As with so many other things that have gone off the rails in the last year, it starts like this:
"All right," Nate says, and smacks his hands together. "Let's go steal a con artist."
The car rumbles up outside, and everybody takes their marks as Eliot brings their recruit-to-be inside: Nate at ease opposite the folding chair, Parker lurking in the dim by the wall and picking her fingernails with Eliot's knife, Sophie stage left behind the shelves because they're still not sure just how many people at the gala made her. Alec is leaning up against a shipping crate (splinter-free -- ain't no way he's wasting his hard-swiped money getting snags in the D&Gs) with his baby cracked open on top, turned away so no one else can catch the Penny Arcade archive open in the top tab.
Eliot steers his charge to the folding chair, settles him on the seat (gently, by Eliot's standards, meaning his ass actually ends up more or less in the right spot and Eliot doesn't leave any bruises in the process), and yanks the blindfold off before stepping back and circling around to stand by Nate. They all watch as the guy blinks twice at the light, shakes his head just enough to make his hair fall back into place, and then gives one casual glance around.
"Nice place," Caffrey says to Nate. Alec snorts. It's a repossessed paint factory: dingy, utilitarian, with that lingering fresh paint smell of damp ass. The reaction's strategic -- he's playing soft hook on this one, with Nate as kahuna and Parker having demanded for obscure Parkerish reasons to be the heavy -- but also genuine, because Alec's gotta respect a guy who can sound that unruffled even with his pupils still visibly adjusting from a blindfold.
Caffrey's eyes shift his way, alert but not unfriendly. His irises are crazy light, like winter ice. Reminds Alec of his Nana's white cockatoo, who (he has to admit) was one cool character.
Damn bird also bit like a mom-related expletive-deleted.
Nate stays focused on Caffrey, not so much as shifting at the bait. "My apologies for the inconvenience, Mr. Caffrey, but I wanted to speak with you about a possible ... arrangement." He straightens one french cuff idly, lets the diamond link catch the light. "This seemed like the best approach."
Caffrey kicks his right foot forward, settling more easily into the chair, and flashes his dimples. "Really? You could've just asked me out for a drink."
A split-second whistle and thunk ends with Parker's borrowed knife quivering point-first in the drum behind Caffrey, nearly centered in the label. Alec winces. Girl's got aim better than the beta of the Red Dead Redemption Dead-Eye system, but when she gets in one of these creepy violent moods, it's hard to feel complacent about what she's going to aim for.
Nate gestures an unworried reproach, and Parker drops a little farther back against the wall, scowling as she tugs the next knife out of her boot.
"Yes, I could have," Nate agrees. "But I've been in this business long enough that coded conversations in public places have become tedious. Let's make this simple. I need a job done, and I believe you have the skills to do it. I'm going to tell you what I need. You're going to ask any questions you have. We'll discuss compensation, and then you'll make your decision. Is there anything before I begin?"
Caffrey runs the back of his thumb across his jaw, and Alec shoots Eliot a quick look. Eliot twitches an eyebrow in what Alec can read no problem as agreement: dude's tells are fake, fake, fake. Not for nothing have they been hanging out with Sophie in the field. No good con in mid-con would ever doing anything so stupid as genuinely fidget.
"Just one thing," Caffrey says. "I need a name." Nate tilts his head up, unimpressed, and Caffrey grins, eyes flicking off to the side the way you do when someone's made a slightly embarrassing mistake and you don't want to stare at them while they recover. "Don't worry. I don't expect it to be yours."
Nate smiles, turns, and motions for Eliot to bring him another chair. Behind his hair, Eliot scowls, but does it (Alec takes a moment to admire the view as Eliot bends). It's not hard to see that character's a good one for Nate to use, given Caffrey's profile -- opaque, direct, unfazed but not unappreciative. It seems to be working. Still, Alec's a little sketched out. It's like hanging out with the Kingpin or Lex Luthor on a particularly benevolent day.
"You can call me Mr. Gerald," Nate tells him, and Alec fights a scowl, because really? Their aliases are transparent presidential references now? Nate runs his palms down the front of his coat as he sits and clasps his hands over one knee. "You've heard of Sigil & Co."
"Art appraisal and authentication house here in New York City," Caffrey says promptly. "Newer outfit that's been getting a lot of international buzz lately."
