Not a Fan of the Bittersweet
"Neal came by. We had a nice little chat."
"Is he in one piece?"
"Yes, I left him whole."
"Good. I prefer him that way."
An alternate ending to "Unfinished Business," wherein shots are fired, prices are paid, and perspectives are altered. A story told from a variety of viewpoints.
Disclaimer: I don't own 'White Collar," just playing with these wonderful characters for a while.
To enhance enjoyment of this story, readers may want to rewatch "Unfinished Business." It's certainly not required in order to enjoy the tale, but a familiarity with the details of that episode might enrich your reading experience. Nothing after that episode has occurred in this story. Last point: this is not a Neal/Sara story (though she does appear in it, just because of when it happens), and please keep in mind: this fic is set long before Neal and Sara's more recent . . . rapprochement. This story is most definitely an ensemble piece.
Strong language; violence.
Time seemed to freeze for an instant as the sound of the gunshots echoed—unbelievably loud—in her otherwise silent apartment.
Of course Sara Ellis had a gun. Early on in her career she'd decided it was essential equipment and acted accordingly. Using her powers of persuasion—they rarely failed her—she convinced her director of the need and obtained the company's assent to carry on the job. It wasn't customary, the risk-averse desk jockeys in the Sterling Bosch legal department didn't like it, and stunning quantities of red tape had to be cut. But she was nothing if not persistent, and, in the end, she got what she wanted.
Sara Ellis usually did.
Given the controversy, she knew she had to get it right—and so she invested considerable time in doing just that. That meant investigating various options, talking with friends in law enforcement, making her purchase, and training assiduously with her weapon of choice. She could expertly disassemble it, clean it, reassemble it. And, of course, fire the thing.
If you're not prepared to use it, no point in having it. So the firearms instructors proclaimed. She had always said that she wasn't afraid to use her weapon. She'd trumpet that to anyone who asked—and to some who hadn't.
But the fact was, she never had used it. Never fired in anger, anyway—never outside of the practice range. Until now. Now when two men lay bleeding on the floor of her apartment, one from bullets she'd fired, and the other because he'd done her a favor.
Sara had long considered herself a good shot. Anything she took the trouble to do, she made sure to be damn good at, so her marksmanship (highly questionable at first) had evolved into a point of pride. But what she hadn't ever given nearly enough thought to, in all those hours of target practice, was the importance of speed.
Seeing Neal Caffrey lying bleeding on her floor, though, brought it home in a sharp and nauseating flash.
Accuracy is nice, but when you're a foot away from the target, speed matters a hell of a lot more.
The truth is, you were too slow. Drawing your weapon and then telling Black to drop his. Why didn't you tell him to freeze, too, to complete the cliché? Like the whole thing was a goddamn movie. Except this wasn't a movie. And Black certainly wasn't Caffrey—who'd obediently, immediately, frozen the other day when she'd pointed her gun at him and told him not to move. (Later, Peter had explained to her Caffrey's antipathy toward guns. Perhaps he really had just been scared shitless, although fear was not an emotion she normally associated with the man.)
No, Black wasn't Caffrey. This was different. This was an actual professional killer, doing his job with chilling efficiency. While she was wasting time talking, pointing the gun at him but not firing it, the bastard was already moving, already pulling the trigger, with Caffrey in his sights.
Caffrey had known what was coming—probably not surprising, given his history. Armed with that knowledge—and nothing else—he wasn't going to just stand there and wait for bad things to happen. Anyone in his line of work had to be accustomed to moving quickly, and that was just what he'd done. He'd sensed it and reacted by diving out of the way, but not fast enough. Watching it all play out in front of her, in what felt like slow motion, she'd put two rounds right into the center of the back of the assassin's leather jacket, but she was a second too late, goddamnit, to keep Caffrey from being shot.
Had she had killed the bastard?
