This is a work of fanfiction, for entertainment purposes only. The characters and concepts of White Collar do not belong to me, but to their creators.
Author's Notes: Please forgive the liberty of assigning Neal a prison, even as a passing reference. Someday I might have to come up with some sort of explanation for Peter's "supermax" remark, but it won't be today.
Also, a shout-out to mle: If you're reading this, drop me a PM sometime. I'd love to chat about legal ways and means.
What Partners Do
Burke had known Caffrey would figure it out sooner or later, and, being Neal Caffrey, the agent had put his money on sooner. Trying to skip out on the ever-present tracker in the middle of the night was a sure-fire failure, as the bureau would know the second he left his radius. But during the day, when they were working and Peter would alert the dispatch office to silence the alarms, well . . . it wouldn't take a genius like Caffrey to see that the odds of succeeding increased dramatically. He'd known that all it would take would be for him to drop his guard just once. To get involved in his work, believing that Caffrey was sitting in another office doing his own work. Once would be enough, so Burke had to be strong; had to stay vigilant; had to be sure the con man didn't make a mistake that could ruin both of their lives.
The problem was that it hadn't taken just once. The problem was that in the past three months, Peter had lost track of the times he'd lifted his head from some file, only to realize that he hadn't checked on Neal in hours. Then, fighting the urge to run across the office, he would casually stroll over to whatever spot he'd parked Caffrey and find the younger man doing precisely as he'd been instructed. And each time, Burke had found himself less and less surprised, which just started the circle over again, leading him back to the next time he would drop his guard again. And the problem with that was that today, when he had lost track of time and then wandered to the cubicle assigned to Neal, he'd been honestly surprised to find the space empty. Surprised, even though he'd known all along that Caffrey would figure it out sooner or later.
He had taken a few moments to make a discreet sweep of the office. No sense raising the alarm if Neal had just stepped into the men's room. And then he'd taken a few more minutes to ride the elevator downstairs and then stroll out to the sidewalk. Neal had become friendly with the coffee vendor, so that was worth checking out, too. But Neal hadn't made a coffee run since his usual cup on the way into the building that morning, and by then, Burke wasn't surprised at all.
The question now was what to do next. Peter knew that he needed to contact dispatch immediately for a location, and that he also needed to report the man's absence to Reese before gathering a small tactical army to descend on the escaping felon. And, really, he probably ought to contact the warden to let him know that Caffrey would be returning soon. Burke knew he should be doing all of that, but what he found himself doing instead was placing a call to Agent Jones to say that he and Caffrey would be out of the office for the rest of the afternoon. And then he called the dispatcher and calmly informed him that an operation was beginning, so could he please get a GPS location forwarded to his cell phone every five minutes. He quashed any internal objections with the argument that he had a right to bring Neal in himself. After all, that's what a partner should do. And by the time he found himself in his car, pulling out of the garage and following the small map toward the blinking light on his phone, he wondered what Caffrey would think when he realized the agent had a few surprises of his own.
Burke had closed the distance between himself and his prey to almost nothing before he realized the light didn't really seem to be moving much. It wasn't stationary, but it didn't seem to be exactly purposeful movement, and he didn't think it was getting much farther away. He turned onto a small side street and found himself in an industrial park area. Careful study of his map revealed that Neal almost seemed to be moving in circles—up the block then back down, over and over again. But minutes before he made the final turn to reach his destination, the blinking light had stopped moving. His first thought, as he put the car in park and made his way toward a row of apparently abandoned warehouses, was that Neal would be waiting for him again. But he pushed that thought aside; he didn't intend to be surprised again.
It had taken two more updates from the phone before Peter could be certain which door was hiding his quarry, but now he raised a fist and pounded loudly. "FBI!" he shouted, though he assumed that was unnecessary. Neal couldn't possibly be surprised that he'd been caught yet again.
But when the door slowly slid open, Burke was surprised to see the short, bald man standing just inside. "Haversham! What the hell are you doing here? And where the hell is Caffrey?"
Mozzie looked around, eyes wide. "Agent Burke? I wasn't expecting you."
"The hell you weren't," Peter snapped, pushing his way into the building. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the almost non-existent light, but then only another moment to realize that the building was empty. The vast, open space, devoid even of offices or lofts, provided no opportunities for concealment.
"Where is he?" he demanded, whirling back toward Mozzie.
"Look, Burke, this isn't something I really want to get into with you—" Mozzie hesitated, and cast a furtive glance back toward the door. "But I was sort of expecting someone."
"Neal?" Peter demanded.
"Of course not." Mozzie was the very picture of honesty. He lowered his voice conspiratorially. "I'm trying to conduct a little business. It would be easier without a federal agent in attendance."
Burke stared at the other man for several long seconds, then gestured with his phone, the screen still displaying the map. "I tracked Caffrey here; this says he's still here."
"Well, you can clearly see that's not the case." Moz shook his head. "Gadgets. Never all they're cracked up to be." He scratched at his head, seeming to consider further. "You know," he finally added, "I bet he's at home. He told me last night he wasn't feeling too well; he's probably just trying to catch a nap."
"Really? That's what you want to go with? Turn around."
Peter dropped his phone into his pocket, then reached out to run his hands over Mozzie, a quick and efficient search. He shook his head as he felt the lump inside the jacket pocket, knowing even before he pulled it out, exactly what he'd find.
"How long?" he demanded, jerking Mozzie back to face him, waving the tracker in the air.
"Don't play games with me," the agent interrupted. "How long has he been able to get this thing off?"
Still Moz hesitated, and looked as if he were calculating just what the right answer might be.
Burke took a half step, closing the small distance between them, and leaned in toward the other man's face. "How long?" he growled.
Mozzie finally gave a small shrug. "I dunno. He cracked the code a few weeks ago, I guess." He winced as the agent grabbed the front of his shirt, not allowing any retreat.
"A few weeks?" Peter shouted. He wondered momentarily what had ever caused him to believe that he understood Neal Caffrey. "Then why now?"
"Ah . . ."
"Why is he running now?" Peter clarified. "Why not the minute he figured how to beat this thing?" He was still clutching the tracker tightly, and he wedged it into the impossibly small opening between them, literally under Mozzie's nose. "Why now?" he repeated.
