The day started out fine, better than fine actually. Solid casework by the entire staff resulted in a dozen arrest warrants, each one flawlessly executed against a network of illegal securities traders in three cities. But it took a nosedive when Peter and the team came back from a long, celebratory lunch and he saw who was waiting for him in the conference room.
He saw her before she realized that he was back in the office. She was pacing around the conference table like some improbable giraffe in Chanel. In the moment between the then and the now, Peter flashed back on a thousand childhood humiliations, dares lost, achievements overshadowed, and he felt the start of a flop sweat trickle down his back. Neal, who had followed him upstairs, rather than settling at his usual desk in the bullpen, immediately noticed the change in Peter’s mood.
“Peter?” Neal’s voice was full of questions.
Peter snapped, “Caffrey – go back to your desk. This doesn’t concern you.” He knew he was being unnecessarily rude, but the thought of dealing with both Neal and Isabelle in the same room was enough to make his lunch climb back up his throat.
Neal, being Neal, didn’t show that any offense was taken. Hands up, he rocked back on his heels, gave Peter that patented Caffrey grin and went back downstairs. Peter didn’t notice that rather than return to his desk near the front door, Neal took up a post that gave him a decent view of the conference room.
Peter closed his eyes, focused on those things that made life worth living – El, Neal, the job, and opened the conference room door.
“Hello, Isabelle. What the fuck are you doing in my office?”
“First, this isn’t your office, it’s a conference room. Second, I need to talk to you – I would think that’s obvious. And third, do you kiss Elizabeth with that mouth?”
The trickle of sweat became a tide of perspiration, and Peter felt himself turning beet red. Nearly forty-seven years old, and he was still reacting like a fourteen year-old boy, all anger, pimples and broken voice.
“That really isn’t a good color for you, Peter. Have you had your blood pressure checked lately?”
Peter sighed; there was just no point in fighting this. They could bark and bite and maul each other, and somehow he’d always end up losing. “Your concern is appreciated. But you haven’t answered my question - why are you here? To be specific - why are you here, in the FBI field office in New York, in the White Collar Crime Division’s offices, where I work?”
“Well, Peter - that really wasn’t your question, which I did answer, by the way...”
“Isabelle – stop. Please, just stop trying to score points.” Aren’t we too old for this? Peter closed his eyes again, and tried to reach for something better than the inevitable aggravation. The completely inappropriate image of El and Neal sharing him like a melting ice cream cone that flashed behind his eyelids somehow enabled Peter regain his composure.
“I need your help.”
At that simple, declarative sentence, Peter’s head snapped back. During the forty-six years, some months, a few days, and fifteen seconds that they shared on this earth, Isabelle Burke rarely asked her brother for help. A million snide rejoinders crowded on his tongue, and maybe in different circumstances, Peter would have let one or a dozen fly. Today, some inner angel held him back. He looked his sister in the eye and replied in his best professional voice, “What can I do?”
It was at that moment that he realized that they weren’t alone in the conference room. An older man, ostensibly ignoring the interplay between siblings, and a court stenographer, quietly transcribing the conversation, were also present.
“Isabelle – what’s going on here?”
Isabelle gestured to the man, introducing him. “Peter, this is Walter Hudson, my attorney. Walter, Special Agent Peter Burke. My brother – if that isn’t already obvious.” She didn’t introduce the stenographer.
They shook hands, and Peter was grateful that Isabelle not only used his title, but didn’t refer to him as her “younger” or “baby” brother, as if the fifteen seconds that separated the exit from their mother’s womb were more like fifteen years.
“Why do you need any attorney, Isabelle?” The inner angel held fast, and Peter didn’t add “what did you do” or “how much trouble are you in?” Not that Isabelle ever did anything wrong or ever got into trouble.
“I asked Walter to join us as a witness to this conversation.” Isabelle paused, took a breath, started to say something, and paused again. Peter watched as she paced up and down the length of the conference room a half-dozen times. “Peter, I’m sorry – this is very difficult. For me. Coming here.”
Peter just looked at her, eyebrows raised.
Isabelle pinched the bridge of her nose, and finally plunged in. In the formal voice that once commanded the staff of the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Francisco, she said “I am here to file a report that my employer, Aero-Dyne Industries, has engaged in a pattern of criminal conduct which may or may not be on-going.” At that, Isabelle stopped, collapsed into a chair, and covered her face with her hands.
Peter waited for Isabelle to continue, but she just sat there, head in hands. “Isabelle, maybe you want to tell me a bit about this … criminal conduct?”
“I can’t Peter. Think about it. I can’t give you anymore information than that.”
“You’re protected by whistleblower laws, Isabelle. Your claim will be treated as an anonymous tip. As long as you aren’t involved in the criminal activity, you’re shielded from retaliation.”
