The adrenalin has long since worn off. Peter stares through the one way glass, half a cup of cold FBI coffee in his hand, wondering if he even would have gotten out of bed this morning if he'd known this was where he'd end up.
“Sometimes I hate this job,” Hughes murmurs next to him. Peter grunts agreement.
“He's just a kid,” Peter says, knowing as he says them, how empty the words are. They catch a lot of kids.
“He did the work,” Hughes replies, and there's nothing more to argue, there. Peter knows he did it. Damn it all to hell.
“He must have had help,” Peter says instead. “That girl. A family member, if he has any. There's no way he could have-”
“You think I don't know that?” Hughes looks disgusted, though whether at him, or the entire situation, Peter doesn't know. It hardly matters. “We've got nothing on her. Your team tore that place apart. The only guy we've got that we can nail for this is him,” Hughes stabs at the glass with two fingers, like a pistol, “and it’s not like it’s a collar we can argue in court. For all we know, the girl knew nothing about it, either.”
Peter takes a deep breath and nods. Hughes eyes him critically. “You need some air?” Peter shakes his head, eyes still on the kid. “You might be waiting a while for that phone call, unless someone reports him as a missing person. Everyone else left an hour ago.”
“I can wait.”
“You looked thirsty,” Peter says, and places the juice box on the table near the kid's elbow.
He ignores it, instead swiftly drawing tiny people on the pavement outside the Flat Iron building.
“My name's Peter,” he tries again.
“Peter,” the kid echoes, glancing at Peter sideways, from the corner of his eye, for only a moment. Peter catches a flash of brilliant blue.
The kid keeps drawing, smoothly switching the pen to his left hand while his right hand creeps out, spider-like, and snatches the juice. His fingertips are black, not from the ballpoint, but from print ink. Peter knows the reason the ink’s there. That reason doesn’t equal a prison cell, but it still makes him feel a little ill.
“Kate was here,” he says softly. “She says your name is Nick, that she's your babysitter. Is that true?”
The kid doesn't answer, but his face scrunches a little, like he's uncomfortable. Peter can hear the heels of his sneakers kicking against the chair legs.
“What's your name?” Peter asks, but he's more musing to himself. He's not expecting an answer, so he nearly jumps out of his skin when the kid actually starts talking.
“My name is Neal Caffrey. I have autism. I'm a student at the Puzzle Box School. 555-0199.”
It's all recited in a steady stream with barely any halts for breath. Peter cracks a smile for the first time in what feels like decades, and turns to face the one-way glass. “You get that?”
Even if no one's there in person, there's a camera feed, and Peter can play it back if needs be. When he turns back, Neal is sucking at the juice box, drawing momentarily forgotten.
“Can I see?” Peter asks tentatively. Neal nods, though he's looking off somewhere behind Peter's left shoulder when he does it. Peter spins the pad, traces the sketches with a fingertip, wonderingly. “These are really good,” he says, unable to keep the awe out of his voice.
Neal grimaces, obviously dissatisfied. “No contrast. No colour.”
Peter tilts his head, ceding the point. “True. This, though. Wiltshire doesn't work in colour a lot, anyway,” he says, tapping the work in question.
Neal's gaze turns to him sharply, and for a second their eyes lock and he can see the furnace of intelligence there, burning under the surface. There's an uncertain smile twitching the corners of Neal's mouth, but then someone knocks on the door and the moment breaks. Neal's hand snatches up the pen again, and he's back behind that wall in his own head.
Peter slips out. “Thought Hughes said everyone was gone,” he says to a tired-looking Diana.
“No rest for the wicked,” Diana quips, though there's little humour behind it. “I just got off the phone with Social Services. There aren't any foster homes that can take an emergency placement special needs kid until tomorrow. Looks like we'll have to-”
“The cells?” Peter quietly explodes. “Jesus wept.”
“It's that or the Adler wing.”
“Fuck, no,” Peter says vehemently. He's not chucking a pre-pubescent kid who's (allegedly) done nothing wrong into the notorious public health juvenile psych ward. Not while he still has an ounce of compassion left in his body. He's read the papers. He scrubs at his face with his hand, and lets out a ragged breath. “Right. Thanks. Listen, why don't you go home? You've done great.”
Diana nods. “Thanks, boss. You staying?”
Peter gives a helpless shrug. “What else can I do?”
“You want me to call Elizabeth?” she offers.
“Damn. No, no. I should do it. You get going.”
“See you tomorrow, boss.”
Peter digs out his phone from deep in his pocket. Three missed calls. Shit. He hadn't even heard it ring.
“Hey, honey,” he starts, when she picks up.
El, bless her, just listens for a moment. “Tough day?” she asks gently.
“The worst,” he agrees.
If El's angry, she sure hides it well, just good-naturedly grumbling about being an FBI widow.
“I love you, too,” he replies. “Listen, could you bring me some stuff?”
“Sure, what do you need? Dinner?”
