The team's latest client, a local woman named Iona Franklin, had approached Nate on behalf of her grandfather. A charming art dealer called Tony Michaels had visited Mr. Franklin's home in Queens two months ago, offering to buy several paintings from him. Distressed and bewildered after the recent death of his wife, the elderly man had been pressured into accepting prices far below market value.
When Iona found out what had happened, some weeks later, she checked the dealer's website and got a nasty shock. The artworks had fetched at least a dozen times more than Michaels had paid. One of them, a 19th century view of New York Harbor, had been bought for $500 but resold for $8,000.
She had traveled down from Boston to confront him at his Manhattan gallery, but found him not at all charming. Michaels had laughed in her face, telling her he'd done nothing illegal and that her grandfather was a gullible old fool. She'd come home, fuming, and told the story to a friend whose cousin happened to be a former client of the Leverage team.
The upshot: Iona had shown up at McRory's yesterday, asking Nate for help.
Hardison was now standing in Nate's living room, outlining the situation for the others. He briefly stopped talking to swig some soda, and Nate glanced around to gauge reactions to this new job.
Eliot's scowl was unsurprising. Though he could kill a man with his bare hands, he hated to see vulnerable people being mistreated. Nate relied on Eliot more than ever now, so it was good to know he was on board.
Parker's expression was blank. Maybe she felt sorry for Mr. Franklin; maybe she was just waiting to be told what to steal. Sophie had always been better at reading Parker, and Nate really missed her insight into their thief's quirky brain.
Tara was difficult to read for another reason – they'd only handled a few cases together, and Nate barely knew her yet. But at a guess, he'd say she was impressed by her fellow con artist's scam, and not so concerned about the damage Michaels had done. Tara saw this stint with the team as a paying job, after all. It was probably easier for the others to be compassionate and altruistic, since they were all rich enough to retire already.
Hardison was the most transparent of them all, but Nate noticed that he seemed even more eager and cheerful than usual. Was it the job itself, or the prospect of the team traveling to New York City for the first time?
"So, I did some digging," Hardison continued. "Mr. Franklin definitely wasn't the only one that got ripped off. Michaels targets recently bereaved New Yorkers, mostly older widows. I think he's finding them via obituaries in the paper, which is just cruel, man. He calls or shows up at the door, saying he'll appraise their artworks for free. Then he claims that the paintings really aren't all that valuable, but offers to pay cash on the spot."
"I've seen this kind of con before," Tara said. "He probably convinces his marks that they'd have to waste lots of time going around lots of dealers to get a better offer, and would get stung by steep commission fees. So they sell to him and he resells the works at a far higher price, pocketing a tidy profit."
"You got it," Hardison said. "It looks like Michaels only started doing this in the past six months, when the recession really bit into his margins. But he's been careful: all his victims sign a deed of sale, so he actually is the legal owner. He was lying his ass off about the valuations, sure, but that argument might not hold up in court."
"So we have to work out how to stop Michaels, publicly humiliate him, and get proper compensation for Iona's grandfather and possibly the other victims too – all while bypassing the authorities," Nate said, a plan already taking shape in his mind.
"It also looks like he's got real cred in the art world." Bringing up a glossy magazine article on the screen, Hardison quoted, "'Michaels is considered to have a special talent for identifying previously unknown works by prominent American artists'. And an ego the size of Texas based on it, from what I can tell," he added.
"That's great," Nate said. "We can definitely use that against him." He stood up, and paced across the room as his team watched.
"Yeah...so, what we need is a grieving woman who doesn't know that she owns an extremely valuable painting. We entice Michaels to visit her and buy it for a pittance, and then make it the centerpiece of his next auction. Except it'll be a high-quality forgery, and we'll make sure everyone finds out in some spectacular fashion. His reputation will be ruined, and his dealership will suffer irreparable damage."
Tara raised an eyebrow. "I can play the widow of a rich old man, no problem. We can say it was a May-to-December romance, to explain the age difference. But I see a major stumbling block with this scenario: none of us are good enough to paint a fake masterpiece."
"Hey, what about 'Old Nate'?" Hardison gestured to his portrait of the mythical Harlan Leverage III, hanging on the wall behind her. "That's a real masterpiece, right there!"
"It's weird," Eliot said. "Next time we have to blow up our headquarters, I vote we let the damn thing burn." He smirked at Hardison, who glared back.
"Nobody is blowing up my apartment," Nate declared. Hardison, who owned the building, nodded vigorously. Parker, who was worryingly fond of explosions, looked disappointed.
Rolling her eyes, Tara got back to the issue at hand. "So, we need a great artist with elastic ethics. Anybody got one on speed dial?"
Hardison opened his mouth, shut it again, and looked oddly uncertain for a few seconds. Then he said, "I actually do know a fantastic forger. He's got a lot of aliases, but his real name is Neal Caffrey."
Interestingly, it turned out that Eliot was the only one who hadn't heard of Caffrey. Tara respected his ability to 'talk anyone into or out of anything', and Parker admired him for 'some amazing heists'.
And for Nate, he was one of the fish that got away. "I chased Caffrey for IYS several times, but he was like Houdini. When the FBI finally made the arrest, even they couldn't pin any art thefts on the guy. Isn't he in prison, though?"
"Actually, he was released a few months back," Hardison said. "Now he lives in Manhattan."
"So how do you know Caffrey?" Nate asked, expecting to hear that they'd collaborated on a job or two.
A grin flashed across Hardison's face. "He's my brother."
Hearing from Alec was always a highlight of his day, but Neal got a pleasant surprise when he got a text message Wednesday morning: Alec was flying down from Boston in two days' time. He wanted to see Neal while he was in New York, both to catch up and to discuss a possible joint endeavor. Neal replied immediately, suggesting they meet at a bar within his radius, and put his phone away with a smile.
"Good news?" June asked, sipping her coffee. She had joined Neal on the mansion's rooftop terrace for breakfast, both of them enjoying the bright sunshine after days of rain.
"My brother Alec is coming to town this weekend," Neal explained.
"Oh, that's nice," June said. "You know, I don't think you've mentioned any siblings before."
"That's because Peter thinks I'm an only child, and I'd like to keep it that way."
"Of course, dear," she said with an understanding nod. June was a woman who knew how to keep secrets. "So are you and Alec close?"
"Yeah, very. He's my foster-brother, but it feels like we've always known each other. My foster-mom took him in when I was eight years old and he was just four. We ended up staying with her right through high school." Neal smiled. "Nana was a wonderful woman – you remind me of her, actually."
June smiled back. "I can just imagine you as a boy, charming your way into and out of trouble. How young were you when you decided on this career path?"
Neal spread his hands. "Alec and I got up to some mischief, sure, but I always wanted to paint for a living. The crime came later, when Kate and I got tired of being starving artists."
"I see," June said thoughtfully. "And Alec? If you don't want the FBI to know about him, I'm guessing he's in a similar line of work to you."
"He's a hacker," Neal said, "one of the best in the world. But he's on the side of the angels now."
"As are you, supposedly," she pointed out, and Neal shrugged ruefully. June finished her coffee and stood up from the table. "Your brother's welcome to stay here, if he likes."
"I think that'd be too risky," Neal said, "given the way Peter likes to stop by unannounced. Thanks, though."
June nodded, patting him on the shoulder as she walked towards the stairs. "No need to thank me, Neal. This is your home too, now."
Neal topped up his coffee and looked out across the city. After four years inside, it was still surreal to wake up every day to a view like this. He'd described June's mansion to Alec and emailed some photos, but they didn't do the place justice.
The last time Neal had seen his brother was through thick glass in the SuperMax visiting room, over a year ago. Alec had never been a frequent visitor, not like Kate, but Neal didn't hold it against him. Before he'd joined Nate Ford's team of criminals turned crusaders, Alec's jobs had taken him all around the world. Since then, he'd been kept busy fighting the good fight across America.
