Second Flush Margaret's Hope
"Okay." Elizabeth smiled encouragingly from her side of the table. "Have a sip."
Mozzie raised the teacup. "And this is?"
"It's a Darjeeling." She leaned an elbow on the table and cupped her cheek in her palm. "Actually, it's got quite the tragic story."
Mozzie lowered the teacup. "I try not to drink any beverage that comes with a dark past."
"You're safe: it was named after the planter's daughter." Elizabeth affected an insipid tone found in the more overwrought period dramas. "She went away, but she got sick on the journey home - she never saw her beloved tea gardens again."
Mozzie considered this for a moment and then asked brightly, "Do you have any lemon?"
"Of course!" Elizabeth disappeared quickly into the kitchen and Mozzie took the opportunity to look around him.
It was a nice house.
Of course he'd noticed that when he'd swept it for bugs, but everything had been spilling out of the cabinets and drawers and, while it had been an intriguing insight into the married life of Mr. and Mrs. Suit, it hadn't really given him a feel for the place.
Yes, it was warm – welcoming, even - if you liked that sort of thing. With the carpets and chairs and so on. A nice house. He just wasn't entirely clear why he was in it.
Dimly, he remembered Burke looking plaintive and Neal talking fast. As a rule, Mozzie tried not to listen when Neal did that, because listening to the words meant you missed what he wasn't telling you.
And Neal didn't tell you some doozies, sometimes.
In retrospect, Mozzie suspected he should have made an exception, because somewhere between trying to work out what Neal wasn't saying and Burke clapping him on the shoulder so hard he staggered, he'd wound up sitting at the dining room table while Elizabeth brought out her tea collection.
No, her tea mountain: it had at least two peaks and an East Face.
He tried to remember what the law's position on hoarding was.
Elizabeth bustled back in a flurry of artfully arranged lemon slices and tiny, tiny cakes. She put both at his elbow and then retook her seat. "Okay," she said again. "Just a sip if you want. It probably isn't cursed." She eyed the cup. "Probably."
Mozzie hovered a slice of lemon over the tea. "Are you sure you don't want to wait for Neal? I only ask because I've always been more of a connoisseur of coffee blends and red wines, occasionally brandy - not tea, would really be my point."
"The people attending the event aren't connoisseurs either," she said reassuringly and picked up a slice of lemon for herself. "I just need a second opinion and who knows when Peter and Neal will be back?"
Mozzie wouldn't call himself a Romantic (mostly because Neal would certainly choke to death if he did and that would be an ignoble way to go) but Neal most definitely was; Mozzie doubted that Burke would be allowed to forget the time, or the date.
So he tried his own smile of kind reassurance and said, "He'll be back soon. What's to do? A little legwork, check a few cameras, get your –"
Wait! No, see, this was why he left the face-to-face cons to Neal: Neal didn't get talkative around cursed tea.
He sought around for a distraction as Elizabeth's expression turned questioning. "Oh, look, it's the dog. Hey, dog! Pooch. Rover. Faithful hound."
Satchmo stared at him in silent judgment.
Elizabeth narrowed her eyes and Mozzie looked desperately down at his tea. "Yes, well. Lemon." He squeezed a little lemon into the brown liquid and then lifted the cup to his lips.
When he risked looking up, Elizabeth was staring intently with pen poised over pad, apparently entirely focused on his tea-drinking experience. He silently congratulated himself on smooth talking his way out of the near-slip.
Until he noticed that she wasn't blinking. Little unnerving.
He lowered the teacup. "Could you maybe..."
She stared at him for a second longer in bemusement and then sat straighter as enlightenment dawned. "Oh, I'm so sorry."
He raised the teacup.
Elizabeth stared into the corner; after a moment she began to hum quietly under her breath.
He lowered the teacup. "Is that Girl from Ipanema?"
"I thought it might be relaxing." She reached over and snagged a petit four.
While she was distracted, Mozzie sipped the tea. "Hmm, not bad."
Elizabeth's smile widened, vibrant and warm, and it reminded Mozzie strangely of Neal's: a sticky web made of companionable affection that you didn't want to escape.
Mozzie almost felt sorry for the suit, having two of those white-toothed traps to deal with, but then he discovered that he was smiling back.