“Peter, that's not the issue. My job doesn’t even come into play with this – I’ve resigned. You have to understand why I can’t give you more information. You have to connect the dots.”
Peter felt his temper beginning to slip again. All his life, Isabelle had played these games on him – to prove how much better, how much smarter she was. He was forever Wile E. Coyote to her Roadrunner. “I can’t see what you are trying to get at, Isabelle. You’ve got to give me more to work with – no one will authorize an investigation of any company based on an unsupported, nebulous claim of criminal activities.” Peter scrubbed at his face in frustration.
“Try harder!” Isabelle barked. “Think about what I do, who I am and why I can’t tell you anything more than I already have.”
Peter heard the desperate edge in her voice, and he tried to connect the few pieces of the puzzle she had dropped on him. There was something there, something he was missing, but he just couldn’t grasp it. He threw up his hands in disgust, and turned to Isabelle’s lawyer. “Can you tell me what’s going on?”
Before the man could answer, Isabelle cut him off. “No, Walter can’t. Peter, please – use that very big brain of yours – you have to figure this out.” She got up and paced around the conference room again, and stopped – distracted by something outside the glass walls, down in the bullpen. “So, that’s the infamous Neal Caffrey?”
Peter felt like he was at the highest point on a roller-coaster, without anything to hold onto. He knew where this was going, and there was no way to stop it.
“Hmmm. He’s very pretty.” Isabelle looked at Peter with an odd speculation in her eyes.
Peter felt his neck and face flush. “He’s very smart.”
“So I’ve heard. Maybe he can figure this out?”
Bowing to the inevitable, Peter opened the door to the conference room and saw Neal, sitting at an empty desk, absently flipping through folders. He was doing his best impression of not paying attention, but Peter could tell from the set of Neal’s shoulders that he was aware of everything going on. He called out, “Caffrey. Upstairs – now.”
Neal tried to maintain some level of subtly as he watched the interplay between Peter and the Very Tall Woman Who Seemed Vaguely Familiar. He didn’t ask Jones or Diana if they knew who she was. He wasn’t precisely hurt that Peter had shut him out, but it did feel odd.
They had been living out of each other’s pockets for over a year now. At first, it was purely a survival instinct – Peter trying to protect him from Mentor and from himself (Neal’s thoughts squirmed away from this; the grief and anger were still a pair of small, dull knives scraping at his sanity). Slowly, through the spring and early summer, something began to change. Maybe it was one too many glasses of wine or beer after the Memorial Day barbeque, maybe it was a wink from Elizabeth’s bright blue eyes, but suddenly inhibitions seemed to fall away. Neal wasn’t sure who ripped off his shirt, who pulled down his pants, or how Peter managed to strip off his own jeans and tee-shirt while helping Elizabeth out of her bra and panties (so maybe it was Elizabeth who stripped him), but all of a sudden they were all naked and devouring each other.
The summer seemed to pass by in a haze of lust and the thrill of risky behavior. Peter and Neal both suspected that Mentor had surveillance on all of them at all times, but they couldn’t bring themselves to worry any more than they already did. Peter and Neal and Elizabeth fucked each other so often, so hard and in so many different ways that it was a miracle that any of them could walk upright in the mornings.
The rule, singular and unspoken, was that outside of the front door of the Burke’s Brooklyn row house or June’s Riverside Drive mansion, their behavior was beyond reproach. Partners – certainly. Friends – absolutely. Lovers – that was simply speculation for dirty minds. No intimate looks (beyond those that they normally exchanged in the pleasure of the work), no touching (except for the touches that had never before seemed out of place or inappropriate) – okay, so basically, no quickies in the men’s room or file room or against the solid wood door in Peter’s office, or any place where they could be discovered.
At work, Peter treated him like an equal, an occasionally annoying equal, but an equal none the less. Since then, Neal had worked very hard to be Neal Caffrey, semi-reformed con artist – charming, gracious, a pleasure to have around. And if every few hours, Neal found himself fantasizing about violence and retribution, he’d look for Peter and anchor himself with that calm, steady gaze.
But now, shut out of the conversation in the conference room, Neal worried a bit. It didn’t seem that Peter was trying to protect him from something – Peter’s body language suggested aggravation, exasperation and a familiarity with the Very Tall Woman. They weren’t conveniently facing outward, so he couldn’t read their lips (a handy talent he picked up years ago), and the glass walls and solid door of the conference room made for effective sound proofing. So, he covertly watched as the Very Tall Woman stalked around the conference room, as Peter scrubbed at his face and then threw up his hands in frustration. Neal found himself surprised that he was actually a little jealous – as if he was the only one who had the right to aggravate and exasperate Peter Burke.
All of a sudden, he realized that the conversation in the conference room had stopped, and the Very Tall Woman was staring at him. She must have said something to Peter because he called out for Neal to join them in the conference room.
