Actions

Work Header

Work Text:

"He's a collector," Neal said.
 
"Stamps or coins?" Cruz asked, leaning against Peter's desk, running a critical eye up and down the suit he was wearing, and managing, as ever, to leave Neal wondering if she were leering, disgusted, or flirting. Neal wondered if she'd considered the theatre before finally landing in law enforcement.
 
"Not that type of collector," Neal pretended not to notice her behavior. "Certain of the wealthier individuals of this fair city like to collect what could be considered... unique items."
 
"Ah. Playboy magazines, the early editions." Cruz nodded.
 
"No, not that kind of collector either," Neal said, irritated despite himself. "Collectors are a special class of people. They like the finer things. And they like—"
 
"I know what a collector is," Peter snapped, entering his office in a rush, startling Cruz off the edge of the desk as he slammed a pile of files down. "They're the kind of people who keep your kind of people in business."
 
"Well, it's true that some people might find collectors to be a... useful revenue stream. But if I were such a person, as you're intimating, I think I'd be insulted to be lumped into such a generic class so rudely. Isn't each and every person on this earth a unique individual in their own way?" Neal smiled at him. Peter was a pushover for his smile. Except when it annoyed the crap out of him and he'd end up on the receiving end of another fifteen-minute diatribe about how they should probably shrink the perimeter of his tracking anklet to the path between his apartment and the office. Either way, it was worth it.
 
"Oh, shut up," said Peter, which was not the right response at all. Neal frowned. Cruz opened her mouth but shut it again, as though uncertain about her potential reception.
 
"What's got your knickers in a twist?" Neal asked, while Cruz darted deadly looks his way.
 
"In case you hadn't noticed," Peter said, looking annoyed that he'd already slammed his files down and was empty-handed at the moment, "we're on the brink of the so-called most wonderful time of the year. There's some red-faced fat man on every single corner for a mile in any direction telling me so, and demanding my money. And it's snowing. A lot. And I haven't got any damn shopping done, El has around eight hundred and twenty-two Christmas cards she wants me to personalize, and we're stuck trying to figure out how to prove some sleazy, narcissistic, trust-fund Corinthian has stolen goods, before he disposes of the evidence, which means we get to work until the shops close."
 
"You haven't bought El a Christmas gift yet," Neal translated.
 
"All the crap in the stores is mass-produced wanna-be celebrity knockoff trash," Peter snarled. "I'm not going to buy her some alligator handbag. It's not like I didn't try."
 
"God," Neal stared at him. "You haven't bought mine yet either, have you."
 
Peter straightened up and grabbed the stack of files back up. Cruz fled so fast she clotheslined Jones coming through the door, carrying one of the ugliest suits Neal had ever seen.
 


"I should be wearing a Devore," Neal complained, hooking his fingers between his tie and his neck. "I have a Devore. In fact, I have an entire closet full of clothing that puts this to shame, and I'm including the prison uniform in which I escaped in that category. This is crass."
 
"This says you have more money than you know what to do with. And that last part is what matters," Peter said reprovingly, straightening one sleeve and looking far too pleased with himself. "We don't want you to look like the kind of person who even knows the name Devore."
 
"Well you sure as hell succeeded there. What is this material? It's slick!" Neal fingered his cuff in dismay.
 
"And loud," Peter agreed. His mood seemd to lighten just that little bit more with each complaint Neal voiced.
 
"This is a bad idea. We don't know who else is going to be there, and if it's all art and antiquities connoisseurs, then there's a good chance someone might recognize me." Neal mentally started going over the timing of the operation, trying to plot a route from the office, to his apartment, to the brownstone where their target lived, so that he could switch suits before the gig got underway.
 
"Yeah, that's true. Very true," Peter agreed.
 
Neal waited.
 
"What? It's two days before Christmas here. It's a risk I'm willing to take." Peter held out some appallingly ugly cufflinks.
 
"So good to know you're not overly concerned about risking my safety. Or my sanity, either, for that matter." Neal squished his face up and took the cufflinks from him gingerly. "Where are you even finding this stuff? Did you raid a used car salesman's office?"
 
