Neal woke to the dip of the plane’s initial descent and the click of Peter closing his laptop.
He slipped his feet back into his shoes, shrugged off the fuzzy airplane blanket and stretched as much as the cramped space would allow—in the current economic climate there had been no question of the FBI springing for first class.
“You didn’t sleep at all, did you?” he said, taking in Peter’s blood-shot eyes and rumpled shirt.
Peter shook his head. “Never can, in the air. El wanted me to take a Valium. But, well—“ he scowled to indicate just how ridiculous that suggestion had been. “You slept like a baby.” He gave Neal a resentful glare.
“Old trick.” Neal shrugged. He was actually surprised he’d been able to drop off in his usual way given his more recent experience with planes, but he jerked his mind away from those memories, focused instead on the diffuse gray light of an English morning.
“Will you look at that beautiful city?” he asked.
Peter was FSA-certified—of course he was—and so they walked their elaborately packaged forgery through the back rooms of Customs, pausing to pet the bomb-sniffing dogs, instead of waiting for it to reappear in the public areas. If Neal’s brand-new passport raised any alarm bells, the impassive official who stamped it gave no sign.
Before they left the semi-private rooms, Peter reattached the anklet—apparently it had counted as one of those electronic devices you weren’t supposed to use while flying . It had been re-jiggered to not only transmit data to the marshalls in the States, but also directly to Peter’s phone.
“Why don’t you just implant a chip in my skull and have done with it?” Neal had asked when he’d first heard the plan.
And Peter had looked kind of shifty for a moment, like that was closer to the realm of possibility than he wanted Neal to know.
But when they came out into the crowded, grotty terminal, Neal couldn’t help grinning—he loved London, almost as much as he did New York.
“So,” he asked, “shower, change, then off to Scotland Yard?”
“More like brush your teeth and plug in the electric razor in that bathroom over there. Our appointment with Lestrade is at eleven—the FBI isn’t paying us to lounge around. Well, they aren’t paying you at all.” Peter smirked. “So get your ass in gear.”
Apparently the FBI was willing to spring for a cab into the city, though again, that was probably more in deference to the forged Lucien Freud than to its weary handlers. Neal still couldn’t quite believe that Hughes had gone for his argument that there were some things that tele-conferencing couldn’t accomplish—t hat this painting needed to be compared physically with a similar forgery that had turned up in England—if they were going to confidently ascertain whether the same forger had done both. And when it turned out, thanks to some elaborate calculus of reciprocity, that it was the Bureau’s turn to visit the Yard, Neal had felt like he had won the jackpot.
He’d come in the next day with a list of must-see exhibits, and started to tell Peter about the amazing new restaurant where a friend might be able to get them reservations.
Peter had looked at him incredulously. “You do realize we’re barely going to be there for twenty-four hours, right? Working. As in: not a vacation, Neal.”
But Neal had refused to be deflated. “Aw, Peter,” he’d said, like it explained everything, “It’s London.”
Dectective Inspector Lestrade looked like he was Peter’s equivalent at Scotland Yard in more ways than one. Clipped gray hair, and a bluff, competent manner. He gave them both firm handshakes and started to introduce the rest of his team.
But Neal barely heard him. His eyes snagged on a tall, angular figure, standing a little apart from the rest and he was flung, violently and immediately, back to the first time he’d seen the man, standing, with his dark clothes and pale skin, like some absurdly elegant raven in the white-hot Florida sun.
The man recognized him too. Neal could see it in the infinitesimal curve of that incongruously lush mouth.
“Dr. John Watson,” Lestrade was saying when the breath returned to Neal’s lungs, indicating a shorter man standing with his arms behind his back, “Sergeant Sally Donovan.” Neal rallied enough to smile at the dark-haired woman being introduced. He got a first-class withering look in return. “And Mr. Sherlock Holmes—our art expert in this instance. It was Mr. Holmes who uncovered the forgery,” he added.
The tall man acknowledged the credit with a tiny, arrogant nod.
“Thank you,” Peter said in turn, “I’m Special Agent Peter Burke, and this is—“
“--Nick Halden,” said Holmes, with a thin smile, “I wish I could say it was a pleasure.”