He was grateful that Peter didn’t point and gesture, like Hughes and Rice the Tool Belt – it was always a bit humiliating to be summoned like a dog. Neal wanted to bound up the stairs, take them two at a time, but he forced himself to move at a measured pace – appropriate for one unsure of whether he was about to be reprimanded. He walked into the conference room, shut the door behind him and waited for Peter to make the introductions.
Peter actually got his mouth opened and started to speak, but the Very Tall Woman stopped him with a gesture. She held out her hand and introduced herself as “Isabelle,” and an older, gray-haired man (who Neal hadn’t noticed before) as Walter Hudson, her attorney. She didn’t bother to introduce the stenographer in the corner. Peter just sat there, silently watching the exchange, his face unreadable. Neal took note that Isabelle left off her last name deliberately, so he in turn introduced himself as “Mr. Caffrey.” That earned a very slight smile from Peter, and a startled chuckle from Isabelle.
“You’re right, Peter – he is smart. Quick too.” To Neal she said, “I guess fast thinking was an important skill in your former profession.”
The last comment was not really a question, and while he didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot with someone who may have a place in the game they played every day, Neal was getting annoyed. It was hard enough to keep the mask up these days without bossy strangers picking at his past.
“You’re not a lawyer, Mr. Caffrey, are you?” This really wasn’t a question either, but Neal wasn’t going to let this one pass without taking a swing.
“I may have done a semester or two at Columbia Law. Allegedly.”
“Not Harvard?” Very Tall Isabelle was no slouch in the rejoinder department either.
“Did some undergrad there. I got tired of Cambridge when Cardullo’s stopped stocking my favorite Italian roast.” Neal leaned back in his chair and gracefully swung his feet onto the table. He smirked and said nothing else.
Peter interrupted their banter, “Neal can keep this up all day if you want, Isabelle. You won’t best him quite so easily.”
Neal looked at Peter, who had gotten up to pour himself a glass of water. Neal was surprised at the odd power dynamics in the room, and that Peter seemed to be encouraging behavior that he usually slapped down.
Very Tall Isabelle sighed, “Okay – you’re right.” She turned to Neal. “Mr. Caffrey – since you allegedly have some experience in a law school classroom – you’ll know what I mean when I tell you that I’m giving you a ‘hypothetical’ to solve.”
Neal took his feet off the table and sat up, hands clasped in front of him like a model pupil on the first day of school. “Yes, ma’am.” This could actually be interesting.
“The situation is this. The chief legal officer for a major defense contractor discovers that her employer has been involved in criminal activity, but she is not sure if the illegal acts continue. She resigns her position, and goes to the FBI. The only information she can divulge is the existence of the past criminal activity, but not who committed the crimes, when the crimes occurred or even what those crimes were. In fact, it is so important that she NOT provide this information that she’s taken steps to establish an independently verifiable written record of the entire contact with the FBI. Can you tell me why?” The only sound in the conference room at this point was the soft whooshing of the paper flowing through the stenograph machine.
Neal looked at Peter, who shrugged and shook his head – no help there. Isabelle was clearly talking about herself. It wasn’t surprising the she was a lawyer – she certainly had the personality of a land shark. Neal rolled a few possibilities around, discarded them, picked up other threads. The whole lawyer thing seemed very central to Isabelle’s hypothetical – that was the place to start.
It didn’t feel like a light going on in his head, or like when he looked at a cold case file and solved the crime, or when he and Peter went back and forth over a problem and got to that ‘a-ha’ moment. This time, the answer slipped out of some hidden place – almost too perfect in its simplicity.
“Attorney – client privilege. You can’t say anything specific, because the company is your client. You’re also bound by the code of professional responsibility.” Neal didn’t look at Isabelle, but at Peter. He was rewarded for his cleverness with one of those lovely half-rueful smiles. For a heartbeat, it was just the two of them. The moment was broken by slow, mocking clapping.
“You are now officially the smartest man in the room. No offense, Walter.” She completely ignored Peter.
“None taken, Isabelle.” The first and only words the man had spoken so far.
Peter said “That’s not quite the compliment you think it is, Neal. Notice, she said ‘smartest man’ not ‘smartest person.’ Isabelle clearly believes that title belongs to her.” Peter took a sip of water.
Feeling a bit like a trained seal that just performed well on the horns, Neal thought he was entitled to a bit more information. He turned to Isabelle and asked “Have we met before? You look very familiar.”
Neal would later swear that Peter did a spit-take, and both Very Tall and her lawyer burst out laughing. Peter recovered first, and Neal was relieved to finally see some humor in his eyes. “Someone want to let me in on the joke?”
“Let me introduce you properly. This is Isabelle Burke, my sister. My twin sister.”