Peter's stomach rumbles. “Times two. And a couple of sleeping bags. And pencils, markers, something like that.”
“Okay,” El says in reply, and he can hear the frown lines of confusion. “Give me thirty.”
“You're a lifesaver. I'll explain when you get here.”
“You'd better. Kisses.”
“Love you. Bye.”
The phone goes back in his pocket, and he re-enters the room. The juice box is crumpled and empty, placed neatly at right angles with the corner of the table. Neal is sketching again, this time something abstract that he's not familiar with. Or maybe it's Neal's own creation.
“You like card tricks?” Peter asks, taking out the deck he'd pinched from Jones' desk. He shuffles quickly, then fans them out. “Pick one, look at it, then put it back. Don't show me.”
Neal carefully puts the pen down, stares at the cards for a long moment, then tentatively slides one out.
“You gonna remember that?” Peter asks. Neal nods, then puts it back on top. “Now, let's see if I can find your card,” Peter says.
Neal's smile this time is fuller, maybe just a fraction mischievous. If Peter had known Neal a little better, he probably would have been suspicious about that.
“Morning, boss,” Diana chirps. Far too cheerful. “Rough night?”
“Don't they ever sleep?” Peter grumbles, somewhat incoherently. “Kids. They're inhuman.”
“It's proper espresso,” she answers, holding the paper cup a little closer. “Got it from the coffee shop on the corner that you like. Figured you'd need it.”
“I was always out like a light by nine. At three he was still going, and we'd moved from him cheating me at cards to folding everything paper that wasn't in locked drawers.”
Diana pauses for a moment. “That explains it then.”
Peter manages to drag his eyes open a crack at the tone. “Explains what?”
Diana nods at Peter's legs, and when he twists to look he hears the rustling of dozens of tiny, paper wings. He surveys the remains of what had obviously been an orderly row of paper cranes, carefully placed in a line from Peter's toes to his head.
Peter growls. “There'd better not be pictures.”
Diana's innocent face practically screams her guilt. He gives her a Look, possibly blunted by his groggy head. “Where is he? Is he asleep? I'm gonna draw a big moustache on his face.”
“Jones is keeping an eye on him. Social Services should be here within the hour.”
“Tell him to watch his wallet.”
He takes the coffee, drinks it fast. It seems a shame to chug it when he'll be on FBI swill for the rest of the day, but he needs the caffeine. There's a paper bag in her other hand. If it's got a cream cheese bagel in it, he might have to buy her theatre tickets or something, to express the gratitude he feels. It's only once he's drunk half the coffee and eaten a third of the bagel that he notices that Diana has a file tucked under her arm.
“That for me?”
Diana nods and hands it over. “Arrived by courier just now.”
The file and the pages inside are covered with confidentiality stamps, welfare and social service For Your Eyes Only warnings. Peter flicks though it one handed while slurping the dregs of his coffee and chewing bagel with hasty, mechanical bites. Neal Caffrey, foster care kid since the age of three, father in prison, mother indifferent. Recognised delayed development since the age of two, diagnosis of autism at three and a half. Bounced from home to institutional unit to home to foster care to residential school and eventually never back home. No current address for either parent. Paperwork for current placement notable by its absence, a handwritten note in its place explaining that the caseworker in charge was chasing it up.
“I got hold of the school, too. They haven't seen him for months. They'd been told he'd been shifted to a new foster home, but never got a forwarding address for his school records.”
“Who'd you talk to?”
“She ever meet the old foster parents?”
“Half a dozen times, maybe. Enough to remember that they seemed nice, but not much beyond that. She remembered Neal a lot better.”
Peter's lips twitch into a smile. “I'll bet. He's kinda memorable. What'd she have to say?”
“That he was a good student. Profoundly gifted in some areas. He had some behavioural issues when he first arrived, but after a few months, they'd worked out how to communicate with him better, and he settled down. He seemed happy there.”
Peter's coffee cup is somehow empty when he lifts it to take another sip. He sighs and puts it back down.
“So, how long ago did Neal stop going to school? What kind of timeframe are we talking about here?”
Peter flicks through the file. It doesn't tell him anything; or, rather, it speaks volumes where the paper trail ends. “This kid goes off the grid for nine months, no record of a transfer, and no flags, no alarms going off anywhere?”
“The social worker said it happens, but not usually this cleanly. Said that you can normally tell who dropped the ball.” Diana's mouth is pursed in disgust; Peter's sure he looks the same. He feels deeply bone-tired, and he can't chalk it all up to running around after a kid last night.
“We talking about a cover-up here?”
Peter shuts his eyes, pinches the bridge of his nose.
“Okay, okay, let's go back a step. Find the foster parents; see what they know. Find out what they remember about the transfer. Anything suspicious, run it to ground. Twist some arms over at Social Services if you have to.”
Diana is off and out of the office with enviable energy. Peter hauls himself up, buttons his cuffs and collar, knots his tie, slips on his holster and his jacket and summons enough enthusiasm to walk down the stairs and up to the coffee machine. That's when Jones appears at his elbow.
