Art: elrhiarhodan Art Post
Fandom: White Collar
Characters/Pairings: Peter Burke, Neal Caffrey, Elizabeth Burke, Diana Berrigan, Clinton Jones, Mozzie, June Ellington, Philip Kramer, Garrett Fowler, Curtis Hagen, Blake, Peter/Neal/Elizabeth
Word Count: 45,182
Beta Credit: miri_thompson, elrhiarhodan
Warnings: Violence, slight torture
Summary: In the year 2033, the Militia, under the command of Imperator Peter Burke, keeps the peace and order in the city of New York. He believes his life is complete with his beautiful wife, Elizabeth, despite the marriage laws that require them to take a third spouse. When a con man with a special Talent and a dark secret appears, will more than Peter's heart be at risk?
Author's Note: This story has been in the works since January, 2013 when I re-read elrhiarhodan’s Vampire World: The Blood of Helios. I told myself I wanted to write a story like that, and this is the result.
I have lots of thank yous: First and foremost to to my wonderful artist, elrhiarhodan for the cover and icons and playlist (I’ve got a playlist!). Not only is she a fantastic author but a fantastic artist and beta reader as well.
miri_thompson’s critiques and comments made this a better piece. She made me think outside my outline and for that I am immensely grateful.
embroiderama and angelita26 get special thanks for listening to me whine about deadlines and plot devices and generally holding my hand throughout this whole thing. Ladies – I could not have done it without you.
And finally to everyone who hangs out in wcwu chat. Thank you - our Word Wars made this story happen.
Legal statement - I don’t own White Collar or the characters portrayed therein. White Collar is the property of Fox Television Studios and USA Networks.
Planning his escape was easy. In theory, all it would take would be a greedy guard, a set of smuggled lockpicks and his ability to borrow anyone’s Talent that he needed.
Executing it – not so much.
When the opportunity came, he ran. And the Militia chased.
His invisible man act failed twenty feet outside the main door when the Talent he stole dissipated, revealing him to the perimeter guards and cameras.
Breath harsh in his chest, heart pounding, he ducked and wove in between buildings, trying to put as much distance from his pursuers as he could.
His feet pounded on the cement sidewalk, the word run echoing like a mantra in his brain.
If they caught him, he was not going back to the room that had been his prison for three years. He was not going back to Kramer.
If they caught him he intended to die, either by his hand or theirs.
If they caught him…
“Neal!” The voice came out of the darkness. He veered towards it, praying that there was enough time to disappear into the murk.
Luck was with him. Hiding in the gloom, he watched the agents swarm past. Closing his eyes, he breathed a sigh of relief. He was not going to die today.
A hand touched his shoulder. Mozzie. That slight gesture more welcome than a bone-crushing hug.
“C’mon. We need to go before they double back.”
“Can we make it out of the city?”
“It’ll be tough. I set up a trail that has you heading south towards Cuba. Can’t guarantee how well it’ll hold up.”
“So where are we going?”
“New York City.”
“You sure that’s a good idea?”
“Don’t worry. I’ve got a friend in the Big Apple who will help us.” Mozzie grabbed his arm and they melted into the shadows.
Three days later they were standing in the marbled entranceway of 87 Riverside Drive.
The mansion was exquisite. The doorman had shown them into the parlor and asked if they would like some iced tea. Neal was amazed and a little bit shocked at their treatment. Having left Washington DC in a hurry, they’d barely had time to grab their cache before the Militia was hot on their tail. Several nights sleeping in abandoned buildings with no shower facilities hadn’t left them looking or smelling like someone he’d want to be gracing their Queen Anne Revival sofa. But the staff had acted like it was nothing that two men, not very well dressed, had appeared on the doorstep asking for the lady of the house.
His first sight of June took his breath away. Elegance personified, she descended the massive staircase in what obviously was a vintage Chanel original. Her smile immediately put him at ease as did the fact that she greeted them like they both were old friends. Mozzie even stood for a hug, which went a long way in increasing Neal’s estimation of her. Mozzie was a germaphobe and never touched anyone if he could help it.
Then she shocked him.
June had taken his hand in hers. Neal was surprised. He knew Mozzie had told her about what he could do. Most people who knew about Neal’s ability to take their Talent were afraid to touch him, fearing that he would permanently strip them of their skills.
June just smiled at him, guessing what was on his mind. “I can see the future, dear. That’s my skill. I know you – borrow – other people’s Talents, Neal. And I know that you can control when you do that. I’ve also ‘seen’ that you don’t abuse your skills.” She winked at him. “Much.” She pulled him in for his own hug. It had been the first time someone had held him of their own free will in months. That, coupled with the stress and exhaustion of the last several days, almost made him break down.
“Come. I’ve got a small guestroom you can use. It’s not much, but I think it will work for what you need.”
Then she brought them to the top of the world.
Opening the door to the “little guestroom”, she ushered them in. The room took Neal’s breath away. Light and airy, floor to ceiling French doors leading to a million dollar view of the City, it was more than he could have dreamed for. Giving them the tour, she revealed the extras that made the space unique. Spread throughout the room were hidden niches, perfect for storing passports and fake IDs. The crowning feature was the two-way mirror over the fireplace.
“This used to be a speakeasy and poker den,” she explained with a twinkle in her eye. “Byron and I watched many a game from this closet.”
June proceeded to shock Neal even more. She looked at Neal as though she were measuring him. “Neal, darling, I do believe you are about the same build as my Byron. I’ve got all these suits of his just sitting here gathering dust. It would do an old lady’s heart good if you would wear them.” She removed a jacket from one of the hangers and held it out for Neal to try on. “Byron wore this one every time we went dancing.”
