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The Painting

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The Painting

Agent Peter Burke pulled on his jacket and walked down the stairs towards the living room, where he saw his wife scrambling around. Elizabeth was dressed in one of her, what Peter privately called, 'smart' outfits for work and she was quickly stuffing papers into her work briefcase. Despite the suit and fancy white blouse, she wasn't wearing any shoes yet. Noticing him, Elizabeth stopped short and looked up, then continued. "Can you take me with you today?" she asked as she picked up yet another stack of paper.

"Sure," Peter answered, slight amusement on his face as he watched his wife. "What's the urgency?"

"I've got to get to the FBI building before ten," she answered, closing her briefcase.

"Why?" he asked. "I thought you were supposed to be at your office for a meeting."

"Moved to the FBI building. The office of the Deputy Director called me yesterday. She wants to talk to me personally."

"Felt wants to talk to 'you'?" Peter asked, surprised.

"Remember I told you about that contract for the charity event I was awarded?"

"The museum thing?" Peter asked. He had a vague memory of his wife trying to win a contract at one of the city's museums...the Guggenheim? No, that wasn't it...

"Yes, the museum thing," she answered, a hint of sarcasm in her voice but a twinkle in her eyes.

For moment Peter wondered if he had to apologize for not having listened properly. There had been case after case in the last few weeks and his head had been full of questions, working with Neal to try to figure out how their suspect had done it.

"The Whitney, actually," Elizabeth added. "I really wanted to tell you about it last night before I went to bed but you weren't home yet."

"Sorry, Jones' birthday party went a little longer than I thought," Peter said, sounding slightly contrite. "Does this mean the Deputy Director wants to host a charity event at the Whitney?"

"I love your deductive skills." She kissed him lightly. "Apparently 'someone' suggested me, because I made a good impression when you and Neal had the case with that guy...what was his name?"

"Ghovat." Peter smiled and kissed his wife. "Congratulations, El."

* * *

About a week later, Peter walked back into his office after having met up with his wife for lunch. Neal eyed him curiously as Peter walked towards his desk, sat down and threw two envelopes on said desk. Neal picked them up, looked inside, then back at Peter. "The Whitney?"

"It's an exhibit of paintings recovered by the FBI over the last three years. They're now owned by a bunch of insurance companies, as the owners already had received their compensations for the items. Most of the pictures in the exhibit will be auctioned off and the money donated to the Whitney." Peter smiled at the delight in Neal's face at his explanation. "I hope you have a tux."

"You're not going with your lovely wife?" Neal asked. Tickets for a gala opening of an exhibit at the Whitney always promised to be an entertaining evening with good food, champagne and gorgeous women.

"She's doing the event management," Peter explained.

"Cool!" Neal exclaimed. "Then, it's a date." He grinned.

* * *

They were having a working lunch at Peter's home when Elizabeth returned.

"Oh good - you're both here," Elizabeth said. She put down her bag, went over to the two men, gave her husband a brief kiss on the lips and sat down at the table, next to him. "Neal, you need to go shopping with Peter for a new tux." Looking at Neal, she made it almost sound like an order.

"I do?" Neal blinked, glanced at Peter and then looked at Elizabeth, still surprised.

"My old one isn't fitting that well anymore," Peter threw in. Looking at his wife, he added, "I really can do it alone, El."

"I know you can, honey." Elizabeth put her hand over her husband's and smiled at him. "But you have to admit, Neal's got a good sense of style," Elizabeth said matter-of-factly.

"You heard the lady," Neal simply said, an amused smirk on his face.

Peter just rolled his eyes, knowing well he was outvoted.

* * *

Two days later, after having closed yet another case, they finally had the time to go shopping.

Neal had wanted to drag Peter to one of the smaller, exclusive shops in Chinatown, but the murmured comment of not wanting to buy a tux that would cost him more than a cheap car made Neal decide otherwise. They finally ended up somewhere between Chinatown and Midtown, in one of the specialty stores. However, when they entered the clothing store, Peter realized it was slightly more exclusive than he had anticipated: The name-tags for the sales clerks and their formal way of dressing were the best indicators of that.

Sighing, Peter gave in and let Neal take the lead, almost feeling as if he were shopping with his wife. She'd love this. She'd probably debate with Neal what kind of tux to get for Peter and what to avoid.