"Indeed. It would be ... most unfortunate if they were to lose that reputation. What I fear, Mr. Caffrey, is that they're about to make a very unprofessional mistake. Regarding the Supper at Emmaus."
"Van Meegeren's masterwork?" Caffrey's voice is very mild. In the dim light on the far side of the shelves behind him, Sophie beams. Picking that piece had been her call. "You've got my attention. Please, continue."
It takes about twenty minutes to go through all of it. Caffrey listens intently, asks several detailed questions: layout, security, escrow procedures, but also the owner's restaurant preferences, and the last six months of pieces that have passed through Sigil's hands. He doesn't seem worried by the answers, and he doesn't grandstand when Nate responds with a few questions of his own.
Finally, Caffrey leans back, rubbing the artful ghost of stubble on his jaw. "I'll admit it, I'm intrigued. But that second drop's a tricky one -- risks like that don't come cheap. So what's the incentive?"
There's a pause. After a second, Nate clears his throat, and Alec looks up from panel three of "The Federal Bureau of Taking All Your Shit" to find everyone else staring at him. "Sorry, my bad," he blurts, and Alt+F4s out of there before queuing up There and Back Again from where it's humming away in the background.
"Mobility," Nate tells Caffrey, in a tone that is clearly meant for Alec. Caffrey lifts his brows.
"He means your tracking anklet," Alec clarifies. Without moving, Caffrey wilts. Alec can feel for him -- this one time in high school, keeping his cover landed his alias with a weekend of highway clean-up duty, jumpsuit and everything. That shit is just embarrassing.
Alec hits the remote, and the LCD projector in the shelves switches on from standby, shooting a nice crisp picture of the T&BA mapping interface onto the wall Caffrey's facing. It's a burden, being the only one on the crew who really gets the importance of presentation. "Right now, we're a good three miles outside your two-mile radius. But as far as the FBI database is concerned--" Alec swirls his laser points around the little glowing dot on the map and flashes a glare at Eliot, because hi, he can feel that jockish technophobic little smirk aimed his direction without needing to see it "--you've just walked out of the Num Pang Sandwich Shop and are headed up towards 14th. Oh, no, wait, 13th -- guess you changed your mind."
He pats the retrofitted modem shell next to his baby. "This is a custom-made stochastic program right here, with data mining protocols built to integrate business listings, online reviews, trip duration research, geocoded crime reports, real time transit and traffic, the works." Caffrey cocks his head a few degrees to the left, and Alec fights the desire to preen. Finally, someone besides Nate who can follow his patter. He won't lie, doing the exposition is one of the major perks of being on a team, but it sure dampens the fun when three of them don't care about the details and the fourth is just going to say he needs you to do something even more brilliant by yesterday.
"Say you decide that leash they've got you on is a little too short," Alec says, getting into his stride. "You call a number listed as Elite Taxi -- whose license to operate shows they've been around since 2006 -- enter your customer passcode when the recording asks for it, and this program slips into a backdoor I found in the FBI tracking database. All your real data gets replaced with a series of trips to real places in your allowed radius that are open at those hours. Nowhere tied to illegal activity; nowhere you've been in the preceding two days. Anyone checks on you, they see you're just running errands, or found yourself some company and took things back to a hotel. Call again when you're back on the reservation, and the program puts fake you in a virtual taxi to your actual location, backs out of the database, and shuts down again. Set this girl up in a quiet corner somewhere, give her an ethernet line, and you've got an all-access pass to wherever you want to be, all without blowing your terms of release."
Caffrey's eyes glitter in the reflected light of the projector, tracking the marker as it moves across the map. One foot -- and Alec would bet at least 50k in WoW Gold that it's not the foot with the anklet -- swipes meditatively over a crack in the concrete floor. Nate leans more comfortably back in the chair, smelling blood in the water. "It's a unique set of skills I need," Nate tells him. "It seemed fair that the reward should be custom as well. If Sigil is discredited, this program and the drive that houses it will be yours to keep. What's your answer, Mr. Caffrey?"
Rubbing a hand over the nape of his neck, Caffrey bites down on one side of his lower lip and then lets it slide free. His gaze flickers to Alec, with no apparent intent but not quite fast enough to be innocent. Alec tips his jaw up and smirks just a little. He's not about to roll his crew for a little DL action with some pretty boy on the make -- he can get well-laid with a lot less subterfuge than that, thanks. But Caffrey is serious matinee-idol pretty, and if he thinks that he can get to the drive by going through Alec, well, Alec's got no problem if he wants to try.