But Alec had managed to protect Neal in prison, even from a distance, by digging up dirt on every guard and threatening them with exposure if Neal got hurt. And the secret code they'd developed as kids had proven crucial for getting messages past the censors, including Neal's request for help with his escape and Alec's immediate response. When he was recaptured, Neal claimed to have managed the whole thing alone.
Alec had been instrumental in getting Neal out for the second time, too. He'd researched the forger known as 'The Dutchman', and he'd been the one to suggest the use of a GPS electronic monitoring anklet. Neal glanced down at his left ankle with distaste – so far, Alec seemed to be right about it being tamper-proof.
Neal gave Peter the impression that Mozzie provided all his intel, but Alec was secretly a key source. The two of them had gone home to Tennessee to destroy all their foster care and school records, years ago: Alec deleted the database entries, while Neal stole and burned the paper documents. Now there was no official proof that they were connected, and Neal wanted to keep it that way.
They weren't related by blood, but Alec was family all the same and Neal's trust in him was absolute. Neal had lied to both Moz and Kate about the location of his stash...only Alec knew that all the stolen goods, forged bonds, and stockpiled cash were in a Memphis storage unit.
Neal used to combine trips to his stash with visits to their Nana, but she had died just before the FBI caught him – his grief was one reason why he'd screwed up that final bond job. But while Neal was inside, Alec had kept up the payments on his storage unit and installed a high-tech security system with remote monitoring.
That thought reminded Neal, now, to pull out his phone again and perform his daily check of the unit's cameras. Everything seemed absolutely normal, as usual.
Neal stared longingly at the live feed. God, he so wanted to be reunited with his treasures. He'd always loved running his fingertips along the paintings' ornate frames, and caressing the cool curves of the marble statues. For him, art was a tactile as well as a visual pleasure.
He hoped that Alec was bringing him a present from Boston: a way to unlock or disable the anklet. Neal's first priority once he was free and clear was to find Kate and rescue her from that mystery man with the ring. His second was to go back to Memphis, visit Nana's grave, and then raid his stash.
After that, well, Neal would follow Kate's example. He'd become a ghost that not even the FBI's best agent could catch.
Neal's coffee had gone cold, and Peter would come by soon to pick him up. He headed inside to perform the last of his morning rituals: adjusting his tie, putting on his hat, and mentally donning his latest mask. Neal Caffrey, FBI consultant, was just another con job. But the more time he spent with Peter, the harder it became to remember that.
His brother had a few more wrinkles around his eyes, Alec noticed, and he was still too thin and pale from his time in prison. But Neal's smile when he saw Alec waiting at the bar was wide and genuine. The two of them hugged, the first time they'd been allowed to touch in almost five years, and sat down in a back booth.
Neal ordered a glass of wine from their gorgeous waitress, who responded to his casual flirtation in kind. Flirting really was as natural as breathing for Neal, Alec thought. He'd been jealous as a teenager, when his own response to girls had usually involved hopeless babbling; now, it just amused him.
Alec and Neal spent an hour at the bar, talking in low voices as the Friday night crowd came and went around them. They'd covered most of the big stuff in their regular emails and phone calls, but Neal still asked Alec about the Leverage team's recent endeavors. He'd been fascinated by their whole Robin Hood mission since the beginning.
Now, as Alec described their attempt to help Chinese sweatshop workers, he wondered if Neal's own crime-fighting efforts gave him a different perspective on what Alec's crew did.
Meeting in person did reveal something that surprised Alec: the respect and affection on Neal's face when speaking about his handler, Peter Burke. Would the veteran Fed speak so warmly of his pet convict? Alec wouldn't bet against it...few people were entirely immune to Neal's charm.
Once they'd gotten caught up, Neal leaned closer to Alec and said, "So, have you had any luck with that electronics project?"
Alec had been trying to crack the tracking anklet ever since Neal had been released into Burke's custody. It was one of the toughest tasks he'd ever set himself, which was saying a lot – he'd started hacking federal networks in high school.
Despite several months of effort, Alec had no good news to give Neal. "Sorry, man. I'm still working on it."
Neal nodded, apparently resigned to waiting, but Alec knew that patience had never been his brother's strong point. Time for a distraction, he thought.
"Hey, listen," Alec said. "Let me tell you about our new job, and how you could help. Have you heard of Tony Michaels, the art dealer?"
"Sure," Neal said, "he's had a gallery on the Upper East Side for a couple of decades. It's a pretty classy place. I applied for an assistant position there after art school, but Michaels hired some preppy rich kid just because his daddy was a big art collector."
"In that case, you'll be pleased to hear that we're planning to take Michaels down." Alec laid out what the guy had been up to, and Neal shook his head.
"It's an effective scam, I guess, but going after grieving old people is just cruel," he said. "At least my marks were wealthy and well-insured. I never took anything they couldn't afford to lose."
Alec nodded; he'd been sure that Neal would understand. "Thing is, Nate's plan only works if we get a painting done to very exact specifications in a short time period. That's where we could use your skills."
Neal looked puzzled. "There are plenty of local forgers who could handle this – why would your team want me? You did tell them that I'm a consultant for the Bureau now, right?"
"Yeah, we had some debate about that. I explained that you're just killing time here 'til you can find Kate and escape. In the end, it came down to me trusting you and them trusting me." Alec shrugged. "So, you want in?"
"Copyright law pertaining to art is very interesting," Neal said. "It's technically not forgery to create a painting in the style of another artist, as long as you don't claim it's by that person. In fact, it's perfectly legal to sell exact reproductions, so long as the artist's been dead for a certain number of years. I did it for a while after graduating, to pay the rent, before I moved on to the less legal kind of copying."
"I know," Alec reminded him, "I've got your version of Van Gogh's 'Starry Night' hanging in my apartment back in Boston."
"That was one of my best efforts," Neal said. "God, do you remember Moz's face when he saw it? You'd only just introduced the two of us, and he declared me his new go-to forger on the spot."
"Start of a beautiful friendship," Alec said nostalgically. "I'm looking forward to catching up with Mozzie while I'm here. But you haven't answered my question, Neal."
"Well, my point was: if, hypothetically, I painted something reminiscent of a famous artist's work, and gave it to someone telling them it was a Neal Caffrey original –"
"– then you wouldn't be liable for whatever that person did with it afterwards," Alec concluded. "Would those legal niceties keep the FBI off your back, though? It'd be great to work with you again, but this job isn't worth going back to prison for."
"I really do want to help," Neal said, frowning. "But I'm on thin ice with Peter after I stole that Haustenberg, and he can trace my every move thanks to the damn anklet."
"All you'd have to do is paint," Alec pointed out. "We can buy all the supplies you need, and you wouldn't have to go near the gallery or do anything suspicious. And the tracker would provide the perfect alibi on the day we bring Michaels down."
Neal looked thoughtful for a long moment, and then spread his hands wide. "All right, let's do it. I've missed working with you, too."
Alec grinned at him. "Awesome. So we're staying at a hotel a couple of blocks from here. Wanna come get acquainted with my crew?"
"Definitely," Neal said with a smile. "I'm looking forward to meeting them all, after everything you've told me, and I really want to talk shop with Parker. I've admired her work for years."
"She's keen to meet you, too." Alec tried to hide his uneasiness, but Neal could still read him like a book.
"My interest in Parker is purely professional," Neal promised. "Anyway, Kate is the only one for me."
Alec highly doubted that she would say the same about Neal, but he kept his mouth shut: he had no desire to start yet another argument about Kate and her trustworthiness. So he paid for their drinks and left a generous tip, then led the way out of the bar.
