The Best Decision I Ever Made
On the 20th floor of FBI Headquarters, New York City, my much envied corner office view was unspeakably beautiful on this early autumn morning through newly washed windows. "Anna Stone, Special Agent in Charge" glittered brightly as my nameplate reflected the sun beams dancing through the huge east window. My spirits, however, did not mirror the cheerfulness of the office ambiance and it was all I could do to manage a weary smile for the eager young intern pushing through my door, with huffing herculean effort, a green metal dolly stacked with bulging cardboard boxes upon which were scribbled all manner of fading hieroglyphics.
"Put the dolly over there," I indicated with a wave of my hand to a corner of the office. "Don't unload it." The young man, at the end of his summer internship with us, threw a relieved glance my direction and left hurriedly, pulling the door closed behind him with a bang. Could these young people never close a door quietly? I grumbled to myself. Staring at the sagging overstuffed boxes in dismay, it was all I could do to hold back a groan. Why had we not been able to catch this guy, anyway? Granted, he was smart. But so were we. How many years had we played this cat and mouse game with Neal Caffrey? He had taken up far more than his fair share of my budget and my bosses were growing impatient for results. As Special Agent in Charge of the White Collar division, I felt the weight of failure heavy on my shoulders and it was a weight I didn't need right now. Six months pregnant, the subject of "weight" was much on my mind of late and I could easily have done without being reminded of Neal Caffrey, con man extraordinaire.
I picked up a textured blue folder lying on my desk and opened it slowly, not for the first time. The photo of a solemn, good-looking man with deep-set brown eyes looked back at me. The eyes were intelligent, inquisitive but held a hint of defiance – or was it anger? Peter Burke had a lot to be angry about. Ten years with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and nearly all those years with the same partner. A decade tracking the worse of the worse Mexican drug cartels back and forth across the border. Years of amazing success in Arizona, and then tragedy. His young partner, a father of four, kidnapped, tortured, killed – all videotaped. It would have ended anyone's career. Rightly so. Any agent this damaged by personal loss would be quietly retired, never to be heard from again.
Yet here he was, Agent Burke, hired by the FBI for my White Collar Division not a year later. Rumor had it his newlywed wife was ill with cancer and the health insurance provided by the DEA was not proving sufficient for her care. He had tried every agency, called in every favor – real or imagined. Somewhere along the line he struck gold. Reese Hughes, my former boss of 15 years, called. He had retired out west and got wind of the situation from his golf buddies. Any request from Hughes was a command to me. I owed that gentle man more than he would ever know. Yet I didn't relish taking on a burnt-out, near middle-aged, former DEA agent. But I would have hired Neal Caffrey himself if Hughes asked.
A sudden sharp knock-knock on my door shook me out of my reverie and I glanced up to see my long-suffering assistant, Jeremy, ushering a tall, attractive man into my office. He was easily recognizable from the photo in the folder lying on my desk. Peter Burke, smartly dressed in a blue suit with carefully knotted blue green tie to match on a white shirt. His eyes were cautious, his movements measured. As the door clicked closed behind him, he instinctively raised a hand to shield his eyes from the sun streaming in through the windows. I reached over to lower the shade.
Turning back, I introduced myself while at the same time smiling as though I was actually happy to see him. "Sorry," I explained. "I am a California girl, can't get enough of the sun out here on the east coast." He nodded politely, his lips spread in a terse smile while he expertly veiled any astonishment at my condition.
I motioned him to a chair and he settled in easily, his eyes took in my office briefly before coming back to meet mine, curiosity and resignation warring in his gaze. He didn't flinch as I looked into his face boldly; I wanted to get a sense of what he was made of. Yet neither did he challenge me. He was of an age where he might mind working for a woman – or perhaps not. Time would tell.
"Welcome to New York – and White Collar" I offered, smiling as warmly as I could. "I hope you're settling into New York."
"Yes," he replied. He did not seem to be a man of many words. "The FBI has been very helpful." His voice was deep, his words spoken slowly.
"Good," I replied. "So you've been through Orientation, all the papers signed?"
He nodded, the slightest of smiles playing around his lips. "I haven't signed so many papers since we bought our house in Phoenix".
"Yes, there are quite a few," I agreed. "But now you're ready for your first assignment?"