"Nah. Guy owned a mattress warehouse. Was embezzling money to support four different mistresses. Four! He wasn't handsome, wasn't that rich... and that was the kind of thing he wore around. I just don't understand it, I'll admit it, four mistresses and a wife? What could they possibly have seen in him? Course, that ended exactly how you'd think it would, which is why he turned himself in in exchange for protective custody from the lot of 'em. Put 'em on." Peter looked ready to do the job for him.
 
"I don't see what the point is," Neal sulked. "There's a certain kind of persona that goes with this type of attire. And I may or may not have several different identities that I have passed myself off under, but none of them were low-brow."
 
"Then consider this a valuable new addition to your repertoire. Throw out enough glib wannabe language to make yourself look like a hopeful nouveau riche, see if you can identify any of the items we're looking for and give us a signal if they're on the premises. All we need to know is that something that is definitely hot is there, and we'll be knocking on the door with some specially embossed downtown warrant paper, and you can carry on home to your Park Avenue view, with your gourmet coffee, and your imported Italian slippers that are probably made out of some kind of rare and extinct goat hair."
 
"This is bullshit." Neal sulked more, and Peter held the door open for him. "And they're sheepskin. And from Ireland. Goat hair. God, what do you even take me for?"
 


Neal arrived at the brownstone clad in the same abysmal attire he'd left the office in, cold, and covered with snow. It was still coming down hard as he waited shivering at the front door. Cruz and Jones had waved him a cheerful goodbye from the back of the van, clutching mugs of steaming spiced latte as Peter had shooed him out of the vehicle despite his protests. He could feel the slush seeping in through the soles of his shoes. It was clear to Neal that none of them understood that one had to mentally prepare for this type of work, and that kind of preparation could not properly be undertaken with soggy socks.
 
The door was opened by a very proper, and very tall butler-type personal servant, who would have looked about eighty years out of place if it weren't for the not-quite-discreet shape of an automatic weapon at the small of his jacket. Neal was ushered to a foyer where he shed his coat, half a pound of snow, and the fifty-thousand-dollar entry fee they'd swiped out of an evidence room before departing the office. From there they'd proceeded to a drawing room where he was briefly frisked by security guards, but once that indignity was over, he was able to snag a warming brandy snifter, and finally enter a larger entertainment room, half full of well dressed individuals all trying their damnedest to look casual, and a crackling gas fire, complete with fake log. By the time an attractive brunette started sidling in his direction, he was feeling halfway civilized again.
 
"We're just waiting for a few more guests, and then your host will arrive and a full tour of the exhibits will commence," the room was informed by the Jeeves wannabe, and Neal took the moment to lift the glass to his lips and conduct a quick survey.
 
An older couple in one corner, white-haired, well tailored, and shrewd and sharp looking. Less collectors than dealers looking for a bargain they could flip quickly. A doughier gentleman with greased black hair and a much younger escort against the far wall, carrying a large pile of appetizers on a very small plate. The real deal there, someone with money and the will to spend it. A clean-shaven man standing alone, wearing a surprisingly focused expression. Neal frowned and tried to place his status in the scheme of those likely to attend such an event, and came up empty. His clothes were nice, but neither loud enough or subtle enough to represent money, and if he'd had any real interest in buying, he'd be taking more of an interest in the small but pricey artifacts their host had littered the room with to whet his guests appetites. Not a cop either though, or he'd be doing a better job of acting,Neal thought.
 
There was a small assorted group of regulars — middle of the road rich, looking for something they could use to impress their peers, and hopefully jump start whatever social climbing they were engaging in at the moment, a few trophy girlfriends, one trophy boyfriend, and a bespectacled but surprisingly well built man, who looked out of place with his ponytail and expression of pure boredom. Waitresses in too-short dresses drifted through the crowd, offering champagne and appetizers.
 
As Neal was deliberating between responding to the brunette's advances, and finding himself another drink, the butler returned, three sharply dressed men in tow, with matching impatient expressions. Serious buyers, Neal thought, with an unexpected thrill of electricity. This kind of thing was so much fun.
 
The butler cleared his throat, and their host swept in on cue with a marvelous grand entrance. Alexander Carrington was tall, dashing, and dressed to the nines in full black tie. Neal wondered how many romance books he'd scoured to find that aristocratic but generic sounding name, not so unique that he could be accused of trying to impersonate a particular family, but just elegant enough to imply he was associated with old money.
 