"Sounds like a mutually beneficial arrangement," Caffrey says to Nate, and offers him a barbed smile. He settles farther back in his chair too, subtly mirroring Nate's posture. "But I've never heard of you, Mr. Gerald, and that means I'm going to need to verify a few things. Give me 24 hours. Provided everything you've told me adds up, I think it's likely we can do business."
Nate's raising his hands to steeple his fingers -- presumably so he can stare at Caffrey coolly over the top of them, the man has definitely watched too many Bond movies -- when there's a sudden hollow bam! from the stack of crates behind him. Everybody flinches as Parker comes vaulting over the top of the stack, does a fast roll across the floor, and comes up behind Caffrey with a knife pressed to his throat.
"Aw, Jesus H," Eliot groans under his breath. Alec would nod, but the manic glare on Parker's face is disturbing and he really doesn't want to draw her focus. Caffrey doesn't so much as swallow against the blade, just sits perfectly still and keeps looking at Nate.
"Mr. Gerald is a Very. Busy. Man," Parker hisses into Caffrey's ear. Alec can practically read the extra caps on CC text below her. "You've just insulted him by doubting his word. Now, I suggest you apologize and Quit. Jerking. Him. Around--" which is the part where Alec realizes she's doing her best Eliot impression and mentally keyboardmashes all over the place-- "or I'll start with the nonessential pieces and then work my way up from--"
Caffrey's face screws up all of a sudden, a totally unstudied and deeply incongruous expression, and he cranes his head back like there's not a knife pressed to his Adam's apple. "Parker?" he blurts.
Parker's eyes go monkey-big. The two of them stare at each other. Everyone else stares at them.
"Crap," Parker says, slapping the flat of the blade against her thigh as she straightens. Everyone else keeps doing what they're doing: namely, staring. "I didn't think he was going to make me!" she snaps, throwing her arms out and giving them all a belligerently guilty look. "I was in character! Nobody ever makes us when we're in character."
"... Except for Sterling," Alec hears himself say, and then winces and thinks, Ctrl+Z, Ctrl+Z, Ctrl+Z as Nate turns to glare at him. His brain-to-mouth command-line interface always frakking defaults to fact-generation when he's really thrown.
Parker rolls her eyes. "Except for Sterling."
"And Maggie," Eliot adds, with the superiority of a dude who likes to think his skill at kicking people in the face transcends the need for all the theatrical shit.
"And Ma--" Parker starts, then cuts herself off as Nate turns his glare back to her. She grimaces and huffs a massively ten-year-old sigh. "Fine, I got carried away, okay?"
"Seriously, you two know each other?" Alec demands, laser-pointering between her and Caffrey. He thinks he's hitting appropriate levels of incredulity here, which takes some effort. Being way screwed on the Parker front means all his reactions to her have the amplitude turned up to eleven -- either he wants to duct tape her into a crate so she'll stay out of trouble for a hot minute, or he wants to post adorable Parker videos up all over YouTube just to watch her view numbers eclipse Maru's.
Caffrey is grinning like this is the funniest thing that has happened to him all week. "We know each other's alleged work."
Parker snorts. "We've stolen each other's alleged work." She pauses. "Plus there was that one time we had sex in an air duct," she adds, circling a hand absentmindedly.
Alec can actually hear Eliot choke on his tongue. Parker gives him a withering look. "We were bored. The security guard was taking forever to leave." She shifts the look to Nate, who appears to be honest-to-god tearing at his hair in frustration, and waves the knife incoherently from him to where Sophie is behind the shelves, trying not to suffocate from silent hysterics. "What, you think you're the only one whose professional rivalry gets to turn all sexy?"
The grin falls right off Sophie's face, leaving behind that oh no they didn't face that means they're in for a diva-caliber hissy fit later. Caffrey winces, almost imperceptibly; apparently even world-class con artists have TMI thresholds. Nate, resolutely refusing to look anywhere but at Parker, demands, "And you didn't think you maybe should have mentioned this before?"
"That's why I was planning to be in character!" Parker whines.
One corner of Caffrey's mouth is twitching. "I think maybe I should give you guys a minute," he says, and starts to rise.
