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the island of conclusions

The Silver-Tongued Conman Loses His Voice (White Collar fic)--1/2

the island of conclusions

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The Silver-Tongued Conman Loses His Voice (White Collar fic)--1/2

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Neal
Title: The Silver-Tongued Conman Loses His Voice.
Rating: PG-13, gen, no pairings.
Word count: ~11.5K (in two parts)
Spoilers: No specific spoilers for the show, but probably set sometime at the end of S1.
Warnings: This fic is gen, but there is discussion of human trafficking and the sexual coercion of minors, and also some crude sexual language.
Disclaimer: Not mine, no profit.

a/n: This is a very, very late fic for the wonderful rabidchild who first made a generous bid for my fic in the help_japan auction, then waited months for said fic, and then read the first half of this one and gave me the key to finally finishing it. I wish this were better, bb, because you only deserve the best!
a/n: I had so much help with this one! harrigan and taste_is_sweet were kind enough to read the first half and offer extremely helpful advice. rabidchild also read the first half and set me on the path to finishing it. And then harrigan did a superfast and helpful final beta on it. Thank you all! And all remaining problems completely my own fault!
a/n: My rendition of Hmong here is my guess as to how Neal would hear it and bears no relation to the actual language.

Summary: Sometimes you have to leave the comfort for the hurt.



“Got something special for us tomorrow night,” Giraldi said, his growl whiskey-rough. It was the voice of a longshoreman, Neal always thought, not that of a sleek, tiny, businessman in a bespoke suit. “A little treat.”

Giraldi held his phone over the restaurant table between them and beckoned Neal closer. Conjuring up up an anticipatory smile, Neal inclined his head, although he was sure that Giraldi’s treat would be no more palatable than the dinner they had just shared.

But Neal had spent a long time convincing Giraldi that he was the perfect buyer for the illegal Southeast Asian antiquities Giraldi was bringing through New York harbor. He was here to find out where and when the shipment would arrive so that the FBI could set up the bust. The heavy red wine Giraldi had chosen, combined with the man’s brutally masculine bonhomie, had given him a splitting headache, but breaking character was out of the question.

“Turns out the same boat that’s bringing your knickknacks is bringing in these beauties.” Giraldi tapped the screen, and a picture of a young girl—a very young girl, Neal realized with an unpleasant twinge—appeared. “And I thought, as a token of our new friendship, I’d give you a taste before sending them on to their future employers. Your choice of the shipment. She’s the best of them, I think. But maybe you’d prefer her.”

He touched the phone again and the girl was replaced by another. This one was even younger, dark hair loose on her shoulders, almond eyes opened wide. The frightened look—the pleading—was supposed to be part of the appeal, Neal realized. He was close to real nausea now.

“Ah,” said Giraldi, attuned to Neal’s reaction. “Maybe you don’t like the ladies? Maybe a boy?” He brushed his blunt finger over the screen and another picture came up. Just a kid—hair shorn to the skin, jaw clenched in defiance. “A firecracker, that one—the kind where breaking him’s half the fun.”

Neal shook his head and tried to think of a way to demur politely. But his voice felt stuck somehow, clogged with disgust. He cleared his throat.

Giraldi was on a roll. “There’s always this one. Can’t tell if it’s a boy or a girl. Best of both worlds, eh?”

This one was the worst. Androgynous, yes—short hair and a crewneck tee-shirt, sharp-features. And eyes that seemed to know everything already.

Neal opened his mouth, though for once he wasn’t sure what he was about to say. A protest, maybe—an excuse. All that came out was a croak.

“What’s that?” Giraldi asked mockingly. “She got you going already? Figured you’d be the type who knew how to hold his horses, Halden. But if this one does it for you, by all means, be my guest.”

Neal found his voice at last, though it sounded choked. “Yes,” he said, “this one.” Anything to end the hideous display. “Where and when is the ship docking?”

Giraldi chuckled nastily. “So impatient, my friend. Don’t worry, she’s not going anywhere. Come to my office tomorrow at three—we’ll go together.”

“Busy afternoon, tomorrow, I’m afraid. “ Some of Neal’s sangfroid thankfully came back to him. “Let me know which pier and I’ll meet you there.”