"I'd like to thank you all for joining me this evening, and on such short notice," their host began, once he was sure every eye was upon him. "I apologize for the necessity of the... gratuity at the door, and assure you that everything you entered with this evening will be returned to you upon your departure. It was simply a necessary precaution to ensure the correct, shall we say, class of guest this evening." Carrington laughed at his own joke, and was joined by a few real titters of laughter, a few awkward rounds of laughs, and a few stony stares. Neal chose to smile vaguely, and then darted a knowing look at the brunette, with just the right sidelong look to imply they were sharing their own joke. She blushed.
 
"At any rate, we'll be opening three additional rooms for you to browse through at your leisure. Items up for sale have a white tag placed in their vicinity, but not upon them, due to their often delicate and rare nature. Please feel free to take your time, and enjoy the repast. I would most certainly love to have a chance to converse with each and every one of you as time permits, as it appears we all have similar interests, and could find ourselves very useful acquaintances." He smiled, very charmingly.
 
Neal smiled as well, discreetly clicked the 'audio on' button on his watch, and let himself be herded with the rest of the murmuring masses to see what unique, rare, and hopefully very hot and provably stolen artwork awaited them.
 


His brunette had sadly vanished within a few minutes into the clutches of a pale and sweaty man who might as well have been fanning himself with gold dipped hundred dollar bills. Neal watched her depart as he drifted about the first of the rooms, mentally checking statues, fine silver, artwork, and the occasional piece of glasswork against the list Peter had had him read over on the way here. Nice enough stuff, but sort of penne ante he thought. Where is he stashing the stuff he really cares about? To amuse himself, he watched the buyers float about the room, eyeing merchandise, eyeing one another, and in a few cases pairing up for small talk.
 
"All these rich people, with nothing better to do with their money," came a bitter voice from behind him.
 
Neal swiveled, surprised, to find the intent man he'd seen earlier a few feet behind him. Up close, he looked younger than he had originally thought, and his suit looked slightly less presentable. Well made, but well worn. The man gave a small twitch of nervousness, and Neal shook his own head, ever so slightly. The suit could have passed but for the attitude. For an event like this one, you honestly had to believe you belonged, or be a really good liar.
 
"Interesting viewpoint, given your presence here," he noted.
 
"Ah," the man said with a slightly sad smile. "I am here to attempt to find a particular piece for... historical reasons. Not as some trophy to prove my worth to pretty girls or high society."
 
"Are you a historian?" Neal tried not to scrutinize too closely, but doubted he'd be noticed. On top of looking out of place, the man seemed bone tired, as though he'd had far too much on his shoulders for far too long. It made him want to suggest sitting down, but that would have drawn attention to them in a room full of people wandering in such a pointed manner.
 
Now his companion looked uncomfortable, and as if he wished he'd never struck up a conversation to begin with. "No, no... well, yes. Not exactly. I have an interest in antiquities. For... research reasons."
 
"Hell of a lot of money to spend to work on your thesis," Neal said. He extended his hand. "I'm Louis Barclay."
 
"Hisham... uh... Hisham al-, uh"
 
"Al-Hasan?" Neal offered kindly. Wow, is this poor kid out of place here. Doesn't even know how to think up a fake name in advance.
 
His new friend blushed furiously and straightened, and for a moment, Neal thought he would walk away. Then he relaxed, ever so slightly. "As a matter of fact, yes," he said, gratefully.
 
"What is it you're looking for, exactly?" Neal asked. In his head, he could hear Peter screaming, "Just look for the goods! The stuff on the list we went over! Is that too much to ask!" He grinned. "There are a few things on my own shopping list, perhaps we could peruse the area together, the better to beat out any potential competition."
 
There was a pause then, which grew longer and longer, until it passed awkward, and was beginning to move into worrying, as Hisham shuffled his feet nervously. Neal cleared his throat.
 
"Artifacts," Hisham said, in a rush. "Egyptian artifacts. I was led to believe they might be part of the sale tonight, and I... my family is very interested in such things."
 
"For historical reasons?"
 
