Disclaimer: White Collar belongs to Jeff Eastin, USA Network et al. This is for fun, no copyright infringement is intended.
Author's note: To the best of my knowledge there is no Montgomery Mall in Brooklyn. And that's just as well considering what I intend to do with it.
The new Montgomery Mall in Brooklyn was not the biggest one in New York but it came close. Almost an entire block had been taken down to build it; all glass and chrome and polished stone, wide galleries for the customers to promenade, three courts with fountains at the bottom and glass roofs overhead connected by wide hallways; there were elevators, escalators, gleaming stairs that would have done a palace proud. Three stories of department stores, designer stores, hairdressers, shops for footwear, shops for accessories, books, shoe repairs as well as cafes and restaurants for any taste, any money left almost no wish unattended and one had to admit – the jewellers included were exquisite!
Neal straightened with a brilliant smile that rivaled the sparkling display he was inspecting and nodded cheerfully at the hovering salesclerk before moving on to the next one. His tailor-made suit sat impeccably, his shoes shone like freshly polished and the hat perching rakishly on his head added just the finishing touch. Oh, yes, life was good right now, no doubt about it. Dazzling the clerk with another smile he cast one last look at an especially gorgeous necklace that would be absolutely perfect for Kate and left the store with an exact imprint of its layout in his head. Still smiling contentedly he swung right – and found himself face to face with Special Agent Peter Burke of the FBI.
For one shocked moment Neal stood like frozen, staring right into the pair of black sunglasses hiding the agent's eyes. Burke stared back without a twitch, his face like chiseled of stone. Neal blinked once, twice then, just as his flight instincts were about to kick in, a loud, pronounced clearing of a throat startled him into looking to his left. A petite brunette with stunning blue eyes was regarding him less than friendly. Still somewhat shell-shocked Neal only stared back and at this her look became downright angry. She lifted a slender eyebrow and tilted her head then repeated the gesture with dangerously narrowing eyes. Confused Neal took a step back. Then some more as the woman kept glaring, until he had awkwardly moved out of Burke's way. Shooting him one last disgusted look the woman gently tugged at the agent's arm linked through hers.
Completely bewildered now Neal turned like drawn by a string as the pair walked past and so just caught Burke asking in a low voice "What was it?" and the woman's answering "Nothing, hon, just some idiot not watching his step". And now – only now – did Neal see the white cane Burke hugged lightly to his chest.
Realization was like a slap across the face.
For almost two years Burke had chased him with more tenacity and determination than anyone before or after him; be it law enforcement officer, insurance investigator or hired muscle. He had also come closer to catching him than anybody else. Neal had known it might be a trap that day but it was also about Kate – and that had been worth any risk. But luck had been with him. He found Kate before the FBI was properly in position, fleeing with her just as sirens started closing in. Escaping their hunters in a Hollywood-style chase they boarded a plane that very evening, hopping from London to Paris to Berlin to Rom, Florence, Madrid, Athens, Vienna, Monaco, Abu Dhabi, Singapore, Sidney, Auckland, Rio… Two years, two wonderful years with Kate; breakfasts in bed, cons for the fun of it, living like kings and feeling like it. Every now and again they hit the States, meeting old acquaintances like Mozzie, spending just enough time to tease the FBI before disappearing again. Neal had been aware the lead agent of his case had changed but never really wondered why Burke had finally stopped. He shrugged it off, assuming his superiors had probably pulled him after too many failures. He had even thought of the man with fond pity – without him he would never have found Kate, he kind of owed him for that – if he thought of him at all. He never suspected … THIS.
Neal's feet somehow started moving on their own accord and next thing he knew he was following Burke and the brunette down the hallway to the so called Orchid Plaza, the court on the left side of the complex with the biggest department store. Eyes glued in odd fascination to their backs he slid on autopilot through the crowd, noting more and more little details about his former hunter. Like that Burke was not actively using the cane to feel his way but was rather relying on the woman to guide him, their steps almost synchronized, bodies moving in tandem. Coming into the court the brunette aimed for the next escalator and Neal followed them on, standing a few steps below as they rode up to the second floor. He wondered who she was, sister maybe or wife, he dimly remembered something that according to Mozzie's intel the agent – former agent – was married. Though that had been two years ago. Through the buzz of voices around he caught Burke calling her "El" once or twice though he wasn't sure if it was the name Elle or an abbreviation of another one, Eleanor or Elizabeth or Danielle for example.
