Saturday morning. Peter looked forward to it all week. El always made sure not to schedule any client meetings or events until afternoon, and they always spent the morning lazing around in bed, talking over their week, before having a leisurely breakfast.
Getting a call from Neal while flipping pancakes was not part of his perfect Saturday. He decided to ignore it and let it go to voice mail. The phone vibrated again almost immediately. Peter struggled with conscience for a moment, and then put it on silent mode. It was Saturday. Neal could just wait a damn hour or two.
El wandered into the kitchen, coffee cup in one hand and her phone in the other. "It looks like I have a text from Neal," she said, and Peter heaved a deep sigh. "He wants to know if you're with me. Says to call him."
"He'll survive," Peter said, but the lousy choice of words instantly brought to mind all the possible worst-case scenarios. There were a lot of them.
"I've got this." El whisked the bowl of pancake batter out of his hand. "Go call Neal."
Peter wondered how much it ought to worry him that his fingers found the preset automatically as he headed off to the living room. "Peter!" Neal said cheerfully.
"You'd better be shot, stabbed or kidnapped."
"Uh ... none of the above?" Neal waited a moment, but when Peter failed to elaborate, he continued, "So, what are you doing?"
"Eating breakfast with El," Peter said tightly.
"Oh. Oh. Right." Neal's voice went instantly contrite, though the suspicious part of Peter's brain wondered if he was being buttered up for something. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt the two of you. I wouldn't have called if it wasn't important --"
"Well, you've got me. Talk."
"Yeah." Neal hesitated briefly. "I've got this friend. He's in trouble."
"Does this friend have a name?"
"Er ... he'd rather not say."
"Ah yes," Peter said, "that kind of friend." Like there was any other kind in Neal's world.
"I've been able to talk him into meeting with you." Neal took a slow, deep breath. Peter could hear traffic behind him; he wasn't in June's loft. The Marshals hadn't called, though, so he must be inside his radius. "It wasn't easy. He doesn't trust the FBI."
"Really? I'm shocked."
"Peter, listen. I think that the two of you might be able to help each other out. Does the name Solari ring any bells?"
Peter stopped in the act of scratching Satchmo's ears. The Bureau had been trying to nail the Solari brothers for years. "Maybe."
"Thought it might."
"Does this friend of yours have something on the Solari family? Is he willing to testify?"
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," Neal said, which probably meant no, at least to the latter question. "I think you ought to hear his story from him, not from me. But -- Peter." His voice, which had been light as usual, dropped and became serious. "This can't be official. Strictly off the record, that's one of the conditions. I promised him he wouldn't be arrested."
Which meant this "friend" had done something he could plausibly be arrested for. Big surprise. "Neal, that's not a promise you have the authority to make."
Elizabeth came into the living room with two plates, each with a short stack of pancakes. She placed them on the table and went back for the syrup, after a fond and amused glance in Peter's direction.
"I know. But Peter -- I owe him a lot. I really do."
Peter sighed and glanced over at the table as El set out two glasses of milk and a bud vase with a single daisy in it. "If you'll excuse me, my wife is about to feed me pancakes."
"Well, I can't interfere with that, can I?" Neal laughed, but there was a strained note in it. "I don't want to cut your day with El short, but this is a little bit time-sensitive. Oh, hey!" He sounded thoughtful. "I was going to ask you to meet us downtown, but could we come over there? We can give you time to finish your pancakes, no problem." There was a hint of teasing, but only a hint.
No hovered on the tip of Peter's tongue, but ... come to think of it, this would mean he didn't have to roust himself out of the house on a day off. "Is this friend of yours dangerous?"
"No!" Neal said, sounding shocked. "He's strictly a nonviolent ... friend."
Peter groaned and rubbed between his eyes, where a headache was starting to form. And it had been such a good day. "See you in an hour? Or so."
"Or so," Neal agreed, and hung up.
It was actually more like two hours, which Peter suspected was Neal's tacit apology for interrupting his morning with Elizabeth. It was early afternoon, the dishes were cleared away and he'd settled down with a book while El spread out a bunch of wedding-cake brochures on the coffee table, when there was a somewhat diffident knock at the door.
"We made extra pancakes," Peter said, letting in Neal and his "friend".
The stranger was about Neal's age, trim and handsome and dressed all in black. His hair was a blond so light it was almost white, swept back in a stylish wave. Basically he was a blond Neal, and Peter thought gloomily, Oh great, now there are two of them. Neal introduced him as Philip. Peter decided not to press for a last name, or, for that matter, a first name that wasn't almost certainly an alias.
Peter got the impression that Philip had been braced for a meeting in a seedy bar over bad drinks, not in a sunny kitchen over pancakes. "I'm not really sure where to begin," he said, cutting up his pancake into tidy squares and not meeting Peter's eyes. He had a very faint accent, some sort of cosmopolitan blend of various European countries that was hard to pin down.
"Start at the beginning," Neal prompted. "Tell him what you told me."
Philip balked, so Neal stepped in. "Philip and I met in France."
"On your crime spree in France, you mean?"
Neal ignored him. "We were partners for a while --"
"The last two partners of yours that I met both tried to kill you."
"Are you going to let me tell this story, or just sit there interrupting me?"
"Both," Peter said, hiding a grin behind his coffee cup. "All right, look, I know there are felonies hiding in this story somewhere, but I'm more interested in the part of it that concerns David Solari. Let's skip to that bit."
Philip gave him a sharp look. "I want immunity."
"Yeah, no. I can't offer immunity if I don't know what you want immunity for."
Philip pushed back his chair and rose sharply. "I think coming here was a mistake."
"Hold on, wait." Neal caught his arm. "Just ... trust him, okay? I know he's a fed. And he can be stiff-necked, and a bit of an ass, in his own way--"
"Hey," Peter said. "I'm sitting right here."
"-- but I think he'll help you once he hears your story. Give him a chance."
Philip hesitated, then sat down again. He ate in silence for a moment, then said, "David Solari wants to hire me to do a job for him."
David Solari and his brother Frank were a pair of former two-bit gamblers and numbers runners who'd worked their way up to the top of New York's illegal gambling circuit -- from playing in the games to running them. Organized Crime had been after them for ages.
"What does he want you to do?" Peter asked.
Philip glanced at Neal, who nodded encouragingly. "He wants me to steal some jewels. Specifically ... he wants me to steal them from his brother's girlfriend."
Peter whistled. "Solari family politics. Nasty stuff. I can see why you don't want any part of that."
Philip shook his head. "You don't understand. I don't care that it's the Solari family -- well, yes, I know better than to get involved with that sort of thing if I can help it, but the problem is, I'm not in that business anymore. I've gone straight. I have a wife and a baby daughter. I'm not interested in David Solari's money."
"He threatened your family," Peter guessed.
Philip nodded. "My wife, and my parents. But I don't want to be pulled into that world again. I left it behind for a reason. If I do pull this off, I can guarantee it won't be the last time David Solari will want a favor from me. And if I don't ..."
"You'll be wearing concrete overshoes."
Philip winced, but nodded.
"Let me talk to my partner for a minute." Peter took Neal's arm, started to urge him into the living room, then remembered El was there. He went out onto the patio instead.
"I'm sorry to dump this into your lap, Peter," Neal said as soon as the door closed. "He's a friend, and I really do owe him a lot. He helped me out of some tough situations after Alex and I went our separate ways. I didn't know where else to turn."
"Is everything he says true?"
Neal nodded, but there was just enough hesitation to set Peter's alarm bells ringing.
"Okay -- but he's not telling me everything, is he?"
Neal looked over his shoulder into the kitchen, where Philip was inspecting his pancakes as if he suspected them of being poisoned. "Not ... entirely. It doesn't change the basic situation," he said quickly, at Peter's scowl. "David Solari is putting a lot of pressure on him, and threatening his family -- but what he's threatening him with isn't physical violence so much as exposure. Not just for Philip, but also for other members of his family. Philip is protecting them more than himself."
"Wait a minute." Peter took another look. One thing about chasing Neal around Europe ... he'd spent a lot of that time poring over Interpol warrants, and not just for Neal. "Solari wants a jewel thief ... Is he one of the Vestergaards?"
"Ha," Neal murmured. "He owes me fifty bucks. I told him you'd figure it out and we ought to just tell you his real name from the beginning."
The Vestergaards were jewel thieves. Specifically, a husband-and-wife team of jewel thieves who'd been the stuff of law-enforcement legend in the 1960s. Their little criminal empire had later been taken over by their son, Erik, with the original couple going into semi-retirement. Peter had no clue what the Vestergaards had been up to since Neal had reentered the country; he had enough on his plate keeping up with the white-collar criminals of New York without adding all of Europe to the list as well. However, he did recall that the Vestergaards had been more active during the time Neal had been in Europe, or at least, implicated in more thefts ...
"Neal, is Erik Vestergaard sitting in my kitchen eating pancakes?"
"He's retired," Neal said quickly. "Really, he is."
"Do you have any idea how many warrants he has out for him? Do you realize that me standing here talking to you and not arresting him probably constitutes a felony?" Peter realized that his voice was rising and forced it back down before the neighbors overheard.
"I've met his wife," Neal pressed on. "Years ago. She's very nice and has no idea that her husband is anything other than a somewhat well-off playboy with nice, rich parents who own a villa in the Italian countryside."
Peter rubbed his temples. The headache was back with a vengeance. "I can't believe you put me in this position. And on a Saturday."
