"I need you on your best behavior today," Peter said. Those were the first words out of his mouth as soon as he spotted Neal waiting for him, as requested, on the corner of 42nd and Vanderbilt. "Better, if you can manage it."
"I'm here at 9am on a Saturday," Neal pointed out. "How much better can I get?"
There was no petulance to Neal's question, though. It was merely a tease he'd decided to go with after mentally flipping a coin between that and joking about Peter only requesting good behavior from him for a single day. In truth he'd already been awake when Peter called. His only other plans were meeting up with Mozzie. If helping Peter made Neal late for that, well Moz would understand.
"I mean it." Peter tapped Neal's arm to indicate they should start walking uptown. "This is a delicate case. We're going to have a lot of eyes on us, not just FBI."
Neal couldn't help but glance in the direction of the police cars parked across the street. They were a fixture around Grand Central, moreso lately, but even still. "Sounds serious."
Peter passed him the file folder he'd been holding. "What do you know about the theft of a Hickman?"
"That I was hopefully with you at the time it happened?" Neal replied. He flipped the manila folder open. Inside was a color printout of a night sky over dark purple and green silhouettes of mountains. A Post-It identified the painting as Look to the Adirondacks No. 3, which meant it was one of John Hickman's later pieces. A turn of the page confirmed that the painting had been completed in 1952. Neal whistled appreciatively. "Done right before Hickman's death. That adds a few million to the value."
Peter shot Neal a knowing look. Neal kept his own face in a well-practiced expression of innocence. "I'm only talking about possible motives, of course."
"Of course," Peter replied, with his own well-practiced expression of not believing Neal for a second. "The painting was stolen from a private collection. We've been called in to handle the case. By which I mean you and me specifically."
"Our reputation for closing is that good?" Neal asked. He side-stepped around a group of tourists taking pictures of Grand Central's rebuilt facade. Neal wanted to point out they'd get a better view of the repairs if they went around the corner, but Peter grabbed his attention again.
"Yes, but this is also a favor for a friend," Peter told him. "He's the one who requested us. His agency doesn't deal with art theft. We do."
Neal started to get the picture. "So when you said we'd have more than the eyes of the Bureau on us - "
"I meant we're taking on a case that represents the highest level of inter-agency cooperation that the FBI, let alone our division, has handled," Peter told him. He turned to the right once the stone exterior of Grand Central gave way to sleek, dark glass, angling himself towards the line of doorways just past a handful of steps. "Which means screwing this up is probably the last mistake either one of us wants to make."
Neal stopped when he realized what building they were about to enter. "The Hickman was stolen from Stark Tower?"
"Best behavior," Peter said as he led the way inside.
The usual New York City noises of people and traffic gave way to the much more muted, though by no means less busy, lobby of Stark Tower. In contrast to its Beaux-Arts next door neighbor, the lobby's style was all about simple, modern design with no room for extraneous embellishment. If Neal had to pick a single word to describe it, the word would be clean. Elegant, clean lines. Light, clean colors. Even the air smelled clean, with no hint of the exhaust fumes or sweet and savory scents of hot dog stands that could be found back on the sidewalk. Though if Neal took a deep breath, he could detect a hint of recently placed drywall, which of course made sense.
Actually if Neal thought about it, maybe the word he wanted to use to describe the place was sterile.
A man in a dark blue suit stepped away from the front desk. He was shorter than both Peter and Neal, and had a receding hairline.
"Peter," the man said as he came closer. He smiled and held out his hand. "Thanks for coming."
"Anytime," Peter replied. He took the man's hand to shake, then indicated Neal standing beside him. "This is Neal Caffrey. Neal, this is Agent Phil Coulson of SHIELD."
"So, I finally get to meet Neal Caffrey." Coulson turned to look Neal over. He stopped once he saw Neal's fedora. "Huh. You weren't kidding about the hat."
"Why would I make up a detail like the hat?" Peter asked.
A few tumblers clicked into place inside of Neal's brain. "Wait - this is your friend Phil? Phil of the every third Thursday beer and bitc - " Peter gave Neal a look, so Neal quickly amended what he was saying to " - bonding sessions?"
"Schedule permitting," Coulson said, by way of confirmation.
"By the way, El says I'm not allowed to leave until you agree to a day for dinner," Peter told Coulson.
Neal was still processing what he'd just found out. "You never said you had a friend who worked for SHIELD."
"Peter's discretion regarding such matters is one of the reasons why I requested him for the case," Coulson said. He stepped back and swept his arm in the direction of the far end of the lobby. "Shall we?"
Peter and Neal fell into step behind Coulson. "I told Neal about the Hickman," Peter said.
Coulson nodded, as though that was expected. "Art crimes aren't exactly within SHIELD's domain. However, given the location of the theft, SHIELD does have an interest in making sure sensitive materials and information are kept secure."
"You don't want anybody blabbing the state secrets," Neal said, to show he understood.
"Precisely." Coulson stopped when they reached a nondescript door at the back of the lobby. He pulled a plastic card out of his suit pocket and held it up to a black box on the wall beside the door's handle. A red light above the box turned green. Coulson opened the door and gestured for Peter and Neal to go ahead of him. "Someone was needed who was both capable of solving the case and who could be trusted around highly classified information. Fortunately, Peter can do both."
"And Neal promises to be on his best behavior," Peter added, though his glance at Neal indicated he said that more for Neal's benefit than Coulson's.
"I wouldn't even think of doing otherwise," Neal promised.
"Good," Peter said. He gave Neal a far too cheerful smile. "Because if you did I would think about having the radius on your tracking anklet changed from two miles to ten feet."
"Funny," Neal said. He gave Peter a look of his own for how old those jokes were getting.
Coulson led them further back into the depths of the Tower. Card swipe security led to keyed-in passcodes, then fingerprint identification. Finally they arrived at a hallway with a single elevator at the end. This time Coulson held still for a retinal scan. Neal found himself feeling glad that going into the FBI offices didn't require so much hassle.
"Any ideas who might have stolen the Hickman?" Neal asked as the elevator lifted them through the Tower. There were no buttons on the inside to indicate where they were going. That didn't stop Neal from wondering how he - or their thief - might hack into the system to get where they wanted to be.
"I wish I could say yes," Coulson said. "SHIELD's surveillance systems picked up chatter about the painting, but not enough to produce a solid lead. We're hoping this is where your experience will come into play. As far as this sort of crime goes, we can only collect the data. We need experts in the field to help analyze it."
"Neal's nothing if not an expert at figuring out art theft," Peter said.
There was a faint touch of pride in Peter's voice, which made Neal inclined to reply, in kind, "You'd be the expert at catching them."
"Hopefully the both of you can resolve this matter quickly," Coulson said.
"Where was the painting stolen from anyway?" Neal asked.
The elevator slowed to a stop. "We're here," Coulson said.
The elevator doors slid open to reveal the penthouse of Stark Tower.
"Don't touch anything," Peter told Neal.