But suddenly, Burke understood. "Dammit." He released the con man with a shove. "It's Kate, isn't it?" It wasn't really a question at all, but was full of resigned certainty. He'd known this day would come; he had hoped it wouldn't come so soon. "What changed? Did you find her?"
"Peter . . ."
"I know, I know." Burke rubbed at his forehead; he understood Mozzie's discomfort all too well. "He's your friend and I'm the fed. But, dammit, he's my fr—" He stopped himself. After a few seconds, he settled for, "He's my partner."
"He's your responsibility," Mozzie countered. "I'd want to find him, too, if I was you."
Of course there was that. This Haversham fellow was pretty sharp, and probably not any more likely to fall for a song and dance than Neal. Burke settled for the truth.
"I'm here alone," the agent said quietly.
Mozzie gave a small, derisive snort. "Right."
Peter gestured toward the door. "Look outside. No cars, no SWAT teams, nothing. No one knows he's missing yet, and I'm trying to keep it that way."
Mozzie didn't look convinced, but he did look interested.
"Look for yourself," Burke encouraged. He pointed again. "You won't find anybody out there."
"Not like you FBI types don't know how to hide when you need to."
"Call the office and ask for Neal; they'll tell you he's out with me. Seriously," Peter insisted.
"You've been hanging around Neal too long," Mozzie commented doubtfully, "if you think you can play me."
"I'm not playing," Burke replied sincerely, "and I need your help. Call them; that'll convince you."
Mozzie still seemed far from certain, but he dragged his cell phone from his pocket and dialed the number Neal had told him was only for emergencies. Peter waited more or less patiently while the man placed the call and got his confirmation.
"They gave me your cell number," Mozzie smirked as he ended the call. "Do you really think that's safe?"
"If being on your speed dial is the worst that comes from this day, I'll be able to live with that."
"Yeah, about that," Mozzie went on. "So you're looking for him on your own. I can appreciate that, but still . . ."
"Still nothing. I need you to come clean with me. Don't make me make this official; it'll only get worse for both of you."
"You don't have anything on me," Moz bristled.
"How about aiding and abetting a fugitive?" Burke suggested. "And accessory to whatever in the hell kind of lame-brained trouble he gets into before I find him?" He looked around. "And it's not a big thing, but just to hassle you a little bit more, maybe criminal trespass. I am assuming you don't own this building."
"I was at Neal's apartment last night," Mozzie said smugly. "He must've put the tracker in my pocket without my knowledge. That ought to undo the felonies. And nobody's going to give a damn about misdemeanor trespass." He smiled. "What else have you got?"
Burke hated criminals who had a fundamental grasp of the rule book. But he didn't have time for these games. "Dammit, Mozzie! Tell me what I need to know!"
At the outburst, the con man took a surprised step backward. "Hey, what happened to Haversham? He told you about me?" He seemed genuinely astounded by the idea.
But now Peter was confused, and he didn't have time to decide if a lie would help him, so he stuck with the truth. "What? Told me?" He waved a dismissive hand. "Caffrey's never told me anything I didn't specifically need to know," he answered bitterly. "But you I've known about for years." He had sort of assumed Mozzie understood that the whole Dante Haversham bit was a sham on both sides.
Mozzie was still staring in amazement, and with a few seconds of silence, Peter determined maybe a lie could help after all, or at least a well-placed half-truth. "You still want to go with the idea that I don't have anything that'll stick?"
Mozzie shook his head. "If you know as much as you claim, then you know this wouldn't be the first time I'd been arrested for him."
Burke was also not too fond of criminals that didn't scare. "You know I'm going to find him, with or without your help. The only question is whether he spends the rest of his life behind bars when I do. Even if you're willing to risk your freedom, are you willing to risk his?"
"Are you seriously telling me you're not going to send him back, one way or the other?"
"I—" Peter hesitated, but once again opted for an honest reply. "I don't know," he said quietly. "I'm here because I'd like to find a way to avoid that, but I don't know if it'll be possible much longer. I don't know where he is, or what he's doing—"
"He's looking for Kate," Mozzie broke in, "that's all."
"No," Burke contradicted, "that's not all. He's on probation, Mozzie, don't you get that? This disappearing act could do him in for good. Think about the dinner you had last night, or the drinks on the balcony; are you ready for that to be the last time you see him? Because it could be. It's not going to be much longer until my boss figures out I'm not really running any kind of operation today. And then he's going to wonder why I had to track Neal, if he's been with me. And once those questions reach their logical conclusion, he's gonna send out the dogs. And once that happens, I won't be able to help him anymore."
Peter watched the felon for a long moment before finally deciding he was wasting his time. He sighed heavily, disappointment carved into his features. "At least tell him I tried, would you? And ask him to call me, to turn himself in. Not that I expect he will, but ask him anyway."
He had almost reached the door before he heard Mozzie's incredulous, "That's it? I'm free to go?"
"I have to find him," the agent replied, not turning back.
"Are you really going to give him another chance?"
Burke did turn around then, and gazed back at the other man solemnly. "I told you, Moz; I can't promise anything. But I'm hoping it's not too late."
Burke figured he'd be asking himself that for a long while yet. But then suddenly his earlier answer seemed to make as much sense as any of the rest of it. "He's my partner," he reminded Mozzie. "And that's what partners do." Then he waited.
Mozzie had his hand resting on his head, eyes shifting, face clouded with indecision. What he finally said was, "He needs to find her."
"He'll never be able to do that from prison," Peter pointed out.
It was long seconds more before Mozzie's face cleared as if he'd made his choice. "Connecticut," he said slowly, "he's got a lead in Hartford."
Peter forced himself not to rush back across the room, not to upset the moment and risk Mozzie shutting down again. But he groaned slightly and shook his head. "I really don't need another jurisdiction involved in this. Please tell me he's meeting her for drinks or something?"
"Um, maybe a museum," Moz ventured, and Peter closed his eyes in disbelief.
"How do I find him?"
"I'm supposed to be arranging a car," Mozzie admitted, "sending it to him. He's waiting at a bar."
Thank God. Peter was more relieved than he could ever express. Maybe it wasn't too late after all. "I'll go," he said.
"You can't take your car," the con man told him, "or Neal will spook. Mine's waiting across the street; just let me get rid of the driver."
