Critical Hour

Chapter 2 – When Bad Things Happen

"Things never go wrong at the moment you expect them to. When you're completely relaxed, oblivious to any potential dangers, that's when bad things happen."
― C.K. Kelly Martin, I Know It's Over


Neal had gone quiet. Once again slowed down by traffic, Peter cast about for something to harass him about—two could play that game, after all. As he sneaked a quick glance at Neal (playing with his phone again), Peter let his mind run free, stream-of-consciousness style. He had a sudden realization, and it had to do with Neal's hat. Or, more specifically, the lackof Neal's hat. He wasn't wearing one today, and that was unusual.

Peter wondered if that had some hidden meaning, or if Neal had just forgotten to put it on, or was having it cleaned, or something. Did dry cleaners clean hats? Peter had never known anyone who'd worn one before, so he had no idea. He assumed the answer was yes. Privately, Peter thought it was kind of a pointless accessory. Hats had no real purpose except to make the wearer stand out in a crowd—which, of course, was exactly why Neal favored them. So, did his not wearing one today indicate something deeper about Neal's psyche? Maybe this signaled some sort of existential crossroads. Not that Peter would normally have time for any kind of hat-related crisis, but at the moment he had nothing better to do than give Neal a hard time.

"So, Neal, is everything okay?"

That got his CI's attention; he looked up sharply from his phone and eyed Peter. "Why wouldn't it be?"

"Oh, no reason. Just an innocent question," Peter said, repeating the word Neal had used.

Neal noticed, responding by tilting his head and giving Peter a look. "Innocent, huh? Everything's fine. I mean, it'd be better if I didn't fear for my life," Neal gestured out toward the traffic, "but—"

Peter didn't let him finish. "It's just that, well, I noticed something's missing."

"Missing?" Neal sounded like he always did when he couldn't tell what Peter was getting at: wary.

"From your ensemble," Peter continued.

The look on Neal's face had ramped up from wary to suspicious. "My . . . ensemble?"

Peter really thought Neal would have caught on by now. "Your hat."

"My hat," Neal repeated blankly.

"Usually you're better at this," Peter said, voice shading into mock concern.

Neal was now staring at Peter with a look that clearly said he thought the agent had lost his mind. "Better at what?"

"You know, witty conversation. If you're just going to repeat everything I say, it takes all the fun out of it."

Neal sighed. He was about to answer when the moment was rudely interrupted by Peter slamming on the brakes, causing Neal to be jerked forward against his seat belt. Neal closed his mouth, but aimed an accusing glare at Peter that spoke volumes.

"That was him, he pulled out in front of me," Peter said defensively, gesturing to the truck that was now ahead of them.

Neal shook his head. "I can't blame him. He thought he was pulling out onto a New York street. How was he to know that it was actually a Formula One course?"

Peter just laughed it off; he really was in a good mood today.

Turning slightly, Neal looked at Peter instead of the road. That way, it was easier to pretend that Peter wasn't risking both their lives in some misguided attempt to shave a few minutes off their travel time. It wasn't like they had an appointment, after all.

Neal decided to point that out. In his most logical voice, he said, "Is there some reason that you're hurrying? Some reason, one you haven't deigned to share with me, why it's so critical that we get there maybe two minutes before we would have otherwise—say, if you weren't driving like you were auditioning to be a stunt driver in Ronin?"

"Ah, great movie," Peter said, smiling. "Some amazing car chases."

"Yeah, but there's no need to re-enact them here, is there?" Neal said pointedly, drumming his fingers restlessly on the passenger side door.

"You're exaggerating. I mean, look around. I'm not even driving against traffic."

"Thank God for small mercies," Neal muttered, slouching down a little in the seat. He sat in silence for the next few minutes and went back to fiddling with his phone, until finally, Peter pulled over, put the car in park, and announced, "Look, we made it here alive. Let's go; we've got a warehouse to search."

"Yay—on the arriving alive part, anyway," Neal said. His voice was suffused with fake enthusiasm, but his smile (he was careful to wait until Peter was getting out of the car and unable to see it) was genuine. Neal couldn't deny that he did enjoy tweaking Peter about his driving. It was a never-ending source of entertainment for him when they were in the car. And since Peter refused to let Neal listen to what he wanted on the radio, bickering was just about the only source of entertainment available.

Neal unbuckled his seat belt, stepped out of the car, and looked doubtfully up at the hulking, windowless building that took up most of the adjacent block. Peter had parked a ways away, just in case. "So that's it?"

Peter nodded as he joined Neal on the cracked, uneven sidewalk, carefully sidestepping a hole large enough to swallow any unwary pedestrian. "That's it."

