Peter pulled into a parking spot and turned off the Taurus. He looked up. A glaring neon sign blinked "Bad Kitty Lounge" into the New York night, turning the snowflakes pink and purple. He frowned and opened his laptop, double checking Neal's tracking data. Yes, this was the place.
He pushed the laptop under the seat, got out, and looked around. A few people were hurrying through the snow, hands deep in their pockets and collars turned up, but overall the street was rather quiet for Manhattan on New Year's Eve.
Peter took the steps down into the club. The bouncer looked at him sharply—people like him had an instinct for cops—but let him in without comment.
There was no cover, Peter noted. A look at the drinks menu over the bar made it clear why. He reluctantly handed over seven dollars for a goddamn Corona. He took a sip. A lukewarm Corona. Wonderful.
The bartender—a skinny blonde in a black bikini—coughed and pointedly held out her hand. "Most people tip."
"Well, I'm not most people." He turned and made his way towards the stage. The club wasn't crowded, and other than a few patrons sitting at the bar, only the chairs and tables nearest the performers were taken.
Two Asian woman were doing a complicated synchronized pole-dance, tying themselves into entirely improbable configurations. Impressive—from a purely athletic perspective, that was. Peter carefully looked away and scanned the crowd.
There—sitting right by the stage, but staring down into his drink, was a man hiding behind a black fedora. Peter started towards him.
A tall black woman in a golden-tasseled outfit with sparkly claws and cat ears beat him to it. Peter watched as Neal looked up at her. For a moment, he looked startled, but as she gyrated her hips and said something—trying to sell him a lap dance, no doubt—the too-familiar con man smile took over, and Neal replied something that Peter couldn't hear, but that sent the woman on her way with a smile.
Peter dropped in the chair across from Neal. "Evening."
"Peter!" Neal looked at him, and Peter saw a flicker of his real smile before he tilted his head with a confused frown. "Aren't you supposed to be at El's sister's?
"I was. We had a very nice Christmas and a great vacation, and we would have stayed till the New Year if I hadn't decided to pull up a certain con man's tracking data yesterday."
"You came back for me?"
"Well, about you, at any rate. You've spent the time from about 6 p.m. to midnight in the same spot every night since Christmas Eve."
"What, and you thought it was something sinister?" Neal seemed genuinely hurt.
Peter looked around at the garish colors, the blinking lights, the slightly sticky floor. "It is."
"It's within my radius!" Neal protested. "And I'm well over 21. I have the right to some... entertainment."
"Neal, please." Peter shook his head. "If this were one of the ritzier clubs, I might believe you were here for... entertainment. But this dive? Not your scene."
Neal bristled. "It's not like the FBI pays me enough to go to a place that has a cover charge and charges twenty dollars for imported beer!" He gestured at his glass, where a sad-looking olive gently turned on a toothpick with a little flag. "I have to nurse a crappy martini for hours to even be able to hang out here."
Peter considered. It was true that the FBI didn't pay Neal enough, especially not for Manhattan. Peter'd appealed to Hughes many times, but the director had been firm: Neal could not cost them more than he'd cost the state of New York in prison, or the whole deal would be in danger. So Peter had quietly started to buy both their lunches every day, and El frequently sent Neal crates of food so he could "help her test new suppliers." Peter suspected that Mozzie was also helping out, and he knew that June was—not just by renting Neal's apartment at a ridiculously low price, but by feeding him breakfast and making sure he never ran out of toiletries, paints, or clean laundry. Neal didn't lack for any necessities, but he was chronically short on cash.
Still, if Neal really wanted to go to a high-end strip club, he could charm his way in or lie his way in or get someone to invite him, Peter was sure. There had to be a reason Neal was frequenting this particular club. And knowing Neal, odds were the reason was something he didn't want Peter to know about. Either he was meeting a contact or trying to buy or, heaven forbid, possible sell something, and—
The music changed to something with a dark, rapid beat and lots of bass. The lights dimmed, and a strobe came on. In the flickering light, Peter saw Neal stare fixedly at the stage.
The two Asians had left, and a figure in a black cloak was slowly approaching the center of the stage. She held completely still for a beat, and then... She jumped in the air, throwing off the cloak, dark hair flying all around her slight form. Peter froze. Kate.