“We’ll go together.” Giraldi stood, pocketing his phone. “Don’t be late.”

He was out the door of the restaurant before Neal could respond.

Left alone, Neal took a moment to steady himself. The parade of faces had upset him more than such things usually did. Though maybe it was the wine. Or the rich, overly salted food the restaurant had dished up. In any case, his head was swimming and his gut was churning. And he couldn’t seem to swallow away the burn of bile in his throat.

Peter. He had to let Peter know that this was worse than they’d thought. That Giraldi was dealing in people as well as urns and statuary. He had his own phone half out of his pocket before he realized that for one thing, Giraldi might have someone watching him. And that for another, he didn’t trust his voice.

Better to go in person.

+++

It was after midnight by the time he made it to Brooklyn.

Still worried about being followed, he’d switched cabs twice and then had the last one drop him several blocks from Peter’s place, ducking into an open entranceway until he was sure he’d lost any tails. The night had been warm enough for a light overcoat when he’d set off to meet Giraldi, but the temperature seemed to have dropped five degrees for every hour of darkness, and by the time he rang the Burke’s doorbell he was shivering.

Peter opened the door in an old LeMoyne sweatshirt and pajama bottoms. He was rubbing his eyes with his free hand.

“Neal?” he said, like Neal had better have a pretty good reason for getting him out of bed. “It’s okay, honey,” he called in the direction of the stairs. “It’s only Neal—go on back to bed.”

Neal heard muted footsteps and the tail end of something that might have been “don’t stay up too late.” For a moment, he wondered whether he should have thought through the decision to come straight here a bit more carefully. But no—this was serious. Peter had to know.

“Peter. Giraldi. It’s worse. Really worse.” The choked feeling was back, only more painful this time. Getting the words out was like sandpaper across a scraped knee.

Peter stopped rubbing his eyes and reached for Neal’s elbow, drawing him into the house. “You okay? You sound kinda--. You okay?”

“Yeah, yeah. Just—“ He followed Peter in toward the dining room table, shedding his coat and hat as he went, the heat of the house throwing him from shivering to sweating in an instant. “He’s got these girls. On his phone. “ That wasn’t right. “On a boat. He wants me to have one.” The faces floated in front of him with surprising vividness and he fought down another wave of nausea.

Peter looked at him as if Neal wasn’t quite making sense. “Sit down a minute. You seem sort of worked up.” He pulled a chair out from the table. “Have some water, okay—or a beer—then tell me about it.”

Neal sat. But popped up again instantly, trailing Peter into the kitchen.

“For sex. He’s bringing in girls—and boys—for sex.” That didn’t sound right. There was a phrase for this—the kind of FBI euphemism Peter would respond to—it was on the tip of Neal’s tongue--.

He took the glass of water Peter was holding out to him, suddenly desperately thirsty. It was like swallowing knives, but the pain seemed to bring the phrase back to him. “Human trafficking,” he said triumphantly.

Peter’s expression changed into something fiercer, more professional. “Really? Are you sure?”

Neal nodded and took another gulp of water. This time it hurt so much going down he made an involuntary little grunt of pain.

“Neal?” Peter looked at him for a moment, and then pressed a palm to his forehead. He held it there a minute, then put the other hand on Neal’s neck. “Okay, we’re gonna deal with that,” he said firmly. “If Giraldi’s dealing in people he’s not gonna get away with it. But first I need you to go sit down for me, Neal.”

“Why? There’s no time for that,” Neal protested. Peter sounded like he was going to read Neal the riot act for coming here. Read him the riot act and then call him a cab.

“Because you feel like a goddamn furnace, that’s why,” Peter said, grimmer than ever. “And you’re going to go sit down while I get some Tylenol and the thermometer.”

Oh. It hadn’t occurred to Neal that some of what he was feeling wasn’t an emotional reaction to Giraldi’s “surprise.” He felt a little stupid—usually he was more self-aware. But even if the headache, sore throat and nausea were the result of some bug, it didn’t mean that Giraldi wasn’t importing sex workers tomorrow night. He tried to say as much to Peter, but Peter said, “later,” and pointed to the couch.