They soon reached the hotel suite the team was using as their New York base, and Alec made the introductions. Though Parker seemed eager to fire questions at Neal, straight off, Nate insisted on running through the gallery con first.
Neal listened closely to the plan, nodding his approval, but interrupted when Nate got to the part about Tara playing the bereaved mark.
"I actually board with a real widow," he said. "Her name's June Duvall, and she owns a townhouse on the Upper West Side that's crammed with beautiful works of art – it'd be like a magnet to Michaels."
Nate frowned at him. "Why would your rich landlady want to help us out?"
"June hasn't exactly been on the straight and narrow her whole life," Neal explained. "She'd probably consider it fun to pull this job. And she only lost her husband a few months ago, so I think she'd really feel for Michaels' victims."
Nate paused, obviously considering all the possible outcomes. His brain was like a computer, Alec thought: it had some buggy software, even when he was sober, but a super-fast processor.
"I'm reluctant to bring in another outside person," Nate eventually said. "It would give the con a certain authenticity, though. Sound Mrs. Duvall out, see if she's interested."
"Sure," Neal replied. "You just decide which artist I'm going to be mimicking, and I'll start work. I'm best at the Old Masters, but I could probably do a decent job on most of the great American artists. Just no Abstractionists or Surrealists, please...that's no proper test of my skills."
Alec rolled his eyes. He'd been hearing variations on this rant ever since Neal started getting art books out of the Memphis public library. For someone whose profession revolved around misrepresenting reality, Neal had an oddly strong preference for figurative painting.
Once the planning session wrapped up, the socializing started. Parker got Neal talking about a daring museum job he'd pulled in Florence. Alec had a lot more self-confidence when it came to women, these days, but Parker and Neal had such similar talents and interests that he couldn't help feeling a little worried. Thankfully, though, she didn't appear to notice the good looks and easy charm that made so many people fall under his brother's spell.
Tara was clearly more appreciative of those external aspects, but also interested in Neal's exploits. Nate, who'd tried and failed to catch Neal a bunch of times, listened to the conversation with what seemed like reluctant admiration. Since Nate looked at his own crew that way whenever they discussed their past crimes, Alec wasn't too concerned.
Only Eliot held back, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed and a wary expression. Alec figured that he might warm up to Neal once they'd had a game of chess, though. Eliot played regularly with Nate but would welcome a fresh opponent, and Neal was good enough to really challenge him.
Alec relaxed into one of the suite's comfortable armchairs, and watched his two families blend.
Tara had to hand it to Neal Caffrey – the guy sure could think creatively. And damn, he looked good in a Devore suit.
As Caffrey had predicted, his landlady expressed considerable sympathy for the vulnerable people targeted by Tony Michaels. Mrs. Duvall was eager to help bring him down, but there was a major stumbling block. Her late husband Byron had been well-known in New York, in high and low society alike, and his recent death had been widely reported. So Caffrey had come up with an even better way to get the scammer's attention.
Parker and Tara walked into Michaels' gallery on Saturday morning, dressed as socialites with more cash than class. The man himself was sitting at a grandiose antique desk, scowling at his computer screen. Hardison had made subtle adjustments to the gallery's accounts, so it looked like Michaels was in even worse financial trouble than he actually was. The false data would hopefully make the guy more desperate and less careful.
The two women moved from the smaller front room to the gallery's main space, looking at the paintings. Bored, sulky Parker was obviously being dragged around by Tara, who was commenting on the various works in a pretentious but poorly-informed manner. It was surprisingly hard to do this deliberately, especially when you really did know your Manet from your Monet.
Finally, Tara and Parker reached the target which Nate had identified on an earlier recon visit: a small but stunning Thomas Rosenstern landscape, hanging just a few feet from Michaels' desk. Time to lay the bait...
Tara stopped in front of the painting, and tilted her head to the side as she studied it. Then she remarked to Parker, "Mom's friend June has a very similar landscape in her dining room, except it's about twice the size. I guess it's not a Rosenstern, though – she'd probably like it much more if it was worth a fortune."
"Wait, who?" For someone so bad at acting, Parker did a very convincing impression of a petulant younger sister who'd been tuning out her older sibling. Tara wondered, not for the first time, what Parker's childhood had been like. But by now she knew better than to ask.
"You know," Tara said, feigning irritation, "June Duvall? She has that gorgeous old place on Riverside Drive, and she used to host those great charity benefits." Her expression softened. "I really must invite her over for dinner sometime soon. She's barely left the house since Byron passed a few months ago."
"Oh yeah, I remember her," Parker replied. "Do you think she'll hold onto that mansion, now he's dead?"
"No, she's going to move out of the city to be closer to her grandchildren. But she's got all those beautiful artworks and antiques, and I don't know how much will fit into her new place. At least it'll be an excuse to sell off some of those ugly paintings her husband kept buying."
Tara turned her back on the Rosenstern and approached Michaels, who no doubt had been listening closely. She introduced herself as Christina Rogers, and began talking to him about one of the other paintings she'd pretended to admire.
"I just love that abstract with the really vibrant orange and yellow tones," she gushed. "I think it would really complement the pink rose-patterned wallpaper in my bedroom."
"Yes, indeed," Michaels said. He was a pro, all right...Tara only saw his slight wince of distaste because she was looking for it. "But I should tell you that the abstract will be going into my next auction, in two weeks' time. So make an offer before then, or take your chances on the day."
Parker glanced at her watch, sighed, and said, "Come on, sis. We'll be late for lunch with Mom, and you know how she gets."
Tara smiled apologetically at Michaels, took the business card he offered, and followed Parker out the door.
Tony Michaels swallowed the bait – he called June the very next day. Apparently it hadn't taken him long to track her down, and verify that she was indeed the recently-widowed owner of a fancy Upper West Side townhouse.
That was the key to a truly excellent con, Neal thought. Sure, Alec could easily have created new identities for June and Byron, and planted a fake death notice in the paper. But Neal preferred cons which married selectively-chosen fact with fiction.
Listening to the conversation on an upstairs extension, Neal had to admit that Michaels was good. The conman began by expressing his sorrow for Mrs. Duvall's tragic loss, and apologizing for his intrusion into her time of mourning. But he had heard through a mutual acquaintance that she hoped to sell some possessions before her upcoming relocation.
"That's the reason I'm calling, ma'am. Would you like an expert opinion on the artworks? I can offer you a fair price, and minimize the rigmarole."
June also played her part expertly. Initially surprised and suspicious, she gradually relaxed her guard as Michaels continued his patter.
"It's true that I would be glad to be rid of some paintings," she said. "There are three in particular: a large landscape, plus two smaller works. As much as I loved Byron, I hated his taste in art. These were done by friends of his who weren't exactly world-class talents, so I doubt they're worth much."
"Still, calling all the art dealers and having a parade of strangers through your house would be such a hassle," Michael said smoothly. "You must have better things to do during this difficult period."
"Oh, certainly," June sighed. "Very well, then. Would this coming Saturday suit you for an appraisal visit – say, 3pm?"
Michaels agreed, and ended the call with obsequious thanks. Neal grinned, and went downstairs to congratulate June on her performance.
Fortunately it was a quiet spell for the White Collar division, so Neal could get home at a decent hour each night to work on the painting. Peter and his underlings were mostly catching up on paperwork, punctuated only by interminable budget meetings. Meanwhile, Neal had been tasked with combing through cold cases down in the file room.
It was just as well that Peter wasn't with Neal as he went through the folders – it was hard to keep from smiling when he came across his own work. But he wouldn't put it past Peter to have planted a hidden camera to catch him out, so Neal made sure to maintain a suitably neutral expression.