After a few tuxes that were beyond what even Elizabeth probably would have considered sensible to pay for a tux, a sales clerk had attached himself to Peter and Neal. Assisted by said sales clerk, whose name tag said 'George', Peter agreed to Neal's next choice, mainly because it was on sale.

Standing in the changing cubicle that George had pointed him to, Peter tried on the tux, but frowned as it didn't quite fit right. He asked George if a custom fitting was possible, but the clerk said no. Resigned, Peter put it back on its hanger and tried on the next one that Neal had chosen and he had agreed to. This time Peter was lucky. The tux fit perfectly. The jacket was three buttoned, and the vest was in a slightly different shade, matching the peaked lapels in color. Even the pants were comfortable. Granted, it was an expensive tux, but the material felt good to his fingers and it was still within the price range that he personally considered sensible. Elizabeth would be pleased.

As he stepped out of the changing cubicle, he saw Neal still sitting in the comfortable chair outside the changing cubicles. Spotting Peter, he smiled.

"You look great," Neal said, watching Peter as the agent walked closer to the huge set of mirrors outside the changing room. "That one's made for you."

"You think?" Peter asked rhetorically and studied himself from all sides, looking very pleased.

George, the sales clerk, who was standing next to Neal, smiled at him briefly and said softly, "May I suggest a bowtie that would go well with this tux for your boyfriend?"

"Sure," Neal answered almost automatically and George went away to fetch the item. "But he's not my...," Neal said, getting up, momentarily considering going after George to correct his assumption. He didn't, however, and just smirked instead. He was still smiling when Peter came over to join him.

"What did he say to you?" Peter asked, curious.

For a second, Neal considered keeping Peter in the dark, then decided otherwise. "George thinks we're a couple."

"Who?"

"The sales clerk."

"What?" Peter turned to see where the sales clerk had gone and frowned as he spotted him.

"Oh c'mon, Peter. Relax. I think it's funny." Neal couldn't help smirking.

"You're unbelievable," Peter muttered, shaking his head. He walked back to the changing cubicle to return to his usual suit and get ready to pay for his new tux.

He bought the bow tie too.

* * *

Finally, the day of the opening of the exhibit arrived.

Elizabeth had to leave early in the morning to make sure the hired staff would do as told, which left Peter to his own devices. All was fine until he had to fix his bow tie. Annoyed that he couldn't get it to look the way it should, he put it in his jacket pocket, pulled his black tie from the cupboard and put that on instead. Finally, he left his home to pick up Neal.

* * *

"Come in," Peter heard, knocking at the door of Neal's room at June's house, after having been let in by the maid, as usual.

Entering and closing the door behind himself, Peter saw Neal standing in front of the huge mirror in his room, putting the last finishing touches on himself as he buttoned up his tux jacket. He turned around to Peter as the agent walked over to him.

Of course, Neal looked perfect: tailored tux that looked expensive, bow tie, shiny black shoes and hair styled exquisitely. Neal was the embodiment of sexy and gorgeous, like a young James Bond. Peter could easily imagine the women at the opening drooling over Neal the moment they saw him, even Elizabeth. She wouldn't drool so much, but she'd have that little smile on her face that always told Peter she liked what she saw. He couldn't blame her. In fact, he'd agree, though he'd never tell that to Neal. However, the frown on Neal's forehead as he glanced at Peter didn't quite go with the image Neal was presenting.

"Oh, no. You can't go to the museum with that tie around your neck, Peter," Neal said, as he looked at Peter from top to bottom. "Where's the bow tie you bought with the tux?"

Feeling rather sheepish, Peter pulled the bow tie band from his jacket pocket. "Elizabeth usually does it for me, but she had to leave for work." He sighed. "I just couldn't get it right."

"C'mere," Neal said, and walked over to Peter. Stepping in front of him, Neal pulled off the tie, threw it on his nearby bed and proceeded to fix Peter's bow tie.

They were standing at an angle towards the mirror, which let Peter see what Neal was doing without having to look downward. Watching Neal at this task in the mirror was actually interesting. Neal carefully pulled the black satin band under Peter's shirt collar, adjusted the ends and proceeded to bend the bow tie. Feeling rather comfortable in this position, Peter found himself fascinated by Neal's hands and the concentration on Neal's face, which was why he didn't quite pay attention to the moment Neal was finished.