He slipped his arms into it and let it settle on his shoulders. If it wasn’t a perfect fit, it was damn near close. Neal could tell by the weight of the fabric and the feel of the lining that this wasn’t some off the rack item. No, this was a custom job. He flipped the jacket open to read the tag.
“June – this is a Devore.” He gaped at her. “I – I can’t take this…”
“Nonsense.” She brushed a bit of lint off the sleeve and adjusted the fit. “I have a closet of these taking up space. Wear them. Please?”
Neal saw her eyes cloud over, as though she was lost in another time, another memory. “I’d be honored to wear this, June,” he said softly. “Thank you.”
For the first time in a long while, he felt loved.
“Neal, what happened to the Barolo?” The short, balding man pushed the glasses up the bridge of his nose as he searched for the missing bottle of wine.
“Moz, don’t you remember? You drank it all last night.” Neal grinned at his partner in crime and returned to his web search.
Mozzie sighed and studied the wine rack, finally settling on a mid-range Cabernet. “I guess this will have to do.” Walking to the kitchen counter, he deftly uncorked the bottle and poured himself a glass. Raising an eyebrow at Neal he silently asked if he wanted some.
“Yeah, I could use one. This search is not coming easily.” Neal pushed the laptop away and ran a hand through his dark hair. He took the glass Mozzie brought to the table and took a sip. “Mmm, nice.”
“Yeah, June has a good cellar.” Mozzie sat down next to him. “So what’s going on that you’re having problems?”
“Can’t find building plans for Harrison’s townhouse. We may have to do a physical recon.” They’d gotten a “request” from one of Mozzie’s contacts for a Faberge egg that Harrison had in his collection. The buyer was willing to pay top dollar for it.
“Mozzie huffed and gestured for the computer. “Give it here.”
Neal watched as Mozzie’s fingers flew across the keys. He didn’t want to know what sites he was using to access the information. He was just happy that the little guy was on his side.
Neal’s eyes scanned the room as he sipped his wine. They were lucky to have this place.
Perfect for Neal’s needs, really. Mozzie wasn’t the type to stay in one place very long and had set up several safehouses that he rotated through the week. Most of the time, though, he wound up spending a couple of nights on Neal’s couch, but always claimed he was a free spirit and couldn’t be tied down.
“Hah!” Mozzie smacked the table in success. “Got it!” He flipped the laptop around for Neal to see. Blueprints for Harrison’s townhouse were on the screen. “These are the most recent. You can see where he built the display room.” Mozzie pointed to a location in the middle of the plans. “The idiots even put the second entrance in there.”
Neal studied the plans. “Ok, any luck on security?”
“Of course!” Mozzie grabbed his satchel and pulled out some crumpled papers. “The Sentry IX V3.0. State of the art.” He grinned. “But with one major flaw in the version Harrison installed. The battery backup has a tendency to fail if there is a power bump.”
“And you can make that happen?”
Mozzie looked at Neal like he had three heads. “Hello? Why do you think I’ve been buying all this Russian surplus?”
Neal laughed. “I thought it was to decorate Friday.” Mozzie snorted. “Ok then, let’s start planning.”
They were arguing about entry points when there was a knock at the door. Neal got up to answer it. June was standing there with a smile on her face and a tray of what looked like homemade sandwiches.
“Can I come in?” She grinned impishly, sailed right past the conman with Bugsy, her pug, at her heels and placed the tray on the table. Neal was always amazed at how put together she looked, her loungewear complimenting her café au lait skin. “I thought you boys might be hungry, what with planning to ransack Nigel Harrison’s place and all.”
“How…?” Mozzie sputtered and stared at Neal.
“Hey, I didn’t tell her.” He closed the door, sauntered back to the table and took one of the sandwiches off the tray. Biting into it, he groaned in appreciation at the taste.
“Mozzie my dear, you keep underestimating my Talent.” Taking a seat, she picked Bugsy up and placed him on her lap. “I got a premonition that might help with a snag you’re going to run into, so I thought I’d come up and see how far along you are. Plus Byron always said planning a good heist is always made better with good food.”
She gestured to the sandwiches. “The ones on the left are for you, Mozzie – no cheese.”
“Thanks, June.” His ruffled feathers soothed, Mozzie took a half and a napkin. “What’d you see?”
“Neal, Harrison’s maid is going to call in sick that day. For your Transference, you’ll need find someone else to get the Veiling Talent from. So you’re going to need to either move the job up a day or wait to execute it three days later.”
Neal considered her words. He knew her Talent at foreshadowing had been a big help to them when they first came to the city. He quickly came up with and discarded several ideas based on her information.
“Neal….Neal…earth to Neal.” Mozzie was snapping his fingers in front of his face.
“What? Sorry. Just thinking.”
“Well think out loud. We need to figure out what to do about this.” Mozzie took a bite of his sandwich and washed it down with a gulp of wine.
“June, did you see anything else that would give us an idea if we should go later or earlier?”
June closed her eyes. The two men waited as she stilled, the only movement was her hands running through Bugsy’s fur. She sighed and shook her head. “I’m sorry, nothing.”
“So it’s a crapshoot.” Mozzie sounded disgusted.
Neal glared at him. “Be nice.”
“Sorry.” He mumbled.
“I say we wait the three days. It’ll give me more time to find a touch source and you can make sure Rusty is set up to fence the egg.”
“He’s ready!” Mozzie frowned at him.
“Moz, the last time he said he was ready, he short circuited and was unconscious for a week.”
