiar scenery on the drive home. But to a stranger, especially one from the city, it must really stand out, an island of decaying civilization in a seemingly endless sea of trees.
The more he thought about it, the more likely it seemed that Neal had not hitched a ride directly to the Burkes' farm. He was too suspicious and too damn sneaky for that. Either he'd walked out from town, or he'd had his ride let him off somewhere that wasn't near the farm, not admitting to his true destination. In either case, it was likely that he'd walked over the bridge, and he would have been able to see the mill easily.
Gun in hand, Peter followed the little path to the window. He was no master tracker, and it was beyond his abilities to pick out an individual set of footprints from the path's chaotic welter. But he paused before climbing over the windowsill, looking carefully for anything out of place. And he found it. Letting the gun dangling from his fingers, Peter brushed the back of his knuckles against the rusty brown stain on the sill.
Maybe one of the Apple Corners juvenile delinquents had cut him or herself on all the broken glass around here.
Or maybe Neal, bleeding and desperate, had climbed through the window two days ago.
Inside, the mill was as much of a deathtrap as it looked like from the outside. Those parts of the floor that looked solid enough to walk on were littered with beer bottles and cigarette butts. The damp air stank of mold. Black holes gaped between the rotted floorboards, and the sound of rushing water could be clearly heard, coming up from below. Part of the mill overhung a channel of the river, an old millrace diverted many decades ago. He tried not to think about the consequences of a misplaced footstep or a rotten board that chose that moment to give way.
Above him, the mill had the open, echoing quality of a cathedral, albeit a ruined cathedral with sunlight shafting through dozens of holes. It was darker than he'd expected, especially after the dazzling brilliance of the clear afternoon. Peter wished he'd thought to bring a flashlight from home. Although, given the choice between wielding a flashlight and a gun, he figured he'd rather go with the gun.
The kids from Apple Corners came out here for fun? This town obviously needed a skate park and a few more after-school programs.
Once again, he summoned up his mental Neal-vision. A stranger, especially a tired, hungry, injured stranger, wouldn't have wanted to spend a lot of time exploring a dangerous, ruined building. If he had something to hide, he'd want to hide it where random kids would be unlikely to find it - even a city kid ought to be able to tell that this building got regular visitors - but he wouldn't want to spend a whole lot of time searching for a good hiding place. Also, it was likely that Neal didn't plan to hide it for very long.
The thought occurred to Peter that Neal might have come back to retrieve it before clearing out of town, in which case his search was pointless. But he hadn't come all the way down here to give up easily.
Somewhere near the river, Satchmo barked.
Peter went still, listening. Outside the window, he heard the little rustling and creaking noises of Ness shifting around on his tether. Satch barked once more and went silent. Perhaps he'd flushed a squirrel. Peter risked a quick glance outside the window, but could see nothing amiss. Maybe it was a squirrel, maybe not - but it was a useful reminder that he ought to hurry.
He left the window, keeping to the more stable-looking floorboards along the wall. He quickly realized that his task was hopeless. The inside of the mill was a crazy-quilt of shadows, with hundreds of blank gaps where timbers or stones had fallen in, where vines and roots had forced their way between the cracks. Peter wasn't sure of the exact size and shape of the music box, but it couldn't be too big if Neal had carried it while fleeing across the state. There were infinite hiding places.
Ness let out a low whicker and a snort. Peter paused again, listening, and this time he heard rustling and the sharp crack of a twig breaking somewhere on the other side of the mill's crumbling wall.
He drew his gun and crept to the window. The rustling stopped, then began again, slow and stealthy. Peter heard someone hush someone else with a quick, hissed Shhhh.
There's more than one of them.
Then someone giggled, a little-girlish giggle, and Peter closed his eyes for a moment, and holstered his gun.
When he appeared in the open window, he had the satisfaction of seeing Jessica jump. She was holding her little sister by the hand.
"Hi, Uncle Peter," Susan chirped.
"Hi," Peter said wearily. "What are you two doing here?"
"We're looking for treasure!" Susie announced.
"Shhh!" Jess hissed at her sister. "You're not supposed to tell him that!"
Peter fixed Jess with a look.
"Oh, come on," Jess said. "Don't tell me you aren't doing the same thing. This Neal person is an escaped crook, right? And he stashed some of his loot here, didn't he? I saw the way you were looking at him when we were here earlier today. You're totally onto him."
Among other things, he couldn't honestly say that there was no "treasure" hidden in the mill since he had a strong suspicion that the music box was there, so Peter fell back on adult-authority fiat. "You know your parents hate it when you kids poke around the mill. You're not allowed in here unsupervised."
"You're standing in it right now, Uncle Peter," Jess pointed out.
Peter tried to remind himself that he, too, had been thirteen once. It was not very helpful. He clambered over the sill. "I'm going home and so are you. Where's your brother, anyway?" Brian, at least, had some common sense.
"He's fixing Mrs. Sawyer's computer this afternoon. And I couldn't just leave Susie by herself."
"No, clearly not," Peter sighed.
"We can't come all this way and not go in there."
"The only place you're going is home." Then he thought about the kids walking through the woods alone, with Fowler and God knew what else out there - "No, wait, new plan. Come on back to my place, and I'll give you a lift home."
"I'm not five," Jess protested.
"Then don't act like it."
Pepper was tied up beside Ness. Jess gave the big, unfriendly gelding a wide berth, especially when he pinned back his ears, and hoisted her sister onto Pepper's back. "Why do we have to go home? Can't we stay here? I promise we won't do anything risky."
"No, you're going home, because there's a very dangerous man in the woods right now," Peter said as he mounted Ness.
He realized his mistake when Jess's mouth rounded into a delighted "O". Peter wondered if all the young of the species were born with no sense of self-preservation. "And what that means is you and your sister need to stay far away from the woods until it's safe again. And you're not supposed to come down here without telling an adult where you're going, anyway." Good God, he thought, I've turned into my father. When did that happen?
Jess nudged Pepper into a walk. "I bet I know who the dangerous man is."
"I bet you don't."
"It's Neal, right? He's not your cousin at all. He's -" Jess lowered her voice into a conspiratorial whisper. "- an escaped felon."
Peter winced. "That's an issue for the grown-ups to deal with."
"Brian is the one who called the FBI," Jess added, with the glee of a younger sibling tattling on an older one. "I would never have."
Shit. Well, that explained where Fowler had come from. Sadly, it actually was what he would've wanted - under most circumstances. Peter wished El was here. She was so much better at this things than he was. After all these years of trying to impress upon Pattie's kids that they were supposed to like and trust the police, that breaking the law meant you were a bad guy and bad guys could never be trusted - he didn't even know how to begin to explain that, in this particular case, some of the cops were bad guys and the escaped felon was kinda, sorta, not really such a bad person after all. (But only this time! And no other times! Really!)
How many shades of gray could kids understand?
Apparently his silence was making Jessica nervous. "You're not mad, right?"
"No, I'm not mad. Calling the FBI was the right thing to do." Under general circumstances, anyway.
"It was?" Jess said in disbelief.
"Yes, it was. Your Aunt El and I shouldn't have been hiding an escaped felon in the first place."
Jess looked crestfallen. "So why did you?"
How could he explain to a thirteen-year-old kid what even he couldn't figure out?
"I know Neal from a long time ago," he said at last. "Back when I was still with the Bureau."
"You worked with him? No, wait. You caught him." Jess looked thoughtful and fascinated. "What'd he do? Ishe a bank robber? A murderer? Brian said he stole stuff. Did he ever kill people?"
"Do you really think I'd let him stay with me and El, and hang around with you kids, if he'd killed people?"
"So he's a bank robber, then."
Peter had to laugh. "Where did this bank robber thing come from?"
"Well, obviously he did something big, if the FBI is looking for him. And if he didn't kill anyone, then it's the other big thing I can think of."
"On TV, maybe," Peter said. "In real life, there are a whole lot of things people do to earn the interest of the FBI. Neal is an art forger and a con art -"
He knew as soon as the words "con artist" started coming out of his mouth that it was a mistake, but he didn't snap his mouth shut quite fast enough.
"A real life con artist?"
"That is so cool." Jess was nearly bouncing on the horse's back in glee. She squeezed her sister around the waist. "Did you hear that, Susie? Wow. Just like in The Sting, right? And Leverage? Is that what it's really like? Did he pull off heists? Did he steal a million dollars?"
"It's not like that in real life," Peter said, rallying. "Look, Neal lived a high-rolling con-artist lifestyle for awhile, it's true. And then his crimes caught up with him and he was sent to prison-"
"I bet it was all Casino Royale and stuff," Jess said giddily. "He totally looks like James Bond, doesn't he? And not the Daniel Craig James Bond, but like the sexy kind."
El and Pattie were going to take turns killing him for this.
"Neal Caffrey is neither a role model nor proper boyfriend material," Peter said, trying to wrench the conversation under some semblance of control.
"I wish you'd told me! Being a con artist, that's like, hardly breaking the law at all, right? Especially if he only stole from bad people, which he probably did, right?"
What TV shows was Pattie letting her watch? "You're never going to get into the FBI with an attitude like that, young lady. Come on, let's get you home, okay?"
As they entered the Burkes' pasture, Jess said, "Oh hey, is that Neal?"
Someone was on the porch of the house. The figure stood up at the sight of them and trotted down the porch steps. It definitely wasn't Neal. Ginger-red hair glinted in the sun: Fowler.
"Jess," Peter said quietly, "stay on the horse." He dismounted, leaving Ness saddled, and laid a hand on the butt of his gun.
Fowler stopped halfway to the pasture, and twitched back his jacket so that Peter could see that he was carrying.
"I just want to talk, Burke!" he called. "One cop to another."
Hot anger washed through Peter. He took shallow breaths, got himself under control. "You want to talk? Put your gun on the ground and we'll see."
"Sorry, I can't do that. Not until you put down yours."
"Yeah," Peter said, "not happening."
"Look at it from my point of view, Burke." Fowler's hand hovered near his gun, but didn't touch it. "You left the Bureau under a cloud of suspicion. Now you're harboring a wanted fugitive who also happens to be one of the last cases you cleared. What am I supposed to think?"
Peter's vision clouded red. "Are you seriously accusing me of - what the hell are you accusing me of, Fowler? Just come out and say it."
Fowler kept his voice placating. "I'm not accusing you of anything. As far as I'm concerned, you're most likely an innocent victim in all of this. I know Caffrey probably tried to sell you a line of his usual bullshit -"
"Oh, you want to talk bullshit?" Peter snapped. "Why don't we start with why an OPR agent is suddenly turning up on a fugitive-hunting detail? Why don't we talk about the fact that the U.S. Marshals are looking for Neal in an entirely different part of the state? Yeah, Fowler. Just because I'm out of the Bureau doesn't mean I don't still talk to them."
Fowler's smile had slowly given way to a stonelike mask. "All the more reason we need to talk," he said.
"Jess," Peter said softly, flicking his gaze away from Fowler for a brief instant to the girl on the horse. Jess looked white-faced and terrified. "Take your sister and -" He was about to say "ride home" until he remembered she'd be alone there. "Ride over to the Sawyers' and stay there."
For once, there was no arguing, no backtalk. "Do you want me to call the police, or - or something?" Jess asked in an equally soft voice.
He was tempted. But the hell of it was that Fowler had a point. Fowler was an FBI agent in good standing. Peter was an ex-agent who'd been hiding a fugitive for two days. The trail of flyers that Fowler had spread around Apple Corners did more than turn the entire town into a Neal-hunting force: it completely discredited any attempt Peter might make to insist that he didn't know Neal was on the run - not that he liked the idea of lying to the police anyway.
"No. I'll be fine. I can get help if I need it. Just go to the Sawyers' and stay inside with your sister and brother."
He was expecting an argument - he could see her gear up for one, and then deflate. "Okay," Jess said, and wheeled the horse around with an arm circling her sister.
Peter spread his hands out to the sides. "Okay, Fowler. It's just us now. You want to talk? Let's talk."
"... I've got it. We can pull a skycap swap on him."
"That's great, Moz," Neal said. "All we need are three uniforms and a baggage cart that we don't have. Oh, right - and an airport."
Mozzie crossed his arms and sulked. "Is it my fault if all the techniques I've ever learned were developed for the civilized world?"
They'd been discussing their plan, such as it was, during the drive back to Apple Corners in a brand new stolen car - Alex's grand theft auto skills were definitely getting a workout on this trip. The one thing they'd been able to agree on so far was that if they managed to make a mark out of Adler, without getting caught by either Adler or the authorities, it'd be the con of the year, if not the decade.
"Just drawing him out of hiding is a huge coup - and a huge opportunity," Alex said, tossing back her hair and letting her arm hang out the window. "I'm glad I let you two talk me into this insanity, because this is a chance we can't possibly pass up. Getting one over on Adler andgetting a fortune into the bargain ..."
"Still planning on keeping the music box?" Neal asked.
"Well, obviously. I'm not doing this for my health, you know."
"I don't suppose you're going to tell me what's so special about it."
"No," Alex said.
Neal sighed and leaned back, watching the fields roll by outside the window. "The problem is, Adler's the sort of mark that requires weeks or months of preparation. We have no time, no resources and no money."
"Excuse me?" Mozzie patted the duffle bag on the seat beside him. "This is not full of chopped liver, you know."
"Pardon us," Alex said. "Almost no resources."
"We could also leave a message for the Burkes and let them sic the FBI on Adler," Neal said.
This suggestion was met with stony silence.
"They've obviously started on the brainwashing," Mozzie told Alex. He leaned forward from the backseat and patted Neal's arm. "It's okay, man. We'll get you straightened out."
"I'm not brainwashed, Moz."
"Incidentally," Alex said, "it would be much easier to plan the con of a lifetime if you'd tell us where the damn music box is. It's almost like you don't trust me or something."
"Well, let's see, the last time you had the music box, you ran off with it."
"No, Caffrey, the last time I had it, I was giving it back to you."
"And now you're giving it to Adler."
"Are you seriously holding a grudge about that?" She softened a bit. "I told you, Neal, I would never have agreed if I'd known what he'd done."
Neal plucked a receipt from the stolen car's cluttered dashboard and began idly folding it into a star. The glimmerings of a plan were forming in his mind; he tried to seize it before it could slip away. "What if we pull a Benedict Arnold?"