"Look," Neal said quietly. "You're the one who keeps telling me that you believe people can change. Well, living proof is sitting in your kitchen right now. His parents have been living the lives of honest, upright citizens for over a decade. And Phili -- Erik has worked hard to get where he is. He's trying his damnedest to change, to build a better life for his wife and daughter than the one his parents offered him, but if Solari gets his hooks into him, then it's over for all of them."
Peter stared at him. "You fight dirty, you know that?"
"Is it working?" Neal asked hopefully.
"Shut up. Let me think."
Elizabeth had her own work to do, so she was amusedly tolerant of Peter spending most of the weekend closeted with two (alleged) thieves in her living room, plotting strategy.
Though he'd never admit it to Neal, Peter was glad that they'd had all weekend to work on it, because by Monday, they'd gotten a plan worked out that he could present to Hughes. The jewels that David Solari wanted Vestergaard to steal were a collection of family heirlooms that had, until recently, belonged to an elderly heiress named Adela Calabro. Her deceased husband had left her saddled with massive gambling debts to the Solaris, and David Solari had taken the jewelry in payment. Relations between the Solari brothers, already tense, had hit a new low when Frank Solari had taken the jewelry collection in its priceless entirety and made a gift of it to his latest girlfriend, an actress named Lorna Dean.
"It's not about the jewels," Erik said. "It's a power play. Frank's making the point to David that he can dispose of their assets however he likes. David, in turn, wants Frank to know that he's in charge, that Frank can't get away with anything on David's watch. Sure, he could storm in with hired muscle and retrieve the jewelry at gunpoint. But any thug can do that, and it invites open warfare on Frank's part. Having it quietly spirited away and returned to David's coffers lets Frank know that resistance isn't going to work. Any move he makes, David will counter, and usually five steps ahead of him."
"Why you?" Peter asked. "Why not some other thief?"
Erik shrugged. "Because I'm the best."
It turned out that David had sought Erik on reputation alone -- well, actually he'd been after Erik's father Gunnar, one of the best jewel thieves of the past century, but switched his attention to Erik upon the discovery that Gunnar Vestergaard was a) very firmly retired, and b) nearly 70 years old. David Solari had never met Erik Vestergaard face-to-face. All their communication had been over the phone or email. This suggested an obvious plan.
"There's a bit of a resemblance anyway," Peter said, glancing between Erik and Neal. They were a similar height and build; Erik's eyes were even blue. "Hair color's an easy thing to change."
"Pfft," Neal said, rolling his eyes. "Disguises."
"I'm not suggesting you go blond; I'm saying he could've gone brown. Even if David manages to get a picture of Erik, as long as it's not a particularly recent one, it won't blow your cover."
"It won't be the first job where we've played each other," Erik said, and Neal flashed a reminiscent grin. Peter decided to put his selective deafness into effect. Instead, he turned to Neal.
"Can you do his accent?"
"I can do any accent you like," Neal said, in a flawless rendition of Erik's vaguely Continental, hard-to-pin-down stylings.
On Monday Peter pitched it to Hughes. As he'd expected, the chance to bring down the Solari brothers proved to be an irresistible lure. Peter left Neal in the conference room, happily scribbling a list of everything that they were going to need for the fake heist, and followed his boss back to Hughes' office.
"There are conditions."
Peter nodded. "I figured there would be."
"One -- this is a joint operation with Organized Crime."
"Don't even start," Hughes said. "This is their turf. I could pull you off it completely and give the whole thing to Ruiz -- is that what you want?"
"Joint operation it is," Peter said.
"Second. We don't have the authority to offer immunity to Vestergaard on anything other than this crime."
Peter found himself tensing. "Are you saying we'll be turning him over to Interpol?" Oh, this would not go over well with Neal. "Hughes, without the information he's providing us, this whole thing stands a good chance of going sideways. And if it goes, Neal's the one who'll get crushed under the, uh ..."
His sentence collapsed under the weight of its own mixed metaphor, but Hughes nodded. "I know. What I'm suggesting, actually, is keeping him out of it as much as possible. We have an informant feeding us inside information on Solari's organization. Officially, that's as far as it goes unless we need his testimony to get the case to stick."
"Stupid," Hughes said succinctly. "Quite. Vestergaard belongs in prison, Peter, and you know it as well as I do. But we need him for this one, and even though I'm sure Interpol would love to get their hands on him, Solari is a much bigger fish in my pond."
Peter carefully stifled a grin. Hughes was willing to play nice with other agencies as far as he had to, but the mess with Mei Ling had left a permanent black mark. Interpol had burned some bridges with the White Collar division.
And since when is it a GOOD thing to let a known jewel thief get away? Hughes was exactly right: Vestergaard belonged in prison, and Peter knew it. Erik Vestergaard done the crime. He ought to do the time. But ...
But Neal had Peter's number, damn it. Peter looked through the glass front of Hughes' office, down into the bullpen, where Neal was back at his desk and at least making a show of looking busy. Diana passed him and he said something to her; she tossed back a quip, and Peter could see her grin.
You're the one who keeps telling me that you believe people can change...
Neal knew exactly which buttons to push to get Peter on his side. And what made it an effective con was that it was entirely true; Neal had a real talent for finding a person's emotional weakness and turning it back on them, but he rarely used it against Peter for anything that Peter wasn't halfway to doing anyway. Is it still a con if everyone on all sides knows it's a con, and doesn't care?
"I take it from the fact you're still standing here that you have something else to say?" Hughes remarked in a dry tone.
Peter jerked back to attention, floundered briefly, and then diverted Hughes into a discussion of their budget for the Solari operation.
"Remember, if things start to go south, if you get even a hint that he's onto you, get out of there."
"Right," Neal said, snugging down the cuffs of his black leather jacket. "Because getting shot in the back is much better than getting shot in the face."
"The point," Peter said tightly, "is not to get shot at all."
They hadn't been able to risk a wire on this one, not even a hidden transmitter. One of the things that made Solari so hard for Organized Crime to catch was his paranoia about wires and entrapment, and it would be just like him to spring a sudden electronics sweep on Neal, or even have some sort of hidden equipment around. Peter had put his foot down and insisted on a single passive tracker hidden in the heel of Neal's shoe, so that at least they could find him if Solari took him off somewhere.
The meet itself was at a small cafe, a nice-looking little family-run operation. Peter had been expecting a deserted dockyard at midnight, but this, at least, made it possible to set up a camera and get a few agents in position on the street, just in case.
"It would help if we had ... our informant in the van," Peter muttered. "At least that way we'd have him to answer questions, if anything came up --"
"How?" Neal said. "Semaphore from the top of the van? Smoke signals maybe?"
"Look, I've been to plenty of meetings like this -- alleged meetings like this, allegedly, as a freelancer." Neal tucked his hands into his pockets and his body language visibly shifted, taking up Vestergaard's way of standing, a little more closed-off and contained than Neal's own confident swagger. "I know how to handle myself."
"So you claim," said Shackley, their Organized Crime liaison, looking up from the camera view. "He'll be completely out of contact with us, Burke. He could do or say anything."
"Excuse me, what was your department's closure rate last year?" Peter asked sweetly. "Was it an unprecedented 91%? Sorry, you'll have to speak up, I can't hear you."
Neal leaned close to Jones, and murmured, loud enough for Peter to hear, "I'm sensing a little competition."
"Just be glad you'll be out there, and not in here," Jones murmured back.
Peter cleared his throat. "Showtime, boys and girls. Neal ..." There just wasn't any good way to give a pep talk for a situation like this, especially since he knew Neal didn't really need one. "Be careful. And remember, however those other situations went down -- this time, you have backup."
"Never forget it," Neal said, in a way that could have meant just about anything, and slithered out of the van to lose himself in the crowd.
Peter settled in to wait. It still annoyed him that Vestergaard refused to come anywhere near the FBI operation, given that he was the whole reason for it. On the other hand, it was probably a good thing that Vestergaard and Organized Crime were staying far away from each other. Ruiz had been pressuring Hughes for the identity of the Bureau's mysterious informant, and hadn't been pleased to hear that he would only speak to Peter, via Neal.
"There's Solari," Shackley murmured, and Peter turned quickly to the monitors.
Solari looked like exactly what he was: a plumber's son from Brooklyn whose get-rich-quick schemes had landed him more money than he knew what to do with, except flaunt it. Peter might not know much about fashion, but even he could recognize that Solari's suit was flamboyantly expensive and chosen without the slightest regard for taste or suitability for its wearer. Solari himself was a small man with slicked-back hair and a narrow face that gave him a striking resemblance to a ferret. He and his squadron of goons muscled into the cafe. A few minutes later, Neal strolled casually around the block and went in after them.
Then it was just a matter of fidgeting and waiting and being ready to move if Neal came running out of the cafe with a bunch of armed goons in pursuit.
But no goons, no running, no screaming. The meeting broke up and Neal moseyed back around the corner, with a goon rather obviously tailing him -- Peter guessed that the tail would be shaken the instant Neal was out of sight of the restaurant. Solari and his bunch left as well; Peter itched to follow him, and he could see that Shackley felt the same, but all they'd do was tip their hand.
Neal tapped on the door of the van. Peter and Jones almost collided in their haste to let him in. He was accompanied by Diana, wearing a stylish ensemble and carrying a shopping bag that swung with suspiciously gunlike weight inside; she'd been on outside duty this time.
"Well?" Peter said.
"No bullet holes," Neal said, and when Peter scowled at him, "Okay, there's good news and bad news. Want the good news first?"
