The interrogation room was one of the least welcoming, least comfortable places in existence. It had been designed to intimidate and, overall, Neal thought it did a pretty good job. But the man sitting there currently -- broad, with just enough muscle and stubble to hint at thuggery -- lounged. Worry free, untroubled, as if the aluminum chair was velvet upholstered. Jones sat across from him, poker-faced, unable to glare away the suspect’s grin.
Neal had to look twice, a treacherous third time, to convince himself of what he was really seeing.
He’d known it was bad. It was bad enough that Diana had thought to warn him as he’d dropped his hat and coat at his desk -- a quick, cryptic, “Look out, Caffrey,” and he’d kept his face bland, even as he frantically reviewed the things that could have gone wrong. Peter making him a suspect in a case. Peter finding old evidence. Any combination of Peter and the treasure. And when he saw Eames in the conference room, he realized: things were not bad. They were catastrophic.
There must have been some sort of signal, or else Peter really did have a supernatural sense for driving Neal mad, because at exactly that moment, he appeared. He’d been holding a file; it hit the desk between them with all the menace that was not present in his face. That was too bad. They'd been making such progress in trusting each other. “Neal,” he said, in a voice Neal had long ago come to associate with prison, “I need you to tell me if this man is who he says he is.”
“Almost certainly not,” Neal said. His eyes swept the office, looking for one more face. In fact, he'd been searching for that unobtrusive presence since he'd first seen Eames. He came almost exclusively as part of a set. But Neal stopped to lift the folder and scan its contents. The adoption papers for Nick Halden, he thought, were a particularly nice touch.
“Those are forged,” Peter said, which Neal personally considered a bit unnecessary.
“But they did get your attention,” he murmured, his eyebrows high. It was hard not to appreciate particularly good work.
He let the file fall back to the desk and felt, rather than heard, the presence move into place behind him. There was a distinct feeling of something that had been missing being put back where it belonged. Arthur had that effect.
Neal turned, knowing what was coming next, and caught the projectile smoothly, setting it at a jaunty angle on his head.
“Nice,” Arthur said, in reference to either the hat, the catch, or both. “Vintage?”
Neal grinned. “Peter, I’d like you to meet my parents.”
The uproar that followed was, in no small part, due to the audience they’d collected. It wasn’t Neal’s fault he drew attention (an argument that had never been particularly effective) but the implications were rather worrisome. Peter didn’t seem nearly as bothered. He had Neal’s upper arm in a grip that compelled him into the office. Arthur just made it in before the door shut, closing the rest of the division on the other side of the soundproof glass. He and Peter appeared to be engaging in a wordless war over his presence. At least, that was what Neal surmised from context and the narrow-eyed glances between them.
“Have you ever noticed how gossipy this office is?” Neal asked, innocent, wide-eyed, to break the tension. “It’s a little concerning. Some of those people have higher security clearance than I do.”
“Everyone has higher security clearance than you do, Neal,” Peter said, without taking his eyes off of Arthur. “The janitors have higher security clearance than you do. The termites have higher security clearance than you do. Now, explain.” Although Neal followed the jump smoothly, he kept his face blank. “You said these were fake,” Peter added, hefting the file.
“Nick Halden is fake,” Neal said.
“I’m aware of that.” Peter liked to pretend that he didn’t have much patience for Neal’s games, but after nearly two years, Neal had a pretty good idea of far he could push. He liked to see how thin a line he could get Peter’s lips to make before he exploded. He was approaching a new record.
“So how could anyone adopt him?” Taking pity on the FBI agent, Neal said, “Those are fake. That doesn’t mean they don’t have the real ones...”
“Somewhere safe,” Arthur interjected. “I apologize for all the dramatics, Agent Burke, but we needed a way to approach you.”
“Be careful what you wish for.” Peter closed his eyes for a moment as if in pain, and Neal, working only with fragments, still felt he knew enough of the situation to put in his opinion.
“They wouldn’t have come without a good reason, Peter.”
His words seemed to decide the agent, who looked, as he often did, as if he couldn’t believe he’d been dragged into this. “Fine. But you are a suspect,” he said to Arthur. His finger fixed on Neal. “You are both suspects. Neal, I don’t want you anywhere near this case.”
“Okay,” Neal agreed. a beat passed, wherein neither party seemed inclined to explain. “Suspect in what?” Peter groaned in disgust and left the room. Neal looked between Peter's back and his father. “Valid question!” he called at Peter's shoulders.
‘I don’t want you anywhere near this case’, translated to ‘go home.’ Diana, who didn’t mince words the way Peter did, made that clear as she ejected Neal from the building, dragging him away from Arthur with a terse, “You two can’t be talking to each other.”
