"When you said you were taking me to combat training, I was envisioning something along the lines of, say, Diana teaching me ninja skills, not --"
"Raise your arms and turn around," Peter said, buckling the padded vest around him.
"... paintball," Neal sighed, obeying sluggishly. "Do you have any idea how much this sweater cost?"
"I told you to wear casual clothes."
"This is casual, but you never mentioned people were going to be hurling capsules of dye towards me at supersonic speeds."
"Done whining yet?" Peter asked, handing him a paintball mask. Neal turned it over in his hands, staring in abject horror.
"Not if I have to wear this, no."
"This isn't a competition for Mr. GQ, Neal," Diana called, snapping a blue band around her arm. She twirled her paintball rifle and mimed racking a round into the chamber. "This is about making Kidnapping & Missing Persons eat paint."
"You mean honing your skills as an elite law enforcement officer," Peter said, a lopsided grin quirking his lips.
"That too, boss. That too."
"Gee," Neal said, reluctantly settling the protective hood over his face. "Nothing like a little pointless macho competition to get the blood pumping."
From a little farther down the block of abandoned warehouses, Agent Rice waved an arm wrapped in a red armband. "Ready to go down, Burke?"
Peter picked up his paintball gun and bared his teeth in a fiercely triumphant grin. "If we go down, we're taking you down with us."
Neal wondered how easy it would be to find a place to hide for the next couple of hours, until the crazy people got tired of trying to shoot each other.
There was actually something kind of fun about this, Neal decided, pasting one of the red-armband-wearing Missing Persons crew from behind. After all, it wasn't every day that you got carte blanche to run around nailing law enforcement personnel with harmless yet embarrassing paintballs and no risk of jail time. Mozzie, he thought, would love this.
... possibly love it a little too much. Keeping Mozzie and the game of paintball far apart from each other seemed like a good idea.
Neal was good at it, though, somewhat to his own surprise. Combat wasn't really his thing at all, but sneaking around in a maze of warehouses with lots of hiding places and nailing his victims from the shadows ... that was very much his thing, even with all the hot, bulky protective gear cutting down his maneuverability and field of vision. He still didn't feel comfortable with a gun in his hands, but guns firing non-lethal, splattery, colorful projectiles weren't so bad.
He'd started out with Diana's squad, but quickly decided to go it on his own. There was no radio communication, just hand signals, and if anyone noticed him disappearing from the group ... well, hopefully they were too busy with their own problems to tell Peter about it.
Speaking of Peter, there he was, down below. Neal leaned on the sill of a second-story warehouse window, its glass long since broken out, and watched Peter's little squad sneak up on Rice's. It amused Neal that he could recognize Peter even without being able to see his face. The way he moved was unmistakable, though.
So was his pose of eloquent frustration when Rice's group, acting on a hand signal from a sentry they'd posted on the opposite warehouse, broke and moved down a side alley before Peter's team could get to them.
Neal quietly sniped the sentry and vanished before anyone could see him.
It started to get dull once the amusing novelty of shooting at FBI agents wore off. A good con wasn't just about getting one over on the other guy; it was about doing it with creativity and flair. This had all the subtlety of a punch in the nose, as one might expect from a game run by the FBI.
There had to be a way to make things more entertaining.
Neal thought back to the list of rules that Hughes and Callahan -- Rice's boss in Missing Persons -- had rattled off at the start of the day. There weren't many of them; as long as no one actually got hurt, the FBI played paintball for keeps.
Which would, of course, work in his favor: few rules meant few rules to circumvent.
And the FBI fancied themselves the good guys, which was of course their Achilles' heel.
Neal spotted a likely mark, a member of Team Red on his or her own, moving quietly down an alley between two warehouses. Limited visibility in both directions. Perfect. He stripped off his paintball gear -- ahhh, good to get rid of it and be able to move properly again -- but left his armband on, over his sweater sleeve, just in case anyone accused him of trying to switch sides.
Then he pushed open a metal side door and called, "Hey!"
The agent jumped a foot in the air and spun around. Neal ducked behind the door, fast, to block any errant paintballs. "Whoa, whoa! The exercise has been called off, didn't you hear?" He leaned out again, waving his hands so that it was obvious that he was unarmed and unarmored. "They're calling everyone back to HQ. We're rounding up stragglers."
"Damn it, really? Just my luck; first time I haven't got plugged right out of the starting gate." The agent stripped off his mask, revealing a young face with tousled blond hair. Neal almost felt bad about this ... almost. They had to learn somehow, and maybe the next time it would be something more lethal than paint.
He reached behind the door, grabbed his gun and unloaded a perfect cluster of paint into the agent's chest.
The look of shocked outrage was gratifying.
It turned out that FBI agents were remarkable suckers for an unarmed guy who wanted to talk, even when said unarmed guy was a known con artist with a blue band on one arm.
In a way, comforting to know. On the other hand, what a bunch of gullible idiots.
Good guys. So predictable.
But there wasn't much fun in shooting people who didn't shoot back, which meant he needed to step up his game a bit.
The next one he dubbed "Operation Wounded Bird". The mark fell hook, line and sinker for Neal's limping, "oh no, I have twisted my ankle and Peter is sending me home" act, and gave him a helping hand, which gave Neal an opportunity to switch his blue arm band for the other guy's red one. Then all he had to do was duck behind something and watch the fun when they encountered the rest of Team Red.