"Sit your ass back down," Eliot snaps. It never gets any less uncanny how he can just loom like that. He's like ten feet away from everybody, and also short.
Caffrey stops moving and takes Eliot in, then glances over at Alec. "Is he in character?"
Alec gives him a look.
"Ah," Caffrey says. He sits his ass back down. "He's the character she was in."
"Come on," Parker's saying to Nate, with that pained expression she gets every time she watches baristas giving people back correct change. "Let me menace him again! I'll do it better this time."
Nate pinches the bridge of his nose. "Parker--"
"Honestly, it's not necessary," Caffrey tells Nate, leaning casually to the right and putting a couple more inches between himself and the knife she's brandishing. "Believe it or not, the fact that you've got Parker playing well with others--"
"--For some values of the word well," Alec mutters.
"--Does a lot for your credibility with me." Caffrey smiles winningly. It's potent stuff, even knowing what the guy does for a living. "So why don't you tell me the thing about this job you're not telling me, and we'll see if we can work something--"
"FBI, everybody get your hands in the air!"
"Really?" Alec demands of no one in particular, and drops the laser pointer.
A man comes around the stack of boxes, eyes narrowed and hands very steady on his gun. He's one of those aggressively nondescript suits that might as well be sewn out of FBI wallpaper. "Everybody stay exactly where they are," he says, sounding pissed. They do. Eliot, stuck with his back towards the fed, gives Alec a really intense look from behind his hair. Alec glances at the fed, then twitches his head in a minute negative. Dude doesn't look like the kind of guy who'd hesitate. Eliot grimaces, but the arms held out to his sides relax fractionally.
"Drop the knife," the fed orders.
Parker's face screws up as she assesses the blade in her outstretched hand, which is currently positioned about two feet above Caffrey's left thigh. "Uh," she says.
The fed's scowl deepens. "Neal, reach up and take the knife from her, then get out of the chair."
Caffrey does. He's just as focused on the fed as the rest of them are, but his expression isn't so much relieved as concerned. Behind the shelves, Alec can see Sophie melting silently toward the exit, eyes wide. Good; one of them free means one of them left to con the others out of jail. Hopefully. "I'm fine, Peter," Caffrey says. "She wasn't going to use it on me."
"I might've," Parker grumbles. Alec makes a hissing stfu noise at her, then straightens his arms reflexively as the muzzle of the gun twitches in his direction. Last thing he really needs is an bonus charge of back-talking while black.
"You sure you're okay?" the fed demands.
"For kidnappers, they've been perfect gentlemen," Caffrey soothes. Nate's hairline shifts in that way that means he's just raised his eyebrows in aggravated disbelief. Caffrey comes to a stop behind the fed's shoulder, just far enough away to be clear if the fed (Peter, Alec thinks, scanning back, then, shit, Peter Burke, White Collar Crimes, Caffrey's handler) has to move suddenly. He watches them all watch the fed for a few seconds, then frowns. "Wait," he says, just as Burke is opening his mouth to say something. "They hacked my anklet. How did you find me?"
Burke does that thing cops do where they kind of glance back at someone without actually looking away from the targets in front of them. "They did hack your anklet, Neal -- which, for those of you in the peanut gallery, is felony number four by my count so far. But they didn't get the tracker in your cell phone, and that, they left in their van outside."
Nate, Parker, and Eliot all turn to glare at Alec. It's only partly to draw focus while Sophie slips through the gap between the shelves and the door. "Dude!" Alec protests, glaring back. "Tracking anklet. It's called the Federal Bureau of Investigation, not the Federal Bureau of Redundancy Department. How was I supposed to know?"
"Wait," Caffrey says again, only now he sounds pissed. He's staring at Burke, and for the first time Eliot pulled the blindfold off him, he isn't smiling even a little. "You bugged my phone?"
Burke lips tighten. "Neal, not the time."
Caffrey's eyes narrow, and he smiles again, very fake-politely. "I'm sorry, Peter, my manners must be a little thrown off by the fact that you bugged my phone."
Burke sighs and shifts his weight impatiently, like a racer when the start's been called off. "This isn't the first time your anklet's been tampered with, and you're under my supervision as a condition of your release. We can argue in the car about whether or not adding a back-up really constitutes a further invasion of your privacy."