At the top of the escalator they turned right, strode around the phalanx of glass elevators, along the wide gallery packed with people, past a well-known fast food restaurant. Neal let himself fall back some more as the woman started looking around, obviously searching for something, then quickened her pace again with an exclamation as she spotted her goal. Coming to a stop at the gallery rail Neal watched as they approached a shop for men's clothing, the brunette now digging in her handbag. Slowing before the entrance the digging became more frantic and then the woman finally halted, her face scrunched up in rather cute exasperation.
It was too loud to actually hear her but Neal had taught himself passable lip-reading long ago. So he was able to make out the words "gift card" and "car" and "so stupid". Burke was smiling and patting her arm reassuringly. They discussed something for a second, the woman looking around and shaking her head but Burke changed the cane to his right hand and tapped it until he found a short stretch of wall between the shop entrance and a pseudo-pillar. Standing with his back against it he obviously assured the woman that he didn't mind waiting like this 'til she had fetched whatever she had forgotten in the car. The woman wrinkled her nose with a smile then leaned in to give him a peck on the lips, followed by a second kiss that firmly ruled out the possibility of her being a sister. Touching his face briefly she then turned and Neal hastily turned as well, looking down in the court as she hurried past behind his back. He followed her with his eyes as she half-jogged down the escalator and circled the fountain with quick steps, heading for the exit and the front parking lot. As he did it suddenly struck him how much she resembled the same type as Kate – petite with long, brown hair and startling blue eyes. Seemed like he and Burke had the same taste in women. A disconcerting thought.
Leaning his back against the rail he took another moment to study Burke across the busy gallery. Even without his slightly rumpled suit of two years ago, in that casual leather jacket and jeans, he looked every inch the fed as he stood there very upright against the wall. The dark shades were giving his angular face a cool, forbidding touch Neal didn't recognize from their one personal encounter. He looked fit, confident, healthy and if it wasn't for the cane, now held loosely in both hands in front of his body, one would never have guessed his disability.
Just then Burke shifted with a slight frown, his head moving left and right and Neal quickly raised a hand to his hat, hiding his face. The stupidity of his behavior suddenly hit home. The former agent might not be completely blind, just impaired and if he still saw enough to recognize his face or silhouette... Pivoting gracefully Neal used the cover of a passing group to escape down the gallery, breathing easier when a surreptitious glance back showed Burke still in his old spot. Now that would have been ironic, getting arrested because he –
A muffled explosion could be heard from the central court.
There was a collective pause in the crowd before people started looking around and turning, no one quite sure yet what had happened or how to react. The next second the lights flickered and went out, drawing startled cries but there was still enough daylight coming through the glass roof to see, only inside the shops it became uncomfortably dark. Then emergency lights lit up and the fire alarm started wailing, causing a frightened lurch towards the stairs … but even now things might have gone well if not for the second distant explosion.
Panic broke out. Suddenly everybody was running, pushing and shoving, screams filled the air as everybody tried to reach the stairs and emergency exits. Neal found himself jostled from all sides, stumbling to keep his balance, almost going down. For some terrifying heartbeats the crowd bunched up as people from the next floor clogged the staircase, voices shouted in fear as the pressure became unbearable, then they flowed forward again and catching sight of something out of the corner of his eye Neal forced his way sideways through flailing arms and finally slammed hard against the wall. His fingers closed on the handle of a service door and he held on for dear life lest he be swept away by the blindly fleeing mass of bodies. His fumbling free hand found his lock picks as a thought shot through his mind with electrifying force.