“The social worker is here for Caffrey,” Jones says. “She's got the emergency foster mom with her.”
Peter scanned the bullpen, spotting a rather frazzled looking woman in her early thirties with an armful of files, accompanied by an older woman with a dignified presence and a smart coat. “Right; put them in the conference room, I'll be up in a second. Where is Neal?”
“Said he needed the bathroom.”
“I'll get Neal. Once you've shown them up, help Diana.”
Denied his coffee, but seeing no other way to go but to push through, Peter cowboys up.
He finds the bathroom completely empty.
Peter's on the phone to security, gritting his teeth and wondering if someone was stupid enough to let an unaccompanied minor walk right out the front door. He knows it's going to be worse if Neal was actually with someone; if this is a snatch job, if Neal disappears through their fingers like mist. Peter's desperately hoping that the forgery racket Neal was part of isn't big enough and ruthless enough to make a kid vanish, permanently, from right under the noses of the FBI.
It's one of the most horrifying spells of time in his life, to date.
“Didn't go out the front door,” the voice on the other end of the line confirms. “Or out through the carpark, either.”
“What about the fire stairs?” Peter asks.
“We'd get an alarm if anyone opened a door without a keycard,” the voice says, sounding a bit peeved.
Peter slips his hand into his jacket pocket, and knows even before he touches bare cloth that he won't find anything. “Check anyway.”
It's out of the corner of his eye that Peter spots it, another origami crane perched on the corner of the newest probie's desk, beak outwards, like it's surveying the bullpen.
The apartment they'd raided the night before had been a dingy walkup, tiny, grimy windows looking out through a fire escape onto a narrow alleyway, just dirty brick and cement and asphalt, overfull dumpsters and the cardboard shelters of the resident homeless. The windows were nailed shut.
The answer clicks into his brain like clockwork.
“The roof,” he snaps out. “Check the camera.”
He hears a sharp breath from the other end of the line, and knows he's right. Sneaky smokers disabled the alarm to the door of the roof aeons ago; disable every new one that's hooked up.
He's up and out of the office, running up the stairs so fast that he's glad he jogs daily with Satchmo. As it is, his heart feels like it's going to burst by the time he gets to the door at the top. It’s neatly propped ajar with a bucket, full of sand and cigarette butts.
Neal's right near the edge.
Peter doesn't grab him, doesn't panic, just forces himself to calmly walk up beside Neal, stand next to him and look out over the city in the same direction. There are buildings, old and new, scraps of green, patches of water, and sky; so much sky. Enough blue and white and grey to drown in, after months of surviving on whatever sickly sunlight trickled down through the gaps.
Peter gets it.
He chances a glance at Neal's face, and the expression he sees haunts him. Somebody put this kid in a cage, used him, used his gift. Peter swallows past the hard lump in his throat.
“We have to go back down, now,” he says, and he can hear the apology in his own voice clear as a bell.
Neal slips his cold fingers into Peter's hand, and they walk back down the stairs together without a word.
Neal is sitting around the corner of the table from Peter, next to his new foster parent. June has a large house, grown-up children, time on her hands, and a bracelet on her wrist made up of large glass beads that she's given Neal permission to play with while she talks to him softly about his new home. Neal is manipulating the bar-and-loop clasp, latching and unlatching it, while June tells him about the studio upstairs with big windows and skylights. It's waiting just for Neal, because June's granddaughter, an artist, has won a scholarship to a small, exclusive art college in a different state. It’s the kind of placement Social Services would like on their promotional material; Peter hopes it's just as perfect as it sounds. Even if it isn't, so long as it has an open window, a big box of coloured pencils, and no restrictions on what he creates, it'll be an improvement on Neal's last home.
Diana comes round at one point with coffee for the adults and juice for Neal, and Jones brings in sandwiches about an hour later. By the time everything's wrapped up, Neal is visibly wilting, and Peter knows he probably doesn't look much better. Neal follows June and the social worker out to the elevators like a lamb. Peter checks his jacket pocket one last time before the doors close, just in case.
“Tell me you've got something,” he begs Diana as he passes her on the way to the coffee machine again. It’s barely nine, but he’s lost count of the refills he’s had, between the pot of espresso at home, finished while the sun crept up, and the crude oil the FBI pipes directly into the White Collar division from the Gulf.
“I've got something,” she confirms.
“Hit me.” Peter's hands shake a little as he pours out the dregs of the carafe into his mug. Whether it's from exhaustion or over-caffeination is up for debate.
“Neal's foster parents emigrated from the States to Asia three weeks after Neal got taken out of school.”
“Good reason, on the surface, to shunt Neal back to foster care. Let me guess, it's less legit the deeper you dig.”
“Uh huh.” Diana holds out a file. “Foster father, Garret Fowler, lost a lot of money when the market crashed. The few months prior to leaving the country, he liquidated pretty much all the assets they had. Rather than repaying their mortgage, Fowler began sending the money, at regular intervals, to an offshore account.”