Parker turns to look over her shoulder and mouths, I think we should give them a minute. Eliot and Alec make ferociously quelling faces at her.
"Fine," Caffrey says and backs off toward the shelves, hands tossed passive-aggressively out at his sides like he's the one surrendering. "I'll just be over here, nursing my lack of civil liberties."
"You do that," Burke agrees, eyes still flicking quickly between the rest of them. He transfers his gun to a one-handed grip and reaches into his pocket, pulling out a phone. "In fact, let's just all stay nice and still," he tells them, dialing, "and I'm going to call for--"
"FBI, everybody freeze!"
Alec hadn't noticed their hands had all started to relax during the Burke-and-Caffrey show (which, to be fair, is some must-see TV) until they all twitch back to gunpoint-attention. Not that anybody's getting any brownie points for compliance: Burke and Caffrey have jerked up to stare at each other in some rapid-fire, slightly cross-eyed silent conversation. Burke's look-around-without-looking-away thing goes into a really high gear. After a second, he asks, "El?"
"Where's Neal?" It's a woman's voice, determined and pitched to carry. She sounds like she's working her way in from the door, maybe skirting the boxes Burke had followed.
"He's here," Burke answers immediately. "I've got him, he's fine." After a somewhat awkward pause, he says, "I thought you were going to wait in the car."
"You were very persuasive, and I was going to," the woman says, not sounding very apologetic (which Alec can't blame her, because if she's Burke's partner, then that -- wait in the car, pshhh -- is some patriarchal B.S. right there), "but then I saw somebody leaving who wasn't you or Neal, and I thought maybe it might help if I returned her."
Her voice gets closer as she speaks, and then right on cue Sophie rounds the stack, moving very slowly and evenly. Alec can't get a look at the new agent -- Sophie's got her mostly blocked, so she's small, and close enough that her gun's got to be pressed right into the small of Sophie's back. Which would be damn stupid if it were Eliot, or even Alec or Parker, but it's Soph, and the last thing any of them wants is for her to need to pull something physically risky.
Burke's eyebrows climb another couple rungs up his forehead as Sophie moves into his peripheral vision. "Thank you, honey, that's very considerate." Alec goggles at Eliot, who makes all kinds of faces back. They've seen more than a few law enforcement partnerships that look to be fueled on home-brewed UST, but there's mid-series Mulder/Scully and then there's pet names. "If you'll bring her forward a few more feet, I can cover her from there."
"Sure thing, sweetie," the woman agrees, and walks Sophie steadily forward until they're two-thirds of the way to Nate. Sophie stumbles a little, like she's been nudged, and Nate extends his hand just far enough to catch her, then moves subtly between her and Burke as she steadies herself. Burke, meanwhile, is as distracted as a guy with a very professional shooting stance can be by the woman beside him, who tucks something quickly back into her purse and then sweeps her hair back over her shoulders.
"Hi, Neal, nice to see you -- that's a beautiful suit," she says. Caffrey, face torn between total confusion and mirth, gives her a little wave. El (Alec's coming up blank on the last name, which is what he gets for only doing a cursory scan of the rest of Burke's department) grins in satisfaction and waves back. Unlike Burke, nothing about her says Bureau -- she's in a dress, for one thing, and those boots may be reasonable for city walking, but still: Fendi. She's got a good girl next door turned MBA at the high school reunion vibe going; very poised yet cute. Alec's guessing it gives her mad cheat code skills at undercover.
Burke, looking like a serious guy fighting to ignore a wedgie, holds his free hand out to her. "I need to call this in. Before that happens, I need the gun."
"Gun?" El looks at his hand, then at him, with an expression that says you're so adorable when you're confused. "Peter, you know I don't carry."
Opposite her, Caffrey breaks into a delighted grin. "El," he exclaims, "did you lift Peter's back-up gun? Or, no, wait, let me guess -- the glovebox? Even with the lock? I'm impressed."
This time, El's smile comes with bonus dimples. "You two always make things so complicated." She reaches into her purse, fishes around for a minute, and then comes up with--
"Oh, no way," Parker says.
Eliot, apparently at his limit for audio-only, pivots around just in time so that all seven people in the room who aren't El can watch as she puts on a fresh coat of lipstick.
Sophie, still half-behind Nate, tilts her head and asks, "M.A.C Capricious?"
"In cremesheen," El says, and presses her lips together with a pop.