Once he got off his feet, Neal was forced to add exhaustion to his list of symptoms. Satchmo padded over to him, stuck his cold nose against Neal’s thigh, but it seemed too much of an effort even to pet him.

He tried bringing up Giraldi again when Peter came back, but even the action of forming words in his throat was starting to be painful, so he took the thermometer Peter held out to him and put it under his tongue instead.

Even before it beeped, Neal realized it had probably been a mistake to come here. His cover might already be blown.

“Sorry,” he rasped, passing the thing to Peter. “Shouldn’t have jeopardized the operation like that.”

“Were you followed?” Peter frowned at the thermometer.

Neal shook his head.

“Well, what’s done is done. 101.3—I can see how you’d be a little fuzzy.” Peter dropped an unexpected, comforting hand on Neal’s head, and held out the Tylenol in the other. “Listen, now that you’re here you might as well stay. I’ll make some inquiries into Giraldi’s connections to sex slavery. You take these and go crash in the guest room. Hopefully you’ll feel better in the morning, and we’ll figure it out then.”

+++

Neal had no memory of getting himself upstairs or undressing, but the next thing he knew he was half-naked under the Burke’s second-best duvet and Elizabeth had her cool fingers on his forehead.

“He’s really hot, Peter,” she was saying. “What’s going on?”

“Damned if I know. Showed up last night, babbling about prostitution rings and human trafficking. Didn’t even seem to know he was sick.” El’s smooth, light fingers were replaced by Peter’s more callused, heavier ones. “You’re right—worse than before maybe.” There was a note of worry in Peter’s voice now. That hadn’t been there last night either.

Neal tried to surface then, if only to tell them to keep their hands off the merchandise, but he seemed to be quite a long way under.

“Neal.” Peter was gently shaking his shoulder now. “Wake up, buddy.”

Neal finally unglued his sticky eyelids. Peter and Elizabeth were staring down at him, wearing matching expressions of sympathetic concern. Peter was still in his sweatshirt and pajama bottoms; Elizabeth was wrapped in a cotton Liberty print robe. The whole scene was so ridiculously domestic Neal started to laugh. But the laugh turned into a cough, and the cough hurt his throat so much he worried he might cry instead.

“Easy there, hon’.” Elizabeth squeezed his bare shoulder. “You okay?”

Neal opened his mouth to reassure her, but all that came out was a sad little gust of air. He could feel his breath passing over the place where it usually turned into words, but it wouldn’t catch. He tried a few more times, throat clenching painfully. Nothing.

Peter and Elizabeth stared at him, the faintest tinge of amusement now coloring their concern.

“Neal,” said Peter slowly, “have you lost your voice?”

Neal nodded, feeling his face furrow as he tried to get his mind around the disaster.

“Well, I never.” Peter was clearly trying hard not to smile. “To think I’d see the day when the great Neal Caffrey couldn’t talk his way out of something.”

“Peter!” Elizabeth cuffed him lightly. “It’s not funny. Go get the poor man some medicine and some juice.”

“Yeah.” Peter’s face slid back towards sympathy as he rose. “Gonna call the FBI doctor while I’m at it, too.”

+++

It appeared that the Bureau employed a doctor willing to make house calls, and a short time later Neal sat at the Burkes’ dining room table awaiting her arrival. Elizabeth had tried to make him stay in bed, but he’d refused. He was, however, beginning to suspect he’d made the wrong decision.

He was dressed in a pair of Peter’s slightly too-big pajamas, with another old sweatshirt over them (New York Giants this time) and a blue terry robe on top of that. He was sick enough to find the faint smell of Peter clinging to the clothes comforting. But not so sick that he hadn’t managed to fight with Peter over the case, laryngitis be damned.

“Here.” Peter had handed him his phone as soon as he’d stumbled downstairs. “You should probably text Giraldi and tell him you can’t make the meet.”

Neal had shaken his head vehemently, though it’d made him feel like his brain was slamming against his skull. He’d taken the phone, sagged into one of the straight-back chairs, and typed “Human trafficking, remember?” into the messaging function. He’d waved the screen at Peter, disturbed to see his hand shaking a little.