Sara knew she should feel shock. She should feel horror. She'd hurt some people in her life. Done so happily, in many cases. In fact, if she were more of the introspective type, she might have been frightened, just a little, at the amount of pleasure she could take in inflicting injury. Being a woman made it more fun, too. She was an expert in sensing when someone was sizing her up and assuming—because she was female—that she'd try to reason with them, or bargain with them, or maybe just back down.
And when she didn't, when she came back at them, when she was the aggressor . . . well, seeing their surprise could border on glorious.
So, yes, she'd hurt people—even enjoyed it, sometimes. But she'd never done anything that could take a life before.
It scared her—a little—that instead of shock and horror, she could feel only satisfaction at shooting a man in the back. But that feeling lasted only an instant before fear set in. A paralyzing fear that Caffrey was dead because she'd been a split second too late.
She looked from the man in black at her feet over to where Caffrey lay motionless, partially behind the couch. He'd hit the ground on his side, then fallen backwards so he lay face-up, while the bastard who'd shot him lay face-down. Her heart was in her throat—at least, something was making it hard to breathe—as she scanned Caffrey for signs of life, indecision freezing her momentarily.
He hadn't cried out when he'd been hit. He'd already been in motion, already darting low to seek cover, and he'd just continued down, falling to the floor without a sound. No words, no scream of anguish, no cry of pain. Caffrey's silence had given her hope that, as unlikely as it would be from this range, maybe somehow Black had missed.
The hope that flared through her—that Caffrey was unharmed—was desperate and irrational and lasted about three seconds.
Three seconds was about how long it had taken for the blood to start visibly flowing, and then her mind froze with fear.
Maybe the reason he hasn't made a sound is because he's—
Caffrey's eyes were closed. He wasn't moving, he wasn't talking, but he was bleeding. Most definitely bleeding. A bright stain had blossomed on his side, just above his right hip, spreading down to the waistband of his pants and turning his white shirt a sickeningly vivid shade of crimson.
Was he breathing? He has to be, he has to be, a voice inside her head was chanting. But she couldn't tell from here. She needed to get to him, needed to help him. But ...
Okay, Sara. First things first.
First priority had to be making sure that bastard was out of commission.
Followed closely by making sure Caffrey was still alive—and keeping him that way.
She cautiously approached the gunman, watching for any movement and seeing none. Reaching out with her foot like she'd seen on a million cop shows, she slid the Ruger away from his outstretched hand and then kicked it away. The same gun Caffrey had been holding when he'd broken in here—what, a couple of days ago? So much had happened since that it felt like weeks ago . . . but she remembered the gun perfectly, the image burned into her brain. It looked to be the same weapon. God, but the silencer was huge. Seeing it, only then did it hit her how quiet the report of the firearm had been as he fired on Caffrey. Much quieter than hers.
The assassin's Ruger skittered across the smooth hardwood floor, lodging itself satisfyingly far away, under some shelves in the corner. Inaccessible.
Her rounds had hit him in the back, pretty much dead center. If this had been target practice, she would have taken pride in her shooting (well, except for the fact that only an utter novice could miss from this range). But with Caffrey bleeding a few feet away, Sara felt no pride, only anger at herself for not firing on Black faster. The entrance wounds were obvious, but she couldn't tell if there was an exit wound without turning him over, something she had no intention of doing.
She stepped quickly over his body, taking the few steps she needed to get to Caffrey. Still neither man had moved. Kneeling carefully next to Caffrey's right shoulder, she stayed vigilant, her gun still pointed at Black, ready to fire if he so much as twitched. With her other hand she reached out, feeling for the throat. She didn't want to take her eyes off the killer on her floor, but spared a second to locate Caffrey's pulse.
Or where his pulse ought to be.
For a few long, heart-stopping seconds she thought there was none, but after a moment of searching and pressing, she found a weak, fluttering beat.
Only then did she look directly down to the wound, swallowing hard at the blood she saw there. She swept her gaze up to his face. Somehow paler, already. And as motionless as a statue.
