Neal and Mozzie sat on the couch as Peter stood, staring at them angrily.
“One day. I ask you to watch my nephew for one day,” Peter gritted out. “My innocent twelve-year-old nephew!”
Mozzie and Neal looked straight ahead, seeming to concentrate on nodding and looking appropriately guilty.
Which was… not how it usually went. Normally, Neal would give his most innocent look and Moz would sit there sneering at the thought of being upset that ‘the Man’ disapproved of his action.
Peter narrowed his eyes. “Okay. Spill. What else are you two hiding?”
Peter thought of himself as very good with kids. Nobody who saw Peter interact with children seemed to agree, except perhaps to concede that his awkward attempts were adorably ineffectual.
But Peter knew for a fact that he was good with children, because every year his nephew, Jack, spent a week with Peter and El while Peter’s sister and her husband had a nice couple’s vacation. And Peter was great with Jack.
Jack was a charming kid. He was insatiably curious, always asking question after question, always wanting to try new things. And while a lot of people found that a bit much to handle, Peter found the constant challenge refreshing.
Jack was the type of kid who liked every single class, so he actually thought it was “cool” that Peter had once studied math. But he absolutely loved hearing about Peter’s FBI work. And while a lot of kids would have asked for stories of shootouts and danger (stories that made light, usually, of painful days), Jack was just as interested in hearing about the ethical underpinnings of warrant law, about the importance of building a profile, about sussing out the motivations of their targets and using them against them.
Peter was absolutely convinced that Jack was someday going to be an FBI agent. Possibly the best one ever.
Sure, Jack was just as curious about different species of plants on that day when El had to drag him along when she needed to rework an order from her client’s florist (Jack had even asked to try arranging flowers, and the florist had let him). And once they had to ask a neighbor, an auto mechanic, to baby-sit when they had a minor emergency; when they picked him up, he proudly showed them the carburetor that the mechanic had helped him remove.
But Peter was sure that though Jack’s curiosity was wide-ranging, law enforcement was Jack’s real passion. Occasionally, when the cases were very safe, Peter would take Jack to the office and even in the field so he could watch Peter work. Jack loved it.
Once, when Jack was 11, he convinced Peter to take him to the shooting range and let him fire a gun. Peter was uncertain, but Jack was very mature for his age, not to mention that Jack’s paternal grandfather had already taken him hunting twice. Also, Jack was so excited, so thrilled to get to play FBI agent, that Peter couldn’t help himself. So he helped Jack, helped brace his shoulder for the kick, and he was irrationally proud of how well Jack did for his first time.
He knew it would be wrong to ask Jack to not tell his parents, but he did ask that Jack never told Aunt El.
He had already told Jack about what it would be like at Quantico, about which dorm he should try and get into, about how to make the food less terrible. He also explained why white collar was really the division he should try to get into.
Jack loved every minute. No surprise, though, for a natural born agent.
“Okay. Spill. What else are you two hiding?”
Mozzie and Neal said nothing.
“You teach my nephew to break into a museum, vandalize the displays, steal an elderly man’s wallet, sell a forged Miró, throw food at a police officer, and stage an armed robbery, and there’s more?” Peter fumed.
Jack popped out from the hallway where he was listening in. “That’s not what they’re hiding,” he said. “They just don’t want to say it was all my fault!”
Neal grimaced. Mozzie furrowed his brow and said, “Kid! First thing to learn, never confess!”
Peter rubbed his eyes with his hand. “I seriously doubt it was all your fault, Jack. It’s very nice of you to want to cover, but it’s very, very important to tell the truth.”
“I am telling the truth!” Jack said as Neal and Mozzie tried to gesture for him to stop.
Peter looked at him and sighed. “Okay, tell me everything that happened today, Jack.”
Mozzie frowned and slumped back into the cushions, clearly disappointed. Neal just leaned in and watched Peter’s reactions closely.
“Okay,” Jack started. “First, you dropped me off at Neal’s place. And you said ‘Jack is an impressionable young man and my only nephew. You’d better not spend the day teaching him to break into safes or something.’”
“I recall saying that, yes,” Peter said, looking angrily at the two men.
“That’s what I wanted to remind you. They listened. We didn’t break into any safes all day. Anyway, we went out for ice cream at the park. Except Mozzie got sorbet because he says dairy makes him gassier than a pitbull after eating a balloon. Neal had strawberry and I had Chocolate-Caramel Ripple. It was really good. Anyway, the ice cream thing that happened was just because I was trying to do the trick.”
