Neal walked into the White Collar division fifteen minutes late and more than a little surprised that Peter wasn't waiting at the door ready to give him a hard time. The floor was oddly quiet, everyone was at their desk and looked like they were working, but Neal could tell that none of them really were. He crossed the office and sat on the corner of Jones' desk.
"I'm just a little late and I miss something big, huh?"
"It wouldn't have mattered if you were on time. They were holed up in there when I got here." He nodded to the second floor conference room where Neal could see Hughes and Peter deep in conversation with two other people.
"Who are they?"
"No idea." Jones twirled a pen in his hand. "They came in the VIP route, so I'm thinking FBI or some other feds. But no one knows anything."
"I do," Diana rolled her chair over to them. "I recognize one of them, Emily Prentiss. She's with the BAU."
Jones whistled. "Damn. What does the BAU want with us?"
"It can't be good. With the BAU, it never is."
"And the BAU is?" Neal asked. He never could keep up with the alphabet soup of departments in the bureau.
"The Behavioral Analysis Unit," Jones supplied. "Profilers. They usually work serial killer cases. But there's nothing like that going on here in New York, is there?" He raised a questioning eyebrow to Diana.
She shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine." She nodded to the conference room. "But I think we're going to find out."
Neal stood up as Peter and Hughes walked onto the second floor walkway. Hughes continued to his office, but Peter looked down at the group, pointed at Neal and then motioned for him to come up.
"Profilers, huh? Wish me luck." He smiled widely at Jones and Diana before he headed upstairs.
Peter paused for a moment at the conference room door. "Watch yourself in here. These are very serious people, Neal."
"I can do serious, Peter. I've been studying you for a long time."
Peter shook his head. "Just answer their questions. Tell them everything you know. Whatever you do, do not lie to these people."
Neal held Peter's gaze for a moment. Peter was stressed, worried. Neal had no idea what he'd done to garner the interest of the BAU, but whatever it was, it had Peter concerned. Neal nodded. "You have my word. Whatever you need."
"Good." Peter took a deep breath and led the way into the room.
"Neal, I'd like to you meet Supervisory Special Agent Aaron Hotchner and Special Agent Emily Prentiss." Peter nodded to the two people standing on the opposite side of the table.
Neal smiled politely as he shook the agents hands. Hotchner was tall and his grip was strong and sure. Although Neal was strongly reminded of Peter, Agent Hotchner radiated a continual 'dangerous' vibe that Peter only managed with a conscious effort. Agent Prentiss smiled as she shook hands but the smile never really reached her eyes. Peter was right; these were not people to be trifled with.
"We're hoping that you can provide some insight on a case we current have, Mr. Caffrey." Agent Hotchner motioned for Neal to have a seat. "If you wouldn't mind."
Mr. Caffrey. Over the years Neal had learned that the cops you had to watch out for, the ones who really had the power and ability to mess up your life came in suits and called you "Mister". They were polite and courteous – right up until the time they slapped cuffs on you and locked you in prison.
"Anything I can do to help." Neal sat, keeping his body language neutral and professional, matching the agent's control. He could tell by the slight narrowing of Agent Hotchner's eyes that the agent recognized what he was doing. That was fine with Neal. Peter had said be honest, well, this was him being honest. These agents knew who and what he was. No reason to hide it.
There was a slight pause as everyone sat and Neal could see Peter shift slightly in his seat. Whatever was going on here was making him very nervous and that, more than anything, unnerved Neal.
"We were hoping you could look through these photos," Agent Prentiss slid an FBI file folder across the table to him. "Let us know if you recognize anyone in them."
Neal opened the file cautiously and was relieved to see the smiling faces of a couple looking back at him. He did a quick scan: seven pictures – couples, individuals, families – all portraits taken in high-end houses. The fourth picture caught his eye. An elderly couple sat together, looking happy. In the background, a painting hung – a very nice reproduction of a Van Gogh. He knew it was a reproduction because the original was sitting in one of his storage areas, the same place it had been for the past six years. He went back and looked through he photos more carefully this time. He didn't know any of the people but there was at least one valuable painting in each of the remaining photos. He knew, positively, that two of them were forgeries and he suspected at least one more was fake, too, but he couldn't be sure from the photos.
He slid the photos back into the folder. "I'm sorry, I don't know any of these people."
"You didn't recognize anything?"
