“It’s usually common courtesy to give the locals a head’s up,” Bella replied with a slight Southern accent as she sat down in a chair to join Peter Burke and his friend. “Especially seeing as you’re looking for someone.”
Bella had found Burke and the other agent, who she suspected wasn’t an agent as Auggie Anderson was blind, quite easily. She and Neal had looked at the CCTV cameras in the area and they found Burke and the other agent at a nice coffee place having a drink. They didn’t look like they were in New Orleans on in an official capacity, but they didn’t need to know that she knew that. She needed information.
“We’re here on our personal time,” Burke replied. “Taking in the sights.”
“While looking for a person and announcing you’re FBI while doing so?” she countered, raising an eyebrow. “Smells fishy to me.”
“Ya must have, seeing as we were tipped off,” Bella winked. “But I’m here, what can I do to help?”
“Don’t you have cases to solve?” Anderson replied. While he was blind, he didn’t look blind, not if you didn’t know what to look for. The folded cane, the slight aversion of his eyes, almost as if he wasn’t making eye contact, his constant head tilt to hear where the sound was coming from.
“I multitask very well. Let me use our resources to find whoever you’re looking for, and then you can go on your merry way or actually enjoying the beauty of our fair city rather sooner than later.”
“We’re not looking for one person, we’re looking for two,” Burke said as he produced a picture from his inside pocket and gave it to Bella. It was Peter with Neal, and a brunette that she figured was Peter’s wife. “Unfortunately, we don’t know for certain what the person he’s with looks like, but she’s a woman.”
“It’s a welfare check,” Anderson added.
Bella leaned back into her chair as she looked at the two men. “I’m sorry, but he seems like an adult. What is he to you?”
“A friend. And I believe he’s in danger,” Burke replied, but Bella could tell that he was lying, bluffing. Likely under the knowledge that local LEOs would help quicker if there was a sense of danger involved.
“How so? Again, he seems to be an adult, is he with someone dangerous?”
“Oh, no,” Anderson replied. “She’s had a rough life, but she has a beautiful heart.”
Bella wasn’t sure what to say. She never even met this guy, how would he know her? “Ex-girlfriend?”
“No,” Anderson let out a snort. “Her brother asked me to look out for her in my own special way and I did, until a couple of days ago when she disappeared. We suspect they’re here in New Orleans, involved with a local crime family. We think her name is Bella, but she might also go by Izzy Sheppard.”
“His name is Neal,” Burke added. “He re-entered the country as Neal Carter.”
Of course they knew. Bella felt the color drain from her face. This guy was lying through his teeth, and so was Peter, and she tried to suppress the anger that was rising in her. Even so, the guy was also FBI, so she’d been kept an eye on for a while, by a fucking Suit. But she was pulling a con, and she could remain composed while she was interacting with these two men. “I’ll see what I can do,” she eventually managed to say. “Do you have a phone number I can reach you on?” When Peter handed her his card, she rose to her feet. “Alright, gentlemen, I’ll see what I can do, I’ll be in touch. Enjoy your day.”
She managed to walk away with some composure. Neal was home, mainly because they didn’t want to risk things, but she had wished that he was with her now. Instead, she had her shadow following her, making her only more agitated. Bella caught a cab once she was sure she was far enough from Burke and Anderson and headed home.
“I knew it was a fucking bad idea,” she said as she closed the door and walked straight into the courtyard where Neal was making use of the natural light to paint. “But you’re going to call Burke right now, and you’re going to check in with him and tell him that you’re going to Canada.”
“Woah, what happened? Are you okay?”
“No, I’m not okay!” she blurted. “I don’t know how, but the agent that was with him apparently knew me.”
“A Suit?” Neal laughed. “Are you serious?”
“Yes! I don’t know how but—” It then hit her. “He’s fucking Mingus! Oh, that makes so much sense now. What an asshole!”
“I was fucking played by a Suit,” she kicked against one of the chairs. “Izzy Sheppard is in the system thanks to my fuck up,” she kicked against the same chair again before letting out a breath. “Izzy needs to die.”
“Hey,” he pulled her into his arms and held her tightly. “Breathe. If this Suit was out to get you, you’d been arrested a long time ago.”