“Technically, I haven’t been charged with anything,” Neal pointed out practically as he was herded into an elevator. “Will someone please tell me what’s going on?”
Someone, it turned out, was Mozzie. Neal might not have worn a hole in the floor as he waited, but he suspected June would have strong words for him about the incessant footsteps. Mozzie arrived, eventually, within the hour. He entered with his hands up defensively. “I’ve got Eames out on bail, but Neal, before you ask, I absolutely cannot violate the sacred protections of attorney-client privilege.”
Neal chose to ignore him. “Fill me in, Moz.” He wasn’t in the mood for the games, and that must have come through, because, after only a moment, Mozzie’s head ducked in acquiescence.
“Look, all I can tell you is it’s about a Matisse.”
Neal stood, emphasizing the height difference between them. “This is family, Moz. If you needed help --”
Again, Mozzie held up his hands. “Please, my delicate nature can’t handle all this posturing. I said I can’t tell you.” Before Neal could protest again, he added, “But I can show you.”
He slid a thin plastic case across the table between them. Neal held it between two fingers, almost gingerly. “DVD footage?”
“Of your non-biological father’s interrogation.” Mozzie swept him an elaborate bow, hand flourishing above his bare scalp. “You’re welcome.”
Neal barely had the DVD in when his door scraped open again. He didn't need to turn around to know who stood behind him, and instead, he directed his gaze toward the DVD player. "Locks. I need locks.”
“You need common sense,” Peter offered instead, raising an eyebrow at the frozen still of Eames on the screen. “Do I want to know how you got that?”
“Probably not,” Neal said, at the exact same time Mozzie said, “Got what?”
“Neal.” Peter came between Neal and the television. “Listen to me. I understand you want to be involved, but if these men are who they say they are --”
“Oh, they’re not,” Mozzie put in from the corner. Neal and Peter turned as one, then made a joint decision to ignore his input.
Peter, always the perfect paternal figure, managed to be both comforting and condescending. his voice low and even, he said, "Neal, your involvement can only complicate things."
“Complicate what? I don’t even know what we’re talking about.” Neal pitched his voice to the same register.
“I understand you’re curious--” Peter began again, but Neal cut him off.
“If I had your family in an interrogation room, you wouldn’t be ‘curious.’”
“You can’t touch it, Neal. Anything that goes past you is tainted.” Peter looked apologetic, but firm.
He needed a different approach. He leaned forward, keeping his shoulders and chest open, his face earnest. “Peter, if this was Elizabeth...”
“Don’t,” Peter said flatly. “Don’t try that. It’s not Elizabeth.”
Neal just stared at him. It was hard to keep his face honest, he was so used to masks and diversions. But he managed.
“It’s not Elizabeth,” Peter said, with a sigh of defeat, “because mine is not a family of criminals.”
Grinning with the victory, Neal leaned back, his eyes suddenly light. “What I say? I come by it honestly.”
“You don’t get to say that often, do you?” Peter said.
“Almost never,” Neal agreed.
“Alright.” Peter went into what Neal referred to as his ‘Dad Mode,’ “But these are the rules. Anything you want to see, I show you. Eyes only. You don’t get to touch any evidence, and I hold your hand the entire time. You don’t investigate on your own. If you see something we missed --”
“Oh, Peter, I’m sure you didn’t miss anything,” Neal said.
Peter ignored him, just like he’d ignored Mozzie a moment ago. “You tell me, or Diana, or Jones. Not Mozzie. And you don’t speak to either of them.”
“Deal,” Neal said instantly, holding out his hand.
Peter’s eyes were filled with suspicion as he shook it -- undoubtedly trying to figure out what loophole he’d forgotten to close. It was true, when Neal agreed this easily, there usually was one.
“And I get that,” he said, pointing to the DVD player. “We’re going to my house. I want you where I can watch you.”
“You’re the boss, boss,” Neal agreed. He led the way out the door, shrugging on a suit and jacket as he went. Mozzie followed, drawing a skeptical look from Peter.
“I think it is in the best interests of my client that I be there,” Mozzie said.
Peter had a familiar look on his face as the door shut behind them. It was the face that said he knew he was being scammed. He just couldn’t figure out how.
Satchmo greeted them at the hall of Peter's house. From the look on his face, Neal was guessing that this was not the welcome he'd expected.
"Hey, boy. " Neal knelt on one knee to give the lab a hearty scratch behind the ears. With a burglar's eyes, he scanned the foyer. Elizabeth's keys were in the bowl by the door. Her coat hung neatly on the coat rack. Neal knew Peter saw it, too.
"Hon?" he moved past Neal as he spoke, alert, though nothing was overtly out of place. They found her in the kitchen.