Anything. Neal caught the difference in the wording. Agent Hotchner was fishing but Neal wasn't going to play the part of the fish; if the Agent wanted to know something, he could ask it directly. "To the best of my knowledge, I have never met any of these people."
Agent Hotchner held his gaze for a moment, then tapped on the fold. "You were surprised when you opened the folder. Why was that?"
"You're with the BAU, right?"
There was the smallest of ticks in Agent Hotchner's jaw at the statement and Neal decided that he really wouldn't want to get on this man's bad side.
"You're familiar with the BAU?" he asked.
"Not really, but it turns out that you're rather famous among the agents downstairs. They recognized you. Quite frankly, when you handed over the folder, I was expecting gruesome crime photos not family portraits."
Agent Prentiss' eyes darted to a thicker folder sitting on the table. Neal followed the look. "Ah. See, you do have some. I was really hoping to avoid those."
Although she hid it well, Neal could tell that Agent Prentiss was mad at herself for giving something away. Usually Neal would have counted it as a victory but right now the increased tension in the room wasn't helpful. "If you could just tell me what you are looking for, I may be able to help you. I just don't know any of those people."
Agent Hotchner studied him for a moment, then reached for the folder of photos and flipped through them. He pulled one out and set it down in front of Neal. "Something in this photo caught your attention, what was it?"
The elderly couple and the Van Gogh stared up at him. Neal didn't hesitate. "I recognized the Van Gogh in the background. It's a minor work of his, but still very valuable." He waited for an accusation of some sort. "It's also very beautiful."
"It is," Agent Hotchner agreed. "Have you ever made a reproduction of it?"
Neal met his eyes. There was an old lawyer adage that you should never ask a question you don't know the answer to. Neal had the feeling that Agent Hotchner followed that rule. "Yes."
"Damn it, Neal!" Peter's voice was equal parts anger and resignation.
"It was years ago, Peter. Before you even started chasing me." Neal tried to placate his angry friend. "Statute of limitations has even expired on that one." Neal made it a point to keep track of such things.
"This isn't a joke, Neal. I–"
"Wait." Agent Prentiss cut Peter off. "You did this years ago?"
"Yes. Six years ago." Suddenly Neal wasn't sure what was going on. "Isn't that why you're here?"
"Yes. No." Neal could tell that Agent Prentiss wasn't used to being off balance. She pointed to the Van Gogh in the photo. "This is the painting you made a reproduction of, correct?"
"No. That is the reproduction."
"Can you prove that?"
Neal wasn't sure if admitting to a felony, even one with an expired statute of limitations, was a good idea considering how many FBI agents were in the room. He glanced over at Peter, who gave him the slightest of nods. Neal sighed and answered. "You see where the corner of the picture frame has a small nick out of it? The original has one, too, but it's more of a gouge than a nick. Frames are sometimes harder to forge than the paintings, even though authenticators rarely pat attention to the frame. But if you compare older photos of the picture with this one, you'll be able to tell the difference."
The BAU agents exchanged a look that Neal couldn't read. Agent Hotchner flipped through the thick FBI file and pulled out a packet of papers that he and Agent Prentiss studied for a moment.
"He's right," Agent Prentiss said. "It's the same. So where does that leave the profile?"
Agent Hotchner stared at the file for a moment before glancing over at Peter who met his gaze steadily. Then he nodded and looked over at Neal. "There've been a series of home invasions across the country over the past year. The homeowners are killed but nothing is ever taken. However there is always one valuable painting that is cut up and destroyed. A painting that was purchased no more than a week before.
Neal glanced at the photos of the smiling people and tried not to imagine them all dead.
"The crimes were committed in different states and were investigated as separate incidents until an insurance investigator discovered that the destroyed paintings were actually forgeries. It connected the crimes and gave us a starting point – the underground art market. Our working theory was that the unsub was planting and destroying reproductions of the art. Then they committed the murders in an effort to hide the fact that he stole the paintings if the first place. We're here because this," here he pointed to the Van Gogh, "was identified as some of your work by the insurance investigator."
"Would that insurance investigator be Sara Ellis by any chance?" Neal asked. Neither of the BAU agents answered, but Neal didn't need them to. "She's never going to give up, is she?"
"I doubt it," Peter said. He leaned forward in his chair. "Perhaps the unsub discovered it was a fake and then destroyed it out of spite or frustration. I mean if he already killed the couple, he could have just been going through the motions of his MO."