Well that couldn't be good.
"I'm telling you, Peter – this is the way to go. Can you imagine Elizabeth wearing this?"
Peter glanced up from checking the last camera; Neal was staring with disconcerting adoration at a diamond necklace worth more than the building - maybe the entire block.
Peter allowed himself a couple of seconds to smile fondly at the mental picture of El glittering with diamonds, then he moved right along to wondering whether cuffing the man they'd introduced as a consultant would give a poor impression.
Yeah, but missing diamonds would probably give a worse one.
"Back up," he compromised. "Five feet between you and the shiny things at all times, and keep your hands in your pockets."
With an eye roll, Neal obediently took a step back and slipped his hands into his pockets as if had been his idea. "Seriously, though - buy her a diamond. Not one of these obviously, unless you always wanted to owe a couple of kidneys to some guy called Knuckles, but I saw some really quite lovely earrings that are well within your reach."
Peter decided he didn't want to know how Neal knew his reach and just shrugged unenthusiastically. "Eh, I don't know. Diamonds have never been El's thing."
Neal shook his head sadly. "Peter, she's just telling you that because she loves you - diamonds are every woman's thing."
"I think I know my wife a little better than you do," Peter said confidently. Mostly confidently. "She doesn't need flashy things, she's ... elegant."
"Fine, fine." Neal held up his hands. "But, please, at least rethink the waffle iron."
Peter looked meaningfully at the raised hands and waited until they were safely re-pocketed before he replied. "El said she wanted a new one. She wants it, I get it for her, everyone's happy."
"I can see it now, looking back in your twilight years and she's overcome with emotion as she remembers her WafflePro." Neal bumped Peter's shoulder with his own. "Hell of a memory box you're building there."
"I hate to say it," Hughes said from the doorway, "but he's right. Do not buy your wife any kind of kitchen appliance."
Neal looked sympathetic. "And there's the voice of experience. What was it?"
"Blender," Hughes replied gruffly and walked across the room to join them.
"Ouch," Neal winced. "What did it take to get out from under that?"
"I don't think that's pertinent to this operation, Caffrey," Hughes said blandly. "Go ahead and correct me if I'm wrong."
Neal fell silent with a slightly thwarted expression and Hughes turned to Peter. "Surveillance is in place, the transactions are being monitored and Jones is in the van – the camera feed is live. You're off the clock, go buy your wife some flowers."
Peter checked his watch; it was only six, El wouldn't be expecting him until eight at least and how long did it take to buy a waffle iron anyway? He swung towards the security station. "Yeah, I'm just going to-"
"The man said off the clock, Peter," Neal said and nudged him towards the door. "Gifts to buy for a beautiful and deeply understanding wife?"
Peter froze. "Gifts? When did we get to gifts, plural?"
"You have to make up for thinking about getting her a waffle iron," Neal pointed out, as if it were some kind of unbreakable law. Which was a little ironic.
Telling himself that the cameras probably didn't need triple checking, Peter let himself be herded towards the door with only one wistful glance back. "How about a weekend away?"
Neal smiled brightly. "That has potential. There's this great little hotel upstate and they always keep one room off the books. You want me to give them a call for you? They know me."
Peter grinned. "I'm sure they do."
Whatever Neal was going to say, it was lost in two loud bangs from the shop floor – as if the door had been kicked open and then shut in fairly rapid succession. Peter stopped and held up a hand to stop Neal going further.
Somewhere in the next room, a man yelled "On the floor, now."
Mozzie looked at the pile of tealeaves and then quizzically up at Elizabeth. "It looks like-"
"I know," she beamed. "Isn't it great? It even tastes a little smoky. This one's a green tea though, so it's huge for antioxidants."
As Elizabeth poured the hot – never boiling – water over the strainer and re-filled his teacup, Mozzie pursed his lips. "Apart from not being cursed, one of the first things I usually look for in a drink is no smoke. Or almond flavoring - artificial flavoring in general, actually. Oh, and no bones."
Elizabeth blinked. "Bones?"
He nodded grave confirmation. "No bones."
Elizabeth thrust a plate towards him. "Cookie?"
Mozzie took one and nibbled carefully around the crumbling edge.