It was both weird and hilarious to see his unsolved crimes described from the other side of the law. The reports were a mélange of frustration and ineptitude, peppered with impenetrable legal jargon and served with a garnish of inter-agency squabbling over jurisdiction.
Amazingly, Neal hadn't even been listed as a suspect in most of his cases. Some of them he'd undertaken on commission, meaning he'd strayed far from his usual M.O. On a couple of occasions, he'd managed to divert the FBI's suspicion towards a rival who'd been working in the same place at the same time. As for the rest, well, Neal figured that he was just that good.
Neal could tell which of his jobs had been written up by Peter, even without checking the name of the case agent. There was a certain dry wit involved, and just a hint of grudging admiration. Those also tended to be the ones where Neal's involvement had been suggested, despite a lack of supporting evidence.
Perhaps one day Neal would be able to admit that Peter had been right all along: he'd committed every crime Peter had attributed to him. Neal briefly entertained a vision of them sitting around the Burkes' dining table years in the future, after the statute of limitations had expired. They'd compare notes about the old days ("I knew that Met heist was you!") and bicker amicably ("Oh yeah? Pity you and the Harvard squad couldn't prove it"), while Elizabeth sipped her wine and smiled fondly at them.
But – no. Neal would be long gone by the time it was safe to have that conversation. So he put his files back on the shelf, hopefully to languish unopened for a good while.
Turning his attention to the other folders, Neal was pleased to find a number of crimes that he knew were committed by two old enemies of his. As Tobias Schmidt and Jeff Lane were already serving life sentences for multiple violent felonies, it wouldn't do any harm to point the finger at them.
If the White Collar team could pull together enough evidence, it would lift Peter's already stellar conviction rate and impress Hughes. Neal had quickly learned that keeping Peter's boss happy was very much in his own best interests.
Neal did enjoy reminiscing about his past endeavors in the evenings that week, though, while he painted and Moz and Alec critiqued his brushwork from the peanut gallery.
Those two hadn't seen each other for years, so they were swapping their own stories. Alec had decided not to mention the recent job where he'd played a conspiracy theorist closely modeled on Moz. Neal agreed, figuring that it would just ruin the convivial mood.
June came upstairs after dinner Monday to meet Alec. As Neal had expected, they got along very well. And on Wednesday night, Parker dropped by – as in, she scaled the building and landed cat-like on Neal's balcony. Moz spilled his glass of wine, and Neal nearly squirted a tube of green paint all over himself.
Alec just shrugged casually. "Yeah, she does that," he said, going out to greet her with an admiring smile. Neal watched covertly as Parker grinned back, her body language open and relaxed. Maybe Alec's hopeless crush wasn't so hopeless.
All in all, it was the happiest Neal had felt in years. He had his brother and his best friend in the same room for the first time since his arrest, people around him who understood and appreciated his true nature, and a beautiful painting taking shape on his easel.
If he ignored the constant weight of the anklet, Neal could pretend he was free.
To play up the resemblance to the real Rosenstern hanging in Michaels' gallery, Neal had painted a similar scene. The original was a rural landscape depicted on a cloudy day, brightened by shafts of sunlight; the new work showed a dramatic stormy sky over a broad expanse of farmland. Neal had tried to replicate Rosenstern's technique as closely as possible, including the intricate cloud formations that were the artist's trademark.
He managed to finish the painting with a couple of days to spare. After ageing the pigment in the oven, putting the canvas into an old frame, and adding the crucial finishing touch, Neal invited Alec's crew over for an inspection.
Ford and Tara, who were both impressively well-informed about art and forgery, complimented Neal on his achievement. Parker said she'd steal Neal's painting if she saw it hanging in a museum, which from her seemed like high praise. Eliot raised his eyebrows, nodded once, and then challenged Neal to a game of chess.
The new work was missing from the official catalogue of Rosenstern's works, of course, but the team hoped to pass it off as a long-lost early effort. It was also unsigned, both to explain June's apparent ignorance of its true worth and to cover Neal's ass if they got caught. He walked a fine line with the FBI, and wanted the letter of the law on his side.
Neal had planned to dash off another two smaller paintings for June to offer Michaels, but she saved him the trouble.
"To be honest, there are some artworks here I wouldn't mind selling." In the second floor hallway, June pointed at an oil painting of the Empire State Building and a still life of a fruit bowl in pastels. "Will these do? I don't mind if I only get a pittance for them – they were cheap to start with. I bought them from street artists in the late '50s, so they're the same age as your supposed Rosenstern."
"These are perfect, June," Neal said, kissing her cheek. "Thanks so much." Competently done but nothing special, they would reinforce June's assertion that all three paintings were by people Byron knew.
As a kind of alibi, Neal had also started a portrait of June's granddaughter Cindy. So if Peter smelled the paint fumes and asked what he'd been working on, Neal could freely discuss the gift he planned on giving June as thanks for her generous hospitality. Although honesty wasn't exactly his strong suit, he'd never lied to Peter and wasn't about to start now.
Coincidentally, Cindy was studying at the same art school Neal and Kate had attended. Spending time with her was a forcible reminder of how young and idealistic they'd been back then, confident of surviving on artistic talent alone. At least Cindy had her family's wealth to fall back on, if necessary.
When Michaels visited the mansion that Saturday, Neal and Alec stayed safely out of sight. But they were able to watch the whole thing from upstairs, thanks to the camera that Alec had planted. June ushered Michaels into the dining room and then deliberately turned her back for a few moments, asking the maid to bring them refreshments.
Neal saw Michaels' face light up as he beheld what seemed to be a previously unknown work by a very famous artist. Dollar signs practically appeared in his eyes. The man was a pro, though; when June turned to him again, he was feigning a curious but casual air.
He scrutinized the landscape closely, and Neal held his breath – the whole con depended upon this moment. Michaels kept a straight face, but Neal could read suppressed excitement in the twitching of his eyelids and the trembling of his hands.
Neal sighed with relief and smiled at Alec, who grinned back and high-fived him.
Michaels made a show of examining the two other paintings with similar care. He gave June valuations of $250 each for the still life and oil painting, but assessed the landscape as being worth $1,500.
"Though it was painted by an amateur," Michaels explained, "the large size and attractive subject matter will help the work to sell."
After half an hour spent chatting over coffee and cake, June pretended to be completely taken in by Michaels' charm. She agreed to sell him the three works for $2,000, and he agreed to waive his usual commission in recognition of her sad circumstances. And when she signed away her ownership rights, Michaels paid her in cash and left with the paintings.
June looked up at the hidden camera. "Damn, boys, that was fun," she said with a laugh. "It's good to know I haven't lost my touch, after all these years."
A week later, Tara sat in Michaels' gallery waiting for the show to start.
This was hardly her first rodeo: she had attended many art auctions in her career. Her favorite kind of mark was a rich man who liked flaunting his wealth, and who loved having attractive women admire his sophisticated tastes. If it helped the con, Tara was more than happy to oblige.
Today was the first time she would target the auctioneer instead of a bidder, though, and the first time that she'd receive so little of the final take. Sophie had promised that grifting for a good cause was surprisingly enjoyable, but Tara still felt kinda weird about the whole thing.
Tara pulled off her sunglasses and looked around. Michaels had already had one of his regular sales scheduled for this afternoon. But with the late addition of Caffrey's painting, he'd gone all out to promote it in a last-ditch effort to save his business. He'd sent out press releases and placed large print advertisements, enticing possible buyers by promising a lost Rosenstern. Cannily, though, he hadn't distributed any photos, and the supposed masterpiece wasn't among the works on display.
Curiosity had attracted a sizeable crowd – the gallery was full of people poring over the catalogue and examining the lots up for auction. Good, Tara thought: the more art world types present to witness Michaels' downfall, the better. She wouldn't have taken this job by choice, sure, but she didn't want it to fail either.