"Yes." Hisham flushed again, but nodded determinedly. "Historical reasons."
 


"Must he hit on every single person in the room?" Peter hissed, hunched over in his seat in the van. The computer monitors were basically useless, as the only view they gave was of the imposing double wooden door that fronted the brownstone, not so much a sliver of frosted glass to let out any light on this side of the building. The one way nature of the watch annoyed the crap out of him. The cases where they could get away with an earpiece, and he could remind Neal of the job at hand, were so much better.
 
"He's talking to the guy right now. Okay, yeah, three women before that, but this one's definitely a guy," Jones objected.
 
"So what? He'd flirt with a statue if he thought he could get it to admire his eyes."
 
Cruz snorted into her coffee cup.
 
"And you're no help either!" he accused her.
 
"What!" she protested. "What else can we do from here?"
 
"Something! Can't you use that fancy equipment there to gather any more information?" He poked at a keyboard. "I hate to admit it, but Neal was right," he complained. "We just didn't gather enough intel on this guy in advance of this operation, or on who might be attending tonight."
 
Jones hastily moved the keyboard out of his reach, and Peter glared. He was completely competent with computers, hell, he was more proficient than most agents, and even of a few of the tech support staff, but all anyone ever remembered was the time he'd tripped over a pile of carelessly tangled cords left in the entry way and killed power to half the cameras in the van in the middle of a sting.
 
Over the audio line, he could hear Neal waxing poetic about impressionist paintings to the poor schlub he'd picked up on the way. Goddamnit, he thought, more irritated than ever, can't he even remember he's supposed to be some ignorant hick who would be surprised to discover how small a painting the Mona Lisa is?
 
He set his coffee down on a ledge, where it teetered perilously. Jones moved the keyboard to his lap.
 


The more they circled the rooms, Neal pointing out artwork and describing it, Hisham doing his best not to drop his drink on the carpet (again), the more agitated Hisham became. Nervous people drew attention, and attention of that sort was very bad. Neal tried to distract him, first with charm, then with art, then with alcohol. It had worked at first, and he'd even spotted two items on their list. Hisham had come in handy then, as Neal carefully decribed their pedigree for his radio audience, and appeared for all intents and purposes to be educating a younger friend. Now he was considering cutting him loose. Hisham wouldn't actually drink anything, and he was only getting wound tighter with each object Neal pointed out.
 
Not very many items on the list, though, and very small items, not worth that much. He could still claim ignorance if we go after him without more. Neal frowned mentally. Something seemed a little off.
 
"None of this is right," Hisham said, surprisingly voicing his thoughts.
 
"What's wrong?" he asked. "Not seeing what you thought you would?"
 
"I know he has them," Hisham lowered his voice. "There is no doubt! I have reliable information on this matter. I cannot come all this way only to return without them."
 
"Did it never occur to you he might not be putting the items up for sale?" Neal suggested. "Have you tried asking him? He might take a private offer to heart, if you name the right price. After all—"
 
"No!" Hisham said, just a little two loud. They both glanced around nervously to see how much attention they had drawn. "I am not — I do not have that kind of money to offer," Hisham admitted.
 
"I never would have guessed, Neal noted drily. "What exactly was the plan? Were you planning to hold the place up?"
 
The look of dismay Hisham sent him made him groan and look for another waitress to snag a fresh drink from.
 


"There are no better views of this place from the street," Jones insisted again, somewhat wearily.
 
"That's exactly my point." Peter knew something was wrong, he just knew it. "We can't see a damn thing from here. We're out here, we've got a team in the alley, and they might as well be across town for all the good it will do us if something goes wrong."
 
"Nothing more we can tell!"
 
"There would be if we were closer." Peter pointed out.
 
"Closer is outside of the van," Cruz retorted.
 
Peter looked at her.
 
"What! No! It's snowing." She clutched her coffee tighter.
 
"You're supposed to be agents of the federal government, he hissed at them. Both Jones and Cruz turned their heads to stare, appalled, at the monitors. The snow was now coming down in boulder-sized flakes.
 
"Fine," he said, not without bitterness. He expected more from Jones, at least, the man had been working with him for years now. He reached for the door.
 