Neal's head snapped up. Looking around frantically he finally located the blind man squashed against another pseudo-pillar ten or fifteen feet behind him. Burke's shades were gone as well as his cane, his hands scrabbling desperately at the pillar to avoid going down and being trampled by the panic-stricken crowd. Neal dove forward, ruthlessly pushing and shoving himself against the oncoming flood of people, and sliding along the wall he really made it to the former agent, grabbing his arm while shouting at the top of his lungs, his words still drowning in the chaos.
"Burke! Burke, this way!"
The crowd swept them loose, they stumbled, clinging to each other, one holding the other one up. The wail of the fire alarm was deafening. Shrieking faces were all around, three teenage girls with frightened eyes tried to avoid running into them, a man pressing his crying son to his chest nearly barreled them over. Somehow Neal's hand found the service door a second time and Burke clung to his shoulders, his bigger body momentarily shielding him from the wild human tide. The lock pick slipped, caught, the door gave way and they tumbled through, Neal shoving it shut behind them.
Breathless moments they just huddled in the blessed stillness; Neal still holding on to the door handle with white knuckles, Burke half collapsed against the wall. The muffled sounds of panic, though only a door away, seemed very distant. Even the fire alarm was dulled.
"God," Burke croaked finally.
He started struggling up and peeling his fingers off the door Neal reached to help him. He was surprised the way his hands shook. Burke fared no better but was visibly pulling himself together.
"Where are we?"
"Back corridor," Neal answered. He glanced sideways at the other man, the oddity of his situation only slowly sinking in. "You … all right?"
"Yeah..." Burke turned his face towards the muffled noise of the mall. His eyes were closed, the lids weirdly … puckered and with a strange heaviness around the knees Neal wondered if he kept them closed or – or if they were closed, if there was actually still anything behind this thin layer of skin. "The people. We – we have to..."
Figured. Of course the former federal agent had to have a hero complex. Neal sighed inwardly, trying hard not to think of the man with the child.
"We can't. The corridor is only a few feet wide. If they trample each other out there it will be a hundred times worse in here. Let the emergency plans work."
"Right," whispered Burke, "Right."
He took a deep breath and then surprised Neal by holding out his hand.
"I'm Peter Burke."
Neal hesitated the merest fraction of a second before taking it.
"George," Burke repeated. His hand closed around Neal's strong and solid. "Thank you."
For once Neal didn't know what to say. He nodded jerkily, remembered, had to swallow quickly.
"We better get out of here."
"Oh, my God." Burke abruptly dropped Neal's hand and grabbed a cellphone from his belt. "Elizabeth!"
Just that precise moment a new sound started up, cutting shrilly through the quiet of their little haven. Several long heartbeats the two men stood frozen in place until Burke tilted his head in disbelief.
"Is that a drill?"
And Neal finally noticed what he should have perceived from the start. His heart suddenly beat faster.
"No alarm in here. It should have gone off as well." Unless someone had cut the right wires. Neal looked up a the bright, normal lights and put his fingertips on Burke's hand holding the cell, voice now barely audible. "Turn it off."
Years of training and experience made the former agent comply without a word though his face was grim. Neal quickly slipped out his own phone and muted it. The sound of the drill went on and on, metal on metal in a frequency that started a list of possible safe models running in front of Neal's inner eye. Burke seemed to entertain similar thoughts.
"Let me take your left arm," he breathed quietly.
Neal offered it awkwardly and nearly flinched away as Burke's fingers closed around it just above the elbow, thump on the outside. It actually … felt a bit like being arrested. He shook that thought off.
In silent understanding they started walking, the first steps horribly uncomfortable for Neal but Burke's calm and matter-of-fact attitude about it was strangely reassuring. Also Burke was holding out his free hand about chest high, every now and again trailing it lightly along the wall. It did wonders for Neal's secret fears of leading him into a door frame by accident. Soon they were quickly but quietly moving down the short corridor that ended in another one, running at a right angle to the first. Following the shriek of the drill Neal turned left. This part of the building seemed to be an ugly cross between tiny offices for the shops in the mall and storage facilities for their goods. One floor down had to be the loading docks, then. They went into another corridor, the drill very near now, slowing down as they approached the next intersection. Neal briefly reached back to signal Burke to stay put then flattened himself against the wall, inching forward until he could peek around the corner with one eye.