Everyone stared at him—Lestrade clearly confused, Peter starting to bristle protectively—but it was the shorter guy with the military stance—Watson—who spoke first.
“Sherlock? Do you know this—“
Then Peter cut in smoothly. “I’m afraid you’re mistaken, Mr. Holmes. This is my art expert, Neal Caffrey.”
“Ah,” Holmes said with a cold twist of his lip, looking back and forth between Neal and Peter, seeming to grasp far more of the situation than Peter had revealed. “Yes. My mistake. Mr. Caffrey. I apologize.” But he didn’t look sorry at all.
By rights, determining that the two forgeries had been done by the same person should have taken about fifteen minutes. Set side by side in the clear natural light of Lestrade’s conference room, there could be no doubt that their slight imperfections matched perfectly.
But Holmes seemed determined to prove something to Neal, and Neal, to his chagrin, found himself in the grip of the same impulse. And so they circled each other like junkyard dogs in bespoke suits, exchange obscure points about the provenance of the paints and the width of the brushstrokes until Peter finally called a halt to the proceedings.
“Well,” he said, turning to Lestrade. “I think we have the confirmation we were looking for, don’t you?”
“Quite.” Lestrade threw Holmes a look. “I’ll have my people track down a few of the local leads, and we’ll be in touch as soon as possible. Thanks for coming, and safe journey home.”
“I look forward to working together.” Peter shook the Inspector’s hand, and gave Neal a mind-your-manners glare.
Neal shook Lestrade’s strong, dry hand, and turned to Holmes. “Pity we have to go back tomorrow,” he said. “I’d love to get the name of your tailor.”
Holmes gazed down at him with perfect condescension. “Ah. Old family retainer, I’m afraid. Doesn’t do any work for the general population these days.”
Unprompted, Peter hailed them another cab outside of Scotland Yard. “We’ve earned it,” he said as they climbed in.
Then, regarding Neal with the look of patient disbelief he reserved for the more horrifying eruptions of Neal’s past, he said, “That was awkward. Care to explain?”
“Not really,” Neal replied truthfully, then took a deep breath. “Here’s the thing. You know how you like to say that you’re the only person who’s ever caught me? Well, it might be more accurate to say that you’re the only person who’s ever caught me and sent me to jail.”
“Because that guy—?“ Peter’s eyebrows went up.
Neal tilted his head just enough to confirm the statement.
“Okay, this I gotta hear.”
“There’s not much to tell. Remember the Joshua Reynolds that went missing from the National Gallery about eight years ago?”
“No.” Peter frowned. Neal knew he prided himself on knowing every major art heist of the past three decades.
“Exactly. That’s because Lestrade’s man, Holmes, recovered it before the news ever hit the papers.”
“And you had it.”
“I can neither confirm nor deny that statement.”
Peter smiled thinly at the old joke. “Was he working for the Yard back then?”
“Don’t know. He would only say he was in the service of the Crown—was doing it for national pride or something. Never even gave me his name.”
“And that’s it?”
“That’s it.” Neal shrugged. “Surprised the hell out of me to see him again.”
“Mmm.” Peter narrowed his eyes, as if he knew there was more to the story.
Neal turned towards the window. As usual, Peter was right.then
The job had been a rare commission. Certain parties had expressed their interest in the piece in advance, and to sweeten the deal they’d set Neal up in a luxury condo in South Beach—ocean views, Jacuzzi, the works. And on his second day back from London, just outside the mirror and glass entrance, a dark-haired figure cut across his path like a blast of Northern air.
“Mr. Halden,” the man said, low, deep and oh-so-British, “I believe you have something I need.”
“I have something a lot of people need.” Neal in his mid-twenties was nothing if not cocky. “But I’m not sure why I should share it with you.”
“Because I’ve done my research,” the man smiled, “and I know you hate guns. Whereas I—“ he drew back his jacket to reveal the butt of a weapon tucked into his waistband, “quite like them.”
Neal narrowed his eyes for a moment, assessing. The man’s tone was just the smallest touch overdramatic, as if he had armed himself for the sole purpose of playing on Neal’s known foibles, and then practiced the gesture in front of the mirror. Still, a gun was a gun was a gun.
