Mea Culpa 2/2
Summary: Neal is missing and Jones thinks about how it all went wrong. Prequel to Fragile.
Warning: Some language, disturbing images
Author's Note: People really liked seeing Jones' POV before, so here's a bit more to the story!
In the end, it was Mozzie who found them the address where they believed Neal was being held. He’d even broken all his own rules and called Peter at the FBI himself. Jones wondered what sort of history Neal and Mozzie had to inspire such loyalty in the quirky, brilliant little man. He doubted he’d ever know the true story.
The division suited up and prepped their tactical teams in record time. They were shortly out the door and speeding along to what appeared to be an abandoned industrial complex on the docks.
After what seemed like an eternity, they finally approached the location. As he checked his gear one more time, Jones didn’t want to get his hopes up, because they’d already done this three times with nothing to show for it. He wasn’t sure if he could handle the crushing disappointment yet again when they turned over every inch of the building only to find they’d been wrong or simply too late. They’d found the remains of the tie that Neal had been wearing in the second warehouse raided and the shattered looks on everyone’s faces had been painful to take in. But knowing that it was Moz who’d given them this address, he found himself hoping against all hope.
Night had fallen and the complex was unlit. There was no activity in and around the area. He wasn’t sure if that was a good sign. On receiving the signal, the various teams entered the crumbling old factory. Methodically they searched room to room. A thick layer of dust blanketed everything, and moonlight filtered in through broken windows to land on rusty machinery that had lain undisturbed in years. The smell of mildew and mouse droppings permeated the still, thick darkness as they searched every rotting crate and crawl space. There was no sign that anyone had been this way recently at all. Jones couldn’t bear to look at Peter as they finished the sweep of their assigned quadrant.
Then as they were about to exit the building, chatter started over their radios. Apparently the guys doing the northeast section had found something. They rushed over in all haste and found themselves outside a series of rooms in the basement level that were empty and had no dust layer. All the walls were faced with plywood and looked like someone was halfway through repainting them. They circled in and out of the unfinished rooms dozens of times. Jones knew that there was something hidden here. There had to be.
The leader of the tactical team for the quadrant was about to call it a day. Peter insisted on more time. In the flickering beams of their flashlights, Jones could see Peter running dusty hands through his short hair in desperation. The funny thing was that if Neal were here, Jones figured he’d know exactly how to case the room, and find any hidden panel or loose board that would lead them to the treasure they sought.
Only they weren’t looking for missing paintings or jewels here and Neal wasn’t with them. Every minute that ticked by was a minute that Neal may not have left.
Jones resumed probing along the edges of plywood with urgency, tapping the sides, searching for any loose joints, listening for the slightest echo of a hollow panel.
It was Peter who figured out that the room in the very centre was smaller than it was supposed to be based on the dimensions in the other rooms. They stared at each other as realization set in and they dashed inside, frantically trying to dig out the panels nailed to the walls, and calling for sledgehammers, crowbars and heavy machinery.
When they finally pried off the panels on the innermost wall, it was only to discover a newly cemented brick wall behind it. Horrific thoughts and what-ifs began streaming through his mind and Jones forced himself to focus on organizing the tactical team and the tools they would need to get through this new obstacle as he dimly registered Peter slamming his bare hands on the jagged brick and cement screaming Neal’s name.
Diana pulled Peter away as they ran a thermal sensor over the wall. They couldn’t risk bludgeoning through if there was a chance that Neal was behind it. But the readings showed nothing so Jones ordered the tactical team to begin demolishing the wall, his heart weighing heavily within him like so much lead. He had been an agent for years, and he’d seen his fair share of ugliness but this was the first time Jones felt that his state of mind might be personally compromised.
When a sufficiently large hole was prepared, all they could see was inky blackness behind. Jones dreaded what they might find and he hesitated. Peter yanked himself from Diana’s grasp, grabbed a high beam flashlight from the nearest agent and leaned into the gap, only to find no body as he had imagined in his worst nightmare, but the remains of an old, rickety wooden staircase, now partially destroyed as they had broken through the wall, leading downward into abyssal darkness.
The comprehension of another floor beneath their feet spurred everyone into renewed action. The wall was completely broken down and the staircase judged unsafe without reinforcements. They lowered themselves into the frigid sub-basement with the aid of ropes and immediately began searching the warren of narrow prohibition era tunnels and storerooms. Jones could hear the scurrying of rats and saw the shine of condensation on the mouldy walls. Booted footprints in the filthy floor indicated recent activity so even though their point of entry may have been bricked up, there may very well be multiple entrances into the maze from an external access route so they were on heightened alert.