“I know it’s human trafficking, Neal.” Peter made calming movements with his hands. “Connections started popping up the minute I started digging. And like I said last night, we’re gonna get him for this, we are. What I’m saying is, we’re going to have to find a different way to do it. I think you’re out of the picture for now.”

Not satisfied, Neal had pecked furiously at the phone’s search engine with clumsy fingers until he’d pulled up the kind of image he was looking for. Not the same girl, obviously, but close enough to be her sister. He held the picture out to Peter. Then he pointed to himself. They had to carry out the plan for today, with him, or it would be too late for all the kids he had seen last night.

A mix of pity and outrage had flashed across Peter’s face at the sight of the girl’s vulnerable, half-terrified face. “That evil fuck,” he’d said, before he could get himself under control. “Okay—yeah—we’re going to get him—you just have to hang tight and let me think of Plan B.”

“No,” Neal had typed. “I’m going back in. He trusts me. There’s no time to set something else up. I’ll be fine by this afternoon.” He’d felt absurdly close to tears, undone by his own frailty, another round of shivers climbing his spine.

“Neal.” Peter had actually grabbed his shoulder, looking almost as upset as Neal felt. “You know I want to, but I can’t let you endanger yourself—and the plan—like that—“

Finally Elizabeth had intervened. “Okay, boys,” she’d said, guiding Neal into a chair and putting a steaming mug in front of him. “Calm down. You don’t have to decide this now. Neal, you have some tea. Peter, you go—do some research or something. We’ll see what the doctor has to say. Maybe she’ll have some kind of instant cure and it’ll all be a moot point.”

Peter had glared, but withdrawn. Neal had stared at the mug, dreading getting even liquid down his throat. Part of him knew it was an effect of fever and weakness, but he couldn’t shake the urgency gripping him. He imagined he could see the girls’ faces instead of his own reflected on the surface of the tea.

+++

Dr. Squires, when she arrived, was in her late fifties, barrel-shaped and barely five feet tall in sensible heels. But she looked like she’d made a career out of showing tough guys just how tough they weren’t. Ex-military, Neal decided, as she measured his pulse and blood-pressure, swabbed his throat and took his temperature—barely lowered at all by the morning’s dose of Tylenol.

Peter and Elizabeth looked on, arms crossed and those same matching concerned expressions on their faces.

Even more annoyingly, the doctor addressed Peter rather than Neal when she’d finished her examination, as if Neal had lost his hearing instead of his voice. “Some kind of bacterial throat infection,” she said. “I don’t think it’s strep, but I won’t know for sure until I get the results of the culture. With the temp he’s running, it seems pretty aggressive, whatever it is. I’d feel best if he came back to the clinic with me so we could start some IV antibiotics and saline.”

Neal widened his eyes meaningfully at Peter. And then winced. Even his eye sockets hurt. To his surprise, however, Peter seemed to agree with him.

“I’d rather he didn’t. He’s in the middle of an undercover operation and he may have been tailed here last night. Even if he wasn’t, there’s a chance that there are people on the lookout for him in the city. I’d rather not give up the game until we’ve decided how we’re going to play our part of it. Could you set the IV up here?”

“Yes, if you think that’s necessary.” Dr. Squires looked doubtful. “I have the supplies in my car. I’d have to send someone back with the right antibiotic, though, once I get the results back.”

“We can get a prescription filled,” Peter said. “And I can run it through the IV.”

“You can?” Elizabeth asked.

“Quantico,” said Peter, as if that explained everything, and turned back to the doctor. “What about his voice? Anything you can do about that?”

“Not really. I can leave him some analgesic spray for the pain. And it may improve once the infection backs off some. Or it could linger for days. Tricky thing, laryngitis.”

“So he won’t be able to do any work today, that’s what you’re telling me, right?” Peter addressed Dr. Squires, but looked directly at Neal.

“Your call, Agent Burke,” she said, shrugging. “A dose or two of antibiotics can work wonders sometimes.”

Neal smiled at Peter, even though that kind of hurt, too.

+++

Being back in the Burke’s comfortable spare bed—this time with an IV line running out of his arm and prescription strength painkillers in his system—made it hard to press the point, however. Not that that stopped Neal from giving it his best shot.