In retrospect, her company was not completely unexpected.
Eames sat at the island beside her, their knees close enough to touch. Arthur hovered a polite few feet away, ostensibly admiring the collection of pottery above the stove, as Eames spoke.
“So we’re barely talking to each other -- at least not civilly -- and one of our coworkers has the temerity to mention that old proverb about uniting in the face of a common enemy. Which Neal, somehow, interprets as instruction to try and steal the Mona Lisa.” Elizabeth tipped her head back and laughed.
Peter turned to Neal, one eyebrow raised eloquently. Neal gave him a bland look and a shrug. “That’s outside your jurisdiction. And it worked,” he said.
“After a manner,” Arthur agreed.
“It certainly united us in a desire to lock you in your room without supper,” Eames added.
Elizabeth stood, coming over to kiss Peter on the cheek. She turned to Neal, her eyes gleaming even as she scolded. “You didn’t tell me your family was going to be in town.”
“It was a surprise visit,” Neal assured her, an easy smile in place as Moz slipped by him and made straight for the wine rack. It was refreshing to know he treated other peoples’ possessions with the same proprietary disregard he had for Neal’s. “Though I’m delighted to have them here.”
“Uh-huh.” There was a look Elizabeth Burke got when she was putting a puzzle together in her mind. She had it now, as she turned her eyes on each of the five men in turn. “And why are you talking about them in the third person when they’re in the room?”
Neal had made his way to the table, and was leaning over it, examining the file Peter had left there. It was unrelated to this case, but it made a convenient prop. He looked up at Elizabeth’s question, his face earnest and surprised. “Oh, I’m not allowed to talk to them,” he said.
Elizabeth’s gaze came to settle on her husband. Peter spread his hands wide, doing his best to imitate Neal’s innocent look. It didn’t sit well on him. “It’s an ongoing investigation, El,” he said.
“That’s absolutely ridiculous,” she said.
Neal leaned in close to Peter’s ear and muttered, “For what it’s worth, I agree with your wife. You’re being very rude to your guests.”
Eames watched the exchange with undisguised delight. Mozzie and Arthur ignored it all, and each other, with passable disinterest. Peter let out a breath of air through his nose that was as close to an assent as they were likely to get. “Fine,” he muttered.
Just like that, it was settled. Elizabeth nodded her head once, radiating satisfaction. “Mozzie, come help me get lemonade for everyone,” she said, drawing him away from her wine rack. “We’ll sit out on the porch.”
On the Burkes’ porch, a glass of lemonade in his hand, Neal finally got the answers to the questions he’d been asking for hours.
“Eames brought a forged Matisse painting they’ve got in the Met. He brought it with him this morning,” Peter explained, leaning over the table and laying down a picture of the painting.
“I love Matisse,” Neal said, picking up the photo to study it. The Met was inside his radius, barely, but he didn’t get there as often as he used to. “The way he blends impressionism and modernism...” His voice trailed off, and Eames, wry, picked it up.
“Yes, absolutely no idea where you’d have gotten that,” he said.
Neal grinned at him, quicksilver, then it was gone. “Why were you copying a Matisse?” he asked, setting the photo down.
“Part of your birthday present,” Eames said. Peter frowned.
“Your birthday is in May,” he said to Neal.
“Neal has several birthdays,” Arthur put in, his voice just as dry as Eames’s had been a moment ago. Although he said nothing explicitly, there was a clear direction in his voice, and it pointed them all back to the subject at hand. Neal, for his part, looked completely unapologetic.
Peter said, “So for Neal’s birthday, you forged a Matisse--”
“Copied,” Eames put in, a frown on his face. “It isn’t forgery unless you try to pass it off as the original work.”
“You copied a Matisse,” Peter corrected, but couldn’t help adding, “Possibly with the intent to replace the original, which is hanging in the Met --”
“Intentions aren’t criminal,” Eames said, bored, harkening back to what Neal guessed had been a longstanding argument that morning.
“Intentions are criminal!” Peter burst. “Intent is one of the fundamental cornerstones of how criminal activity is determined!”
“Can’t prove I was going to steal the real one,” Eames said, with something like a glower.
His teeth gritted, Peter continued. “You copied the Matisse. As a present. And when you came to New York to replace--”
“--Sketch--” Eames said.
“--Study the original, you found?”
Eames leaned forward. “I found the original had already been stolen.”
“And replaced with?” Peter’s tone was prompting, but also eager. Neal recognized it as the way he sounded when he was hot on a case, and just getting to the good part.
Eames, for his part, looked equally wolfish. “Replaced with one of my own copies.”
Neal, who was very familiar with his father’s habits, matched the grin with one of his own as understanding dawned. “You made more than one,” he said.