Jones began marking a rudimentary map as he and Peter progressed further down the main tunnel with one tactical team, checking every room and closet while Diana took a second team down a corridor off the main one. Then they got to a door with a heavy padlock and he reached for it with shaking fingers. The sparks flew and glinted harshly in the darkness as they cut through it and they flung the door open to reveal an old rusting boiler room, with a painfully low, mottled ceiling and calcium deposits from generations ago crusting every surface and there at the far corner, chained to the pipes and huddled on a thin, dirty mattress was their boy. For a moment, Jones stood frozen as Peter dashed forward, reaching out to Neal, who was worryingly unresponsive, even with the amount of noise that they had made breaking into the room. He stepped closer and saw that Neal wasn’t alone, but cradling a small child to him, three or four years old, wrapped in the remains of his torn, bloody jacket. As Peter anxiously checked for a pulse, the child woke and clutched harder at Neal, who also seemed to stir, tightening his arms around the child, and curling even more around the child if possible, shielding her from their flashlights and the harsh sounds of the invading tactical team. Jones got them all to leave but grabbed a floor lantern from one of the probies.
“Neal! Oh my god Neal!”
Peter was then kneeling on the ground in front of them, slowly brushing messy locks of dark curls from Neal’s bloody, bruised face. His heart broke as he saw Neal flinch from the gentle contact.
“Neal, please, it’s Peter.”
Slowly, Neal looked up at him, squinting in the dim light of the lantern, his fingers reaching out to Peter’s face, like he couldn’t believe the sight before him.
“Peter…” he breathed. “You came, you really came…” Jones strained to hear the broken little whispers as Neal’s breathing rasped in the frigid, pungent air. He edged closer, sitting on his haunches.
“Oh Neal. Did you think for a moment that I wouldn’t?”
Jones had never felt more like an intruder on such an intimate moment as Peter took Neal’s icy cold, clammy hand in his bigger ones.
“Come on. We gotta get you out of here.” Relief coloured Peter’s every word and he tried for humour next. “You make friends everywhere you go, don’t you kiddo. Who’s this little thing?”
“This is Sophie,” Neal began to shift the child so that he could introduce her to Peter but she wouldn’t meet his eyes.
Peter tried to reach for her but the child panicked, wailing in fear, and clutched Neal even harder. Neither Peter nor Jones missed the pained gasp that Neal couldn’t stop from escaping as the child grabbed him, and his breathing became even more laboured.
Even so, Neal immediately started to soothe the little girl in French.
“Sophie! Sophie, I’m still here with you. These people are here to help us. Remember I told you my friend would come for us…”
“See, Sophie, this is Peter”.
“I am very pleased to meet you, Sophie.” Peter stuck out a hand for Sophie to shake. After some prompting from Neal, she warily took it.
“Is the kid injured?”
“Cuts and bruises, but they didn’t do anything to her.” Thank god for small mercies.
“Can you walk?”
“I...I think so…”
“Sophie, cherie, I need to stand up now. Can you stand up too?”
Sophie looked from Neal to Peter and back, deciding it was ok, she slowly unwrapped herself from around Neal and stood back on the mattress, her little bare feet peeking out from under a filthy flannel nightgown, one hand clutching Neal’s torn sleeve, the other still clasping his jacket around her. Her fearful grey eyes were round and frightened as Peter leant forward, quickly checking Neal over for injuries. There were at least a few broken ribs, a stab wound on the right side still sluggishly bleeding, plus a myriad other cuts, bruises and scrapes. A long gash at the hairline had bled all over the left side of his face. Thick heavy manacles encircled his wrists and ankles and Jones thought it spoke to the condition Neal was in because he hadn’t been able to pick them.
They worked as fast as they could to get Neal out of the restraints as the child crouched by his side, with Neal whispering reassurances to her all the while.
Peter gently put an arm under Neal, supporting him as Neal forced himself to his feet, pain evident in every movement. His legs trembled from long confinement and Neal swayed, but Peter was there to steady him. Sophie was huddled behind Neal, now attached to his pant leg. Jones could see that Neal would barely be able to walk out but the medics would not be able to get the gurneys down the ropes into the basement. Peter had left orders to reinforce the stairs before they’d gone hunting through the tunnels and Jones hoped that they were finished.
“Neal, can you get Sophie to go with Jones?” Peter observed their little dilemma.
But no amount of persuasion would make Sophie let herself be carried by Jones and while he didn’t take it personally, Neal was fading fast. Finally Neal bent down with much difficulty and picked up the panicking child. Jones didn’t want to know what that cost Neal. The red stain on his side was visibly growing bigger.
“Neal!” Peter admonished.
“I’m good. I can hold her. Just …just be with me.”
Peter could do that. He wrapped his overcoat around Neal and Sophie and with one arm around Neal, they made their way out of the cramped little room, with Jones clearing the tunnel in front of them, finding the way back to the staircase, which had been rebuilt with the plywood panels from above. It was awkward, but with Jones on one side and Peter on the other, they carried and shuffled and dragged their way up those stairs by sheer willpower.