Shackley looked deeply irritated, which was a plus in Peter's book. "We could all use some good news," Peter said.
"He wants my services very badly." Neal smiled. "I think there's more tension between the Solari brothers than we knew about. David is teetering on the verge of losing more ground to Frank than he can make up. And a desperate mark is a mark who isn't watching his back for other angles of attack. I think that if we play this out, we can give both brothers enough rope to hang themselves."
"So what's the bad news, then?" Peter asked.
"He wants to meet Gunnar Vestergaard."
Erik's father -- David Solari's original target. "Why?" Peter asked. "He's got you. What, one thief isn't good enough for him?"
"He doesn't trust me," Neal said. "I think it's a sort of multi-pronged test. If I'm not really Erik Vestergaard, then I'm not going to be able to produce his father. If I am Erik Vestergaard but I'm not all I'm cracked up to be as a thief, then he knows that he's still got the old man in the corner to rely on. Plus, it gives him leverage over me."
"Great," Peter sighed. "Where do we get a 65-year-old undercover agent on short notice? I suppose we could talk Hughes into -- what?" He realized that his entire team had turned to look at him. Neal was grinning. "Oh, come on," Peter snapped. "I know I'm older than most of you, but not that much older."
"Just add some gray to your hair," Neal said. "You don't have to be ancient, just put on a credible impression of a retired jewel thief. C'mon, it's like Connery doing Bond."
"Connery doing Bond," Peter muttered. "I don't believe this. When does he want to see Gunnar?"
"Tomorrow," Neal said. "At one of his offices."
Peter shared a glance with the rest of his team, including Shackley. So far, Organized Crime hadn't been able to get near any of the Solari brothers' operation centers. Or even find them.
"So, Connery," Neal said, with a wide grin. "How's your Bond impression these days?"
"Oh, nice," was El's reaction when Peter -- reluctantly -- came downstairs from the Burkes' bathroom: hair dyed gray, pencil-thin mustache in place on his upper lip, swing a walking stick from one hand. Erik Vestergaard had supplied the stick, which looked incredibly expensive; Peter hoped those were glass jewels inlaid on the handle, but he wasn't going to place bets. ("Is this stolen?" had been his first question when Erik had handed it to him. The answer from Erik had been "no", accompanied by an exasperated look from Neal, but Peter wasn't inclined to put too much stock in Erik's word.)
Somehow his patio, as usual, had turned into Con Artist Central Station, with Erik Vestergaard dropping by regularly to check on the progress of the investigation and have a glass of wine with Neal. It was the closest to the FBI that Erik was willing to get.
El rose to come and kiss him -- she'd been having a glass of wine with the boys on the patio, and Peter wondered, not for the first time, if he ought to worry about his wife's newly developed friendliness with the criminal element. But then he'd have to worry about himself, too.
"Careful of the glue, honey," Peter said, delicately trying to fend her off without giving offense.
"Is this a small preview of things to come?" El asked, pulling back to look up at him. "I could do worse. Though maybe without the mustache ..."
Erik was unimpressed. "He looks nothing at all like Dad."
"Does it matter?" Neal said. "Solari's never even met your father, and considering how long Gunnar's been out of the public eye, any pictures Solari might have will be ten or twenty years out of date." He grinned and straightened Peter's lapels. "Oh, yeah. We can pull this off."
"I'm glad one of us is confident," Peter said. He eyed El's glass of wine, then decided it would be a bad idea right before a field op.
"Oh come on, Peter," Neal said, looking far too cheerful for Peter's peace of mind. "You've already been coached in this sort of thing. Don't tell me we have to train you twice."
Peter glowered at him. "Pretending to be you is a far cry from playing a debonaire European jewel thief."
"Ouch." Neal placed a hand over his heart. "I'm hurt." The hand dropped away. "Seriously, Peter, you've got the skills. Just apply them."
"You'll be fine, honey." El pecked him on the cheek.
"Why shouldn't I be?" Peter decided that a little wine was called for -- it was part of his persona, after all -- and snagged El's glass. He grinned at Neal over the edge of it. "If the old man goes senile and forgets his lines, I'll have my 'son' around to remind me."
Neal suddenly looked a lot less self-assured.
"Mr. Solari." Peter shook hands. Up close, Solari's resemblance to a ferret was even more noticeable, as well as the bad fit of his expensive suit.
The meet was at a small office in a nondescript building sandwiched between a bookstore and a travel agency. From the outside, the office gave no hint of what sort of business occupied it; discreet lettering, small and low in the smoked glass window, reading BIG APPLE ENTERPRISES ... which could be anything from shipping to investments to, well, God only knew. The interior of the office was equally generic, with new but not particularly expensive furniture, and a secretary wearing a high-tech headset who looked a great deal more busy and harried than the utter lack of customers would imply. The reception area smelled of cheap carpet and fresh paint.
Solari ushered them into the back. His office was nicer than the reception area, but still looked more like the office of a real estate salesman than a wealthy businessman. Peter suspected that the Solari brothers had places like this scattered all around the city.
They were going in unwired once again. Jones was in the van, and a bunch of Organized Crime agents were just down the street, but they might as well be on the moon for all the good it'd do himself and Neal if shooting started.
"Mr. Vestergaard." Solari's smile was vulpine. "So good of you to come."
How would Vestergaard react to this situation? Peter wondered. Anger? Interest? But it didn't really matter what the real Gunnar Vestergaard would do, he reminded himself -- Solari didn't know Vestergaard at all, and for purposes of this meeting, Peter Burke was Gunnar Vestergaard.
He let himself settle into the role -- is this how it feels when Neal does it? -- and returned Solari's sharp-edged smile with an equally unfriendly one of his own. "Not exactly how I'd planned to spend my week," he said. "I'm retired, or hadn't you heard?"
"I also heard you're the best."
This time Peter's smile was directed at least partly at Neal. You got me into this, after all. "Yes," he said. "I am." Neal's expression became somewhat strained.
"Did your son pass along to you the terms we'd discussed?"
"I'd like to hear them from you," Peter said. Except without a recording, a verbal agreement isn't worth a wooden nickel as evidence, dammit.
"Eight million upon completion of the job," Solari said.
"That's when you were hiring one thief," Peter retorted. "Now you have two. Eight million each."
Neal's quick glance was either impressed or horrified. Maybe a little of both.
Solari's sharp smile sharpened further. "Twelve for both," he said. "As you reminded me, you've been retired for some time."
"Twelve, all right, but half up front."
"After the job," Solari repeated. "Don't double-cross me, and you have nothing to worry about. My word is good."
Peter's incredulity didn't have to be feigned. "Seriously? You want me to trust you?"
"Business is based on trust, and I'm a businessman," Solari said smoothly.
The real Vestergaard might have argued further, for all Peter knew, but it didn't matter; the twelve million dollar payout wasn't going to happen anyway. "What about the details of the job?"
"Ah, yeah, I think you'll have a good opportunity coming up," Solari said. "Normally Lorna keeps the jewelry in her safe deposit box. This weekend, though, my brother is holding a get-together at his beach house in the Hamptons. She ought to have the goods with her. Easy in, easy out."
Peter stayed perfectly nonchalant and in character as they strolled down the street away from Solari's office, around the corner, and -- as soon as they had the all-clear signal from one of the undercover agents on the street -- into the van. Then his calm broke and he slammed a fist into the side of the van. "Dammit!"
Neal jumped, and Diana looked up from the screens. "That good, huh, boss?"
"I thought it went pretty well, actually," Neal said.
"He didn't give us anything physical -- no money, nothing in writing. If we can't record anything, it's going to take us forever to get enough solid evidence to put a case together," Peter grumbled. "Diana, now that we know where the office is, I want you to go in tomorrow and drop a bug, and a keystroke logger if you can manage it. I'll have authorization by then."
Neal snorted at the last part; Peter gamely ignored him, even when Neal said, "Better to beg forgiveness than ask permission?"
"Good children should be seen and not heard. Son."
Diana attempted to stifle a smile, not very successfully. "Anything specific you want as a cover story, boss?"
"No, just ... ask to use the bathroom, or whatever."
Diana nodded, and Peter heaved a sigh. "In the meantime, we'd better keep playing this out. We haven't got enough for a case, so we'll keep playing our parts and try to get him to dig a hole he can't lawyer his way out of."
"You mean we get to steal the jewels?" Neal asked, then, as Peter turned to look at him, managed to partially wipe the delighted grin off his face. "Have to steal them, I mean. Have to. It's a sacrifice."
"I have a better idea," Peter said. "We get a warrant, go in the front door, and take the jewels the legal way."
"The jewels aren't stolen," Neal pointed out. "Mrs. Calabro gave them to David Solari, and his brother gave them to his girlfriend. What are you going to do, take them from their rightful owner?" His quicksilver grin flashed. "Sounds like a thief's job, Peter."
Peter rubbed his forehead. The familiar Caffrey headache was starting to coalesce once again. "Well, at the very least we've got the address for Frank Solari's 'beach house in the Hamptons'," he mimicked David Solari's smarmy tone. "So, Neal, you feel like a drive?"
"Casing the place?" Neal asked cheerfully.
"Stakeout," Peter said between his teeth. "It's a stakeout."
"If you say so."
Like everything else about the Solari brothers, Frank Solari's beach house was ostentatious, extravagant, and expensive-looking. Peter had been worried that his Taurus would stand out among all the Porsches and BMWs he was expecting, but there seemed to be a fair number of lower-end vehicles around the neighborhood -- he guessed they belonged mostly to cooks and gardeners.