“I can do it, Peter. I don’t need my voice.” He clung to his phone like a life preserver, pecking at it, well, feverishly, even as the tiny keyboard blurred in front of his exhausted eyes.

“Mmm.” Peter glanced at the words and went back to arranging the stack of blankets Elizabeth had given him around Neal. “Why don’t you rest for a bit, huh? And then we’ll see where we are.”

Peter had dropped the sternness and was speaking—solicitously? kindly? Neal frowned. It could only mean one thing. Peter was humoring him. He fully expected Neal to sleep through the rest of the day, leaving Peter to do what he wanted with the Giraldi operation.

Neal squirmed himself slightly more upright, disturbing the nest of blankets Peter was building. He made a sound like a crow-squawk. Ugly, but it was all he was capable of right now. It got Peter’s attention at least. With a what-is-it-now sigh, he sat on the edge of the bed and looked at Neal expectantly.

Satisfied, Neal tapped out more words on the phone. “Send someone with me if u don’t think I can do it myself.”

“Call me crazy, but I don’t think you can do it yourself. Seeing as how you can’t talk. Or eat solid food. Or stand up for more than five minutes at a time. Jesus, Neal, what is it with you and this case?”

Neal didn’t know. Or at least he had no answer he could reduce to the tiny screen of the phone. He settled for squirming more vigorously, bumping Peter with his knee. Peter sighed again, and patted Neal’s leg through the blankets.

“Alright, alright, calm down. You need a lip-man, huh?” he asked, smiling a little at his own joke. “Who? I can’t go—he’d make me for a Fed in sixty seconds flat. Same for Diana or Jones. You wanna take Mozzie? If you go—which seems extremely unlikely at the moment, I have to say.”

Neal shook his head. That was starting to hurt less, at least. “Not Moz. Alex.”

Peter nodded. He seemed to be starting to take the idea seriously, despite himself. “I suppose that makes sense. She has a lot of cred in those circles. But Neal, Alex hasn’t always been what you’d call reliable. You’re not too sick to remember that, are you? Plus, do you even know where she is?”

Neal conceded the point. But the fact that Peter was starting to consider the details of the plan was a step toward victory. He could feel himself starting to relax, to sink deeper into the warm blankets. “Moz will know,” he typed, each word taking longer than the last.

“And what makes you think she’ll do this for us, even if we do find her?”

“She’ll do it.” He could feel his grip on the phone loosening, his eyes closing.

“Okay.” Peter pulled a stray bit of blanket over his shoulder. “I’ll see what I can do. You get some sleep.”

+++

Neal slept hard but not peacefully. In his dreams, he was in some dark space, humid with the breath of closely packed people, and he was cramped, aching with confinement, shackles heavy on his wrists and ankles. He could see no faces in the gloom, but he knew he was with the girls and boys whose pictures Giraldi had shown him, was one of them, just as weak, just as helpless. His stomach twisted with fear of what would happen to him when they docked, and with a vast, bitter, loneliness. And then something close to panic overtook him. His lungs constricted as he struggled for air, heard himself almost gagging for it—

“Hey,” a voice said. “Hang on—you’re all tangled up in these.” Someone peeled away the walls of his prison, letting in fresher air. Neal coughed, and Peter—for of course it was Peter—rubbed hard between his shoulder blades, loosening up whatever it was, though the coughing still hurt.

“I’m just adding the antibiotics to the IV,” Peter said, with a last reassuring rub of Neal’s shoulder. “I didn’t mean to disturb you. Go back to sleep if you can.”

Neal stared at Peter for a moment, trying to convince himself that he wasn’t on a ship, wasn’t bound for slavery. Then he laid his head on the pillow again, feeling as if he were still half inside his dream. He’d come close to ending up in that kind of situation a few times, sure, back when he’d had to trade more on his looks than his expertise to get by. Been a hairsbreadth away, if he were honest. But it had never come to that. Why had it all seemed so real, then? So familiar?

He didn’t think he would go back to sleep. But he did.

+++

When he surfaced again, someone else had their hand on his face. What was it about being sick that made it National Touch Neal Caffrey Day? Not that he minded being touched as a rule; it was just that the diagnostic mode wasn’t his favorite, all things considered.

