sam_storyteller: (White Collar)
sam_storyteller ([personal profile] sam_storyteller) wrote2011-04-09 08:43 pm
Entry tags:

Horse Thieves And Mathematicians 1/2

Title: Horse Thieves And Mathematicians
Rating: PG-13 (violence, profanity)
Warnings: Some gore.
Summary: Peter was sixteen when he met Reese Hughes for the first time. It may have made an impression.
Notes: The stuff about the FBI loophole is made up. We call it "artistic license".
BETA CREDIT, JESUS: [personal profile] girlpearl, [livejournal.com profile] neifile7, and [personal profile] 51stcenturyfox beta'd the heck out of this thing.

Now available at AO3.

***

"Excuse me. We're looking for Big Pete?"

Peter sighed and shoved the pitchfork into the hay, turning around. "Yep, that's me."

There were two men standing in the doorway of the feed room, both in suits and trench coats. One of them, a beak-nosed character with his hands in his pockets, raised an eyebrow.

"You sure about that?" he drawled.

"It's a relative term," Peter said. The nickname was still a sore spot; he knew he was a skinny kid still, but he'd hit his growth spurt last summer and wasn't done yet. He was already much too tall for jockeying, even if he'd known from thirteen that he'd never be fine-boned enough for the job. "Help you with something?" he added, dusting his hands and offering one to the beak-nosed guy.

"I'm Reese Hughes," the man said, holding up a badge. "This is my partner Ben Daws. We're with the FBI."

"You're here about Chief's disappearance," Peter said warily, letting his hand fall.

"Chief?" Agent Hughes asked, tucking his badge away.

"Sorry, that's his barn name. Running Man, that's his track name. That's what you're here about?" Peter gave him an uncertain look.

"Only in part," Agent Hughes told him.

"Look, I wish I could help, but I told the manager and the police and about a dozen journalists I didn't see anything," Peter replied. "I clocked out at eight. Ch -- Running Man's trailer was already gone by the time I got to the parking lot."

"We're not the police," Agent Daws said.

"No sir, I can see that," Peter answered.

"How old are you?" Agent Hughes asked. Peter drew himself up, annoyed.

"Sixteen," he said. "Been working summers on the track since I was twelve. I know the track, Agent Hughes. I'd know if something had been wrong."

Hughes and Daws exchanged a look.

"We're not here directly about Running Man," Hughes said finally. "We'd like to speak with you, if we could."

"I got feedings," Peter said. "Take about an hour."

"We're not here to make an appointment," Daws huffed.

"So, talk while I feed 'em," Peter replied. Hughes and Daws exchanged another look.

"You know the High Stakes cafe down the road?" Hughes asked. Peter nodded. "Clock out and meet us there."

"Sure," he said. The two men faded back into the sunlight outside, and Peter got on with feeding the horses.

***

The High Stakes was about a mile from the track, and Peter arrived half an hour before the dinner rush. Agent Hughes and Agent Daws were sitting in a booth, eating slices of pie. When Hughes saw him, he waved him over. Peter stopped at the diner counter to order a soda and then slung his bag down, sliding in next to Daws.

"Good pie here," Daws remarked, mouth full of lemon meringue.

"You here to ask me about pie?" Peter inquired. Hughes chuckled.

"You're kind of a smartass, Big Pete," he said. "What's your full name?"

"Peter Burke," Peter replied.

"Peter, you know a lot of things that happen at a racetrack aren't strictly legal," Hughes said. Peter nodded. "What do you think about that?"

"I try not to get involved," Peter said.

"How hard?" Daws asked. Peter frowned at him. "You lie to those cops when you said you didn't see anything?"

"No, sir," Peter replied. "I was brought up better than that."

"So you don't run money or bets for anyone?" Hughes asked. Peter shook his head. "Any of your pals?"

"One or two," Peter said. "Job's there for the asking. Hard to see a lot of money and not want a cut."

"You ever think about it?"

"Nah. Most of those guys are retired mob. Bad business," Peter replied. "I don't -- "

" -- get involved," Daws finished for him. "Right. You think the mob took Running Man?"

Peter pressed his lips together. "If they took every horse that lost them money we'd have a lot of empty stalls. I thought you said you weren't here for Running Man?"

"He's quick," Daws said to Hughes.

"He's also sitting here," Peter told him. "Look, my dad's gonna be waiting on me. What do you want?"