They cruised by the house a couple of times and then parked on a little pullout by a small, private boat launch, about a half-mile down the beach from the house. They took turns studying it through Peter's binoculars, until the private security vehicle cruising the neighborhood started taking an inordinate interest in them, and Peter pulled away before he needed to flash a badge.
It was a little early for dinner, but Peter stopped at the first restaurant he saw in Southampton that didn't look like it would drain his entire paycheck. It was obvious to him that Neal was enjoying being out of the city for a change, and why not indulge him a little? Though, if anyone asked, he'd just gotten hungry ...
"So how would you do it?" he asked Neal as they waited for their food.
From Neal's delighted grin, he'd been waiting for that question; he launched into the answer without hesitation. "A place like this? Getting close is probably harder than actually getting in; they don't pay those real estate prices to have the riff-raff bother them, let alone burglars. You park anywhere nearby, or try to go in via boat on the beach, and they'll have security on you before you know what hit you."
"So what's your solution? Have someone drop you off?" He'd almost said us. Peter reminded himself that no actual burglary was happening. It was kind of fun to plan it, though -- as a strictly intellectual exercise.
Neal shook his head. "Nope. Go invisible. What's invisible to rich people?"
A slow grin spread across Peter's face. He remembered how he'd observed that the Taurus wasn't the only similar vehicle around, and the security guard hadn't noticed them until they'd parked in a beachfront spot where service personnel didn't normally go ... "The staff."
Neal nodded. "Ironically, as long as you have the right uniform and act like you know where you're going, it's actually easier to get into someplace like that without being noticed than, say, a middle-class neighborhood. There's always someone in suburbia who's home all day and has nothing better to do than notice a cable truck or exterminator parked outside their neighbor's house. But if you pull up and tell the gate guard that you're the caterer for tonight's party, or the new pool guy, or a private masseuse for Mrs. So&So's cat ..." He cleared his throat. "Hypothetically speaking, of course."
"Of course," Peter agreed blandly. He frowned and leaned across the table. "Completely off the record, and with no incrimination implied ... did you actually pretend to be a masseuse for some rich lady's cat?"
Neal's smile was coy. "Not for the cat ..."
"Yeah, you know what? Forget I asked."
As the weekend approached, none of Diana's bugs in the Solari offices netted anything useful or incriminating.
"Come on, Peter, we know where the jewels are, we know where Frank Solari is ..." Neal wheedled.
"Which helps us how?" Exasperated, Peter looked at his partner across his desk, which was scattered with Organized Crime's ironically disorganized files on their many fruitless investigations into the Solari brothers over the years. "The point isn't to steal the jewels, Neal, it's to gather enough evidence to arrest the Solari brothers and bring down -- oh God," he sighed, and rested his face briefly in his hands. "For you, it is about stealing the jewels, isn't it? Because you want to give them back to the old lady."
He really knew Neal too well by now.
Neal didn't even bother denying it. "You keep telling me that I need to learn some things have value beyond money." He leaned forward, an earnest expression on his face. "But I do know that, Peter, and this is one of those things. She lost something of great value to her because of her husband's gambling debts. Don't you want to see them returned to her -- and stick it to both Solari brothers in the process?"
"Of course I do!" Peter slapped a hand on the pile of papers on his desk. "But I have nothing to work with. We have two of Solari's addresses, but there's absolutely nothing in the property or business records that's not completely aboveboard. All I have is a bunch of random pieces that don't go together, and a tip about a party this weekend that's no use to us because -- Wait."
He paused and stared off into the middle distance as a few of the pieces began to coalesce.
"Oh, I know that look," Neal said, sounding delighted. "What?"
Neal hushed. After a moment Peter wrenched himself back from his reverie. "I'm an idiot," he said.
Neal's eyes danced. "Not all the time."
"All quiet in the peanut gallery. What I mean is, I've been focused on the jewelry and the Vestergaard problem. But that's not the issue here, is it? We can't legally walk out with the jewels because they're not stolen in the first place -- Get that look off your face right now, Neal."
"Just because she gave them up freely doesn't mean they weren't stolen," Neal said quietly. "There are legal ways to steal something too, Peter."
"Forget the jewels. Just forget 'em. The point is, we know that Frank Solari, his girlfriend and presumably quite a few of the movers and shakers in the organization are going to be up in the Hamptons this weekend, all together. That right there is enough for Organized Crime to authorize a stakeout, even if it's not enough for the White Collar unit to move in."
"We'd be working on Organized Crime's turf?" Neal asked with an expression of mild horror. "Isn't a joint investigation bad enough?"
"We're all one agency, Neal. We're on the same side." Neal made a face. Peter grinned and dropped his voice. "Yeah, I know. Look at it this way, though -- someone needs to get inside that house and plant some bugs."
Neal began to smile. "Sounds like a job for a cat burglar."
"Sounds like a job for a father-and-son team of cat burglars," Peter corrected him.
"What, now you want to break in?"
"It's not breaking in if you have a warrant," Peter said, quite reasonably in his opinion, but Neal rolled his eyes.
"Look, Neal, we're there to drop bugs, not take anything. Someone has to keep an eye on you and make sure that a certain set of jewels don't go missing."
Neal placed a hand over his heart. "You don't trust me?"
"With that? No."
All signs of playful banter dropped away, and Neal frowned. "Don't forget, Peter, David Solari hired us to get those jewels for him. If we don't --"
"The Vestergaards are on the hook for it," Peter sighed. "I know. Which is why we have to take down David Solari, and his brother along with him, before he can make good on his threats. That's why we're doing this, Neal. Keep on task. Catching the Solari brothers, and yes, helping your friend -- but stealing the jewels for real was never part of it."
From Neal's pointed silence, he appeared to disagree, but at least had the sense not to bring it up. At last he said, "So ... I don't suppose the blueprints for the house are anywhere in your 'random pieces'?"
Around ten a.m., Saturday morning, the burglars made their move in a Greatest Cake catering truck.
"Kinda thought we'd be doing this at midnight," Peter said. "Not that I'm complaining."
"At night? Really, Peter. You've been watching too many movies." Neal's eyes were sparkling, and every line of his body vibrated with energy. He was clearly in his element and knew it.
In the morning, Neal explained, Solari was very likely to be asleep -- either that, or if he was up, it was almost certainly because he had a meeting with someone. Either way, his gate guard probably wasn't going to call him to deal with a couple of caterers as long as they could bluff convincingly.
"No one expects burglars in the morning," Neal added, and Peter really couldn't argue with that.
He tried to tear his mind's eye away from the picture of El eating her pancakes alone this morning -- another Saturday, stolen by the job. It happened. But he didn't have to like it.
The guard on Solari's gate was a big broad-shouldered block of muscle who turned out to be very easy to bluff their way past. "Solari's probably had people in and out all week," Neal muttered as they pulled into the huge, curving drive. The guard had even helpfully directed them around to the kitchen entrance. "At this point, no one's keeping close track of who's delivered what. If you ever own a mansion, Peter, beware of delivery people."
"I'll keep that in mind."
The gate guard had called ahead to the kitchen, where they were met by a yawning and irritated head chef. "Changes things all the time -- never tells me anything -- how am I supposed to work this into my menu?"
"Not my problem," Peter said. "My boss never tells me nothin', either. Just show us where this oughta go. We can unload it all. Won't take but a few minutes."
Neal, with impeccable timing, leaned out of the back of the truck to call, "Hey, was it sixty tubs of buttercream frosting, or vanilla?"
Peter heaved a theatrical sigh. "Gotta call my boss. Hang on."
The chef's boredom and annoyance visibly increased as he watched Peter having a mock argument with a nonexistent boss over his cell phone. "Hey," Peter appealed, turning from the phone to the chef, "you wanna make an executive decision here, or what? This says buttercream on the sheet here, we got vanilla, and I don't know if you want us to take it back or what?"
The chef backed off, holding up his hands defensively. "Look, I didn't even know you guys were coming."
"Hey, Louie," Peter informed the phone, "he says he doesn't -- what?" He covered the mouthpiece and called to the chef, "Hey, what's your name? Boss says he talked to a --" To the phone: "What'd you say that name was? Oh, Steve took the order? Well, that explains it -- nobody can read his handwriting worth a damn anyway --"
Neal hopped off the back of the truck and approached the chef. Peter, still carrying on his fake argument, watched Neal out of the corner of his eye. He heard Neal say in a not-very-successful sotto voce: "Look, can I start getting this stuff off the truck? Just let's get this unloaded -- he's not gonna make me put it all back on the truck once it's off, and I got a date with my girl this afternoon, I'd really like to get to it ..."
"Bill," Peter barked at Neal, covering the phone with his hand again, "don't unload a damn thing 'til I tell you. You'll just have to put it all back on if it's gotta go back."
"Yeah, whatever," Neal said, and held out a tub of frosting to the chef. "Here, take this, wouldja?"
And the chef finally had enough. "You can put it in the big cooler. Inside, to the left. I have too much to do to stand here all day."
"So do I!" Neal called to his back. They both watched a moment until they were sure they were unobserved. "Thank God. I thought he'd never leave."
Peter nodded at the truck. "Grab something and take it inside. We ought to have fifteen, twenty minutes before anyone gets curious. And hey, if we do get caught wandering around --" he pulled a box out of the truck and hefted it "-- we went looking for someone in charge and couldn't find him, that's all."