Of course, Neal had noticed that, yet he didn't say anything. He smiled again, though one of those charming smiles that said he knew something you didn't and he wasn't going to tell you. Yet. Although, Peter did know it, he was just used to ignoring it.

"Looks good," Peter said, clearing his throat, turning towards the mirror and concentrating on his reflection. "Thanks."

"You're welcome," Neal said.

* * *

They arrived by cab, partly because Elizabeth had advised Peter to take one, as alcohol would be served, and partly because Peter just wasn't willing to use the subway while wearing his new tux. It was warm enough outside to go without an overcoat, which was why they skipped the coat check and went straight into the main event room, where a young waitress was serving chilled champagne.

Naturally, Neal had to get chatty with the waitress and naturally, Peter had to pull him away from flirting with her.

"We're not at work, Peter," Neal said, furrowing his brows and making that little crease between them appear. He was pouting.

"No, we aren't," Peter said fondly, "but we're here to have a look at the paintings, right? Come on, I know how much you like paintings. Tell me something about them." Champagne flutes in hand, they walked over to one of the exhibits, a blue, grey, purple and white painting consisting of lines and curves. It made Peter wonder if the artist was trying to say something, only didn't know how. "What's this?"

Neal studied the painting, then stepped a foot away from it and looked at Peter. "Stand next to me and look at it."

With a slight smile, Peter did as requested.

"What do you see?" Neal asked, standing slightly behind him, speaking softly next to Peter's ear.

Peter squinted at the picture, trying hard not to get distracted by Neal's presence and the warmth he felt in his belly. What could he see? A boat? No, that wasn't it. "Is there a fish in it?" Peter asked and turned to look at Neal.

"Yeah." Neal smiled. "I think this is a Filla." He stepped closer to the painting to have a look at the adjoining description and smiled when it was confirmed. "Emil Filla. He was one of the founders of modern Czech art and an early cubist painter. This is probably from his white period. Worth about 20 grand."

"You know that?" Peter asked.

Neal shrugged. "Part of the job description."

Peter smiled.

They went through the rooms to see each painting in the exhibit. At some Neal remained a bit longer, telling Peter a few things about it: who the painter was or what kind of painting it was. At some paintings, he even went to the point of explaining to Peter how difficult it would be to copy it as the respective colors were either prohibited or not in existence any more, so therefore hard to replicate.

Peter enjoyed listening to Neal's explanations. Even though he knew that Neal's education in art was much broader than his own, it was entertaining to see how extensive his knowledge really was. Neal would've been a great teacher but Peter guessed that he probably would've gotten bored after a while. He didn't seem to get bored explaining stuff to Peter, though.

As they were appreciating the paintings, they stopped from time to time when yet another well dressed waiter or waitress dropped by, serving hors d'oeuvres, and refilled their champagne flutes. Along the way, Neal acquired more listeners, two women and a man. Of course, Neal enjoyed the attention the women paid him, but Peter could have sworn that even the guy was eying Neal with interest. Judging by Neal's glances toward the guy, Neal didn't mind.

It all changed, though, when they got to the American Impressionists in the collection. Looking at the first, Neal frowned. Then he moved to the next one, stood in front of it, looked closer at it and frowned again.

"Neal?" Peter asked.

"That's odd," Neal muttered.

"What's odd?"

Neal turned to Peter. "The indian yellow is wrong."

"Which one?"

"The indian yellow in the LaGrange." Neal pointed at the orange-yellow in the painting. "If you compare it with the other, the Bendell - they look the same, but they shouldn't." Noticing the confusion on Peter's face, he realized that the agent didn't get the point that Neal was making. "The LaGrange was created in one of the art colonies, late 19th century. The Bendell is late 20th century. You with me?" Peter nodded. "Indian yellow as it was produced until 1908 fades in direct sunlight, but the one made today doesn't. They should look completely different, but these look the same."

One of the ladies in their entourage asked, "Why didn't they continue producing it?"

This was something that even Peter knew. "It was prohibited. The production of the color was killing cows." From the look on Neal's face, he hadn't expected Peter to know this. "What? I know a little bit about art."

