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"…in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp 'Why?'

Replies the scorpion: 'It's my nature...'"
Aesop's Fables

* * * * *

He could taste blood in his mouth.

Gagging, coughing, it was only after a few gulps before Neal realized it was because he had bitten his tongue. The same time, he realized two things:

1. The air smelled like blood
2. The blood wasn't his

He couldn't remember how he got here.

...Okay, three things.

Neal stared blearily up at an ornate ceiling. He knew the names of the sculpted delineations surrounding the chandelier (due to a two-man con back when it was just him and Moz, and Moz was more convincing as the architect's assistant, while Neal had supposedly graduated magma cum laude from Cooper Union) but he couldn't remember them right now. His head pounded, his body felt leaden, bruised, not his. Neal painfully turned his head, the spot behind his eyes flaring hot and tight when he did. The rough cotton scraping his cheek told him he was on decent quality bedding: high thread count, just poor thread.

To his right, Neal could (barely) see the murky space of a large room, stripped of furniture, walls paler in spots where something must have once stood. All that was left was a mahogany table that didn't match the space, a door opened to reveal glimpses of a bathroom and the gaping opening of a walk-in closet.

To his left...was a body.

The sharp shock that lanced through his hip was Neal's only clue that he'd thrown himself onto the floor. He sat there, chest heaving as he stared up at the bed. It was low enough so he could still see the blank-eyed corpse turned toward Neal, mouth partially opened as if he had been interrupted mid-sentence, his white dress shirt was pink with the blood leaked from a throat slit ear to ear. It left a macabre grin under the gray face.

Neal's breath quickened. He had never seen that man before. Why was he here? Better yet, why was Neal here, in the bed, the dead and the living lying side by side in a—where was this place?

Peter. He needed to call Peter.

As Neal shakily got up on his knees, he patted himself (his jacket was gone, his trousers' pockets were torn) for a cell phone he knew might not be there. He spied an unfamiliar one, glistening wet and red on a nightstand Neal hadn't noticed before. He grabbed it and dialed Peter's number. It took him two tries.

The ringing was a relief. Neal rested his head against the side of the bed, thought better of it, then shuffled over to lean against the nightstand instead. He couldn't walk away. He couldn't stand and somehow, even down here, Neal could feel that empty stare finding him from that bed. He turned his shoulder and stared at the scuff marks on the patchy carpet instead.

The phone picked up after three rings, long enough Neal found himself shaking, quick enough Neal didn't have enough time to question why his first instinct wasn't to get the hell out.

"Burke." Peter's clipped voice had scarcely registered when Neal sagged against the furniture.


At Neal's voice, Peter exploded into a tirade; something about the radius, marshals, missing for hours. Neal flinched at the anger. His eyes darted left and right, up and down, until they steadied on his legs. A tiny sound strangled out from the back of his throat and the buzzing by his ear stopped.


"My tracker's gone," Neal blurted. He stared at his bare ankle, purple bruising striping where a GPS should have been; the dark trouser sock that normally camouflaged the tracker into a lumpy ankle was torn and sagging. He started to shake harder.

"I-I don't have my..." Neal blinked rapidly. The floor blurred then sharpened, only to blur again. He clutched the phone closer to his face. He gagged because even that smelled coppery. "I don't know where I...you can still find me without it, right?"

"What's going on? Are you all right?" Peter seemed to have shot back into another tirade; however his voice changed to something less livid but no less frenzied.

Neal closed his eyes. "I don't know. I...it's gone. I don't know..." Neal curled a hand around the cell, the other around his bare ankle. The grip on the clammy skin gave little comfort, but the weight around it was a vaguely reassuring one.

"What do you mean you don't know? Neal, we lost your tracking info an hour after you left the office. What the hell happened? Neal? Neal!"

"My anklet," Neal mumbled. His hand curled tighter around his ankle. Why didn't Peter get it? It was like that time he'd tried to explain the significance of Kahlo's self portraits to him.

"Neal!" Peter sounded frantic for some reason. "Are you hurt?"

No, he didn't think so. Neal pulled up his hand and dully plucked at the frayed thread where a trouser button should be. No, he was numb, no pain, so he couldn't be hurt, right? Not like that. Besides, it wasn't his blood.

"Blood? What blood?"

Oh, he must have said it out loud. Neal's shoulders hunched and his chin lowered. He wanted his jacket. He wanted his tie to close the gaping shirt, its buttons worriedly gone, leaving his exposed throat chilled.

"I don't know where I am," Neal mumbled. He wished his head didn't feel so heavy. He wished he didn't feel so blank right now, emptied of everything he'd learned that would have gotten him away from this place. All he knew, all he could concentrate on was the phone he held to his face that was tattooing him with someone else's blood; it was the only thing keeping him tethered to someplace safe.

Peter had gone silent and Neal began to gasp. Did he lose the connection? He didn't want to risk pulling the phone away to check. Maybe if he could get closer to the phone—wait, that didn't make sense. Neal closed his eyes and swallowed convulsively. None of this did.

