Peter would always remember the first time he saw Neal Bennett.
The thing was, Bennett made an impression. At first glance Peter thought he was a lawyer or possibly even involved with the criminals. He pulled up in a late-model Lexus and stepped out wearing a suit that was tastefully and impeccably tailored. He was wearing leather driving gloves. It was chilly, but not that cold. He couldn't have looked more out of place on the grimy streets of Jersey City.
Peter didn't miss the little ripple that ran through the officers around him. Whoever this guy was, they didn't like him.
But as soon as Mr. Tailored Suit showed up, he moved in like he knew exactly what he was here for and what he planned to do, and a minute later Peter was being introduced to Neal Bennett, police negotiator.
"You're the FBI liaison?" Bennett asked, shaking hands with him.
"I am. Special Agent Peter Burke."
This was followed by the usual moment of interagency territorial jockeying when they both sized each other up. Peter wasn't sure what Bennett thought of him, but he liked what he saw. Sharp intelligence gleamed in Bennett's bright blue eyes, and more than that, a spark of easy good humor. Bennett was startlingly young, late twenties at most, but Peter thought, I can work with this kid.
El always warned him that his habit of making snap decisions about people was going to come back to bite him someday -- and, in truth, it occasionally did -- but he still preferred to trust his gut; it steered him right more often than not.
"You gonna stay out of our way?" Bennett asked, but he was smiling.
"Depends on if you guys plan to screw this up or not," Peter shot back, and Bennett flashed him an easy grin before he turned to ask the officer manning the listening station if he could get a set of headphones.
Peter hung back and watched the proceedings, mindful that his status was more of an observer than an active participant. This was a joint op with the Jersey City PD -- the guy they were after was one Peter's department had been trailing for weeks, but they'd ended up on JCPD turf, and he'd already told the incident commander, one Lieutenant Frayne, that it was their show. He was mostly along for the ride.
Besides, Bennett seemed to have things under control. Peter watched, impressed, as the kid got up to speed, deftly deflected an attempted media incursion, and then got the hostage-taker talking on the phone, which no one had been able to do yet.
The only delaying factor was that nobody on the JCPD seemed willing to go beyond the minimum professional cooperation with him. The emotional undercurrents flowing around were many and varied, but mostly negative. Obviously, at some point in the past, the kid had done something to piss them off but good.
During a break in the action, Peter found a moment to ask Frayne quietly, "There something I should know about that Bennett kid?"
Frayne shook his head. "Nothing that matters right now. Tell you later."
Which just left him even more puzzled, especially after Bennett and his silver tongue peacefully resolved the situation in about a half-hour of intense negotiation. Bennett stepped back and stayed out of the way of the actual takedown. It really couldn't have gone better; none of the hostages were harmed, even the damned journalists seemed happy enough, and Peter handed off their cuffed suspect to a couple of his own agents and shook hands with Frayne. "Buy you a drink to celebrate?" he asked, because it made good sense to stay on good terms with the other area agencies.
"Hey, you hear that, boys?" Frayne asked, slinging an arm around Peter's shoulders. "FBI's picking up the tab tonight."
Peter snorted. "Don't get too cocky." He glanced around, realizing that the one person he really wanted to talk to was nowhere to be found. "Where'd your negotiator get off to? That Bennett kid."
"Slippery little eel," Frayne said. "He better have eeled off to the station to file his report, or I'll have his ass."
"What's the deal, anyway? I'm starting to wonder if he put a dead skunk in someone's locker."
Frayne laughed. "Nothing that simple. It's a long story. Buy me that drink and I'll tell you."
Over beers at a dark and noisy neighborhood bar -- Peter's kind of place -- there was the usual after-op postgame commentary to be done: mistakes chewed over, congratulations passed around. The conversation turned eventually to Bennett.
"It's the whole family," Frayne explained. "Crooks, the lot of them. His dad was a dirty cop. Rotting in prison somewhere from what I hear. Partner turned state's evidence and testified against him -- blew up her whole career. Mom's a deadbeat, half the family's in prison." He made a spinning motion with his hand, down to the rim of his glass: down the drain.
"He's good, though," Peter said. "One of the best I've ever seen. Today could've gone a lot differently if he hadn't been there."
"Jeez, Burke, you met him, right? You see those suits and all? The guy's crooked as a two-penny nail."
"Even if he's not," one of the others put in from down the bar, "he's -- what's the word I want here?"
"Stuck up," someone else put in. "Thinks he's better than the rest of us."
Frayne slapped Peter on the back. "Burke, quit looking like someone kicked the kid's puppy. You think he's not here tonight because nobody asked him along? Nobody bothers. If he does go out with the boys -- and girls," he amended, nodding to the single female officer in the group, who flipped him off in a friendly way, "he just sits in the corner nursing a glass of the most expensive French swill in the place, and ignoring the rest of us."