By the time they got outside to the courtyard, they were all but carrying Neal. Neal’s slender body was wracked by tremors and his breathing was growing increasingly laboured. Jones could feel a warm wetness soaking through his jacket and shirt sleeve. They stumbled a few times, and Neal’s legs finally gave out as the ambulances appeared, sirens blaring, in the yard.
Things descended into chaos as agents closed in. The medics appeared and the child began to scream as someone pulled her out of Neal’s arms. Neal was taken away from them, and Jones led Peter off to the side so that the medics could do their job. Peter’s expression was distressingly bereft.
They saw Neal being lifted onto a gurney, with various wires and an IV stuck into him but then their view got blocked again by milling agents and LEOs. The child was still wailing in full panic somewhere nearby.
Jones looked around for Sophie but they were suddenly approached by a medic.
“Is one of you Agent Peter Burke? Mr Caffrey is asking for you.”
Peter wasted no time and ran to the ambulance she pointed at, Jones hard on his heels.
“Peter, Peter…” Neal’s voice sounded so weak but at least he was still awake. “Where’s Sophie? I can hear her. She’s scared. And she doesn’t understand…Please bring her to me…please…”
Jones looked up and scanned the crowd before spotting Diana watching helpless as two medics attempted to restrain the hysterical child, who was kicking, biting and screaming like a banshee. He gave Peter a nod and ran over to them.
Jones’ experience with kids was limited to his twice-yearly visits with his small gaggle of nieces and nephews when he went home to see the family at Thanksgiving and Easter. He got along well enough with the older boys as they were always up for a game of baseball but everything else was a bit of mystery to him. However, even he knew that making a grab for the girl in this state would not end well for anyone.
He didn’t remember much of his high school French that he’d only taken to impress some long ago crush, but at least he knew this little girl’s name, and he knew what she wanted most right then.
“Sophie! Sophie!” he got as near as he could and called her name. “I will take you to Neal! ...Neal!... Neal, Sophie…”
That got her attention.
Jones held out his arms and she launched herself at him. He ran what he hoped was a soothing hand down the tiny quivering back and walked back to Neal, with Diana and the medics trailing behind, looking vaguely impressed.
As they neared Neal’s gurney, Sophie called out to him and Neal reached out with his one good arm. Jones was hesitant but ultimately had no choice as the child dove downwards towards the safety of her protector and he placed her on Neal’s uninjured side. They all watched transfixed as the child tucked herself under Neal’s arm, sobbing quietly, and Neal, even in his fevered state, gently cradled her, soothing her with soft words and a kiss to her wispy baby fine hair as his bright eyes began to close. Peter ran a tender paternal hand over Neal’s dark curls, wordlessly bleeding emotion for his partner. Jones finally allowed mind-numbing relief to flood through him after ten days of pent-up tension and stamped-down fear.
“Sirs, Ma’am. Mr Caffrey needs immediate medical attention and the ambulance must leave now. The child needs treatment also and has to go in a separate bus.”
Peter made to reach forward for Sophie but was halted by Neal’s gesture to stop. Neal gently unwound the child’s arms from around him, and sat her up.
“Sophie, cherie, I am very sleepy. I have to take a nap in this van here. Can you be a good girl and take a nap too?”
“Nap with you.”
“Sorry, cherie...this van is for boys only. That one is for girls. It’s just for a little, little while.”
He held out a hand to Diana who surprised, came forward and took it.
“See cherie, this is my good friend Diana.” He placed Sophie’s little hand in Diana’s. “She’ll go with you, and you two can go to the girls’ van for a bit. We’ll be back together before you know it. …it’ll be fun, just girls…”
Sophie looked up fearfully at Diana, who smiled warmly and seemed to be trying hard to look as non-threatening as possible, then back at Neal who was rapidly losing his battle with unconsciousness.
“Please, cherie, do this for me? Do this for Neal?”
There was a pause before he heard a small whispered answer. “ok...”
“You are my little angel…thank you cherie…go with Diana, there’s a good girl.”
Jones and Peter watched as Diana left with Sophie in her arms, the sad little face looking back forlornly as Neal’s gurney was loaded into the ambulance. Jones turned to his boss. They were both bone-weary, haggard and filthy, but Neal needed Peter more than he did so he assured Peter that he would wrap up the scene here, get the reports in and join them at the hospital later. Peter reached up and squeezed his shoulder, gratitude shining in his tired brown eyes.
The thought came to him as he watched the ambulances carrying his team away, with Neal's blood drying on his shirtsleeves, that he’d never really had to question his upper-middle class world view until he met Neal Caffrey and now he realized that as he approached his fourth decade in life, he was going to have to rethink his definition of what it truly meant to be A Good Man.