"You'll find me, right?" Neal whispered into the phone. He nearly dropped it when Peter's voice returned, just as low, but a buoy more solid than the nightstand Neal was propped against.

"Damn right I will."

* * * * *

The address Jones called out didn't make sense. How the hell did Neal get all the way up in Hamilton Heights when his tracker signal stop at Tribeca?

Hell, Neal wasn't making any sense.

Peter was jerking his arms into his shoulder holster, darting around agents standing dumbfounded because their manhunt had suddenly become a search and rescue: an agent-in-distress. Hughes must have heard him hollering from his office down the hall. Hughes had heard enough of Peter's side of the conversation to tell Diana to call off the marshals and then he gang pressed a few agents bulked out in Kevlar to pile into a van and follow Peter.

"Left," Jones said even as Peter's GPS agreed in a flat, mechanical voice that tried for sultry and failed. "Looks like he's in the Folgers Row," he added. He braced himself with a palm flat on the car roof as Peter made a hairpin turn throughout Broadway, past Coliseum Books and into Columbus Circle, bisecting the newly carved bicycle lane and "Right turns only" roads.

"Uh..." Jones swallowed the rest of what he was going to say when Peter sped up and cut in front of an aging, gray dappled horse indolently pulling a carriage of tourists. If there was a camera flash or two in his wake, Peter ignored it.

The van of Kevlar-wearing agents doggedly stayed on Peter's tail, even as New York's finest joined in from Riverside Park and bookended them with a pair of wailing patrol cars to provide backup. Another raced ahead to clear cross-town traffic, but despite its help, it irked Peter because he wasn't going fast enough.

Red lights were ignored. Cars braked abruptly.

And Neal made tiny, hitched noises in his ear.

"Neal, we're five minutes away," Peter spoke into his Bluetooth. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Jones about to argue. The GPS screen read ten.

"Five minutes, buddy," Peter repeated when all he heard was the quickening of aborted exhales, as if breathing out would be fatal.


"Just hold on. We're almost there."

"Someone's coming."

The thump that knocked hard against his ribs stole his voice for a second. Peter swore in his head, stood harder on the gas and heard Jones mutter a prayer.

"Neal, find someplace to hide. We're coming."

The line was quiet. Then there was a scraping sound, a gasp.


"Neal? Neal!"

Silence replied mournfully in his ear.

* * * * *

At first, he thought the body moved. Then Neal realized it was just telegraphing his body shaking against it.

Neal's heart was doing a strange staccato against his ribs vibrating up to his ears. The thrumming felt like it was coursing up his body, pressure collecting in his head.

It was...distracting.

The distant footsteps were getting closer. The tread sounded heavy, measured and not alone. Definitely not alone. There were two pairs of them.

Neal gulped. He tried to tell himself this was like the time at the Musée de l'Orangerie; he stayed scrunched inside an air vent for three hours, waiting for the building to empty so he could get his hands on a Modigliani. Moz wasn't impressed. Then again, he was more Kandinsky than Modigliani.

The feeling of the cell still pressed to his ear drew him out of the thoughts spinning around like a rip current. There was instruction in there. Somewhere. What was wrong with him? Neal scanned the room. The floor underneath him staggered and swayed. Maybe it was from his position on the ground, but everything looked too far away and he could hear voices now, sharp and gruff and rapid. Whoever they were, they were arguing. Arguing about killing him? Neal didn't want to wait around to find out.


It wasn't clear if Neal actually heard it or the echoing in his head had shaped into some form of coherency. Either way, Neal found himself nodding, stopping when the nausea doubled and his throat burned sourly with the effort not to vomit.

Neal struggled to get up.

Knees buckled and he dropped the phone as he threw out his hands to soften his landing. He heard a soft snap and felt the subsequent tearing pain that burned across his left wrist as surely as if he took a sharp edge to it.

The phone clattered to the ground. Loudly.

The footsteps halted. The voices silenced.

Neal backed away on his good hand and knees until he realized there was nowhere left to go. The bed blocked his way like the rock of Gil—

The bed.

Neal glanced over his shoulder at it and spied the crumpled, wadded up lump of his navy three-button jacket. It had been kicked under the bed like an old sock—a poor way to treat a genuine Devore. Neal crawled backwards into the space his feet were tucked into. It would be tight, but Neal has been in tighter spots than this—literally and figuratively.

The phone's screen was dark with inactivity when Neal snatched it off the floor. He nearly dropped it as he fumbled to cancel its sudden ringtone.

The footsteps started again. Slower, purposeful.

Neal pulled the jacket up to his chin as he wiggled quietly under the bed. Something soft skittered against his ribs, another squeaked and several out-of-focus black spots scampered away. He didn't think about it. He could feel the frame against his tailbone, the ground hard and pressing up to his torso. Breathing was doable so long he didn't fully expand his chest. He could move his arms against his sides, but bringing them forward would trap them between him and the floor. Neal moved on his belly, feeling like the snakes he'd seen on all those nature documentaries. He moved in an S pattern, traveling inch by inch until his toes hit the wall.