"We think a man was killed the same night Running Man disappeared," Hughes said. Peter's eyes widened. "We have a working theory that he may have been killed in Running Man's trailer after he'd been loaded for transport, and before whoever hijacked his trailer took him away. The horse may have forensic evidence on him. Could be why he disappeared. We're not interested in petty bullshit like underage betting. We want the killer."

"Who died?" Peter asked. Daws looked to Hughes, who sighed.

"Marcello Borgione has disappeared," Hughes said. "You know him?"

"Sure, Vittorio's brother," Peter said. "They come to the track sometimes. Vittorio's a horse guy, he likes the stables. Their dad lives around here. He's retired mafia. Everyone knows it."

"If Vittorio finds out who killed Marcello before we do, there's the possibility of a mob war. Maybe up here, maybe in the city," Daws said.

"What's this -- " Peter began, and then stopped. "Marcello was in the stables the day Running Man was taken. I'm the last person to see him."

It felt strange to say it, to know it -- and especially strange to say it to men with badges, with guns under their jackets. Peter's hand shook as he picked up his soda to take a sip.

"We need to know everything you saw that day," Hughes said. There was a certain kindness there that Peter didn't expect, almost didn't want. He looked down at the plastic countertop, the little swirl patterns in it.

"Look, I don't want to make trouble, but my dad's expecting me," he said. "He's gonna want to know where I am. Can we do this tomorrow?"

"Vittorio's going to figure this out," Hughes told him.

"We can give you a lift home," Daws offered. "Talk there."

Peter glanced up. "This is serious, huh?"

"Yeah. Very serious," Hughes told him. "Look, there's an alley behind the cafe. Head out the back, we'll pick you up so nobody sees you riding with us."

"I got a car," Peter said, nodding through the window at the beat-up Pontiac outside. His pride and joy, ten years old and falling apart as it was. Hughes turned to give it a look-over and then nodded.

"We can work with that. You leave first, we'll follow a ways back."

Peter spread his fingers along the edge of the table, thinking. "Whoever shot Marcello, they took Chief?"

Hughes nodded.

"Chief's been killed too, hasn't he?"

"Probably."

"Okay," Peter said. "I'll see you at my place."

***

Peter would give the G-men this -- he didn't see them for about six miles, and then all of a sudden there they were, tailing him. He pulled around back of the house and waved for them to park between his car and the trees, out of sight of the road. By the time he was walking up to the back door, his father was standing in the doorway, frowning at the two men in dark suits who were flanking his kid.

"Peter," he said carefully. "You getting into trouble, son?"

"Mr. Burke, I'm Ben Daws, this is Reese Hughes," Agent Daws said. "We're with the FBI. We need to speak to your son about what happened at the track."

"He said he needed to get home before dark," Agent Hughes added with a small smile. Peter's father crossed his arms.

"I got a thought I should call a lawyer," he said.

"Dad -- " Peter started.

"Your son's not a suspect," Hughes interrupted. "He's a witness."

His father's eyes widened. "Peter, what did you see?"

"Mr. Burke, can we come in?" Daws asked. His father considered it for a moment and then stood aside. He rested a hand on Peter's shoulder as they entered, steering him into the kitchen.

"Running Man's disappearance is linked to a probable murder," Hughes said. Peter noticed with approval that Hughes took his hat off as he entered, wiping his feet on the mat. Daws didn't. "Your son was the last man to see the victim alive. We just need to ask him some questions."

"Not alone," his father said, guiding Peter into a seat. "He's not eighteen yet. Even if he was -- "

"Mr. Burke, you're welcome to stay, as long as you don't interrupt," Hughes said firmly. He looked Peter's father in the eye, held his gaze, and waited for a response. Peter sat quietly, waiting for his dad to pass verdict.

Finally, his father let go of his shoulder. "You boys want a beer?" he asked.

***

They made him go over the whole day, from arriving at the track to the time he got home. They'd stop him and ask questions, or they'd make him be precise about things he didn't expect, times and people and where he'd gone, what he'd done. His father sat by, listening, not speaking, but it felt good to have him there. Dad always knew when someone was trying to put one over on you.

At the end of it, Agent Daws asked if he could go over some paperwork with his dad, just stuff they needed from his legal guardian. Hughes asked Peter to walk with him to the car.

"There's no actual paperwork, is there?" Peter asked.

"Not so much," Hughes agreed. "Listen, this was good work tonight. And if this is all we get from you, that's fine. But we need to know what Vittorio knows, and he's not going to talk to a couple of feds. You know anyone who runs with him?"