“Reason enough,” Neal conceded. “After you.”
And he led the way to the seventeenth floor.
“I don’t think I caught your name,” Neal said, as he opened the door.
“I didn’t give it,” the man answered tersely, scanning the condo as if he’d expected Neal to have left the painting lying out in plain sight.
“At least tell me who sent you,” Neal wheedled, half playfully. “Interpol? MI-6? Scotland Yard.”
“None of the above, Mr. Halden. You might say I’m here on my own recognizance.”
“An independent contractor, then?” Neal liked independent contractors.
“In a manner of speaking.”
“Drink?” The man shook his head. “Well, at least tell me how you managed to find me. No one’s ever done that before.”
And that question the tall man in the beautifully cut suit seemed more than willing to answer
He perched on one of the condo’s elaborate metal and leather chairs, his hands steepled under his chin, and related how the composition of dust in one of the museum’s filtration systems had confirmed that the thief was from the southern United States, how a calculation of transport times had led him to a particular Delta flight, and the manifest had given him the beginning-to-be-notorious name of Nick Halden.
Mid-afternoon sun filled the floor-to-ceiling windows. It carved out the sharp angles of the Englishman’s face, made his light eyes almost colorless. But his deep voice seemed rooted in darkness, rumbling out of a rich, loamy soil thousands of miles away.
Neal sat across from him on the hideously uncomfortable matching couch, nursing a Stoly on the rocks, and tried to size-up his adversary. Young—Neal’s own age, more or less. Educated, clearly—his words a rapid-fire torrent of well-bred articulation—nothing of the hired thug about him. But his aristocratic, almost louche, nonchalance could never have belonged to the police, or the military, or even to the quasi-governmental intelligence services.
An outlier, then, a wild card.
That was good, Neal thought as he listened to the man’s tale, fascinated despite himself, that he could use.
Slowly, however, Neal recognized the stirrings of something more than fascination in himself —became conscious of the way his eyes involuntarily traced the line of the other man’s throat, followed the fine turn of his wrists, lingered on the fabric bunched at the crease of his hips. Caught himself imagining the long, pale limbs underneath.
It happened to him with men less frequently than it did with women, especially since Kate had come and gone from his life. But when it did, Neal didn’t question it. Pleasure was pleasure after all. And in this case, it might even have some strategic value.
So he let his legs fall a little farther apart, let his lips open and his eyes widen, let his fingers play idly with the condensation on his glass.
The man, though, seemed unmoved by this display, continuing as if he were genuinely more interested in his own brilliance than what Neal was offering. Odd, Neal thought. The force of a full-on Caffrey flirtation usually flustered even the most unswerving heterosexual.
Still, nothing ventured, Neal thought, as the story reached its conclusion.
“If you really are a free agent,” he said, leaning forward, “perhaps we could come to an arrangement that would be--” he smiled conspiratorially, “--mutually beneficial.”
The man narrowed his eyes quizzically, as if he were amused at Neal’s attempts to charm him.
“I said I was here on my own recognizance,” he corrected. “I did not say I was a free agent. That Reynolds portrait is a national treasure. Certain elements of the British government will be greatly displeased if it is not returned.”
“Ah, but what’s national pride to men like us?” Neal teased, reluctant to give up the idea of an alliance.
“You underestimate my commitment to Queen and country, Mr. Halden,” the man said, upping the degree of icy hauteur in his voice.
But there it was again: something vaguely rehearsed about the words, as if the man’s patriotism were a convenient cover for a more complicated relationship to whatever “elements” in the British government had sent him. There was something Neal could work with there, he was sure of it, if he could only figure it out--
Before Neal could think of an angle to pursue, however, the man put his hand back on his revolver and said, “Now, about that painting?”
“It’s a safe house,” Neal crowed.
The cab had dropped them in front of a nondescript building with a WC1 postal code, and Peter had punched an endless stream of numbers into the security box outside.
“It’s not a safe house,” Peter said, moving around the drably decorated room adjusting various surveillance devices. “The FBI does not maintain safe houses in foreign cities. It’s just a secure and undisclosed location.”