They deposited their burdens and slipped out of the kitchen up a back stairway. "You're enjoying this," Neal said softly. "Admit it."
"Hey, we're here under a legitimate warrant to drop a few bugs. That's all."
Neal made a noncommittal noise.
"Those are the rules," Peter added.
"Yes, yes, so you've said, can we get on with it before someone hears us arguing in the stairwell?"
They slipped through a parlor at the top of the stairs and found themselves on a balcony overlooking a large ballroom. "Perfect," Peter murmured, smiling. "We'll have to hedge our bets -- limited number of bugs -- but here and the dining room are probably the best options."
"There's no way they won't sweep for bugs," Neal pointed out.
Peter smiled. "And that's why we have these." He held one up. "Remote activated. We'll turn them on and off as needed. If some of our bugs start going down, then we know they found at least a few -- so we'll switch off, wait a bit, and then turn 'em back on."
"The FBI has all the cool toys," Neal complained as Peter dropped a bug into a planter.
"I guess Team Criminal just has to step up their game," Peter said blandly. "And yes, I'll be counting these when we pick them up, so don't even think about it."
They bugged the ballroom and the dining room. Once they had to duck into an alcove to avoid a maid, but for the most part, no one was around. As Neal made a move towards the staircase behind the dining room, Peter grabbed his arm. "Don't even think about it. We're done here. Bugs dropped. Let's get back to the truck before anyone sees us."
"But we're here," Neal whispered back. "In his house! The FBI's been trying to nail this guy and his brother for ages -- how can you not want to look around while you're here?"
"Do the words 'inadmissible in court' ring any bells? We could walk into a room with 'I, Frank Solari, confess to the following crimes' written on the wall in letters six feet high, and it wouldn't help, because that's not what our warrant is for."
"And you consider this a good thing," Neal said, very dryly.
"The law is there to protect everyone."
"Yeah, I don't think even you believe that a hundred percent anymore, Peter. The law is stiff, rigid and lets people like Frank and David Solari blackmail whoever they want and shake down elderly widows." A tinge of genuine bitterness had crept into Neal's tone.
"What's your alternative, vigilante justice? Anarchy? A world full of people like the Solari brothers and the Vestergaards, taking advantage of each other in an endless --"
Quick footsteps sounded at the far end of the dining room. Peter and Neal ducked around the corner and then peeked back into the room. Peter recognized the woman immediately from her photos -- Lorna Dean, Frank Solari's actress girlfriend. She was casually dressed in a simple pantsuit that made a startling contrast to the rich collar of rubies, diamonds and emeralds around her throat, glittering to match the bracelets on her wrists. And she appeared to be alone.
She looked around the dining room and began scribbling on a clipboard. Peter glanced at Neal and saw Neal staring at her with the expression of disbelieving horror that he usually wore when he saw someone mistreating art. "She's wearing them around the house?" His whisper rose at the end to a disbelieving squeak.
"So?" Peter whispered back. "Organized Crime's file on her says she's a salesman's daughter from the Midwest. She's probably never owned anything like that. Come to think of it ..." He looked back at Lorna Dean. That jewel-encrusted choker looked like it weighed a ton. Couldn't be comfortable. "Most people have probably never owned anything like that. Although, at least now you know you can't steal the jewels while we're --"
Furtive movement beside him drew his attention back to Neal, who was skimming off his Greatest Cake uniform shirt, revealing a light black sweatshirt underneath.
"Neal!" Peter whispered fiercely. "Whatever you're thinking of doing, don't!"
"Here, hold this," Neal whispered back, passing him the shirt. Peter wondered if it would be possible to grapple Neal to the floor without drawing Lorna's attention. Probably not. Before he could even decide, Neal ran a hand through his hair to smooth it down and sauntered out into the dining room, oblivious to Peter's frantically hissed "Neal!"
Even in the midst of his irritation, Peter couldn't help being reluctantly impressed at the transformation. The light blue slacks that had looked unimpressive and mildly dorky -- as intended -- with the uniform shirt went perfectly with Neal's black pullover in a casual-yet-sophisticated ensemble. And of course he'd planned it that way, Peter thought grimly, just in case he had to change personas in mid-con ...
Lorna Dean froze at the sight of him. "I'm sorry," she said, drawing herself up. "I didn't realize anyone was here. Do you work for Frank?"
"No, not me," Neal said, holding out a hand, and oh great, he was using his Vestergaard accent. "I'm Erik Vestergaard." He smiled. "Jewel thief."
I'm gonna strangle him, Peter thought, pressing against the wall and holding his breath as he peeked around the corner. And then I'll let Hughes take a turn, and then I'll strangle him AGAIN ...
Lorna looked from the hand to his face as if he was offering her a pit viper. "Jewel thief?" she repeated, and her free hand, the one not holding the clipboard, went to the choker at her throat.
"Yes," Neal said. "I was hired to retrieve that from you."
... and maybe Diana would like a go at strangling him as well, she's been working really hard on this case, she deserves it ...
"I'll scream," Lorna said, and inhaled.
"Wait!" Neal protested, holding up a hand. He backed away, putting the long mahogany dining room table between himself and the frightened woman. "Retrieve, I said, not steal. That was never Frank's to give away."
"It's mine." Lorna clutched it.
"It belongs to a woman named Adela," Neal said gently. He sat down at the table and folded his hands. "She's eight-two. Her husband died last year, leaving her those jewels you're wearing, the ones she used to put on when he'd take her dancing -- and leaving her, also, ruinous debts to Frank and his brother. You know what Frank does for a living, don't you, Lorna?"
"Frank is a businessman," Lorna said, but her eyes darted around. "I'm not joking, I'm going to scream."
"You haven't yet," Neal pointed out. "How do you think he affords this house, or things like ... that?" He nodded to the choker.
Lorna lowered her hand slowly.
"You've been living a beautiful fairy tale, Lorna," Neal went on in that same gentle voice. "And it's so much fun for a while. But then you start to realize that you're running up terrible debts -- not like Adela's debts, those are just money. Yours are going to be worse."
How did Neal do this? Peter wondered, watching him through the open doorway. He'd make you want to drop-kick him into a swimming pool ... and then, he'd go and do something like this.
Lorna studied Neal. Peter couldn't see his face from this angle, but whatever Lorna saw made her sit down carefully at the table, across from him. "Do you have someone who can vouch for this?" she asked. "Back up what you're saying?"
"Of course I do." From where he was, Peter could just catch the edge of Neal's smile. "My father."
... and now they were right back to the drop-kicking.
"Dad," Neal said, "come on out."
Peter sighed. Would stripping off his uniform shirt, as Neal had, make him look a little more jewel-thiefy, or even less so? All he had under it was a plain white T-shirt. And he wasn't wearing his Gunnar mustache, though his hair still had the gray dye job -- the whole point was not to run into anyone. At least until Neal got involved.
He opted to keep the shirt on, and stepped out into the dining room, clearing his throat. "Hi."
"Hi," Lorna said carefully. Her eyes went from him to Neal and back again, doubtfully.
"He's right, you know." Peter stayed near the doorway, trying not to make her feel crowded. "About some things," he hastily qualified, and saw a smile flicker at the corners of Neal's mouth, quickly suppressed. "This life you're living, Lorna -- it's not the real world, and sooner or later, the real world is going to catch up with you."
Like, say, tonight, he thought. If Frank Solari and his mob buddies really did let something slip that Organized Crime was hoping for, and give the FBI a good reason to raid the place, Lorna would be swept up along with everyone else. The innocent and the guilty alike ... Except she really wasn't that innocent. She'd been hanging around Frank long enough to know what the score was. For all Peter knew, she was as deep into Frank's organization as anybody, with a suitcase full of ill-gotten cash hidden under her bed.
Or, hell, maybe she was just a stupid kid who'd fallen in love with Frank, or just with Frank's money, and gotten in over her head. Peter would have arrested her along with everyone else. It would get sorted out later, he knew -- if she hadn't done anything, she'd probably testify for the prosecution and then they'd cut her loose.
As if he'd never seen innocent people go to prison before. Never seen wide-eyed first-time offenders go into lockup and come out hardened ex-cons. Justice was like democracy: not the best thing out there, just better than the alternatives.
But Neal wanted to save her.
And her jewels, of course.
Lorna hesitantly unfastened the clasp on one of the wristlets. She cupped it in her hand; Peter could see its weight by the way she held it. "Does this really belong to a woman named Adela?" she asked, addressing the question to Peter.
Damn it, Neal. But Neal had a point; the jewelry might not be technically stolen, but there was more than one way to steal something. "Yes," Peter said.
"Then you should give it back to her." Lorna unfastened the other as well.
As Neal held out his hand for it, Peter said sharply, "We can't just walk out with them." For all kinds of reasons, oh God, I don't know how I'm going to explain this to Hughes -- he'll strangle ME first, then go for Neal after he's done with me ...
"Sure we can," Neal said. "She's giving them to us, right ... Dad?"
Ergo, not stolen. Except ... they couldn't just walk away with evidence. He couldn't, at least -- it'd mean his career. Although Neal might not realize that. Or maybe you're just rationalizing. If the jewels go missing at this point, who's going to know other than the Solari family? And how is anyone going to prove you were involved?
But Peter would know. And they'd be giving David Solari exactly what he wanted, tightening his chokehold on the city's gambling trade and removing one of the few obstacles in his way. As little sympathy as Peter had for Frank Solari, the idea of playing into David's hands stuck in his throat.