“You don’t get it. They know Shitface is Bella. Izzy Sheppard. Me. And even though I retired that handle, they still know it was me. And if they don’t know already, they’ll connect the dots soon enough. They can still come after me for some dodgy shit that I did. I fucked up again,” she looked up to Neal with tears in her eyes. “It’s only a matter of time before they find me, and if you don’t want to get implicated—”
“Hey now,” Neal put a finger on her lips to shut her up. Bella was panicking like she’d been in Paris after admitting who had taken a shot at her and who was behind it, but this felt different. “I trust Peter, I don’t think they’ll come after you. I take it the other agent was Mingus? Wasn’t he helping you in getting clear from your family? Help you with a new identity?”
“He’s still a fucking Suit! It could all be a ploy to make me cooperate and now that they know who I am, they can finally get to me. All they fucking do is lie. Even told me that he was asked to look after me by my brother. My brother is dead.”
Neal sucked in a breath. That did sound a bit on the suspicious side, especially now that he knew the story of her brother and how he had sacrificed himself all these years ago. There was no doubt in his mind that she was currently experiencing flashback emotions on top of everything else she was feeling right now. “I won’t allow them to take you,” he eventually said and planted a kiss on top of her head. “Don’t worry, okay? We’ll fix this.”
She took the voice recorder out of her pocket and handed it to him before ducking out from under his arms. “Tell me that again after listening back to this,” Bella said solemnly as she walked into the house, still shaking with anger but trying to contain it. She needed a clear head for this, she could not allow her feelings to take over. She needed to be strategic about this, and that meant that she and Neal had to leave New Orleans and find a crew of her own to take down her family, and likely herself along with it.
“Hey Peter,” Neal said as he walked in after her, calling Peter on his new phone. Oh, he knew that it’d likely anger Bella more, but then again, she had this look on her face that she was about to give everything up. “Heard you were looking for me,” he turned the phone on speaker so that Bella could hear as well.
“That agent works fast.”
“She sure does,” Neal replied as he took Bella’s hand and pulled her along to the couch. “There’s no need for a welfare check, you know, we’re fine and made some new friends.”
“Are you planning something big?”
“Yes, with people we can trust. It’d be best if you remained in the dark,” he pulled her down on the couch with him and put an arm around her, making sure she couldn’t go anywhere.
“Is Izzy with you?”
Ah, a new voice. “You must be Agent Anderson.”
“Yes. Look, shitface disappeared off the dark web and our last conversation wasn’t a good one.”
“Then you should have been upfront with her from the start,” Neal replied as he looked at Bella. She was a bit more composed than she’d been before, but this wasn’t the time for her to bottle things up. “You put her in WITSEC, didn’t you?”
Bingo. Bella didn’t have to fear getting arrested for what she did for the Cullens at least. “And you didn’t give her a choice. Nor did you inform her.”
“I admit I made mistakes, but it was necessary. Only I knew her real identity and what she’d been through and that’s what kept her safe, just like I promised her brother. When I figured out she was with you, I contacted Agent Burke.”
“You really need to stop bringing up her brother. She doesn’t like that very much as he’s dead and she’s been struggling with the repercussions ever since.”
“But he’s alive. We were stationed together in Afghanistan before he went AWOL and do his own thing to protect her. He asked me to find a way to look after her in my own way, and I did, after I got my accident and landed my current job at the FBI.”
“Then where is he?”
“That I don’t know, but his name was Grant Swan when we met. I told him to tell her that he was still alive, but apparently he had other ideas.”
“Lies,” Bella whispered.
“Or maybe you have been lied to for most of your life. Look, I know you’re scared about being in the system, but you’re not. A Marshall owed me a favor, and everything is destroyed. There are no copies of anything whatsoever. No association between you and the Cullens. I promise.”
“Hear that? You’re safe,” Neal told her with a smile. “Nothing to worry about.”
“The Volturi found you and your uncle because he wasn’t protected and as far as we know, they don’t know you’re here and your name. Coming back to the US was a good thing.”
“You don’t have to plot a revenge against the Cullens, all it takes is to tell us everything we need to know and we can build a case against them,” Peter said, causing Bella to shake her head.
“She won’t ever rat out her family, Peter. It’s not that easy,” Neal said as he gently rubbed Bella’s back. “I’ll tell you what, let’s meet tonight, you and I, there’s this establishment on Bourbon Street that serve some of the best wines in the city. I’ll tell you all that I can, whilst protecting Izzy.”