"We have to search that ourselves?" Neal let out a long, elaborate exhale. "Please don't tell me we have to search that ourselves."

"Yes. That's what the warrant is for," Peter said, waving the paper at him.

"Right, but doesn't the bureau have, you know, people for this kind of job?"

"Sure," Peter answered. "Us." At Neal's sigh, he added, "We're gonna take a preliminary look around, at least. And as someone recently said, don't take this the wrong way, but it almost seems like you don't want to be here."

"Now you're exaggerating. Where else would I rather be?" Neal asked. He pasted on a cheery smile, just for good measure.

Peter smiled back. "That's what I like to hear." He pointed. "Door's around back."

Together they started walking in the direction Peter had indicated, along a street that was deserted. They reached the corner of the building and turned to follow the wall around to the rear.

"You never finished telling me about your hat."

"Hmm, that's right, I didn't. You really don't miss a trick, do you?" Neal replied in a voice laced with fake admiration. "I think I'll just keep that to myself."

He was pleased to see that his response had caught Peter off guard.

"And . . . why would you do that?"

"Because it's all part of my plan, you see."

"Your plan." Peter was nonplussed.

"Yes, my brilliantly devious, utterly nefarious plan." Neal informed him, capping it off with a theatrically villainous cackle.

Peter pursed his lips thoughtfully. "You really don't do evil well."

Neal shrugged. "You only say that because you've never really seen me do evil."

"That wasn't it?"

"Definitely not it." Neal gave a very pronounced head shake.

Peter pondered that one as they walked, now along the wall of the warehouse. Even during his four years of chasing Neal—which had included various stunts that could be viewed as Neal taunting his pursuers—Peter had never thought of his quarry that way. Neal had broken the law, yes, but he'd never been violent, never even come close to threatening anyone physically. He'd been a criminal who deserved to be punished, absolutely—Peter had never subscribed to the idea that crimes were minor, or victimless, just because the marks were rich or happened to have insurance. But Neal had never been, in Peter's mind, a serious "bad guy," either. Not in that way. And now . . . since then, he'd seen Neal put on all kinds of personas, but nothing truly malevolent.

Well, except for that time Neal almost killed someone, a little voice in Peter's head reminded him. No persona there, either; that had been all too real. The sight of Neal aiming that gun at Fowler, after he'd already pulled the trigger once, was a memory that could still give Peter nightmares if he thought about it too much. Which was why he tried very hard not to.

And yet, even that . . . as horrible as that act had been, as completely indefensible as it had been—Peter had a hard time thinking of it as truly evil (at least as Peter defined the word). That day, Neal had been more unhinged than evil.

If you bought that argument—Peter knew very well that lots of people wouldn't—then Neal was right.

"So," Peter said, resuming, "this plan of yours. This devious plan."

"Don't forget 'nefarious,'" Neal supplied helpfully.

"Right. Devious and nefarious," Peter corrected. "You want to share?"

"No, because that's part of the plan," Neal explained. "To keep you guessing. Wondering, what is Neal up to? What is he thinking? What's he got under his hat? Or in this case, not under his hat?"

Peter looked at him doubtfully. "That's part of the plan? What kind of plan is that?"

Neal flashed him a brilliant smile. "If I told you, it would ruin all the fun. That's your favorite part, isn't it? Figuring things out. I'd hate to deprive you."

Peter groaned and took off his sunglasses, tucking them into a pocket. "Why do I keep you around, again?"

"Oh, because I come in handy every now and then," Neal remarked absently, frowning as he contemplated the size of the building whose perimeter they were skirting. "And don't blame me—you're the one who brought up my hat."

"Speaking of coming in handy," Peter said, returning to the matter at hand, "I hope you've got your lock picks, because we're gonna need'em to get in."

"I always have my picks, Peter," Neal said reprovingly, but his expression brightened in spite of himself. Things were looking up. He was going to get to show off—right in front of Peter, which was his absolute favorite way of showing off. Because then they'd get to play that game where Neal shamelessly flaunted his skills and Peter studiously pretended not to be impressed (because as an FBI agent, he was reluctant to appear to be condoning the illegal talents of a criminal).

Not that his oh-so-righteous reluctance would stop Peter from using said talents whenever it suited him . . . .

Granted, the whole thing would be more fun if it weren't legally sanctioned, but you couldn't have everything. Thinking about it, Neal quickened his stride as he led the way to the warehouse's back door.

Following close behind him, where Neal couldn't see his face, Peter smiled wider. Another thing about Neal that was utterly predictable.

…...

And here was yet a third thing about Neal that was utterly predictable: that in the course of searching the warehouse, Neal would wander off, forcing Peter not only to look for the missing art, but also, now, to hunt for his missing consultant.