But it couldn't be. Kate was dead. The woman on stage started a quick, rhythmic dance, waving a sword that did more to cover her than the thin layers of silk tied around her waist and chest. Peter held his breath. For one instant, she looked up into the light and Peter could see her face.
It wasn't Kate. Of course not. But her build, her hair, and even the way she turned and moved her arms...
"Oh, Neal..." Peter reached across the table to put a hand on his shoulder.
Neal jumped, startled out of his reverie. He looked at Peter, and for a moment Peter saw tears glistening in the corners of his eyes. He squeezed Neal's shoulder.
Neal looked at his drink and shrugged, embarrassed. "It's silly, I know. June went to visit her daughter in Chicago the same day you left, and Mozzie's in—" He checked himself. "Mozzie's out of town, and I was just wandering around... I really only came in here because I was cold. Figured I'd have a drink and leave." His gaze moved back to the stage as if drawn by magnets. "And then I saw her, and..."
"And you've been coming here ever since, staring at her for hours every night and thinking about Kate."
Neal shrugged and fiddled with his olive.
Damn. When Peter'd agreed to visit his sister-in-law for the holidays, he'd not even given a thought to Neal. Brilliant, self-sufficient, nothing-gets-me-down Neal—having to spend the first Christmas after losing the love of his life all alone.
The set ended. The dancer handed her sword off to another girl and climbed off the stage, starting to work the crowd. She headed straight for Neal.
"Heya, gorgeous. I knew you'd be here again." Her smile was wide and seemed genuine enough. "How about a lap dance tonight?"
Neal shook his head and quickly looked away. "No, thanks."
She took a step closer. "Aw, come on. I see you here staring at me every night. You don't even look at the other girls." She batted her eyelashes. "I'll give you two songs for a twenty. 'Cause you're cute."
Neal shook his head wordlessly. If he hadn't known better, Peter would have thought he saw him blush.
The dancer turned to him. "How about you? Why don't you buy your friend a lap dance?"
Peter flashed his badge. "Why don't you move on?"
"Hey!" She took a step back, hands raised. "What I'm doing is legal."
"It is. Now go do it somewhere else."
"Suit yourself." She tossed her hair, shimmied her hips, and left.
Peter returned his attention to Neal, who was looking chagrined. "It's not that I'm a prude, just—"
"The illusion doesn't work up close. Yeah." Peter rubbed his eyes. "Neal, you're off-duty, you're within your radius, and you're an adult. If you want to stay here and watch her do her set every hour, I can't stop you."
Neal cocked his head. "But?"
"But we both know this isn't healthy. And it's New Year's Eve, and my wife, who's almost not at all mad at me for dragging her home early, is currently cooking a spectacular midnight dinner at extremely short notice. I'm sure she could use some help."
Neal smiled. "And you're useless in the kitchen."
Peter nodded. "Entirely." He took out his cell phone. "You could stay till tomorrow. Heck, even the next day if you want, it's the weekend anyway. I'll clear it with the marshals."
A corner of Neal's mouth turned up. "El wouldn't mind?"
"Aw, you know she loves having you around." He smiled. "We could go to an art gallery if you two want. Something outside your radius."
Neal's smile widened into an outright beam. "There's this great exhibition at the Guggenheim where they—"
"Don't tell me, tell El. I'm just the guy who tags along and holds the gift shop bags." He grinned. "You're coming, then?"
Neal's smile dimmed. He was staring over Peter's shoulder. Peter half-turned, and saw the girl who looked like Kate giving a lap dance to a balding, overweight accountant-type.
Peter got up, deliberately blocking Neal's view. "Come on." He gestured to the door with his head.
Neal stood and took his coat from the back of his chair. "Thanks," he said quietly.
Peter put his hand in the small of Neal's back and steered him towards the exit. "Don't mention it."
"Say, while we're outside my radius anyway, there's this great new restaurant where they use blowtorches to—"
"Don't push your luck." But as they emerged into the winter cold of the last few hours of 2009, Peter suspected that his first restaurant meal in 2010 would have been cooked with a blowtorch. And he suspected he wouldn't mind much, in light of the company.