“In his name? Or someone else’s?”
“It was opened by someone going by the name Aaron Bourgous. Bourgous is a ghost; it’s probably an alias Fowler set up to create the account. But that’s not the interesting part.” Diana pulled out a printout, rows of credits and debits. “Whenever Fowler made a deposit, someone else took it out. The account wasn’t a rainy day fund for their escape; it was a mail drop.”
Diana shook her head.
“Let me guess, the country they're in won't allow us to extradite for suspected money laundering.”
“One thing we do know is, the transfers stopped altogether when Neal went missing.”
Peters head whips up at that. “He was payment?”
“Looks that way,” Diana says.
“Jesus,”Peter says, his mind flipping through a Rolodex of potential charges, if they can make anything stick, for a couple of foster parents selling their special needs foster kid to clear their debts and flee the country. “We have to find the connection here. Organised Crime, someone specialising in domestic human trafficking. Talk to Donohough from Innocence Lost first; this is more his area than ours, he’ll know who the right people are to call in.”
Peter really doesn’t have the stomach for Sex Crimes, particularly those divisions that deal with crimes against children, but for the most part, he respects those who’ve made it their career to rescue kids from exploitation. Donohough’s one of the good guys, in it for the right reasons. “I got The Call,” Donohough once said, with a wry smile, when Peter asked him how he coped. “It’s where I’m supposed to be, and I’m good at my job.” Peter supposes it’s easier to sleep at night when it’s a vocation.
“How do a pair of foster parents even know where to start to make something like that happen? And without getting nabbed by an undercover LEO before they've even got beyond Intent?” Peter wonders aloud.
Then he focusses on Diana again and realises that she has that look on her face that he’s become familiar with, calm and confident, like she's about to lay down pocket aces. “There's someone else who might be able to help answer that. The Fowlers had another foster kid, a teenager. They bumped him back to the system right before Neal vanished. He's aged out since, but he still lives in New York.”
Peter realises he's forgotten all about his coffee, that he's just holding it like a prop, while the sour, over-brewed liquid goes cold. “Tell me you've got an address.”
Diana's smile is cheeky and full of smugness. “Even better – I got us a meeting. He'll be in Central Park at four o'clock.”
“It was the only way I could get him to agree to meet us at all,” Diana replies, looking equally strained. “I think if I hadn’t said Neal’s name in the first five seconds, he would have hung up on me. As it was, he kept asking if I was tracing the call.”
Peter’s got an obscure Milwaukee newspaper open to the Real Estate section. Diana’s holding a green umbrella, despite the clear sky and sunshine.
“If this is a wind-up, and our picture ends up on the internet with a misspelled caption, you’re buying me espresso for a week,” Peter grumbles, knowing Diana knows he’d never follow through. Not for the whole week, anyway.
There’s a sudden flicker of light that temporarily blinds him, and has him blinking to clear the spots from his vision. On cue, Diana closes the umbrella and furls it, laying it horizontally across her lap. There’s a rustle of movement from the bushes opposite, and a teenager awkwardly sidles up to them. He’s pocketing a compact mirror, and if he were any more twitchy, Peter would be checking to see if his eyes were bloodshot.
“You the Fed that called me?” he asks Diana. When she nods, he asks for ID. “You too, Suit,” he demands, and Peter complies.
“I’m Peter Burke; I’m in charge of your foster brother’s case,” Peter says as he hands it over.
“This is good work, if it’s a fake,” the teenager says, scrutinising the badge up close.
“It’s not a fake,” Peter bites out.
“You wearing a wire? The transmitters on those give you cancer.”
“We’re not, and no, they don’t. Can we cut the Usbourne Book of Spying crap now?”
Peter takes back his badge, being very careful not to snatch it.
“You could be recording every word I say.”
“Well, you’re just going to have to trust that I’m not.”
The teenager stares at him for a long moment, then just says, “Fine.”
Peter doesn’t think there’s much trust he can win from this kid, but they seem to have agreed to a temporary ceasefire.
“Dante-” Diana begins.
The kid cuts her off. “I don’t go by that name any more.”
“You can call me Mozzie,” he says, and Peter bets there’s a story behind that, but they’re not there for that.
“Mozzie, we’re here because of Neal.”
“Is he okay?” Mozzie asks, all in a rush.
“He seems to be dealing well, given what he’s been through,” Peter reassures him. “Social Services will get him checked out. We’ll know more about how he ended up where he did when we interview him in a few days’ time.”
“They didn’t send him back to the Empire group home, did they? That place is three kids to a bed and has rats in the walls.”
“No, he’s got a placement. No group home. His new foster mom appears to be the real deal.”
Mozzie snorts bitterly, shoves his big, clunky, tortoiseshell glasses back up his nose. “Most of them do.”
“I’ve got a pretty good bullshit meter,” Peter says bluntly, and if Mozzie’s shocked to hear a Fed swear, he doesn’t show it.