Yeah, Peter thought, and if what I saw today is any indication of how he's treated around here, I can't imagine why.
Peter packed it in early at the bar, giving his apologies: he was tired and had a long drive back to Brooklyn.
In his car, he thought for a minute and then called the police station. After explaining who he was and offering up his badge number, he got Bennett's home address. On his way over, he GPS'd his way to a gas station convenience store and picked up a six-pack.
Bennett's apartment building gave him pause. It wasn't where he would've expected someone to live who dressed like that, and drove a car like that, and who half his co-workers thought was on the take. Bennett lived in a run-down building in a generally shitty part of town. Not quite the sort of place where you didn't want to park for concerns your car wouldn't be there when you got back, but a far cry from the upscale condo or gated suburb that Neal's external appearance seemed to suggest.
It was a secure building with an iron grate across the entry. Peter buzzed Neal's apartment. "Hey, yeah?" Neal said after a moment, his voice blurred by static.
"It's Agent Burke." He felt a little stupid now. They'd hardly exchanged five words. Neal might not even remember him. "From the case today."
There was a pause, then Neal buzzed him in.
The building was less of a dump inside than it looked like from the outside, more on the order of "cheap hotel" than the sort of place where rats scuttled around in the hallways. There was a pervasive odor of cigarette smoke. Peter took a creaky elevator to the fourth floor and tapped on Neal's door.
Neal answered in a T-shirt and slacks. Even when he was lounging around the house, there was something a little upscale about him. He seemed more human now, though, more relaxed, and Peter had a fleeting, slightly startled thought about the power suits and the car: Armor.
Neal's curious and amused glance took in Peter's typically rumpled appearance and the brown paper bag. "Is this about the case?"
"Not exactly." Peter realized belatedly that this was a little odd. Irregular, certainly. "You didn't hit the bar with us," he said, trying to explain. "So ... I figured I'd stop by. After." He held up the bag. "I brought beer."
"Well, how could I say no to that," Neal said, stepping back to let him in. "You can hang your coat up there."
It was a two-bedroom apartment, with a short hallway leading back to a pocket-sized living room and kitchen. The interior decorating was tasteful and minimal. El would have approved. Peter didn't have much of an eye for that sort of thing, beyond what he'd picked up from his wife, but even he could see that Neal had done his best with the small space. The furniture was, for the most part, nicely refinished antiques. There was no sign of a TV at all.
Brilliant white light streamed out of one of the bedrooms. Peter didn't mean to pry ... well, okay, maybe he was prying a bit, but he glanced inside as he went by. The bedroom, hardly bigger than a closet, was an artist's studio. Halogen lights lit up an easel with a cityscape in progress. Peter caught a strong whiff of wet paint and pungent chemicals.
"I have to admit I'm not that much of a beer guy," Neal said from the kitchen. "You want to have one of those, and I'll keep drinking what I'm drinking?"
What he was drinking was wine, judging by the half-empty glass on the counter. "Sure," Peter said. He handed over the six-pack, and Neal opened one for him and put the rest in the 'fridge, a clunky old 1980s-era job.
"So how'd the victory celebration go?" Neal asked, gesturing him to the living room.
"Oh, you know. Shop talk and all that." The couch was more comfortable than it looked. Peter wondered if Neal fixed up the antique pieces himself. Based on the downscale nature of the building, he had a feeling that might be the case.
Neal smiled slightly. "Dull?"
"Just the usual. You didn't miss much." Peter sipped his beer and asked, "How long have you been on the force?"
"I always wanted to be a cop. Joined up straight out of high school, pretty much."
His whole life, in other words. "You did good out there today."
Neal looked startled, in a way that let Peter know he didn't hear that very often. "Thanks," he said.
"I mean it. You're good. That's why I came by tonight, mostly." Well, one of the reasons. "I meant to have a word with you afterwards, but you ducked out before I could."
"Had work to do," Neal said. He ducked his head, studying his drink. "Sorry about that, Agent Burke."
In the field, he was a focused ball of energy, confident and in charge, brushing off all the many little slights Peter had witnessed that day. In private ... not so much. "Peter. I'm only Agent Burke when I'm on duty."
This got a little smile, at least.
Peter decided not to try tiptoeing around the situation. El would probably give him one of those looks for bulling on ahead, but he'd never been shy about speaking his mind. "They don't seem to like you much around here."
Neal gave a soft laugh. "No," he said. "They don't. I suppose you probably heard the story about my dad."
"Yeah," Peter said. "They tell it to all the new people?" Just in case someone gets the idea that they might want to make friends with the office pariah.
"It's the truth," Neal said. "I've never tried to hide it."
Peter kicked around whether or not to say what he wanted to say. He didn't even know the guy. On the other hand ...