"Nice," Sophie says. Somehow Alec is one hundred percent sure she's complimenting the choice of shade.
"That is the sexiest thing I have seen all week," Eliot breathes, not at all subtle about it and clearly not talking about the makeup. Alec glares hard at the back of his head and is gratified to see Nate doing the same. It's a mystery how Eliot's survived this long; he has the world's worst timing. "Lady, you are one hell of an agent," he says with the deep sincerity that always precedes some complete anvil of a pick-up line.
El laughs, apparently charmed, and says, "Agent? Oh, no, I'm an event planner." Off of what Alec feels confident is Eliot's most freshly-concussed expression, she points to Burke. "I'm Peter's wife."
Eliot's hands droop like he's sprung a leak. Alec takes the admission as license to study the couple with interest. Burke's facial muscles go through a complicated set of shifts under the scrutiny, like he's struggling between smugness that yes, he really does come home to that, and chagrin that his better half is volunteering personal information to his latest batch of felons.
"We were on our way to lunch with Neal when he went missing," El continues, smile easy, voice less so, and her eyes snap to Nate as unerringly as if he were wearing a name tag that said RESPONSIBLE ADULT. "And you are?"
"Mr. Gerald," Caffrey offers solicitously, but is cut off as Nate squares his shoulders toward Burke and answers, "Nathan Ford."
Alec wishes desperately for a pen to chuck at him, and Sophie scratches his vindictive itch for him by kicking Nate in the ankle. Nate turns just enough to shoot her a reproachful look.
Burke straightens and, for the first time, lowers the gun a few inches. He studies Nate's face with fast precision, as though flip-scanning pages in a file. "IYS," he says, sounding surprised. "You cracked the Louvre scam in 2003."
"Really?" Caffrey comes forward a step, looking legitimately impressed. "That was you? I heard about that job -- it was top-shelf grift."
Sophie plants a hand on her waist, cocks a hip out and actually flips her damn hair. "Really, it was nothing," she demurs, in an and it was such an honor just to be nominated kind of tone.
Nate sighs, and Parker folds her arms and mumbles, "Yeah, she didn't even take a single window."
Peter's gaze transfers to Sophie. "And that makes you ... Sophie Devereaux, alias Elena di Tornai, alias Emma Grosling."
"Among others," Nate allows.
"Parker," Caffrey says, and gestures to her. She scowls back at him. He beams. "We go back. Allegedly, one of the best B&E artists in the field."
"And the other two?" El asks, arms crossed. Alec shifts uncomfortably. It's like being back in grade school and having to undergo parent X-ray vision before his friends' moms would let them come over to his house to play.
"Uh, I don't mean to be rude, but I think I'm gonna exercise my right to remain silent," he tells her apologetically.
Next to him, Eliot snorts. "That'd be a first."
"Totally," Parker agrees, and Alec is forced to attempt a split-focus version of his best et tu, Brute glare. It makes his eyes ache, like the 3D poster he had back in 1993 and thought was the shit because he was seven. (His nana made him get rid of it after he spent so long staring at it that he couldn't get his eyes to uncross for fifteen minutes.)
Burke makes an amused face. His gun is now pointed at a patch of floor roughly equidistant between the five of them. "Sure, if you'd like to play it that way," he tells Alec genially. "I'm pretty sure you're technical support and he's enforcement. Toss in your physical descriptions and your associates, and it'll take my team back at the office five minutes to pull your files off the database. That's if I make them do it without your fingerprints." He turns back to Nate. "Interesting company you're keeping given your line of work, Mr. Ford."
"Former line of work," Nate corrects, clearing his throat, and his expression shifts into something more sardonic. "It turned out that the good guys weren't as good as I'd thought." He steps towards Burke, and instantly the gun is back at ready and trained on the center of his chest. El takes half a step behind Peter -- not looking scared, Alec notices, just alert -- and Caffrey doesn't move at all. Nate takes a couple more steps, hands still open and visible, then stops in the neutral zone between his team and Burke, where the banks of fluorescents casts a clean pool of white light.