Peter’s sister stuck out her hand again. “Can I call you Neal now?”
“Only if I can call you Ms. Burke.”
The laughter was more comfortable now, and Neal felt less like the butt and more like a part of the joke. “But I have a few questions.” He looked at Peter and Isabelle – they were standing side by side. The resemblance was there, but not very remarkable.
Isabelle was quick to reply, “I’m fifteen seconds older.”
“That wasn’t what I was going to ask.” It was obvious to Neal that the relationship between brother and sister was a difficult one, not how he would imagine between fraternal twins. This woman was not quite a Bizarro version of Peter, but she wasn’t the same as Peter either – which was, at the end of all things, a relief.
“Actually, my question was about your ‘hypothetical’.” Neal caught Peter’s eye again, and it felt like they were working a case. He could see the same line of questions forming there. “Isn’t there is some leeway in the ethics code, particularly when it comes to the discovery of a crime?”
Walter the Gray actually had something to contribute at this question. “No, Mr. Caffrey. The Code of Professional Responsibility actually only allows an attorney to divulge information about a crime yet to be committed, not one that already has been committed if she learned of the crime during the course of representation. And attorney-client privilege is absolute with regard to prior illegal acts. Since my client has learned of the details of the prior malfeasance solely due to her representation of her client, she cannot give any information about what she actually knows. I only know a bit more than you, all in the framework of a hypothetical. Isabelle’s walking a very fine line by making any statements about her client’s activities.”
Peter interrupted, but Neal also picked up on the qualification Walter had made. “Wait – you said ‘the details of the malfeasance.’ Are you saying that the actual crime itself could be discovered by someone other than the company’s general counsel?”
Neal added, “That’s your loophole, Isabelle. Isn’t it?”
Neither attorney replied, but Isabelle gestured slightly to the stenographer in the corner, who was still transcribing the conversation. “I can’t say any more – do you have enough to get started?”
Neal looked at Peter. Peter just smiled – that shark-toothed grin, and said nothing.
Neal was a bit surprised when Peter asked his Isabelle about her flight home – that night. Didn’t she want to spend some time with her brother? His expression must have been a bit too transparent, because Isabelle explained, “I need to establish an unequivocal record of this meeting – from start to finish. I have to get onto a plane back to San Francisco tonight. Walter will sign an affidavit attesting to the duration of my visit and that at no time did I have any unrecorded conversations with the FBI or that I provided any documents of any kind to the FBI. This way, any case that may develop is not be tainted by a breach of attorney-client privilege.”
Walter added, perhaps unnecessarily, “So no subsequent investigation is tossed as fruit of the poisonous tree.”
Isabelle picked up her bag and turned to Neal. He held out his hand and she grabbed him into a surprisingly strong hug. “Good to meet you Mr. Caffrey.” She then whispered in his ear, “Ask Peter to tell you about Uncle Edgar.” He felt her slide something into his jacket pocket – she was good, but Neal was better.
Neal watched as sister and brother struggled with an awkward goodbye.
“Take care, Peter-face.” Neal’s eyes widened at the nickname.
“You too, Is-a-belly.” The siblings seemed to jockey for position and finally Peter hugged his sister close. Then he released her with a shocked expression on his face. Neal said nothing, understanding the need for discretion.
They stood on the balcony, watching the two attorneys leave the office and get on the elevator. They waited while the stenographer packed up her equipment and left.
Peter finally turned to Neal, all humor, affection, exasperation and frustration erased by the fierce look of an agent on a case, a worried brother. “Neal, she’s wearing a bullet proof vest.”
Peter was torn – he wanted to get his team started on the investigation immediately, but he needed to brief Hughes first. This was a case that would likely consume significant resources, and while he fully expected the AD’s support, it would be best to get approval before starting. Unfortunately, Reese was in a budget meeting and wouldn’t be available until that evening, at the earliest. But the feeling of the hard Kevlar vest beneath his sister’s suit jacket was making Peter a little crazy.
Peter could see the questions piling up in Neal’s eyes. If he had learned anything in the time he’d been working with Neal, it was that things would go a lot smoother if he satisfied his partner’s curiosity before Neal tried to satisfy it for himself. Deciding that discretion was still the better part of valor, he pushed Neal towards the staircase and followed him downstairs. “Not here – let’s take a walk.” Peter nodded to his agents, seeing questions in their eyes as well. Both had met Isabelle before, and would be curious about her brief visit. But Clinton and Diana were disciplined and experienced enough to know that Peter would brief them if he needed their input.
With little ceremony, Peter steered Neal to the elevators, then outside. The area around the FBI offices in Federal Plaza was filled with open space, and lately Peter preferred to conduct sensitive conversations with Neal in places were he could have a 360-degree view of his surroundings. However, he really didn’t care if Mentor was listening in on their conversation today – there was probably nothing they didn’t know about his sister or her visit, since she was not exactly flying under the radar.