He nodded again. Whatever emotions he was feeling, they didn't show. His calm manner, whether feigned or not, boded well for undercover work. Although his fingers were loosely weaved together, his hands lay calmly in his lap, over his new FBI badge in its stiff brown leather wallet. I had no intention of mentioning to Burke the things I had read in his file or that he was the first person I had met who had actually killed anyone. Firing a gun was rarer than most supposed for the FBI and such an event practically non-existent in White Collar. How would he adjust when he found out what his new job lacked in gunfights, it made up for in paperwork?
"We have an interesting case for you," I lied cheerfully, trying to sound upbeat. His eyes followed mine to the dolly and the five drooping cardboard boxes stacked on it. The column of boxes were now leaning dangerously to the left as though contemplating a leap out the office window. If only we could be rid of them that easily, I wished wistfully to myself.
"That's one case?" he asked, his eyebrows would have disappeared into his hairline were his forehead not so high.
"Er…yes," I said, confessing. "His name is Neal Caffrey. Art thief, bond forgery. He takes whatever isn't nailed down and often what is. We've been after him five years, more or less. "
Burke got up from his chair and stepped over to the tower of boxes. Gingerly he opened the lid of the top box and with his index finger warily poked around. His lack of enthusiasm was palpable in the room.
"And I am getting this case because…?"
"Everyone else is sick to death of it," I answered bluntly. "And you're the low man on the totem pole today."
Burke nodded. That he understood.
"Listen," I said, trying to keep exasperation out of my voice. "I realize this isn't as exciting as chasing drug lords or dodging bullets but Caffrey's victims do suffer. They suffer personal and often professional loss of both money and esteem. They lose beloved family heirlooms. Countless museums have lost priceless paintings and pieces of art; a few have even gone bankrupt because of Caffrey. He has done a great deal of harm to many people and it is our job to stop him. If you…"
"No, no," he interrupted me in mid-sentence. "This is great. Just what I need. After…last year. Thank you. Thank you very much." He turned back to my desk and leaned over to grasp my hand, engulfing it in both of his. His eyes noticed the large gold ring on my finger. "Wow!" he said, momentarily distracted. "I've never seen anything like that."
"Actually it's my 10 year FBI pin," I explained, spreading my fingers so he could see it better. "We usually have them made into rings. It's too big for me but what can I say? A tradition is a tradition."
"I hope I get one," he replied wistfully. "If I can't make this work…" his voice drifted off as his face darkened. He looked for a moment like a man seriously doubting himself as desperation flickered briefly through his expression but then was quickly gone. He forced his features into a crooked smile. "I am sorry…it's just…"
"You don't need to say anything," I assured him.
"Thank you…for this opportunity," he stated simply.
"Don't thank me," I answered. Burke looked at me, puzzled. His brows came together and I explained, "My former boss, Reese Hughes, heard about your situation in Arizona and asked me to hire you. You'll be meeting him in a few months when he comes back to take over while I go on maternity leave. Who knows? Maybe by then you'll have caught Caffrey!" I laughed. Yeah, right.
Peter Burke smiled a rigid grin. "I'll get Caffrey. You just wait. This job is…saving my wife's life. The insurance. You'll see. Someday you'll look back on this as the best decision you ever made."
After my daughter was born three months later, I decided not to return to the Agency. Fortunately Reese Hughes, who missed working more than he realized, decided to un-retire and stay on as Special Agent in Charge. It was from him I learned that Burke's wife had, sadly, not survived her cancer. Devastated, Burke threw himself more than ever into his work, more determined to find Neal Caffrey. However, other cases were always coming up and he was often pulled off the Caffrey case. Yet, like a bulldog, he would return to it. Hughes was impressed by his determination but irritated as well that Burke would often take Caffrey's files home to work on them – files which were not supposed to leave the FBI offices especially when they returned occasionally stained with beer or pizza drippings. It was the only negative mark on Burke's performance reviews, Hughes told me. Reese seemed pleased to be able to come up with something to write in the "needs improvement" column.