He instantly knew what he saw. First creeping stealthily backwards he then turned and retraced their steps as quickly and quietly as possible, Burke following his lead without complain. Testing a few doors Neal found one open and maneuvered them inside, flicking the lights on as soon as the door was securely shut.
"At least three men," he reported quickly, "probably more, dressed up as firefighters – jackets, helmets, oxygen tanks, the whole works. Two I was able to see, standing guard in the corridor, the rest must be operating the drill. Whatever they are after, it must be worth a lot considering the lengths they went to to empty the building."
"A heist. Damn." Burke drew his brows together. "So you don't think there were any actual bombs?"
"Something exploded, sure, and I bet there was a lot of smoke but they would never have risked a real fire. All they needed was panic and convincing reports..."
"… to slow the rescue workers down and delay their entry," Burke finished his train of thought grimly. "And later they will simply walk out with their loot, disguised as one of them. By now there have to be so many different divisions outside no one is going to notice."
It was an almost brilliant plan in its ruthlessness, part of Neal acknowledged this. But the main part thought of the man with the child and the teenage girls and all those people undoubtedly injured in chaos and panic, maybe even squeezed or trampled to death. There was a reason he disliked guns and violence. In his anger he almost missed Burke fishing out his cellphone and turning it back on. His hand shot out and grabbed the other man's wrist.
"Whoa – what are you doing?"
Burke twisted free.
"Calling it in, what do you think?"
In a sudden rush of panic Neal jerked the cell out of Burke's grip and turned it off again.
"What –? George! Give it back they need to know this!"
"And have your old FBI-buddies swarm all over the place? No! Just no." Especially old FBI-buddies all having his description!
Burke suddenly became very, very still.
"How do you know I used to be FBI?"
The question hung like a corporal thing between them.
"Burke..." Neal started finally and trailed off.
"You drew the right conclusions pretty fast … the missing alarm, the drill, the costumes... The whole concept of the con," the former agent said slowly, body tense like a hound on a scent.
Neal swallowed. "Let it be, Burke."
"You … called my name. In the mall."
"You knew me. You know this. Your voice..."
"George," said Burke with truly frightening intuition, "Neal George Caffrey!"
"Okay! That's it!" Neal jumped back, well out of reach of the other man. "You know, I'd really have led you outside but this is becoming a bit too hot even for my taste!"
"Caffrey!" Burke sounded suddenly alarmed. "Give me my cell!"
"And have you call down the cops on me as thank you for saving your life? Sure!"
"Caffrey!" Burke reached out but didn't dare take a step in this unknown territory.
"Caffrey, I don't have my cane! And the building might be on fire! Caffrey!" Burke's voice held more than a bit of panic now.
"Well, too bad!" Neal replied coolly, opening the door. Still, he crouched slightly and looped the cellphone across the floor. It clattered softly as it slid away from Burke. "But there you are, just to prove I've got manners at least..."
"Caffrey!" through gritted teeth now, "Don't you dare leave me here!"
"… And I really wouldn't make too much noise because the truly bad guys are not that far away!"
Neal turned and took off down the corridor. He even made it to the corner before a sharp twinge of conscience brought him to a stop. Neal exhaled a long breath. Really, Burke would be fine. He just needed to pick up the cell and then sit tight and don't do anything stupid until his friends found him. It would be fine, there was no fire, probably, and it would be utterly crazy to risk getting arrested because of this and Kate was waiting for him at De La Rosa's and there was that exhibit they wanted to have a look at and … and … and... Grimacing Neal went back.
Coming through the door was a punch in the guts.
Burke was on hands and knees, doggedly searching the floor for the cellphone that was still several feet away. Neal swallowed rising bile. Two long steps and he scooped up the cell then pulled up Burke with a hand under his arm.
"Come," he whispered, "Come, I've got you, come..."
"Bastard." Burke's hands were clinging to his sleeve.
"Yes," Neal agreed ruefully.