“There’s some people that are in it for the right reasons. They’re rare; most of them burn out, or adopt a bunch of their fosters and don’t have room for more.”
“And the rest?”
“Well, the rest are in it for the payoff,” Mozzie states.
“Or social currency. Makes you look good, taking in other people’s reject kids. Especially if they’re headcases. Then they think you’re a saint.”
“Which was it for the Fowlers?” Peter dares to ask, already knowing the answer.
“Money, of course. That’s why they turfed me out. I was aging out, so, no more government cheques.”
“That’s wrong,” Diana says feelingly.
“That’s life. I didn’t get my high school diploma, because I had to make money or I'd have wound up sleeping in a halfway house, or under a bridge. That’s reality.” Mozzie fidgets, twisting his fingers. “I’ve got a storage unit, now. It doesn’t have a view, but it’s mine, and I don’t have to share it with anybody.”
“We think that the Fowlers may have used Neal to pay someone off,” Peter says, and Mozzie flinches violently.
“He get raped?” Mozzie asks, flatly, after a moment.
“We don’t think so, at this stage.” Mozzie shuts his eyes, drops his head forward a little and breathes slowly, deeply, in and out. Peter just wishes that that wasn’t the first thing Mozzie thought to ask. “Social Services may turn up something, but we hope not. For now, it looks like they just wanted him for his gift.”
Mozzie looks Peter right in the eye for the first time, holds his gaze. “You think it’s a gift?”
It’s a stupid question, Peter thinks. “Of course, I do.”
“Not a splinter skill, or a clever trick?”
Peter starts to feel angry. “He’s eleven, and I think he’s possibly the most talented forger I’ve ever caught. And I’ve caught a lot.”
Mozzie cracks a smile, and it’s like the sun coming out. “You don’t see a performing monkey, you see Mozart.”
“I see Neal,”Peter replies.
Mozzie nods, then abruptly changes the subject. “Before I left the Fowlers' place, they were getting a lot of letters,” he begins.
“Like bills?” Diana asks.
“Demands, yeah. But they weren’t mailed properly. I saw an envelope once; there wasn’t a postmark.”
“Hand delivered,” Peter murmurs.
“Blackmail?” Diana speculates.
“That’s what I thought,” Mozzie says, “but they booted me before I got a chance to read one.”
“One more thing,” Peter asks. “And this could be really important. We don’t know yet how your foster parents made the deal. We need to know, in the weeks and months leading up to you leaving, was there anyone around who was new, who showed a particular interest in Neal?”
“Well, yeah. Lots of people,” Mozzie said, as though it should be obvious. “After the article, we must have had half a dozen reporters come round, as well as a bunch of people just wanting to snoop.”
“Article? What article?” Peter asked.
“There was a spread in one of the big papers about Neal’s school. The reporter focussed pretty heavily on Neal; the public love to read about savants. It’s only like one in ten autists that have a savant skill, and out of those, most of them are just a party trick, like birthday calculation, or prime numbers or something. So they must have thought they’d struck gold, finding ‘the next Da Vinci’ at some underfunded special needs school that’s basically just a stepping stone to assisted living and sheltered workplaces.” Mozzie’s sarcastic air quotes are obvious, even without the gesture.
“You sound like you’re quoting,” Diana surmises.
“I have perfect recall,” Mozzie replies.
“That’s useful,” Peter comments.
“It has its moments,” Mozzie replies. “You were born on a Tuesday, by the way.”
“Ten percent, eh?”
“We can’t all be Rain Man.”
“Or Da Vinci, I suppose.” Peter says.
Mozzie cocks his head, like he’s not sure what Peter’s trying to say.
“Don’t tell me you never got jealous.”
“No, I didn’t,” Mozzie says frankly. “I was in foster care my whole life. I got dumped on a doorstep, in a basket, without even a note. You spend the entire time losing people, you learn to travel light, not get attached. The moment you put down roots, someone in a suit turns up with a file under their arm and drags you off someplace new. Like they wait for the moment you get comfortable to move you along.
“So I don’t like suits, whether they’re social workers, or cops, or Feds,” he says with a shrug. “I don’t like the platitudes and false promises and outright lies that they deal in. And I don’t like other foster kids, because we’re all just as hungry as each other for something we can call our own.
“Neal was different. He was my brother for two whole years. First time I met him, he couldn’t talk much yet, except to repeat things back at me, but he cheated me at cards so well I never saw how he did it.”
“He took me for every peanut I had, last night,” Peter agreed, ruefully. “No eleven-year-old should be able to count cards like that. I had to start doing it too, just to keep myself in M&Ms.”
“This new lady; you think she’d let me visit? Just to see that he’s all right?”
“I think we can arrange that,” Peter says.
“We can give her your number, if you’d like to set it up yourselves,” Diana offers.
Mozzie looks slightly uncomfortable. “You’ll need my new one.”
“You got a new number since yesterday?” Diana asks.