The team had been busy this past week. Parker broke into the gallery a few nights ago, to plant several tiny cameras and make other important preparations. Meanwhile, Eliot and Hardison had gotten themselves hired as security guards. The two freelancers who usually worked the gallery's auctions were mysteriously unavailable, Michaels had discovered, so he'd advertised for replacements on Craigslist. Hardison made sure that only his and Eliot's tailored resumes and a bunch of irrelevant spam reached the gallery's inbox. Short of time and money, the art dealer had little choice but to take them both on.
According to the files Hardison found on Michaels' computer, about a quarter of the items going under the hammer today were artworks obtained under false pretenses. Nate and Tara had visited each of his marks, explained that they'd been scammed, and invited them to the auction. Some were too unwell to leave their homes, but the rest had agreed to attend and go along with the plan. So a dozen old folks were now sitting with Caffrey's landlady at the coffee shop next door, waiting for Nate's signal to enter the gallery.
Caffrey was safely holed up at Mrs. Duvall's house, monitoring the proceedings remotely with that strange little friend of his, but everyone else was here. Tara and Nate had arrived at the auction separately, posing as potential buyers. She was Christina Rogers, still interested in that orange and yellow abstract, while Nate was an oilman with deep pockets and a penchant for expensive art. The others each had their assigned roles to play, Eliot and Hardison stationed at the gallery's two doors and Parker outside.
The team's client was also here, having flown down from Boston last night. Although Mr. Franklin's paintings had been sold off weeks ago, Iona wanted to see Michaels suffer.
In the gallery's main room, Michaels now stood up and moved to the podium. He began his spiel by welcoming prospective bidders, interested observers, and reporters lured by the publicity about the newly-discovered Rosenstern. Tara smiled at this. If all went to plan, the presence of the press would only help to disgrace Michaels.
The artworks that interested the team were scattered throughout the auction. The first, a 19th century watercolor of Central Park bought from Mrs. Schwartz, was being sold with a starting price of $5,000. At Nate's murmured prompt, Parker led the frail 83-year-old and three of Michaels' other marks to the gallery's main entrance. The others lingered in the front room, out of sight of the podium where Michaels was overseeing the bidding.
Mrs. Schwartz walked up the central aisle and stopped in front of the dealer, leaning on her cane.
"That's my painting, you crook! You paid me $400 for it last month, and now you're reselling it for a huge mark-up."
Michaels looked momentarily dismayed, then spread his hands and said, "I purchased this work from you fair and square, Mrs. Schwartz. It seems that these fine people just appreciate it more than you did."
"I love that painting, and the other two you bought from me," she retorted. "I only sold them to help pay for my late husband's funeral. You're profiting from my pain – shame on you."
All around Tara, members of the audience were following this exchange. Some seemed intrigued, while others looked shocked. At Michaels' irritated gesture, Eliot came over from his post by the gallery's fire exit and carefully but firmly ushered Mrs. Schwartz out into the alleyway.
"Lots 11 and 19 are my paintings too," she called out to the crowd. "If you have any heart at all, you'll think twice about bidding on them."
"Sorry about that, ladies and gentlemen," Michaels said smoothly as the door clanged shut behind her. "Some people simply don't understand how the free market works. Now, I believe we were up to $7,000; do I hear $7,500?"
The two bidders most interested in Mrs. Schwartz's watercolor didn't seem bothered by her protest. The work finally sold for $12,000, which left Michaels with a very nice margin. Tara wasn't worried, though...this was only the beginning.
As the auction continued, Tara bid for that garish abstract and deliberately lost. Nate watched silently, because his character just wanted the Rosenstern. And the original owners kept interrupting the bidding whenever one of their works was up for sale. Like Mrs. Schwartz, they all accused Michaels of conning them and exploiting their grief and desperation. Still, enough people were willing to buy the paintings that the dealer was making a big profit so far.
Michaels had a big problem on his hands, Nate thought as he watched Eliot escort Mrs. Rossi (swearing colorfully in a mix of English and Italian) outside. Getting rid of each troublemaker was easy enough, thanks to Eliot, even if the marks knew he was on their side and were just pretending to resist.
But Michaels couldn't exactly lock the gallery's front door to stop any more of them coming in. Plenty of other people were arriving late, interested only in the Rosenstern which was naturally the auction's last lot. Although Hardison would make a hopeless security guard in reality, today he just had to stand at the front entrance and be polite to the latecomers.
Nate tried to ignore Hardison's brief, awkward moments of flirtation with Parker as she came and went, escorting the old folks to the door before heading into the alley to take them back to the coffee shop. He honestly wouldn't mind if the two of them got together: it could be good for Parker, and a happier Hardison might complain a little less. But Christ, Nate didn't want to hear it over the team's coms.
Mrs. Duvall had set up base camp next door, offering refreshments and comfort. Some of Michaels' marks were distraught, she reported via the earpiece Hardison had given her, but most felt exhilarated at having confronted the conman. Nate fully understood the rush of adrenaline that came from fighting back against a more powerful adversary on his home turf. He himself had done it with Ian Blackpoole in LA last year. Getting revenge on a client's behalf was enjoyable...helping victim face perpetrator was even better.
The audience was becoming ever more restless as the parade of protesters went on. A lot of people got up and left; others chose to stick around for the big reveal of Caffrey's painting, though they were clearly uncomfortable with the situation.
Michaels' glib patter was becoming more strained and he'd started snapping at his cowed young assistants. He was obviously aware that someone was orchestrating a campaign against him, but hadn't yet identified his enemy. Nate studied the catalogue, ticking off each lot as it was sold, and silently waited his turn to take center stage.
Near the end of the auction, the verbal altercations suddenly turned ugly. When it was his turn to confront Michaels, Mr. Andrews stepped up onto the podium to shout in his face. And Michaels retaliated by shoving the elderly man to the floor.
Nate forced himself to stay seated, and stay in character: the guy he was playing wouldn't give a damn about some old fool getting himself hurt. Thankfully, several good samaritans rushed forward to help poor Mr. Andrews to his feet – he didn't seem injured, just angry – and out the front door. Meanwhile, a journalist snapped photos of the scene. That sure wouldn't look good in tomorrow's paper, Nate thought with dark satisfaction.
Nate saw many other people around him using their phones as they watched the goings-on. He hoped that they (and the folks who'd already walked out) were spreading news of Michaels' shady dealings, via all those online networks Hardison kept talking about. It was nice to have members of the public unwittingly help the team out.
Finally, it was time for the auction's climax.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Michaels declared, "I present to you an unknown early work by one of America's greatest artists: Thomas Rosenstern." With a flourish, he pulled off the white sheet that had shielded it from view all afternoon. The remaining audience members gasped, leaning forward to see the landscape more closely. It really was a stunning piece, Nate thought.
Hardison let the crucial last protester in and then came into the gallery's main room. After pressing a series of buttons on his phone, he quietly notified the team that he'd jammed cellular signals in the vicinity. From the back of the building, Parker reported that she'd disconnected the gallery's landlines and silent alarm system.
Now nobody would be able to call the cops and spoil the show.
Michaels announced that the bidding would begin at $200,000. But before any hands could be raised, Mrs. Duvall walked up the central aisle and turned to face the crowd. Behind her, a look of panic crossed the dealer's face.
"Mr. Michaels bought this painting from me just last week, for a measly $1,500," she said. "It's unsigned, but I always assumed it was painted by an amateur artist my late husband knew. This conman somehow forgot to tell me it was a lost masterpiece!"
For most of the audience, the vast gap between this painting's purchase and resale prices was the final straw. People hurled abuse at Michaels, while a reporter stood up and asked him point blank if the old folks' accusations were true. He ignored all this, and angrily ordered Eliot to take Mrs. Duvall away.