It was a few minutes walk to one of their lunch spots; Peter and Neal were such regular customers that the hostess let them go right to their usual table in the courtyard. Thankfully, they had the space to themselves in the late afternoon hours between the lunch and dinner crowd, and the waitress brought them their usual order.
Neal watched Peter stare off into the middle distance. Peter was more than driven these days –worrying constantly that Mentor was going to grab him or that he would try to go after Fowler on his own. Worrying about Elizabeth and that Mentor would use her again to get to them. Worrying about his team; that the men and women he worked with and relied upon would be transferred out from under him and put into harm’s way. Peter worried about everyone, and Neal worried about Peter. Even Captain America can get killed.
For a very short while, after they started sleeping together, Neal wondered if Peter was giving Elizabeth to him in recompense for not saving Kate – as if Elizabeth were a thing and not a person, and she and Kate were somehow interchangeable. The thought of that had made him blisteringly, almost insanely angry.
One hot June night on the living room couch, after he had brought Elizabeth to orgasm three times with his mouth and fingers, Peter pulled him up from between his wife’s thighs, grabbed his hair and brutally kissed him. Neal had melted into that kiss until he heard Peter say “Tell me you know she’s not Kate.” Neal exploded in a rage, hitting out at Peter with his closed fists. Neal kept punching, swinging wildly while the other man didn’t try to defend himself or hit back. Peter just tried to capture and calm Neal down, but anger lent Neal a wily strength. Elizabeth came to Peter’s rescue and dumped a pitcher of water over them.
Somehow, Neal ended up wet, naked and weeping, rocking back and forth in Peter’s arms. Over the pounding of his heart and his own sobs, he heard Peter crying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
Elizabeth knelt down in front of both men and hugged them tight. In that woman-wise voice of hers, she said, “Don’t you think it’s time we talked about this?”
Those were some of the most difficult moments of Neal’s life – worse than his arrest, worse than hearing his sentence read, and worse than listening to Kate tell him goodbye in the prison visiting room. It certainly rivaled the hours he spent with the Mentor files that Diana had copied from Fowler’s computer, pulling together the pieces that showed how Kate had been betraying him from very the beginning and ultimately how she somehow got caught up in an evil greater than her own.
What came out of that conversation; however, was as pure and durable as a flawless diamond. He had known for years (it was impossible not to) that Peter had been wildly attracted to him, and after all, hadn’t Neal felt the same for Peter? Neal was surprised to learn that it had been Elizabeth who urged Peter to finally act upon that attraction. What truly shocked him, though, was when they both revealed the true depth of their feelings for him – Neal Caffrey, criminal. If Elizabeth’s simple declaration, “Neal – I love you was a punch in the gut, Peter’s halting, artless confession was like a blow to the brain. All of a sudden, everything made sense – Peter coming after him when he escaped, convincing the FBI to take him on as a consultant (at great risk to his own career), protecting him from Kate, from Mentor. The conversation in Peter’s office after rescuing Stuart Gless’ daughter, and that last, heartbreaking speech in the hanger was Peter’s love-gift to him – offering Neal a life that he saw as the best possible thing in the world.
Neal couldn’t help but be honest them – at that time, he was still too shell-shocked over Kate to know if what he felt was love, but Peter and Elizabeth were willing to wait for him, to let him heal. It was a measure of his own progress that he recognized how desperately worried Peter was, and the toll it was taking on him. Though it went against the grain, Neal didn’t struggle against Peter’s protectiveness. He had hurt Peter enough, and if letting Peter watch over him gave the man some relief, then Neal could live with that.
~ ~ ~
He’s actually learning some discretion. Peter was impressed that Neal didn’t immediately pepper him with questions. He supposed that what prison didn’t teach, the disaster with the music box did. Then Neal opened his mouth – And… he ruined it. Peter smiled.
“Neal, if you call me that again, you’ll sleep on my wet spot for a month.”
“That would be an actual threat if the bed wasn’t one big wet spot most nights. We should probably invest in one of those rubber mattress pads old people need. A real threat would be to turn me over to OPR with a big red bow around my neck. Or a blue one, to match my eyes.”
Peter’s smile disappeared. “Don’t EVER joke about that.”
“Yeah – bad taste.” Something about the late spring afternoon infused Neal with a bit of the old recklessness. “Peter-face.”
“You just can’t help yourself, Caffrey, can you?” The smile returned to Peter’s lips.
“No. Nope. Never.”
Peter let the silence linger, to see just how long Neal could hold out. Wait for it, Burke – wait for it. Ah…here it comes.
Neal opened his mouth again, but he caught the look in Peter’s eyes, and changed his tack. “I have all night, but you might want to think about getting home to Elizabeth.”