“No,” Bella shook her head. “No, he’ll take you back and—”
“No, he won’t, right, Peter?”
“Just a chat amongst friends. I never even took my badge with me.”
“What are you talking about, Auggie?”
“That’s the voice of the NCIS agent who came to visit us.”
“I’m done,” Bella wrestled herself out of Neal’s hold and walked into the kitchen to grab a bottle of wine and opened her laptop to do a search for Grant Swan and Grant Cullen. She was going to prove that the FBI were lying assholes. She wanted to stay as far away as possible from them.
She took a swig of the bottle while she heard Neal talk in the other room and decided to try and find Grant Swan everywhere, in every database that she’d ever cracked and hacked.
Tr0uble: The giant followed you today. He said you were upset. You okay?
5w4n: Dealing with Suits. Mingus is a fucking suit. Long story.
Tr0uble: Are you okay?
5w4n: I will be, once I can prove to N that the Suits are lying.
Tr0uble: About what?
5w4n: My brother.
Tr0uble: And what if they‘re not lying?
5w4n: They‘re still suits. Can’t trust them even though N does. He’s like his pet.
Tr0uble: I‘m going to add ’emotional warfare’ to the list to take into account for our plan.
Tr0uble: What‘s the best way to control your kids? To make them scared of something. We have had our issues with that in the past and it took us a while to get over it. I was still young and adapted quickly but my brother took the brunt of it, he still has issues with it sometimes.
5w4n: That‘s not what’s going on.
Tr0uble: Pretty sure it is. Trust your man. Everything is going to be okay. Your life is not falling apart, got that? Don‘t do anything stupid, we still want to get paid!
Bella huffed as she allowed her code to crawl the web and took her bottle as she got up from the chair, seeing Neal stand in the doorway, leaning against the door post, looking at her. “I’m sorry,” she apologized s she took a swig of the bottle. “I’m also sorry that I decided to be an uncultured swine and drink straight from the bottle.”
“No, it’s okay, I understand you’re afraid,” Neal replied. “And hearing that you were basically tricked and forced into WITSEC isn’t a nice thing to hear, either. I would be pissed.”
“But I think we both don’t get the full picture of what’s going on, and that’s why I’m going to meet Peter tonight, to get the full story and why they’re in New Orleans now.”
“Burke wants to reconnect with you, isn’t that obvious? Mingus is just a distraction.”
“Maybe, but Peter knows I’m okay. He’s not like Mozzie. So for him to actually come and look for me, means that something’s up. Maybe there’s some information about the Cullens and the Volturi and he doesn’t want me to get caught up in, or maybe there’s something else.”
Bella kept her eyes on him as she took another sip of the bottle. “You don’t have to get caught up with my family, I’ve told you this.”
Neal nodded. “And I told you that I’m not going anywhere. Not without you. Every family has crazy relatives, it just sucks that both sides of our families have some screws loose.”
She sighed as she set down the bottle and walked into his arms. “I feel like I have some screws loose. Just like that, things start happening which makes the ground shake underneath my feet, ready to fall away. I know that my siblings are assholes, but to maybe learn that your teachings weren’t truthful?”
“You’re calling it teachings. Shouldn’t it be raising a child?”
Bella shrugged. “In any case, a family should be truthful and not want to kill their daughter, either. And now hearing that I’ve been in contact with a Suit and he tricked me? I can’t believe that I fell for it. I mean… why me? There are now two Suits who know who I am. TWO!”
“And one of them is one that I trust,” he said calmly as he played with her hair. “I want you to come with me tonight. Get to know Peter a little, see that he’s not a bad person. He’s my friend, and as he said, he left his badge at home, so he’s definitely here because he’s a friend,” Neal kept playing with her hair as he continued. “Should you want to leave, then you can leave, but sometimes it’s better to face your fear than to keep running from it.”
When Bella remained quiet, he continued. “You’re teaching me a new way of con artistry, that you don’t have to steal for yourself but that you can do things for others. Let me teach you that not all law enforcement are a danger or bad. I have to admit, I sometimes didn’t have the best of times with Peter, but he was my way out of jail, and he did teach me to think differently in some ways. We became friends and he became someone I can trust.” Neal lifted her chin with his finger and kissed her. “I won’t let anything happen to you, I promise.”
“Ah, what the hell, my life feels like it’s coming apart at the seams already, why not tear it all up?”