Eliot strode over to the podium. "That's it, asshole," he told Michaels. "I won't do any more of your dirty work – this ain't what I signed up for. C'mon, lady, you're wasting your breath on this heartless piece of shit."
He took Mrs. Duvall's arm and headed out the fire exit, slamming the door behind them as many in the room applauded.
"Nice work, both of you," Nate said quietly. Eliot didn't always need to play a character in the team's cons, but he was damn good at it. And Caffrey had been right: Mrs. Duvall really was a talented grifter.
Michaels beckoned his remaining security guard over, but Hardison folded his arms and shook his head. "Hell, no. I quit too."
Seriously unnerved now, and without any muscle as backup, Michaels clearly thought that making a huge margin on the Rosenstern was his only way out. A few collectors, not swayed by the dubious morality of the sale, were keen to buy the painting; hell, some probably thought this controversy would only add to the work's value.
And Nate put himself squarely among them, offering an increasingly vast sum of money for the landscape with every nonchalant wave of his hand.
The bidding rapidly escalated past the one million mark and just kept going. In the end, it came down to Nate versus one of the city's top bankers. Taking down the gallery owner was the goal here, but Nate considered thwarting a Wall Street fat cat to be an unexpected but welcome bonus.
At $3.1 million, the bank CEO gave up at last. Gloating at this extraordinary profit, which was enough to save his business and then some, Michaels was about to bring the gavel down.
Then Nate stood up and said loudly, "No, wait – let me examine it first. I won't blow three million bucks on a painting without being sure it's for real!"
"I authenticated it myself, sir," Michaels blustered, "and I guarantee that it's an early work by Thomas Rosenstern."
Nate scoffed. "Listen, pal...based on what's happened today, I reckon your guarantee ain't worth spit. Either I get to check it out myself, or you get no sale."
Michaels acquiesced, with bad grace; Nate stood, and walked to the front of the room. He pulled a magnifying glass out of his jacket pocket, and made a show of looking closely at the painting.
"The light isn't strong enough to be sure," Nate complained, and then stepped to the side. At this pre-arranged signal, Hardison switched off the gallery's lights and pressed a button on his phone.
The room dimmed, but the UV lamps Parker had hidden in the ceiling air vents snapped on. Under their purple glow, huge white letters – previously invisible – appeared on the painting's surface. The message read:
THIS PAINTING IS A FORGERY!
As the audience erupted in protest, Nate grinned to himself. It had been tricky for Caffrey to mask the high-tech luminescent paint under the veneer of an apparently decades-old artwork, but the effect was brilliant.
When Hardison turned the gallery lights back on, Nate was pleased to see the place in chaos. The journalists, finding themselves unable to get a signal inside, rushed out the front door to call their editors about this juicy story. Meanwhile, Michaels' two bewildered assistants were surrounded by unhappy buyers, all questioning the authenticity of their newly-acquired artworks.
Michaels himself had managed to escape via the unguarded fire exit. But Eliot was waiting for him outside, along with the elderly people Michaels had conned. Nate told Tara, Hardison and Parker to make sure nobody left the gallery with the marks' paintings. Then he beckoned to the team's original client, Iona, and the two of them went to confront Michaels.
Neal wished he could be at the gallery today, but his anklet made that impossible. Watching it at home with Moz, via a live feed on his laptop, was still pretty enjoyable. He'd felt a range of emotions as they witnessed the auction unfold: dislike for Michaels, sympathy for the people he'd scammed, admiration for Alec's team as the con went like clockwork, and gleeful vindication when his painting's secret message was revealed.
It had been one of the most technically challenging jobs Neal had ever done, and he wouldn't receive a penny for it. But the payoff was so worth it.
"I wish we had popcorn," Moz said.
When Michaels slipped out via the side door, Neal wasn't worried about missing the impending fireworks. Anticipating the getaway attempt, Ford had told Alec to rig up extra cameras outside. Neal really was impressed by Ford's ability to plan for multiple eventualities, although he recognized it as an overpowering (and unhealthy) need to be in control.
In the alley, Michaels' marks had encircled him. The man was now pale and sweating, his suave demeanor gone. Typical bully, Neal thought – happy to take on weak people individually, but cowardly when outnumbered.
Or maybe it was the way Eliot was glaring at him that had Michaels so nervous. Neal knew that Eliot had a softer side: after a rocky start, the two of them had eventually bonded over a talent for chess and a love of gourmet food. But he sure could look threatening when he tried.
"Going somewhere, Mr. Michaels?" Ford asked, stepping out into the alley. "Because I think we have unfinished business."
Neal wanted to applaud this dramatic entrance...he couldn't have done better himself.
"You didn't pay for the landscape, and I didn't know it was a fake," Michaels argued, "so there's nothing to discuss. Anyway, it wasn't fair: you set me up!"
"Oh, you don't owe me – you owe my friends here," Ford replied, waving a hand at the dozen silent spectators surrounding them. "And you're hardly in a position to complain about unfairness. We just conned you like you conned them."
Michaels glanced around at his victims, then focused on Ford and Eliot. "Who are you people? What the hell do you want?"
"My associate and I are here to stop you preying on vulnerable elderly people. And we want you to return each disputed painting in today's auction to its rightful owner."
Michaels stared at him, aghast. "I can't get the pieces back. You just saw me sell them."
"That's true," Ford said, "but nothing's been signed yet. And each bidder knew full well that an elderly widow or widower had been tricked into selling the item at a ridiculously low price. Your little scheme is about to be exposed, thanks to those journalists you invited. Think the paintings' new owners will want that bad publicity? Anyway, they're all having doubts right now about your supposedly foolproof authentication methods."
"What if the buyers insist on going through with the sale?" Michaels countered.
"In that case, we expect you to pay each painting's owner the full amount you receive for the work."
As Michaels' mouth dropped open, Ford added, "Oh, and we want to get fair compensation for everyone else you've ripped off. Since you've kept such detailed records, it shouldn't be too hard to track them all down and give them the money they're due."
It looked like Michaels was having trouble breathing. "But if I do that, I'll be ruined!"
Ford gestured to Iona, letting her answer. "I guess that's the risk you take when you piss off the wrong people," she said, smiling triumphantly at the man who'd swindled and insulted her grandfather. Neal felt like cheering for her.
"What are you going to do if I don't co-operate?" Michaels asked, his voice wavering.
"Well," Ford drawled, "my associate could urge you to reconsider." Eliot obligingly cracked his knuckles, and Michaels flinched. "Or I could call Special Agent Peter Burke, head of the White Collar division at the FBI's New York office. I just happen to have him on speed dial, you know."
Neal grinned at hearing this: he had indeed programmed Peter's number into Ford's phone. Even if Ford had no intention of making the call, it was always best to bargain from a position of strength.
"I'm sure Agent Burke would be very interested to hear about your unorthodox business practices," Ford concluded.
Judging by the horrified expression on Michaels' face, he definitely didn't want the Bureau involved. And given the damning evidence Alec and Parker had discovered in the gallery's files, Neal couldn't blame him. Michaels had been involved in a wide variety of illegal activities for years, from tax fraud to art smuggling to bribing customs officials, before starting his current scam.
It came as no surprise to Neal that Michaels had a track record. In his experience, a person didn't flip straight from citizen to criminal – it tended to be a gradual slide.
Neal himself had gone from hawking reproductions on the streets to small-time counterfeiting, and eventually worked his way up to daring thefts and complex cons. What started as a way to put food on the table turned out to be Neal's true vocation. He'd experienced meteoric success before crashing and burning.