"Yes, he does." Without them noticing, Elizabeth had dropped by. "One of the reasons I married him." She kissed her husband briefly. "Hi, honey. Hi, Neal. I only wanted to check on you two to see how you're doing, but you have quite the fan club already." She gave the two ladies and the guy an imitation wave, raising her right hand and wiggling her fingers, which the three took as a cue to mind their own business and they walked away. "So what's up?"

Smiling about Elizabeth's way of getting rid of their company, he said, "The LaGrange might be a forgery."

"Seriously?" Elizabeth and Peter asked in unison.

"The indian yellow is wrong. It should be faded," Neal explained. "It's a good copy though."

"I'll get you the curator. She's here somewhere." Elizabeth looked around, seemed to spot someone and turned to Peter and Neal. "Just a sec," she said and walked over to a woman in her early 40s who was wearing a simple, yet elegant, black dress with matching shoes and small evening bag. Her black hair was elaborately arranged on her head and she wore long pearl necklace.

"Are you absolutely sure?" Peter asked Neal, urgency in his voice, while he glanced over to where his wife was talking to the curator.

"Yes," Neal said, meeting Peter's gaze openly. There was silence between them for a few seconds, where neither man broke eye contact, then Neal added, "I am sure."

"Okay," Peter said, seemingly content with whatever he had seen in Neal's face.

Finally, the two women walked over to Peter and Neal.

"Mrs. Stevens. This is my husband, Peter Burke, he's an agent with the FBI and this is his partner Neal Caffrey," Elizabeth said, introducing them to the curator. "Mr. Caffrey has a problem with the LaGrange. If you could help him? I have to get back to check on my staff." She smiled at her husband, knowing well that Peter would tell her later what developed from Neal's theory.

"Of course, Mrs. Burke." She nodded and turned to Peter and Neal. "Agent Caffrey?"

"That'd be me," Neal said, smiling. "And it's not Agent Caffrey, I'm just a consultant."

"What is your problem with the LaGrange?" she asked, curious.

"I think it's a forgery," Neal said, his voice dropping conspiratorially.

The curator raised an eyebrow. "You must be mistaken. We still have the original Certificate of Authenticity that validates its provenance," Mrs. Stevens said. "How did you come to your conclusion?"

Neal explained.

The curator raised both eyebrows. "Where did you study?"

"I have an M.A. in studio art from Hollins University. During my studies, I received the Creative Talent Award twice. I did residencies at the Smithsonian and the MCNY and I went overseas to France to study the classics. I graduated first in my class and was the Active Artist-in-Residence at Hollins for a year afterwards. Just ask for Professor Sulkin. He'll remember me."

Peter did know a lot about Neal, but the Artist-in-Residence at Hollins and the residencies were gems he hadn't heard of.

She looked at Peter. "And you can confirm this?"

"I trust Mr. Caffrey's judgment," Peter said. He ignored the glance that Neal gave him.

"Do you agree with him?" Mrs. Stevens asked, a tone of sharpness in her voice.

"Mr. Caffrey is the expert, but I believe his theory is valid." Peter would need to perform a few tests on the painting to confirm the theory, but he was willing to go with Neal's expertise for now.

"So do I." Mrs. Stevens sighed. "I didn't have time to check the Impressionists myself. My personal field is more in the Renaissance, but we were planning on having an expert over for a consult tomorrow, right before the painting would become a permanent part of our collection. I know it's unusual but we never really questioned its authenticity. Maybe it's good the LaGrange wasn't meant for the charity. That would've been a huge problem."

"What are you going to do now?" Neal asked. "Take the painting down?"

"No," Mrs. Stevens said. "Does one of you have a card?"

To Neal's surprise, Peter produced a business card from his tux jacket. "You're going to call once your consultant confirms the forgery?" Peter asked.

"Of course," Mrs. Stevens said. "If you'll excuse me, gentlemen, I have to make some calls." Not waiting for a comment from the two men, she walked away.

"What now?" Neal asked, and looked at Peter.

"We enjoy the rest of our evening and pull the case file first thing in the morning," Peter said.

Neal nodded, then turned around. "So, where did the two ladies go?"

Peter shook his head, but couldn't help smiling.

* * *

When they got in the next morning, Hughes was already in the office. Noticing their arrival, he beckoned them over to his office. They looked at each other for a moment, then went to comply.