When they'd reached the back entrance of the warehouse, Neal had made ridiculously short work of what appeared to be two state-of-the-art, high-end door locks, while Peter looked on in silent appreciation. Peter could jimmy a lock, too, when he had to, thanks to Mozzie's recent tutelage. But Neal took it to a whole different level, with a speed and fluidity that turned the act into something approaching an art form. Of course, you only got that good via years of practice, and virtually none of that practice had been legal, Peter was sure. Still, there was no denying—though Peter would never say it out loud—Neal's lock-picking skills were nonpareil.

And so, Peter was reminded, moments later, were his disappearing skills. One minute, Neal had been there, at Peter's shoulder making smart-aleck comments about hopeless searches; the next minute he was gone, off to conduct his own personal search, presumably.

And now Peter had no idea where he was.

"Neal?" he called softly in the quiet of the deserted warehouse.

No answer.

Peter momentarily halted his methodical examination of yet another row of boxes, frowning as he listened intently. Was that a noise? It had sounded like . . . something. A soft noise, somewhere off in the distance. Or had he imagined it?

Very possibly he had imagined it. Though, truth to tell, he wasn't usually the imagining type.

Where had Neal gone? What was he doing?

"Neal! Where are you?" Frustration made his voice come out harsher than he'd meant it to.

No, not quite. If he was honest with himself, it wasn't only frustration he was feeling.

It was a nagging, inexplicable sense of worry.

Peter checked his watch and frowned. For all of Neal's grousing, the warehouse wasn't that big—surely he couldn't have gone far. It was big enough, though, that they'd need more people to really examine it thoroughly; Neal had actually been right about that. Once he tracked down Neal, he'd have to call the office and get a team down here.

But Peter intended to find Neal first. Because wherever he was, whatever he was doing, Neal had been gone just a little too long for Peter's comfort.

A boiler kicked on, somewhere in the distance, and Peter jumped involuntarily at the sound. A section of fluorescent lights high above him flickered, momentarily darkening the area where he stood, before the lights returned to full power.

He idly ran through some scenarios as he walked. Perhaps a crate had fallen on Neal and he was incapacitated. No, Peter thought, I would have heard that. Or maybe he'd gotten stuck trying to crawl behind one of them? . . . unlikely, but Peter hoped that was it; he would never let Neal live that down.

More likely, he found something fascinating, zoned out, and lost all track of time, Peter thought with a sigh. Or he's bored and playing with his phone again . . . .

The warehouse layout wasn't complicated. Near the entrance, they'd passed a couple of doors that led to offices maybe, or just additional storage-more locks for Neal to pick, later. But the bulk of the warehouse space was lined with row after row of floor-to-ceiling shelves, most of them loaded with crates and boxes, and so tall you'd need a forklift to reach the very topmost ones. The height precluded any visibility beyond the aisle you were in—and helped contribute to the general dimness of the place, as did the weak fluorescent lights. Peter reached the end of the row, where the high shelves stacked with crates ended, and took a few steps so he could scan the next one.

Nothing.

He kept walking, quicker now as his prickling sense of unease grew, and glanced down the next row. Peter hoped he'd see his consultant engrossed in some discovery—and was already preparing the mini-lecture he'd deliver to Neal for not answering him.

But he saw nothing, except an empty aisle lined with more shelves and more crates. No Neal.

Where the hell was he?

"Neal!" He called out again, louder this time.

No answer. No sound except a low hum from the ventilation system.

Something was not right.

It had been too long; Neal ought to be answering him.

Peter felt the hair rise on the back of his neck—along with that familiar feeling in his gut that he'd learned over the years to trust without hesitation. Without conscious thought, he reached for his weapon and slid it quietly out of the shoulder holster. He continued walking, heading down to the next aisle.

Maybe he should call Neal's phone—

Shit. There he is.

The warehouse hadn't been deserted, after all.

Peter cursed at himself. Stupid, stupid. He should have realized that their thief might be here, at the warehouse. He should have brought backup (but it was just a routine search warrant, his practical inner voice said). Above all, he shouldn't have let Neal wander around on his own. Left to his own devices, Neal always seemed, unerringly, to find trouble—or to have trouble find him. And no one knew that better than Peter.

But because he'd had been foolish, because he had let Neal out of his sight for what had seemed like a grand total of maybe twenty-five seconds, now Regal, the associate museum curator, of all people, had Neal in a death grip, arm wrapped around his neck and a gun pointed at his head.

TBC ….


Many thanks to all who reviewed the first chapter - always great to hear what you liked/didn't like. More coming soon...