“The trick?” Peter asked warily.
“Mozzie and Neal showed me this trick where two people use cones to throw an ice cream scoop back and forth. Like they catch it with the cone and everything. It’s awesome. But when I tried it….”
“It landed on a police officer’s uniform,” Peter said.
“I swear, Peter, that’s how it happened,” Neal said, and Peter believed them.
“Okay, that was an accident,” Peter said.
“And there was no armed robbery,” Jack explained, “The police officer was mad at me, so Mozzie snuck around the corner and hacked into the police radio and said that all officers were needed for an armed robbery across Midtown. That way, I didn’t get in trouble.”
“A trick learned from Sally?” Peter said to Moz.
Mozzie snorted. “Unlike some people, I don’t rat,” he said, before Neal elbowed him to take it easy.
“Jack, the proper course of action when you get in trouble is to accept responsibility,” Peter said.
“He was trying,” Neal interjected, “but the guy was being so unfair. And Jack didn’t do anything. We took care of it before he even knew we were on the radio.”
Peter sighed and said wryly, “Neal, the proper course of action when you get in trouble is to accept re--”
“Moving on,” Moz said, exaggeratedly bored.
“So then,” Jack said, “I asked Neal about his anklet, and he explained that he was one of the best criminals in the world.”
“I said ‘was,’” Neal emphasized. “Past tense.”
“And I thought that was cool. So I asked if he would show me how to pick pockets. And he didn’t want to at first, but I said that I would only use it as a joke. Like maybe to pick your pocket, Uncle Peter, and see if I can get you to think Neal managed to pick your pocket from across town. We all thought that would be funny,” Jack explained.
“Terrific,” Peter responded.
“But then I wanted to practice. So I asked them to take me to my friend’s apartment building but my friend wasn’t there. So I picked the doorman’s wallet.”
Peter glared at Mozzie and Neal.
“They tried to stop me!” Jack said, “But then I told them that the doorman kicks dogs when he thinks no one is looking.”
“That’s… awful. But you can report him. You don’t retaliate by stealing, Jack.”
“He doesn’t really kick dogs,” Jack explained as if it were obvious. “I just said that so they would let me practice stealing.”
Neal and Moz looked very embarrassed then, and Peter realized with some amusement that the two master criminals had gotten conned by a 12-year-old. He kept a straight face, though, as Jack continued.
“And then after I got the wallet, I told them and said that I would give the wallet back now. I just wanted to try it to see if I could do it.”
“He’s a very honest kid, Peter,” Neal confirmed.
“So Neal and Mozzie decided that the best way to return the wallet would be a ‘drop and spot.’ That’s where Neal walks by and drops the wallet in the bushes and then I walk by and say ‘Excuse me sir, it seems you dropped your wallet.’ And I did. And the man was so happy he gave me a $20 reward! Isn’t that cool, Uncle Peter?”
“Jack. You didn’t really find his wallet. You shouldn’t have accepted it.”
“That’s what Neal and Mozzie said. So I gave the money back.”
Peter raised an eyebrow at Mozzie’s name. “Really?”
“I don’t steal from the proletariat,” Mozzie stated.
“And I said that could be a good idea, to steal wallets and return them for rewards, and if you did that all day, I bet you could get a lot. But Mozzie said that was small time thinking so we didn’t do that. Anyway, then we went to Neal’s apartment,” Jack continued. “And there were all these cool paintings. And Neal said that he only does them for fun now, so I asked what he used to do with them. And Mozzie explained it to me.”
“And there are lots of ways to get someone to buy a forgery. But then I asked specifically how to do it, but they didn’t want to tell me. They said you wouldn’t like it.”
“They were right,” Peter said. “For once.”
“But then I looked it up on my phone. And I asked them about all the famous cases I could find, and finally Mozzie said that the Internet is full of lies and if I was going to learn about it, I should learn the truth. So they explained the three main ways.”
“Tell me more,” Peter said.
“The first is do a forgery so good the authenticators can’t tell. The second is to work with someone who hires you to steal the painting but then switch it with the forgery after the authentication. The third, which gets you less money but can be done the fastest, is to convince someone you stole it and are willing to sell it for next to nothing just to get rid of it. When they find out it’s fake, you’re already gone,” Jack recited, pleased with his memory.
Peter’s jaw clenched.
