Neal and El are two of the smartest people Peter knows, but he's on to them. He's one of the smartest people he knows, too, and he's been on tenterhooks for weeks. He scrutinizes every odd glance Neal and El exchange, every half-whispered phone call that El takes in another room, every appointment she puts on his calendar, but so far, no surprise party has appeared. Which is good.
"I do not want a surprise party," he tells her repeatedly. "They're undignified. And also, I don't like people jumping out at me in the dark. It makes my trigger finger itchy."
El laughs, because he's never had an itchy trigger finger and she knows it.
"I mean it," he says. "This isn't a ploy to get you to throw me a party. I'm not using reverse psychology."
"No reverse psychology," she says, handing him his briefcase and kissing him goodbye, like some iconic fifties housewife. "No party. Got it."
"Make sure Neal knows, too."
"Why don't you tell him yourself?"
"I will, but you know, repetition. Maybe it will eventually sink in."
El laughs, then kisses him again and slaps his ass as he's walking out the door. He yelps and throws a grin over his shoulder at her as he heads to the car.
"I don't want any fuss," he insists to Neal as they eat dirty water dogs--well, Peter eats; Neal watches with a slightly disgusted, slightly puzzled look on his face, like he's never seen a hot dog covered in onions, mustard, and relish before, or maybe because he's amazed at the way Peter makes it through to the second to last bite of the second hotdog before an onion lands on his white shirt, making an unfortunate red, oniony stain on it--and stake out the coffee shop on East 51st Street frequented by one Constantine "Dino" Kormos, counterfeiter to the Russian mafia. "Birthday parties are for toddlers and ninety-year-olds."
Neal nods and smiles his con man smile, the one that shows too many perfect white teeth, and Peter tries to ignore the warning bells that go off whenever he sees it.
"So, the big four-oh," Jones says when they're poring over paperwork relating to the Kormos bust a couple of nights later.
"Or are you going to be thirty-nine again?" Cruz asks. "My mother still is, every year."
"He does have a certain Jack Benny-ish air," Neal says thoughtfully.
"I'm not even old enough to remember Jack Benny," Peter says, "so how the hell do you?"
"He's a classic, Peter, and I like the classics."
Peter grunts in response. "No parties. No over-the-hill jokes. No shenanigans."
"No fun," Neal says.
"No smart remarks?" Peter asks the next time he sees Havisham, trying to nip any smart-assery in the bud. "No comments on my impending birthday? How I'm hitting the big four-oh?"
"First of all," Havisham says, "I'd like to think I'm a little more creative than that, and second of all, I would have guessed you were turning the big five-oh."
Peter frowns, and even though June says, "Never mind him, Agent Burke. Life begins at forty. The world is your oyster," Peter spends the rest of the day humming the theme to Hawaii Five-O. On the upside, he annoys Neal almost as much as he's annoying himself.
"You don't look fifty," El assures him when she catches him fussing in front of the mirror. She presses a kiss to his cheek. "And even if you did, it would be a youthful, dashing fifty."
He grins ruefully and hauls her in for a kiss that smudges her lipstick and requires her to redo her hair when its done.
He's tense until they leave for dinner, waiting for the door bell to ring, the inevitable surprise, but it never comes.
El takes him to Brasserie, and they're waiting for the wine to arrive when Neal shows up and there's a flurry of waiters adding a chair and an extra place setting to the table. Neal slips the maître d' a fifty and smiles. His tie is the same blue as El's dress (the same color as their eyes, and Peter shifts in his seat a little at the thought), and his teeth when he smiles are whiter than the well-bleached tablecloth.
"Sorry I'm late." He unfolds his snowy linen napkin and lays it in his lap. "I had some housekeeping to take care of." The pointed look he gives El, along with the strange emphasis on the word housekeeping makes Peter shift again, this time in suspicion.
"Nothing you need to worry about," Neal says, which is the opposite of comforting as far as Peter is concerned, but the sommelier arrives with their bottle of champagne, and the conversation turns to wine and food.
The meal is spectacular, and if Peter is glad to have Neal there, he'll never admit it. While they're waiting for dessert, Neal hands Peter an envelope.
Peter opens it, expecting the same kind of birthday card Neal sent him every year from prison, and he's not disappointed by the glittery blue 40 that pops up when he unfolds it. A piece of paper flutters out, an address in New Orleans and the words, "Two men? What does that even mean?" Neal swirls the last drops of wine around the bottom of his glass and smiles mysteriously, eyebrows raised like he expects Peter to understand. Peter cocks his head, trying to put the pieces together. "The Watteau?"
Neal nods. "The Watteau."
"But Breitwieser's mother--"
"It was presumed destroyed because it was never found and Breitwieser listed it in his testimony. But," Neal clears his throat, takes the last sip of his wine, "the painting Breitwieser stole was a forgery."
"And this is the location of the real painting?"
"Happy birthday, Peter."
"I didn't steal it, Peter, or copy it. I just happen to," Neal gives another little cough, "know where it ended up."
"I see." Peter presses his lips together, willing himself not to smile, and El kicks him under the table.
"It's a gift, Peter. Take it in the spirit it's intended."
Peter lets the smile out now, raises his own wine glass in a salute to her, and finishes off what's left of his wine. "Yes, dear."
El twines her arm through his as they walk back to the garage where he parked, and leans her head on his shoulder. Neal walks on his other side, close enough that their arms brush on every step. The night is clear and cold and the stars shine brightly above. It's a good night.
"Wasn't this better than a party?" he says.
"Uh, about that," Neal says. "You might want to avoid going home for another hour or two."
Neal shrugs. "I tried to get them to leave, but nobody believed me when I said you weren't coming."
El squeezes Peter's arm. "I invited them, Peter, before you said you really didn't want a party."
"So there's a party going on at our house?"
El shrugs. "A small one. A few close friends." Neal coughs. "And a few of their close friends." Peter gives her a searching look, and she has the grace to look abashed. "Jones and Cruz know to lock the door when everyone leaves. Unless you want to put in an appearance?"
"No, no," Peter says. "I really don't. I also don't want to come home to a trashed house." He turns to Neal.
"Cleaning service will show up bright and early," Neal says. "It's all arranged." He pulls another envelope out of his pocket, this one business-sized. He hands it to Peter. The elegant gold script across the flap says, The Pierre. Inside is a keycard. "Happy birthday, Peter."
Peter laughs. He hugs El closer, and throws his other arm around Neal's shoulders. "Thanks," he says, to both of them, the warmth flooding his system not just from a few glasses of wine and a good dinner. "Let's go have a surprise party of our own."