Pretending to be a member of Team Red was actually a technical violation of the rules, so he needed a new armband to replace the one he'd lost, and headed back to the neutral area to get one. Here the "dead" team members, Blue and Red alike, were hanging out, enjoying coffee and sandwiches -- so he moved fast; he definitely wanted to get out of there before his most recent mark made it back.
"You," said several members of Team Red all at once.
"Got nailed, Caffrey?" Jones asked, grinning. He'd gone down even before Neal split off from Diana's group; Diana, amused, had told him that he needed to get out of the van more.
"Nope." Neal raised his arms so they could see that there was no paint. "Lost my armband. I came to get another."
"I'm not even going to ask how that happened. Or whether Peter knows you're not wearing your gear."
"Caffrey!" Hughes bellowed from the back of the staging area.
"Oops, gotta go." Neal plucked the armband from Jones' hand and beat a strategic retreat.
Taking them down one at a time really wasn't cutting it anymore, anyway. Peter being Peter (and Rice being Rice), Neal thought it likely that they wouldn't break for lunch until there was no one left standing on the other team, which could take awhile. And he had no intention of being out here until dark. It was time to wind up for a grand finale.
Preparing the trap took him a half-hour or so, utilizing some old rusty tools that he'd noticed in one of the warehouses during his earlier sneaking around. (He'd gotten the idea for the entire plan from an episode of Looney Tunes, but he didn't plan to tell Peter that.)
Luring everyone into the trap was really just a matter of costuming up again and then letting himself be strategically spotted. It helped that there weren't a whole lot of Red team members still running around. And it was Rice's group that he was mostly interested in, anyway.
Neal was reasonably okay with letting bygones be bygones between himself and Agent Kimberly Rice. He respected intelligence and competence, even when it was directed counter to his own interests; it was one of the reasons why he'd liked Peter before he ever had a conversation with him. He wasn't even going to say that he'd never work on an op if she was running it, though he'd definitely ask a lot of questions and make sure that Peter was there.
But he was still going to enjoy the hell out of this.
Peter, crouched behind some old barrels for cover, hesitated and straightened up when he saw that the figure waving to him was Diana. As soon as she saw that he'd seen her, she lifted her mask. She was laughing so hard that she could barely speak. "Oh, boss. You have to come see this. I think the op's basically over at this point anyway."
Peter glanced around at his team and signaled "guns down". "Do I want to know?"
"Just ... come and see."
Peter and his team followed Diana and her group around the end of the warehouse block, where an old pier jutted out into the water. There was one figure on the pier, but Peter could hear a lot of splashing. As he got closer, he realized that, first of all, the lone figure was Neal -- Why am I not surprised -- and second, there was a big gaping hole in the sagging, weathered boards of the pier.
Peter stopped a safe distance from the edge of the hole. As far as he could tell, all the remaining members of Team Red were splashing and treading water, while Neal picked them off at his leisure.
Neal pushed his mask up. "Hi, Peter," he said, and, grinning like a maniac, shot Rice in the head when she came up for air, sputtering and cursing.
"This is --" Peter began, and stopped, unable to contain his grin, and yet, there had to be some rule being violated here somewhere. It was Neal, after all. And in no way did he believe that a bunch of trained FBI agents spontaneously ran into the ocean all on their own.
"These old structures can be really unsafe, Peter," Neal said cheerfully, shooting one of Rice's teammates when he tried to stroke for safety.
"Uh-huh." Peter knelt and ran his thumb across the jutting end of one of the half-rotten timbers supporting the pier's planks. "This looks suspiciously like it's been cut."
"Really?" Neal said, inspecting it himself. "Wow, that is dangerous."
"Good thing you stepped on all the safe boards when you ran out here."
"I'm just lucky that way," Neal said, and shot Rice again, to a bellow of "I'm already dead, Caffrey, knock it off!"
"Stop shooting the corpses, Neal, it isn't sporting." Peter knelt and called down, "Loser buys lunch for the winning office, that was the deal, right?"
"Anything to get out of here and into dry clothes," Rice snapped, spitting a mouthful of salt water.
Peter slapped Neal's shoulder. "Okay, you've had your fun, now let them swim ashore."
Neal blew imaginary smoke off the end of his paintball gun and slung it over his shoulder. "You know, Peter, I must admit I spent the first half-hour or so plotting elaborate ways to get you back for this, but it actually turned out to be kind of fun. Can we do it again?"
Peter felt a smirk creeping onto his face. "Well, Organized Crime owes us a rematch ..."
"Ruiz kicked our asses last year," Diana confided in Neal.
"He did not 'kick our asses,'" Peter retorted. "I was off my game. I had a cold."
"And now we have a secret weapon." Diana slapped Neal's back hard enough to make him stagger.
"I have a feeling that the list of rules for the next training exercise is going to include a few new Caffrey exceptions," Peter said as they strolled off the pier to join the dripping stragglers of Team Red. "Sort of like the rules for office betting pools already do."
"Well, that's what makes it a challenge," Neal said, and at Peter's sideways look, hastily clarified, "Doing it without breaking the rules, that's the challenge, obviously."
"That's what I'm afraid of."