“Anyway, while Peter and Moz made sandwiches for lunch – and they included a vegetable, just like you said to. But anyway, while they were doing that, I took one of the paintings and went down to see if I could sell it. I wanted to know if I could do it. And it worked! I saw a guy and told him that my uncle Peter stole it but then threw it in the garbage because he was afraid of getting caught and then the man gave me $100 for it!”
Peter looked at him agape as he continued, “But then Neal and Mozzie found me. They said they were worried when I left Ms. June’s house and not to run off again. So I said I wouldn’t. But then I told them that the con worked. And Mozzie said he was proud of me and Neal said I should probably not do that because you wouldn’t like it, but then they both looked worried.”
“Do I even want to know?”
“Neal said that he had signed the painting ‘NC’ and now there was a recent signed forgery on the black market and some amateur was going to get caught trying to sell it and then Neal would be in trouble. So they had to think of a con to get the painting back. They ran around and asked people if they say anyone who looked like that guy carrying a painting, and the hot dog seller knew the guy and where he worked. Also, we got hot dogs. They were good. Anyway, they thought of a con to make the guy sell the painting but Neal and Mozzie were just going to buy it with five thousand of the guy’s own money, plus the hundred dollars he gave me. But I didn’t get all the details since they have a lot of codewords. And they didn’t feel like explaining cons to me any more.”
“A sense of decency finally kicked in?” Peter said, still angry.
“More like self-preservation,” Mozzie muttered.
Neal elbowed him again. “We said we weren’t going to sell out the kid,” he whispered.
“Too bad it’s not mutual,” Mozzie grumbled.
“Uncle Peter said I can tell him anything. Right, Uncle Peter?”
Peter paused. “Yes. The truth is always best, Jack. Not cons. Not forgeries. The truth.”
Jack nodded and then continued, “So then they were going to run the con and leave me at June’s. But I wanted to help. It was my fault Neal was going to get in trouble. And I wanted to take responsibility by helping them with the con. So I… threatened to call you and tell on them if they didn’t let me come.”
For the first time, Jack actually looked ashamed.
“And Neal tried to still say no, but then Ms. June had left already and they called some lady named Sara but Sara laughed at them when they asked if she would baby-sit, and Mozzie was going to call a fence to baby-sit me but Neal said it would be better to keep me close than let ‘Tiny’ baby-sit me. So I went with them.”
“Things went fine?” Peter asked, tense.
“Totally fine,” Jack said.
“Not really,” Neal said, and Mozzie seemed to concede. Peter worried. What exactly would make not just Neal but also Mozzie want to come clean?
“Okay, there was one part where I was hiding and listening to Neal and Mozzie talk to the mark and then my leg itched so I went to scratch but then I knocked over the box and the mark found me. He said he would kill me if I was running a scam on him and he tried to grab my neck.”
“What?!” Peter said. “Are you okay?”
“But then Mozzie punched him in the face and the guy fell down. It was awesome. And then we grabbed the painting and ran away.”
Peter let out a breath. He looked at Mozzie. It was unlike Mozzie to use violence, especially with his own hands. “Thank you,” he said with a nod, before adding, “Even though this wouldn’t have happened if you two weren’t so-”
“You’re welcome,” Mozzie said.
Jack continued, “And then we got back to Neal’s home and Mozzie said that if I ever run scams, I should know that violence should never ever be used and to totally ignore what he did because that was special circumstances. But I should never be violent.”
“Okay,” Peter said.
“And then I told Moz that he seemed like a really great criminal just like Neal and I thought that was cool how smart he was at it. But then Moz got upset and called me ‘Little Suit’ and said ‘No, no, I’m not a criminal, I’m a paleontologist.’”
“I can’t believe you said you were a paleontologist,” Neal griped.
“You know I don’t like making up personae on the spot,” Mozzie mumbled.
“A paleontologist is someone who studies dinosaurs,” Jack said, “I learned that in science class. So then I asked if he worked at the natural history museum because that’s where we saw the paleontologist on our science class field trip and it was so cool and Mozzie said yes he works at the museum. So I asked if we could go. And he said no because it’s closed right now.”
“But you kept asking? Over and over again? And told him that you needed to learn about these things in case you become a paleontologist some day?” Peter said, annoyed to recall how often Jack had gotten people to share their passions with him, and how easily Jack had managed to get his way.