"So," Elizabeth said tentatively, after an oddly pregnant pause. "Where did you say they'd gone? The jewelers and then Peter was going to pick up ... what was it?"
She was pretty good, but she'd timed her question badly – Mozzie had his mouth full and that legitimately gave him time to come up with an answer. Rookie mistake.
He chewed slowly until he was forced to swallow cookie paste, which in turn made him cough a little and he gratefully seized the chance to have a sip of the tea.
Hot, hot tea. Really hot tea.
"Are you all right?" Elizabeth offered him a glass of water, and then a paper towel as he spluttered.
"Fine," he gasped. "Fine. Good tea. Explosive. What's next?"
Crouched low, Peter risked a look through to the main store. The manager and the sales girl were both face down next to the counter with their hands behind their heads, but neither woman appeared to be about to panic and neither was looking his way.
So that was something.
From what he could see, the robbers were concentrating their efforts on the safe rather than coming to investigate the lock boxes in the back, which bought some time.
He drew back carefully and then stood before he glanced at Neal, who was straightening his cuffs. His cuffs.
Presumably, Peter guessed, because it was important to look your best in these situations. God forbid the shooting start before Neal's tie had been smoothed as well.
Neal glanced over and then widened his eyes just enough to suggest a what? As if he didn't know.
Peter gave him an admonishing look.
"You know, a lot of people don't get caught in the middle of a robbery on Valentine's Day," Neal whispered, apparently unfazed. "And this is, what? Twice for you now, three times?"
"Twice," Hughes murmured in a flat tone, which nonetheless managed to suggest that they might want to stop screwing around and, perhaps, stop a robbery in progress. Just a thought?
Even Neal looked impressed at the depth of meaning Hughes had managed in a single whispered word.
"There was one man at the safe, one at the door, one on the floor, and I think there may be another one somewhere else. There were four bags," Peter said.
He didn't like somewhere else, but criminals rarely considered his feelings. "What do you think?" He asked the exception to the rule.
Neal peered cautiously around the door and then ducked back. "Three out of ten, with an extra point for the stockings. That's just adorable."
"Please don't rate the armed robbers," Hughes growled as he came closer.
"Especially on their vintage chic," Peter agreed, and then moved to the side to let Hughes take his own look.
Neal shook his head. "Okay, fine. They're not professionals, they'd have been in and out in three minutes. In fact, they'd have done their homework, realised the place was under surveillance and they wouldn't even be in here.
"At least one of them was smart enough to choose the right time for the job, but they're still amateurs and amateurs panic. Personally, I don't like it when people carrying shotguns panic. That's just me."
Hughes nodded his agreement. "We go in there and shooting starts, it's ending badly." He half turned to Peter. "Call Jones and apprise him of the situation, they'll be watching in the van anyway. Tell him to get response-ready, but hold for now."
While Neal watched the door, Peter quickly made the call and then jumped at the sudden scream from the main room. He started forward but Neal stood in the way and hissed, "The guy working the safe can't get it done. They're trying to get the combination out of Lilly, and she's not giving it to them."
Lilly. Apparently Neal had spent more time with the manager than Peter had realised.
"They'll hurt her, we have to get in there," Neal said directly to Hughes.
Peter was surprised. Not by the concern, but when possible both men preferred Peter be the intermediary for anything more than the most casual conversation. That way Neal could pretend he wasn't really working for the FBI and Hughes, well Hughes could pretty much pretend Neal wasn't working for the FBI too.
"I know, but we go in there and it'll be a blood bath." Hughes looked a little surprised himself; Peter guessed it probably wouldn't do either any harm for the man to see there was more to Neal than a charming smile and long, long list of suspected crimes.
"I have an idea," Peter said slowly and glanced down at his cell. "We need to get them –"
Neal's eyes widened with understanding. "Sure, that's easy. You want me to-"
Peter nodded rapidly and waved him off. "Yeah, go do that. Buy Jones five, maybe."
Neal nodded and ducked around the corner.
"You want to fill in some nouns?" Hughes asked mildly.
Mozzie poked the pile of alleged tealeaves in the bowl between them. "We're drinking wood shavings, now? Did someone carve something surprisingly fragrant?"
Elizabeth giggled; it wasn't the high, affected laugh that Mozzie usually heard from beautiful women (well, Neal's beautiful women), this giggle was more like mischief escaping.
