CAGED AND CORNERED

Chapter 1

It began as an especially promising day for Special Agent Peter Burke. Easing through his morning ritual of shower, shave and dressing, he began to hum a popular song that had been playing daily on the radio. He couldn't recall the actual words but the tune was upbeat and memorable. Peter felt well rested; he had woken up in plenty of time to avoid feeling rushed. The schedule at the FBI field office being unusually light this week, he was delighted to be looking forward to another rare, early departure and long, undisturbed evening with wife, Elizabeth.

Bounding down the steps inside his Brooklyn home, he abruptly paused. For a brief moment the adage of Murphy's Law came to his mind. A crossword connoisseur, priding himself on broad knowledge of archival details, Peter recalled the history behind the humorous maxim. Air Force captain Murphy, stationed at what later became Edwards Air Force Base, had been credited with a familiar bureaucratic snafu. Counseling his men to be ever vigilant, Murphy had uttered the famous warning, "whatever can go wrong, will go wrong".

Wrinkling his brow, deep in thought, Peter felt the chill of a vague premonition of danger sweep over him. He couldn't quite identify what was fueling his apprehension. However, his experience as a law officer had instilled in him a deep respect for his gut feelings.

"What is it, hon?" asked his wife as she entered the living room. "Looks like I caught you stressing about the dry cleaning, again."

Peter looked down at her and smiled an amused boyish grin. "You caught me, all right, but it's not about the dry cleaners. Pretty bad when I start worrying about the absence of problems at work. I'm usually complaining to you about overtime, low budgets, mortgage fraud and sundry other petty annoyances … not to mention Neal, of course."

Elizabeth chuckled softly, motioning for her husband to continue down the last few steps. As he stopped in front of her, she reached up with both hands to straightened his collar and adjust his cobalt-blue satin tie. She had purchased the tie for him, several weeks ago as a surprise. Peter insisted upon wearing it so often, she threatened to hide it. Planting a quick kiss on his cheek, she stepped back to admire his countenance.

"Looking good as always, sweetie," she said. "Now please tell me you don't think everything's running smoothly, just because Neal happens to be missing from the office!"

"No, yes, no", said Peter, in quick succession. "Ah, I don't know what to think. You know we've never had such a stretch of good fortune. I keep waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop."

El shook her head, looking at him with a twinkle in her eye and a questioning grin. Her husband quickly articulated his thoughts.

"I know," he affirmed. "Neal and I tried to prevent his temporary transfer but Hughes was adamant. Seems Brooklyn-Queens pulled strings with Bancroft. They argued, rather reasonably I might add, that Neal's expertise was exactly what they needed to solve their open case. Hughes agreed, remember, and told me another few weeks separation would be good for us both!" Peter sighed in resignation; he hadn't really been surprised with his boss's decision. "He's never really forgotten Kramer's accusation that I lost objectivity with my own CI."

Scowling, pacing quick strides within his living room, the agent continued. "Our relationship remains under close scrutiny, El. I have to be careful not to make too many waves. I can't be seen overly protective. Some agents in the bureau think … I've compromised my ability to be Neal's handler."

"Not the people who really know you." Elizabeth watched a shadow pass over Peter's face; she hesitated. They both had assumed Kramer had Peter's best interests at heart. Wishing she had phrased her words more carefully, she continued. "We've talked about this before. What do you think? Their accusations have always angered you in the past."

Peter stopped and faced his wife. "Sometimes I worry they may be right," he said. "Somewhere along the way, did I lose my objectivity where Neal's concerned? Did I allow our friendship to weaken my adherence to bureau's standards? How often have I stepped over the line? First Fowler, then Kramer and Collins … they destroyed my belief that integrity and justice are the FBI norms." Rubbing his fingers through his short hair, Peter's dark eyes held a glint of grief. "It seems my life was a whole lot simpler and my ideals more clear-cut, before Neal entered the picture."

"Peter, doubts are a part of life. The last few months were pretty traumatic for you, and for Neal … you struggled with the thought that Neal betrayed you, stealing and hiding the Nazi treasure, right behind your back. Add Philip Kramer, someone you trusted, threatening to whisk Neal away to Washington and your temporary transfer," she laid her hand upon his arm, "of course, life seems easier in past years."

"I don't regret my association with Neal", he murmured. "Not at all; you know that. Everything we've gone through, our friendship, showing him a different way of life─"

"I know." El smiled sweetly.

"I'd never tell him this but these past few weeks … I've been really missing him. The office is never the same without him. In three days, he'll be back and I'll … I'll probably be pulling my hair out."

"Well, don't forget to call Neal and remind him about our Labor Day cookout this weekend. Ask him to bring the wine." She walked into the open kitchen, turning expectantly. When he seemed to hesitate, she beckoned him closer with her index finger, watching for approval.

"Come on, Peter."

Peter approached the breakfast counter, quickly scanning several colorful plates, laden with fresh fruit, scrambled eggs, and Canadian bacon.