She leaned in close. "Caffrey! Wake up!"
Nothing. His eyes stayed closed, his body stayed still. If not for the barely-there pulse, anybody looking at him would have sworn he was dead. She shook her head at the thought. No.
He needed help—quickly or it wouldn't matter at all.
Just then, a noise from across the room jolted her and she looked up sharply.
As if the killer had been wakened by her voice, he let out a low, guttural moan. Adrenaline coursed through her and automatically she brought her left hand up to join her right in cradling the pistol in a standard, two-handed grip. She trained the weapon on the center of his back, between the shoulder blades, where she'd shot him the first time. Her finger tightened on the trigger, ready to fire at any movement, but none came.
Maybe that was the sound of him dying, she thought, a little wildly.
She spared another glance at Caffrey. She hated to leave him, but it had to be done. Still pointing her weapon at the assassin in case he moved, she backed away, over to the other side of the room as quickly as she could, keeping the killer in sight. Where the hell was her cell phone? In her purse, which she'd dropped when she'd grabbed her weapon out of it—what? A minute ago? It felt like hours now.
Scrabbling around in her purse, she finally located the phone. The gun stayed in her right hand, just in case, and she stayed facing the killer. Dialing 911 with her left hand took two tries; her fingers didn't seem to be as coordinated as they ought to be.
Okay, so maybe there was some residual shock after all.
Someone answered, quicker than she'd hoped for. She'd never called 911 before, but everyone knew the horror stories about calling for help in a big city like New York and being put on hold, or whatever. But her call was answered almost right away. She gave her name and address and said that someone had broken into her apartment, that she'd shot him, and that an FBI agent had been shot too and that he was going to bleed to death if someone didn't get the hell over here right now. All right, Caffrey was anything but an "agent," but she wasn't above stretching the truth if it would get them here faster. And surely they'd push it for a wounded FBI agent as opposed to a convicted felon on parole, right? She knew how these things worked. Right now, Caffrey needed every advantage she could give him.
They told her to stay calm. Oh, thanks for the valuable advice; why didn't I think of that? I'll just calm down while this guy bleeds to death in my living room. She wanted to tell them to go to hell, just barely stopping herself.
They assured her the police and EMTs were coming, would be here soon. But they didn't realize just how soon Caffrey needed it to be. "Soon." to them, was one thing. "Soon," to a man who was bleeding out, was something else. They didn't know that, goddamnit.
And they proved it by firing questions at her. Can you describe what happened? Is the intruder dead? Are you hurt? None of it important—except for the questions about Caffrey's condition, and what could she say about that other than that he'd been shot and was bleeding at a horrifying rate, that he might be dying, for Christ's sake, but she didn't say those exact words because she just . . . couldn't. She quickly lost what was left of her composure trying to answer them.
The conversation ended abruptly, with her swearing at them to get the fuck here now and the cell dropping from her trembling hands, clattering to the floor and bouncing away from her. The phone rang again almost immediately, and kept ringing, but she couldn't be bothered now. She had made the only call that mattered. Now what mattered was getting back to Caffrey—and she was going to need both hands when she got there.
And goddamnit, she was really going to need her hands to stop shaking.
After arresting Halbridge, Peter had a smile on his face. He was satisfied. More than satisfied, really. Except . . . well, the only missing piece was the weapon they'd given Neal. He'd hoped Jones would discover it in the limo, but no luck.
Peter wanted very much to find that gun. The gun that had nearly gotten Neal killed, and that had provoked a highly intriguing conversation between the two of them that night, back at the office while they waited for Jones to return from dropping Sara off at the safe house.
Neal had been taken aback when Peter told him that they'd heard nothing from his recorder watch from the time the driver had mentioned the briefcase and gloves.
"Wow, I was really on my own there," he mused. His voice held no recrimination, though—typical for Neal—just mild surprise. "The driver did seem to wonder why I kept babbling on about my long flight."