"Sigil & Co. are running a long con on the international authentication market," Nate says, and Burke's eyebrows twitch upward, like a dog catching the scent. "They've been replacing works in their escrow for forgeries and then catching them during the authentication process, to build up their reputation while driving the honest houses who authenticated the previous sales out of business. They've been very clever about it -- the game's been running for nine months, but we've only got proof of one instance of fraud, maybe two. But that's just the set-up. Once they've established themselves as the premiere house in the international market, they're going to start auctioning off forgeries of masterworks that have fallen off the radar, where there's no one with a legal claim to contradict the provenance." He smiles with the muted self-deprecation of a stage magician right before he pulls his signature trick. "And that's not even the interesting part. Mr. Caffrey, are you familiar with the name Krassimir Levchev?"
"He's a forger. An extremely gifted one. Trained at the Royal Danish Academy," Caffrey says promptly. Then he pauses in some indefinably way -- not like the dude had been moving, but it's like time slows as he stops to think about it. Cautiously, he continues, "Rumor has it that he's married to Lyuben Gocev's niece. Peter--"
"The Bulgarian mafia?" Burke says, glancing between Nate and Caffrey. Caffrey cocks his head, birdlike, and looks back at Nate, who nods.
"It's their money behind Sigil," he confirms. "And you know their other specialties."
"Heroin," Burke says. "Extortion."
"Human trafficking and international prostitution rings," El cuts in suddenly, all of the nice girl softness gone from her face and voice. Not quite turning away from Nate, she tells Caffrey, "My cousin's a senior policy director for Shared Hope International. Bulgaria's on their wish list of future deployment sites."
"We can't tie Levchev to Sigil yet, but we're close." Nate's voice has hit that calmly hypnotic rhythm, where it sounds like he's just talking but you can't do anything but think about what he's saying. Even Alec's kind of transfixed, and he's heard Nate explain the damn plan three times now. "That was why we needed Mr. Caffrey's help. To get them to tip their hand, it'll take a world-class reproduction, and someone who can pull off the face-to-face transactions too. But if you add the Bureau's resources -- Agent Burke, my team could take down Sigil and maybe Levchev. You could shut down the U.S. franchise of Vasil Iliev Security before they can get their operation up and running. Before they start smuggling drugs and people across the Atlantic."
Nate and Burke look at each other over the barrel of the gun, neither of them blinking. Alec can practically feel the air hum with the rpm coming from inside Burke's head, like he's fine-tuned himself to overclock and is cycling every component he's got at maximum speed.
El puts a hand on Burke's arm, the first movement anyone's made in a minute. "Do it," she says.
Burke jerks around to look at her, genuinely shocked. "El--"
"They're bastards, Peter," she says, low and intent. "They're selling people into slavery. They're selling children."
"She's right," Caffrey says, moving in to close the gap between himself and Burke. "And this would be huge for you, Peter. This could make your career if you pull it off."
Burke tips his head up in a brief give-me-strength sort of a gesture. Mouth tight at the corners, he looks down at Caffrey. "They're criminals, Neal. They kidnapped you."
"There's kidnapping and then there's kidnapping," Caffrey argues. Burke goggles at him. Caffrey doesn't waver, just holds a hand out and starts ticking points off on it. "They didn't hurt me. They didn't threaten me -- well, not credibly, anyway," he cuts in, with an apologetic glance at Parker. "They didn't try to coerce me. Ford told me straight out what he wanted and offered me fair compensation for services rendered."
"Honor among thieves?" Burke asks sourly. His gun hasn't shifted away from Nate, but his shoulders are turned toward Caffrey now.
"I'm a thief," Caffrey says defiantly.
Burke squints like he'd be pinching the bridge of his nose in irritation if only he had a hand free. "Yeah, but there's thieves and then there's you."
Caffrey's face goes kind of rueful and soft at that, and on Burke's other side, El's does too.
"Oh my god, I get it," Parker whispers suddenly, and Alec flinches because it's like eight feet closer than her voice was last time she spoke. Sometime while Nate had everyone mesmerized, she did one of her freaky Parker things and rematerialized in the space between Alec and Eliot. "They're together."
"Who's together?" Eliot mutters back, and of course he doesn't even look up, like he knew she was there the whole time. Goddamn it. Spending all his time with stealthy people is not good for Alec's ego.
"Them," Parker hisses, and waves one hand -- still raised, of course, like Burke's even paying attention -- at Caffrey and Burke. "He's totally sleeping with him."
Eliot makes a pshaw noise that, seriously, could not be any less discreet. "You're wrong." He tips his head towards El. "He's obviously sleeping with her."