Peter nodded impatiently, then listened as Moz conveyed information without details. "Plans have changed," he said into the phone, "and it would be best if you were somewhere else. Leave the car and go. Now."
Mozzie snapped his phone shut and stuffed it back into his pocket. "Camry," he said shortly, "in the alley directly across the street. Keys are inside."
Peter nodded, but suddenly couldn't help but wonder about the mechanics of the plan. "What was the sign supposed to have been?"
Mozzie raised an eyebrow. "You arresting me," he answered, as if it should've been clear all along.
Realizing then just how much Mozzie had been prepared to risk, Burke was even more grateful for the cooperation. And he recognized the different sort of risk Moz was taking now. "Neal will understand," he said confidently.
"Maybe," Mozzie allowed. "Eventually." He shrugged. "I'm not much of a betting man Agent Burke, and you are a long shot, but I'm afraid the odds are even worse with Kate." Then he shooed the agent out the door. "Go. Make him see the error of his ways. I'll send the location to your phone."
"You're okay, Haversham," Peter said with a small smile. Then, more sincerely, "Thank you," and then sprinted across the street.
Burke had navigated forty five blocks in record time. He had pulled into the alley, just as Moz's text had said to do, and waited the requisite five minutes, plus another five, but there was still no Neal. Of course, even as he'd been closing the gap between himself and his escaping felon, he'd known that Mozzie could easily have sent a warning to Caffrey. In fact, he'd known that the entire thing could've been a set up; a hand perfectly played to ensure that neither Neal nor Moz ended up behind bars today. It could've been, but he didn't think so. So he climbed from the car and started down the alley, headed toward the back door of the bar.
Peter suddenly stopped short, just inches from the door. Sometime in the future he might give some thought to his single-minded fixation on the idea that Neal was waiting inside the building. Or he might spend some time trying to unravel the mystery of why he would risk his career for an ex-con. But right now, all he could think about was the slight movement from behind a dumpster that he hadn't heard until it was too late. That, and the solid object he could feel jabbed into the small of his back, and Neal's voice saying softly, "You need to stop now, Peter."
"I thought you didn't like guns."
"I don't," Caffrey answered, reaching around to pull Burke's service weapon from its holster. "But I don't like prison, either." He shoved the agent forward, deeper into the boxed-in alley. "You can turn around now."
Burke did as he was instructed, only to find himself looking back at his own gun leveled at him as Caffrey tossed aside what might've been an old hairbrush. As ridiculous as it was, he couldn't stop a small, appreciative grin. "You weren't even armed."
"But I am now," Neal pointed out unnecessarily. "What did you do with Moz?"
"Nothing. But we really need to be talking about what I'm going to do with you."
Neal flashed a sudden smile and waved the gun in Peter's general direction. "I think you've got things a little backwards."
"Don't play games with me, Caffrey." Burke was losing patience with the day's events. "You and I both know you're not going to shoot me." He took a step forward.
"You didn't think I'd run, either."
That stopped him cold. Of course, Neal was right about that. For some unfathomable reason, somewhere along the way, he had begun to trust this man. But it was clear that trust had been misplaced; clear that he had never known Neal Caffrey at all. He didn't move any closer.
After a moment of silence, Peter began, "I know about Connecticut."
Neal gave his head a single shake. "Moz never could be trusted."
"You know better than that," Burke said firmly.
Neal hitched an eyebrow in perplexed contemplation. "Of course I do," he finally agreed. "He's a good friend."
"Then you know he's worried about you, trying to make sure you don't spend the rest of your fool life in prison. It's obvious you aren't worried too much about that."
"He didn't want me to go," the ex-con admitted.
That explained a lot, Burke thought. He should've known he wouldn't really be able to persuade Mozzie to give up his friend. Not after all they'd been through. Aloud, he said, "He's a sharp guy, that Haversham."
Caffrey crooked a small grin at that. "Yeah, he is." But then he sobered. "I need the keys, Peter. Unless you've already reported the plate number?"
"Who am I gonna report it to? I'm here alone."
"Don't con a con, Peter. I know the kind of armies you bring along."
"Not this time," Burke assured him, shaking his head. "No one even knows you're missing. I've got this situation contained. Unless," he added pointedly, "you decide to shoot me. Won't be much I can do for you then."
"I don't believe you," Neal said flatly.
Burke shrugged. "I've never lied to you." He let the other man draw his own guilty inferences about the reverse. "Besides, do you really think Haversham would've led me to you if all I intended was to lock you up again? He would've let you take your chances on the run. I told you; he's trying to protect you."
Caffrey just stared silently, apparently processing the information. Peter kept piling on.
"I know about the museum," he continued, "and that you hope to find Kate there. What I don't know is what's in play, and if you're stupid enough to try and deal yourself in, or if you're just after the girl. Either way, you go crossing the state line and make me have to drag the New Haven office into this, things are going to get ugly. Give me the gun and put an end to this. Now."
For a moment, Burke thought maybe Neal was wavering. Indecision filled his eyes, and—for just a fraction of a second—the weapon started to drift downward. But then the moment was gone.
"I need to see her," Caffrey said. "I have to find her." The pain in his words was almost palpable.
Burke knew he was losing ground. He'd been trying for three months to weaken the hold Kate had on this man, proactively trying to prevent this very moment. He didn't understand why Neal couldn't just let it go. The kid had been dumped. It was time to cowboy up and deal with it, not point a gun at the federal handler that had made your freedom possible, and throw it all away. No, he didn't understand it at all.
But in the back of his mind, Burke could hear Elizabeth's words—the same words that had convinced him to undertake this crazy partnership to begin with. "You wouldn't run for me?" Dammit.
He rubbed a hand across a weary face, wishing there was a good way to end this. But there wasn't. This situation only ended badly, and it was time for him to choose the lesser of the evils. Really, though, wasn't that what he'd been doing all day? He looked back up at his partner.
"Let me take you to her," he said softly.
Neal's eyes widened, the cobalt blue almost glowing with disbelieving hope. A single word came out in a whispered breath, as if he was afraid of waking from a dream. "Really?"
"Really," Peter confirmed, nodding his head. "We'll go together. But I'm not going as your prisoner," he added firmly. "You've got that completely backwards. So either give me that gun and let's put an end to this thing, or shoot me, already, and get on with running." He didn't allow himself to hesitate as he closed the small distance between them, hand outstretched toward the weapon; but it was only as his fingers closed around the barrel without resistance and Neal stepped backward that he released the breath he'd been holding.