Peter shook his head.

"What about you? Could you get in tight with Vittorio? He need a runner?"

"No, he doesn't use them," Peter said. He paused. "But his dad does."

Hughes gave him a wide smile. "Peter, I can't outright ask you to do anything for me. You're a minor, and I don't want you in hot water with your father. But if you hear anything, if you see anything, you call the Parkside Motel and ask for room 211. You got that?"

Peter stood up very straight. He liked Agent Hughes. He talked to him like a man. "Yes, sir."

***

The next day, Julius Borgione was at the track. Between races, Peter sidled up to him and coughed.

Julius turned. "You need something, kid? Big Pete, right?"

"Yes, sir," Peter said. He fidgeted. "I was wondering if Mr. Marcello's been around."

Julius gave him a look that froze his blood. "What do you know about Mark?" he asked.

"I just haven't seen him since Running Man..." Peter trailed off nervously. "I wanted to know if he's okay."

"The horse or my son?" Julius asked.

"Mr. Marcello, sir."

"You keep your nose in your own business," Julius told him. "Which isn't my sons, you got that?"

He'd failed Agent Hughes. Peter's heart sank, but he tried one more angle. "I saw him the day Running Man disappeared."

A speculative look came over Julius's face.

"You see him with anyone?" he asked. Peter was silent. "You see him with those Lucrese punks up from the city? You see Lucrese roughing up my kid?" he demanded.

"We see a lot," Peter said, swallowing against fear in his throat. "I don't know about any Lucreses, sir, I just thought -- I'm sorry about Marcello," he said.

Julius sat back. "Big Pete. You got some muscle on you. You see anything, you tell me, you hear? You ever run bets?"

"Sometimes, sir," Peter lied.

"Here." Julius dug in his pocket and pulled out a roll of cash and a slip of paper. "These. Hustle up. There's fifty in it for you, and if you see anything worth telling there's five large."

Peter took the money with a dry mouth and nodded. "Thank you, sir."

***

There were a couple of Lucreses who came up to the tracks in the summer, Peter knew. Marcello and Vittorio seemed friendly with them most of the time. They were into drugs, the Lucreses, and sometimes he saw the Borgiones buying little bags of pills or some weed. Stephen Lucrese was always bragging about a farmer he knew who grew the stuff in his back forty.

He waited a day and a half before calling Agent Hughes. When he did, Hughes listened carefully; Peter could hear the scratch of a pencil in the background.

"It's not much," Peter said. "I can do more -- "

"It's enough for a warrant," Hughes told him. "This is fine. Now keep your nose clean and don't talk about this to anyone. You hear me?"

Peter chewed on his lip, hesitating.

"Peter, did you tell someone about this?" Hughes asked.

"Not yet," Peter said. "But -- I lied to Mr. Borgione, and I placed bets for him and I'm not old enough -- I took his money."

"You're not in trouble, Peter."

"No, but -- I have confession tomorrow..."

There was a long silence down the line.

"The confessional is confidential," Peter added.

"I know," Hughes said slowly. "But in a community like this, Peter, we have no way of knowing if someone like the local priest is in on it. I know you probably know and trust him, but I can't make that call. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir."

"Theology's always complicated," Hughes continued. "And I understand that a lie you told to help someone is still a lie. So I have two questions for you."

"Yes, sir?"

"First, do you think God really wants you to do penance for helping us catch a murderer?"

Peter thought about it, really thought about it hard. "I'm not a priest. I don't know."

"Well, I'd puzzle it out for myself, if I were you. Second question -- how specific do you have to be? If you want to confess, do you need to say who you lied to, and why?"

"No, I guess not."

"Okay. You do what you think is right. You're a smart man, I'm sure you'll figure something out. Look after yourself, Peter. We'll be in touch."

***

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned," Peter murmured, the words instinctive and almost unconscious. "It's been seven days since my last confession."

He drew in a deep breath. It felt -- it did feel wrong, to confess to a petty lie for the sake of helping Agent Hughes.

"I have doubts," he said. It tumbled out of his mouth before he could stop it. "I doubt my faith."

It felt like the first real thing he'd confessed in a long time.

"Can you share these doubts?" Father Michael asked. Father Michael had baptised him and given him first communion and listened to his sins for ages -- small lies and envy of the jockeys and pride at school and that night with Melanie Jackson in the back of her dad's pickup truck.

"I just..." Peter made a frustrated noise. "I don't think God cares if I lie if I'm doing it to help someone."