"Why am I getting a call from the Deputy Director of the FBI at 6am at my home, inquiring how two of my subordinates managed to find a fake LaGrange at the gala exhibit?" Hughes asked as he sat down, leaving the two men standing next to each other in front of their boss' desk.

Hearing Neal take a deep breath, Peter immediately put a hand on Neal's arm, urging him to shut up wordlessly. While he didn't doubt that Neal's recount would be accurate, he wasn't sure that Hughes would appreciate it, as you just shouldn't poach another agent's case. Feeling Neal's eyes on him, Peter explained how they had noticed the painting and why they thought it was a forgery. He finished by saying that Mrs. Stevens, the curator, would call them if the forgery was confirmed.

"It already is confirmed," Hughes said. "The indian yellow in the painting was produced post 2000." He pulled a fax from his desk. "They also found a signature under UV light." He handed the fax to Peter, who glanced at it. "The case is now re-opened. The files are in your office. I want results. Soon."

They nodded and left Hughes office.

* * *

In Peter's office, five boxes of FBI case files were waiting for them.

"Oh my," Neal said. "That's a lot for just one case."

"Let's get them over to the conference room and sort it through," Peter said.

* * *

Several hours later, they had put together a board with the relevant case facts to get a general idea about their new case. However, it wasn't just one case, but rather three cases which were connected. In all three cases, a painting had been stolen and ransom had been demanded and paid. In two of the cases, the owner had received the painting back, without a scratch. Only in the third case, the painting hadn't been returned and the owner had gotten compensation from the insurance company instead. The missing painting had later been found during a drug bust in a warehouse, packed in a wooden crate.

"Okay, what do we have...," Peter thought aloud, staring at the board and leaning back onto the conference room desk. "The owners' jobs are all different: Betterson is a CEO at Washington Savings & Loan and belongs to its owner consortium, Snow lives off his trust fund and Sendusky is an auctioneer at Christie's. But the paintings are all American Impressionists: Betterson owns a Reid, bought at Sotheby's, Snow owns a Cabot, which he inherited and the LaGrange was bought privately from a man named Sam Dailey."

"But the paintings were all insured at Winston & Pearson Mutual," Neal added.

Peter glanced at Neal, who was sitting in one of the chairs, its back towards the same conference desk that the agent was leaning on. "Insurance scam?"

"That would only work if none of the guys had gotten their paintings back," Neal answered. "Didn't Hughes say they found a signature on the LaGrange?"

"Yeah," Peter answered and fished for the fax. "An F and an N, overlapped, visible under UV light."

"Is there a picture?" Neal asked. "I remember Jones saying that the museum sent a report by courier before we went to lunch..." He started rummaging around in the folders and papers they had put on the conference table. Locating the envelope, he took out the report and scanned for the page that had the photo of the signature. Finding it, he blanched slightly and muttered, "That's impossible."

"Neal?" Peter asked, concerned, and walked over to Neal's side of the table.

"He's dead," Neal said, still holding the report in his hands.

"Who?" Peter asked, as Neal continued to stare at the photo. "Felix Newman. This is exactly the way he used to sign his own art." He looked at Peter. "I thought he's dead."

"Never heard of him. Maybe he died only recently?" Peter suggested.

Neal shook his head. "It's not like that. I got to know Felix at Hollins; he was an artist, loved post-modern Impressionists. He introduced me to painters like Haustenberg, and he's the reason I went to France for a semester overseas. While I was there, Felix had a car accident; his car had fallen off a bridge into a river. The body was never found, though."

"Was he the kind of guy who'd do this?" Peter asked.

"No," Neal answered. "Not the guy I knew. Felix was talented and kind. He just had this way of making you interested in whatever he was talking about. I don't know why he would do this." Neal frowned. "Do we know anything about Sam Dailey?"

Peter grabbed a folder from the table. "Not much. Sendusky found him via an art magazine where he had an ad about selling paintings from his Impressionists collection. That's all. The man had references and a Certificate of Authenticity when he sold him the LaGrange."

"No personal information?" Neal asked.

Peter scanned the pages. "No...," his voice trailed off. "That's odd. We should find out who he is." Looking up at Neal, he found his partner still staring at the photo from the museum's report, seemingly lost in thought. "What are you thinking?"