"You can't go out there!" Cruz protested.
 
"Can't I?"
 
"Someone will see you! Leave it to the surveillance truck around the other alley!"
 
"I'm just going to stretch my legs. I'm sure you're not implying I don't know how to remain unseen on an operation."
 
Jones looked like he desperately wanted to say exactly that, but instead resorted to simply, "Do you want to take your coffee with you? It looks really cold, sir."
 


It was cold, his feet were wet, and the only thing worse than being out here and trudging around in snow that was practically up to his knees would have been going back to Cruz and Jones, warm and snug, knowing and smug. He sidled down a narrow way, not large enough to qualify as an alley, that ran between the brownstone and the neighborhing house, and looked in either direction. When he'd decided there was no one about besides himself and a particularly wretched rat, and that their partner van was unlikely to have a visual on this location, and therefore couldn't obtain blackmail material in the form of a videotape they could forever use against him, he hopped the fence.
 
Unfortunately, hopping involved climbing up on a trash can, throwing a snowball at a security camera, losing his balance, and eventually ending up wetter, colder, and with extremely scraped up hands, on the other side. And there wasn't even any point to it really; now he had a closer look at very brown stones, a very tall building, and windows that were firmly barred and heavily curtained. A dark metal door was set into a recess on this side of the house, windowless and firmly locked.
 
He leaned against the wall and wondered how he was going to get back over it, now that he was here, and he ground his teeth just a little bit, imagining that Neal would have had no problem scaling it.
 
"Probably pole vault it, or some other crazy thing," he muttered to himself, and was just about to push off the wall and deal with the reality of the situation, when the side door opened and hit him in the face.
 
"Ow!" He clutched his nose.
 
"What!" shouted a woman's voice. He peered around the door to find a very blonde, very scantily clad young woman pushing a waiter's trolley.
 
"My fault." He held up a hand to stave off questions. "Shouldn't have been standing there, completely my own fault. Just getting, uh, a breath of fresh air." He breathed in deeply to emphasize the point.
 
She stared at him blankly.
 
"Uh, you know, good for the lungs?" he tried.
 
"If you say so," she answered doubtfully, and he began to scale her IQ down just a few notches; much though he tried to avoid falling into stereotypes of this nature, she seemed just a little—
 
"But it's really cold," she continued. "Wouldn't you rather breathe inside?"
 
He brightened, and mentally upgraded her a considerable degree.  "Are you inviting me?"
 
"Yeah, sure, I just gotta," she gestured at the trolley, and then towards the trash cans. "And I'm freezing my ass off, so, go in and have a drink or something so I can get this past you."
 
"Thank you very much, miss!" Peter beamed, and let himself in.
 


"Seriously," Neal whispered. "Have you got a gun on you?"
 
Hisham nodded stiffly.
 
"Do you have any idea what a stupid idea this is? Do you even have any idea how use a gun?"
 
"I don't have to, it's not a real gun," Hisham said. "That's how I got it past the entryway. It's plastic and you snap the pieces together once you're inside."
 
Neal covered his face. "Well, at least you know your limitations."
 
"You don't understand," Hisham said desperately. "This man, Carrington — he has stolen from my museum! My friends and family spent years putting together funding, soliciting donations, holding fund raisers and seeking donations for exhibits. These were priceless artifacts, on loan from one of our most generous benefactors, and they had been in our country for thousands and thousands of—"
 
"You're a freaking curator?." Neal stared at him in disbelief, and then dragged him further away from the crowd, around the back of a particularly garish piece of art. "Oh, this just could not get any better. Look, Hisham," he started.
 
"It's not as though I didn't have a plan," Hisham insisted. "I have backup."
 
"A slingshot?" Neal asked.
 
"My co-workers from the museum," Hisham said. "We raised the money to do this together, and they are in a car around the corner. They will come in when I signal them."
 
"Look, Hisham, no, listen, let me finish," Neal said. "It's not that I don't understand what you're trying to do here, but you can't make it work. Hell, you couldn't even keep your plan a secret from a stranger for more than five minutes. But even if you were heavily armed, well trained, and fully backed, there is no way anyone could conceivably expect a plan like this to suc—"
 
"No one move, please!" a voice cut through the room, and there, in the middle of the room, was a very well dressed older gentleman with silver hair, a dapper suit, with a very large, and very real semi-automatic. "Everyone do as I ask, and you can all go back to enjoying your evening as soon as I've enjoyed mine." He raised a small, sleek metal box to his mouth and said "Now, if you please," into it.
 