Mozzie glared at him, even though he knew Neal was right.
“Just promise me you’ll tell him not to touch any live wires before Thursday.”
“Better a broken promise than none at all.” Mozzie finished off his glass and gestured for Neal to fill it again.
“Mark Twain!” June clapped her hands in delight.
Neal sighed. He could tell it was going to be a long afternoon.
“This session of the Central Court is now called to order. All rise for the esteemed Imperator.”
The crowd hushed as the tall man entered the courtroom. Seating himself at the wooden dais, he began to look over the cases of the day. Long, lean and dressed in Armani black, his brown hair cut regulation short, he exuded a quiet sense of power. Those that had never met him always wondered why the citizens of New York City spoke his name in hushed tones. Those that had, spoke of him with awe.
And those that faced him in the Central Court wished they had never laid eyes on him at all.
The crowd was made up of law enforcement officials, legal types, those charged, along with their families and, of course, the regular spectators who had nothing else on their plate that day and wanted to watch the great Imperator in action.
He never handled the smaller cases. Those were farmed out to his legal staff because there were entirely too many (in his opinion) and he would be in court all day, every day if he took them on. No, he got the harder ones – murder, major theft and the occasional art crime or forgery to keep his hand in.
Peter Burke, former Head of the FBI’s White Collar division, now Imperator of the Regional Government of New York City, closed the file he was perusing and spoke.
Eight hours and six cases later, the day was done. Which was fine with Peter. He was starting to develop a headache. How can some people be this stupid, he wondered as he prepared to hand out the verdict for a man that had stolen food from the Central Storehouse to sell on the black market and in the process had killed one of his agents.
There was no need to steal – after The Pandemic there was plenty of food, even if it was regulated by the Government. But the man was an Outlier; not from Manhattan. The food supplies were more fickle the farther one got from the City, and all the thief saw was the bounty that the residents enjoyed and a quick way to make a buck. Because of that, Agent Joseph Fiorentino’s children would grow up without a father.
Peter still held the belief that a man was guilty until proven innocent. But he also subscribed to the thought that if you were guilty, you paid for your crimes. The man had come in to his city, stolen from him and murdered one of his people. Peter would make sure that justice was served accordingly. He nodded to the Bailiff.
“Mr. Bezrukov, please rise and face the Court.”
Peter gazed at the man standing behind the defendant’s table. “Anton Bezrukov, you stand before this Court charged with the murder of a Regional Militia Agent.” The defendant paled as Peter’s voice echoed throughout the courtroom. “The evidence has been presented and the Court finds you guilty as charged on one count of involuntary manslaughter. According to the laws of the Regional Government of the Island of Manhattan, you are sentenced to twenty-five years in Five Points.”
A gasp came from the seats behind the defendant’s table as Bezrukov’s family heard the verdict. Bezrukov’s wife began crying hysterically and an older man started shouting. Peter banged his gavel, attempting to restore order.
“Guards clear the courtroom!” Peter waited until the family had been removed before continuing. “Mr. Bezrukov, I suggest you use your time in Five Points to its fullest benefit. Bailiff, please escort the defendant to holding. Court is adjourned.”
The sounds of the Court were silenced by the closing of Peter’s office door. It was the best thing he had heard all day. He took off his jacket and hung it on a hanger in the small closet. Falling into his chair, he threw his glasses onto the desk and tiredly rubbed his face.
Now I know why Hughes kept a flask in his desk. Peter thought fondly of his old boss. Lucky bastard. He smiled as he glanced at the picture of the two of them at Hughes’ retirement party. No wonder he looks so happy. He was handing all this crap to me.
What he wouldn’t give for a beer. Hell, a cup of coffee would do right now. Something. He looked at the clock. 5:30 p.m. He needed to call Elizabeth. As he dug in his pocket for his phone, there was a knock on the door.
Crap, what now?
“C’mon in.” Peter knew he sounded cranky but a little part of him felt he was entitled to it.
“Hey Boss.” Diana Berrigan and Clinton Jones entered with matching smiles. “How was Court?”
“Same as always. No one did anything wrong, and if you don’t believe them, ask their sister.” His two agents chuckled. “What I wouldn’t give for a beer.”
“Would coffee do?” Diana pulled a cup from the local specialty coffee shop from behind her back. “Italian Roast.”
“God, I love you!” Peter grabbed the cup and took a long drink. Sighing in pleasure, he grinned at Diana. “You know you’re my favorite.”
“Hey now!” Jones protested. “I brought those bearclaws you like.” He tossed the bag on the desk and sat down. Peter dug into the bag for a pastry.
“I take that back. You both are my favorites. Especially if you don’t tell Elizabeth about this.” He took a bite, crumbs flaking down the front of his shirt.
“She’s got you back on the diet again?” Jones looked at him sympathetically. Elizabeth was known to deny Peter his deviled ham on occasion.
“Yeah, the results from my physical came back and my cholesterol was high. So no sweets.” His eyes closed. “But God this is good.”
“Just make sure you clean off the front of your shirt. Elizabeth is a better investigator than we are.” Diana perched on the edge of the credenza. “You ready to head back to the office after your snack?” Peter raised an eyebrow at her cheeky tone.
“I’m not in kindergarten. This is not juice and cookie time.” Peter tried to give her a stern look, but failed. Grinning, he licked the sugar glaze off his fingers and brushed the crumbs off his shirt. Standing up, he shrugged on his jacket and picked up his coffee. “Let’s head back so I can get some real work done.”