"Dammit, Caffrey!" The anger and frustration he'd been holding in for hours exploded. "What the hell were you thinking? You think I want to end up in a cell with you? I thought we had a deal. I thought we were partners! Hell, I thought I could trust you! Instead you go and pull a stunt like this? Over a girl that's made it pretty clear she doesn't want anything else to do with your sorry ass? What were you thinking?"
Burke hadn't entirely expected—or even wanted—much of a response to his tirade, but he certainly hadn't anticipated the way Caffrey simply stood silently, hands clenched at his side, fear and disappointment jostling for position on his face. "What?" he demanded. "You think I don't have a right to be angry?"
"Angry? Sure," Neal answered in a small voice. "I'm just trying to decide if you think you have a right to be angry enough to shoot me."
And only then did Peter realize the way he might've looked, in a dingy alley, a loaded gun clenched tightly in his hand, ranting loudly and repeatedly at an unarmed man. "Sorry," he muttered, clumsily reholstering his weapon. "Better?"
Caffrey shrugged. "So now what?"
Peter heaved an exasperated sigh. "Hands," he instructed, pulling his handcuffs from his belt. Neal put out his hands without comment, and Burke locked the wrists together without apology. "You really aren't carrying anything I should know about, are you?"
Neal shook his head. "Not even any more beauty supplies."
"Smart ass," Burke muttered under his breath as he turned his partner—prisoner, his mind reminded him sharply— back toward the open end of the alley.
Caffrey resisted the movement for just a second, and his eyes locked on Peter's. "I'm sor—"
"Don't," the older man interrupted harshly. "Just don't make it worse by looking at me with those puppy dog eyes and trying to find just the right thing to say. I'm not one of your marks, Neal. You know, I watch you every day, with the charm, and the misdirection, and the way people just fall under your spell. But it's supposed to be different with me. I'm supposed to get the truth. That's what partners do."
Burke ignored the hurt in the young eyes, and held up a forestalling hand when it seemed Caffrey was determined to respond. "Just get in the car."
He found he wasn't making nearly the progress through traffic as he had earlier, but Burke was willing to admit he'd had a lot more reason to hurry while Caffrey was still on the loose. On the other hand, he wouldn't mind a little more speed now, if it meant an earlier escape from the tense silence that had filled the car for the past twenty minutes. But he wasn't sure there was much to say. He wasn't going to apologize for his anger, and he wasn't ready to accept an apology from Neal—even assuming the kid felt any genuine remorse for his actions.
Neal didn't seem any more interested in conversation, content to stare out the window at the slowly passing city blocks, with that damnable sullen look on his face. He was like a kid sitting in a corner, angry and frustrated and scared all at the same time. Mostly contrivances, though, Peter was sure of that. Underneath it all, deliberation and scheming was all that he'd find. He'd avoid another day like today as long as he never forgot that again.
Neal's voice—flat, devoid of the emotions on his face—broke into his thoughts. "You missed your turn."
"Can't get to 95 from there," Peter told him.
At that, Neal finally turned from the glass and looked over at Burke. "95?"
"I thought we were going to Hartford?"
"I thought . . . really?"
"Yeah, really. That was the plan." But then Burke jerked his head to cast a quick look at his passenger. "You thought I was lying?"
Caffrey was silent again, only a fractional shrug for an answer.
Peter never would understand this man. "Then why . . .?"
"You said it yourself; I wasn't really going to shoot you. What else was there to do?"
"So where did you think we were going?"
"Maybe the office," Neal said slowly, "maybe back to Otisville."
"Otis—?" Burke's reply choked out in an aggravated huff. He drew in a deep breath, willing himself to a calmness he didn't feel. He wanted to be understood. He flicked a quick glance to the other side of the car, making sure he had the younger man's attention. "Listen to me, Neal.
"I can't count the regulations I've broken today, hoping to keep you out of cell. I didn't do all of that only to find you and then lock you up myself. I know it's not in your nature, but you have to trust me. I told you; I haven't lied to you. I don't intend to start, even if you do lose your mind and wave a gun in my face. Haven't I always been the guy that would tell you what you need to hear, even if it's not what you want to hear?"
"You've never been one for sugar coating," Caffrey agreed with a small smile, though no humor reached his eyes, and he was still rigid against the car seat.
"Exactly. And, you said, it; I can't con a con. So if I tell you we're gonna do something, then we're gonna do it. So right now, we're gonna drive to Hartford and see if we can figure out what's going on with your missing girlfriend. But understand this: I'm not a matchmaker; I don't care if she takes you back or tells you to take a hike. I need two things from this little road trip, and the first is your commitment to this partnership. You're supposed to be working for me," he continued soberly, "and your payment is your freedom. You don't get to make that freedom your personal opportunity to jerk me around, to take advantage of me and the circumstances for your own personal gain. I need you to remember that first and foremost."
"What's the second?"
The agent would've liked at least some token agreement, though he likely wouldn't have believed it anyway. But he was laying the groundwork for the bit that might be even harder for Caffrey. "I need to make sure Kate doesn't get away with whatever it is she's planning at this museum. If she hasn't crossed any lines and you can talk her down, I'm fine with that. But, if not, I will still stop her, one way or the other."
"No buts," Peter said firmly. "You have to remember the first thing I said. If I can't count on you, then we can turn around right now. I'll contact New Haven, send them her picture and a list of known associates, and let them know my suspicions."
"You're asking me to help you put her in jail," Neal objected in a pained voice.
"I'm saying you need to prepare for that possibility, yes." Burke signaled as he merged smoothly into the freeway traffic, then glanced back over at Caffrey. "So what do you say? Do we keep going, or is it time to call this thing off?"
The young man swallowed hard. "I thought you didn't want to lock me up again?"
"I don't," Peter assured him, "but it's not entirely up to me. I told you; I need your commitment. You let me down today, Neal, and I need to know that's not going to happen again. I need your word."
"Peter . . ."
"No games, Caffrey; I need to hear the words."
Instead, Neal turned back to the window, watching the traffic again. The silence stretched for miles, and it wasn't until the car moved over to the right lane and then pulled onto the shoulder that Neal turned back to face the driver.