“Oh, Peter, it’s a safe house. I love it—I feel like I’m in a LeCarre novel or something—“
“Can the girlish enthusiasm, Caffrey.” Exhaustion always made Peter irritable. “Go shower or something—I’m going to try and Skype El.”
Neal took his time—partly to give Peter some privacy, and partly because the dismal water pressure made efficient shampooing difficult. When he came back into the front room, feeling a million times better, Peter was sprawled on the couch fast asleep. The laptop was perched on his lap, the Skype window still open, as if he’d barely said goodbye to his wife before crashing.
Shaking his head fondly, Neal moved the machine and tugged at Peter until he was more or less horizontal. He removed Peter’s shoes, and, just for old times’ sake, hid his socks.
Then he stared at the computer for about thirty seconds before giving into temptation.
Googling the name “Sherlock Holmes” netted such an impressive array of hits that Neal was surprised he’d never run across the man before. At the top of the list were what seemed to be Holmes’s own website—The Science of Deduction—and a blog by the guy from Lestrade’s offices, Dr. Watson, which detailed some of Holmes’s work as a “consulting detective”—the two seemed to work pretty closely together.
Neal started clicking through the first one. The man’s opinion of himself seemed only to have gotten higher over the years since they’d last met, although Neal had to admit that some of his insights were fascinating.
Before he’d gotten too far into it, however, a window popped open from Peter’s IM program: Fantini’s. 15.30. SH.. An instant later, a second IM popped up with a WC1 address.
Neal frowned at them for a long moment. There was a chance, of course, that the message was meant for Peter, but somehow he doubted it. He had no idea what Holmes might want to say to him, and he tried for a moment to pretend he wasn’t interested in finding out. But that battle was lost before it began.
With a half-guilty glance at Peter, who had drawn his bare feet under him and was snuffling contentedly into the beige couch, Neal silently left the flat.
Slipping the revolver back into his waistband, the man spread the Reynolds, newly removed from its ingeniously hidden storage unit, carefully on the dining room table.
He smoothed down the edges, fingers gentle on the aging canvas, and gradually, Neal became aware of he hadn’t noticed before: a small but distinct tremor in the man’s hands.
Surprised, he re-assessed the Englishman’s pallor and gauntness, the sleeves buttoned at the wrists despite the heat.
It didn’t quite add up: a transatlantic pursuit; a brilliant mind; an intimate relationship with the upper levels of British government; and—a barely controlled habit—
Neal knew he lacked whatever key would turn those elements into a coherent story, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t turn them to his advantage. As a general rule, he didn’t like to use other men’s weaknesses against them. But he liked being threatened at gunpoint even less. And he liked relinquishing the spoils of a difficult job least of all.
And so, slipping behind the man, Neal placed one hand over those long fingers, felt them cold and trembling under the warmth of his palm.
“If there’s anything else you need while you’re in Miami,” Neal said, “I’d be glad to help you find it.”
They hung fire for a moment. Then, with a barely audible exhalation, the man leaned back towards Neal. Just the smallest possible increase of proximity, but Neal could feel it pouring off him now—something as sharp and heady as lust—something you could get lost in.
“Hmmn?” Neal murmured, an invitation. He twined their fingers together, still not touching anywhere else, but close enough now that he could see the man’s expensive clothes flutter a little with the stuttering of his breath.
The man swayed into him, the faintest brush of bodies, but enough to raise the hairs on Neal’s neck and arms. Then he pulled away. “No,” he whispered, head down so that Neal could barely hear him. Neal wasn’t even sure he knew he was speaking aloud at all. “Clean. It has to be clean, or he’ll send me back.”
With a sharp wordless sound of fury and determination, the man pulled himself up to his full height, and slipped his hand carefully but surely from beneath Neal’s.
“Thank you,” he said. “I have all I came for.” He straightened his jacket, and tucked all traces of need and weakness away so quickly behind an façade of regal condescension that they might never have been there at all.
“As one man of honor to another,” the man continued, rolling up the Reynolds portrait, “I will ensure that there will be no consequences for your handing over the painting to me. Representatives of my government will contact your prospective buyers.”