The distance between the Court and the office made for a nice walk. Occasionally they would get stopped by law enforcement as well as civilians who wanted a word with Peter. Several times people just wanted to shake his hand and tell him what a wonderful job he was doing. He thanked them courteously but there was always a bit of embarrassment behind his smile. As far as he was concerned, he was just doing his job. No thanks necessary.
“Okay, where were we?” Peter asked after he shook the hand of an elderly man.
“Talent registration.” Diana pulled out her Blackberry and punched a few buttons. “Bernike sent you the latest figures yesterday.”
“Yeah, I know. I haven’t read them.” Some days Peter wished cloning were legal so he wouldn’t have to deal with the minutiae of running a Regional Government.
“That’s why he sent them to me, too. Registrations are up fifteen percent this quarter. Seems as though the media campaign is working.”
“Good. One less thing for me to worry about.” Peter sidestepped a couple and turned to Jones. “Where are we on recruitment?”
“Donner says we’ve got a six-month waiting list for Militia recruits. Seems as though you’re a popular guy. Everybody wants to work for you. Little do they know.” Jones flashed a grin at his boss.
“Keep that attitude and I’ll put you on Mortgage Fraud for a month.”
“Ohh, I’m scared.”
“Smart ass. Guess that means you won’t be invited over for dinner tonight.” Peter chuckled, knowing he’d played the trump card. Jones never turned down an invitation to the house for dinner.
“I take back everything I’ve ever said. What’s on the menu?”
“Don’t know. Haven’t called El to tell her you guys are coming over.”
They arrived at Peter’s main offices. He’d had his choice of buildings when he was elected but preferred to be in the old FBI building. It was more secure, plus he was comfortable there. He’d even kept his own office, allowing Diana to move into Hughes’ when he retired.
Pressing the “UP” button, he sighed and turned to his agents. “I just need a night where all I do is look at case files. None of this extra stuff we have to deal with. So I figured dinner and beers and a couple boxes out on the back porch.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Diana held the elevator door so the people could exit then the three of them stepped on. She pressed the button for the 21st floor. “Should we bring anything?”
“Let me check with Elizabeth.” Peter quickly dialed his wife. Moments later she picked up the phone.
“Hey, hon. How was Court?”
“Long and brutal.” Peter smiled, happy to hear her voice. “Listen, I invited Jones and Diana over for a working dinner. We don’t have any other plans, do we?”
“No, we’re good.” He could hear Elizabeth shuffling papers around. “Anything particular thing you want to eat?”
“Real food.” That was Peter’s code for something that he could pronounce.
“Elizabeth chuckled. “That bad of a day?”
“You don’t know the half of it. Does anyone need to bring anything?” The elevator dinged for their floor and the three of them stepped out.
“Nope. I’ll just swing by Union Square Market on my way home and grab a few things. What time?”
“We should be wrapped up in about an hour, so does 7:30 work?” He shook his head at his agents, letting them know nothing was needed. “I’m just going to check in and we’ll get some files boxed up and ready to go.”
“Sounds perfect. See you at home. Love you, hon.”
“Love you, too, hon.” He hung up as they walked into the main office.
“So what’s for dinner?” Jones asked with a smile. Peter realized that Elizabeth never told him what they were having.
“Does it matter?” Diana looked at him askance. “Elizabeth is cooking.”
“True enough. So what files do you want, Peter?”
“Let’s get the Michelson and Anderson loan scandals.” Peter headed up the stairs to his office. “I also need to get up to speed on the theft at the Smithson House. Oh, and any new files that have come in this week.”
A half hour later he was neck deep in emails when Diana knocked on his door. “C’mon in. I’m almost done wading through this schlock.”
“Boss, have you gotten to the one from Martinez yet?” Diana had a sober look on her face.
“No, what does he want now? Another press conference to splash my face across the television?” Peter ran his hands through his hair, leaving it ruffled. “God I hate politics!”
He scrolled down until he saw the email from Martinez and clicked on it.
Subject: Marriage Law Concerns
Date: July 10, 2033 at 10:12 AM
I know today is Court but I felt I needed to share some disturbing information that has come to my attention.
It seems as though a small but vocal minority has been questioning your reluctance to follow the Marriage Law by not accepting a Third. While insignificant at this time, they appear to be gaining momentum within the City as well as the attention of several media outlets.
I know yours and Elizabeth’s feelings on the subject, but with the failing of the referendum vote, now is not the time to make waves with your re-nomination less than eighteen months away.
We need to set a meeting as soon as possible to determine how we want to handle this. (Diana make sure this gets on Peter’s calendar.)
Public Information Officer
Regional Government of New York City
“My God, don’t these people ever stop?” Peter groaned and rubbed his hands across his face. “I swear I’m just going to pack it in, move upstate and raise horses!” He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes for a moment.
“I’m sorry you’re having to deal with this, Boss.” Peter knew Diana was sympathetic to the situation.
“Di, I just don’t get why it’s such a big deal.” He huffed in frustration. “I know that the Law says we need to have a Third, but -.” He stopped himself when Diana shushed him. “Yeah, maybe not the best place to talk about this.”
He was relieved when Jones stuck his head in the door. “Files are packed. You ready to head out?”
Peter smiled at them like a kid escaping detention. “More than ready.”
As he gathered up the few items he wanted to take home with him, he knew that he was going to have to deal with the issue fairly soon. Just not right now.
Neal knew if he stopped it would be all over. Mozzie had ducked down the nearest subway stairs and melted into the throng of commuters, but Neal hadn’t been so lucky. Twisting and dodging pedestrians, he ran across the street, almost getting run over by the taxis that always seemed to run the lights.