Peter exhaled through his nose, pressing his lips into a thin line. Neal might be accepting this with equanimity, but Peter wasn't—far from it. He didn't like being reminded of how Neal, immersed in an operation in which he should have been protected, had instead been left completely on his own when everything went south. How Neal had been forced to convincingly impersonate a contract killer, and had nearly been shot by Sara Ellis.
And the worst thing, of course, was that Peter blamed himself. Neal could be reckless, and he bought trouble for himself, sometimes, when he went off-script during an op. He was supremely confident, and one of these days he was going to get himself into a situation his quick mind and silver tongue couldn't get him out of safely. Peter had warned him often enough that just because Neal was smart, that didn't make him bulletproof. He tried to impress on Neal the need to play it safe and the dangers of improvising.
But not this time. This time, Peter's plan had been utterly inadequate, and Neal had been forced to compensate, which he'd done brilliantly, per usual.
It was Neal, after all, who had questioned the very idea that Halbridge would hire someone to transport the bonds for him. "He's taking a huge risk using a courier," Neal had remarked, that day in the conference room. Sara had scoffed, but Neal, of course, had been right. Halbridge hadn't hired a courier; he'd hired an assassin.
As the agent in charge of the operation, it was Peter Burke's responsibility to consider all the contingencies before putting his people undercover and in harm's way. And while Neal had emerged safe and sound, that was due to his skills, rather than anything Peter had done. It didn't change the fact that Peter had badly miscalculated the possible risks in this operation, and Neal had nearly paid the price.
The agent pushed those thoughts aside. From a personal standpoint, he'd like nothing better than to forget the whole incident and his own lack of foresight. Professionally, though, he needed to know the details—for the inevitable report he'd be filing, of course.
It had nothing to do with the fear he'd felt for Neal.
"Sketch it out for me, Neal."
Neal's smile was quick and appreciative as he raised his eyebrows delicately at Peter's choice of words. Peter tried to respond in kind, but he had a feeling it ended up as more of a grimace; he hadn't meant to be funny.
"Well, you heard the driver say was that everything was as I'd requested. The gloves and the briefcase."
"Gloves," Peter said, pouncing on that immediately. "I did wonder about that."
Neal nodded approval that, of course, Peter had seized on the key aspect right away. "Yes, that was my first clue that all was not right with this situation—and that those other emails probably had some pretty damned interesting stuff in them. Why would a courier need gloves to carry a briefcase full of bonds?"
Here, he could have said "I told you so," but Neal refrained, no doubt aware that the failure to realize Black's true purpose was a sensitive topic for Peter.
Neal shrugged casually. As with everything he did, it had an air of elegance to it.
"Clearly I was expected to open the briefcase." Neal managed a small smile. "Fortunately, I was able to cover my discomfiture at the contents."
Peter frowned and shook his head. "Would you recognize the weapon again if you saw it?"
His consultant tilted his head to the side, raised his eyebrows, and favored him with Neal Caffrey Look #9: the patented, Come on Peter, what do you take me for? look.
With the extra added eye roll, it moved into Neal Caffrey Look #10, the Peter, if I didn't like you, I'd call you out for asking such a stupid question look.
"Well, considering that I identified it, assembled it, loaded it, chambered a round, and sighted it—yes."
It wasn't easy to surprise Peter Burke—even for Neal, who Peter knew prided himself on his own unpredictability. These days, Peter was on to him so much of the time that the element of surprise was probably, in Neal's opinion, sadly lacking.
But Neal had gotten Peter this time. Peter couldn't hide his shock, and he knew that Neal was allowing himself to savor, just for a moment, the satisfaction of catching Peter off guard for once.
"You don't like guns," Peter finally managed, like he was responding to an argument—except no one had made an argument. "You're not a gun guy."
Neal instantly picked up on the conversation Peter was quoting.