"You mean you want to be sleeping with her," Parker snarks.
"Guys, seriously, can we quit it with the Who's On First routine before the man with the gun notices we're debating his sex life?" Alec begs desperately through mostly-closed lips. Caffrey and El are tag-teaming the persuasion, so Burke's pretty distracted, but he also seems like a sharp dude and Alec knows that in a minute, the Subtlety Twins here are going to start forgetting to whisper.
"Yeah, well, you already slept with him," Eliot retorts prissily, like Alec's on mute or something. Alec gives in to his desperate need for a literal facepalm; he really can't even care anymore if he gets shot for the trouble.
Parker rolls her eyes. "Like you wouldn't."
Eliot opens his mouth to argue, stops, frowns, and shuts it again. He turns his head back to study Caffrey, who's right up in Burke's space now, arguing in a low but rapid tone. El's still got her hand on Peter's arm, and her eyes are darting back and forth between Caffrey's face and her husband's, watching them both with sharp attention.
Alec glances back at Parker and Eliot, who are wearing calculating and fascinated looks. He has a sudden, horrible flashback from the many, many times he's looked up from a bickering match and found somebody watching him, Parker, and Eliot with that exact expression. He force-quits that train of thought as quickly as humanly possible.
"Actually, you know what I think?" Eliot says, in a considering tone.
"You think he's sleeping with both of them," Parker says immediately.
Eliot points a finger at her. "Bingo."
"Okay, you know what, that's it," Burke snaps, glaring back and forth between El and Caffrey as (thank you dear tiny infant Jesus, Alec thinks with vast sincerity) he thumbs the safety back on and reholsters his gun. "I am having Hughes put you both on hostage rescue. Next time somebody holds up a bank, you can get on the phone and argue with them until they turn themselves in just to make it stop." He jabs an accusing finger at Nathan and wiggles his eyebrows in a deadly serious way. "You. You're going to tell me everything you know about Sigil and the VIS, and every single idea you have about how to get to them, and if I even wonder whether you're lying to me, I will have the entire New York office on your asses so fast that it will be like I arrested you yesterday."
"Understood," Nate says, in an epically unflappable tone.
"Finally. That was like pulling teeth," El says, and slings her purse strap higher up on her shoulder as she steps back. "I'm going for sandwiches."
Burke, halfway to Nathan, pivots into a double take. "You're going for sandwiches," he repeats, like he's not sure either of them is speaking English.
"Well, I have to be back at work in an hour, and it's going to take you at least that long to decide if you're going to arrest them or not," she says reasonably, then turns to Caffrey. "The usual, Neal?"
Neal flashes his dimples at her. "You know me too well."
She smiles indulgently at him, then turns to Sophie. "You coming?"
"Me?" Sophie asks, looking startled to be addressed. She's been raptly watching the proceedings for the last few minutes. Alec suspects she's taking mental notes for her next audition.
"El," Burke complains.
El shakes her hair back in exasperation. "Peter, I have no idea what anyone on her team -- her crew?" she tries politely, glancing over at Sophie. Soph winces and shakes her head, and El dips her head in acknowledgment before turning back to her husband. "--Her team eats. And ten minutes ago, I took her hostage with a tube of lipstick."
"Not my finest moment," Sophie admits reluctantly.
"Fine," Burke says, holding a hand up in surrender. As he turns back to Nate, he adds, "But I want corned beef."
"Tuna melt," Parker jumps in.
"Caprese? If they've got it?" Eliot asks, in a long-suffering tone.
Nate smiles at Sophie. "Pick something you think I'd like," he says warmly.
"Oh my god," Alec moans, and doubles over with his face in both hands. "Just get me whatever. With a really big soda."
"Be back in twenty!" El calls cheerfully, and her heels and Sophie's click rapidly out the door.
"Now," Nate says, clapping his hands together, and he and Burke beeline for the crate where Nate's got the blueprints waiting, Caffrey close on their heels. Eliot and Parker look at each other, eyes brightening in that way that means they think someone's going to give them permission to hit and/or break something soon, and hustle after them. Halfway there, Parker spins on her heels and flaps her hands at Alec impatiently.
He sighs and goes to retrieve his baby. She's been waiting in standby through the whole fiasco. If he's lucky, he'll get through another six months of Penny Arcade before somebody asks him to break the internet again.