"I've made you some breakfast. You're running early enough not to have to wolf it down. Now sit down and enjoy the special coffee I just prepared," she said. "I'll give you a hint…. It was dropped off by June during her visit the other day."

Peter responded with an exclamation of delight. "Thanks, honey. What a surprise! This is going to be a red letter day. I promise I'll shake off this crazy cloud of self doubt—" He sat down, pulling out her stool— "and be home early enough to take you out to dinner! We'll do Italian." He quickly placed his coffee mug close to his plate.

"I'll hold you to that, mister," said Elizabeth, as she quickly opened the back door, letting in their dog, Satchmo, before grabbing the coffee pot and sitting down at the counter. The golden Lab came bounding up to Peter, sniffing the aroma in the air and fixing his dark eyes on the food his master was just about to dive into.

As El prepared to pour Italian Roast into Peter's mug, he gave his dog a steely look. "You've been around Neal too long. Don't even think of thievery. Remember!" He pointed to his dog. "I have my eyes on you at all times. I'm armed and dangerous," he added.

If Satchmo was concerned about the possible repercussions from a federal agent, he failed to acknowledge it. The dog curled up on the floor in front of his beloved owners and placed his head on Peter's foot, waiting for the crumbs to fall.

Peter smiled, leaning back with contentment. Elizabeth was right. His week had gone well; there was no cause for concern or worry. His day would pass quickly with a promise of early departure. Neal would be back in the Manhattan office within another few days or less; all was well with his world. He'd just put his uneasiness on hold.

His relief lasted throughout the early morning.

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Neal Caffrey had gotten off to a late start today. Interrupted the night before by his friend dropping by without warning, drinking his wine, conversing for hours and remaining overnight, Neal rushed through his morning routine in order to grab a few minutes to read case notes before his ride appeared.

"Neal!" said his temperamental, quirky overnight guest, "we didn't finish discussing my problem."

Preoccupied with selecting the right skinny, colored necktie to perfectly match his tailored dress shirt, the handsome conman ignored the comment, before turning up the collar of his shirt, doing up the top button and draping the tie around his neck. Threading the wide end down through the middle of the knot, he glanced around to locate his immaculate, fitted Devore suit jacket.

"Neal? Neal, I don't think you've heard a word I've said."

"I tell you everything that is really nothing, and nothing of what is everything, do not be fooled by what I am saying. Please listen carefully and try to hear what I am not saying," quoted Neal, as he finished knotting the tie. "Mozzie, I did hear you. I heard you this morning and I heard you last night.

"Hah … you can quote Charles Finn but ignore the severity of my situation! Listen my old, alleged confederate in crime, would you please turn your attention to moi?" Neal's friend continued. "Provide me the courtesy of a few crumbs of emotional support and feigned distress over my predicament. At least, before the 'Man' arrives to grab you for another exciting day of money laundering and chasing little blue smurfs." The smaller man rose from the couch he had been seated upon, disdainfully watching his friend prepare for work. "Would you please address my poor plight?"

Neal reached for a strikingly vivid, yellow pocket square to accentuate his suit jacket, waving it as a dismissive gesture to his friend. "Come on, Moz. That's not fair. We spent most of last evening discussing your problem about Lowden. I offered you several avenues to consider. The main one still being, to discuss this with Peter; he needs to be aware of the potential danger you may have placed yourself in."

Mozzie gasped in righteous astonishment. "Potential danger I've put myself in! A crazed thug, with an even more dangerous, federally imprisoned, lunatic brother, is stopping by my Thursday place of business, to insist I fence his hot merchandise and you want me to ask the Feds for help." He paused to gather his breath. "Which one of these scenarios is a losing proposition? Are you really telling me to choose between working with a crazed criminal element … or admitting to trafficking in stolen property? You do know that's a felony! Right? Is that really what you expect me to choose from?"

"No, not at all. As you so eloquently and loquaciously told me last night, Stanley Lowden put out feelers on the street to locate a fence. He may or may not be getting ready to contact you. Be honest. Aren't you the one who decided to work with him a few years ago?"

"We all make mistakes."

"Send out word through your contacts; you're not interested. I remember Peter talking about Lowden's brother David. There's no love lost between him and Lowden's entire family; he'll keep an ear out for you.

As Neal reached for the Brooklyn-Queens case file, still perched on the wine rack where it had been left the previous night, Mozzie walked out to the patio and peered down to the street below. "Oh great! 'Fed Express' is here for you. Black sedan nondescript, two suits in the front seat. Better hurry. Oh … I'm sure they'll make you sit in the back!"

"Moz … I'll talk to Peter about this today. We're stopping off at the Manhattan office for a few minutes to debrief before heading out to Queens. Don't worry."

Neal smiled rushing out the door, missing Mozzie's last murmur.

"No, of course I won't worry. I'm only in danger of being dismembered or locked away for a millennium …"

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A/N: Thank you to Ali_WC for being my beta.

I'll be posting updates 1X a week.