“As if you’re not just as eager to get home.” Peter relented, “What do you want to know?”
“Everything. Like why you love your sister, but you really don’t like her.”
Peter shouldn’t have been surprised at Neal’s perceptiveness, not after this long – but it was still something of a shock to be read so easily. “How could you tell that?”
“Well, I am something of an expert on annoying Peter Burke, and I never seen quite that look of distaste on your face. Or maybe distaste isn’t the right word – frustration, pain, anger?”
“Yeah, frustration, pain, anger. That pretty much sums up Isabelle.” Peter took a sip of his beer. “No matter what I did, she always did it better, quicker, easier. It seemed like I spent half my teenage years feeling like I wasn’t measuring up to her. It didn’t help that she was six feet tall before my voice broke. And she has never stopped rubbing those damn fifteen seconds in my face.”
“She does it because she knows it sets you off.” Neal stated the obvious.
“Yeah, and I let her get to me.”
“Did you parents play favorites?”
Peter shook his head emphatically, “No. If anything, they may have over-compensated.” Peter looked at Neal, sitting back in his chair, nursing a cappuccino, perfectly polished. “Done psychoanalyzing me?”
“Yeah. So – what’s the deal with her? She seems a bit, well, self-important.”
Peter laughed, unamused. “Not self-important. She is important.” At Neal’s puzzled look, he continued. “My sister, perfect SAT scores, perfect GPA - full ride at Harvard undergrad and Harvard Law School. Top of her class at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Decorated for service in Desert Storm. Senior member of the Judge Advocate General’s staff. The U. S. Attorney for Northern California. And now, Chief Legal Officer for Aero-Dyne Corporation with a seven-figure salary. I guess she got tired of the civil service pay grade. I think this is the first time in her life that something hasn’t worked out for her.” Peter’s voice had a bitter edge at that last bit.
“I don’t think your life has turned out so badly, Peter.” Neal said quietly. “How many people does Isabelle go home to that love her like El and I love you?”
“Neal…” Peter swallowed against the sudden emotion. God, the man had good timing.
“And Peter, for the record – a 4.0 at Harvard, a Masters of Philosophy in Economic History and a PhD in Sociology from the London School of Economics isn’t anything to sneeze at. First in your class at Quantico, too. What – you think I don’t know your CV?” Neal actually sounded angry. “She’s your sister. She creamed you at dodge ball. Get over it.”
Peter shook his head and laughed. “When you put it that way, it does seem stupid.”
Neal reached out and covered Peter’s hand with his own, his thumb caressing Peter’s knuckles. “Not stupid, only human.
“Neal, you might want to remove your hand.”
Peter shivered as Neal reluctantly pulled his fingers away, making the simple act another caress. “Peter, think about this while you’re at it. She came to see you. You think Isabelle doesn’t have contacts in the FBI offices in San Francisco? She flew across the country to ask her brother for help. I think that says something about what Isabelle feels about you. Maybe she believes you are the only one who can help her?”
“Or she could just be playing mind games with me.” Peter shook his head, as if to clear out the cobwebs. “I am having a hard time wrapping my brain around why Isabelle was wearing body armor. Is she afraid she’s going to be shot at? Damn it, she gets me so wound up, I can’t think straight.”
Neal considered the question, “Maybe it was a message, a subtle clue?”
Peter looked at Neal, eyes narrowed, lips pursed, “Go on.”
“In her hypothetical, Isabelle said something about the company being a defense contractor, right? Maybe they make body armor? Maybe she’s trying to tell you what to look for?”
Peter sat back and thought about it. “Could be possible. Aero-Dyne is huge, probably one of the top five military contractors – I would be surprised if they didn’t manufacture armor. But companies that big, that well-tied – they’re all dirty, somehow.”
“Peter, I’m shocked. When did you get so cynical?”
Peter smiled sourly. “Havisham would be proud.”
He continued to gnaw at the issue, though. “What did Isabelle find that made her fly to New York, to see me? It if involves the military, why not go right to the Pentagon? I’m just not buying the whole ‘Peter, come to my rescue’ thing. My sister has very good friends in many high places. There’s something here that I’m missing.”
Neal looked at Peter, and asked “What about your Uncle Edgar?”
“What?” Peter was puzzled at Neal’s non-sequitur. “I - We don’t have an Uncle Edgar.”
“When she hugged me goodbye, Isabelle said to ask you tell me about Uncle Edgar.”
“Are you sure that’s what she said?”
“Yes, I’m positive.”
“Let me think.”
Neal watched a multitude of expressions cross Peter’s face, and felt his own frustration mount. If this was a Burke family thing, it was heading into territory that Neal couldn’t cross. All of a sudden, Peter’s face lit up.