When Burke finally caught Caffrey – five years ago now? – Peter actually called me himself that evening. We had not talked since the funeral of his beloved Maria. I heard he remarried and was happy for him. It was hard to compare the jubilate voice on the phone with the tired cautious agent I first met so long ago. During the few months we worked together our relationship had been cordial but professional. He shared little of himself and that was fine. My mind was on other things back then. I had kept on eye on him from a distance and was pleased to see that the skills that had served him so well in the DEA transferred effortlessly to his job in White Collar. He didn't seem as restless as I had feared.
"So you've got all your ducks in a row?" I asked. "Your evidence is enough to convict?"
"More than enough," he assured me, happily. "Caffrey will go away for a long time."
"What will you do with yourself?" I asked. Would he still find satisfaction in the White Collar division now that his nemesis was behind bars?
"Don't worry," he replied quickly. "I think my wife Elizabeth is even happier than I am that Caffrey is going to prison. Now she'll finally be able to hear about something other than Neal Caffrey at dinner!"
Months later, when Neal Caffrey was finally convicted, I knew it was a disappointment to Burke that the con-man had only received a four year sentence. I saw it on his face in the courtroom. Yet he laughed about it later at the celebratory lunch Hughes arranged at a restaurant near the courthouse. Privately I thought it was a wonder Caffrey had been convicted at all. It was a complicated bond forgery case and over the days of the trial it was evident the jury was bored and restless and just wanted the trial over before the Christmas holidays started in earnest. It didn't help that Neal Caffrey himself had grown into a drop-dead gorgeous young man with thick curly dark brown hair and the bluest eyes I had ever seen. He sat there the picture of innocence and charm, occasionally flashing a heart-stopping smile toward the jury. It was only at those times that the jury seemed to come awake. The eight women of varying ages would stare wonderingly at him while the four men looked down awkwardly, seemingly trying to ignore him – without much success.
It was when Burke himself took the stand that I began to feel a spark of hope. Even Caffrey paled as Burke expertly recreated every step of how the forgery scheme took shape. The man's memory was phenomenal and he talked for over an hour spinning out dates, times, places, and people. He was an unexpectedly good storyteller and even I, who knew the case well, was spellbound by time he completed his testimony. The jury sat transfixed, oblivious to the fact Burke had talked well into the lunch time break. Burke's testimony ended with a PowerPoint presentation featuring hundreds of photos and data, downloadable to thumb drive so the jury could view it in their chambers. By time Burke presented the receipt from Caffrey's purchase of the paper the bonds were printed on, I felt the tide turn. I could swear I heard a small groan from Caffrey as well, shifting uncomfortably in his chair. I smiled knowingly to myself. More crimes are solved by going through peoples' trash than the public would ever know.
That Monday morning, when the verdict was read, the shock on Neal Caffrey's face was open and raw. He strained frantically toward a young woman in the row behind him, her dark hair straight and long. They had whispered occasionally throughout the trial and now he was clawing to get at her. But the bailiffs held him back and as they struggled to put the handcuffs on him I could hear him shout "Kate! Kate!" repeatedly, his words echoing through the high-vaulted chamber. The young woman hesitated for a moment, then gathering her purse and coat, she turned abruptly and left the courtroom, walking down the center aisle, alone, with her head bowed low and her black hair falling over her eyes. Outside the courtroom, an older man with short cropped blond hair and a pock-marked face, came up to her, kissed her lightly on the cheek, and helped her on with her camel hair coat.
"Who is 'Kate'?" I asked later at the luncheon, when all the congratulations had died down. "The young woman Caffrey was calling to?" Knowing glances were exchanged by Burke's team of young agents.
"She's his girlfriend," Clinton Jones answered with a conspiratorial glance at Burke. Adding, "and our snitch!" Laughter burst out once again, apparently at Caffrey's expense. So this is how Burke got Caffrey, I realized. His girlfriend turned on him.
"It's not like that," Burke insisted glancing at Hughes, sitting to my right, with an uneasy look on his face. "Not exactly." He seemed afraid to say too much in the openness of the restaurant. I knew I wasn't going to get any more information and sat back in my chair, peeved. It was very irritating to feel left out like this. I missed the camaraderie of the squad, the inside jokes, the secrets only other agents knew. Hughes, on my right, nudged my elbow slightly and I turned to him. Following his glance, I looked down and saw his finger writing something on the glossy wood of the table. Slowly he spelled out C…I…A.