“Yep. It would be awesome to be a paleontologist. Or a marine biologist. Or an astronaut. Or a fireman. Or an art teacher. Or an archeologist. Or an event planner. There are lots more, I haven’t decided yet. I keep a list in my room.”
“Great,” Peter said.
“Anyway, we went through the back way. It was really hard. Mozzie forgot the code to the keypad thing, so they had to use special equipment to get in. And then Mozzie left his keys at home so Neal had to open all the locked doors with a lockpick set. But then we got into the room where the scientists create displays and it was So. Cool. Seriously. Like right when we walked in, there was a bunch of cavemen standing around. But one caveman had no clothes on and the mannequin didn’t have any private parts but I asked Neal if we could cover him up anyway with Neal’s hat. I took a picture of it on my phone, wanna see?”
He quickly pulled out a phone and showed Peter a picture of the three of them with a naked caveman, whose private area was covered by a fedora that Jack was holding up.
“That looks cool, doesn’t it Uncle Peter?”
“It looks like really cool evidence,” Peter muttered.
“But then we started to look around more,” Jack said.
“And that’s when you found the dinosaur,” Peter concluded.
“Right. Mozzie and Neal wanted to leave, but I told them it was my dream my whole life to touch a real dinosaur bone. It was one of those little tiny dinosaur skeletons that some people say are just birds but I think are dinosaurs and the museum thinks so too. Mozzie thinks that there is a conspiracy to stop people from knowing the truth about how dinosaurs evolved, but I didn’t understand what he was talking about. Maybe if I get a degree in paleontology I’ll understand. Anyway, there was a bone that was still lying there not part of the skeleton and I thought I saw where the bone should go, in the shoulder, and I asked Mozzie if I was right and he said ‘Sure.’ So I tried to put the bone there but then my finger slipped and it turns out the glue wasn’t dry and so the whole thing fell apart. But I didn’t break any of the bones!!! They just have to put them together again.”
“No damage, we checked Peter,” Neal promised.
“And then we heard the guards coming and Mozzie said the guards get mad when scientists sneak in without signing in so we would have to run away fast. But I had figured out already that they weren’t really paleontologists and they were just breaking in, so they didn’t need to lie. I said that Mozzie could just fake a break-in somewhere else in the museum to distract them, just like they did with the ice cream thing, but Neal and Mozzie said no. So anyway, then we left and Neal called Aunt Elizabeth and asked her to please pick me up. And Neal and Mozzie said not to tell Aunt Elizabeth anything about what we did.”
“Yeah. But then Aunt El got there and kind of looked at all three of us. And it was weird, it was like she could totally tell. So she stared at Mozzie for like, forever, and then she said, ‘What happened?’ And then Mozzie said ‘He threw ice cream at a cop and we had to fake an armed robbery and he sold a fake Miró and picked and old man's pocket and we broke into the natural history museum and he broke a dinosaur!!!’ Like it was just like that, all in one big shout. It was kind of funny.”
Peter raised an eyebrow at Mozzie.
“Mrs. Suit has a certain way about her,” Mozzie reluctantly admitted.
“And then Aunt Elizabeth said that all three of us better come home and talk to you, Uncle Peter. And then you sent me upstairs and then you yelled at them and then you asked what they were hiding and then I said--”
“Okay, okay,” Peter said, “I remember the rest.” He sighed and looked at all of them for a good minute.
Finally, he said to Neal and Mozzie, “You’re sure nothing is getting tracked back to you?”
“Yes,” they said.
“And you haven’t kept anything from me?” Peter checked.
“Jack has an excellent memory,” Neal answered. When Peter waited for a straight yes or no, Neal added, “No, we haven’t kept anything. You got the whole story.”
Peter nodded. “Then why don’t you both go home. We’ll talk about it in the morning, Neal.”
Neal and Mozzie got up then and left, relieved.
“Jack,” Peter said, “I know that not everything was your fault, but you made some choices today that you shouldn’t have. We’re going to have to talk about today with your parents when they get back.”
Jack nodded, not happy but accepting. “I understand. Don’t be mad at Neal and Mozzie, okay? They were really nice to me.”
“I know. I think they’re nice, too. Well, Neal is nice. Mozzie is… original. But they didn’t make the best choices today either.”
“But they’re really sorry. And I am too.”
“I know, buddy.”
“Do you think they can baby-sit me next time, too?”
Peter paused. “I love you, Jack, and I love spending time with you. But Neal and Mozzie are… impressionable. I’m sorry, but I think you might be a bad influence.”