Taking a quick look behind him, he saw his pursuers gaining. Crap! Scanning the available escape routes as he ran, he realized he was close to the Union Square Market.
Sliding past a couple with a baby stroller, he dashed through the entrance to the Market and looked around for a place to hide. There! Across the way was a gardening stall with young trees in black plastic buckets. Slowing down to a walk so as not to attract attention, Neal made his way to the area in question. Ducking behind a booth selling shrubbery, he chanced a look to see if the men who were chasing him had discovered his hiding place.
They had followed him into the Market but it was obvious they had lost him. One spoke to the other as they searched the area. Neal moved deeper among the foliage, keeping his face as hidden as much as he could while still watching his pursuers.
Luckily for him, the Militia were easy to spot. Bad suits, brush haircuts, regulation sunglasses. Neal sighed. Sometimes they made it too easy, and that spoiled the fun.
After a few minutes, the men had given up and left the area. Giving them a few more moments, just in case they came back, Neal caught his breath and felt for the small Faberge egg in his pocket.
He knew the colors: royal blue and gold. With a smile a mile wide, his fingers caressed the elaborate gold-work and jewels. It would definitely give him and Mozzie enough cash buy some cover property Moz claimed they needed, plus pay June back for some of the front money she had given them.
They had their eye on a space that Mozzie had found through a friend of a friend of a friend - a bakery in need of new management. Using Steve Tabernacle, they planned on finalizing the deal as soon as Rusty fenced the egg.
But they almost lost their chance at the egg. Neal nearly got caught, and he couldn’t figure out how. Somehow the Imperator’s men had gotten wind of their attempt on Harrison’s townhouse.
They’d gotten in, no problem. Neal had found a Veiling Talent – one of the hookers in Midtown. A quick touch as he asked her what she charged gave him what he needed to get past the security guards and staff. Mozzie’s power boost fried the backup battery and Neal was able to lift the egg and slip out the service entrance.
That’s when it got hairy. Agents were rounding the corner just as Neal was hopping the fence and immediately gave chase. The Veiling Talent failed - at that moment - and Neal ran.
Confirming that his pursuers were truly gone, Neal slid out from behind the trees and made his way through the market. He had an hour before he could safely return to the backup location that Mozzie had set up for emergencies, so he meandered through the stalls looking for items he could bring home for dinner.
He figured he’d head towards Antoni’s and pick up some Grueyere to go with the baguette he knew was back at June’s. Mozzie would whine about being lactose intolerant, but he didn’t have to eat it. On the way home he’d stop and get him some Genoa salami as a peace offering.
As he passed by the flower sellers, a tub of tiger lilies caught his eye. Neal stopped to admire them. Mozzie laughed at him when he brought flowers home, saying that Neal was too much of a romantic, but when the current bouquet was dying, he always asked when Neal was going to the market.
He chose several of the lilies, paired them with some hyacinth and ferns and gave them to the florist to wrap up. As he was waiting, he looked around the market, scoping to see if there was a quick pocket to be picked.
What he saw made him freeze, his breath catching in his chest.
She was standing in a ray of sunlight. If he were a religious man, he would swear the angels were smiling down on her.
Deep, brown hair spilling down her shoulders, casting shadows across her face. He counted at least a dozen shades, everything from chocolate to mahogany to mink to coffee.
Her hands, tiny and beautifully manicured in a soft pink, gestured to the shopkeeper, pointing out her request. For a split second he imagined those hands running over his chest, gripping his shoulders as he thrust himself into her.
Shit, where did THAT come from? Neal mentally shook himself. He hadn’t had an instinctive reaction like that to someone since before DC. He hadn’t let himself.
Blindly accepting his change and the flowers from the vendor, he slowly approached her, circling around so he could observe her more closely.
She was beautiful from every angle. Her figure, soft and curved in all the right places, begged to be captured on canvas. His fingers itched to touch her, position her to his liking so he could take up his brushes and immortalize her.
She was his Muse.
Never taking his eyes off her, he grabbed a notecard and a pen from a nearby vendor. With a few deft folds and a scribble he had what he needed.
Moving into her radius, he prepared to introduce himself when he heard a shout. Whirling around, he saw the Militia agents who had chased him into the Market.
Damn! Not NOW!
Brushing past her, he caught a glimpse of cerulean blue eyes and heard her startled gasp. He dropped his creation in her purse, gave her a dazzling smile and melted into the crowd.
Whoever she was, he was enthralled. And determined to find out more about her, however he could.
Union Square in the summer was always a joy, Elizabeth thought. Especially the Market with their abundance of fresh produce, dairy and assorted foodstuffs. Stalls full of summer squash, tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers. Exotic cheeses. Teas and herbs. Homemade breads. She loved it all.
When Peter had called her to tell her that he had invited Diana and Clinton to the house for a working meal, she thought it would be a perfect excuse to indulge herself and pick up some items for dinner. She decided on a menu of Caprese salad, steaks that her sister had shipped to them and fresh fruit salad for dessert. Her mouth watered just thinking about the strawberries and blueberries she had in her basket.
As she sorted through the cornucopia of offerings, she caught glimpses of the hands that had touched each item. The tanned skin of the citrus fruit pickers in Florida, the teamsters hauling the vegetables from Pennsylvania, the bakers from her own Brooklyn kneading the dough for the baguettes she had in her bag.
Normally she kept her Talent muted, because it could get pretty busy if she kept reading everything she touched, but on days like this it was almost like a mini travelogue in the back of her brain.
Strolling through the aisles, she looked for the best batches of spinach and the biggest red onions. She paused at MacNamara’s Produce to say hello to Mitch.