It sounded ridiculously pompous, but it turned out to be true. Neal never received the fee he had been promised, but nor did he suffer the more violent retaliation he had been sure would be forthcoming. In fact, it was as if the job had never happened—he never heard it mentioned in either criminal circles or in art world gossip. Someone out there had a very large capacity to make things go away.
And so he too had tried to forget about it.
Fantini’s was an old-fashioned London mini-caff, Formica booths and leatherette banquettes. Even on a weekday afternoon, the place was crowded, but Neal saw Holmes at once, facing the door with an austere white mug of black coffee in front of him.
Neal slid into the other side of the booth, and, just for the hell of it, flung his most dazzling and ingratiating smile at the other man.
Holmes narrowed his eyes, as if he couldn’t believe Neal was still relying on something as flimsy as charm to get through life. “Mr. Caffrey.” He stretched out his name just enough to let Neal know he didn’t put much stock in it. “Thank you for joining me.”
In the fluorescent light of the restaurant, Holmes looked as pale as ever, but marginally less skeletal than he had all those years ago in Florida. Neal wondered if he’d managed to kick whatever habit had been dogging him then. There was certainly no trace of the fleeting vulnerability he’d shown that afternoon.
But he only said, in turn, “Mr. Holmes. How did you know it would be me and not Peter? Or not both of us?”
Holmes shook his head almost imperceptibly, as if dismayed by Neal’s stupidity. “The way your FBI handler looked this morning, there could be no doubt he’d fall asleep the minute you returned to your lodgings. And I knew that the instant he did, you’d hack into his computer and attempt to rectify your lamentable failure to know who I was. My website logs the IP addresses of anyone who accesses it—so when I saw an address with FBI markers pop up, I knew it was you. And of course you came alone; I’m sure you had no desire to sully whatever cover story you fed Agent Burke about our previous acquaintance with the truth.”
Neal grinned, unreasonably glad to have caught Holmes in a mistake. “Actually,” he said, “I’ve told Peter everything.”
Holmes cocked his head and looked at Neal with something like genuine interest for the first time. “Fascinating. You trust him. I wasn’t expecting that. There’s always something.” Then his face slid back to its seemingly habitual sneer. “It doesn’t matter. I’m sure Burke keeps excellent track of his Criminal Informant. Probably through the device you’re wearing on your ankle.”
Neal shifted uncomfortably.
“Mmm.” Holmes smiled at him pityingly. “Yes, you compensate for a minor weight on your left ankle when you walk. I’m surprised no one has told you that before.”
The years had deepened the timbre of his voice somewhat, pushed its reverberations lower down the scale. But they hadn’t marred the opulent curve of his mouth, or softened the arc of his cheekbones, or dulled the catlike clarity of his eyes.
And Neal had thought that after Kate, and after prison, and after Peter and Elizabeth, he had finally managed to learn something about his own desires. To control their more wayward tendencies. But just as before, Holmes’s contempt for Neal’s ploys, his flaunting superiority, got under Neal’s skin, made him want to join battle, to make Holmes beg for pleasures he’d never known he wanted.
“What can I get you, love?” That was the waitress, thankfully disrupting Neal’s runaway thoughts. She had dyed blond hair, green eye shadow, and a face as wizened as a winter apple. But at least she wasn’t immune to Neal’s smiles, and he got a lovely one in return when he ordered, grateful that the place served a full breakfast all day. The flimsy sandwiches Lestrade had offered them seemed to belong to the distant past.
Neal forcefully gathered his wits, and reminded himself that Holmes had summoned him, not the other way around.
“So, Sherlock,” he said, the odd name heavy on his tongue. “How can I help you? I assume you didn’t bring me here to reminisce.”
“Hmmf,” Holmes grunted, looking down at his coffee mug. But to his credit, he didn’t beat around the bush. “You aren’t the only one who’s been catching up on research this afternoon. You’ve been quite the busy bee the past few years—under a variety of names. On both sides of the pond, and on both sides of the law.” He raised his uncanny eyes to Neal’s, pressed his lips together, and spit it out: “I find myself in need of someone to make some unobtrusive inquiries in circles into which I rarely venture.”