Eames shrugged fluidly. “It was meant to be a present! The first wasn’t up to my usual standards.”
“And you knew something was off, and decided to come oversee the --” Arthur caught himself, and slid in the word ‘delivery’ instead of ‘swap’, as if it was what he’d already meant to say “--yourself.”
“Indeed,” Eames said. “So obviously, my intermediary decided to use the initial painting for their own gain, instead of delivering it to my ward and protege as requested.”
“Or your intermediary tried to make the swap without you, and leave with the real Matisse before you could give that to your ward and protege,” Peter muttered. Neal turned wide eyes on him.
“Are you accusing me of trafficking stolen goods?” He asked.
Elizabeth had been following wordlessly, ignoring the many interruptions as she strung the facts of the case together. “So, honey, you need to find the original. And Eames, you’re here to prove that you’re being framed for a forgery you actually committed.” There was a moment’s pause. “Arthur, Neal, you’re obviously helping Eames. I guess my only question is, what’s Mozzie’s stake in this?”
The tiny man looked up. “Are you kidding? That lift was pristine. Whoever stole that painting, I want to meet them.”
Elizabeth grinned, looking around the table. “Looks like you boys have a painting to find.”
Overall, the afternoon had more of the feel of a garden party than crime-solving. There was no particular urgency as the sun sank lower over Elizabeth’s perfectly manicured garden. Peter broke out a six pack of beer, and Elizabeth supplied the rest of them with a lovely moscato which, Moz hinted heavily, would pair nicely with a sweet-glazed ham. That lead, inevitably, to a discussion of Peter’s deviled ham sandwiches: whether they contained any actual pork, and the scent of the van. (Peter maintained it had smelled that way when he created the task force.)
When the conversation finally came back around to Eames and his problem they were all a bit more relaxed. Alcohol had worked its miracle, smoothing out the sharp edges between them. Arthur allowed Satchmo to make a pillow of his loafers.
“It sounds fairly open and shut to me,” Peter said, draining the dregs of a bottle and setting it down. “You know who the painting went to. That’s a good lead.” There was a moment, awkward, and an honest to god cricket chirped in the early evening. Crickets. In New York City. “You know who you gave the painting too, don’t you?”
“In a matter of speaking,” Eames said idly, spinning the stem of his glass between two fingers.
Peter sat up, leaning forward. “You farmed this out from another continent, and you didn’t even use a reliable intermediary?”
“It was low-key job! I was getting a birthday present --”
“You sound more ridiculous every time you say that,” Arthur told him, shifting. Satchmo gave a grunt and raised his head to look balefully at him before settling back in.
“Look, it’s been a while, I thought it would be a lark for old time’s sake. I wasn’t expecting it to go pear shaped. I did check his references.”
“Well, it’s a good thing no one ever forges those,” Neal said. “You taught me never to take a paper reference, Eames. You taught me that.”
Eames muttered something. Neal continued to watch him, unabashed amazement on his face.
“This is sad.” Neal said. “It’s actually painful. I knew you two had turned into old ladies, out there, but I had no idea it’d gotten this bad.”
“Enough.” Peter held up a hand to cut through the bickering. “Eames, you have to have something. A name. An email?”
“Cell phone. Traced it myself, it’s a burner, and he’s already dropped it. Name came back with a last known, but I doubt that will turn over anything significant.” Eames said.
“It’s a place to start,” Peter said. “Neal, if you were trying to track down a stolen Matisse, what would be your first step?”
Neal leaned back, his shoulders rising and falling fluidly. “I’d get in touch with a couple of fences. If someone has it, there’ll be chatter, even if they’re keeping it low. We could check with Eames.” His eyes slid to the side. “Not you. Someone picked up your name after we left the city, tried to build on your rep. No one bit.” Neal turned back to Peter. “But Eames is always looking to move up in the world. Get a genuine Matisse, that buys you a plate at the big boy table.”
Peter nodded as Neal spoke, processing the words. “Then that’s our play,” he said. “Caffrey, meet me in the office tomorrow, we’ll find Eames together. And you three, just stay out of it,” He added, turning a stern look on each man in turn.
“Good plan,” Neal spoke into the tense silence, his eyes especially blue in the evening light. “Should we have a team huddle, or something?”
Mozzie stood up and left the table. Arthur, in a surprising show of solidarity, followed him, leaving behind a disgruntled Labrador.
“Team name? Chant?” Neal asked. The table emptied. At his feet, Satchmo let out a huff of air through his nose and shifted from the space Arthur had abandoned to Neal. Neal poured himself the last of the moscato and raised his glass to the dog. “I completely agree,” he said.