It was weird to contemplate how things might have been different if Michaels had given him that gallery job, all those years ago. Maybe Neal would have become an accomplice in the dealer's various schemes, and discovered his criminal aptitude that way. But maybe he could have kept his nose clean, could have made his mark in the legitimate art world...could have settled down to a happy life with Kate.
Everything came back to Kate, these days. Neal shook his head slightly, to clear it of useless hypotheticals, and refocused his attention on the computer screen.
Ford had evidently given Michaels a minute to consider his options, watching with narrowed eyes as he paced back and forth across the alley. Faced with a choice between financial ruin and an FBI investigation, Michaels was going to lose either way.
"Time's up," Ford now said.
"Okay, okay...I'll try to get the paintings back," Michaels said. "And if the buyers insist on taking their purchases, I'll give the original owner the money. Can I at least collect my commission?"
Ford shook his head. "Most of the people you conned have debts to pay off, so every penny counts. Now go fulfill your side of the bargain. And don't even think of weaseling out of it – we'll be watching you."
Michaels visibly gulped, but turned around and opened the gallery door. Neal could tell he was flustered and not thinking clearly; he'd failed to notice that Ford's side of the deal hadn't actually been specified.
Ford and his motley crew followed Michaels back inside, to catch the end of the show, and Neal switched camera feeds so he and Moz wouldn't miss a moment.
Alec, Parker and Tara had managed to stop any of the successful bidders from leaving during the few minutes that had elapsed. Now the purchasers mobbed Michaels as he re-entered the room, shouting questions and making demands. He stood at the podium and called for calm, to no avail. Eliot emitted a piercing whistle: silence fell immediately.
"It has been made clear to me that my recent behavior has been unconscionable," Michaels began. "I wish to make restitution to the people I have wronged. As I bought these paintings under false pretenses, their resale today is invalid."
Neal grudgingly admired this effort to spin the situation. He himself would have shed a few strategic tears, though, to make the feigned contrition even more convincing.
Indicating his victims, Michaels continued, "I would like everyone who purchased an item previously owned by one of these people to agree to void the transaction." Picking up a copy of the auction catalogue, he read out the lot numbers in question. Ford consulted his own list, and added the works of those marks too frail to be present today.
Some of the buyers had angrily been demanding to be let out of any contractual obligation to pay for the paintings. They looked relieved, and willingly left the gallery empty-handed. The rest, who hadn't given a damn that the old folks had been ripped off, protested loudly.
"If you insist on going through with the sale," Michaels assured them, "I will honor it. If you pay me the agreed purchase price, I will give you the painting and then give 100% of that money to the original owner. I won't be taking any commission."
The remaining buyers, mentally calculating how much money Michaels would lose today, seemed stunned. Neal, who knew that Michaels stood to lose everything if he didn't comply with Ford's orders, was less impressed.
As a queue formed in front of the gallery's main desk, Parker and Tara began reuniting some of Michaels' marks with their paintings. A few might seek to sell the items again, but the team would ensure that they got treated fairly this time. Neal could help by providing a list of reputable Manhattan art dealers who would offer a proper appraisal.
Those who really wanted to keep their beloved artworks were also going to receive assistance from Ford's crew of fairy godmothers (Alec preferred names like 'The Avengers' or 'The Browncoats', but Neal kept teasing him with less flattering alternatives). Alec had made Nana's exorbitant medical costs disappear by hacking the insurance company's computer system and falsifying the billing records. If he worked similar magic for these people, they could hold onto their treasures for the rest of their days.
Mrs. Schwartz approached Alec, and put her hand on his arm. "Could you please give my compliments to whoever painted that picture of the stormy sky? It's beautiful, even if it is a fake."
Alec pointed at the ceiling, where Parker had planted one of the cameras. "He's watching from up there, ma'am. You can tell him yourself."
The elderly lady craned her neck, looking confused. But she was smiling as she said, "I lived in the Midwest when I was a little girl, and I always loved the summer thunderstorms. Your painting makes me feel like I'm back in that farmhouse again, watching the clouds gather on the horizon. Thank you, dear – you have a great talent."
Alec winked up at the camera and then led Mrs. Schwartz over to get her artworks back. Neal smiled, deeply touched, and Moz sniffled quietly beside him.
And yeah, Neal could see now why Alec so enjoyed doing this kind of thing...and why he'd kept doing it, even after getting that massive windfall from the team's first job. This mix of gratitude and gratification could definitely become addictive.
Alec sat with June at Neal's table a few nights later, savoring the dinner that his brother had cooked. Neal's tastes were pretty gourmet, these days. But for Alec's last meal in New York he'd made pork chops and all the traditional sides, just the way Nana used to.
While they ate, Alec updated the other two about the fallout from the auction.
As promised, Michaels had transferred the full sale price of each artwork to its original owner. Nate had also forced him to repay everyone he'd scammed in recent months. Michaels' finances were tight and he would have come up short, but on Monday morning the gallery had received a surprising call.
"You remember that bank CEO who bid against Nate for the Rosenstern?" Alec went on. "Turns out he was still interested in buying it, even though he knows it's fake. He wants to hang it in his office, and install UV lights so he can reveal the secret message to people."
Neal rolled his eyes. "Maybe it'll be a good conversation starter at the office Christmas party: 'Hey everyone, come look at the painting I nearly wasted three million bucks on!'"
June laughed. "So what did the banker end up offering for it?"
"Well, Nate sent Tara to negotiate with the guy. She must have been very convincing, because he agreed to pay $500,000. With that top-up, there was just enough money to help all of Michaels' marks – but the gallery is close to bankrupt."
"He'd pretty much be finished even without that financial hit," Neal added. "Reputation means so much in the art world. Anyone who wasn't at the auction will have heard all about it by now, thanks to word-of-mouth and the negative press coverage."
Alec nodded. "So is there any sign of the FBI investigating him?"
"Peter mentioned the auction debacle Monday morning, in passing," Neal said, "but we've just been assigned a huge fraud case that's very time-sensitive. So I don't think Michaels will be a priority, unless more evidence surfaces about his previous crimes."
"Okay, good. I've got copies of all the gallery's incriminating files, so we can threaten Michaels with exposure if he ever starts scamming people again. But Nate would rather keep law enforcement away from this whole thing."
"Hey, that suits me just fine," Neal said. "I'll try to steer Peter clear."
Neal excused himself from the table, then, and headed over to the easel to work on his nearly-complete portrait of June's granddaughter Cindy. Alec got up too, and started washing the dishes.
Sipping her wine, June relaxed back in her chair. "And what about your team's original client, Alec?"
"Mr. Franklin got $20,000 for his paintings," Alec told her. "Iona emailed yesterday, saying she was taking her grandpa to visit his hometown. He and her late grandma were high school sweethearts. And since Mrs. Franklin was a keen amateur painter, Mr. Franklin has decided to put some of his payout towards improving their old school's art facilities."
"I might do the same for our alma mater, once my cash flow problem improves," Neal said. "The art department was seriously under-funded when we were there, and it's probably even worse off now."
His brother really was changing, Alec reflected. Neal had long ago mastered the first half of Robin Hood's motto, but he'd never exactly focused on redistributing that stolen wealth to the needy.
"Nice idea," Alec said. "How about I make a matching donation to the IT department? The kids from our old neighborhood probably don't have computers at home, and I bet the school's desktops are long overdue for an upgrade." He winced. "They might still run on Windows 98 or something."
June beamed approvingly at them both. "Oh, I meant to tell you – there might just be a happy ending in store for two of Michaels' other marks. I noticed a definite spark between Mr. Andrews and Mrs. Rossi on Saturday afternoon. He asked her out to dinner that same night, and she said yes. And yesterday they were interviewed together for the local news, sitting on a park bench and holding hands."
"That's very sweet," Neal said, and Alec nodded. He tried not to think about old folks hooking up, but it was good to hear of an upside to the pair's recent troubles.