"So this is it then?"
Burke slapped the car into park, hit the emergency flashers, and then twisted around in the seat. "You tell me. You've been walking a thin line for months now; it's time for you to decide where your loyalty lies."
"You want me to put my loyalty with someone that keeps me a prisoner?" Caffrey raised his manacled hands to make his point.
"That was your choice. This whole thing was your idea to begin with, remember? And don't even think about trying to complain about those cuffs; you're the one that reneged on the deal."
Neal closed his eyes with a sigh, and leaned his head back against the seat. "Can I say 'I'm sorry' now?" he asked softly.
Peter sighed, too. "Being sorry isn't enough, Neal. I need to know you won't run out on me again. Give me your word." He knew what he was asking; knew why Caffrey hesitated. After three years of chasing the man, and three months working with him every day, he knew the way the con man worked. He knew that Neal could say more with insinuation and misdirection than most men could say in an entire oration. Caffrey earned the trust of his marks in any number of ways, but none of them involved saying the words, 'I promise'. Like a call girl who never kissed a client, Burke was certain that Neal never literally promised anything he didn't truly mean; never gave his word unless he knew that he could keep it. That was the part of himself that Neal Caffrey kept separate from his work, and Peter Burke intended to make the most of it.
The young man finally looked back at his handler. "I've been up front with you about Kate, Peter. You knew I intended to find her. You knew I was looking."
"'Up front' might be a slight exaggeration, but, yeah, I knew you were looking. And I probably should've put a stop to it a long time ago. But knowing you had Haversham out digging around and knowing you'd figured out how to crack your tracker and were actually going to go out and follow a lead are very different things."
"I suppose. But—"
Burke held up a hand to avert the argument. "Don't get off track, Neal. This is a simple choice: you promise me you won't run again—no matter what happens with Kate—or you go back to prison. Choose now."
"Peter, I . . ." Caffrey took a long moment, then finally said, "I won't go after Kate again on my own." He blew out a slow breath. "I promise."
Agent Burke gave that some thought. There were some obvious loopholes in that pledge, but he thought it probably covered the greatest danger. And, if he were ever forced to tell the whole truth, he'd have to admit that a completely subjugated Neal Caffrey probably wouldn't be a whole lot of help to them—or a whole lot of fun. He locked his eyes on the pair watching him expectantly.
"And you're ready to help me do whatever needs doing in Hartford?"
"I am," Neal confirmed with a nod and very little hesitation. He didn't wait for another prompt. "I promise."
Peter made a decision. "That'll do . . . for now."
The hour or so after Caffrey had made his unwilling promise had been strained. Neal had gone back to staring out the window, and Peter had let him be. Burke had broken the silence long enough to call the office and his wife, letting everyone know they were following up on a possible lead, and could easily be away most of the night. He'd also put in a short courtesy call to New Haven, just to say they were following up on a potential witness in their jurisdiction, but would certainly let them know if it turned into more than that. But the men hadn't spoken to each other, and the agent had been starting to wish he'd just decided to let Hartford fend for themselves when Neal had tapped on the glass, pointing at a passing car, and said mildly, "Hawaii plates. Long way from home. You ever wonder about stuff like that, Peter? About what brought those people all the way out here?"
"Um . . ." Grateful the ex-con had made the first move back toward normal, Peter had wanted to hold up his end of the deal, but he and Caffrey hardly ever thought about things the same way. "Not really," he finally admitted. "Usually I wonder what their aversion is to registering the vehicle in their new state of residence."
At that, Caffrey had laughed, and the tension was finally broken.
The rest of the drive had been companionable, filled with some typically nonsensical Caffrey conversation, but also the basics of how Mozzie had come to believe Kate would be in Connecticut, and even a little bit about what seemed to be a planned heist. Now they were parked, staking out the art museum, sharing a pizza. Burke was still amused that Neal had been almost more excited about the pineapple on his half of the pie—and who put pineapple on a pizza, anyway?—than he had about finally getting out of the handcuffs.
"The thing I don't understand," Peter was saying, "is why you think she'll be here tonight. You said she's coming for a loaner piece, that doesn't even arrive until tomorrow, so why now?"
"The thing about lifting a piece that's on loan—hypothetically speaking, you understand—is that it's easier to get it before it's situated in the display. In transit is best, if you can manage it, but the next best thing is during the transition from one group of security to the next."
"That seems counter-intuitive," Peter said.
Neal nodded. "Yeah, but it's because there are so many different people involved; easier to get lost in the crowd and make a switch. But it's easier to do that if you've done a little reconnaissance work. There's a private after-hours event tonight."
"Makes sense." Peter thought a moment, then asked, "You always make a switch, huh? Never just remove an item?"
"You mean, what would I do, if I were ever going to steal a piece of fine art?"
Peter chuckled. "Of course."
"Then, yes," Caffrey replied with a slight grin, "that's how I would do it. If I was gonna do it. It buys time for a getaway. You go taking an old master and leaving an empty wall in its place, you'd be caught before you managed a glass of celebratory champagne."
Burke shook his head. "Champagne," he muttered, then grimaced as he took a sip of watered down soda. "That's quite the life you've lived there, Caffrey."
"Right. But, listen, you still haven't told me what's so important going on out here in Hartford. What is it Kate's after?" Then he added, "Allegedly."
Neal took a bite of pizza, chewing thoughtfully. Burke was beginning to think he was going to have to remind him about his promise, when the thief finally spoke.
"It's Titus," he said almost reverentially. "Portrait of a Boy."
Burke's eyebrows hitched up into his hairline, and he almost choked on the sausage crumble he'd just popped into his mouth. "She's gonna steal a Rembrandt?" he gasped.
Peter shook his head. "Neal, that's crazy. She can't get away with something like that; she'd never be able to move it. That really isn't the sort of thing you can keep on the down-low."
"You'd be surprised. Really, though, she doesn't want to sell it; she just wants to have it."
"What? You expect me to believe she's not in this for the money? The thing's gotta be worth a fortune."
Caffrey nodded. "The current owner paid just over two million at auction forty-odd years ago. But every collector has one special piece that's worth more to them than the cost."
"You mean every thief," Burke corrected.
