Neal was off his tracker and at the mercy of a group of thieves that he'd infiltrated. The original plan was supposed to be the next day and the target had been a fairly secure museum with some Egyptian pieces. Instead, the guys had pulled up in a white van and snagged him from the street in front of June's. They'd stripped him of his cell and the watch that was serving as his tracker.
So far, he hadn't gotten much out of the guys. They just told him that there had been a change in plans from their backer. Apparently, the item he was really after had just changed hands and was now at a house on the outskirts of the city. Neal could only hope that Peter's record for tracking and catching him held true because otherwise he was screwed.
As the van slowed, Neal managed to catch sight of the house they were about to raid. It was a large place that was probably just shy of a mansion classification. There were no surrounding neighbors in view. Then Neal's heart sped when he saw a sign in front proclaiming, 'IWC - New England Branch.'
While Neal didn't actively seek out the world that existed parallel to their own, he had kept abreast of developments through Mozzie. He knew that not long after he had sent the letter to Buffy Summers, that the International Watcher's Council was born from the remnants of those left behind after Sunnydale. Neal had a sudden sinking feeling that the night was going to go horribly wrong and that whatever the backer wanted was probably the most dangerous item Neal had ever been tasked with stealing.
When the van came to a stop, there was a man standing outside the side door. He was well dressed and had a Middle Eastern look to him. The accent that rolled off his tongue as he spoke confirmed it.
"Gentlemen, this is what you are after," he said, holding a picture out for them to view. "None of you are to directly touch the item and here are the plans to the house. The item should be located in a vault in this area. Mr. Halden should be able to crack the safe. The rest of you will provide him support. Understood?"
Everyone nodded and Neal had the feeling that once he had done the dirty work, he would be considered expendable to this guy. He just hoped Peter got to him before then. Of course, given what he knew about the IWC, he might have more things to worry about other than the backer.
They were inside the house for five minutes before everything went to hell. Neal heard thumps of bodies falling behind him and knew that he would be next. As far as the inhabitants of house knew, he was just one of the bad guys. Out of self-preservation, Neal ducked into an open room and closed the door behind him. With luck, there would be a window he could get out of and then find Peter.
When he turned to survey the room, he was face to face with a short blonde woman. Neal froze as she sized him up.
"You broke into the wrong house," she said lightly and then her fist connected with his nose and Neal dropped to the floor, unsure if he would live.
Everything was hazy for a while. He remembered being tied with rope alongside the others in the group. He even recalled the satisfaction at seeing the unconscious form of the backer right next to the rest. Neal tried his hardest to focus in on what the blonde was saying a short distance away, but his head was still swimming from the punch.
Then she was in front of him and he involuntarily flinched, causing her to smile at him. He struggled with his footing as she pulled him to his feet and led him to a different room. He figured it was his turn for the interrogation, because he vaguely recalled the others getting a similar treatment. He was just glad he didn't have to stay on his feet when she pushed him into a chair.
"Who are you really?"
Right to point, Neal liked that about people. "Nick Halden," he said, wincing at the nasally sound of his voice.
"That's what they all said. But your fingerprints tell a different story."
Neal's hope that Peter would find him flared. If they had somehow run his fingerprints, Peter should have gotten a ding.
"Although, according the sources we used, you're supposed to be with the FBI on a two mile radius. Breaking into our place with a bunch of thugs and former employee of the previous ownership doesn't look good on your work release Mr. Caffrey."
Neal smiled. She was good and he was ridiculously happy that he'd done right years ago in sending them the money. He could only hope that if Joyce had still been around, she would have forgiven him.
"It looks good when I was supposed to be the FBI's inside guy on a theft that was supposed to be at a museum in the city. Instead, we're here and you punched me in the face."
"They were going to take the artifact at the museum before we collected it," she said as she processed his words. "Good thing we got it here first. Will the FBI be here soon?"
"Don't know," Neal admitted. "They tossed the watch that was serving as my GPS. Depending on how you tracked my fingerprints, they would have gotten a flag from that."
"Nope," she said with that wide smile again. "Let's just say that our systems can't be traced."
"I know who you are." Neal wasn't sure if it was the best route to take, but he figured it would be better than anything else he had.
"I know," was not the response he was expecting. "Your fingerprints were a match for a letter I received a few years ago. Given your profession, that was a little sloppy, but then we do have some better methods than most crime labs."
Neal's heart rate picked up. That meant she knew he had broken the trust that her mother had had in him all those years ago. He was at a loss for words.
"Don't worry," she said. "That punch to the nose earlier will satisfy my need for revenge. The money you put together and the info your friend gave us got us going when we were in a tight spot. Plus," and she paused to take a deep breath, "I wanted to thank you for being there for my mom that summer. Things were tough back then and she needed what she got from you. She'd actually taken me to the gallery to introduce us when she found out you had left."
"Things were tough for me back then too," Neal admitted. "Still are, but I'm trying to pay my dues."
"About that… We actually wanted to make you an offer. We have the sources to get you out of your sentence and in exchange, we could use someone with your skills in procuring certain things around the world that don't need to be in the hands of other people."
Neal froze. She was handing him a legitimate out that would allow him not only a chance to travel the world, but help people while he did the things that challenged his mind. But even as the thought of raiding museums and other places for treasure crossed his mind, he banished it. He didn't want to abandon Peter and the work he was doing at the FBI.
"A year ago, I would have said yes and not looked back," Neal said quietly. "But I've got a-" he stopped, unsure what he actually had.
"A team?" she supplied and it fit.
"Yeah. Plus, Peter wouldn't let me go that easily. He'd know something was up and then he'd look into it. I'd rather he didn't know about the kind of shit you guys deal with. Not to mention, if I worked for you, I'd likely get caught up in it too. I may hate bad guys with guns, but I'll take them any day over what you guys face."
"Figured that'd be the deal," she admitted. Then she pulled him up and undid the ropes holding him together. "Once you get the circulation back, give your FBI agent a call. By the time they get here, we'll have some big burly guys here to show how we apprehended all of you. Once the others are in the system, we'll call in a few favors that will make sure they won't be seeing the light of day anytime soon."
"And I guess I'll let Peter know that your international organization just acquired the target piece which was why we had the change of venue."
"Pretty much. And Neal, that deal is on the table if you ever need it," she said as she handed him her card. "Just give us a call and we'll be your 'get out of jail free' card."
Neal thanked her and then grabbed a phone to call Peter. He'd make sure to pick the largest hulk of a guy to point out to Peter when he was asked who had punched him. No way in hell was he admitting that a five-foot nothing blonde had decked him. Never.