Breathing shallowly, Neal curled into his jacket, hiding his face, his exposed hands. He bit back a moan as he shrugged shoulders, rounded his back and wound into a fetal position. The bed was unyielding against his shoulder. Neal huddled behind his camouflage, the cell phone hugged to his chest facedown, so the gleam of the screen didn't shine like a beacon.

Beyond the bed, he heard the doorknob jiggle.

Neal sucked in his breath, exhaled slowly, mutely because he was too tightly sandwiched between the bed and the floor to draw in much air.

"Damn it."

Neal twitched when he heard an unfamiliar voice. The newcomer swore.

"How the hell did he get out?" Another, higher—younger?—voice snapped.

"I don't know," the first one barked back. "Thought you said that shit lasts a good twelve hours."

"We should've checked him."

"Think he's got it?"

There was a harsh, grating bark; a chuckle dragged over gravel. "The other guy didn't."

"Check the room." A floorboard creaked. "Should we call—"

"Not yet."

Neal caught words, bits and pieces. They didn't make sense, but Neal listened as best as he could because he suspected it would make sense later. He pulled the jacket higher to hide his face. He peeked around it and stared with foggy vision at the long strip of light marking the border of the bed.

Doorways opened and shut, a painted shut window was pried opened. It groaned.

Neal shivered—no, don't move—as he tucked his hands under his arms. His wrist throbbed at the contortion, but Neal was afraid his exposed skin would glow in the dark. Neal cautiously exhaled shallow breaths into the jacket's collar.

Footsteps stopped. Neal froze as the gleaming tips of polished but worn leather shoes appeared, breaking the line of light. Neal pulled the lapels higher over his ears. He bit his lower lip as he peeked under the spots his jacket couldn't completely cover.

An anonymous, pale face, with a narrow, unsmiling mouth and squared chin, crouched by the bed. Neal's breath quickened. He clenched, willing his limbs to lock painfully in place; he pressed his lips together to keep the pounding of his heart from escaping his throat.

Something dripped onto his cheek from above. Neal bit the inside of his mouth. Another drip. It was warm and thick, lazily trailing down to his Adam's apple.

Don't move. Don't move.

Neal could feel the phone digging into his sternum. A stray thought—that the cell would slip out from his cover—overwhelmed him.

From under the jacket, Neal caught the face slowly turning in his direction. Neal tensed. Had he been spotted?

Above him, the bed shifted and moved as the other climbed on it. Another warm and wet trail.

Neal could feel the eyes trying to stare through the darkness.

"You see anything?"

No, Neal fervently thought.

The pale face under the bed canted, but it was still watching Neal's corner like a cat lying in wait by a mouse hole.

"See anything?" a voice demanded. Too many cigarettes had roughened the voice to a harsh timbre.

The face glanced over his shoulder.

"I think I need a flashlight."

"What? Do I look like fuckin' Bob Vila?"

"Give me your cell phone then."

The smoke-grated voice coughed out a scoff. "Use your cell phone."

Neal watched, his throat working as a cell phone screen brightened. Its meager square of light slowly rotated from one end, heading toward him.

He couldn't move. His joints burned with the strain of being bent far beyond what they should, but he couldn't move. He could only watch, illogically feeling that anemic beam approaching like a flame, its heat crawling up his ankles, to his tucked knees, soon to his…

A small dark mass broke free from his enclave of shadows and darted out from under the bed. The face disappeared and the phone dropped with a tiny shatter.

"Geez!" The black shoes did a quick two step in front of Neal. "Rats! God damn furry diseased—"

There was a squeak, the sound of something soft hitting a distant wall. Neal swallowed.

"Did you see anything?" the other rasped, unmoved by the pest.

"Did you not see that? No, nothing. He'll have to be fricking Houdini to fit in there." The bed above Neal gave a creak. "You searched the body?"

Another something that Neal didn't want to think about dripped to the corner of his mouth. He fought not to gag.

"Twice. It's not with him, damn it."

"Check upstairs," the smoke-roughened voice ordered. "I'll check downstairs. Pretty boy couldn't have gone far, not with that much shit in him."

Neal heard footsteps obey the commands; two pairs of black leather shots stomped past the bed and out the door. He laid there as they went down the hall, growing fainter and fainter until he couldn't hear them anymore.

But he still couldn't move.

Neal dropped a cheek to the floor. The carpet scratched his jaw and filled his nostrils with the dry, smothering odor of dust and damp. His legs spasmed. His wrist ached. But he still couldn't move.

Neal tugged the jacket closer to his face and fought the overwhelming urge to pass out. Tucking the silent cell phone to his chin, he waited for it to come back to life.


Yes, he was hiding. Now, he was waiting. Neal couldn't remember for what, but deep down, he knew if he waited long enough, it would be okay. It would. It would.

Above him, the bed wept another thick, coppery tear down his face.

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( 1 comment — comment )
Oct. 18th, 2011 02:42 am (UTC)
Ooh, this is an intriguing start. I'm looking forward to reading more :)
( 1 comment — comment )

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Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?

~ Gandalf "The Hobbit"

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