“Dumped it. You’re Feds, you rang me on that phone, it’s contaminated,” he insists with distaste.
“You’re paranoid,” Peter says.
“I’m informed. I know what you can do to me under the Patriot Act. I’m simply executing my rights as a free citizen and buying a burner, for the express purpose of contact with The Man. And don’t bother tracking it; I’m keeping it in a deposit box five miles from my unit.”
The reporter had had a cameraman with her. There was a short, heavily edited video on the newspaper website, no doubt cutting around any kids they didn’t have permission to film. Jones had got hold of the editor-in-chief, and they’d been all too willing to help. By the end of the day, there was a disc on Peter’s desk with the full tape on it.
He’d waited till now to watch it, for the same reason he’d drunk his glass of wine a little too fast. He needed some space to breathe. Some space from Neal, standing on the roof, his chilly fingertips creeping into Peter’s hand. Some space from Mozzie, asking about rape, his emotions locked down and braced for the impact, the potential horror, of the truth. There was a brief confidential memo waiting for him when he got back from the park, saying that Neal had checked out healthy and uninjured, that he’d answered enough of their questions that they were pretty sure no one had hurt him. Peter wonders how they’d tell if Neal was hiding it, how they’d be able to separate the body language of trauma from the body language of autism. Nine months is plenty long enough for bruises to fade.
Right now, Neal is on the screen. He’s a little smaller; since the video was filmed he’s shot up maybe four or five inches. The painting that’s emerging is a Monet, except it’s not. It’s from a slightly different angle to any Monet Peter’s familiar with. Neal’s in his undershirt, his button-down folded neatly over a chair behind him. He’s biting his lip now and again in complete concentration, and he’s not responding to the occasional questions from behind the camera with so much as a pause. The reporter eventually starts narrating a bit, like Neal’s some animal in a nature documentary, and Peter grits his teeth on his anger.
“He’s amazing,” El murmurs. “He’s not just a mimic, he’s looked at the source material and come up with something unique.” She gestures to the references Neal has pinned down the side of the easel. They look like cheap postcards of Monet’s work, probably from a gallery gift shop, or somebody’s trip to France. There are other canvasses visible in the background, some with recognisable styles, others in that abstract or semi-abstract vein that Peter recognises from Neal’s butcher paper sketches, the night they brought him in.
“He’s special,” Peter agrees. Through the tinny speakers, there’s a short rising sequence of tones, obviously played over a PA system. An aide comes into the frame, gets Neal to focus on her, and tells him with a combination of her voice and sign language that it’s time for lunch. Neal starts to clean his brushes with quick, methodical movements.
“Just about any gallery would hang his work. And not just because of the Outsider Artist thing,” El clarifies, before Peter even verbalises the cynical comment that forms in his head. “He’s a bona fide prodigy. If he keeps up that level of quality, he could easily make enough to fund himself through college.”
“He’s valuable,”Peter says, mostly to himself.
“Well, yeah,” El says. “He could be a really important artist if he gets the right agent, gets his work shown in the right places. To be honest, I’m a bit surprised no one’s discovered him yet.”
“Someone did,” Peter says, and it’s like there’s a big lightbulb going on over his head, like in a cartoon. The video file has stopped playing, but he’s not watching any more anyway. He shuffles through the papers, lays out the important pieces in a row, in chronological order, and he can feel the deep creases in his brow unfolding, the tension at his temples unwinding just a little bit.
“I’ve been looking at this case the wrong way round.”
He doesn’t have the who or the how, but he has the why, and the clarity is nearly dizzying.
El’s reading the pages more slowly than him, because she hasn’t got them near-memorised like he does, and he sees in her posture the moment she gets it, too.
“You think...?” she asks.
“Yeah, I think,” he confirms.
“Tomorrow,” she says, cutting him off at the pass from heading back to the office. It’d be stupid to; she’s right. “Come to bed, it’s late. It’ll still be there in the morning.”
“You’re right,” he says, rubbing his face with his hands, letting the weariness fill him up now that he’s solved at least part of the puzzle. “I gotta make a phone call first.”
El stands and hugs him from behind, leaving a quick kiss on the edge of his cheek. She smells like wine and takeout Thai food. He’s promised he’ll make her a pot roast if he’s home at a sane hour on Friday evening. He’ll try hard to remember. “Don’t take too long,” she says, but it’s gentle, more like a reminder than an order.
He’s finished with the call in twenty minutes. He puts the leftover wine away, does his nightly patrol of the house, checking the doors and windows, turning off the lights. He leaves the files and laptop where they are. Elizabeth’s right. They’ll be there in the morning.
But for now, Peter’s got an American-as-apple-pie boy who looks like a klutzy, raw-boned Captain America juggling stationery supplies through the bullpen and up the stairs to the conference room, and for contrast, he’s got Jones in his office, listening to his potted briefing, all attention and sharp connections, not needing any dumbing down or over-explanation.
Peter really likes the smart ones.
