She hadn’t been able to sleep that night. Her arm was hurting and the stitches were pulling. Whatever she tried, Bella couldn’t get her mind to settle, so instead, she spent the night running her shooter’s face through the FBI database. Disconnecting every 10 minutes.
By the end of the night, she saw the sun come up from her window and she had gotten nowhere. Even switching to her more powerful computer didn’t work as the connections were so slow. Bella got dressed into something comfortable, knowing that two men were still in her home with her, and headed to the kitchen to make some coffee.
“Mornin’!” Neal greeted her happily. “Coffee?”
“Yes, please.” She sat down at the table and studied him. “You’re looking fresh.”
“Oh, yeah, the beds here are just fantastic,” he added cheerfully. “What about you? Did you get some sleep?”
“No, and I didn’t get anywhere with the facial recognition either. The servers were sluggish and it was just tiresome. I’ll try again in a bit while most of the world is still dormant, I dunno.” Bella gratefully accepted the mug of coffee and was stunned when her milk and sugar were already added. “What’s this?”
“Come on,” Neal smirked. “We’ve worked together for a nearly two months, we may change who we are for our jobs, but our coffee order will always be the same.”
“You remembered my coffee order?”
“Of course! Why wouldn’t I? Was all part of the job and after I saw you that night wanting that Picasso, I remembered stuff about you for the next time.”
“Creep,” Bella muttered as she savored her coffee. “Where’s Liam?”
“Oh, I gave him a list of groceries to get, seeing as you don’t have a lot in your home and he won’t let either of us leave until we’re certain what happened,” Neal replied as he started to cook breakfast. “And he’s running by my place to pick up some clothes for me. You have some cute clothes, but I don’t fit them.”
Bella cocked her head as she looked at his behind. “I don’t know… you’d look terrific in a dress, some high heels…”
“Funny.” Neal flipped the eggs. “Good to see you have your sense of humor back.”
“Ah, but I have caffeine, it’s the nectar of the Gods!” She took a sip of her coffee again and relaxed in her chair. “I can get used to this, someone else who cooks.”
“Ah! I don’t mind doing it, it’s more fun to cook for more people,” Neal replied as he slid the eggs onto some toast and set the plate down in front of Bella. “So, did you google me?”
“Why would I?”
“Aren’t you at least curious about me?”
Bella stared at him for a moment and shook her head. “I trust Liam. Liam says you’re all right, why would I bother looking you up online when I was doing other stuff? Besides, it’s a lot more entertaining to get to know someone in person than to read things on the internet about them and half of it might not even be true.”
Neal let out a snort. “You’re so unlike other con artists I’ve met,” he replied as he sat down in front of her. “Not self-absorbed, not working an angle at all times… you’re actually quite normal.”
“Thanks? I guess?” Oh, she knew what he was talking about. Bella had disliked him from the very start because he was always ‘on’ and couldn’t switch off. It was a safety mechanism, but she was glad to see that he had potential to be ‘normal’.
Her siblings had always hated her for her ‘reasonable’ behavior. They were all competitive with each other, who got the best scores, the best gigs… the bigger amount of bodies, and Bella wasn’t like that at all. Sometimes it felt as if she didn’t even belong in the family, but then again, there were plenty of families out there who didn’t like each other.
Her brothers and sisters also didn’t like it she wasn’t allowed to go on ordinary jobs, and that she was the one who needed to fix things when things would go sideways. Bella was the wildcard, the fixer and the cleaner, but after years and years of fights, distrust and being bullied had made her escape to Uncle Garrett permanently. Not even her father knew where his brother lived, and Garrett liked to keep it that way.
Uncle Garrett allowed her to be who she wanted to be, helped her to refine her skills and Bella had been truly content, and was now wondering if maybe it had been a bad idea to give up the vineyard for Paris.
But she was an adult, mid-twenties, she had no one but Uncle Garrett and his people to talk to. Paris had been such a big lure, and now… Now she got shot. Paris sucked.
“And yet, you’re great at what you do, and that means you found a healthy balance that I’m still searching for,” Neal said as he took a bite off of his toast. “It’s why I’m here and not still in the States being Neal Caffrey.”
“How’s it working out for you?”
“Too soon to tell. It’s hard to switch off,” he laughed. A genuine laugh. Not faked, not played. “I was a CI for the FBI for six years and even then I couldn’t stop scheming, thinking about my next score or how I could do something behind Peter’s back.”