"But that's a tricky one," Alex said, "because you need a guy on the inside to be your trait -" She broke off, and gave both men an approving glance. "Why, gentlemen, I'm impressed that you have such a low opinion of me."
Mozzie leaned forward and gripped Neal's shoulder. "Good to have you back, my friend."
"Not so fast," Alex said. "As the designated front person, I'd like to point out that we still have quite a few whys and wherefores to work out. This is a con that really works better with more than three people."
"But we can do it with three," Neal said. "We have the important slots filled already. There's the traitor - you. The betrayed friend - me. And Adler's never met Moz, so he can play cop or coroner or whatever we need."
"There's something else we need," Alex said. "The music box, the actual music box, or a facsimile that can fool Adler. And he's not an easy man to fool."
She gave Neal a pointed look. He smiled. "All in good time."
Alex huffed a sigh.
"What's our endgame?" Mozzie asked. "Best-case scenario, we leave Adler thinking you're dead and holding the bag for the cops, but this isn't as easy as, say, switching a suitcase of cash. There's only one music box."
"And we'd need to get Adler off the scene as quickly as possible," Neal said. "Actually, since he's wanted on a variety of warrants, we don't even have to set him up - all we have to do is maneuver him into position for the actual cops to pick him up. As opposed to you pretending to be the cops."
"That'd take split-second timing to avoid getting caught ourselves," Alex said.
"And I'm supposed to be the concerned citizen turning you all in?" Mozzie protested. "You want me to go into a police station? Are you insane?"
"Oh come on, Moz, it's Mayberry. There are probably three cops total."
"It also leaves us shorthanded again," Alex said. "Neal and I can probably do it on our own, but it would be a lot less risky if we had another person."
Neal grinned, brilliant and infectious. "What if we have someone else fetch the police for us? Someone perfectly innocent-looking, someone who's known to them with an excellent reputation in town?"
Alex's eyes met Mozzie's in the rearview mirror.
"Just so I've got this straight," Mozzie said. "You want an FBI agent and his wife to help us run a con? In full or at least partial knowledge of what we're up to?"
"Ex-FBI agent," Neal said.
"You're right," Alex said to Mozzie. "He's brainwashed."
Peter let himself and Fowler into the kitchen, offered Fowler a beer and took one for himself. No point in not being polite to the man who might have ruined his life and, furthermore, might be about to kill him. It gave him time to think, at least. It also put him at a disadvantage because Fowler still had a hand free to draw his gun, whereas Peter didn't, but Peter was fairly confident that he could drop the bottle in time if Fowler did go for the gun. And looking harmless made people underestimate you; it was something he'd taken advantage of, more than once, back in his FBI days.
Fowler's eyes kept flicking between the prosthesis and the scarred side of his face. The scrutiny set Peter's teeth on edge, though, as far as he could tell, it was neither pity nor threat assessment. He couldn't read the look on Fowler's face at all.
"Let's go out on the porch," Peter said. Upon reflection, he locked the door again behind him. The last thing he wanted was Fowler running around unattended in his house, or being able to set a trap for El.
Strange how the old, cautious habits crept back in - or perhaps were never gone in the first place.
He ushered Fowler to the old couch on the porch, and sat on the wicker chair opposite. For a moment his mind's eye saw Neal and El sitting on the same couch, Neal telling them about Fowler - had it only been yesterday morning? Peter felt as if he'd lived months in the last day and a half.
"You wanted to talk. So." Peter gestured with his beer. "Let's talk."
Fowler nodded. He took his cell out of his pocket, powered it off and then laid it on the floor by his feet. After a moment, he followed with his gun. Both were within reach, but not readily accessible. "Good faith gesture." He nodded to Peter.
Peter thought about it a moment, and then followed suit.
"I need your help, Burke," Fowler said simply.
All that Peter could do at first was stare at him. "You. Need my help."
"I'm in over my head," Fowler said. "And I know you have a reputation as a straight shooter, a stand-up kind of guy."
"Funny," Peter said, and he could hear the bitterness welling up in his voice - all the bitterness that he'd swallowed, that he held down around El, that he tried to pretend wasn't there: the old anger that he'd run across the state to leave behind. "That's not what the FBI's reports on me say."
Fowler closed his eyes, opened them again. "You know I was involved with that," he said.
"I've done some research."
"I know you have," Fowler said, and a cold chill raced through Peter's stomach. "Yes, Burke, I led the OPR investigation into your conduct at the Queens warehouse fire."
Peter clenched his jaw, fighting so hard to control his voice that he barely recognized it. "You made me look like a fucking incompetent. You left the families of dead friends of mine believing that I had something to do with the deaths of their fathers and brothers and husbands."
"I wrote what I was told to write," Fowler said quietly.
Peter set down his beer bottle with extreme care - his hand was starting to hurt, the way his grip kept tightening on it. "By Adler?"
Fowler's head snapped up. "Caffrey told you."
"Caffrey told me a lot of things. He said Adler's behind all this, Adler's pulling the strings. Your strings."
Fowler rolled the beer bottle, beaded with condensation, between his broad palms. He said nothing.
"Adler had me taken out of play," Peter said, trying the words to see if they made any more sense spoken out loud.
"Yes," Fowler said.
"Why?" The word exploded out of him, along with pent-up rage and guilt and frustration. "I wasn't involved with the investigation of his crimes. I wasn't looking for him. I never knew him as anything other than a name in the newspaper until two days ago. Why me?"
"Because he knew your reputation," Fowler said. "And because you're the man who caught Caffrey, which everyone said couldn't be done. A young Vincent Adler, was what they called him. Adler had plans for Caffrey, and the last thing he wanted was you getting in the way. You weren't supposed to survive the fire, Burke, but you did, so -"
"Damage control," Peter said, and Fowler nodded. "He took me out three and a half yearsbefore Caffrey escaped prison. Are you seriously telling me Adler's game is that long?"
"He's Vincent Adler," Fowler said, as if that was all the explanation that was needed. And maybe it was.
The casual cruelty of it staggered him. "He destroyed my entire life as an afterthought. Just on the off chance that I might get in his way."
"Now you know who you're dealing with," Fowler said. "I've been with the Bureau since I was twenty-three, Burke. In some ways Adler's not even a patch on the ugliest things I've seen - you too, I'm guessing - but in other ways, he's in his own category. He's soulless, and I don't use that word lightly."
"So what the hell are you doing working for him? Playing his games? Or is this a game, too?"
"No," Fowler said, with enough vehemence that Peter caught himself unwillingly believing him. "I didn't want this, Burke. I didn't want any of this. And now I'm in too deep to get out."
Peter leaned back in the chair and studied Fowler. "What's he got on you?"
"My wife died a few years ago. Was murdered, actually." His voice was calm, but fine lines of strain tightened his face like piano wires under the skin. "It ... messed me up a little. I guess you can probably understand. Adler - long story short, though I didn't know it was him at the time - he fed me leads, pushed me into a position where I got a chance to ... "
"Take revenge," Peter said softly.
Fowler nodded. "A few days later I got a package. Videotape and some photographs. I've been running on Adler's leash ever since."
Peter ran his hand through his hair. "And why are you telling me this? Me, of all people?"
"I'm telling you this because you had Caffrey with you for two days, and if anyone knows where he went, or what he did with that damn music box, it's you," Fowler said. "The music box is what Adler wants. It's what he's wanted all along. And it's a bargaining chip I can use to get away from him."
"Even if I had it, I'm not just going to turn the music box over to -"
"And because you understand," Fowler said. "You do, don't you? You know what it is to hate someone so much that you'd do anything to see them go down. I saw that look in your eyes when you looked at me. But I'm not the one behind the warehouse fire. Adler is."
"You manipulative son of a bitch," Peter murmured.
Fowler spread his hands. "I'm not jerking you around, Burke. I'm putting myself in your hands because I don't think you'll turn me in, and you needed to know the whole story so that you know I'm not your enemy. We both want the same thing. If we work together, we can take Adler out of the picture."
"Take Adler out of the picture," Peter repeated. "You mean kill him? Set him up? What are we talking here, Fowler?"
"I'm talking justice," Fowler said.
"No, you're not. You're talking vigilantism. I've never believed in that kind of thing."
"You can't take Adler down through regular channels," Fowler said. "He's too connected. I could give you a half-dozen more names in the Bureau that are in his pocket, and those are just the ones I know about. Why do you think no one's caught him in the years he's been gone? Every time someone tries, they find themselves reassigned to the boondocks of Kentucky, and that's if they're lucky. As you know."
"So - what? We saddle up and string him from the highest tree in the county?"
"We stop him before he hurts anyone else," Fowler said flatly. "We use the music box and Caffrey to lure him in, and then we end this."
There was a long silence, broken only by the wind in the trees and the sound of the horses in the pasture.
Adler had orchestrated the warehouse fire, ended Peter's career, killed three good men. He'd killed Kate. God only knew how many other lives he'd destroyed along the way. He was dangerous and elusive, and anything they did to him, he'd earned a thousandfold.
And yet Peter knew better than to delude himself that Fowler was offering justice. Maybe Fowler had managed to fool himself, but he was suggesting revenge, pure and simple. Fowler was talking gang warfare. Nothing honorable, nothing clean.
Peter had devoted his life to upholding the principle that a civilized society did not run on such things. That there were better ways. Just because someone had wronged you or you believed they were a bad person didn't give you the right to engage in eye-for-an-eye vengeance.
Even if it was tempting. God, it was tempting. If he tried this the legal way, he'd not only be risking everyone he cared about, but taking the huge risk of Adler simply getting away, disappearing again as he'd done before. And all the harm that Adler did from here on out could have been prevented if Peter had been willing to flex his principles a little.
A little? Peter thought. More like a lot. More like - everything.
He looked down at the prosthesis resting on the arm of the chair.
I can do this, and it might even be worth it to the world in the long run, having Adler out of it, no matter the cost. No more people ending up like me. Like Caffrey. Like Kate. But it will have cost me something the warehouse fire didn't, something that losing my arm and my career didn't.
It will have cost me me.
It was one of the hardest decisions he'd ever had to make. And when the decision was made, he didn't feel triumphant - just tired, and guilty, and dirty. "No," Peter said. "Not like that."
"Burke -" Fowler began.
"I said no," Peter said. "You told me you know other names in the Bureau, other people Adler's got dirt on. He's got friends, Fowler, but so do I. We take this to people I know, get an investigation going. We clean house at the FBI and start drawing a net around Adler. I think I can probably get Caffrey to turn state's evidence -" okay, a long shot, but he'd gambled long shots before and won. "- if we can find him. You want my help? I'll help you, but only if we do it my way."
He'd looked away from Fowler as he spoke, and when he looked back, he found himself staring into the barrel of Fowler's gun. For an instant he almost burst into hysterical laughter. When Peter's eyes flicked down to his own gun and cell, Fowler said, "Don't."
Peter knew he should be furious, but there was something so absurd about the situation that he couldn't quite achieve it. "So what was all that, the sob story? You making it all up? Trying to play me?"
"No," Fowler said. "Every word was true. And istrue. Come on, Burke. You want to see Adler taken down as much as I do. Doing this on my own is going to be a hell of a lot harder. I need your cooperation, your help."
"And you'll have it. I promise you that. As long as we do this the right way, the legal way, rather than running off, playing vigilante and getting ourselves killed. Put the damn gun down, Fowler."
He could see that Fowler was thinking it over. Then, slowly, Fowler shook his head, and gestured with the gun. "Get up."
Peter rose, his mind spinning, looking for angles, ways to turn the situation to his advantage. Fowler gestured him off the porch, then picked up Peter's gun and tucked it into his waistband. He kicked Peter's cell under the chair.
Fowler tilted his head towards Peter's car. "Get in. You'll drive."
"Where are we going?"
"To talk to Adler," Fowler said.
"Oh, come on, man. Don't do this."
"I tried my damnedest to give you a chance," Fowler snapped. "Adler knows Caffrey was staying with you. He knows where you live. You think he's going to ask you about it nicely over coffee and cookies? Open the car door or play things my way."
Peter opened the door, his jaw set.
Since Apple Corners' downtown had only one street and two traffic lights, finding Pattie's bakery was not difficult. It was the bakery. Very simple.
Alex pulled into the tiny parking lot and squinted at the door. The afternoon was sliding towards evening, the white brilliance of midday fading into the ruddy shadows of day's end. "Their open sign is still out, but probably not for much longer. Good for us."
"And that'snot so good for us," Neal said, pointing to one of Fowler's 8.5x11 printouts of his face, taped next to the OPEN sign. "I can't just walk in. One of you guys needs to see if Elizabeth is around."
Alex raised her hands. "Don't look at me. I've never even met her."
They both looked at Mozzie.
"Oh, fine. Send me to do your dirty work. How much do you want me to tell her?"
"Just get her to come out here where I can talk to her," Neal said. "If she's still at work, then it must be close to her quitting time."
Mozzie looked around several times, then opened the car door and rolled out into the parking lot, looked around again, and darted around behind the bakery. After a moment, Alex stretched back and slammed the door, which he'd left open, probably in the expectation of a fast getaway.
"That was about a dozen times more conspicuous than if he'd just walked in the front door."
"I know," Neal said. "That's Mozzie all over."
Most days, the end of the afternoon was El's favorite time at the bakery. The midday rush had tapered off to a few stragglers - today there were a group of girls sipping tea at one of the handful of tables, and Lily Kraus, the retired schoolteacher who lived out past Webb Road, dithering over the remaining pies. El and Pattie had had time to straighten and clean, and now it was peaceful and quiet, sunlight slanting in the window as the day wound down towards closing time. Pattie, as usual, had left El to manage the counter while she went in the back with her part-time cook and started the prepwork for tomorrow's baking.
But today El was too tense to enjoy it. She'd taken out her phone a dozen times, queued up Peter's number, then put it away without dialing. Peter was a trained FBI agent, she reminded herself. He'd handled himself in shootouts and hostage crises. He never took unnecessary risks or went into situations that he didn't think he could handle.
And she'd thought she was done with this - the worry and fear, the long nights of waiting. El closed her eyes briefly, then opened them and swiped her rag across the already spotless countertop. At least she could have a clean bakery.