"Oh, that's not fair!" said Hisham.
 
"No, seriously," said Neal. "This is not a good plan!"
 


Halfway up the stairs Peter ran into a man with glasses and a ponytail who seemed as disturbed to see him as he was to run into someone who might call him on his presence. They spent a moment sizing one another up.
 
"Sorry," Peter tried, to see how it would fly. "I'm a little late for the, uh... party. Bad weather and all. And now I'm lost. Which way..."
 
"Oh," the stranger nodded politely. "Up there, and around the corner. It's been going a while now, though, I think they were just about to get down to the offers and action part of the evening."
 
"That's the way it always goes," Peter said regretfully. "And I really need to find something for my wife."
 
"Yeah," nodded the stranger. "Same here. You wouldn't believe how pricey her tastes are."
 


For an event where the guests had been vetted, frisked, and had their pockets picked for fifty grand a piece, Neal felt that he wasn't really getting his money's worth. There had been a lot of screaming, running, and confusion at first, and by now most people with any common sense were kneeling behind the largest inanimate object they could find. But if one thing had emerged as the chaos began to settle, it was that practically everyone in this room had a gun. Their silver-haired crazy man, apparently with his own scheme, which was rapidly going south, had a quite huge and overpowered piece, which he was holding firmly but with increasing concern to Carrington's head. Compensating, Neal thought, disgustedly.
 
The butler and two security guards had arrived on the scene at a run, all three with weapons drawn, and the brunette had produced a small, delicate, and very deadly pistol. Neal would have paid good money to know where she'd had it stashed. Beside him, Hisham was fumbling to assemble his plastic weaponry. Hisham was clearly terrified, but was still standing, which was more than could be said for most of the guests. Neal took the pieces away from him.
 
"Now would be a very good time to get here," their gunman repeated into his transmitter, but with a little less optimism. It had been over five minutes now. Unless you were awaiting the Three Stooges, any team with a plan should have swept the place by now.  There wasn't so much as a whisper of a reply. Neal wondered if Cruz, Jones, and company had heard the fracas beginning on their end, and moved in to head off the invasion, but the timing seemed hinky.
 
Either way, something clearly had gone seriously wrong, and he wasn't the only one to recognize that fact.
 
"You four, over there, or I'll blow his head off," their psycho gestured to the grim looking security group.
 
Neal snapped the plastic gun together.
 
"Really though," he raised voice just enough to garner attention. "You're seriously outnumbered here, and whoever your friends are, they've left you high and dry. Wouldn't you just prefer to make a run for the front door, and we'll all let you go, and get back to the business at hand, and we can pretend none of this ever happened—"
 
Eyes swung toward him that were wild and outright panicked now, and Neal thought he might just have miscalculated. "Shut the hell up! Just shut the hell—"
 
Behind him, there was yet another distinctive, and very audible click.
 
"Sorry I'm late," said a voice from directly behind their madman. Peter stepped to the side just far enough to let them see that with a two inch distance to his target, it wasn't about missing or hitting, but rather how much of their hostage taker would end up on the walls. "But the weather was just terrible. I thought you'd all still be at the cheese and wine stage of things, maybe a little pointless chit-chat, but I can see I arrived nicely in time to skip all that nonsense."
 
"Who the hell are you?" chorused both hostage and hostage taker.
 
"FBI," Peter said, "I want everyone in here to get down on the floor. Uh, those of you who aren't already," he amended.
 
No one moved.
 
"Neal, call them in," Peter directed him, and Neal winced.
 
"Thanks for pointing me out there, Peter, I really appreciate it, and guys, any time now," he bellowed the last bit, pretty much directly into his watch.
 
A minute that lasted an eternity passed then, while Neal counted out each exquisitely painful second that ticked by on the antique clock a few feet away ($120,000, and a steal at the price, he'd heard their host say earlier). A dreadful suspicion was beginning to loom.
 