“Oh, she’s good. She’s very good.” Peter’s was smiling – an ear-to-ear grin filled with admiration. “We’ve got to get back to the office.” Peter threw some cash on the table to cover their bill and rushed out of the restaurant, and Neal moved quickly to keep up.
“Are you going to tell me what’s going on?”
“Nope – not until we get back – don’t want to have to explain myself twice.”
Back at Federal Plaza, Peter hustled Neal through building security and to the bank of elevators, impatiently pressing the “up” button as if that would make an elevator arrive faster. Neal was bemused and slightly aroused by the sight of Peter in full hunt mode, like a bird dog going after fallen game. He was also a bit shocked to realize how much of the joy Peter had for his work had been missing since the world blew to pieces.
A car finally arrived, and a dozen people got off, including Jones. Peter grabbed his agent, “Where are you going?”
“It’s five o’clock on Friday, and you had said we could take off ‘early’…” Neal caught Jones’ eye, and shook his head. “But I can certainly come back upstairs if you need me. I think Diana’s still in the office.”
“Good man.” Peter pulled both Jones and Neal into the waiting elevator and paced around the car until it stopped at the WCCD’s floor.
The office wasn’t empty, Diana and a few others were getting ready to leave and Hughes was back from his budget meeting. “Jones, Diana – set up your laptops in the conference room, Neal – with me.” Neal shrugged at the two agents, held out his hands in that familiar gesture of helpless compliance and followed Peter into Hughes’ office.
The old man listened thoughtfully as Peter quickly outlined the conversation with Isabelle, and was visibly impressed by Neal’s clever contribution. He gave Peter leave to start an investigation, but did warn him that it wouldn’t be open-ended. Neal was surprised that Peter said nothing to Hughes about Isabelle’s Kevlar vest or “Uncle Edgar.”
Back in the conference room, Peter repeated the summary he gave to Hughes. So much for not explaining things twice, Neal thought, but this time he added something. “We start by digging through SEC filings.”
At Neal’s blank stare, Peter added “The SEC’s public filing database is called ‘EDGAR’- Electronic Data-Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval. What ever is going on, we’ll find it, or a hook into it in the company’s public filings”
Neal had to laugh. Uncle Edgar – EDGAR. Very, very clever.
Peter started by dividing up research responsibilities, and to Neal’s dismay, he was given white board duties – taking notes of any possible leads, but not exactly contributing to the investigation. Although it felt awkward and more than a little false (a strange feeling for a professional confidence artist), Neal actually reminded Peter to call his wife, rather than just simply calling Elizabeth himself. He was certain that both Clinton and Diana knew something was going on between the three of them, but Neal understood the importance of maintaining the charade. You never knew who was listening these days.
By ten o’clock, all four of them were exhausted. Aero-Dyne was an enormous conglomerate, made of up dozens of smaller companies, most of which were also listed in one stock exchange or another. Not knowing what to look for meant each document had to be closely read, rather than skimmed for key words. Peter finally called it a night when he saw that Jones had dozed off while reviewing 10-K filings. They’d each access the database over the weekend and start afresh Monday morning.
Neal waited patiently as the agents packed up, and as he went to retrieve his hat and jacket, Peter tossed something at him – a Kevlar vest. Peter, Clinton and Diana were each donning their own body armor.
“You know the rules, Neal. No one goes to the garage alone or after hours without a vest.”
Neal didn’t argue, and he didn’t make a flippant comment that he was already wearing a vest – one much more stylish than the bulky black armor. Someone had wanted him dead – whether it was Fowler or his puppet masters in Mentor, he still didn’t know. As Neal put on his own vest, Peter and Jones slipped back on their shoulder rigs. Diana still carried her service weapon at her waist and her backup – the one that Peter had used to shoot Fowler – at the small of her back.
They left the offices normally, but by the time the elevator reached the garage level, Peter, Clinton and Diana surrounded Neal, their weapons drawn and held down but with the safeties off. Neal was locked into Peter’s car first, and Peter covered Jones and Diana until they got to their own vehicles. The protective routine made Neal uncomfortable, the three acting like human shields for him. He wasn’t precisely sure what he did to deserve the risks they took for him.
Peter pulled out of the garage, and instead of heading cross town to the Brooklyn Bridge, he turned towards the West Side Highway and Neal’s apartment. At Neal’s questioning look, Peter said, “El’s got a thing – a wedding in Greenwich tonight, she’ll be home in the morning. I though we’d spend the night at your place. Unless you’d rather not?” Despite everything, including the small comment Neal slipped in the conversation this afternoon, Peter was sometimes uncomfortable about presuming anything with Neal.
“No, my apartment is fine.”