"Lorna," he said as she reached up to unfasten the choker. "My -- er, son here hasn't told you everything. There are a few more things you need to know."
Neal looked up quickly, eyes wide. "I don't think she'd be interested in that part."
"I think she deserves to make an informed decision," Peter said. "Lorna, you've met Frank's brother David, right? Do you like him?"
Neal's somewhat panicked expression went puzzled, and then ah, a little click and an interested look.
"Yes, I've met him, and I can't stand him," Lorna said flatly. "He's always undressing me with those horrid eyes. And Frank hates him."
"Let's say you had a chance to make David's life really difficult. Possibly get him off the street for good. Would you take it?"
"Sure," Lorna said warily, looking back and forth between the two of them. "As long as I don't have to talk to him too much. David's dangerous. He frightens me."
"Excellent." Peter reached into his pocket, ignoring Neal's look of horror, and flipped out his badge.
Lorna's eyes went huge. She hunched in her chair, frozen in place.
"Yeah," Neal sighed, exasperated. "That's the part I was afraid he was going to tell you." He scowled at Peter. "Don't you have any discretion at all?"
"Am I going to prison?" Lorna asked in a tiny voice.
"No," Neal said, reaching across the table to take her hand. "You won't -- we'll make sure of it," he added, directing another dirty look in Peter's direction.
"As long as you cooperate with us," Peter clarified.
Neal's expression now implied that Peter was a monster who stomped on puppies for fun.
"Lorna." Peter took a seat next to her. She shrank away from him. "You're not in any trouble at all ... yet. But as you can see from the fact that we're here, the FBI is closing in on David and Frank. You're lucky -- you're getting a chance to make a choice now, rather than being surprised later."
"Some choice," Lorna said, her voice low and bitter. "I help you take down my boyfriend and his brother, or you arrest me? Is that the deal?"
Neal shook his head and opened his mouth to reply, but Peter spoke over the top of him. "Yes. But that's not the only way to look at it." He glanced up at the entrance to the dining room -- they'd really been here much too long already -- then leaned close to Lorna and lowered his voice. Unconsciously, she leaned closer to him. "Sometimes you get a chance to do the right thing. The choice you make determines the kind of person you are. You, Lorna -- a minute ago, you were willing to give up something very valuable for a woman you've never met. You know who Frank and David are. What they are. Lorna ... some people never get to find out who they are. You do."
Neal looked as if he wanted to speak, then subsided. Lorna drew a shuddering breath and stared at her clasped hands on the glossy tabletop. Then her shoulders firmed and she looked up. "Yes," she said. "I'll help you."
Peter let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding.
Lorna looked down at her hands again, and turned over the bracelet between her fingers. "Do you, um -- still want my jewelry?"
"Yes!" Neal said, as Peter said, "No." They exchanged a look.
"No," Peter said firmly. "If it goes missing now, it'll tip off Frank that something's going on, and blow the whole thing."
"No. Not this time. We're saving your friend, helping someone else --" He cut his eyes sideways at Lorna. "We can't do the jewels too. Neal, you have to make choices. Tradeoffs. Some options are mutually exclusive. Sometimes you just can't save them all." Much as you might want to.
Neal backed down, rather thoughtfully. Peter figured he'd better keep a close eye on him later.
"I don't like this plan."
"You keep saying that." Neal was securely back in his Erik Vestergaard look: all black, hair slicked down. "I figure I'm playing to my strengths."
Peter was in black as well, mustache back in place. "I think we're both playing with fire."
"Backup is right around the corner."
"And ten minutes away." Organized Crime and the White Collar unit had mustered at the nearest unobtrusive staging area that they could find to Solari's upscale neighborhood, which unfortunately wasn't very close.
"You really think this is going to give us enough to move in, Burke?" Ruiz had asked, in a hastily convened council at FBI headquarters. "Pulling in this many people at short notice, on overtime -- it had better go down the way you think it's going to."
If Peter had been a dog, he knew his ears would have flattened. Ruiz could get to him, always had. Hughes intervened. "Considering how long all of us have been after the Solari brothers, I don't care if we're getting tips from Frank Solari's pet hamster. Yes, we're pulling in a lot of agents from barbecues and their daughter's birthday parties on no notice at all. That's the job. They have a problem with it, have them talk to me."
After Ruiz had left, Hughes stopped Peter. "You'd better be right about this Dean woman."
"She'll come through," Peter had said, with more confidence than he felt.
Now he paced. The place where Lorna had said she'd pick them up was a closed insurance office across from a gas station, a short drive from Frank Solari's house. Traffic was sparse on this little side road, but every time a pair of headlights approached, Peter braced himself -- it'd just figure if they got turned in to the local police for suspicious lurking. Between their black clothing and the fact that they were obviously waiting for someone, they might as well be wearing sandwich boards that read I AM UP TO NO GOOD.
"Settle down," Neal said, going through a series of stretching exercises with lazy grace. "You look like you're about to go off and rob someone."
"That's exactly what I'm about to do!"
"How is it," Neal said in wonder, "that you can be so good at certain kinds of undercover work and so utterly terrible at others?"
"There is a reason that I prefer to be on the other end of the stakeout." Peter reached up to his ear. "Radio check."
"Radio's still working, boss," Jones said, and then added after a brief pause, "Just like two minutes ago, and five minutes before that. Also, before you ask, we haven't picked up anything useful from the bugs yet. Just a lot of small talk."
"But you're still receiving transmissions from the bugs."
"Loud and clear. For now."
"Hey, Peter -- showtime," Neal murmured as a set of headlights slowed and rolled to a stop at the curb.
The car was sleek and black, and Lorna was alone in it. The jewels glittered at her throat and wrists, setting off her sleek red evening gown. She looked very young and scared. As soon as Neal and Peter slid into the backseat, she pulled hastily away from the curb.
"It was hard to get away. I told Frank I had to go out for some air. He insisted on sending someone with me, but I gave him the slip in the bathroom."
"If you want," Peter said, "you can let us out on the grounds and then leave. There's an FBI van not too far from here. You'll be safe with them. Inside ... not so much, especially if anyone realizes you're our inside person."
"And then what?" Lorna's hands were white-knuckled on the wheel, but she drove steadily without looking into the backseat at them. "I agreed to help, and I will. My future depends on what happens in there. I'll never be safe as long as David and Frank are out of prison."
Lots of loyalty to her soon-to-be-ex boyfriend there. The problem with turning someone was that if they flipped once, they could always flip back if the other side gave them a better deal. Peter wasn't confident that she'd break the right way when the FBI burst in and started arresting people.
But having her on their side would be a big advantage.
"There's the gate," Lorna said softly, and both men dropped as far down as they could, squeezing into the space between the front and back seats. Peter felt like a sardine in a can, with his face mashed against the back of the passenger's seat and Neal's knee pressing into his ribs. And he hated not being able to see. They would never pass anything but the most cursory inspection; if the gate guard so much as shined a flashlight around the interior of the car ...
But the guard knew Lorna, of course, and after a brief, friendly exchange, the car jolted forward. Neal started to sit up, but Peter, who had been expecting that, hooked a finger into Neal's collar and yanked him back down. He didn't let either of them up until the car stopped moving. Keeping one hand on top of Neal's head to hold him down, Peter raised himself just high enough to peek out. They were behind the kitchens, not too far from where they'd parked the Greatest Cake truck some twelve hours earlier.
Neal made a muffled, annoyed noise and freed himself, popping up like a jack-in-the-box and smoothing down his mussed hair.
"There's a side door here," Lorna said. "No one ever uses it. I've unlocked it from the inside. I'll pull the car around so Frank's man can park it for me like usual, and then meet you upstairs in my room, I guess."
She was trembling. Peter reached out somewhat awkwardly to pat her shoulder, but thought better of it when she flinched away. "Can you go in there and act normal?" he asked. "I'm serious, Lorna. Don't do it if you can't play cool. You've helped us already, and the FBI amnesty offer is still open."
"I'm fine," Lorna said, stiffening her shoulders. "I've been fine all evening." She sounded as if she was trying to convince herself.
"You'll do great," Neal said. Peter couldn't help noticing that she let him pat her arm.
She let them out behind a bush and then the car moved away quietly, its taillights winking in the night.
In contrast to its serene stillness that morning, the house was lit up in nearly every room, and the sound of music could be faintly heard, as well as voices from several people strolling outside. "Jones," Peter whispered. "We're in. Ears open."
"Ears open," Jones said.
They slipped through the door that Lorna had indicated. Inside, they found themselves in a hallway that led to the kitchen, judging from the babble of voices accompanied by clinking dishes and a wave of heat.
"The blueprints ..." Peter murmured, trying to call them to mind. They'd been on the other side of the kitchen before, and it looked different over here. Also, it was a lot easier to memorize one or two specific routes into a building than the whole thing, especially someplace as large and complex as Frank's house. "There should be a stairway just around the -- hey!"
Neal took his arm and guided him the other way, into what had appeared to be a closet but actually turned out to be a side passage. "Let the expert lead," Neal said.
"Of course you'd have a photographic memory for sneaky ways of getting into places."
"It's skill, not talent. Well ..." Neal smiled modestly. "Maybe a little of both."
They ended up in one of the upstairs hallways. Aside from a near miss with a giggling maid and her thug-looking boyfriend, they had no trouble finding the large bedroom overlooking the side garden that Lorna had said was hers. The door was unlocked. Neal peeked inside, then nodded, and Peter pressed close onto his heels into the room, breathing a sigh of relief when the door shut behind them.