These fingers were too small to be Peter’s, too hard and narrow to be Elizabeth’s, and too tentative to be a doctor’s.

“Moz—“ Neal said, opening his eyes and forgetting he’d lost his voice. It came out more of an M-shaped croak.

Mozzie withdrew his hand and peered at Neal worriedly from his perch on the edge of the bed. Neal blinked back at him, letting the pieces of the situation drift gradually back into place. So Peter had gone so far as to call Mozzie—though whether to aid in the plan or to help him with Neal-wrangling it remained to be seen.

“You look terrible,” Mozzie said. “I told you working with the Suits was bad for your health. And now I hear you’ve jeopardized your most precious instrument.” He touched his own throat in illustration.

Neal pushed himself up on his elbows. He was feeling better, he decided. Light-headed and achy, but not as cold and shaky as before. A glance at the bedside clock told him he’d been asleep for almost three hours. He tried to smile reassuringly at Moz, feeling around for his phone before he remembered that Mozzie could read lips.

“Did you find Alex?” he mouthed.

Mozzie looked disapproving. “Of course I did. But for once I concur with the Suit and Mrs. Suit,” he said. “You should drop this one. Let someone else go. Husband your resources.” He gestured dramatically towards Neal’s torso.

“Who am I, Al Pacino? I’m fine,” Neal told him. “Nothing like that time in Houston.”

Wrong thing to not-say. Mozzie’s face went tight and hard. “Good. Because sitting in an ER waiting room watching you cough blood isn’t my idea of a fun day out. Yours either, if you recall.”

Neal did. He’d never seen Mozzie conjure up new identities for them so fast and out of so little. Or be that close to desperate. Neither that, nor the three days in the hospital with pneumonia, were things he wanted to repeat.

“Really, I’m fine.” He patted Mozzie’s hand. “What did Alex say?”

Mozzie smiled in a self-satisfied way, distracted from Neal’s condition by his own ingenuity. “I convinced her to come hear us out. Actually,” he paused, bemused, “it didn’t take as much persuading as I thought it would, once I explained. She’s here.”

“I knew you could do it, Moz,” Neal said. He’d known Alex would come, too, though he couldn’t have said how he knew. But something had told him she wouldn’t be able to ignore the plight of those kids, any more than he could.

He’d levered himself up to sitting and swung his feet around to the floor before he realized he was still tethered to the IV line. “Get this thing out, would you?”

“Not so fast, Camille.” Mozzie brandished a thermometer. “The Suit says if your temperature is under 101 you can come down and sit with the grown-ups. Otherwise I’m supposed to make you stay in bed.”

Rolling his eyes, Neal took it from him, and scowled at Mozzie until it beeped. He looked at the number and handed it to Moz.

“100.9,” he mouthed. “Good enough for government work.”

***

He did look terrible, Neal acknowledged, catching a glimpse of himself in the bathroom mirror as he splashed water on his face: sunken-eyed, hollow-cheeked and pale, as if he’d spent a week in bed instead of half a day. He dragged a hand through his hair, brushed his teeth with the spare toothbrush someone had thoughtfully left for him, and sighed. Pitiful, but it would have to do. At least Mozzie had brought him some clean clothes.

It was a little past one—plenty of time to get ready for the three o’clock meet with Giraldi.

Peter seemed to have put together a miniature command center in his living room, Neal discovered, as he made his way cautiously downstairs, Mozzie hovering anxiously behind him. Diana and Jones looked up at his approach, giving him the looks of pitying sympathy one reserves for people who really should have stayed in bed. Peter looked half worried and half exasperated. Elizabeth was out of sight somewhere, or had maybe gone to work. Only Alex, black-clad and elegant, regarded him coolly, assessingly.

Neal almost flinched. He liked a bit of attention when he was sick, sure—people murmuring sympathetically, smoothing his hair and bringing him rare blends of tea. But this was something else entirely. This was like people watching an experiment go horribly wrong.