Stopped at a light, Peter looked over at Neal and wondered why this man – his friend, his lover – no longer seemed to chafe at restrictions that he had placed on him. Oh, the essential Neal hadn’t changed – he still took amazing risks when they did field work, and he constantly pushed at Bureau rules and regulations. But Neal seemed oddly content to let Peter have his way after hours. Well, perhaps that wasn’t the best way to put it, since Neal was far from a passive or submissive partner. Peter actually felt himself blushing at the memory of a recent evening when Neal took charge.
“Long day,” Neal commented idly.
“Yeah. Good one, though. Been a while.”
“Looks like we’re going to have a nice spring.”
“What’s with the small talk, Neal?”
“Nothing, just – well – just trying to …” Neal stopped, uncharacteristically at a loss of words.
“Spill it, Caffrey. What are you trying not to tell me?”
Neal chuckled, a brief huff of air. “Your sister’s a real piece of work.”
“I though we already established that.” This wasn’t a conversation Peter really wanted to have again.
“She slipped something into my pocket.” Neal reached in and pulled out a memory card, the kind used in digital cameras. “Photos? She’s really doing an end-run around that whole privilege thing, isn’t she?”
“Damn it. That’s Isabelle. She thinks she’s smarter than everyone else. She couldn’t trust me to figure this out. Just has to drop breadcrumbs along the way.” Peter pounded his fist on the steering wheel in aggravation. “I don’t want to see what’s on that card. Look at it, don’t look at it – but don’t tell me.”
“You know Peter, I could ask Mozzie to wreck her credit rating. Or something. As a prank.”
“He can do that? Wait, no. Don’t you know how many Federal laws you’d break?” Peter felt the start of a massive headache.
“Hmmm, yeah, that’s probably not a good idea. Pity she doesn’t live in New York City, we could report her for ferret keeping. Just a nuisance claim. ”
Peter said nothing for a moment. There were so many things wrong with what Neal was suggesting, but he was tempted…a little payback, brother to sister. He shook his head, No. No. Well, maybe…
“When we were six, our parents took us to a petting zoo. A goat started to eat Isabelle’s clothes. She’s been deathly afraid of them ever since.” Peter paused and looked at Neal, who was looking anywhere but at Peter. “She lives in Half Moon Bay. And that’s all I’m saying on the subject.”
The rest of the ride was completed in silence, only broken when Neal called June’s to let the staff know when they’d be arriving.
It was nearly eleven when Peter followed Neal into his apartment, dropped his briefcase and jacket on the couch and walked out onto the terrace. Peter just stood there, gazing at the city skyline, listening to the traffic and his own thoughts. Neal got a beer for Peter and a glass of wine for himself, and stood next to him.
“Neal, you said something this afternoon.”
“I said a lot of things, Peter.”
“You know what I’m talking about.”
“Look Peter, are you going to make me say it?”
Peter sighed. “I want to hear it. I need to hear it.” He turned to look at Neal, whose face was gilded by the full moon and the fairy lights draped around the terrace. He knew he could let it drop, and still be secure in his own feelings, but at this moment, he was selfish enough to want it all. So he waited, holding his breath.
“I don’t know what this is so difficult…” Neal laughed, self-deprecatingly.
“Maybe because we’re men. We don’t talk about our feelings,” Peter replied with a smile. He guessed that he’d just have to wait. He watched as Neal turned back to face the city.
“Yes, Peter. I love you.”
Peter said nothing; he just smiled, savoring the moment of perfect happiness.
In the end, the case was almost ridiculously easy to break. The next morning, when they were leaving to meet up with Elizabeth in Brooklyn, Peter picked up Neal’s discarded Kevlar vest and noticed the tag on the back, “ZeroPoint - an Aero-Dyne company.” Monday morning, Diana found the hook they needed. ZeroPoint, prior to its acquisition by Aero-Dyne, had entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Government following a bid-rigging investigation. The decree stipulated that the company and its successors (which meant Aero-Dyne) would be subject to full government audits without notice, for a minimum of ten years. Peter’s team coordinated with the San Francisco WCCD office, and within six months, uncovered evidence of massive fraud, ranging from price fixing, bid rigging, and intellectual property theft, to numerous financial and securities violations. The entire senior management of the company were indicted and stood trial before the end of the year. The verdicts were guilty, all the way around.
Isabelle Burke, as always, came out on top. While whistle-blowers are often subject to character assassination during the trial in an attempt to discredit their testimony, her reputation was so stellar and her reporting of the initial case so impeccable that any mud the defense threw at her just slid right off. When the trial was over, Isabelle was appointed to U.S. Court of Appeals.
Peter was surprised to learn that the body armor wasn’t a clue. His sister had watched “Michael Clayton” one too many times, and actually believed that her life was in danger. On a personal note, Isabelle ended up selling her lovely Craftsman-style bungalow in Half Moon Bay at a loss, when the property became infested with wild goats.
Neither Peter nor Neal have looked at the contents of the memory card.