Neal double-checked that the drapes were securely closed, and then snapped on a small bedside lamp. Peter glanced around in the spill of warm light. The room was richly decorated, from the embroidery on the bedspread to the little tassels on the lampshade, but barren of personality. It reminded him of a nice hotel room. The only personal touches were a few of Lorna's things: a silky bathrobe tossed over the back of a chair, a makeup kit unpacked on the dresser, a large gold purse hanging on the open closet door.
The urge to search the room was almost overwhelming. Peter compromised with himself by peeking into the purse.
"Oh, Peter," Neal said disapprovingly.
"Let he who is without sin, and a track record of snooping through other people's belongings, cast the first stone." Peter used a pen off a nearby table to poke through the contents of the purse, at least those that could be easily accessed. It looked like pretty typical purse-stuff to him: tissues, a hairbrush, stubs of theatre tickets -- he poked the ticket to see which show: The Lion King.
"I'll remember this the next time that you lecture me about sticking my nose where it doesn't belong."
"I'm Gunnar Vestergaard, international jewel thief." A metallic gleam under the tickets caught Peter's eye. "Just playing the part," he added, absently, as he fished out a key with the pen and then his fingertips. "Hmm. Interesting."
"Looks like a safe key," Neal said, looking over his shoulder.
"Solari said she had a deposit box."
Neal shook his head. "That's not for a bank lockbox. It's an in-wall safe."
"Back at her apartment in the city?"
"Possibly." Neal glanced around thoughtfully, then crossed the room in a few quick steps and locked the door's ornate little handle.
It only took Neal a moment to find the wall safe behind a painting of a fruit bowl. The key fit smoothly in the well-oiled lock, and the door swung open to reveal the glitter of jewels. Familiar-looking jewels.
"Two sets of jewels?" Peter said in disbelief, and then: "No. One real set of jewels, and one fake."
"No wonder she was casually wearing them around the house," Neal said. "Good fakes, though. I held one of the bracelets in my hand this morning and I couldn't tell." He leaned close to the wall safe, snagged a bracelet in his gloved fingers, and looked at it more closely.
"I can't believe she'd leave two jewel thieves alone in a room with the real jewels."
Neal laughed. "But she knows who we really work for. She didn't leave two jewel thieves here. She left two FBI agents."
"One FBI agent and one thief."
"Alleged thief," Neal said cheerfully, "and she didn't know that." He fingered the bracelet.
"Neal," Peter said, "put that back."
Neal obeyed reluctantly. "What's going to happen to Adela's jewelry, anyway? Think it'll just vanish into an FBI lockup somewhere?"
"Probably," Peter said. "Look, Neal, I've been thinking about it, and if I call in some favors, pull some strings, I think I might have a good shot at getting the jewels released to Adela once the actual court proceedings are over." It was a risky thing for him to try -- lots of potential for misunderstandings at the higher levels, given the oddball nature of his involvement in this case to begin with -- but Neal was right, they had to try.
Neal gave him an odd, long look, like he was seeing more of Peter than Peter really wanted him to. Then the doorknob rattled. Neal's eyes went wide and he mouthed, "Lorna." Peter leaped for the closet to put the key back, while Neal closed the safe and lifted the painting back into place.
There was the faintest of little tapping knocks at the door. Peter reached up to smooth his hair down, caught Neal out of the corner of his eye doing the exact same thing, and lowered his hand. He went to let in Lorna.
"You locked me out of my own room!" she whispered furiously. Her eyes darted sideways to the fruit painting and then back to Peter.
"The last thing we need is the wrong person walking in here and finding us," Neal pointed out. "Are we on?"
Lorna took a deep breath and nodded. "Let's go."
They went out into the hall, Lorna in front, the two men behind. Peter didn't like that -- if any shooting started, she'd be right in his line of fire. He touched the weight of his service weapon under the dark Gunnar Vestergaard jacket.
This morning, the ballroom had been an empty shadowy space, as still as an empty cathedral. Now it glittered with lights and echoed with music and voices. Scanning the scattered clusters of people below, Peter found Frank Solari in conversation with someone that he vaguely recognized from a completely different file in the Organized Crime archives. And there was David Solari over in the corner, about as far from his brother as it was possible to be, surrounded by several members of the Marino family. Oh yes, it was a veritable Who's Who of organized crime around here -- none of the really big fish, but a whole bunch of up-and-comers. Peter felt the corners of his mouth curl up in a grin.
"Frank!" Lorna shouted down into the ballroom.
Below them, the babble of conversation grew markedly fainter, as a number of the partygoers fell silent and turned to look up the broad staircase at Lorna with the two men in black behind her. Peter was looking at David Solari, because he absolutely had to see David's reaction, and the rapid blanch of horror did not disappoint.
"Frank," Lorna snapped, and stormed down the staircase. Peter and Neal followed her; to Peter, it felt like walking into the lion's den. "Frank, I found these men upstairs! They said David hired them to steal my jewels!"
Frank, who had started towards her, snapped his head around to look at his brother instead. A number of bystanders who had been migrating towards the commotion suddenly found other places to be. This was clearly a Solari family affair, and no one wanted to get in the middle of it.
"That's absurd," David said sharply. "These men are clearly thieves; they even admit it. They'd say anything. If you can't keep the peace in your own house, Frank --" He reached a hand towards the ill-concealed bulge under his own dinner jacket. "I'll handle the problem for you."
Peter noticed that a few large men in badly-fitting tuxedos had detached from the crowd, some angling towards David Solari, others toward Peter and Neal. At the same time, David's own bodyguards had queued up around him. Peter let his hand drift to his gun. Shots fired would get the FBI on the move as well as an admission of guilt, but he'd rather not have it come to that. C'mon, someone say something incriminating, for the love of ...
"Move that hand and you'll lose it, David," Frank said. "You're in my house. Remember that." Lorna had reached him now, with Peter and Neal close behind. "What's going on here?"
Peter cleared his throat. "I'm Gunnar Vestergaard, and this is my son Erik," he said, and there was a little ripple among the onlookers around them. Oh yeah. These guys have heard of us. The real us, that is ... He could see from the look of startled recognition on Frank's face that Frank had, too. The Vestergaards might be total unknowns in the civilian world, but in the criminal underworld, they were legends.
"My brother hired you to break in?" Frank said in disbelief.
"Blackmailed us is more like it," Peter said.
There was another little ripple. Peter had learned long ago that the old saw about "no honor among thieves" was absolutely true; on the other hand, the guys who came closest to being counterexamples were the mafia types represented in this room tonight. And a lot of it was just simple self-preservation, too -- the guy who took a knife to your competitor's back might do the same to you on another day. Most of the looks directed towards David Solari were not sympathetic ones.
"That's an absolute lie!" David snarled. "You were paid!"
Frank's expression went ugly. "So you admit it? Sending thieves to break into my house -- that's dirty even for you, brother."
"Oh, look who's talking now." The two brothers squared off against each other, and Lorna backed up until she was sandwiched between Peter and Neal. "Like we don't both know you hired those guys to bust heads at my Red Hook operation."
"I wouldn't've had to if you hadn't been moving cash through my side of the bay and not cutting my boys in on it!" Frank shot back.
Jones's voice spoke quietly in Peter's ear. "In case you were wondering, boss, we're getting this loud and clear -- and on tape. Agents are moving now."
Thank God. And they couldn't get here too soon for Peter's peace of mind. Frank and David's argument had escalated in volume -- and in level of accusation; now they were blaming each other for everything that had gone wrong with either of their sides of the business in the last fifteen years, and giving the FBI a nice fat pile of self-incrimination while they were at it. Peter reached around Lorna, touched Neal's arm, and began to herd both of them quietly towards the stairs, putting himself between them and the room as much as possible.
"You double-crossing son of a bitch, Vestergaard!" David bellowed, and whipped around with his gun in hand. Lorna screamed.
Peter had no idea which of them David intended to shoot first, but Peter's attempt to knock Neal to the floor and cover him went awry when Neal tried the exact same thing at the same time. They went down in a tangled knot, along with Lorna, just as the snap of gunshots echoed in the ballroom.
Peter's eyes met Neal's wide ones over the top of Lorna's head. "You okay?" he asked, and Neal nodded a terse affirmative.
"You?" Neal asked.
Peter nodded and looked up to find that David Solari had just discovered the problem with firing a gun in a room where everyone was armed and no one was averse to a little violence. About a dozen different people had drawn on him, and he stood nervously, gun dangling from his hands, looking like he wasn't sure which way to bolt. His bodyguards had closed in around him, and everyone else's bodyguards had closed around them, and Peter got the impression that they were seconds from erupting into an actual shooting war.
The boom of the door being kicked in and the bellow of "FBI! Freeze!" could not possibly have come at a better time.
Some time later, the madhouse had mostly sorted itself out. About a dozen arrestees with outstanding warrants had joined the Solari brothers in a circle of armed FBI agents on the lawn, while everyone else had been (reluctantly) let go. To Peter it seemed that none of the FBI agents on the property could manage to do their jobs for five minutes without asking him a self-evident question, but he finally managed to delegate most of it and wandered back into the ballroom to find Lorna sitting on the stairs, looking rather bedraggled. She wasn't wearing the jewelry.
"The FBI confiscated it," she said at Peter's raised-eyebrow look, and sighed, rubbing her arms as if she was cold. "Easy come, easy go, I guess. What's going to happen to me now?"