"It's not for us to know what God thinks of our actions," Father Michael said gently.

"Well, not for some of us," Peter observed. There was a soft chuckle from the other side of the screen.

"Have you lied?"

"Yes."

"Do you want absolution?"

Peter bowed his head. "I don't think I need it, Father."

"I think that sounds very proud of you." Father Michael's voice was more severe. Peter balled his fists against his thighs.

"I think a man ought to be proud when he does good work. I think -- " Peter gritted his teeth. "I think being proud shows other people they could feel the same way if they did good things. I'm not sorry. I don't think it's a sin."

Silence. Finally, Father Michael spoke.

"Son, maybe we should speak outside of the confessional."

"I don't think that would change anything. I -- I should go."

"Peter," Father Michael said. Peter stopped, half-standing. "Many people your age have a crisis of the faith, but -- "

"No, I should go," Peter said, and stumbled out of the confessional, out of the church and into the fresh, crisp air. Father Michael didn't follow him.

When he pulled up the drive at home, the dark FBI sedan was sitting behind the house. Agent Hughes was sitting on the hood, feet propped on the bumper, reading a paperback novel. Peter climbed out of his car and scowled.

"Tried to find you, but nobody was home," Hughes said. "How'd confession go?"

"Go to hell," Peter told him, walking past him up to the house.

"Maybe, but Lucrese'll get there first," Hughes called. Peter stopped, a hand on the door. "We served a warrant on his farmer friend this morning."

"You find Marcello Borgione?" Peter asked, not turning around.

"We think." He heard Hughes climb off the car. "We need you to tell us. Going to have to identify him by his dental records or his clothes. We found Running Man too, we think. He's dead."

Peter turned around.

"Hop in the car," Hughes said. "Take a ride."

***

Peter had seen dead horses before. He'd seen horses killed on the track after breaking a leg. He'd never seen one like this though, half-decomposed, bones and guts showing through. The body was in a pit in the middle of wild, unused farmland. Peter stood in the hip-tall weeds and breathed in and out through his mouth. Hughes kept a firm grip on his shoulder.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly. Peter stared down at the pit. "You need to puke, just don't puke on the horse."

"I'm not going to throw up," Peter told him.

"Then you're better than most of our rookies," Hughes replied. Next to Running Man's wrecked body was what looked like a bundle of clothing and bleached wood. No -- that was bone.

"That's Marcello," Hughes said. "They tried to dispose of the evidence with some kind of acid. Maybe lime. I need you to tell me if that's what he was wearing when he disappeared."

Peter closed his eyes, inhaled, opened them again. A green sweater, white collared shirt, pair of fancy designer jeans. Cowboy boots, that was Marcello's racetrack affectation.

"Yeah," he said, staring at the rags of green, the patches of denim. The cowboy boots were almost whole. "That's what he was wearing. And that's Running Man."

"All right, you heard the man," Hughes said. "Evidence teams, roll in."

He led Peter away from the pit, let him stumble a little ways off into the weeds and put his head between his knees for a while. When he felt a little better, Hughes offered him a bottle of water and a smile.

"This was great work, Peter," he said. "You did just fine. We're bringing in Lucrese."

"I hope he gets the chair," Peter said viciously, and then wondered if God was actually going to strike him down right there where he stood. Hughes looked up at the teams of agents slowly pulling pieces of Running Man out of the pit.

"That's not up to us," he said. "Just as well."

"Why?"

"Because justice is better than revenge. He'll have a fair trial, like anyone. Otherwise it all breaks down. Otherwise you could just go shoot him yourself, or I could. And don't think I don't want to. But that, Peter, is definitely a sin."

Peter nodded and sipped the water. "Do I have to...write it down or sign something or anything?"

"Not yet. Hopefully not at all. We're heading back to the city, he'll probably be tried there. I'll let you know. You hungry?"

He was. It was strange; he couldn't get the sight out of his head, but he was starving, and he had to pee, too.

The world kept moving, he supposed.

***

The one good thing to come out of the murder, Peter felt, was the trip to New York City. He'd been before once or twice, but it was new and exciting now, traveling in an FBI car, staying at a safe house. His father, with a mixture of anger at the situation his child was in and pride that Peter was so important, insisted that Agent Hughes and Agent Daws stay with them.

"You got my son into this," he said to Hughes. "You're responsible for his safety."