“FBI Agent Peter Burke. Great man, perfect wife, and a great dog. Out of all the individuals I came in contact with… only he and my best friend knew who I truly was and what made me tick.”
“You miss him, don’t you? The both of them.”
Neal nodded. “Yeah. But Neal Caffrey had to die, and I had to start over. Too much baggage, too many waves.”
“Have you been checking in on your friends since you left?”
“Nah, they’re okay without me.”
“Are you okay without them?”
Neal barked out a laugh. “What are you? A psychiatrist?”
“No.” Bella smiled at him as she took a sip of her coffee. “Like you, I had to leave people behind when I moved on from my old life, but unlike you, I didn’t have people I care about.”
Bella nodded as she finished her breakfast. “How about we check in on your friends? I’m pretty solid with the computer, you see. I could take a break from running someone’s mug through facial recognition and do something entertaining.”
Bella shrugged. “Anyway you think is fun to do.”
“But the US is asleep.”
“Hold that thought,” she responded as she retrieved her laptop from her bedroom, cleared the table and set up her laptop. “Does one of them have an alarm system?”
“Peter has,” Neal answered, a bit suspicious of her question. “Why?”
“Alarm systems connect to the alarm company through the internet, I’ve hacked alarm systems before, it’s fun,” she pointed to her now empty cup of coffee. “If you pour me another, I’ll have you in contact with your Peter in 30 minutes.” Bella said as she started to open a few programs. “He’ll likely be grumpy though, nobody likes to wake up in the middle of the night, but it’s fun.”
Bella asked for Peter’s address, the name of his security company and after some digging around the security firm’s database, she found Peter’s alarm system. “Oh, it will be loud, and I’ve routed the company’s emergency phone number he’ll likely call to this program, it’s safe and secure, nobody can trace us, and you can get to talk to Peter, even invite him for a video chat, but he’d have to install a piece of software on his PC that he might not be thrilled with. So audio only, okay?”
She pointed at her screen. “I’m inside the alarm system now, what music do you want to wake Peter with? Anything is possible, all I need to look for is the melody online, load it up…”
Bella eyed him, brows raised. “I ask you for anything and you come up with Baby Shark?”
“Oh, come on!” Neal whined. “Isn’t that song stuck in everyone’s heads these days? It’ll be fun. He and his wife will wake up annoyed anyway, so why not make it super annoying?”
Laughing, Bella shrugged and went looking for the music and installed it on the server. It was always fun to fuck with an FBI agent. “Here we go, you ready to talk to your buddy?”
“Oh yeah, definitely. Thank you.” His gratitude was truly sincere, Bella could tell.
With one push of the button, the alarm in Peter’s house went off. She swapped between the two programs and the response time surprised her. Peter was almost immediately on the phone to them. She picked up the call and disengaged the alarm.
“This is Peter Burke, 4232 DeKalb Avenue, my alarm just went off for no reason.”
“Are you sure there’s no intruder in your home, sir?” Bella replied. “Nothing out of the ordinary?”
It was quiet for a moment before Peter realized that his alarm wasn’t the right tone. “Who is this?”
“Hey Peter,” Neal replied, a relieved smile on his face as he heard his friend’s voice, and Bella left him and Peter alone for a bit while she took her coffee elsewhere. “Hey, where are you going?” Neal grabbed her wrist. “Don’t go away, it’s fine.”
“Neal?” Peter sounded dazed.
“Oh, come on, Peter, we all know that you have already figured it out that I’m still here. Don’t worry, the line is safe and secure.” Neal watched as Bella sat down again. “How are you? How’s Elizabeth? Moz?”
“Neal? Is that Neal on the phone?”
“Yes, hon, he’s the one who set off the alarm too.”
“Well, technically, it wasn’t me. Just a friend giving me the opportunity to talk to you.”
“Neal.” Peter’s voice sounded stern. “Do you have any idea how many laws you’re breaking right now?”
“And isn’t the purpose of you faking your death to start anew?”
“Yes,” he nodded. “How’s the baby?”
“Neal is fine.”
“No, I’m asking about the baby. I know I’m fine.”
“We named the baby after you, Neal. That was before I found out you were still alive.”
Neal’s face lit up. “You didn’t! Oh, wow, Peter! What an honor! See, I knew you couldn’t live without me!”
“Yeah, well, your stunt has woken him up too,” Peter said grumpily. “Are you in trouble?”