“You check in with June this morning?” Peter asks.
“An hour ago. They’re fine, but she’s sorted it with her security guy to roster double shifts for the next while, until we say it’s okay to drop back down.”
“That’s good. She seem upset?”
“Nah, she said she’s used to it by now, and that the cook always makes enough food for a couple of extra people anyway.”
June’s daughter had had trouble with a stalker not long after she’d finished college. She moved back home, and June’s husband, Byron, had employed a bodyguard on retainer. The money was good, enough for the guy to save enough capital to start his own security business. He was family, and he was loyal. Between him and the cops on surveillance detail parked outside, Neal was about as safe as they could make him outside of WitSec.
Now it was Peter’s job to make sure he stayed that way.
Hughes’ eyebrows are raised, like he thinks that’s a bit extraordinary, and he says as much.
Peter nods. “We got some new information yesterday that made me think about the whole case from a different angle,” he says, tapping the printout of the article, and the screenshot next to it, a still from the video of Neal painting. “Six months before he goes missing, there’s a feature on the Puzzle Box school, with Neal, front and centre, as the star pupil. Before the story’s run its course, the school and the family have done eight interviews for print media, morning television and radio. The school got at least one major donation on the back of the publicity, along with about fifteen grand worth of small donations.”
“You think the school’s involved?” Hughes asks.
“No, as far as we can tell, they all check out,” Diana answers. “No unexplained staff resignations, no suspicious changes in habits or finances.”
Hughes nods, and gestures for Peter to continue.
“Within a month of the article, Fowler’s finances went from a bit tight to very difficult. Two months after that, he starts liquidating every asset he can lay his hands on, and sending the money offshore. According to Neal’s foster brother, it’s within that window of time that they started receiving a lot of mail that at a glance looked legit, except it hadn’t been postmarked.”
Peter pauses, taking a breath, before laying it all out. “It wasn’t until last night that I realised that this case made so much more sense, that everything fit, when it all hinged around Neal. Neal being the reason for it all. That the Fowlers selling him off wasn’t a last ditch, desperate payment to stave off creditors, but was the original goal.”
Peter points back at the article, at Neal’s intent face. “Neal’s story hits the media. Someone’s paying attention, someone with enough power and money to buy Fowler’s debts and manipulate the system enough that a foster kid slips through the cracks, and no one who knew him before even knows he’s missing. The school thinks he’s been moved to another home, and the foster brother who actually cared about him has aged out and had to pack his bags and start supporting himself. Sounds like the Fowlers discouraged his attempts at contact, so he gave up when their phone number was disconnected. He thought they’d changed it to avoid him; he didn’t know they’d sold Neal and skipped the country by that point.”
Hughes’s face is a mask. Peter doesn’t know if he’s going to get shouted down or patted on the back when he finishes, so he just keeps going.
“This person, whoever they are, sees Neal on the TV or in the paper. Thinks that he can be their Golden Goose and their Patsy, all rolled into one. The foster father’s got debt, so it’s easy to put the squeeze on him. Convince him that his house is going to get repossessed, that they’ll take him for everything he’s got. Maybe send a couple of heavies to the door once or twice while he’s at work, and his wife is home alone. Keep asking for money. At first it’s a bit of cash, but then it turns nasty, and they’re after him for everything he’s got, a chunk at a time. And then, when they’ve got Fowler on the ropes, when he’s just about tapped dry, they ask for Neal. Maybe they feed him a lie about a black market adoption, maybe not. Maybe Fowler’s not attached enough to mind handing Neal over to a stranger, to a fate unknown.”
Peter swallows hard, swallows down the bile.
“And when this person has Neal, they hand over a packet of money to the Fowlers, like it’s pocket change, maybe with some connections for people who can sort out their visas, arrange a rental home in the new country, maybe even a name of a potential employer who’ll take Fowler on once their plane lands. All the Fowlers have to do is get out of the US, and keep their mouths shut, because he owns them, now.”
“And Neal?” Hughes prompts.
“Well, this person’s got Neal a nice little cage, had that sorted out since the beginning. It’s a small apartment in the middle of the city, rented out to someone who doesn’t really exist, where the doors and windows don’t open, and so long as he’s good and paints what he’s told with the supplies they give him, he’s worth the upkeep, and the rent, and the money for the babysitter who’s paid a few bucks an hour to make sure he’s fed and watered. And if we do find that cage, all we get is a clueless babysitter and an autistic kid who barely talks, with nothing but his own fingerprints all over the masterpieces they’ve forced him to make.”
It’s terrible; terrible, and beautiful, in a way that Peter almost hates that he recognises. It’s intricate, but not too intricate to execute, and layered enough that they may never have all the pieces of the puzzle. The people holding the answers are beyond their reach, and the people they have access to, don’t have answers. They haven’t talked to Neal properly, yet, but if the con went down the way Peter thinks it did, he likely never even met the person pulling the strings.