"I think Bill would love the peach," Mrs. Kraus said. "We had a peach tree when we were first married, you know - my little sister used to climb the tree and pick the peaches for us. We all told her she was going to break her neck..."
El smiled. "My sister and I used to do the exact same thing. Only it was the apple tree in our front yard. We used to terrify Mom." She began wrapping up the pie, then nearly jumped out of her skin when something touched the back of her arm.
"Sorry," whispered a voice at her elbow. She looked down at the top of a bald head. There was a total stranger crouched below the counter, out of sight. No - it was the man who'd been in their barn this morning. Peter had said his name was Mozzie, hadn't he?
Mrs. Kraus broke off in the middle of another peach-related anecdote and leaned forward, squinting over the top of her bifocals. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, fine - just tired, I guess." She shot Mozzie a series of baffled glances while making Mrs. Kraus's change. As soon as the door closed behind the customer, she leaned down and whispered, "My husband is looking all over for you two. Is Neal with you?"
"Outside," Mozzie whispered back. "In the car."
"What car? You didn't have a car before."
Mozzie hesitated a moment and then whispered, "Don't ask about the car."
El decided that sounded like good advice. "Why are we whispering?"
Mozzie pointed towards the kitchen.
"That's just my sister and Leon."
"Trust no one," Mozzie whispered.
El struggled with her smile. "Did you come in here just to warn me about Pattie?"
"Neal wants to talk to you."
El blinked at him, then undid her apron and slipped into the kitchen. "Pattie? I'm sorry, hon - is it okay if I don't stick around to close? A friend from out of town is here to see me - you remember Mozzie, you met him this morning."
Mozzie paused in mid-scuttle to give her a betrayed look.
Pattie shooed her out, to the tune of El's promises that, no, she already had a ride home and yes, she'd say hi to her friend and to Peter's cousin - apparently word about the cousin had gotten around already - and there would be full confessions later, promise.
The car was a little beat up, a little dirty, and very un-Neal-like. El had never seen the driver before, but she looked like a person Neal would know: very polished, very New York. She definitely wasn't from Apple Corners.
El slid into the backseat, sandwiched between Mozzie and a large canvas duffle. "Neal," she said, reaching forward to squeeze his shoulder. The smile he gave her was sudden, spontaneous and heartbreakingly sweet. "You worried us," she said. "Taking off like that."
Neal's smile faltered, and he said, with levity that seemed forced, "I'm guessing worry wasn't Peter's first reaction."
"Well ... it needed a little time to sink in." On a whim - sometimes you just have to go with your gut - she leaned forward and kissed his cheek. "But he really is concerned about you, Neal. We both are."
Neal looked like he'd had his train of thought completely derailed. He reached up a hand to lay his fingers lightly against his cheek.
"This is touching," the driver said, with a bright grin that showed a lot of teeth. "Really, it is. Shall I drive us out to the farm?"
"No, Alex," Neal said sharply, and Elizabeth got the impression that they were picking up a conversation that had been going on before she and Mozzie got into the car. "We're not using the Burkes' as the location of the swap."
"Why not?" Alex challenged, pulling out onto Main Street. "It's perfect: isolated enough for our purposes, but not so much that Adler would sense a trap."
El cleared her throat politely to remind them that some people in the car were being left out of the loop.
Neal closed his eyes and pinched the skin between them, clearly staving off a headache. He looked tired. "Elizabeth, we'd like to nail Vincent Adler once and for all. Get him out of the way where he can't hurt anyone, ever again."
"That sounds good," El said cautiously.
"And we need your help to do it. Don't worry. This won't be hard and it won't be dangerous."
"You want to use our farm in a sting?" Elizabeth guessed.
Alex smiled. "Sting. I like that. It's the traditional sense of the word, you know."
"Will the police be involved?" El asked, glancing between them. "Because yes, I don't want this Adler guy running around loose any more than you do, but I'm not going to help you with anything illegal."
Both Mozzie and Alex immediately looked shifty. Neal said, "Yes, the police will be involved. That's part of what we need you to do: call the authorities for us."
She reached for her phone, startled. "What - now?"
"No!" all three of the con artists chorused in alarm.
"Oh." But she didn't put away her phone. "I can't agree to anything without talking to Peter first, all right? Anyway, I need to call and let him know that I'm not at the bakery. If he shows up and doesn't find me there, he'll be very worried."
"Show me what you're dialing," Alex said.
"She's not double-crossing us," Neal told her.
"I don't know that. Let me see."
El selected Peter's preset and held the phone over the back of the seat so that Alex could see it. She may as well not have bothered: Peter's number went to voice mail. She tried again. Same result.
Neal twisted around in his seat, his brow furrowed. "He's not answering?"
"No." El tried her best to think of a logical, reasonable explanation that did not involve her husband being in mortal peril. "Maybe he's at the mill and can't get a strong signal."
"The mill?" Neal repeated.
"Yes, it's an old water mill on the river behind our place -" El remembered even as the words left her mouth that what Peter was doing at the mill was checking up on Neal. She liked Neal, but perhaps, just perhaps, telling him that Peter was investigating him while sitting in a car surrounded by Neal's criminal friends was not the best idea. "Anyway, it's where he said he was going to be," she finished. "And now I can't get in touch with him. I don't like that."
They were crossing the bridge right now; she actually could see the top of the mill through the trees.
"I'm sure he's fine," Neal said. "He's Peter.But just in case - Alex, stop the car."
"What, in the middle of the road?" Alex coasted onto the shoulder as soon as they were off the bridge. "Is this good enough for you?"
"Good enough," Neal agreed. He leaned over the back of the seat and put a reassuring hand on Elizabeth's arm. His smile was charming. "Elizabeth, I think I know where this mill is - I went there this morning with Peter and the kids. I'll go check and see if he's there, okay? And I can meet the rest of you at the farm."
"I guess so," El said. There was something about his smile that she didn't quite trust.
"Oh, the hell you are," Alex snapped. "You're up to something."
"I think it's reasonable, under the circumstances, to find out where her husband is," Neal said. "You guys can work out the details of your parts in the exchange, and I'll meet you at the farm, like I said."
"Uh-huh." Alex opened the door, dropped the keys on the car seat and stepped out. "I'm coming with you. You two, don't go anywhere. We'll meet you right back here."
"There's no need for this, Alex," Neal said, his smile becoming fixed.
"There's everyneed for that, especially if you're doing what I think you're doing, which is retrieving the you-know-what."
Neal sighed. "Guess I'll see you two shortly," he said, and he and Alex vanished off into the woods.
Elizabeth and Mozzie were left sitting together in the car. It had certainly been a strange couple of days, El reflected. "Um, so," she said. "Your name is Mozzie, right?"
"Your clever interrogation attempts won't work on me, Mrs. Ex-Suit."
El looked after Neal and Alex. Maybe it wasn't too late to go with them.
"Turn here," Fowler said.
They hadn't gone far. Peter pulled off the road, onto a small dirt track that cut back behind the Burkes' lower pasture. They were still on Burke land, though Peter doubted if Fowler knew or cared.
At Fowler's command, Peter parked behind a stand of trees that screened them from the road.
"Now we wait."
They only had to wait for a few minutes before an engine purred in the still afternoon air, and a gleaming black Mercedes bumped carefully down the rutted track and parked behind Peter's car.
"Out," Fowler said.
Mouth dry, heart pounding, Peter obeyed. They were isolated here - no houses visible in any direction. The trees shielded them from passing motorists. In this farm country, occasional gunshots were not uncommon: farm kids plinking at cans, hunters after small game in the woods, farmers shooting starlings.
The door of the Mercedes slammed. Of the four men who got out, there was no question which of them was Adler: slim and dapper and elegantly dressed in a perfectly tailored suit that probably cost as much as Peter used to make in a year. The other three were obviously muscle.
"That's Larssen behind him," Fowler murmured, as he gestured Peter forward at gunpoint.
Fowler had said Larssen was former Special Forces. He had the graceful carriage of a fighter by inclination and training, a man who knew how to handle himself in a fight.
"Frisk him," Adler told Larssen.
Peter submitted to a rough pat-down. Larssen unceremoniously stripped off his prosthesis and tossed it in the grass, then fastened his wrist to one of his belt loops with a zip-tie.
"Nice," Peter said, falling back on sarcasm to avoid succumbing to sheer panic. "I bet you steal blind men's canes, too."
Fowler watched all of this, gun in hand, his craggy face impassive. Peter knew better than to appeal to him for help, but he wondered, if he made a play, would Fowler back it? Or would he take Adler's side?
"No need to be unpleasant, Julian," Adler said with an easy smile. "We're just going to have a chat. I'd like to keep it civilized and mutually productive." He paused, then added, "As long as possible."
"You're after Neal Caffrey, right?" No point in being evasive, about the basic stuff, at least. Fowler would have told them that much.
"That's right," Adler said. "Do you have any idea where he is now?"
"No clue. He cut and run after Garrett here showed up and chased him around my house. Stole his car too."
Fowler's mouth tightened.
Adler glanced at him. "Oh, there might have been some hasty actions, indeed. We'll address that later. Do you have any idea where he might have gone?"
"No clue," Peter said. "And that's the truth. If you know Caffrey at all, you know that getting a straight answer out of him is impossible if he doesn't want to give you one. He's been feeding us lies and half-truths for the last two days. God knows where he is."
Some of his anger was genuine. Neal had cut out knowing Adler was on his trail. Elizabeth- Peter forced all thoughts of Elizabeth from his head. Adler was here, with him, so El was probably okay, for now. Nothing's going to happen to her. I won't let it.
"Think back, Peter," Adler said. "Anything you can tell me, any clues he might have dropped. Someone he knew? Someone he was going to see? A place he mentioned?"
His buddy-buddy tone infuriated Peter, but he locked his jaw and forced his emotions down. "Not that I can remember," he said tightly. "Look, before you even ask, I don't know why Neal ran to me. We aren't friends. We talked once, four years ago."
"Desperate men can't afford to be choosy," Adler said, his eyes cool and steady on Peter. It made Peter think of something cold-blooded, unblinking - a snake or a lizard. "While he was with you, did he have anything else with him?"
"Like a music box?" Peter said. Adler blinked slowly. "Yeah. I'm not an idiot. I know what you're after. And the answer is, no, I never saw any such thing. He told me you wanted it and said that he didn't have it."
"I know he does," Adler said. "He stole it at my behest."
Well, that wasn't really news: he'd figured Neal was lying about not having the box. "He didn't have it when he was with me," Peter said. "But if he did have it - and I'm not saying he did - I think I know where he might have put it."
Fowler gave him a quick, sharp glance. Yeah, surprised you, huh? Peter thought. Maybe if you weren't a backstabbing bastard I'd have already told you.
"Where?" Adler said.
"Oh, hell no. I'm not an idiot, remember? I know how this works. I'll take you there, and then you're on your own."
He was playing with fire, he knew. Sweat trickled down his back under his shirt. But there wasn't anything he could do except play this out. He guessed that the odds of Adler letting him go, unharmed, were vanishingly small. But the longer he could stay relevant, make himself necessary, the longer El would have to notice that he'd gone missing and call the police, and the longer that he'd have to try to get through to Fowler.
"Very well," Adler said. He sounded amused. "We can play it your way. Back in the car."
Peter stood his ground. "Not the car. We can walk to it."
"I hope you aren't trying to con me, Peter," Adler said mildly.
"No. No cons. There's an abandoned building back in the woods." Peter nodded in that direction. "This old road connects to a network of riding trails, and we can walk to it. I don't know for certain that Neal hid something there, but I do know that we went riding in the area, and he acted odd."
Adler raked a glance over his two henchmen. Then he nodded. "Julian, Roberts, take him there. Stay in touch. Don't give him an inch." A tiny smile. "He might look like a washed-up amputee to you now, but remember that he used to be with the Bureau."
I'll show you washed-up, you son of a bitch, Peter thought. "Can I put my arm back on?"
"No," Adler said.
"Wait!" Alex snapped, and when Neal paused, looking over his shoulder, "If I'd known we were going to be hiking in the damn wilderness, I wouldn't have worn these shoes!"
Neal grinned. Seeing Alex off her game was a rare treat. "Next time I'm on the run, I'll make sure to arrange things so that you're not inconvenienced."
Alex stumbled and slithered up the trail until she caught up with him. "You know, I should probably call Adler and give him an update on my so-to-speak progress. The longer I'm out of touch, the more suspicious he'll be when we make our move."
"Go on, then. Call him."
"Come on, Caffrey. Don't keep shutting me out. We're partners."
Neal raised his eyebrows at her.
"Okay. Perhaps not quite. But in this, at least. You've never been a team player, have you?"
Neal laughed. "You just don't like being the one who doesn't know all the secrets, rather than the one keeping them."
"I've been very up-front with you, Neal."
"Says the woman who won't tell me why she wants the music box so badly."
Talking to Alex helped keep his mind off Peter. Neal could think of a lot of reasons why Peter might have gone suddenly incommunicado. None of them were good. He told himself that it wasn't any of his business anyway, except that it boded ill for the success of any plan that he might be able to pull off.
Alex sighed, and stumbled again as her heel caught on a root. "Oh, for -" She took off the shoes and carried them, padding along in her nylons and making much better time. "All right," she said. "Quid pro quo. You stop hiding the music box from me, and I'll tell you what it's hiding and why Adler wants it. Deal?"
They walked in silence through the growing shadows on the path. Alex's stocking-clad feet made so little noise that Neal had to keep glancing over to make sure she was there.
"What's in the music box is an encoded map," Alex said at last. "It leads to a lost treasure - a treasure for the ages. Adler's been searching for it for a very long time. So have I."
Neal couldn't help laughing. "You're serious. A treasure map. All of this is about a treasure map?"
"It's not just any treasure map. It's a clue to the location of a sunken U-boat that went down off the East Coast back in the forties, full of plundered artwork from museums all over Europe. And no one knows it's there. It's the holy grail, Neal."
"Worth killing for," Neal said softly. "Worth killing Kate for."
"For Adler, apparently, it's worth doing anything."
"And for you?" Neal asked her in a gentle tone.
Alex didn't answer.
The mill loomed out of the woods. Neal caught Alex's arm and waited a moment, but there were no sounds, no signs of life. He led her around the side, to the trail that led to the window.