“What can I do for you today, Mrs. Burke?” the wizened man said with a smile.
“I’m making Caprese salad tonight, Mitch,” Elizabeth smiled back. He was one of her favorite people in the Market and she never failed to stop by his stall even if she wasn’t buying anything. “What’s your spinach look like today?”
“You’re in luck.” Mitch pulled a head of deep green leaves from the display. “Just got this in from the farm upstate. Picked this morning.”
Elizabeth’s eyes gleamed at the vegetable. “That’s perfect, Mitch, I’ll take two.” She pulled out her wallet and gave him ten dollars. While she waited for her change, she felt a prickle on the back of her neck and felt a sharp pain above her right eye. Her eyes teared up and her mind caught a glimpse of a dark-haired man running through the Market. The vision quickly dissipated but her headache remained.
Strange. She’d felt her Talent kick in, but she wasn’t touching anything that would have given her a vision of anyone running.
“Mrs. Burke?” Mitch’s voice brought her back to the present. He was standing there patiently, waiting to give her the change.
“Oh, thank you.” Elizabeth took her change and put the spinach in her bag.
“If you need the mozzarella to go with the salad, try Antoni’s in the next row. I saw him unload fresh about an hour ago.”
“Thanks Mitch. Say hi to your wife for me.” Elizabeth quickly headed to the dairy farmer’s booth that Mitch recommended. She glanced around, wondering if maybe something in her basket might have triggered what she saw. Not seeing anyone who remotely looked like the man in her vision, she dismissed the thought and concentrated on choosing the cheese she needed.
Mitch was right, she thought a short time later. The mozzarella looked fantastic. As she waited her turn in line, the prickling on her neck returned, only stronger this time.
Someone was watching her.
Furtively looking around, she surveyed the Market. Mothers with their children. Young couples, shopping bags in hand. Elderly folk walking slowly through the aisles. All normal everyday behavior. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being observed. Her headache worsened.
She shivered and pulled her jacket closer, but the feeling grew. She closed her eyes and focused. The feeling was coming from her left. Rifling through her purse as though she was looking for something, she let her hair fall in front of her face to hide her eyes. Glancing through the strands, she risked a quick look the direction of her feeling.
Standing at the flower stall was a man. Dressed simply, he wore a navy blue three-button Henley that brought out the ocean blue of his eyes. Elizabeth could tell it was silk by the way it clung to his chest. Dark grey jeans just snug enough to highlight his well toned body ended in well worn black leather boots. Thick wavy brown hair that begged to have a lover’s hands run through it. And a face – a face that was impossibly perfect. He was the most beautiful man she had ever seen.
And he was looking at her.
Blushing, Elizabeth looked away, hoping the man had not noticed her observing him. She kept her face hidden as she pointed out the piece of cheese she wanted from the seller. She could barely concentrate - the proximity of the man blocked out any other pings she was getting from the items she was holding.
Elizabeth was frightened. Her Talent had never manifested this way before. She could sense him coming towards her, her mind showing her exactly how he approached, sensual and stalking – he the hunter, she the prey. She felt a frisson of desire cut through the fear.
Oh God, he was right there… She could smell him. Not cologne – him. Musky and warm from where he had been running.
He was about to touch her when she heard shouting. Several Militia agents were hurrying toward them. He moved past her, their bodies brushing briefly. Gasping, she looked up at him. He smiled at her, promising everything yet offering nothing, as he disappeared into the crowd.
One of the agents stopped next to her while the other one kept up the pursuit. When he realized who she was, he made sure she was unharmed.
“Mrs. Burke, are you okay?”
“I’m – I’m fine Agent Jensen,” she replied, reading his name badge.
“Do you know that man?” the agent asked.
“No, actually I don’t.” And even if she did, she wouldn’t have told the agent that. “He just bumped into me right when I heard you shout. What did he do?”
“He’s believed to have robbed a townhouse nearby.”
“Well, I hope you catch him.” Elizabeth hoped nothing of the sort.
“Um…Mrs. Burke, I hate to ask, but I’m going to need to look in your purse and bags to make sure he didn’t drop anything in them.” The agent looked uncomfortable making the request.
“I understand.” Elizabeth smiled at him, which made him turn pink with embarrassment. “Let’s start with the grocery bag.”
The agent found nothing in the bag of produce and bread and handed it back to her. She gave him her purse and he looked through it quickly.
“Um, Mrs. Burke, what’s this?” he held up a folded piece of note paper. Elizabeth had never seen it, and she felt certain that the man had dropped it into her purse when he brushed past her. She also couldn’t explain why she had the feeling that it was important she not give away any information about the man who had smiled at her.
“Oh, that’s just something I’m working on for a client.” She held out her hand and the agent placed it in her palm. She shoved it in her pocket. “Did he drop anything in there?”
“Doesn’t look like it. Sorry to have bothered you.” The agent gave Elizabeth back her purse as his partner returned empty handed and huffing.
“I lost him in the landscaping stalls. Oh, hey Mrs. Burke. You okay?” he said, recognizing her.
“Yeah, Johnny, I’m fine. Sorry you lost him.”
“Eh, we’ll get him. Those types mess up eventually. Have a good day.” The agents left, talking about the paperwork they would have to file.
After finishing her purchase of the cheese, Elizabeth found an empty bench. Sitting down, she pulled the note paper out of her pocket.
In her hand lay a slightly crumpled origami butterfly. On one of the wings, she could make out the words You’re Beautiful.
Closing her hand around the paper, she wondered about the stunning man who had given it to her and whether she’d ever see him again.