Neal shrugged. "Whatever. But the point is, she won't try to move it; she'll hang it on her living room wall." He'd gone back to staring intently out the window as the evening's patrons had started to drift in.
"Now you're just jerking my chain."
"No, really," Caffrey grinned. "She loves the piece, always has." The grin faded, and his tone grew wistful. "She used to say that someday we'd have a child just as beautiful." He was silent for a while, but then, with a visible effort, the young man re-focused his attention. "She has an exquisite replica that I know she'd like to trade in."
Peter cleared his throat. "Did you, ah, create the replica for her? Because if she manages to pull this off and the Wadsworth here ends up with your artwork hanging on the wall . . ."
"Not to worry, Peter. My Rembrandt is good, but I do a much better job with his etchings than his oils."
"Great." Burke rolled his eyes. "I feel much better now.
"Where's this piece coming from, anyway?" he continued. "You said it's coming in on loan?"
"Permanently housed in Pasadena, and it's very unusual for them to be lending their pieces. I bet Kate is thrilled."
"But I thought you said she was already in California? If it's that important to her, why not make a move there? Not," he added hastily, "that I'm endorsing the idea of stealing it at all."
"Security's too tight out there," Caffrey explained. "It can't be done."
Neal shook his head emphatically. "It's been tried, and it's a prison sentence waiting to happen."
"Well," the older man said grimly, "I'm glad to know you at least recognize your limitations." He saw the ex-con's mouth start to twitch, and immediately amended, "Or that you would recognize your limitations, if you should ever find yourself in such a situation. Not that you would."
The twitch in Caffrey's lips spread to a full-fledged smile. "I'm so glad you understand, Peter."
Burke gave him a quick wink. "It's what partners do."
"What's Elizabeth think about all the strange hours you keep?" Caffrey said into the silence, though he still watched the museum intently.
Burke had never seen him so attentive on a stakeout, but even that hadn't entirely kept the mouth from running. "She's used to it," he answered.
"Peter." Disappointment dripped from the tone. "I was used to prison, too; doesn't mean I liked it."
"I guess not," Peter conceded. He shrugged. "She'd rather I be home, of course. She worries. Sometimes she gets angry, but mostly she worries." He reached out suddenly and jabbed the young man on the shoulder.
"Ow! What was that for?" Neal shot a glare at the agent.
"She got angry a lot when I was chasing you."
"Oh. Yeah. Sorry 'bout that." He paused for a second, then added, "I hope you at least bring her flowers or something after you've been out all night."
"That would be a lot of flowers," Peter said drily.
"You can't take a woman like that for granted, Peter. I'm just saying."
"Just watch the museum."
"I don't think she's coming, Neal."
"You don't know that," Caffrey snapped, eyes still glued across the street.
"No, I don't. But you're the one who said she'd probably slip in with the crowd tonight. And that lecture, or whatever they're doing in there, started over an hour ago, and no one's been in or out since." Burke was doing his best to be sensitive, but he thought it was about time to start facing the truth.
"She's coming, Peter. I know it."
"The information could've been wrong."
"Mozzie's rarely wrong."
Peter somehow wasn't surprised by that. "She could've changed her mind."
"She really wants this painting."
Burke drew in a deep breath, gathering strength. "She could have sources of her own," he suggested. "She might know you intended to be here. Or that her plans had been compromised, and then she'd have to figure better than even odds that you'd at least try to be here."
Neal looked like he'd just taken a gut punch. "She wouldn't avoid me like that. Somebody would have to be keeping her from me."
"You've been saying that for months," Peter said, shaking his head sadly, "but you don't have any proof. You said Mozzie's rarely wrong; don't you think if someone had her, he would've put the pieces together by now?"
"He's not a miracle worker," Caffrey said defensively. He fixed his eyes on the older man's. "Just a little while longer? I know she's coming."
Figuring they'd already come this far, Burke gave up on the argument. "Good thing we stocked up on the coffee."
"I'm pretty sure that's the curator," Peter said, as they watched one final woman walk toward the parking lot. He raised his phone in Neal's general direction, showing the picture on the screen. "Don't you think that's her?"
The only response was a noncommittal grunt.
"Exactly what I thought," Burke went on. "It's her, all right." He re-situated himself behind the wheel and reached for the keys.
"Wait." Neal's hand was latched onto his wrist, preventing the keys from turning in the ignition. "Please."
He closed his eyes briefly, gathering strength, then Peter cast an appraising glance back at the other man. "Wait for what, Neal? It's after three. The crowd you thought Kate would blend into has been gone for hours; the staff hasn't had any surprise visitors; and now even the curator is calling it a night. We should think about doing the same."
"What if she comes in tonight? Trying to get the lay of the security systems?"
"Would she?" Burke asked sharply.
Caffrey wanted to lie; Peter could see it in his eyes. He knew the young man wanted to say anything that would keep them here, that would let him hold on to the hope that he might be reunited with his lost love just a little bit longer. But what finally came from the consultant was a slow shake of the head.
"Probably not," Neal admitted softly. Then he brightened just a little. "But the delivery will probably come before opening hours tomorrow. Maybe we should stay and make sure it goes smoothly."
"Maybe we should call New Haven and let them make sure it goes smoothly," Burke countered. "We're out of our jurisdiction here, you know, and we don't seem to be accomplishing anything. How many times do I have to say it? Kate isn't coming."
"You could be right." Neal sat back against the seat. He didn't sound convinced, but he offered no more objections. After a moment, he whispered, "But I really thought she'd be here."
Peter leaned back, too, weighing his options. Caffrey wasn't going to give up on the girl; he'd realized that a long time ago. Leaving now would leave the man wondering forever if this had been his chance, but maybe a few hours more would convince him once and for all that she was gone. Without Kate filling up his mind and leading him to distraction—or worse—Neal could truly become a partner to be trusted. Peter would like that. On the other hand, there were always the logistics to contend with.
"I can't sit here all night and then drive three hours back to the office. I could kill somebody."
Caffrey looked over at him uncertainly. "You could catch a nap," he ventured slowly. "I'll keep watch."
Burke just looked back at him silently.
"Oh." Understanding dawned in Neal's eyes. "You could cuff me to the car," he offered. "But, Peter, where would I go? This is where I want to be."