"I don't think Burke's here."
"It doesn't look like it, no," Neal said, and smiled at her. "But the music box is. Quid pro quo, Alex."
He climbed over the sill. Alex just rolled her eyes when he offered her a hand over the sill, and shimmied inside with cat-burglar grace. She looked around at the hanging cobwebs, the floor tilting and revealing dark gaps with the sound of rushing water beneath.
"Well, this is extremely unpleasant." She started to put her shoes on, then looked around at the floor, a mosaic of holes to trap an unwary high heel, and gave up in dismay. Pointedly, she stayed as close to the window as possible. "Whatever possessed you to come here in the first place?"
"I wasn't thinking clearly." Now that he could see a little more of the mill's inside, he was amazed that he hadn't fallen through one of the holes in the floor when he was stumbling around in the dark, half out of his head with shock and blood loss. St. Jude, patron saint of hopeless causes, had clearly been looking out for him.
"I hope you can remember where you left it," Alex said, from the window.
"Believe me, I made careful note of it." His memory for a place he'd cased was razor-sharp. Carefully he picked his way around the gaping holes in the floor, all too aware of the river below him, and - sending up a silent hope that no spiders or snakes had moved in - slid his fingers into the space between two loose boards. His fingertips brushed soft fabric, and Neal cupped his hands around the square shape of the music box in its wrapping, sliding it out.
It filled his hands, heavier than it looked for its size. Kate's scarf was wrapped around it, dark blue silk with inlaid gold patterns. Neal could still see the scarf lying against her dark hair, and he had to fight his way free of the image, so vivid that he could almost have reached out and touched her. It left his heart seared like fire.
"Is that it?" Alex asked, her voice tense and eager.
Neal flipped back a corner of the scarf to reveal a gleam of gold, then paused when Alex held up a hand. She leaned out the window, then spun back, putting a finger to her lips. "Neal, I hate to be a killjoy, but someone's coming."
"What? Who?" Let it be Peter. He didn't particularly want to talk to Peter, especially not here, but it beat the other alternatives.
He saw Alex blanch, and then she was coming his way, recklessly fast, stumbling over fallen timbers in the mill's darkness. "Three men," she said in a soft, urgent voice. "I don't know two of them, but one's Julian Larssen, muscle for hire. He's bad news."
"Fowler mentioned him. He's with Adler. Damn it!" His hands still filled with the music box, Neal looked around. Besides the window, he could see no unblocked exits from the mill. Most of the windows were boarded up, those that weren't boarded over were choked with ivy, and the door was completely blocked where part of the roof had collapsed. The interior of the mill, however, was fairly open; the machinery had long since been moved out, and aside from a few fallen beams, there was nowhere to hide - nowhere that would stand up to inspection if they planned to come inside, anyway.
Then he looked up, and another thought occurred to him. "Hey, Alex," he whispered, "how are your cat-burglar skills these days?"
After several tries at engaging Mozzie in conversation, and one extremely unwise attempt to peek into his bag, Elizabeth started a game of Tetris on her phone. Every so often she tried Peter again.
When the phone rang, she almost dropped it and her heart leaped. But the caller ID was Jessica. El tried to scrub the disappointment out of her voice. "Hi, Jess, sweetheart. This isn't really the best time -"
"Aunt El, I'm worried about Uncle Peter," Jess said, and El leaned forward in her seat.
"Why are you worried about him, honey?"
"Because the last time I saw him, he was going to talk to that FBI guy and he didn't look happy about it," Jess said. "Uncle Peter told me to ride over to the Sawyers' place. So I did, but I rode back over just now and he's gone and so is this Fowler guy. And he left Ness saddled in the paddock, which he never does, and he's not answering his phone either. Is he with you, Aunt El?"
"No, honey. He's not with me." El took a deep breath, steadying her nerves. "You said you're at our house?"
"Yeah. I brought Pepper back."
"Stay there." El leaned forward over the seat back and picked up the keys. "I'll be there in a minute."
"Hey, wait," Mozzie protested. "We're supposed to stay here."
El slid into the driver's seat. "I need to go get my niece."
"You can't go changing the plan at the last minute. See, this is why we don't work with people we don't know," Mozzie appealed to the heavens as El pulled onto the road. "Why did I go along with this madness in the first place?"
The mill came in sight as the afternoon shadows lengthened across the woods. Larssen gave it a skeptical look. "I'd like you to think carefully before you try a double-cross, Burke."
"I'm not double-crossing you. Like I said, though, I'm only playing a hunch here. Your guess is as good as mine whether there's anything hidden inside."
"Well." Larssen gestured with the muzzle of his Colt 1911. "You first, then."
Peter jerked his chin at his hand, still ziptied to the waistband of his jeans. "I'm supposed to pick it up with my teeth?"
Larssen laughed. "Nice try, but I'm not stupid. Look, don't touch. Let me know if you find anything. And if you're just wasting our time - you'll regret it."
Peter struggled over the windowsill - it was inelegant, but not impossible - into the shadowed interior of the mill. With the evening shadows growing deeper, it was even harder to see anything inside the mill than when he'd looked around earlier in the afternoon. And harder to avoid the gaps between the dangerously unstable floorboards. One false step and he'd plunge through into what he expected was probably a tiger trap of old pilings and shards of rusty metal, not to mention the risk of becoming trapped in the fast-moving current through the old millrace.
"Lovely place." Larssen climbed inside, staying near the window and keeping his eyes, and his gun, fixed on Peter.
"Yeah, it's a real vacation spot." Peter moved through the area he'd explored before, making a show of looking at each loose board and hole in the wall. "This would go faster with two, you know. Or with hands ..."
"Yeah, right," Larssen said. "Stay where I can see you."
Peter closed his mouth and worked on coming up with a plan. So far, stalling for time until El got worried enough to call the police was about the only thing he could think of.
Not for the first time, the thought crossed Alex's mind that things were always more interesting when Neal Caffrey was around. It was one of the things she loved most about him. One never knew when one might end up climbing the inside of an extremely unstable structure with gunmen at the bottom of it.
The beam that was supporting her weight began to shift. She could feel it - just the tiniest bit of movement, but she could tell, with an expert's touch, that it was about to accelerate as the rotted ancient wood pulled out of the wall. Her toes found secure purchase on a wider, more stable beam, and she let her weight ease off the unstable one, feeling it settle, for now, back into its timeworn socket.
A fall would probably mean tetanus at the very least. Being perforated with bullets would, of course, be the worst-case scenario.
She and Neal were about fifteen feet off the ground, and hadn't fallen yet. However, Neal was lagging behind; it was a measure of how much difficulty he was having that he let her lean over and give him a hand onto the rafter next to hers. Normally he could climb things like a cat, but even on the ground he had been favoring his side. Climbing the inside of the mill had done him no favors: he was pale and struggled to control his heavy breathing in order to stay quiet.
It didn't help that he was carrying the music box in one arm, tucked against his side. Her one attempt to offer to take a turn climbing with it had been rebuffed with a polite but uncompromising smile.
Below them, the one-armed guy was making an unconvincing show of poking through the debris along the walls, and, not coincidentally, putting more distance between himself and Larssen.
Alex leaned across the space between them, balancing carefully as she reached to touch Neal's hand and tap in Morse code, WHO?
PETER, Neal tapped back.
Really? That was the infamous Peter Burke, scourge of Neal Caffrey's existence? Alex looked down again, thoughtful. She still didn't think he looked like much, certainly not like a man who could put someone like Neal to ground. And no one had told her about the, well. Disability. Apparently there was more to this story than Neal had shared.
But Peter Burke's problems weren't their problems, and Burke, however intriguing a conundrum, wasn't her top priority. Getting out of this damn mill was. She looked away, around, and finally up.
The lower parts of the mill were now entirely in shadow. A few shafts of reddened sunlight still speared through the upper windows and gaps in the walls, but soon those, too, would be dark, and they would be left clinging to the rafters in a near-impenetrable gloom.
On the brighter side, no one had bothered to board the upper windows, and the ivy wasn't as dense up here. Also, part of the roof had slumped, exposing a large section of the reddening evening sky. Alex thought it ought to be possible to climb out without being seen. It would be easy except for the risk of falling through a rotten section of roof.
Alex reached out again to touch Neal's arm. She pointed. He nodded. Go case it, said his twirled hand gesture. At least she assumed that's what it meant. Neal and Kate had had something that was close to their own private language, but Neal and Alex improvised depending on circumstances. It had always been the way with them.
She didn't do the cat-burglar stuff much anymore. Fencing was better money for less risk and effort. But she liked to keep her hand in, and she still worked out. Supple as a gymnast in her bare feet, she climbed the wall, finding fingerholds and toeholds on the stubs of collapsed rafters and the jutting, poorly mortared stones. There had been a catwalk here once; she could see where it had pulled away from the wall. It was probably part of the tangle of debris littering and half-blocking the floor.
Alex looked down from a narrow window, its glass long gone if it had ever had any. Below her was a narrow strip of unstable-looking roof, darkness gaping between holes in the shingles, ivy creeping across it like a plague. Night was coming on faster than she liked; the sun reddened the upper branches of the trees, already slipping away from the mill. Through a screen of foliage, she glimpsed Larssen's accomplice - hired muscle, no brains to speak of; she knew the type - pacing along the crumbling mill wall.
She was confident she could manage the climb. Neal she wasn't so sure about. Even leaving aside his present condition and the fact that he was carrying the music box, he'd been different since he got out of prison. Less sure of himself. And uncertainty was the one thing that a cat burglar - or someone drawing upon the skills of one - couldn't afford.
Turning to look down, she could barely see him on the rafter, his dark head turned down. Below them, Larssen was talking, though she couldn't hear what he was saying. Alex waved until she got Neal's attention, his face a pale blur in the growing shadows, and gestured at the window.
Neal shook his head and pointed down.
At times like this, she really wished for something like Neal and Kate's private gesture language, or the uncanny telepathy that he and Mozzie shared sometimes. Alex did the best she could, stabbing a finger viciously at the window. I am going right now, whether or not you come with me, asshole.
Neal shrugged, and waved her off. Go on ,the gesture said.
Without the music box? she thought. You've got to be kidding. But Neal's attention was off her and once again fixed fast on whatever was happening below with Peter Burke and Larssen. And she could see him tensing up to do something. Knowing Neal, probably something dangerous and highly unwise.
The sensible thing to do was go out the window. Gripping the wall with her toes and the edge of the window with her fingertips, Alex hesitated, torn between her well-developed sense of self-preservation and a host of conflicting urges.
Below her, the sounds of a scuffle erupted. In the dusk, she couldn't see what was going on below, but then Neal, watching in increasing agitation, did exactly the sort of thing she'd been dreading.
El turned into the driveway of the farmhouse, halfway expecting to see Peter's car and know that their nightmare was over. But there was no car. She did, however, see Jessica sitting on the top rail of the paddock fence, swinging her legs. Satchmo, lying below Jess's feet, raised his head.
Jess slid off the fence and ran to embrace her aunt. El felt the girl stiffen when Mozzie got out of the car as well.
"He's a friend, honey," El said. Jess still looked skeptical. "Why don't you tell me what happened?"
Jessica's explanation of events was rather confused, but El got the important bits: Peter had sent Jess away and then must have driven off somewhere with Fowler.
"Maybe they're in the woods," Jess said. "We could look."
"No one," El said firmly, "will be looking in any woods." The first thing to do was to check Peter's gun safe. If the gun was missing - well. At least she'd know a little more about Peter's current situation and state of mind. Mozzie and Jess trailed her to the porch, where she turned the doorknob, then rattled it in surprise. The kitchen door was locked.
But we never lock the door! was her first startled thought. Then she realized that she was not actually sure where her key was. The last time she'd seen it was probably that time they'd gone to visit Peter's mother last year.
"I can't get into my own house," she said in disbelief.
"I can," Mozzie said, reaching into his pocket.
El seized his wrist hastily. "No!" Whether he planned to blow up her front door or pick the lock, no one would be doing anything illegal to her house without her permission. "There's a spare key around here, uh - somewhere." She did have a vague recollection of hiding one. But where? Under the mat? In that hanging basket, maybe?
"Aunt El?" Jess said. She straightened up, holding a cell phone. "It was under one of the chairs."
El took it from her. "This is Peter's." The Good Ship Optimism was rapidly taking on water and foundering. It might be time to get the police involved. "Jess, where are your brother and sister?"
"At the Sawyers'. Actually, they might be home if Dad's picked them up already."
"Good," El said. "That's where you're -"
She stopped, and held up a hand to forestall Jess's protest. El was familiar with the sound of traffic on the highway, and the change in engine pitch when a car turned into their driveway. She looked up quickly at that familiar sound, hoping for a moment that it might be Peter's Taurus, but it was the purr of a more powerful engine. A gleaming black Mercedes nosed into their driveway. No one in Apple Corners owned a car like that.
El reached for the kitchen doorknob automatically. Once again it failed to turn.
Peter, we are having a SERIOUS TALK later about locking your wife out of the house. She looked around for Mozzie, about to take him up on his offer of opening the door for her, but he'd melted away as if he'd never been. She blinked, then gave Jess a little shove.
"The barn. Quick!"
They dashed across the yard with Satchmo at their heels. Any doubts Elizabeth might have had about the dire intentions of the black car were laid to rest when its tires spun on the gravel and it lurched forward, skidding to cut them off.
El backed up, pushing Jessica behind her as the car doors opened. One of the men was Fowler, with a hand hovering over a suspicious bulge in his jacket - El hadn't been married to an FBI agent for all those years without being able to recognize a concealed weapon when she saw one. But the man in the backseat, slim and dapper in an expensive-looking dark suit, radiated a sense of menace that turned El's stomach cold.
"Mrs. Burke," he said politely, and smiled. It wasn't a pleasant smile. "My name is Vincent Adler. I believe we have a few things to discuss."
El swallowed, her throat as dry as bone. "My niece - she's just a kid. Please let her go."
"That might be one of the things we discuss." He held out a hand. "Phones, please."
"Aunt El?" Jess asked.
"Do what he says, sweetheart," El said firmly, hoping and praying that it was the right decision. She handed both their phones to Adler, who dropped them to the gravel and stomped on them.