Peter’s reached the end, and there’s silence for a long moment, before Hughes leans forward, steepling his fingers. “You think we can get him? The man behind the curtain?”
There’s a wash of relief that Peter feels from his head to his toes, and the response comes easily. “The Fowlers, they’re the weak spot. The babysitter might have more to give us, but I doubt it. If we get Garret Fowler on something more substantial than money laundering; if we can prove child trafficking, we stand a better chance of getting him back on US soil. Innocence Lost is willing to work together with us on this one.”
“Do it,” Hughes says, and he’s up, and out of his chair. He slaps Peter on the back as he walks past, murmuring, “good work,” before he leaves the room, the others trailing behind him.
Peter leans over the conference table, knuckles on the desk, head hanging while he breathes, trying not to stagger. It’s going to take time; time, and long hours and wrestling with a foreign country and all the red tape that entails, but they know what they’re looking for now, and where to look, and roughly what the shape of the parts they’re missing look like. It could take months, years even, before they get to put the cuffs around Garret Fowler’s wrists, but Peter wants that moment more than anything, and he’ll walk through fire to do it.
He feels like he could sleep for a week, but he’s not finished for the day, not yet.
Peter’s listening, but his gaze is utterly fixed on Neal. He can’t help it, it’s like watching a bird in flight. Neal is shirtless, clad only in loose sweatpants, and barefoot, despite the chill of the day outside. The windows are all triple glazed, June explains, or the studio would be uninhabitable during the colder months, even with the central heating. Neal had wanted to paint outside on the terrace, dressed like that, but June drove a hard bargain, and he’s settled for keeping his easel as close to the windows as he can while still having room to move freely.
Neal’s painting something that Peter’s pretty sure is his own. It’s the Chrysler building, but depicted in a splash of blues and golds and greys. It’s not Wiltshire, and it’s not Jessy Park. It’s not any of the mainstream artists or masters that Neal has mimicked or appropriated or forged. It’s just Neal, Neal full to the brim.
There’s a bed in the corner that June said had been an emergency spare, in case of unexpected guests. It’s rumpled and disordered, a divot the size of Neal’s head in the pillow. She’d planned to bunk Neal down in one of her children’s old rooms, closer to her, deeper into the warm heart of the big old house. But Neal had inhabited the space so completely within only a couple of days, and she didn’t see the point in making him move when he was so happy.
“This one’s special,” she murmurs, just for Peter.
“Yeah,” Peter agrees.
“Thought I’d just take him for a while, then give him back when they found him someplace better. You know, some young couple with a backyard, and a dog. I’ve done it before; lots of times,” she sighs. “I’m not getting any younger, and kids aren’t getting any slower. But this one’s different.”
“I had a moment yesterday, where I’d spent the morning getting him re-enrolled in school, taken him clothes shopping, and art supply shopping, and food shopping, because, heaven knows, I don’t have the kind of food in the house any more that kids that age like to eat. And I caught myself thinking, oh, it’s his birthday in four months, the same week as Cindy’s, she’ll be home for the holidays, must plan a party. And I was already halfway through the guest list before I realised what I was doing. I was planning for the future, a future with this child in my family.”
Peter thinks back on the last few days, on the crazy hours, the desperate need to catch those responsible, to make things right, somehow. “He gets under your skin,” he says.
“He does that. And into your purse,” June adds.
“Cards?” Peter asks knowingly.
“Caught him dealing from the bottom of the deck,” June says with a proud smile.
“You’ve got better eyes than me,” Peter concedes, grinning.
“You have to get out of bed pretty early to sharp me. I learned from the best.”
“Maybe that’ll teach him.”
“I gave him some pointers,” June admits, unashamedly.
Peter quietly decides that if June and Neal aim for world domination in the future, they’re all screwed. Aloud, he says, “The person who took Neal, if they did it the way we think they did, and why we think they did, they probably won’t come after him. I’m not saying to relax, or to ditch the bodyguards, but unless Neal has something groundbreaking to tell us tomorrow that changes the whole case, you can probably let yourself think about that future.”
The smile on Peter’s face is utterly free and unforced. “He’s fine. He’s great. I think he’s gonna be fantastic.” And he means that, in every permutation. “He’ll be in tomorrow at eleven. What have you got for me?” he asks, gesturing at the file under her arm.
“Looks like mortgage fraud. Pretty clear cut; they made some stupid mistakes. I’ve highlighted some of the relevant bits, and I’ve already applied for a warrant on their home and offices.”
She puts a mug of FBI coffee on the corner of his desk. It’s not espresso, but it’s caffeinated, and there’s just the right amount of everything to make it drinkable.
“This looks great, good work,” he says, after flicking through the file, making sure everything’s in order.
Jones taps on the door frame, a sheet of paper in his hand. “Warrant just came through for the mortgage fraud case,” he says, handing it over.
“Brilliant. Jones, take Blake. Diana, you’re with me.” Peter downs the coffee and shrugs his jacket back on. “Let’s go catch some bad guys.”