Peter was supposed to be there in case he needed to testify, though they never called him. He sat in the courtroom every day in his best suit, with his father next to him, and watched every move everyone made. It felt exposed, but he felt brave for doing it, too. And, yeah -- proud.

The night before the verdict was supposed to come down, he came into the dining room of the dingy little safehouse to find Agent Hughes sitting at the table, cleaning his gun. Peter sat down across from him and watched, quietly.

"You take in a lot, don't you?" Hughes asked. "Aren't many people your age who see as clearly as you do."

"Dunno," Peter said with a shrug.

"You know much about guns?"

Peter gave him a dry grin. "Pointy end goes boom."

Hughes laughed. "Yeah, something like that. Growing up where you did, you must know a little."

"Rifles, mostly," Peter answered. "Been hunting a few times."

Hughes wiped the excess oil off the gun and offered it to him. "It's not loaded," he said. Peter took it carefully by the grips, holding the barrel down. "Never -- "

" -- point it at anyone unless you plan to use it," Peter said. Hughes nodded. Peter measured the weight of it, ran his hand over the slide. "It's small."

"It does the job," Hughes remarked.

"You ever shoot anyone?" Peter asked.

"A couple of times. Never killed anyone yet. Hope I never have to."

Peter nodded and offered it back, grips-first.

"You been to confession since it all happened?" Hughes asked, slotting a magazine into place.

"No," Peter said. He watched Hughes meticulously inspect the gun, then place it in his holster. "You Catholic?"

"Nah. But I believe in a higher cause in my own way."

Peter waited patiently. Hughes looked up and gave him a grin.

"I believe in justice. It's my life's work," he said. "That's my house of worship, the courthouse. I'm pretty confident if evil exists in the world, I'm fighting on the right side."

"But sometimes you lose."

Hughes shrugged. "Sometimes everyone loses. The important thing is to fight. Whatever cause you're serving."

"You make it sound like I should be a priest," Peter said discontentedly.

"That's not what I said. I just think people should believe in something, and I believe in the law. It's not perfect, but I doubt the church is either."

"No lie," Peter muttered. He rested his elbows on the table and leaned forward, fingers lacing behind his neck. "How do people become FBI agents? I mean, if I wanted to be one."

If Hughes had laughed or told him to forget it or treated him like a kid, it might have ended there. But he didn't; he just gave him an appraising look.

"You going to college?"

"If I can get a scholarship."

"Good grades?"

"Yeah. And varsity baseball."

Hughes nodded. "Well, get a college education, get some work under your belt. Don't study criminal justice, everyone who wants to be a Fed studies that. What do you like?"

"Baseball," Peter said. Hughes did laugh then. "Horses. And math, I guess. I'm in AP already."

"Good. Do what you love. People'll see your passion."

"That's it?"

"We have an internship program. It's mostly filing and nobody gets a gun, but it can't hurt," Hughes said. "Look me up in a couple of years, I'll put in a good word for you."

"Yeah?" Peter asked.

"Sure. Now go on and get some rest, tomorrow's the big day."

Peter got up from the table and left, but he heard Daws entering from the kitchen, and he paused just outside the dining room doorway.

"What'd the kid want?" Daws asked.

"Peter?" Hughes said. "Reassurance, I think."

"Man, I can't wait until this is done, I'm tired of wiping noses."

"Watch your mouth, Daws. He's good. Smart as a whip. We couldn't have made the case without him."

Peter felt a deep well of satisfaction rise in his chest.

"He wanted to know how you get to be an FBI agent," Hughes added. Peter heard Daws bark with laughter.

"Enjoying his hero-worship, Reese?"

"Maybe he's looking for a purpose," Hughes replied. He sounded angry. "Get off his case. I wasn't that self-possessed when I was sixteen."

"Yeah, well, after tomorrow he's not our problem anymore."

"He was never a problem," Hughes said. Peter slipped away quietly before he could hear Daws reply.

The next morning, Stephen Lucrese -- Marcello's killer, and the man who'd killed Running Man to cover it up -- was found guilty of first-degree murder. Outside the courthouse, Agent Hughes put Peter and his father into another FBI car and said, "Good luck. Get that scholarship, Peter."

"Yes, sir," Peter said, and rolled up the window as the car pulled away.

"What was that all about?" his father asked.

"Nothing," Peter said, remembering the balance of the gun, the way the badges Hughes and Daws carried seemed to make them stand taller. "You know how the police are. Stay in school, that kind of thing."

His father ruffled his hair. "Guess we don't need to worry about that."

Part Two