"Hey!" Jess said. "All my friends -"
"Hush, sweetie." El laced her fingers through her niece's smaller ones and squeezed.
The thought dawned on her that Adler must not have seen Mozzie, because none of the men showed the slightest inclination to search for him. Perhaps Neal's odd little friend would call the police. Or ... something.
"This farm is a nice, private place." Adler glanced at the barn. "Why don't we talk in there."
Fowler, after a slight hesitation, reached into his jacket and brought out the gun she'd known he had. El's stomach climbed into her throat. She could never remember being more terrified in her life. Jess was quiet and subdued, staying behind her aunt. Her hand was cold in El's.
"You should know the police are on their way," El bluffed. "This quiet farm isn't going to be quiet for very long."
"Really? I doubt that." Adler's cold eyes seemed to see right through her to the bottom of her limited ability to lie. He smiled a very thin-lipped smile and dialed a number on his phone. "Larssen," he said, and raised his eyes to meet Elizabeth's. "Peter Burke just became redundant. I think his wife will be much more cooperative, and less dangerous. Please make it look at least somewhat accidental."
Peter turned his head when Larssen's phone rang. Larssen listened to the person on the other end, and all that he said was, "I understand."
Well, that can't be good. Peter could read between the lines just fine. He had a feeling that his time to stall was rapidly running out.
To Peter, inside the shadow-cloaked mill, Larssen was little more than a silhouette against the evening light outside. The darkness was growing with alarming rapidity, and Peter was increasingly afraid to move, all too aware of the water rushing below him. He contemplated the possibility of luring Larssen into one of the holes in the floorboards. That'd be easier if he could locate them himself ...
"No music box, eh?" Larssen said. "I figured you were lying. Gotta give you points for trying, though."
"I told you it was a gamble," Peter pointed out, backing up in the gloom. He tried to keep his voice low, modulated, his hostage-crisis voice. Even if he was the hostage ... "What about you, Larssen? Do you think you chose the right side? Adler's obsessed with the music box. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want to be standing at the right hand of an obsessed and ruthless man."
Larssen snorted and stepped away from the window into the shadows, calmly pursuing Peter through the mill. This would have been a perfect opportunity to set a trap ... if only he could think of one. "Do you have a better offer?" Larssen asked, in a bored tone that made Peter think of a cat toying with a mouse.
Keep him talking, Peter told himself. Larssen moved as silently as a cat, too. Special Forces, Fowler had said. When he wasn't talking, Peter had no good way to locate him. "I still have connections at the Bureau," Peter said. "Highly placed ones. I can broker a good deal for you if you're willing to flip on Adler. Better than anything he'd give you."
Larssen laughed. "You're trying to cut a deal? What's the matter, Burke - forgot you're not an agent anymore?"
It still hurt with a sharp whiplash pain. Don't let him bait you. "You're a smart guy, Larssen. You've been in this game long enough to know how Adler's kind operate, and what happens as soon as you're no longer useful to them."
Larssen didn't answer. Where the hell is he? Peter twisted his wrist in the ziptie; the plastic had cut deep into his flesh, and it was slippery with sweat or blood.
Larssen came very suddenly and quietly from the darkness on his right, and pain exploded across the side of Peter's face. Peter went down hard, unable to catch himself, though he instinctively tried and nearly dislocated his shoulder. Larssen had hit him with the butt of the gun, he realized muzzily, as he squinted up through half-closed eyes and found himself looking down the barrel.
Larssen lowered it almost immediately, and sighed. "An accident, he says. A bullet would've been quicker." He glanced around the interior of the mill. "Well, if an accident it's going to be, this looks like a nice convenient pla-"
A large heavy object, trailing a fluttery streamer, came out of nowhere and cracked Larssen in the side of the head with a loud musical twong. Peter stared in dazed confusion as Larssen went to his knees, dropping his gun, and the thing that had hit him went the other way, coming open and spilling its shiny guts all over the floor with a lot of melodious little jingles.
"What did you do that for!" Alex shouted in fury from her perch at the apex of the mill.
Neal gave her one of his innocent shrugs, and, as Alex boggled at him, began to retrace his climb down the wall.
Looking down, Alex could see the gleam of the music box's components, scattered on the floor. She couldn't see Larssen's gun anywhere; it must've fallen through into the river below. Larssen, still reeling from the blow to the head, was scrambling to pick up as much as he could of the music box, scooping it into Kate's scarf. "Roberts!" he bellowed.
Neal's feet touched down. Larssen, still unarmed, dashed for the window and tossed the scarf-wrapped bundle to his accomplice. Neal sprinted after him, found himself looking down the barrel of Roberts' gun, reversed direction and dived out of sight behind the bulk of a collapsed roof beam leaning against the wall. Muzzle flashes lit the gloom with brief, blinding flares of light. Peter scrabbled weakly to drag himself deeper into the shadows.
And Alex had given away her own position when Neal's utter stupidity with the music box had wrung a shout from her. She hated to leave him there - idiot or not, he was still her friend - but she couldn't possibly climb down without getting shot, and she was a perfect target up here, framed against the dying sunset light.
So she went out the window.
The crumbling wall was no more stable on the other side, and she threw caution to the winds in favor of reckless speed. Her descent was more of a controlled fall; she ripped several fingernails and avoided falling through the lower section of roof by sheer luck - she heard shingles pattering down behind her as she slid down the ivy-covered wall. If any of this is POISON ivy, I'll be regretting it for weeks. But it's better than being shot.
She landed badly, twisting her knee, and gasped in pain. Sloppy, she told herself. She was out of practice and not used to doing this barefoot; it gave her a little toomuch sensitivity in her feet, made her flinch away from toeholds that could easily have supported her. At least Roberts and Larssen were still on the other side of the mill for the moment, preoccupied with Peter and Neal. Alex supported herself on the wall, looking around at the river and the darkening woods, and realized that she had no idea where she was, and little confidence in her ability to retrace her steps to the road, especially at night.
Drop her in the middle of Paris or Madrid with no shoes, no money and no idea where she was, and she'd have herself nicely outfitted and ensconced in a comfortable hotel room within an hour. The forest primeval was a different story.
She heard Larssen's footsteps before she saw him, and had to pick a direction, any direction. Her knee almost went out from under her at the first step. She clenched her teeth, focused through the pain and dashed into the woods. She had to stop before she'd gone too far, and turned around, leaning on a tree and looking back the way she'd come. As long as she remained still, she ought to be safe enough.
As Alex watched, Larssen dragged a few dead branches to the base of the wall she'd just climbed down, then leaned in and flicked a lighter. The dry branches went up quickly, and the flames spread easily to the dead leaves of last season's ivy.
Roberts must be doing the same on the other side, because she could smell the sharp reek of smoke drifting around the corner of the building.
Oh my God, she thought. They're burning it down.
Neal dived into the shadows along the wall and patted himself down hastily to make sure he hadn't been hit. He hadn't.
He peeked around the fallen beam that he was using as impromptu cover. The darkness hid him, but it hid everything else too, turning the interior of the mill into a maze of booby traps. Larssen and his henchman were having a quick conference outside the window, and Neal clearly heard the words "... burn the place." His breath caught. One inconvenient body or two - it was all the same to men like Adler and Larssen.
Alex was right. He'd lost his mind. And in that brief moment of insanity he'd thrown away the music box. It was the only weapon he'd had at hand ... but now he'd delivered it straight into Larssen's hands, and hence to Adler's. Neal didn't give a damn about the box itself, not compared to Kate's life, but it had been the only leverage he had, the only thing he could use to bring himself face-to-face with Adler -
- or, he realized, he could simply follow Larssen. The box could still be useful to him, because with the music box in hand, Larssen would sooner or later lead him straight to Adler.
Adler was within his grasp at last. So close. Rage and hatred welled in Neal's chest, an inky tide filling up his soul, leaving no room for fear or anything else. He couldn't die here, because he had to live in order to get that betraying, murdering bastard.
He found a fingerhold on the wall, a toehold. He was Neal Caffrey, damn it, escape artist extraordinaire. He hadn't escaped from supermax and survived everything he'd gone through since then just to die an inglorious, anonymous death in a burning building. He had a score to settle.
"Neal!" Peter called softly from the shadows.
Neal paused, a few feet off the ground. He had, in honesty, forgotten all about Peter, his hatred of Adler blocking out all else.
"Neal?" There were little scuffling sounds as Peter sat up. His voice sounded thick.
He didn't have to answer. Leave. Stay. Leave. There was no chance Peter could climb the wall. What could Neal dobut abandon him or die with him? The scales teetered - revenge for Kate, balanced against Peter's life...
He caught the first whiff of smoke, seeping through the cracks in the damaged walls.
"Neal!" Peter snapped, and this time Neal glimpsed him in the shadows, leaning against the wall. His hand was still tied to his waistband; blood glistened wet and dark on his face. And Neal's resistance collapsed. There was only one option he could live with. He dropped to the floor, already calculating alternate escape routes that might be navigable by a man with one arm and a head wound of unknown severity. "Yeah," he said. "I'm here."
"Oh, thank God. I thought they shot you." Guilt coiled in Neal's stomach - no, just climbing out and leaving you behind, that's all. "Don't come over here," Peter added quickly. "Get out. Find Elizabeth."
"She's fine. She's with Mozzie." Though doubt niggled at the corners of his mind: could Moz and Elizabeth have been picked up by Adler's thugs? No, thinking about that would do him no good. He had to trust in Moz's paranoia and gadgetry to see them through.
"What's she doing with Mozzie?"
"Long story." Neal stepped on something that rolled under his foot, nearly sending him to the floor. Leaning forward, he brushed it with his groping fingertips: one of the cherubs from the music box. Neal caught it right before it rolled between the floorboards into the rushing black water underneath.
The water ...
Peter coughed on the thickening smoke. "So, if you're not leaving, a little help here?"
Neal pocketed the cherub and hastened through the smoke, leaping over a gap in the floorboards that he noted absently for future reference. Flickering flames had already begun to light the gloom in the mill; the place was going up like a Roman candle. On the other hand, now he could see a bit. The plastic of the ziptie was drawn tight into the flesh of Peter's wrist.
"Knife," Peter said, coughing again. "In my pocket. I can't reach it, damn it."
Neal slid two fingers into Peter's jeans pocket, lifting the pocketknife with a delicate flourish. "Do I owe you dinner and flowers for that?"
"You owe me less joking and more untying."
The plastic of the ziptie parted with a snap, and Neal gave him a hand up. Peter wobbled, but shook off Neal's attempt to steady him. "It's fine, I'm loose, now let's get out of here."
Above them, the ceiling groaned ominously. "Uh, yeah, one escape route's on fire," Neal said, covering his mouth with his sleeve. Smoke burned his throat. "And the other one's being covered by goons with guns."
"Shit. Sorry." Peter flexed his swollen fingers and looked up. His features were drawn tight in the flickering glow of the flames, sweat and blood slicking his forehead as the heat grew oppressive. His face was very pale, and he reached up to touch the stump of his missing arm - it looked like an unconscious gesture. "Any ideas?"
"Well, since you mention it -" Neal pointed down. He had to raise his voice to be heard over the roar of the flames. "Where does the water go?"
"I have no idea." Peter's face went even paler, contrasting sharply with the dark swatch of blood down the side of his face. "Oh, no, that's not a good plan -"
"If the water gets out somehow, so can we."
"Or we'll be trapped. Burned and drowned -"
"We'll burn for sure if we stay here." A tremendous crack from the timbers of the ceiling underscored his words. "In fact -" Neal looked up, read the looming danger and gripped Peter's shoulder. Dragging Peter with him, he dived for the gaping black space between the floorboards, just as the ceiling came down on them.
If she thought about it at all, Elizabeth didn't think of herself as a violent person. She believed firmly in the rule of law, in letting the proper authorities handle matters, and in resolving one's differences in a calm and reasonable manner. Besides, in spite of the self-defense classes that Peter had insisted she take, she knew that she couldn't go up against a trained assailant and win.
But little Elizabeth Jean Montgomery had been a scrappy kid. She and Pattie had climbed apple trees, learned to shoot their boy cousins' .22 rifles, skinned their knees and scraped their elbows and went swimming in the gravel-pit swimming hole. They'd also liked boys and skirts and looked forward to getting to wear makeup and high heels, and little Elizabeth Jean had once punched a cheerleader in the face for calling her sister ugly.
Little Elizabeth Jean hadn't been afraid of anything.
Apparently all it took was hearing Vincent Adler order her husband's death to strip away twenty years of maturity.
El went from docile hostage to screaming Valkyrie so fast that Fowler never knew what hit him. The open palm of her hand cracked into his nose. She wouldn't realize until later that she'd learned and internalized this in the self-defense classes she'd taken - strike with the flat palm or side of the hand or the knuckles; the nose and groin and neck are sensitive targets- but she'd known it by instinct when she was thirteen and punched Lily Braun in the face for insulting her big sister.
Fowler was a trained FBI agent and also a big guy with a fairly high pain threshold, so a great deal of his frozen reaction was mere surprise, especially when she followed up the face strike with a karate chop to the neck and then knocked the gun out of his hand.
- and then El realized that she had no idea what to do next. The fury that had powered her so far began to drain out of her, washed away by a rush of cold reality. Jessica - she hadn't even thought about Jessica, and there was still another man in the car, the driver, now scrambling out with a gun in his hand.
"For God's sake, what's the matter with you two, it's a housewife and a kid!" Adler snapped.
Elizabeth and Fowler stared at each other. There was blood smeared across his upper lip. He could easily have stopped her, but he hesitated, and she didn't question her good fortune; she seized Jess by the hand and dashed for the barn.
Even with a slight head start, they shouldn't have made it. Fowler had a gun; Adler's driver had a gun; even Adler himself, muttering "If you want something done right ..." drew a small pistol from beneath his impeccably tailored jacket. But fate, in the form of Mozzie, intervened.
A metal canister arced over their heads. El caught a glimpse of the Pringles logo on the side, and thought What on -before it hit the ground and erupted in a cloud of smoke.
With Adler and company choking and gagging in the expanding smoke cloud behind her, El and Jess skidded into the horse paddock. Mozzie's head popped up in the hayloft. He was wearing what looked like a World War II army helmet and carrying - was that a crossbow?