"Hmm?" Neal looked up from the report and put it back on the desk, then turned towards Peter. "I'm thinking that the LaGrange is a bit like the odd man out. It was bought from a private collector, not a well-known place and not inherited, and its new owner isn't as rich as the other two. It's also the one that wasn't given back. I'm betting you twenty that the Reid and the Cabot are both forgeries as well but weren't when they were stolen."

"You think they had a test run with the LaGrange?" Peter asked, ignoring the invitation for the bet.

"Probably," Neal answered. "It's the first theft in the series. After that, they took their time in figuring out what went right and what went wrong. They might have even noticed that the indian yellow didn't fit, which explains why they didn't give it back."

"And with the Reid and the Cabot they changed the MO, stole the original and gave back the copy." Peter concluded.

"Exactly." Neal grinned.

"It can't be just one person - they must have been a team," Peter suggested. "One to steal them and send out the ransom demand and another guy who made the copies."

"Depends. A team would make you more vulnerable, though. More people means more possibility that someone rats the rest out. Alone is easiest. Maybe two people. You'd stake out your intended location, figure out the security system and then go in at the right time. That's the way I would do it."

Peter threw Neal a look that spoke volumes.

"What?" Neal met his stare. "It's a possible scenario. Doesn't the FBI do that all the time?"

Peter smiled. "Yeah, we do."

* * *

Most of the next few days were spent on getting Neal's theory confirmed. Luckily the insurance company, Winston & Pearson Mutual, was eager to find out if the paintings they had insured were authentic. Both paintings were brought to the FBI lab, who confirmed that they were indeed forgeries as they had the same signature as the LaGrange, visible under UV light.

Sam Dailey however, remained a mystery. There was no current address for the man, nor a driver's license or a social security number. Sam Dailey didn't exist.

Finally Neal suggested to invite in Sendusky. Peter agreed in the hope that a sketch might at least be helpful in putting a name to the face.

* * *

Watching through the mirror, Neal listened to Peter talking to Sendusky.

"I'm glad you agreed to this, sir," Peter said.

"You're lucky that my next auction is in a fortnight, Agent Burke. Otherwise, I literally wouldn't have had any time for this," Sendusky said.

"You said you could still remember what Sam Dailey looked like..."

"Yes," Sendusky interrupted Peter, "I've got a memory for faces."

"So you said," Peter continued and Neal immediately noticed that Peter was getting impatient. "This is our sketch artist. Describe Mr. Dailey for him, please. Take your time. We want you to be content with the result."

Half an hour later, they were finished. As Jones escorted Sendusky out, Neal went to join Peter in the interview room, curious as to what the sketch would show him.

"Can I see it?" Neal asked, coming to stand next to Peter.

"Is it him?" Peter asked as he handed Neal the sketch.

Neal stared at Peter.

"Don't look at me, look at the sketch," Peter said, but couldn't help smiling slightly. It was rare that he surprised Neal with something. "Is it Felix Newman?"

Complying, Neal looked. A middle aged man stared back at him, with laugh lines, short, curly hair and dark eyes. More than ten years had passed, but it was unmistakably Felix Newman.

"It's him," Neal finally answered.

"Good," Peter said, and they left the interview room.

As Peter went over to Jones to get the sketch out, Cruz told Neal there was a package waiting for him in Burke's office.

* * *

Staring at the package, Neal didn't hear Peter return.

"What's that?" Peter asked.

He looked up. "I don't know. Cruz said it was delivered for me earlier."

Peter frowned. "Did Mr. Haversham send you this?" he asked, using the alias that Neal had made up on the spot for his friend Mozzie.

"No! At least I don't think so," Neal said, still unsure, and looked at Peter.

"Wait," Peter said, opening one of his desk drawers. He pulled out a pair of gloves. "Put these on, then open it."

Complying, the package revealed a painting of a much younger Neal Caffrey, the familiar signature with the overlapping letters F and N on the bottom. Carefully, Neal turned the painting around. On its backside, someone had written 'STAY AWAY' in capital letters, using white paint.

"Oh, god," Neal said, emotion evident in his voice and face.

"We'll find him, Neal," Peter said, trying to sound comforting. "Just not today."

END