“No, why would I be? I missed hearing your voice!”
“Because you’re smart enough to make clean breaks, that’s why, Neal. I don’t care if your friend gave you a chance to seek contact safely, but this is the first we hear from you in a long time, so something must be up.”
“Don’t,” Bella said as she peered at Neal, “Don’t you dare! We can figure this out together and if not… No. Don’t.”
“You got shot.”
“I don’t want to have the FBI involved in this! I’m off their radar and I’m happy to stay that way!” She had her hand on the disconnect button. “Change subject with your friend or I will sever the connection right now.”
Neal narrowed his eyes on her. “So you will really keep hacking the FBI to use their facial recog-”
“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.” Peter’s voice sounded.“But if you need help…”
“No cops, Peter.”
“And no FBI involvement,” Bella scowled as she took another sip of her coffee. “You have one more chance. Change subject.”
“Mozzie and June are great. Mozzie is lonely, so he hangs out with El a lot and baby Neal. Get this, we even allow Mozzie to babysit these days, and he loves hanging out with Teddy too.”
“I know, but I felt bad for the guy, and El adores him, so does Diana. So, how have you been, Neal?”
“Oh, you know, keeping busy.”
“That Picasso, was that you?”
“Which one?” Neal grinned as he looked at Bella, who rolled her eyes at the question. “Maybe.”
“What? I got bored!”
“And now your new friend got shot.”
“And you have no idea who did it, seeing as you’re breaking laws to use facial recognition software.”
“All right, that’s enough Neal. Say goodbye to your friend, this conversation is over,” Bella said as she got up with her hand above the disconnect button.
“Bye Peter, give my love to everyone else. Stay in touch!” He laughed as Bella disconnected the call and pushed him with her injured arm, causing her to yelp in pain. “Happy?”
“Absolutely not!” she shot at him. “This is the last time I’ll do something out of the kindness of my heart for you,” she added as she picked up her laptop and got off the chair.
“What are you going to do?”
“Use a different database as you told a Fed I was using his database.” She narrowed her eyes on him as she suddenly realized something. “Unless telling him was your plan all along, seeing as some systems are caching the searches, so he knows what to look for.”
“It’s a cyber intrusion, and they keep logs of every intrusion. I figured he could have someone look for it, connect it to something to his current case and give us the information we need.”
“Peter is great at finding me.”
“No.” She shook her head as she took a few steps back, creating some distance between herself and Neal. “I can’t believe you did that.”
“I can’t believe you didn’t think of this scenario.”
“Get out,” she pointed at the door. “Get the fuck out of my house.”
“Why? Because I’m trying to help you? I can trust Peter with this, he won’t do anything to jeopardize our location or-”
“We’re involving the FBI now. I wanted to stay clear of having the FBI involved because they aren’t aware of me. If I’m in the system, people can find me. I was sure that we did things safely just now, but this place is now burned, because you choose to involve your friend. Get the fuck out,” she spat as she walked to her bedroom to pack. Knowing that Neal followed her, she ignored him for a bit, trying to calm herself down, but it didn’t work.
“You’re afraid,” he eventually said as he leaned against the doorpost, watching her pack her bag with care but fast enough to be out the door in minutes. “And it’s not because of me involving the FBI, is it? That was just the last drop. Who are you hiding from?”
“I’m not hiding,” she countered as she closed her suitcase and took the laptop and tablet with her too. Booting up the PC, she put in the command to erase everything and overheat. “It was a stupid plan to travel to Paris. I should have stayed where I was before.” She took out her phone, removed the battery, and destroyed the sim card with a pair of scissors that were in her desk drawers.
“Bella, you’re running on zero sleep and you look like you’re about to burst into tears, how about you calm down, take a nap and then you can tell me more.”
“Yeah, no,” she said as she pushed by him with her bags. “Best if you stay out of this,” she replied as she dropped her bags, got down on the floor and lifted one floorboard that held her go-bag. “You can tell Liam thank you when he returns. I won’t be here.”
She nearly had a heart attack when the front door opened, revealing her Uncle Garrett. She dropped everything she had and ran into his arms like a small child would do, her fear finally taking over after everything that had happened in the past 12 hours, because now she was safe.
“It’s okay, I’m here now,” Garrett said calmly as he lifted her up to move them out of the doorway so that Liam could come through. “Let it all out. We’re not running today.”