"What," Elizabeth gasped. "Was that tear gas? In a Pringles can?"
"It only looks like a Pringles can."
"Aunt El." Jess tugged at her hand. "Pepper and Ness are still saddled. We could ride them."
El managed to stifle her first response, which was Oh dear.She'd always been scared of Ness, her husband's big, bad-tempered black gelding. Peter kept telling her that her fear made him skittish, and if she could get over it, Ness would let her ride him. Apparently she was about to find out, because she'd just found something that frightened her more than Ness.
"Yes, that's a great idea; go, go," she said, giving her niece a shove, and called up to Mozzie, "Will you be okay?"
"I eat danger for breakfast, Mrs. Ex-Suit."
"I'll take that as a yes," El murmured, and ran around the corner of the barn.
Jess, now mounted on Pepper, had managed to catch Ness. Both the horses looked panicky, and Jess herself only slightly less so, but she was holding together remarkably well, especially for a thirteen-year-old. "I'll hold him while you get on, Aunt El," she said. "Be careful. He wants to kick."
El nerved herself and mounted. Ness was a lot bigger than her own little Ladybug, and she could feel his powerful muscles bunched under her. When Jess let go of the reins, there was a moment when El thought he was going to bolt.
"Just keep him firmly in hand, Aunt El. That's what Uncle Peter does. Don't let him have his head."
"Thanks," El murmured. But Peter seemed to be right about Ness, because now that she was on him, he didn't seem to be fighting or trying to throw her. She pointed his head towards the woods, and urged Jess ahead of her.
"Goddamn it," Adler wheezed. The gas, whatever it was - not exactly tear gas, probably something homemade from the look of the canister it had been packaged in - was dissipating quickly on the breeze. His driver, coughing, ran into the barn after whoever had thrown the gas canister. There was a series of thumps and a strangled yell.
"Get that little bastard in the helmet," Adler snapped at Fowler, and then his phone rang - worst possible timing, as always. It was Larssen, so he ducked behind the Mercedes to answer. "Yes, what?"
"Got the music box," Larssen said, typically laconic.
"Thank God. Finally something is going right. Are you at the mill?"
"Yes, and Caffrey and Burke are no longer a problem. All that's left -"
There was a scuffling sound, a thump and then nothing.
The call was disconnected.
Adler stared at it for a moment. Thatwasn't good.
In fact, this whole thing was turning into a clusterfuck. No, check that: it had been a clusterfuck from the moment Caffrey and Moreau got involved. The smart thing would be to cut his losses, round up his people and get out of here. But he was so damn close to the music box, sodamn close.
If you want something done right, he thought furiously.
He looked speculatively at the remaining horses in the pasture. He was a good rider, and all he had to do was follow the woman - she'd lead him where he needed to go. That big bay mare ought to do...
Where the trail split - one way going to the Sawyers', the other to the network of woods trails, the river and the mill - the two riders reined in. El had a struggle getting Ness to stop; he wanted to run. She glanced backwards. No one appeared to be following, yet.
"I want you to -"
"- go to the Sawyers'. I know. That's where Mom and Dad think I am, anyway."
"And call your mother and the sheriff. From the Sawyers'."
"Yes ma'am." Jess turned and looked at the dark path stretching into the woods in front of her, then kicked Pepper into a gallop.
"Be careful!" El called after her. Ness shifted under her, his muscles rippling beneath his sleek coat. The horse was a powerhouse. "We're going to find your daddy," El told him. She knew he couldn't understand, but he twitched an ear back towards her, and came around gracefully when she wheeled and pointed him down the trail that led to the mill.
As Ness stretched out his long stride, El thought that she heard the cadence of hoofbeats on the trail behind her.
The river channel beneath the mill was lukewarm and waist deep. Peter and Neal plunged into the water and then floundered upright, water streaming off their hair and clothes. Already fingers of questing flame were beginning to curl around the blackening floorboards overhead.
For the first time in his life, Peter found himself teetering on the edge of a full-blown panic attack. He couldn't breathe. He was trapped. Just like -
You're not in that warehouse anymore, he told himself. That's over. Done. It's in the past.
He opened his eyes and for a panicked instant couldn't locate Neal, until the conman came splashing back from God knows where. Firelight striped Neal's face, and his wet hair was plastered to his skull. "We're going to have to swim for it," he shouted over the jet-engine roar of the flames above their heads. "There's something - an underwater channel, I think it's the remains of the old millrace. The current's strong but I can't tell if it's clear all the way through."
"Yes, yes, go." Neal should already be gone, damn it, not waiting for him. They were both gasping, the air growing thin and foul as the fire sucked the oxygen out of it. He gave Neal a little shove and stumbled through the water after him. His head throbbed in time to his racing heartbeat. "Go!"
The mill had gone up beautifully, the ancient wood bone-dry and the walls latticed with season upon season of dead vines, crackling like tinder under Larssen's hands.
Larssen stepped back and admired his handiwork, the flames climbing rapidly towards the first stars emerging in the evening sky. He'd always liked watching things burn. He'd learned long ago that it was easy and pleasant to destroy. His special forces training had only honed the skills he'd already had. He dialed Adler.
"Yes, what?" Adler snapped.
"Got the music box." Larssen looked down at the scarf-wrapped bundle tucked under his arm. Okay, maybe it wasn't in great shape at the moment, but it could be restored like nothing ever happened. Probably.
"Thank God," Adler said. "Finally something is going right. Are you at the mill?"
"Yes, and Caffrey and Burke are no longer a problem. All that's left -"
There was a thump and a groan behind him. Larssen spun around and ducked just in time to avoid a large chunk of deadwood swinging through the area where his head had been a moment before.
"You are an absolute bastard," the woman in black said between clenched teeth.
"Where the hell did you come from?" Larssen dropped the phone and the scarf-wrapped bundle of music box pieces, and dived for Roberts' gun, but not fast enough.
"Julian?" demanded Adler's small, tinny voice, and then the hefty chunk of wood hit Larssen in the temple, and that was it.
Alex poked Larssen with her foot, her impromptu weapon cocked back over her shoulder. He didn't move, so she knelt and checked for a pulse, relieved to find it strong. She made it a general point of honor to make sure that everyone she left behind at the scene of the crime, from security guards to representatives of rival organizations, was still alive when she departed - for one thing, there was a pretty big difference between the police response to grand larceny versus murder, and certain kinds of trouble she just didn't need.
It was hard to muster sympathy for him, though.
She picked up the phone and hurled it through the window into the flames inside the mill. Let Adler make of that what he would.
"Neal!" she shouted, and then stumbled backwards as the roof of the mill caved in with a tremendous roar. The heat rolled off the burning building in waves.
Alex reminded herself that Neal was much too canny to be trapped and killed by something as simple as a burning ruin. He'd found a way out, all right. He was probably making his getaway right now and expecting her to do the same. The smoke and flames would be clearly visible from the road, and she figured that this place would soon be crawling with whatever passed for emergency services out in the sticks. The idea of entrapping Adler was still tempting, but he would probably have the sense to flee as well. Live to con another day, and all of that.
The heat of the burning mill beating at her, she knelt and unwrapped the scarf. The music box's lid hung askew, its delicate springs and gears exposed. "All that trouble," Alex sighed. Gently she wrapped it up again. Perhaps Mozzie could put it back together again. Or maybe she'd let her grandfather's treasure rest beneath the waves for some other treasure hunter to find someday. Every con had a story of the one that got away. It keeps us sharp, she thought.
Larssen, it turned out, had a pocket full of zipties, of the sort he'd used to bind Peter. Alex made good use of them on Larssen and his companion. Along the way, she relieved them of the gun they no longer had a use for. Then she straightened with the music box tucked snugly against her body.
Now all she had to do was get out of the damn woods before the forest burned down around her. Although, she mused, the likelihood was pretty high that she'd run into a) police, b) Adler, or c) some combination of the above on her way out. Perhaps a bit of strategic planning was in order.
Neal staggered out of the water and flopped onshore, half-dragging Peter with a hand fisted in his shirt. "You okay?"
"I'm great," Peter said in a rough voice. His face was chalk-white.
Neal released him, letting him ride out his private demons in silence, and stood up. A thundering crash and wash of heat made Neal look upstream. They'd come out a little way below the burning mill, where the diverted channel of the millrace rejoined the river, but he could feel the heat even from here. Flames reached towards the sky. It was striking and terrifying and for a moment he could only stare, mesmerized -
- the same way he'd stared at the flaming jet that had become Kate's pyre -
Hot wind swept across them, bringing sparks and the stink of the burning mill. The smell caught him more powerfully than the sight of the flames, sucking him back onto the tarmac. He could see it, hear it, feel it all as clear and precise as if he was still there, as if he'd never left. Kate's face in the window. Adler's voice in his ear, gentle and calm as always, saying, "This is the price of defiance, Neal." A rush of flames, a wash of heat -
The first sob took him by surprise.
The smell of the fire was on him, in him - in his nose and mouth, in his clothes. He wanted to roll in the river, scrape it off, scrape off his skin if that was what it took. But he didn't even have the strength to do that. All he could do was cry.
He'd pushed it away, fought it back, beaten down the grief with anger, but now there was nothing to hold it at bay, nothing left but overwhelming loss and pain. Kate was gone, borne skyward like the sparks swirling up from the burning mill. He'd never hear her laugh again. Never see her face. Never smell her hair. He hadn't known that anything could hurt so much.
He fell to his hands and knees on the riverbank, choking and nearly retching in an attempt to make it stop. He couldn't. It wouldn't. "I don't," he tried to say. "I can't." And then all he could do was cry, hard painful sobs wrung out of him, until it finally tapered off.
He rested his face on his muddy fists, swallowing, breathing.
Near him, Peter spoke, his voice hoarse and rough. "When I first - Campfires." He paused, cleared his throat. "Campfires got me. And barbecues."
Neal raised his head and dragged the back of his hand across his eyes. "Barbecues?" he managed to say.
"The smell," Peter said. "Burning ... meat. Grilling season was hell that first year. It's not as bad as it used to be, but it still gets to me sometimes." He turned his head and looked thoughtfully up at the light of the flames from the burning mill. "You know, I used to think I'd panic, if I was ever, God forbid, in a situation like that again."
"You didn't," Neal said. Peter had frozen up a little, but hell, who wouldn't?
"No, I didn't. It was bad, but I didn't lose it." His voice sounded soft and a little surprised. "Good to know."
Neal managed to sit up. He was wrung out and shaky, too tired to feel much of anything, but he made himself look into the flames as Peter was doing. It wasn't evil, he reminded himself. It wasn't a symbol of anything. Just fire, just a natural element, doing what fire did.
"There were - three other guys in there besides you, right?"
"There were more of us than that," Peter said. "Most got out. Three of us died." His gaze was far away, farther than the burning mill. "I don't remember much of it, you know. Blocked it right out. Psych guy never quite believed me, I think. Kept trying to get me to open up about it. But there wasn't much to open up about. Just flashes. Pieces."
Neal wished for an instant that he had that problem. Kate's death was blazoned into his mind, an indelible image that he suspected he'd carry with him until his dying day. Peter couldn't remember; Neal couldn't forget.
He tore his eyes away from the flames, blinking until he could see more than just blue and white blotches, and looked at Peter instead. Their flight through the water had washed most of the blood off Peter's face, but more was welling to replace it, matting his hair. "How's your head?"
"Hurts like hell, thank you for asking."
"Want me to - bandage it, or anything?"
Peter gave him an alarmed look. "Don't tell me you have a degree in medicine?" Neal's mouth opened; he couldn't help himself. "That you earned at an accredited institution," Peter clarified, and Neal shut his mouth. "Yeah. That's what I thought. Just keep your hands to yourself, Doctor Caffrey."
"Hey, I handled getting shot waybetter," Neal said, and he even managed to grin a little.
"I don't suppose you have a phone."
Neal touched his pocket, then patted himself down. "I did." At some point in the reckless escape from the mill, he'd lost it.
Peter sighed and raised his hand to touch the side of his head, which was starting to swell. "We're out of the fire, but still in the frying pan," he said wryly. "Larssen and his fellow arsonist are around here somewhere. And Adler's not far away, unless he's already heading for the hills."
Neal swallowed heavily. "Is Adler ... here? In Apple Corners?"
"Oh yeah. I talked to him. And I'm fairly sure he ordered my death just now."
"Congratulations," Neal said faintly. He looked upstream again. The fire was already starting to die down, the bulk of the structure having collapsed inward. Some of the nearby trees were smoldering and blackened, but right now it didn't look like the whole forest was going to catch on fire.
"Thanks, by the way," Peter said awkwardly. "For - you know."
"I owed you anyway." Neal ran a hand over his face. He was exhausted; he felt stripped out from the inside, but oddly clearheaded. Kate was dead and that was a huge thing, a staggering thing, something he'd probably spend his whole life coming to terms with, but for the first time he could look at it head-on without shattering. "Damn it. Larssen's probably taking the music box to Adler. If we followed him, we could find him, but he'll be long gone - damn it!"
Elizabeth lost herself in Ness's powerful piston-stride until a voice calling "Stop!" gave her such a start that she almost fell off.
She dragged Ness to a reluctant stop, and he stood with his sides heaving, breathing like a bellows. The air reeked of a heavy, burning-garbage stink, making the horse jumpy. El reached down to rub his neck, then looked past his nose to discover Alex standing in the trail.
"Elizabeth! Nice to see you here," Alex said brightly. She was looking somewhat the worse for wear, and seemed to have lost her shoes; her bare feet were scratched, and looked very pale against the swishing legs of her once-stylish black pants. A heavy-looking bundle wrapped in dark cloth was tucked against her chest. "I don't suppose I could get a ride, by any chance?"
"You'll have to ask the horse," El said. "He has a mind of his own. Where's Neal? And have you seen Peter?"
"I saw both of them not too long ago," Alex said. She cleared her throat. "They're probably around here somewhere. I was just ... about to go look for them."
She seemed suddenly ashamed, for some reason. "We can look together," El said by way of a peace offering.
Ness's saddle was on the approximate level of Alex's nose. El found a fallen tree with a fat bole that Alex could use for a mounting stoop, but getting Ness to stand still was an entirely different problem.