"We'll need to take a statement, and I expect the D.A.'s office will have a number of questions for you. You may be asked to testify at Frank and David's trials. Would you be up for that?"
Lorna nodded. "I want to help."
Her eyes kept drifting upstairs, towards her room -- and the safe, Peter thought, which even now the FBI was emptying out. He wondered what her plan was at the moment. Probably she meant to wait awhile, make sure the Solari brothers were safely in jail and the heat had died down, then come back and get the real jewels and live the high life somewhere else.
He decided, selfishly, that he didn't want to be around to see the look on her face when she realized that her not-so-little nest egg had been discovered. Easy come, easy go wasn't going to be her reaction at that point, he guessed. He also realized, with slowly dawning suspicion, that he hadn't seen Neal in a while.
"Which FBI agent did you give your jewelry to?" Peter asked, but he had a feeling he already knew the answer.
"Your partner," she said.
Detaching himself from Lorna, Peter headed upstairs two steps at a time. In Lorna's room, he found Diana supervising a couple of people from Organized Crime as they swept the room. The door to the safe was open, the jewels in plain sight.
"Did you just open that?"
"Just now, boss." She held up the key. "No one but us has been in here."
"I don't suppose you've seen Neal around anywhere."
Diana glanced at the jewels, then at Peter, and grinned. "Don't worry. Caffrey hasn't been near those. Actually, he's not here. He caught a ride back to HQ with Jones -- said he'd help Jones get the paperwork started." Her smile morphed into a frown. "Yeah. Caffrey volunteering for paperwork. He's up to something, isn't he."
Peter thought about radioing Jones. Then he looked at the safe with its glittering contents, and thought about a certain elderly widow who wasn't being properly served by the system, and let it go.
"It's just Neal being Neal," he said, and went back downstairs to see about wrapping things up.
On Sunday morning, Peter kissed his sleepy wife goodbye and went into the office in a sweater and jeans to get as many loose ends as possible on the Solari case tucked away. It would be nice to take Monday off. Or take a half-day, at least.
As he worked, little bits and pieces from the case tickled the back of his brain, shifting and falling into new patterns. He always liked this part -- when the uncertainty and danger was over, the bad guys safely behind bars, all the evidence in hand, and now it was just a matter of seeing how everything went together. Like a crossword puzzle, or like juggling the numbers on a particularly tricky math problem. I always was an accountant at heart.
As was so often the case, his thoughts kept circling back around to a certain enigmatic CI ... and friends. He wondered if Erik Vestergaard was already on a plane back to wherever he'd come from in the first place. On the other hand, if Peter came home this afternoon to find El preparing dinner for the entire jewel-thieving Vestergaard family, he wouldn't be a bit surprised.
He touched his upper lip, still a bit tender from the glue to hold the mustache on. Playing the part of an international jewel thief had been fun, he'd have to admit ... though never to Neal. But it was also comfortable to slip back into the familiar persona of Peter Burke, not-at-all-international FBI agent.
The Vestergaards. The jewels. Jewel thieves and switchable fake jewels and elderly widows and Neal Caffrey ... Peter found that his hands had been hovering over the keyboard for several minutes without typing anything. He closed the file and leaned back thoughtfully in his chair.
When had Neal made the swap, anyway, the real jewels for the fake ones? Or ... had he?
One person might know. Peter looked up Adela Calabro's address. Somehow it didn't surprise him to discover that she lived in Manhattan, inside Neal's radius.
It surprised him even less when he checked Neal's tracking detail and found that Neal had been there several times in the last couple of weeks. In fact, he was there now.
Maybe it was time to break for lunch.
Adela buzzed him into her building. When Peter tapped on her door and opened it, he found them sitting together on a sleek leather couch, and neither one of them looked surprised to see him.
"Agent Burke." Adela Calabro was a trim white-haired woman who reminded him of June with her air of quiet self-possession. "Would you care for a cup of coffee?"
Peter accepted, though he declined to sit, leaning a hip against the back of the couch. The coffee was the exact same exquisite blend that June used. No big question as to how Adela and Neal had met. Which left a number of other questions, such as ...
"So when did you cook this up, anyway?" he asked. "Helping Erik Vestergaard -- was that just a cover for what you really wanted to do?" Then an even less pleasant thought occurred to him. "Is there any such person as Erik Vestergaard?"
"Oh, Erik's real," Neal said. "His friendship with me is real. We never lied to you, Peter. The part that was left out of the story you heard ..." He glanced uncertainly at Adela.
"The part you didn't hear, I presume, was that the person who originally sought to employ the Vestergaards was me," Adela said without a trace of remorse. "But I discovered that both Gunnar and Erik had retired from the -- jewelry-repossession business. And then David Solari made an ugly business even uglier." Her mouth twisted as if the name itself was bitter.
"When he tried to hire Erik himself." Peter looked sharply from Adela to Neal, another suspicion twisting his gut. "Which was how I got involved. Neal, if one or both of you manipulated David Solari into blackmailing Erik --"
"No," Neal said quickly. "No, Peter. That was all David Solari's doing."
"An unfortunate side effect of my inquiries being a great deal less discreet than I tried to make them," Adela sighed.
Peter snorted. "And all that about the theft being part of a turf war between Frank and David Solari? It certainly sounded plausible, I have to admit. Enough to get the FBI to go for the bait." He knew he ought to be upset, but as it was, they'd brought down the Solari brothers, and both White Collar and Organized Crime were the darlings of the local FBI office. So the way they got there hadn't been entirely aboveboard, and he wished Neal had come clean with him, but, well ... after all this time, it wasn't as if he didn't know you had to ask Neal exactly the right questions, and stay on your toes at all times. And Neal's heart had been in the right place.
"It was at least partly true," Neal said. "It's just that it wasn't the only reason David wanted the jewels back."
"He wanted to keep them close and make sure Mrs. Calabro here didn't get them," Peter guessed.
"Most likely, all he planned to do was sell them," Adela said. "Deprive me of them and turn a profit at the same time." She shrugged. "It hardly matters now."
"Yep. You have your jewels, the FBI has the Solari brothers, the Vestergaards go on about their lives, and everyone's happy," Peter said with sunny cheer, and sipped the last of his coffee. "Right, Neal?"
Neal eyed him, looking very nervous, like a man waiting for a bomb to go off. "Pretty much."
"Things just work out for you, don't they?"
"It's more than just luck," Neal said. He glanced away and then looked up, suddenly serious, meeting Peter's eyes. "Thank you."
Peter contemplated several different responses, but ended up with a nod of equal seriousness. He set down Adela's cup and saucer. "Thank you for the coffee. I hope you don't mind if I pull off one last heist and steal my CI back."
"We can't possibly be working," Neal said, back to wariness.
"Actually, I am, but I needed a break for lunch anyway. You pick the restaurant."
"That sounds too good to be true."
"Hey, as long as it's in my price range ..."
"Ah, there's the catch." Neal rose, and bent over Adela's hand with old-fashioned courtly grace.
She kissed him on the cheek. "Say hello to June for me," she told him, and then shook Peter's hand. Her grip was dry and firm.
In the elevator, Peter said, "Those were the real jewels you took off Lorna, weren't they? And the fakes were in the safe all along."
Neal's quick look was amused, a little startled, and fond, all at once. "What an odd question, Peter. The FBI has the jewels in their evidence room."
"Mm-hmm," Peter said. "Even if we do get an expert to look at them -- not likely with our budget so tight these days -- well, it would be just like David Solari to shake down an old lady for a bunch of fake jewels and never even check if they were real."
"He seems like that kind of guy," Neal agreed.
"Mm-hmm." They crossed the lobby, and Peter said, "Did Lorna know? That she wasn't wearing the fakes?"
Neal hesitated, then shook his head. "I don't think so. She wouldn't have been able to tell by looking, like I can. It's possible that Frank lied to her about which was which. That way, if she'd tried to run off and sell them, which she was probably planning to do even before she met us, she'd have the fakes and he'd still have the real ones."
"No wonder she had no problem giving them back. Pass the fakes back to Adela, keep the real ones for herself ..."
The smile that skated across Neal's lips was a sad one. "True."
"That doesn't mean it wasn't worth trying to save her anyway."
Neal shrugged. "You win some, you lose some."
"And sometimes you go out on a limb for someone and they turn out not to be worth saving," Peter said. "You never really know. It's a gamble."
"How do you know if it's worth doing in the first place?"
Peter managed to catch his eye. "Because every so often you find one who really is worth it. Somehow makes up for the misses."
Rather than answering, Neal put on his hat, tipping it at a rakish angle over his eyes. "Speaking of Erik ..."
"... he's flying back to France early tomorrow, but he wanted me to pass along an invitation. He'd like to invite you and El out to dinner tonight. A little thank you." Neal grinned. "I'm invited too -- probably to make sure there's no last-minute arresting."
"No one's arresting anyone," Peter sighed. "This time," he added, because, damn it, he couldn't let himself get a reputation as a soft touch in the criminal underworld.
Dinner with con artists and thieves. His gray areas were getting grayer all the time.
But Peter glanced to the right, at Neal with his hands in his pockets, his eyes bright and alert, scanning the street.
They'd done good work this week. Got a few bad people off the street. Helped Adela. Offered Lorna a hand -- and if she'd chosen to play her own game instead, that was her burden.
His elbow still ached where he'd banged it, going down on Frank Solari's polished marble floor when Neal dived to save him at the exact same moment that he'd dived to save Neal.
Worth it? Possibly. Probably. More than likely.