Neal could have laughed out loud. “Let me get this straight,” he said, “which is pretty hard given the labyrinthine sentence you just unfurled: but I think--I think—that you just asked for my help. Is that what just happened here?”
Sherlock scowled. “I’m not saying it again. Will you do it or not?”
“Well, that depends. What kind of inquiries? A service for Queen and country, like last time? Are elements of Her Majesty’s government likely to be displeased if I come up empty-handed.”
For a moment, Neal thought he had gone too far. Something pained, almost bitter, flitted across Sherlock’s face, and he made a tiny aborted move, as if he were about to stand and leave. But he swallowed, and said in a tightly controlled voice. “No. That situation no longer exists. This time, I am indeed what you would call a free agent.”
Despite himself, Neal felt a rush of both curiosity and sympathy. “Alright, then, I’ll bite: what would you like me to do?”
Sherlock tapped long fingers on the thick mug and stared at a place just above Neal’s left shoulder. “I believe that I have become an object of interest to some person—I think it is a man, but even that I do not know. I have nothing concrete, only a sense of things being planned just at the edge of my vision, of certain crimes being a little too neat, too organized.” His voice faded away, his gaze turned inward.
Neal knew he should be dismissing Holmes’s reverie as a particularly narcissistic bout of paranoia, but instead, he found himself mesmerized once again, almost had to sit on his hands to keep from reaching out to touch that pale, abstracted face. “And me?” he breathed. “What do you need me to do?”
Sherlock visibly shook his thoughts away. “Nothing much. Just, when you return to the land of Al Capone and Elliot Ness, you might ask some of the denizens of your former world,” criminals Neal translated, “whether anyone has been gathering information on me—or my associates. Will you do it? One man of honor for another?”
Neal could only nod.
“Good,” said Holmes, with a small, satisfied smile. “That’s settled, then. You know where to find me should you uncover anything. Ah, here’s your food.”
By the time Neal looked up from his overfull plate of beans and sausages and runny eggs, all that was left of Holmes was the tail end of his black coat disappearing out the doorway.
And he wondered, just for a moment, whether all the while he’d been thinking of seducing Holmes, the man had been masterfully seducing him.
Peter had showered and changed by the time he buzzed Neal back into the safe-house-cum-flat, and Neal had rarely been so glad to see him—six feet and change of warmth, courage and unswerving morality wrapped up in a cheap, travel-creased suit.
“Where’ve you been?” Peter asked, though Neal had no doubt he knew exactly where he’d been—had downloaded the intel the instant he’d woken up and found Neal gone.
But he shrugged and played along. “Just needed some fresh air—helps with jet lag, you know. And some coffee.” He grinned, and held out the tiny paper cup of takeaway espresso like a peace offering.
Peter took it in the same spirit, raised the cup in a minute toast, and smiled back.
Neal relaxed. “What do you say we cut loose tonight, forget about the per diem? I know this great brasserie in Clerkenwell—“
“No.” Peter shook his head. “Have you seen the prices in this city? And besides, we already have plans.”
“Uh-huh—I just got a text from your, uh, counterpart—Holmes. He invited us to meet him at this Chinese restaurant. It’s about halfway between their place and here—“
“Their place?” Neal failed to keep the surprise out of his voice.
“Yeah, turns out that guy from the police station—the doctor, Watson?—they live together.”
Neal must have looked as astonished as he felt, because Peter cocked his head and said, “What? You didn’t know?”
Neal shook his head—it was the last thing he would have expected. He tried to imagine what kind of man would be allowed to live on intimate terms with Sherlock Holmes. What kind of man would be able to stand it? He wondered what it would be like.
Peter’s expression turned worried. “I said yes, but I can text back and cancel if you’re too beat.” If you’re too rattled, he meant. “Though you know what they say: keep your friends close—“
“But your enemies closer,” Neal finished, rallying. “No, no—let’s go. Besides, I’m not so sure he is our enemy.”
“Oh?” Peter raised his eyebrows. “What is he then?”
“I don’t know,” Neal mused, “Someone to keep an eye on, I think.”
Peter smiled. And then frowned. “Neal,” he said sternly, “where are my socks?”