"He might buck," El said, once they maneuvered Ness close enough that Alex could attempt to climb on board. "He does that sometimes."
"How ... lovely."
On Alex's first attempt to mount the horse, something slithered out of the bundle in her arms and thumped to the forest floor. Alex jumped down to pick it up, and El hastily steered Ness away before he kicked her in the head. Not too hastily, however, to see that the item in question was a very large gun.
"It was lying on the ground," Alex said defensively. She started to stuff it back under the wrapped scarf, then changed her mind and tucked it through the back of the wide belt clasped around her narrow waist.
"It might be useful," El offered. Actually, given what had just happened back at the house, knowing that her companion was armed made her feel more secure. If only she trusted Alex a bit more ...
Alex managed to get on Ness's back on the second try. There was no comfortable way to accommodate two full-grown women on one saddle, especially the high-cantled Western saddle that Peter preferred. Alex gritted her teeth and clung to Elizabeth's waist with one arm, clutching the bundle to her chest with the other. El could feel hard things poking her spine.
"Where are they?" El asked.
Alex heaved a sigh that seemed to come from her very toes. "That way," she said, nodding down the trail in the direction she'd just come from. The burning smell was even stronger now.
Peter approached the mill's ruins cautiously from the downstream side, with Neal a few steps behind. The heat was still so powerful that it was like a physical force, pushing them back.
"Can you believe it was only this morning we rode out here?" Neal said.
Peter laughed. His head throbbed with migraine-like intensity, the stump of his arm hurt, his lungs hurt, his throat hurt - and he laughed, he couldn't help it. Endorphins were a wonderful thing. "You're right. Lots of water under the bridge since then ... so to speak."
"I hope Alex got away okay."
"Was that the woman climbing the mill with you? Who was she, anyway?"
"Old friend," Neal said vaguely.
"Your old friends are coming out of the woodwork lately." Peter wiped blood out of his eyes with the back of his hand. His vision kept going double and then back into focus. "You sure El's okay?"
"We picked her up from the bakery. There was," Neal added, "a plan."
"It'd better have been a damn good plan, if you got my wife involved."
"Hey," Neal said, "all my plans are good plans."
That was so patently untrue that Peter just stared at him.
"Well, okay, except the ones that end up with me in prison."
"Or hiding in my barn? Or trapped in a burning building? Or base jumping off the Eiffel Tower's observation deck -"
"I had no idea you knew about that -" Neal hesitated. "... alleged incident."
Pounding hoofbeats got Peter's attention before he could reply. By instinct more than anything else, he interposed himself between Neal and whoever was coming their way. "Hey, Rambo, not that I don't appreciate the sentiment, but hiding might be better," Neal pointed out. "We're completely unarmed, you know."
"Right now, I'm too pissed to care," Peter said grimly.
But as soon as the horse appeared, Peter instantly recognized Ness - and Ness recognized him, and came running with a happy little whinny completely at odds with his standoffishness towards everyone else. Elizabeth was off the horse's back before he even stopped moving. She half-tackled Peter and he put his arm around her, burying his face in her hair.
"See?" Neal said. "Told you she was okay."
El smiled at him. "I met a friend of yours on the trail, Neal."
"Help would be appreciated," Alex said between her teeth. Ness wouldn't hold still, and she was in eminent danger of sliding right over the horse's haunches onto the ground. Peter caught Ness's reins and held him while Alex half-climbed, half-fell from Ness's back. The burden in her arms was wrapped in a dark scarf with vivid gold patterns that caught the firelight. A very familiar-looking scarf ...
"Is that what I think it is?" Peter asked.
"Oh, Alex, you sneaky little thief." Neal laughed and planted a kiss on Alex's cheek. He attempted to relieve her of the music box, but Alex kept firm hold of it. Peter saw an odd expression pass over Neal's face before he gave up and let her keep it. "Where's Larssen?" he asked her.
"Unconscious and tied up over there." She gestured with her chin, since both her arms were occupied with the awkwardly bundled music box. Sighing, she frowned at Neal. "I think you're a bad influence on me. I should have been long gone. And yet, here I am."
"You just couldn't get along without my company."
"Yes, that must be it. Where's -"
Neal seized her shoulder and yanked her forward. "Alex, down!"
A gunshot cracked as another rider galloped out of the dark into the glow of the fire. Adler, Peter thought in horrified disbelief. And Adler was riding Chantilly, with all the grace and skill of a longtime horseman.
As far as Peter could tell, Adler had missed completely - not surprising since both gunman and target were in motion. Neal crouched with one hand on Alex's shoulder and a look of pure hate on his face. "Adler," he breathed in a choked-sounding voice.
"Caffrey," Adler purred, turning Chantilly around one-handed and aiming the gun with the other. "I knew I'd see you again. Hand over the music box."
No one moved. Adler's hot gaze swept over the four of them as they instinctively drew closer together. "Well then, I guess I'll start killing your friends. Which one goes first?"
Alex straightened, shaken, and held out the scarf-wrapped bundle. "Actually -"
Neal snatched it out of her hands. Alex gave a yelp of angry dismay. "Caffrey! Damn it!"
The look that he gave her was heavily fraught, and some kind of wordless communication passed between them. Then Neal turned to look at Adler, and grinned one of his manic, reckless Caffrey grins. "You know what's in here, right?" He held up his burden, the broken pieces shifting inside the scarf. "Come and get it!"
He whirled and ran, holding the scarf-wrapped music box.
Adler snarled wordlessly. He kicked Chantilly in the sides. The horse leaped forward, galloping after Neal, flying hooves barely missing Elizabeth.
"Damn it, Neal, just drop it!" Peter bellowed. "That thing's not worth your life!"
If Neal heard him, there was no response. Both of them vanished down the trail past the smoldering ruins of the mill.
Peter whistled to Ness and swung himself up into the saddle. He had no idea what he could do without a weapon, but he wasn't just going to stand around and let Adler kill Neal without doing something.
"Hey!" Alex ran to him. "Here." She was holding something out, and it took Peter a startled moment to realize that she was offering him a gun, butt-first. It was a Colt 1911, the same kind that Larssen had been carrying.
He opened his mouth, then shut it. This wasn't the time or place to question a gift gun. "Thanks," he said, and looked back at Elizabeth, in an agony of indecision. He hated to just leave her here -
El smiled. "Go help Neal, honey. Catch the bad guy."
Peter wheeled Ness around, and took off towards the river after Adler.
Running had never really been Neal's thing, but he was young and in good shape, and besides, it was amazing what an excellent motivator being chased by a gunman on a horse could be.
He had a vague idea that he had to go somewhere the horse couldn't follow, but in the dark, the brush under the trees looked impenetrable. He veered towards the river and stumbled into the edge, only to realize that the water would slow him more than it would the horse. He splashed back ashore just as Adler rode out of the edge of the woods. The glow of the dying fire was partly screened by trees, backlighting him with an eerie nimbus.
"Caffrey. I always knew it would come down to you and me in the end." Adler rode closer; the horse's hooves crunched on gravel at the water's edge. "The question is, do I shoot you and take the music box off your corpse, or will you hand it over? It's quite valuable. I really would hate to get it wet."
Neal hoped that Peter, Elizabeth and Alex were taking advantage of the distraction to get way the hell away from here. I'm not sure how much time I can buy you guys. "How about we talk instead?"
"I don't think we have anything to talk about."
"Well, there's Kate, for starters."
"A mistake," Adler said. "The deal, not her death. Dealing with any of you was a mistake that I don't plan to make again."
"But I have something you want," Neal began, and Adler shot him in the leg.
There was more shock than pain. He landed hard and somehow managed to keep a grip on the bundle in his arms. Gasping, he sat up as Adler rode up beside him on the skittish horse. He could feel the heat of his own blood soaking rapidly through a pair of pants that had been new only this afternoon.
"The music box," Adler said. "Now."
Neal held it out wordlessly. The pain was starting to come, and it was bad. "You want it? You got it."
Adler gave him an odd look and relieved him of the bundle. Neal entertained a brief fantasy of pulling him off the horse into the river, but hand-to-hand combat wasn't his forte even when he had two functional legs. He knotted his hands across his thigh, blood welling up between his fingers. He couldn't have run even if he'd thought he had a chance of getting away, but it still might almost be worth it for the look on Adler's face in a minute ...
"So this is what it comes to," Adler said. He laughed. "I win, Caffrey. You lose. Again." He unrolled the scarf in his lap.
There was nothing inside but a bundle of sticks and leafy litter from the forest floor.
"Surprise," Neal said.
Adler stared, his triumphant smile changing to a rictus of horror and rage.
Neal wasn't sure where Alex had hidden the real music box - somewhere around the mill, had to be. He'd noticed immediately, though, when he'd tried to take the box from her, that whatever she'd put in the scarf was not the fractured pieces of the box. He'd hauled it across half the state; no one knew better than Neal how heavy the music box was.
His face a mask of fury, Adler brought up his gun and pointed it between Neal's eyes.
"Adler!" Peter shouted, galloping out of the darkness.
Adler spun around on the horse, firing as he went. Shooting at a moving target in the dark, he missed completely. "You're a regular pain in the ass, Burke," Adler growled, wrestling the horse around. "The sort that won't go away."
"I've been accused of that before." Peter halted Ness at a distance, and looped the reins over the saddlehorn to free his hand to aim. "I'm making a citizen's arrest. Drop the gun, Adler."
"Go to hell," Adler said.
The two of them faced each other across several dozen yards of riverbank. Neal, lightheaded from pain and blood loss, had the feeling that he was watching two Old West gunslingers having a showdown. Behind Peter, he saw Elizabeth and Alex appear from the woods, then stop, frozen in place.
Adler moved first, a quick twitch of his fingers. At the movement, Peter, with reflexes like lightning, was already firing. It threw Adler off, and his shot went wide. Peter's didn't. Adler pitched off his horse, and the horse, having had enough of this, bolted.
Adler tried to scramble to his feet in the water and fell down again, clutching his shoulder. Even from here, Neal could see the spray of arterial blood. "Son of a bitch!" Peter cursed, sliding off Ness's back into knee-deep water. "I need something to stop the bleeding; does anyone have anything-"
Not for Adler's sake, but for Peter's, Neal picked up Kate's scarf, crumpled and abandoned on the riverbank. He wadded it into a ball and underhanded it to Peter. Then he slumped back, darkness closing around the edges of his vision. His thigh felt like a red-hot poker had been jammed into it.
He jumped explosively when Alex touched his shoulder. He hadn't even noticed her approach him. Looking up, he found himself flanked by Alex and El. "Neal, let me," Elizabeth said gently, prying his fingers away from his thigh.
Neal slumped back and let them do whatever they felt compelled to do. Alex covered him with her jacket. El did ... something to his leg that made his vision white out for a moment. The world spun around him, and he came back to himself with his head in Alex's lap. Peter and El were talking nearby: "... bled out," he heard Peter say heavily, and for an instant he thought they were talking about him, but, no, there had been Adler, and a showdown, or had he dreamed it ...?
"High noon," he mumbled.
"Hush," Alex said, brushing his hair back from his forehead.
Neal opened his eyes. There was still a hint of light in the sky overhead; he could see her dark head framed against it. "The music box." His lips were clumsy and unresponsive. "Where is it?"
"Destroyed," Alex said without a hesitation, without even glancing at Peter and Elizabeth, who were, Neal realized belatedly, within earshot. "Probably melted to slag in the fire."
"Nice swap," he said, drowsy, zoning out again.
He was tugged back to reality by a hand on his shoulder, too big and square to be Alex's. He blinked and found that Alex's lap had vanished from under his head, which was now propped on someone's folded-up shirt. He could hear distant sirens on the road. "Where's Alex?"
"Good question," Peter's voice said. Neal blinked to clear his vision, and followed the arm up to Peter's shoulder and then to his face, a tired mask of soot and blood. "She made herself scarce the minute she heard sirens. What are the odds your little buddy's gone too?"
"They're too smart to get caught," Neal murmured. "Not like me."
"Adler -" Neal said. "Wasn't your fault."
Peter let out his breath in a weary sigh, and looked out across the water. "Yeah, well. There's no such thing as a guaranteed non-lethal place to shoot somebody. Anytime you point your gun is a potential kill shot." He sounded as if he was quoting something someone had told him long ago.
"Saved my life, you know."
Peter patted his shoulder awkwardly. "Just returning the favor."
"Guess we're taking turns now?"
Peter laughed, and Neal closed his eyes. The warm, steady pressure of Peter's hand kept him grounded, and he drifted to the sound of the river. Kate was gone. Adler was gone. Somehow, he was still here, so he waited to see what came next.
Peter woke with a jolt. The sharp hospital reek of antiseptic, the floaty painkiller feeling, the lingering fire stink in the back of his throat - for a horrible moment disorientation washed over him, and a sob caught in his chest, nearly sending him over the edge. He brought up his hand automatically to touch the stump of his arm, expecting to find bandages and a fresh, visceral shock -
Instead he found the soft slip of scar tissue, and familiarity, and resignation. He slid his hand up to cup his shoulder under the hospital gown, rubbing it absently, and opened his eyes. Sunlight filtered through the blinds of a generic hospital room in, he remembered now, Syracuse. He'd only been asleep for a few hours, and even with the painkillers, his body felt like it had been beaten. He looked to the side and found El curled up into a ball in an uncomfortable-looking hospital chair, snoring softly.
Different fire. Different outcome. Had he really shot Adler? He probed his emotions. Detachment and a kind of vague disbelief was all that he found. Which was probably going to seem blessedly pleasant once it really started to hit him. He'd never shot anyone in the line of duty back when he was an FBI agent, but he expected that the pattern of adjustment was probably similar for any life trauma.
Well, add it to the pile, he thought with a sardonic twist of the lips. That was living, after all: just one goddamn thing after another.
Hopefully El wouldn't have to endure being married to a felon on top of everything. Would they prosecute? Given the number of illegal things he'd done in the last few days ...
Elizabeth groaned and stirred, and Peter reached out his hand, cupped it over hers. She stretched and opened her eyes, smiled and leaned over to kiss him.
"Good morning, beautiful," Peter said. "You didn't have to stay."
"I wanted to."