"Nope. But just because I don't like something doesn't mean I'm not good at it."
Peter just looked at him.
Neal sighed impatiently. His gaze moved from Peter to gaze out the window into the darkness of the city beyond. His voice turned cold, the words sounding as if he were reciting from memory, deliberately detached. "The briefcase contained a disassembled Ruger Mark II, with a tactical solutions receiver and a red-dot holographic sight. Rimfire, semi-auto. A fine weapon for a hit man." He paused.
And how the hell would you know that?
Before Peter could say what he'd been thinking, Neal resumed, in a lighter tone that sounded like himself again. "Or so the book says."
Of course Neal would know about that. Peter remembered the controversy all too well. The Ruger Mark II was cheap and proven. It had been a suggested weapon of choice in a how-to book for budding professional killers that had been published back in the '80s. The publisher had been sued when a man allegedly using the book as a guide had killed three people.
"You've read 'Hit Man.'"
"Actually the complete title is 'Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors,'" Neal corrected him, sounding pedantic. "Yes, I've read it. Hasn't everybody?"
"Not since all the copies were destroyed by court order."
"Oh, there are a few still out there," Neal said loftily.
"Obviously," Peter said between gritted teeth. When Neal had talked about the gun, he'd sounded like a pro, for God's sake. It was disturbing, somehow. And probably a useful reminder that, however much he liked to think he knew Neal, there was plenty of which he was ignorant. Perhaps blissfully so.
"Okay. So you know your firearms." Peter could hear an unusual note in his own voice. To Neal it might have sounded like suspicion, or disappointment, because when he swung his gaze back sharply from the darkness to Peter, there was a peculiar look on his face. Guilt, maybe? Whatever it had been, it faded when he saw that Peter wasn't angry or upset—only concerned.
"Yes. I know about them. But I don't like them and I sure as hell don't use them. It's just that some things you have to educate yourself about," Neal said, a little more tartly than he'd meant to. "I'd wager that you, for example, know a hell of a lot more than you'd like to about child pornography. But you had to—for the job."
How Neal knew about Peter's fairly brief stint in Cyber Crimes, Peter had no idea.
Then again, he'd never figured out how Neal knew the date of his anniversary either . . . .
Nor had he known about Neal's preferences in chocolate. Not until this case.
Peter stared at the half-eaten chocolate lying on the back seat of the limo. As soon as he saw it, he knew.
He had that disoriented feeling that follows immediately after a sudden shock—as if the world had abruptly stopped turning, but he was still moving. The ambient street noise faded away to silence in that second. Peter froze where he was, for just an instant, a cold chill spreading through him. All the satisfaction he'd felt a moment ago, after taking down Halbridge, had vanished.
Another miscalculation. Damn, damn, damn.
Neal's casual comment in the office, upon seeing the German chocolate bar. The words echoed loudly in Peter's mind.
Not a fan of the bittersweet.
Neal wouldn't have eaten that chocolate. The driver might have, but likely wouldn't have left it there to clutter up the limo he was responsible for.
Black, on the other hand . . . .
"Where's Mr. Black?"
Jones seemed a bit taken aback by the question. Which made sense, Peter realized, because Jones hadn't been there for that conversation. He didn't know what the presence of that chocolate bar in the back seat of the limo could mean.
Jones' reply was instantaneous. "The Canadians are holding him."
"You sure?" Peter demanded.
"Last we checked." Jones had sensed Peter's concern, even if he wasn't sure of the reason for it.
"Find out." Peter was already turning away, He needed to talk to the driver, but he feared that he already knew what the man was going to say.
Oh, Jesus. Sara.
A/N The book "Hit Man" which recommended this particular firearm, the Ruger Mark II – and the murders and the lawsuit that followed - are real. More information is available by searching the term "hit man" at the Freedom Forum dot org website.
More coming soon. If you've got a moment to share your thoughts, reviews are greatly appreciated!