June bid them goodnight a while later, kissing Alec on the cheek and telling him to visit New York more often. The gesture reminded him so much of Nana that he had to blink rapidly after she left the room.
"Yeah, I know," Neal said quietly. "Having June in my life is wonderful, but sometimes the similarities are hard to bear."
"Trust you to find another maternal black woman who's wise to all your tricks and loves you anyway," Alec said as he dried his hands and sat down again.
"Pure serendipity, both times," Neal said. "But I'm so thankful that we wound up living with Nana, and not someplace much worse."
"We definitely lucked out, yeah," Alec said, thinking of Parker's far less positive experiences in the system.
Five minutes later, Neal was reminiscing about the time Nana made the hardass vice-principal apologize for falsely accusing him of cheating. Then someone knocked on the door, and Neal abruptly stopped talking. Alec watched with confusion as he put down his paintbrush and did a quick visual sweep of the room.
"Follow my lead, okay?" Neal whispered, before opening the door to reveal a middle-aged white guy. "Hi, Peter," he said, giving the man a surprisingly genuine grin.
Ah, Alec thought, the famous Agent Burke. He would have guessed even without the name; Burke just radiated Fed vibes, from the cheap and boring suit to the telltale gun bulge under his jacket.
"Evening, Neal," Burke replied. "Mind if I come in?"
Neal stepped aside, and let him into the room. Burke glanced at Alec and then back at Neal, wordlessly requesting an introduction.
"Peter, this is Jake Townsend." Always the protective older brother, Neal was maintaining the cover identity that Alec had used to check into his Manhattan hotel. "Jake, this is Special Agent Peter Burke of the FBI."
Alec stood up, and held out his hand. "Nice to meet you, Agent Burke."
"You too," Burke said, failing to hide his surprise that Neal had a pal willing to shake a Fed's hand. "How do you two know each other?"
"We met years ago through a mutual friend," Neal interjected smoothly, "and kept in touch. Jake is in town on business." Alec nodded to confirm this, impressed as always by Neal's ability to come up with a story on the spot. This one had the advantage of being technically true, if Nana counted as a friend.
"That's nice," said Burke awkwardly (Alec had the sudden, disturbing thought that Burke and Parker had similar trouble with small talk). The guy looked slightly suspicious, but could hardly interrogate Alec on the spot. Anyway, he clearly had other things on his mind.
"Excuse me, Mr. Townsend," he continued, "but I need to borrow Neal for a minute. Work stuff."
Alec shrugged, sitting down and reaching across the table for this morning's New York Times. Burke pulled some files out of his briefcase and started asking Neal questions about their hedge-fund fraud case; Neal responded immediately, showing off his impressive financial knowledge. Not bad for an orphan raised on food stamps, Alec thought proudly.
As he idly scanned the newspaper, Alec's mind ticked over rapidly. The FBI apparently hadn't linked Neal to the Michaels fiasco. The anklet showed that he hadn't been anywhere near that gallery, of course, and June's staff could attest that he'd spent Saturday afternoon at home with Moz.
If Burke went further back in Neal's tracking data, he'd see only one unusual movement in recent weeks: a visit to a Midtown bar, and then an evening spent at a classy hotel nearby. And if Burke checked the guest records he'd find Jake Townsend, respectable Boston software developer, in New York for a training course along with four squeaky-clean colleagues.
Neither the NYPD nor the FBI had issued any alerts or warrants for suspects resembling the Leverage team, and Burke didn't seem to have recognized Alec. It helped that Alec had wiped the gallery's security camera footage for the last month. Some of the audience members had snapped photos of the team and of June, but Alec had deleted any that showed up online.
All in all, Alec was cautiously optimistic that they'd gotten away with the whole thing.
Burke finished his conversation with Neal, and put his documents away. Obviously smelling paint fumes, he detoured via the easel on his way out. "Very nice, Neal – that's a good likeness of Cindy."
"It's a present for June," Neal explained. "Her birthday's coming up, and I wanted to give her something special. She's done so much for me."
Burke nodded. "That she has. All right, I'll see you tomorrow; good to meet you, Mr. Townsend."
Alec gave a casual wave, and Neal said goodnight.
The door closed behind Burke, but Neal stayed silent until he heard footsteps clattering down the polished wooden stairs. Then he sank into a chair. "I think Peter suspects. Even without any evidence, he has this scarily accurate sixth sense about me."
"You didn't break any laws," Alec replied with a shrug. "But I've seen you commit a dozen felonies in the space of five minutes, and still look less nervous than you do right now."
Neal frowned at him. "Peter's clearly a bad influence on me. I may be developing a guilty conscience..."
"Yeah, or Stockholm Syndrome."
Propping his left foot on a chair, Neal pulled up his pants leg. "Well, the FBI may not have my mind under control just yet, but they've got me on a leash. Any progress?"
During his stay in New York, Alec had examined Neal's anklet in minute detail and compared notes with Mozzie. The two of them hadn't achieved a breakthrough, but they'd brainstormed some ideas to work on. They had to crack the damn thing soon, though. Neal was getting increasingly desperate to leave New York, convinced that Kate was being held hostage by some shadowy guy.
Alec was...less sure. He didn't trust Kate, not after the way she'd manipulated his brother over the years. It had been her greed and ambition that had pushed Neal to take that disastrous bond job, but he'd never betrayed her. And now Alec figured she was playing Neal, trying to get the location of his stockpiled loot. He wasn't alone in feeling this way – Mozzie had confided his own doubts about Kate.
But Alec said none of that to Neal. Instead, he briefly outlined the possibilities for solving the tracker problem, and assured Neal once again that he'd be the first to hear about any eureka moment. Neal looked discouraged, and Alec tried to think of something to divert him.
"While I'm here, I should upgrade your security software; we definitely don't want the FBI reading our emails about the anklet." Alec booted up Neal's laptop and started installing the new improved version he'd developed. "Even the CIA doesn't have state-of-the-art email encryption like this," he bragged.
Neal smiled a little. "I'm not sure that's such a comforting thought, from a national security perspective."
"The CIA database is pretty tough to get into, if it's any consolation. But I hacked it last month – we had a week's downtime between jobs, and I got bored," Alec said.
"Find anything interesting?"
"Oh, man, there's so much great stuff in there. You know they tried to assassinate Fidel Castro with an exploding cigar, right? Well, it turns out they also tried booby-trapping a banana."
As Alec had hoped, this bizarre fact made Neal laugh. They spent the next hour telling stories about the weirdest places they'd been, and the funniest things they'd seen.
Finally, it was time for Alec to head to the airport. The rest of the team had returned to Boston on Monday night, but he'd stuck around to take care of the clean-up and to spend more time with his brother.
Alec hugged Neal goodbye. "Take care of yourself, man. We'll figure the anklet out, okay? Just be patient."
"Thanks," Neal said. "And you should be patient, too. I'm pretty sure Parker is interested in you, but she maybe doesn't realize it yet. You might need to spell things out."
Since Alec had great respect for Neal's ability to read people, hearing this cheered him up. Parker might have likened herself to a lock, but he still remained hopeful that he held the perfect key for her.
In a cab heading to LaGuardia, Alec watched the city streets speed by. Working this job had brought him and Neal closer again, and he hoped they'd see more of each other from now on. If Neal couldn't leave Manhattan, then Alec would just have to come to him.
He'd be back within a month, anyway, acting as a courier. Neal had done the team a massive favor, so now it was Alec's turn. His mission: fly to Memphis, go to Neal's storage unit, pick up the cash and the small but extremely valuable items that Neal had requested, and bring them back to New York.
After all, Neal would need some easily-liquidated assets if he was going to pull off his great escape.