Her hand covered her mouth, but her eyes still shone. "It's white tea," she said, after curling her fingers away. "Every single leaf is hand-rolled into a spiral by an artisan."
"I wasn't aware art school was that difficult to get into." He palmed a pinch of the spirals and brought them up to his nose. "Ohhhh - this is the tea that can only be picked a few weeks a year, and there's a big secret about how it's made?
"I heard it's all done in the factory, now. Big corporations, lying to us - as usual."
"I hadn't heard that," Elizabeth said diplomatically, and then began to pour the tea. "Talking of secrets," she began conversationally.
Mozzie reached quickly for slice of lemon cake, but he was too late - far, far too late.
"Where was Peter going after work?" She finished quickly, while the cake was still halfway to his mouth.
"Have I mentioned how much I like that painting?" Mozzie nodded to the wall behind her. "The bold brushstrokes and color choices are daring – almost audacious – but they make for an outstanding piece."
She didn't look away; it was probably just as well, he was getting too old to throw himself out of windows while people were distracted. "Mozzie, I just want to know what to expect. You can understand that, right? It's good to be prepared. And if Neal's helping Peter get my gift, I may need to step up my game a little."
Despite himself, he was a little interested to find out what qualified as Romance between Mr. and Mrs. Suit. "What did you get him?"
Elizabeth waved a hand airily. "He has hundreds of baseball cards in the attic, they've just been gathering dust for thirty years – we hauled them with us between three apartments before we moved here."
Mid sip of tea, he had a sudden horrible premonition. "You sold them?"
"Of course I didn't sell them. I had them bound into a collector's book and Neal was kind enough to find me a ..." She looked up as she tried to remember. "... Mickey ... Mantle, I think he said, to add to the collection."
Mozzie choked on his cake.
Neal walked halfway across the shop floor and then stopped - any closer and he was fairly sure, when they finally noticed him, they'd shoot first and he wouldn't be around to care about afterwards.
The sales girl - Fiona, he thought - looked up at him; she seemed more angry than scared, but he smiled reassuringly anyway. At the other end of the store, the tallest robber had Lilly by the hair and her cheek pressed hard against the safe.
"You guys really didn't think this one through, did you?" Neal said, and didn't try and keep the anger from his tone; he added a dash of mockery, to taste.
Four men turned, and a row of shotguns rose. Neal held his hands up to shoulder height; the cuffs glinted in the gallery light. "I'm just saying: if this is going according to plan, your plan needs work."
"Who the hell are you?" demanded the man closest to the door.
Neal ignored the question and smiled disarmingly. "Fortunately for you, this is your lucky day."
Door Man edged closer and then, when he was sure Neal wasn't going to magically turn into a twelve-man SWAT invasion, put his shotgun on the floor and began a pat down.
He drew back rapidly when he came to the anklet.
Neal crossed his arms and glanced at the clock on the wall; two minutes down. "That little thing? Don't worry about it. Condition of my parole, but I don't recommend them."
Door Man stared dumbly, Neal rolled his eyes and pushed on. "Okay, I can tell small-talk isn't your thing, so I'll get to the point: I'll open the safe for you and in return, I get a cut of whatever's inside."
"Go to hell," said the man who had been working the safe, and punctuated his suggestion by raising the barrel of his gun.
Neal felt his smile freeze, but he didn't back up. "Fine, you just keep working at it until the cops get here - have fun. How about I start you off: that model? The default combination was all sixes. They may not have changed it, you never know."
Safe Man looked at him dubiously, but after a moment he spun the dial. Nothing happened.
Neal shrugged nonchalantly. "Eh, worth a try."
Door Man retrieved his shotgun and then gestured towards the safe. "Do it."
Neal stayed politely silent while the men argued and then let Door Man drag him closer; he huffed a tiny sigh of relief as Lilly was pushed back towards Fiona.
He raised a hand to the safe and hoped it was like riding a bike.
Hughes turned back from watching the little scene and frowned pensively. "Explain to me again exactly how Caffrey getting his hands on millions in diamonds is helping the situation, Agent Burke."
Well, at least Hughes didn't actually sound angry; somewhat bemused that Neal was now aiding and abetting a robbery, sure, but not angry.