“Elizabeth, that was delicious.” Clinton Jones toasted Elizabeth with his beer.
“Peter is a lucky man.”
“No need to butter her up, Jones. You know you’ve got a standing invitation to dinner.” Peter tossed the comment over his shoulder as he began to clear the plates from the table.
“No shame in complimenting the cook, Boss.” Leaning back in her chair, Diana stretched like a contented feline. “Thanks for feeding us, Elizabeth.”
“Not a problem. You know you and Clinton are always welcome.” Elizabeth passed Peter more plates in the instinctive way of two people who are comfortable with each other. “Anyone want dessert? I’ve got fresh fruit salad with whipped crème.” She grabbed some bowls from the cupboard and set them on the counter.
“I’m up for that. Anyone else?” Diana raised an eyebrow in question. Both men declined. “You’re missing out,” she said, scooping up a spoonful of sliced berries into a bowl and topping them with fresh crème. “This looks delicious.”
“Maybe later.” Peter finished stacking the dishes in the dishwasher. Wiping his hands on the dishtowel, he took down four mugs for coffee. “I want to get a jump on these files first.”
Peter poured them all a cup while Diana and Jones brought the two file boxes in from the living room and set them on the table.
Leaning in for a kiss, Elizabeth took the mug Peter held out to her. “I’ll be upstairs so you can spread out on the table. Don’t work too hard.” She smiled at the other agents as she left the dining room and headed up the steps.
Clinton watched her go before digging a file out of the box. “Like I said before, Peter, you are a lucky man.”
“Don’t think I don’t know it, Jones.” Peter sat down and started sorting through one of the boxes. “I have people telling me that on a daily basis. As evidenced by the email I got this afternoon.”
“Email?” Jones looked up from the file he was reading.
“Peter got an email from Martinez today. Seems as though there’s a vocal minority asking when Peter’s going to add their Third.” The tone of Diana’s voice clearly indicated her feelings on the subject.
“Don’t hold back, Diana.” Jones teased. “Tell us how you really feel.”
“You know how I feel about it, Jones. I think it’s ridiculous that we’re forced into a commitment because the law says so, without taking into account whether it’s the right thing or not. You agree, right Peter?”
“Yeah.” Peter rubbed the back of his neck. He sighed and looked at his agents. “Guys, you know how I feel about this. Having to announce your Third by the time you’re forty-five—and be married to them by age fifty—or you get thrown in jail until the Government picks your partner is stupid and archaic. But it’s still the Law, at least for now. And technically I’m breaking it.”
He took a sip of coffee and tried to make light of the issue.
“You know, the other day Marion our receptionist offered to set us up with her cousin Jennifer.” He gave a short laugh. “Have you seen Jennifer? She’s 19 years old! What would I do with a 19 year old?”
Diana and Jones tried not to laugh. “I can’t imagine you and Elizabeth with a 19 year old.”
“Yeah, yeah. Keep laughing and I’ll transfer the both of you to the Securities Fraud division,” was Peter’s comment to their mirth.
“Sorry Boss.” Diana wiped the tears from her eyes. “It’s just you and Elizabeth with a – a child is just too funny!”
“Seriously, Peter. You know you can’t put it off forever. Until it’s overturned Thirds are still required.” Jones pulled out a pen and legal pad and started to make notes about the file he was working on.
“I know. I’ve got to do something.” He stared blankly at the files in front of them. “Elizabeth doesn’t want to add anyone else to what we have. She’s happy the way we are.”
He sighed and looked at the two people who were as close to best friends as anyone. “Any suggestions?”
“Maybe if it looks like you’re making an effort, people will back down.” Diana pulled a stack of files toward her and began to sort them. ‘You know, go on some dates, hit a few Marriage Clubs.”
“Diana, for as long as you’ve known me, what makes you think I would ever enjoy going clubbing?” Peter looked at her like she was nuts.
“Hey, boss, it was just a suggestion.” She grinned at him, knowing full well he wasn’t mad.
“Well I suggest we change the subject and get started on these files.”
They worked quietly for a while, sharing notes on the cases spread out across the table, but Peter’s thoughts kept going back to the Marriage Law and how he thought it was wrong.
And if he were being honest, he didn’t want to share Elizabeth with anyone. He smiled when he thought about the day he met her.
He had been roped into going some overdone gallery opening that his boyfriend insisted they attend, claiming that ”this artist was the new Jasper Johns”. Martin immediately abandoned him to his own devices, hooking up with an associate who was, Peter suspected, more than “just a friend.”
He’d found a patch of wall that needed holding up and was people watching, when he was greeted by the loveliest smile he’d ever seen. He’d always had a thing for leggy blue-eyed brunettes, ever since Mrs. MacDonald, his fifth grade teacher, but this brunette took his breath away.
She’d flirted professionally with him as he stumbled through an embarrassing discussion of the Pop Art movement, but her eyes were kind as she did so. Later that evening, when his date turned into a rather messy breakup, she’d found him sitting on one of the stone benches outside the gallery.
”Hey, you okay?”
Peter looked up from the unlit cigarette in his hands. The girl from the gallery was standing in front of him, looking concerned.
“Yeah.” He tried to smile but it came out more like he’d just eaten a lemon. “No – not really.” His fingers shredded the paper and he watched the tobacco float onto the concrete sidewalk.
“I figured.” She perched on the bench next to him. “You shredded your cigarette.”
“I don’t smoke. They’re Martin’s. He wanted me to hold them so he’d be less likely to smoke them.”
“Ahh.” She said that like it explained everything. They sat in silence for a while.