Peter stifled a sigh. Here they were, hundreds of miles from home, not twenty-four hours after an escape attempt, no backup, and no anklet, but that was possibly the most honest thing Caffrey had ever said to him.
"You wake me at the first sign of anything, you got it?"
"Got it," Neal said happily, and turned his attention back to the window.
Burke hadn't intended to actually sleep, just close his eyes for a few minutes. Something that would allow him a small amount of rest but still let him keep tabs on Caffrey had seemed like the perfect compromise. It wasn't until he felt himself being jostled awake that he realized his plan hadn't worked. "What's going on?" he asked, bringing his seat back upright as he rubbed at his eyes. "And what time is it?"
"About five," Neal answered, "and nothing's going on. But I need some more coffee." He offered a small grin. "And I could stand to get rid of some, too."
Peter thought for a moment. There was a small store about a block down that had been very handy, and they could keep the museum in view, as long as one of them stayed outside, so they'd walked down together and taken turns inside. That had worked well earlier in the evening, but it would be harder to truly watch the museum in the complete darkness. Not to mention the fact that lurking around on the sidewalk at five in the morning could look a little suspicious. "You go," he decided. "I'll go when you get back."
Caffrey didn't have to be told twice. "Be right back," he said, and slipped out of the car.
Peter watched in the rearview mirror, but with only the occasional street lamp for help, it wasn't long before the darkness swallowed the shadowy figure, and he was left to wait. He calculated that eighteen minutes would be long enough to make the trek to the store, take care of business, and return, so at twenty minutes, he would be ready to issue the APB. Peter Burke always felt better with a plan, even when doing something as foolhardy as letting an unmonitored ex-convict stroll off into the night.
But he didn't mind it when his plans were unnecessary, and he smiled to himself when he saw a shapeless blob headed his way, slowly transforming back into the unmonitored ex-con. He glanced at his watch as the passenger door opened. Seventeen minutes. He figured Caffrey knew how his plans worked.
"Your turn," Neal grinned as he dropped back into his seat.
Peter took in the large coffee cup and the small brown sack. "You're all set then?"
"Okay." The agent grabbed the keys and opened his own door. "Call me if anything moves."
His own trip took only twelve minutes, but Caffrey didn't question the alacrity. All he said was, "Hope you got yourself one of those danishes; they were pretty good."
Peter grinned as he made himself mostly comfortable again. "Bagel for me. Anything happening?"
Neal shook his head. "Nothing. I checked in with Mozzie; he didn't have anything new. He did say to tell you he might turn into a betting man because of you, whatever that means."
Burke just bit into his bagel and ignored the unspoken question. "So we're back to waiting, huh?"
"She didn't get much sleep," Peter observed as the curator walked toward the museum, accompanied by several of her staff.
"I wouldn't sleep, either, if I was organizing a Rembrandt exhibit," Neal said sympathetically.
"I wouldn't sleep if you were organizing a Rembrandt exhibit," Burke shot back.
The young man looked as if he wanted to retort, but ultimately settled for a rueful grin and a quick shake of his head.
Then, not fifteen minutes after the curator had disappeared inside, a slow moving, black sedan rolled down the street, pulling to a stop in front of the museum.
"You'd think they'd put a two million dollar picture in something a little sturdier," Peter commented.
"It's good enough for the politicians," Caffrey pointed out, "and it doesn't draw a lot of attention."
They watched as another car pulled up alongside the first, then finally two others—one in front and one in back—until the original sedan was effectively boxed in.
"So do we want to go in now?" Neal asked. "Or wait until the painting's inside and then go in?"
"We'll wait until they're inside, and then I'll go in. I'm not putting you anywhere near a work of art that may already have been compromised."
Caffrey frowned, but Peter was glad he had sense enough not to argue. The agent reached for the binoculars he'd stuffed under his seat, wanting a closer view of the men and women piling out of the quartet of cars. All were dressed in conservative black suits; several were carrying large cases—decoys, he presumed, and doing a good job, as there was nothing overt to reveal which currier protected the real painting as each carload of people moved en masse toward the entrance. He moved slowly, face after face, alert for anyone that seemed . . . "Oh my God." He truly hadn't expected the young brunette climbing from the backseat of the rear car. He certainly hadn't expected her to be carrying a metallic case, matching the other curriers.
Neal must've spotted her at exactly the same moment, because his hand was already on the door when Peter grabbed him.
"You need to let me handle this," Burke told him.
"You said I could talk her down," Neal reminded him, "if she hadn't gone too far."
"And how do you know she hasn't?"
"Because she's still here."
Peter thought about that, and realized the con man was right. He nodded once. "We'll go together. I'll talk to the museum people; you pull Kate aside and find out what's going on." He tightened his grip as Caffrey started again to open his door.
Ignoring the exasperation, Peter locked his eyes on the younger pair in front of him. He saw excitement, and anticipation, even a hint of fear, but no deceit. He pushed aside the nagging idea that he hadn't seen the pretense yesterday, either, and said the one thing he never thought he'd say.
"I'm trusting you, Neal."
The men crawled from the car and strode quickly and purposefully across the street.
They separated as they got closer to the caravan of vehicles, but though they had done their best not to raise alarm, Peter saw one man reach into his jacket at the same time he saw Kate slowly edge away from the others, moving away from the museum. The time for discretion was over.
"FBI!" Burke shouted, pointing at the man who was almost certainly reaching for a weapon. "Do not move!"
But then Kate was no longer being discreet, either, as she looked about frantically, and then broke into a run away from the group. The agent looked around for his consultant and found him frozen, indecision painted on his face as he watched the woman sprinting down the block. "Go!"
Neal took off after Kate as Burke closed the distance to the museum. He had his badge out, but he hadn't drawn his weapon, not wanting to escalate the situation. Caught too far from their vehicles to make an escape, the curriers had bunched into a tight circle, larger men facing outward, surrounding the women carrying the suitcases. "Inside!" he directed roughly. "All of you."
In the distance, he heard approaching sirens as he hustled the small army into the museum, and he took a moment to hope that he had made the right decision.
It had taken over an hour to explain everything to the local authorities, make another call to New Haven to explain his involvement, and to have the real painting authenticated and placed safely within its reinforced security perimeter. In that time, Peter had not mentioned Neal's relationship with Kate to anyone, and he hadn't allowed himself to worry that each passing minute could be taking the ex-con farther and farther away. By the time he extricated himself and started back across the street to his car, his mind was swirling with possible plans of attack, including the possibility that he might have to walk right back into the building and ask the Hartford police to help him find his missing prisoner. Or partner. Whatever.