So that was a plus.
"Jones has cleared the street and his team is in position. We just need to get these idiots out there," Peter answered. "The quickest way to do that is give them what they want."
From the main room, there was the sound of a heavy door opening and a murmur of appreciation.
Iron Goddess of Mercy
El patted Mozzie on the back and held out another paper towel. Mozzie felt she was making an excellent attempt at contrition, but the tears of laughter streaming down her cheeks didn't do much to help her sell sincere regret.
"Your face," she giggled again.
"What do you expect?" he grumbled, and finished dabbing at the tea he'd spilled.
"Mickey – hee – Mantle – hee."
"Yes, yes. Breathe." Mozzie drew himself up. "Well played. A little overworked towards the end and I personally would have gone with someone like Yount, but still."
"I'm sorry," she said, still not entirely believably, and then hiccoughed. "Actually, Neal made a copy for me. And I asked him to initial the back, so there won't be any unfortunate ... misunderstandings. It's the front piece."
"I'm sure he'll be overjoyed." Mozzie shook his head and gave in. "Neal is trying to talk him out of getting you a waffle iron."
She blinked. "But I want a waffle iron."
"For Valentine's Day? Really?"
"Sure." She nodded twice. "And, of course, a little card with a question mark so I can guess who it's from."
"You may not be getting a waffle iron," he broke to her. "Neal was pretty set on something else."
"Well, whatever it is, I'm sure I'll love it." Elizabeth nodded down to the table. "I think your tea is getting cold."
Mozzie sniffed and made no move towards the teacup. "I'm not sure I can drink any more. Also, I'm not sure if I should, you were unkind."
"Forgive me?" Elizabeth leaned forward with an expression of such overdone woe that Mozzie had to resist the urge to applaud. "There's just one more cup. It's an Oolong, and I think you'll like it. It's sweet, and a little nutty."
Mozzie stared at her until she cracked a smile and then grinned back.
He sipped the tea; she was right.
After the strong language and violence had died down outside, and Jones had confirmed four be-stockinged men in custody, Peter helped Lilly and Fiona to their feet and then wandered over to Neal.
"Pretty good plan," Neal greeted him.
Peter nodded and smiled. "I liked it. Pretty good execution," he added.
"Thank you, Peter." Neal smiled widely.
"You're welcome, Neal." Peter grinned through his teeth. "Now -- put it back."
"Put what back?" Neal asked, innocently.
Peter hadn't been absolutely sure - not a hundred percent, anyway - but Neal's expression of wide-eyed innocence was as good as DNA evidence and a roomful of nuns as sworn witnesses.
"Whatever you took," he said. "I know you took something."
"I would never do something like that. While you were watching."
Of course Neal took it, and of course he knew Peter was watching; he had just wanted to make sure Peter had been paying attention.
Which was fine, kind of. Well, it was Neal, anyway. But the problem was, Hughes wouldn't understand and he was bearing right down on them.
"Too late," Peter muttered and then raised his voice to say, "We're just making sure the surveillance equipment hasn't been damaged. Looks good."
"Uh huh." Hughes gaze slid over Peter and settled on Neal for a long moment before he nodded towards the safe. "Good work."
"Thank you," Neal said awkwardly. "I appreciate that."
Peter was relatively sure he even meant it.
"Now put it back," Hughes went on in the same measured tone.
Neal winced and Peter coughed; he tried a relaxed smile in the hope it could be passed off as a joke, although damned if he knew what he was going to say.
Hughes waited a beat and then said, "Quick thinking to take a cut, it got them out the door without making them nervous. And now whatever it was goes back."
"Oh look," Neal exclaimed. "Here it is." A bracelet was duly dropped back into its case.
Hughes pushed the safe door closed and spun the lock for good measure. "Now get out of here. Both of you. You've got a waffle iron to avoid buying."
Chef's Choice WafflePro
"These are fantastic," Mozzie said around a mouthful of syrup-drenched waffle. "Definitely these. Oh, and with the blueberries!"
"It's Valentine's Day," Peter said quietly. "Why am I in the kitchen making coffee with a felon while my wife feeds Havisham waffles?"
Neal handed him a slice of lemon cake. "Should have gone with the diamonds."