“So - ” he started. “So, I guess you saw what happened.”
“Sweetie, EVERYBODY saw what happened.” She smiled to take the sting out of her words.
“Great.” Peter groaned and put his face in his hands. “That’s all I need.” His words came out muffled.
“Look at me.” She leaned into him and lifted his face until he met her eyes. “He was an ass, anyone could see that. And you certainly didn’t deserve to be treated the way he was treating you. You did the right thing by dumping him. You’re too good for someone like him.” She sat back and smiled at him.
Peter couldn’t help but snort. “You don’t know anything about me.”
“You know, you’re right.” She stuck her hand out. “Elizabeth Mitchell, assistant manager, Dearmitt Gallery.”
He looked at her slender hand and something told him that it would be in his best interest to take it.
“Peter Burke, Special Agent, Manhattan Regional Militia.” They sat there looking at each other for a moment and he realized he hadn’t let go.
“Well, Special Agent Peter Burke, you look like you could use a drink and a friend.” Elizabeth stood up, pulling Peter with her. “Let’s go get my purse and find a cold beer.”
“You sure you can leave?” He didn’t want her to get in trouble.
“I’ll let you in on a secret.” She crooked her finger and he leaned down so she could whisper in his ear. The closeness of her lips to his face made him shiver. “The assistant manager just gave me permission.”
They’d found a quiet pub around the corner. She didn’t let go of his hand that night. And by the next morning he was in love.
He didn’t want to share that with anyone.
Several hours and two pots of coffee later, Peter grabbed the last file from the box. Skimming the contents, he got a tingle down the back of his neck.
“Jones, who sent us this?”
Jones leaned over and looked at the contents. “That came from Jankowski in DC. He said Kramer wanted us to take a look. Seems that guy’s been causing some trouble in the Capitol but Kramer thinks he’s moved on to our neck of the woods.”
Peter began reading in earnest. The file was slim on details, but what was put together consisted of the following:
Subject: Neal Caffrey
Height: 5’ 11 1/2”
Known Aliases: Nick Halden, George Devore
Suspected of: Bond Forgery, Art Theft, Art Fraud, Money Laundering, Jewel Theft, Jewel Fraud, Tax Evasion.
The usual information. That didn’t interest him – he could study it later. The photos were what captured his attention.
They were a group of surveillance shots – slightly blurry, obviously taken from a distance. Caffrey was talking on a cell. Dressed in jeans and a black button down, his wavy brown hair was tousled, making him look younger than his thirty-six years.
In the first one he had a half-smile on his face. It made Peter wonder who was on the other end and what they’d said to put that smile there. He flipped through several more, all of Caffrey on the phone. The last one stopped him dead. It was of Caffrey – but it wasn’t like the other ones.
Caffrey was staring straight into the camera, a knowing look in his blue eyes. There was a definite smirk on his face.
He’d known they were watching him.
The little shit knew! Peter flipped through the earlier photos – and there it was. That small awareness. The half-smile, a dip of his shoulder. Caffrey was posing because he knew the Militia was out there and he was tweaking their tails.
A chuckle escaped before he could contain it. Jones and Diana looked up at him, but Peter waved them off. He wanted to keep this one to himself for just a little bit longer.
As he flipped through the photos again, he noticed that a handwritten note had fallen out onto the table. Picking it up, Peter recognized Philip Kramer’s concise handwriting.
Thought you’d be interested in this one. He’s been terrorizing Dupont Circle for about 18 months and rumor has it that he’s headed to your neck of the woods. He’s slippery – these are the only pictures we’ve been able to get of him, and every time we get close, he vanishes.
His work is good – some of the best I’ve ever seen, and he’s a master at not getting caught. Be careful, Petey, you may have met your match in this one.
Peter reread Kramer’s note. He knew you shouldn’t put emotions to the written word, but he could feel Kramer’s distain dripping from each letter. Kramer insinuated that this fugitive was better than Peter. That Peter would slip up somehow and this man would go free.
That Peter would fail.
Peter put the note and the photos under a paperclip in the file folder and started to close it. Changing his mind, he slipped the one of Caffrey staring into the camera out from under the others. Pulling out his wallet, he folded the photo and slid it in behind his picture of Elizabeth.
He secretly hoped that Caffrey was in his city. If he was, Peter was ready to play.
Neal managed to escape the Militia by ducking into a menswear boutique and slipping out the back door. Mozzie had left a message at the safe house that he was headed back to June’s, so Neal hurried down the steps to the subway platform.
As he waited for the subway car, his thoughts went back to the brunette he’d seen at the market. He couldn’t get her out of his mind. Physically, she’d reminded him of his ex-girlfriend, but even with the brief encounter they’d had, he could tell that she was so much more than Kate.
Kate had left him after a screaming match where she accused him of cheating and using his Talent to sleep with other people. Three hours and an entire set of broken dishes later, he left their apartment and crashed with Mozzie. When he returned the next day, her stuff was gone and the note she left was full of selfish, entitled statements about how she was the best thing that would ever happen to him and he was a prick for letting her go.
That was over four years ago. Since then, he’d avoided anything that resembled a relationship. Occasionally, when he couldn’t stand it anymore, he would haunt the local clubs, going home with this man or that woman, never offering his real name and never staying until morning.
Most of the time, though, it was him, a bottle of lube, and his imagination.
But in one simple moment, this woman made him consider what it would be like to wake up next to someone. Maybe wake up next to her.
Shit. He had to find her.
The subway car arrived and the doors opened. In a flash, he was enveloped by the other passengers and headed on his way home.
Go To Part Two