Neal would have given any of his hidden treasures for his voice back. If he could talk, he knew he could convince them he was fine, ready to do this thing—and, more importantly, that the thing needed doing. As it was, he could only square his jaw and try to look determined. Which was hard, because he wanted badly to hunch his shoulders against the steel vise it still felt like someone was tightening around the base of his skull.

“I’ll do it,” said Alex, pushing herself off the wall where she’d been leaning and addressing Peter. “But he’s not coming with me. I’ll go in alone.”

Neal squawked inadvertently—and then rubbed a hand hard along his throat in humiliation and pain. He sat heavily on the bottom stair and shot Peter a look that was meant to be outraged, but was probably just beseeching.

“Not so fast, Alex,” Peter said. “Neal’s been working this one for weeks—he knows the situation better than anyone.”

“Then he can brief me. Look at him.” She gestured. “He looks like he’s been on a two-week bender. Giraldi won’t believe a word he says. Oh, excuse me, a word he won’t be able to say. He’s a wreck: if things go south...” She left the thought unfinished, but it was clear what she meant: Neal was a liability.

“You’re going to figure out a way to take him, or you’re going to take me. No way am I letting you conduct an FBI operation on your own,” Peter said.

“I’m afraid not, Agent Burke. We’ll do it my way or I’m out.” Alex’s face didn’t change.

Peter looked from Alex, poised and confident as an art nouveaux lithograph, to Neal, slumped in uncharacteristic dishevelment on the stairs. “Suit yourself,” he shrugged. “Walk away and let a major human trafficking ring operation continue. Underage girl and boys, sold into sexual slavery, or God knows what. Killed with impunity.”

Alex glared at him, to all appearances stony-faced, but Neal, who knew her so well, could tell there was some kind of struggle going on behind her eyes. Peter, too, seemed to sense his advantage. He swung his laptop around: there was a picture of a slender, dark-haired body, naked except for pink panties, lying in a pool of blood.

“Fourteen,” he said. “And already two years in bondage to the man who eventually killed her. She came in via the same route.”

Nothing changed on Alex’s face, but after a minute she said, “Okay, tell me what you’ve got.”

Peter gave her his most wolfish smile. “The Bureau appreciates your assistance, Ms. Hunter. Neal—brief her. You can use my laptop.”

As Neal made his way over to the computer, Peter drew him aside. Neal raised his eyebrows enquiringly.

“You were right about this guy,” Peter said in a harsh whisper. “A little digging led us right to an open file from Interpol Sex Crimes. They’ve been tracking this ring for years, apparently, but haven’t been able to figure out how it was moving them through New York. This is a big break for them, and they don’t want to lose it, or spook him by aborting the exchange. You really think you’re up to it?”

Neal smiled and thumped his chest, only coughing a little. “I’m golden,” he mouthed.

“And Alex?” Peter looked worried again. “You can make her toe the line?”

Neal gave him a “Please” twist of the lips, though that seemed like the trickiest part of the whole thing.

“I hate this,” Peter murmured.

But when Neal had settled in front of Peter’s computer, Alex at his shoulder, the first thing he typed was “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

“Not at all.” Alex leaned in so that her voice tickled his ear. “I just hate to be slowed down by a weaker partner, that’s all.”

“This wouldn’t be about that time I left you in the hospital in Copenhagen, would it?”

“Of course not, darling. I’d forgotten all about that. Until you brought it up.”

But before Neal could get very far into the details of his cover and Giraldi’s operation, his phone buzzed.

Change of plans, said Giraldi’s text. Meet at 2.

+++

“Okay, this is improvised at best,” Peter said, fastening the watch around Neal’s wrist. “It’s a good thing you know Morse code—and that we have a Navy man around to decipher it.” He smiled at Jones. “We’ve fixed it—“ Mozzie cleared his throat and Peter amended himself. “Mozzie fixed it so that if you tap the knob on the side, we’ll pick up the code in the van. You, Ms. Hunter, have a more conventional means of communication.” He handed her a pen. “Just speak into this, and it’ll come through to us. I’m still not sure how you’re going to communicate with each other,” he looked between them, half-worried, half-amused, “but I’m sure you’ll manage.”

Neal thought the same thing, right up until the moment their taxi pulled up to Giraldi’s brownstone.

on to part two

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