"Everyone you work with thinks you're on the take. You don't do much to make them think otherwise." Peter waved a hand around. "The suits and so on. It'd be easier to live on a cop's salary, and maybe make things a little easier on yourself, if you'd just -- be what they expect."
He could see Neal doing a similar cost-benefit analysis about answering. Finally he said, "Did you grow up poor ... Peter?"
"My dad was a bricklayer," Peter said. "We weren't eating filet mignon or anything, but we had enough for what we needed."
"Yeah, well, we were poor. Food banks, food stamps, getting evicted from more than one apartment because we couldn't pay the rent. That kind of poor." Neal picked at the arm of his chair, speaking with a sort of grim determination, not looking at Peter. "After you grow up on peanut butter sandwiches, wearing thrift-store clothes, sometimes you decide you aren't going to spend your whole life that way. That it's worth saving for the things you didn't have back then. And," he added with a sudden bite in his voice, "I've never been what anyone expected."
"I'll drink to that." Peter held out his nearly empty beer bottle.
Neal, after a moment, clinked it and drained the last of his wine. "Want another?" he asked, tipping his glass at Peter's beer.
"Why the hell not."
Neal topped off his wine and fetched Peter another beer from the kitchen. "It could've gone bad today," he said, running a finger around the stem of the wine glass. "You know, I don't want you thinking I'm sitting at home because I don't -- Because they didn't -- Look, anyway, I always think about it, afterward, how things could've ended up. I can't seem to help it. And it's easier to be alone. That's what the painting is for, mostly. It's a decompressing thing."
"I get that," Peter said. He half-smiled. "Though, for the most part, my division handles white collar crime. Usually the worst we have to worry about is wiping people's hard drives."
And this led to a story about the time that one of their new techs had accidentally erased a hard drive with incriminating evidence before anyone had a chance to look at it. Neal countered with an incident in which he'd had to negotiate with a wannabe terrorist who was threatening to release a truckload of tadpoles into the city's water supply -- "Tadpoles, Peter!" The night wore on; Peter had a few more beers than he'd intended, and Neal ended up puddled sleepily in his chair, with most of the wine gone.
Peter's phone interrupted him in the middle of another anecdote. "Oh hell," he said when he saw El's face on the screen.
"Wife?" Neal asked. Peter winced as he answered.
"Case ran late?" El asked sympathetically.
"More like the socializing after the case," he admitted. "I'm about to head out, hon, I swear."
"Peter Burke, if you've been drinking all this time, don't drive. I'd rather have you spend the night over there."
"Have I mentioned lately that I have the world's best wife?"
"And don't you forget it," she said, laughter in her voice.
After he hung up, Neal said, "I hope I didn't get you in trouble."
"Not the kind you're thinking of. El isn't like that." Peter rubbed his eyes. The beer was starting to really hit him, along with exhaustion. "Morning's gonna suck, though. I better head out, get a hotel."
"You're welcome to the couch, if you want it," Neal offered. "I can get some blankets and so forth. The guest bedroom, unfortunately, is full of paintings. I ... don't have people over much."
No, he probably didn't. And Peter had gotten the distinct impression from the way Neal had connected with their hostage taker that he was a natural people person. It wasn't an easy life he had.
"The couch would be great," Peter said. "Thanks."
Neal nodded and rose to gather up the beer bottles.
Peter bent over to unlace his shoes, and said to Neal's back, "You ever thinking about working for the FBI?"
Neal looked over his shoulder, startled. "Say what now?"
"I'm serious. White collar crime is a little outside what you've been trained for, but you clearly know art, and I've been meaning to put together our own art crimes division anyway, rather than needing to call experts up from DC. And if you'd rather look into a different division -- if you want to work for the FBI's hostage negotiation unit, say -- I'll put in a good word and pull a few strings."
Neal didn't answer immediately. He took the bottles into the kitchen, not bothering to turn on the light. "I don't get it," he said. "You don't know me. You know my dad was on the take and rumor has it I am, too. And you want me in your department?"
"Screw the rumors. You saved a lot of lives today. If Frayne's willing to squander what he's got, I'm not above snaking his people." Peter raised a hand. "You don't have to make any decisions right away. Just think about it. There's no time limit on the offer."
Neal, in thoughtful silence, brought a stack of neatly folded linens from the closet. "You're not what I expected from the FBI," he said at last.
"I hope that's a compliment."
"It is. Mostly." He laid the linens on a chair. "Bathroom's over there. If you're up before I am, help yourself to anything in the kitchen if you want it."
"Thanks," Peter said again, reluctantly unfolding himself from the couch on the general principle that, if he wanted to sleep, he was going to need to make his bed first.
"Peter," Neal said, and Peter looked up. Neal was looking back from the bathroom doorway, backlit by the light and seeming very young. "I'll take some time to think about your offer. But I think I'm probably going to say yes."
And then he vanished quickly inside and closed the door, as if he'd said too much.