Neal and the gunman both raised transmitters to mouth and shouted in unison, "Will you get in here!"
 
"I have to say," said Carrington, looking pale and sweaty within his headlock.  "This evening is not going at all as I had hoped."
 


When someone finally responded to a radio signal, it was not the FBI, Cruz, or Jones, nor their would-be captor's missing compatriots, but rather, masked Egyptian men in semi-military gear. Neal had to admit that if you didn't look closely enough to realize they'd probably picked up the clothing at the Goodwill earlier that week, and that the guns were plastic, they really did look sort of scary and threatening. Scary enough that once they'd gotten past a frightening bit at the beginning when Peter didn't understand what the hell was happening, or that these were the good guys, and had threatened to start shooting, that everyone else in the room decided they really were outnumbered, and there was a slow, grudging, and reluctant handover of weapons.
 
By the time Cruz and Jones arrived, panting and apologetic and reporting that a well-timed tip by a good samaritan had led them to head Team Treasure Hunting Maniacs off at the pass, Peter had a cuffed gunman on the floor, a host of stolen art who was slowly regaining his composure, and a passel of overly excited museum employees at his command.
 
Then things got confusing.
 
"What do you mean, curators?" Peter demanded.
 
"This is by far the most exciting thing I have ever done!" exclaimed one of their rescuers.
 
"I have a right to defend myself in my own home, all of these weapons are legal and registered, and you have absolutely no evidence that anything present at this sale is stolen property," Carrington declared.
 
"Are you really a security guard?" Neal asked the brunette. "I've always been impressed by strong women, you know."
 
"We've come all this way, and none of the artifacts are here?" one of Hisham's friends was asking him. Hisham appeared to have overcome his reluctance to drink alcohol, and had his hands on a bottle of champagne.
 
"I have a warrant to search these entire premises," Peter told Carrington. "Every inch of it."
 
"Do your worst," Carrington smiled broadly. "You'll find nothing here."
 
"You damn well better believe I will!" Peter snapped, with exactly the defensive air of someone who knew he was being played for a fool. He snapped his fingers and sent agents flying.
 
Given how sure Carrington seemed, Neal felt there was probably an interesting story behind the exposed wall on the fourth floor and the gaping wide vault, emptied of more than half its contents.
 
"Seriously, someone was robbing this place in the middle of all of this?" Neal had never been so delighted in his life. "I want to meet them and shake their hand."
 
"You would," Peter shot back, but his heart wasn't really in it. He was beaming at the contents of the safe that had been left behind, arranged as though on display in the the vault.
 
Hisham's collection had pride of place, and Neal had to admit every item was exquisite. The curators broke into cheers, and Hisham and Carrington both broke into tears at that point, although for very different reasons.
 


"I can't possibly accept this!" Peter declared. He held the delicate, gold necklace up to the light. "It's beautiful. It's also evidence, and also—"
 
"It's a replica," Hisham said.
 
Peter and Neal both looked over at him inquiringly.
 
"Real materials, and a very close match to one of those stolen, but made this decade, not thousands of years before. We brought it and a few others with us to use as currency, to pawn if we needed, to offer bribes if we needed." He shrugged. "I am aware that we will have to wait for the artifacts to be cleared as evidence, and go through all of the proper authorities to have them returned to the museum. However, this is nothing compared to where we started. I owe you my thanks for saving all of us—"
 
"More like the other way around," Neal muttered.
 
"—And to Neal for stopping me from doing something very foolish and dangerous earlier this evening."
 
"I can't accept gifts for doing my job," Peter objected.
 
"Can you?" Hisham asked Neal.
 
"Oh, hell yes," Neal replied, grinning wickedly.
 
"Hey!"
 
"And when it ends up under your Christmas tree, with Love from Peter on it, are you really going to object?" Neal asked.
 
"Well," Peter said. "Okay, no. In fact, just this once, hell no."
 
Neal smiled and leaned back, and enjoyed the perfect moment.
 
Five minutes later, Cruz showed up at a run, panting again, to tell them about the missing entry fee money, but Neal decided that when he told his grandchildren this story, he'd cut that part out. The narrative ended better the other way.



Begin again at Yang.