He pulled up short as he reached the sedan. Whatever else Caffrey might be, he was also sitting slumped in the front seat, alone. Burke hurried around to the driver's side and clambered inside, slamming the door behind. "Hey," he greeted.
Neal didn't answer; didn't move.
Burke was trying not to get annoyed at the silent treatment, but he wanted Caffrey to talk. He tried again. "Why didn't you come inside?"
That got something of a response, though it wasn't exactly enlightening. The slight hitch of breath sounded suspiciously like a snort.
"What?" Peter demanded.
Finally, the younger man spoke, though he still didn't move to look at the other. "You didn't want me near the painting, remember?"
Peter might've preferred bitter anger to the flat monotone. "I probably would've made an exception," he replied, trying to bring some lightness into the unbalanced conversation.
"Doesn't matter," Neal responded dully. "Nothing matters."
Pinching at the bridge of his nose, Burke fought back the sigh. "So you lost her?" he guessed. He considered other possibilities. "Or you let her go?"
Finally, Caffrey shifted himself around to face the older man. "Lost her. But I don't know why she was running. I know she saw me. I don't know why she'd run from me. If she's in danger, if there is someone else involved, I could've gotten her out. I could've helped her."
Peter let his eyes meet the confusion in the younger pair, and forced himself to remember that as much as he didn't like dealing with all the personal stuff, this could impact the business. "We've talked about this before, Neal," he began, firm, but not unkind. "No matter what you and Kate had in the past, I think you have to start facing the fact that it's not the same for her now. She's moved on, and you need to do the same."
"That's easy for you to say, Peter, because you don't know her; don't know how it was for us."
"Neal . . ."
"I know what you're going to say, Peter, but I want you to think about something for me. What would you do if Elizabeth left you tomorrow? No warning, no explanation, just left. You think you'd just let her go? Write off the last ten years like they never happened and just get on with your life? Do you think that's what you'd do? Tell me honestly that you wouldn't do anything and everything in your power to figure out why, and then I'll leave Kate behind and move on."
Burke grimaced and shook his head. Damn kid had him there, but still . . . "I think you have done what's in your power. You risked everything for her when you broke out of prison. You do understand there were men with guns looking for you, right? Any one of whom could've gotten an itchy trigger finger, and not too many people would've even thought twice about it."
"I figured that's why you came for me first," Caffrey said simply.
"But what if I hadn't?" Peter spat back at him. "And that was just step one of what you've done. Don't think that I don't understand your motives, Neal. That I don't know this whole work release program was just a way to get you out so you'd have at least a chance of finding her." He was picking up steam now, venting some of the pent up aggravation that came from dealing with this entire Caffrey situation. "You've been putting your probation at risk every day since you walked out of those gates. And yesterday? Don't even get me started on yesterday. Your ass ought to be sitting in a cell right now, and it will be if you ever pull a stunt like that again. So just how many times are you gonna put your life on the line for a girl that walked out on you? Grow up, kid. When she said goodbye, she meant it. It's over."
Peter drew in a breath to steady himself and waited for Caffrey to argue further. Or agree. Or ignore him. When it came to Kate, he was never sure which direction the kid would take.
"You're probably right," Neal began slowly. "But you know how you can know something in here," he tapped the side of his head for demonstration, "but your heart and your gut just can't get on board with the idea?"
Burke looked pointedly at the would-be escaped felon. "Oh, yeah," he answered with some feeling. He was more than familiar with the concept.
That got a slight grin from Caffrey, almost as if he might've understood the implication, but he only spoke of Kate. "That's why I can't let her go," he concluded. "Not until I can talk to her, and hear it for myself."
"You didn't hear it from her in prison?" Burke recognized he was probably being cruel at this point, but he was just about beyond caring.
But Caffrey didn't flinch from the blunt approach.
"I didn't hear why," he said calmly. "That's what I need."
Not for the first time, Burke thought that the single thing that made Neal Caffrey most dangerous—and annoying—was his infuriating habit of just plain making sense. It was hard to argue with a logical mind.
"Okay," Peter finally conceded, "I can understand that. Really." He fished the keys from his pocket and started the car. "But I need you to remember your promise."
Neal flashed a relieved smile as he pulled the seatbelt around him and snapped it into place. "I won't forget."
The partners settled in as the car glided into motion, heading them back toward New York.
"So what's the plan?" Caffrey asked after a moment. "Breakfast first, or straight home and to bed?"
"Bed?" Peter repeated. "There's no bed yet, Caffrey. It's Wednesday; we're going to work."
"Work? We've been working all night."
"That's your fault," Burke pointed out. "Besides, you're not exactly dressed for going home." He pointed down toward his passenger's ankle.
Neal's eyes widened. "But . . . I thought . . . I mean, I promised."
"Your promise was hardly all-encompassing," Peter told him. "And, anyway, I've already talked to Kevin from tech—remember him? He says SkipTrac has come out with a newer model anklet. An additional six digits added to the disable code, and a double-lock for removal."
The sarcasm wasn't lost on Burke, who just grinned. "You made up this game, kid, so you might as well cowboy up. Besides, a few hours ago you thought I was taking you back to jail, so maybe you oughta think about being a little bit appreciative."
"Never said I wasn't. But you said we were partners."
"We are," the agent said confidently. "But hardly equal partners. You're the junior man in this operation."
"So we're back to 'trust but verify', huh?" Caffrey asked, just a little bit sadly.
"We never really left it. And yesterday didn't help your case one little bit." Then Peter glanced over toward the younger man, and softened his tone. "But last night might've," he confessed, "and this morning."
Neal seemed to relax a little. "So we're making progress?" He gave a hesitant smile. "Maybe the next time I figure out how to crack the tracker you'll let me leave it off. I mean, that's what partners do, right?"
There was that damnable logic again, and Peter felt his own smile forming. As far as junior partners went, this one was shaping up to be okay. "Next time?"
Neal just smiled back at him, not backing down.
The senior partner decided he could be at least as honest. "Not likely, Caffrey." Then he let his smile spread. "But maybe."