The hospital had kept him overnight to observe his head injury and make sure there was no lingering damage to his lungs. Of course, once he and El were done giving statements to what seemed like half the LEOs in this part of the state, there hadn't been a whole lot of night left.
El yawned and checked her phone - recovered from the farm and mostly undamaged. "Text from Pattie. She says she and the kids found your arm in the lower pasture, undamaged."
"Oh ... good," Peter murmured. One less thing to talk to the insurance company about. "Thank her for me," he remembered to add.
"Thank her yourself," El said with an amused quirk of the lips. "She and the kids are on their way up."
"Oh good," he managed again. "Have you heard anything yet about N-"
But he didn't have a chance to ask about Neal or anything else, because the door opened and El's sister herded a swarm of Miller kids into his hospital room. Jess was bubbling over with the story of the fight at the barn, which Peter had already heard from Elizabeth - multiple times, as they'd told it to the police - but he let her go ahead and have her moment of glory.
Brian sulked with jealousy.
"Hey, you could have come with me," Jess said. "I tried to make you come, but all you wanted to do was play with your stupid computers-"
"But thank the dear Lord you didn't," their mother retorted. "It's bad enough having one of you in mortal danger."
She'd brought what looked like an entire day's output of the Good Eatin' Bakery in two very large cardboard cartons; Pattie dealt with stress by cooking. After pastries were parceled around, Jessica was dispatched to take the remainder to the duty nurse's station - "After all," Pattie said, smiling at her brother-in-law, "they've had to deal with you all night."
"He was perfectly well-behaved," El said, squeezing his hand.
"I wanted to bring Satchmo but Mom wouldn't let me put him in the car," Susie chirped.
"That's okay, sweetie; they don't allow dogs in hospitals."
The veneer of cheerful normalcy made Peter more twitchy than comforted. He wanted to know what was going on with the investigation. Things had to be moving at a breakneck pace inside OPR - and where was Neal right now, anyway? Or, more critically, how was Neal? He'd last seen Neal taken into police custody, dazed and bleeding. God, they hadn't stuck him in a jail cell overnight, had they ...?
He was roused from his gloomy musings by a nurse tapping on the door. She smiled at the cluster of chattering Millers. "There's another visitor for you," she said, and stepped aside to make way for Kramer.
"Pete," the older agent said, and the two shook hands. "Flew up from DC as soon as I could get away. I should've known retirement wasn't going to stop you from being a pain in my department's collective ... behind."
El shepherded the Millers out of the room so that the two of them could speak in privacy, and Kramer caught Peter up on the latest news from the rapidly developing investigation. Fowler had agreed to make a deal with the state D.A.'s office to bring down the remainder of Adler's organization - and part of that involved testifying on Peter's behalf in the warehouse fire incident.
Peter thought he ought to feel something about that, one way or another. Relief, maybe. Anger. Instead there was nothing but a great empty lethargy. Nothing that happened at this point would change the fact that three men were dead, his career over. No, wait. Four men. He supposed that after everything, he'd gotten the vengeance against Adler that he'd never wanted. An eye for an eye gets you nothing but lots of people without eyes...
"What about Adler's ... death?" Peter forced himself to meet Kramer's eyes, uncertain what his former mentor knew about that. From the sympathy on Kramer's face, he'd managed to get himself fully briefed, one way or another.
"I don't know much yet. Perhaps I should say, they don't know much yet. Evidence and witness testimony points to self-defense." He gave Peter a sharp look. "Don't blame yourself, Petey."
"There was no other choice, sir," Peter said earnestly. "Things happened fast, but I really believe that I did the only thing I could have done under the circumstances."
Kramer nodded. "I'd like to talk about this more. Later. But you can rest assured that I'll certainly speak on your behalf."
"Thanks," Peter said. It was the best he could have hoped for at this early stage, anyway. Hopefully he and Neal wouldn't end up sharing that jail cell. Speaking of which ...
"How's Neal Caffrey?"
"Caffrey?" Kramer looked like he couldn't figure out why Peter wanted to know. "Well, back in prison, where he should be. Or in the prison infirmary, more accurately. Probably going to see another few years behind bars for doing a runner."
"But he'll be all right?"
"He'll be well enough to stand at his resentencing," Kramer said, and Peter closed his eyes briefly.
"He saved my life, you know. Twice. At a great deal of risk to his own."
"He's a felon, Pete," Kramer said gently. "You two may have had some adventures - the enemy of my enemy is my friend and all of that. But don't delude yourself into thinking that he's anything other than a felon. Believe me, I've been there. It doesn't end well."
Too late, Peter thought. Too damn late.
In the end, between depositions and court appearances and consultations with the FBI, two weeks passed before Peter was able to drive south and visit Neal in prison.
Kramer had given him occasional status reports, enough to let him know that Neal's recovery had been proceeding without undue setbacks. Peter's imagination had filled in plenty of details, probably unnecessary ones, but he really felt for the kid, damn it, incarcerated and sick and alone. Wasn't much he could do about it, though. Neal was already out of the infirmary and back in the regular prison population when Peter showed up to visit. Neal had been released a mere two days earlier, and when the prison guards led him into the visitors' room, he came in stiff and slow, still limping heavily, a pale shadow of his normal polished, cheerful self.
On the surface, he was still Neal Caffrey - but he was different, too. Closed down. There was a stillness to him, unlike his usual contained, watchful air. He didn't look well. But Peter figured that convalescing from a gunshot wound - well, two gunshot wounds, technically - in prison would do that to you. And Neal actually looked happy to see him, which was also a change.
"When they told me I had a visitor, I had no idea who it could be." Neal smiled faintly. "Mozzie's not really the visiting-people-in-prison type."
"Sorry it took me awhile to come," Peter said. "There were things."
"I understand about things." Neal smiled, a ghost of his usual bright grin, but genuinely pleased. "You look okay."
"Thanks," Peter said, because he couldn't really reciprocate; Neal looked anything but okay. "El sent cookies, by the way, but they confiscated them."
"Well, tell her thanks for me."
There was an awkward silence.
"So I hope they didn't throw the book at you for helping me," Neal said.
"Not really. I should've turned you in, it's true. But given what we accomplished -" he threw in that "we" as a freebie; Neal had earned it "- taking down Adler, Fowler and a bunch of crooked agents along with them, we were able to spin it as the only way things could have gone that would've led to that outcome."
It was more complicated than that by far, and at certain points, Kramer had put his own career on the line to keep Peter out of prison. But Neal didn't need to know the details. They'd all come out of it clean, if only by the skin of their teeth, and that was what mattered at this point.
Neal's smile flickered; it was tired, but it was his real smile. "I think I'm rubbing off on you, Peter."
The sad thing was, it was probably true, which meant that Peter couldn't let him get away with scoring a point. "You do realize," Peter said, "if you'd stayed in and done the time like you were supposed to, you'd already be out."
"And Fowler and Adler would still be at large," Neal riposted back.
"There is that," Peter conceded.
Neal went still and quiet. "And Kate would still be alive," he said in a voice just above a whisper.
Peter looked at the kid, really looked at him: Neal's pallor, his unusually subdued manner. Knowing how put-together Neal normally was, if Peter was seeing it this strongly, it must be bad. It's really hitting him in here, he thought, all of it. Not just the convalescence, but Kate's death, Neal's lengthened sentence - the future stretched out long and rocky in front of him, and for once in his life he couldn't muster up the will to take control and change it. Maybe it was good that he was going through the adjustment to his new, Kateless life in the regimented environment of prison, where he had someone telling him where to go and when to eat, where he didn't have to make choices if he didn't want to. But it also meant that he was alone, utterly alone, and from the look of him, very quietly falling apart.
"I'll get you out," Peter said, startling himself with the intensity of his conviction.
Neal looked surprised, and then skeptical.
"I'm serious. They're cutting a deal with Fowler; they'll be willing to make a deal with you." And he thought, I'll make sure that they do. Whatever it takes.
What it took was getting a job with the New York State Department of Correctional Services as a parole officer.
"Awww, Peter," Neal said when Peter picked him up, along with a shiny new ankle monitor and a list a yard long of things he wasn't supposed to do and people he wasn't supposed to associate with. He was still pale and too thin, but he was also smiling. "You're seeing other parolees behind my back?"
Peter chose to ignore the flippancy and answer the question as asked. "Two of them, at this point. Both kids, nonviolent offenders, just a little too old for juvie." He gestured at Neal's ankle. "There's a definite trend right now towards the monitor system, not just to keep costs down but also to keep kids like that from hooking up with hardcore felons -"
"- and ending up just like them," Peter said, refusing to take the bait.
"So where am I going to live? Your spare bedroom?"
"No," Peter said with a small shudder at the idea. "It wouldn't be appropriate, for one thing, and - just, no. You'll need to rent a place of your own."
"In Apple Corners?" Neal said in disbelief. "Do they even have apartment buildings?"
"Not really as such, but El thinks she's got you a line on a place to stay. Some friend of her brother-in-law's cousin or something like that."
Neal slouched down in his seat. "It really is Mayberry. I'm going to be climbing the walls in a day and a half, Peter, you know that. I'll ..." He was obviously trying to come up with a fate that was dire enough for being trapped in a town with no night life or upscale department stores. "I'll die."
"No, you won't," Peter said. "You'll get to know your neighbors, make friends, live a normal life. Get a job -"
Peter grinned. "Well, you have to pay the rent somehow."
"I don't believe this," Neal said, slouching down until he was almost horizontal in the passenger seat.
Peter decided to take pity on him. "I've been talking to some of my old contacts in the White Collar division about having you consult for them, on a case-by-case basis. It'd be a volunteer thing, but if it works out, they might be able to cough up some money from next year's budget to pay you." The last part wasn't on the table yet, but Peter was willing to gamble that Hughes would go for it once he saw what having Neal Caffrey on their side could do for them. The trick would be keeping him on that side. But Peter was pretty sure he could do it.
Well, mostly sure.
Maybe 50% sure.
"Don't think I can't see what you're up to," El said, some weeks later, sitting on the porch with a book in her lap, though she was more interested in watching Neal and two of Peter's young parolees currying the horses, relaxing after a morning of mucking out stables. Neal said something to the kids and they laughed, looking like the carefree teens that they ought to be, rather than the prison-inmates-in-the-making that the court system thought they were.
Peter leaned a hip against the side of her chair. "And what am I up to, Mrs. Burke?"
"Horse-ranch therapy for wayward urban youth. Saving America's kids from a life of crime."
"I have no idea what you're talking about." He almost sounded like he meant it. Maybe, she thought, he actually did mean it, and the whole thing was a big, serendipitous accident. But it gave him purpose and direction, and even more important, it made him happier than she'd seen him in years.
Alex didn't take Neal's calls for a long time, and then, one day, out of the blue, she called him. "I heard you turned snitch, Caffrey," she said, but not in a mean way.
He could hear traffic in the background. Voices. He wondered if she was in New York or some other city, and a wave of nostalgia lapped at him. It was good to hear her voice, though. "I hear you and Mozzie have been consulting on the music box."
Neal stayed in regular touch with Moz, via phone and email and various complicated drop-box systems when Mozzie was feeling especially paranoid about the Man listening in on their communications. Mozzie had said that trying to reconstruct the music box's delicate mechanisms when he didn't even know what it was supposed to look like in the first place was like doing a jigsaw puzzle while blindfolded and wearing mittens.
"Should have known the bald pipsqueak couldn't keep his mouth shut," Alex said without rancor. "As I'm sure he's told you, it's well and truly broken. It's nothing but an interesting and rather expensive conversation piece now."
Something in her voice gave him the idea that she wasn't going to stop trying, though. "There's more to that story than you ever told me," Neal said. He took the broken cherub out of his pocket and rolled it between his fingers like a good luck charm, which perhaps it was. He hadn't shown it to Peter. He had to keep a few secrets, after all.
"There always is." Her voice turned soft. "So that's me. What about you? How's life treating you in the middle of nowhere? Mozzie says you haven't found a way to slip your leash yet."
"Not yet." Though, in honesty, he hadn't been looking very hard. If he stuck it out for another three years, he'd get the leash off, all nice and legal, and he could go wherever he wanted. In the meantime, it was unexpectedly pleasant to stop moving for a while. He figured he could find a way to slip the anklet if he really had to, but right now there was something almost comforting in knowing that Peter could find him, and catch him if he fell. Not that he'd ever tell Peter that, of course.
"What do you do all day?"
"Ride horses and teach inner-city kids to ride them too." Alex gave a startled, disbelieving laugh. "Seriously. I do. And, well, consult for the FBI, but obviously you already know that." He decided not to mention that he was also working part-time at the bakery for rent money. Some things Alex and Mozzie didn't need to know.
"I'd lose my mind," Alex said.
"You can get used to anything," Neal started to say, but broke off and sat up on the couch. A furtive, familiar movement out the window had caught his eye.
"Shhh," he said, and walked to the window of the Burkes' living room. He leaned against the window and watched Sue, the fox, trot purposefully across the yard, her fat brush of a tail floating behind her. In the long slant of evening light, she seemed to glow. Peter and El weren't home yet. It was just him and the fox.
Hello again, little trickster, Neal thought, smiling. He didn't believe in omens, but he always had a good feeling when he saw the fox, ever since that first day. El, he knew, had taken to leaving the occasional dog biscuit for her in the woods. Neal was still hoping to see baby foxes, but he hadn't yet. Perhaps next summer.
Something spooked the fox, maybe a horse stamping in the pasture or a car passing on the highway. She took off with graceful bounds, making so little noise that he couldn't hear her at all. It made her seem weightless, hardly tethered to the ground. In moments she'd vanished into the woods.
"Caffrey? Are you still there?"
"Sorry, Alex." Neal's voice was still hushed; it was hard to let go of the lingering sense of wonder, the feeling of being touched by magic that he always had when the fox had gone by. "Something came up."
"Yes, I'm sure your social calendar is very full out there in Mayberry," she said in a dry tone.
Neal laughed. "I stay busy. Don't worry about me."
"I don't waste time worrying about you, Caffrey, it'd be a full-time job if I did." There was a pause, long enough that Neal started to wonder if she'd hung up on him. Finally, she asked quietly, "Are you happy, Neal?"
"Yes," he said, surprising himself. "Yes, I think I am."