"No." Agent Prentiss shook her head. "Forensic evidence has him in the house at least an hour before the Wittenberg's arrived home. That would have given him plenty of time to leave once he knew it was a fake. Forensics also establishes that the painting was destroyed before he killed anyone."
"Was there a second painting?" Neal asked.
"Well, if this guy comes in with plans to replace the real painting with a forgery, he'd have to have a forgery with him, right? What did he do with that? Carry it back out with him? Why not just swap out the painting like he had planned. For that matter, how did he know it wasn't the real Van Gogh. It would take more than a quick glance to know that."
Agent Prentiss snorted. "You seem very sure of that, Mr. Caffrey."
"That painting had been authenticated and sold twice in the past five years. It would take extensive testing to prove it was a fake. And please, call me Neal," he gave her his best grin.
She merely raised an eyebrow at him. "Why would I do that?"
He shrugged. "It gives me the illusion that you're not going to arrest me?"
This time he was rewarded with a genuine smile. "Keep holding onto that thought, Mr. Caffrey."
"He's right." Agent Hotchner gave Neal a penetrating look. "The unsub would have had to have known it was a forgery before going in or he never would have discovered it." He spread the original seven photos out in front of Neal. "Can you tell us if any of the other paintings in these photos are not the originals?"
"Yes." Neal pointed to a picture of a young family with a Warhol hanging in the background. "I know for a fact this picture is hanging on a wall in a palace in Dubai. Has been for more than a decade." He looked over at Peter. "I had nothing to do with that."
Next he pointed to the picture with on old renaissance painting of ships in a harbor. "And this Van Goyen? It resurfaced 20 years after being lost in the Holocaust… the whole thing is a con. The original, if it even still exists, is probably buried in some Nazi vault somewhere. You will note," he said directly to Peter, "that all of that happened long before I could have done it. But it's a legendary scam among those in the business. It set the bar for those of us who followed." It was obvious the FBI agents in the room did not share his enthusiasm for the tale.
"Those are the only two that I know are forgeries, but this Raphael? There is a Russian expatriate who is obsessed with Raphael. He had a standing offer of $500,000 for the painting. Two years ago, that offer was rescinded. No one ever claimed responsibility, but the only reason he would have done that would be if he had the painting."
Agent Hotchner separated the photos, leaving three in front of Neal. "Is there any way to tell if these were forgeries?"
"Sometimes the key to a good forgery isn't in the forgery but in the authentication papers. Would you have copies of them?"
Agent Prentiss nodded and rifled through the thick file in front of her. A moment later she handed several papers to Neal.
"You're thinking that the unsub is targeting paintings that he knows to be fakes," Peter said as Neal scanned the documents.
"It's the only conclusion that makes sense," Agent Hotchner said.
There was silence in the conference room while Neal examined the papers. Finally he looked up. "The Andrew Wyeth may or may not be a forgery, I can't tell from this. But," here Neal laid out two Letters of Authentication, "these are definite forgeries."
"How do you know?"
Neal smiled and pointed to the pen that Agent Prentiss held. "May I?"
She handed him the pen and he snagged the notepad she held, too, smiling at her frown of displeasure. "These were both authenticated by Daniel Bateson. He's well known and respected. He authenticates thousands of pieces of artwork every year. But his signature looks like this," Neal scrawled 'Daniel Bateson' on the notepad. "He has a very distinctive top swirl when he writes his name. This," here he tapped the 'Daniel Bateson' signatures on the letter, "doesn't have it. Pretty sloppy, really."
"Neal," the exasperation was evident in Peter's voice, "you don't have to prove that you're the best forger in the room."
"Just trying to be helpful, Peter." Neal returned the pen and paper to Agent Prentiss.
Agent Hotchner ignored the exchange. "Who would have access to the information needed to know that these paintings were fakes, Mr. Caffrey?"
Neal resisted the urge to ask Agent Hotchner to call him by his first name. "You said that each of these paintings were recently purchased. Did they go through an auction house?"
Agent Prentiss nodded. "Several different ones. But they shared no employees or subcontractors. Outside of the business they were in, there was no connection between them at all."
"But all the potential buyers have access to the paintings and Letters of Authentication," Neal pointed out. "All the information you need to discover a forgery would be available to the buyers."
"We have a person looking into that," Agent Prentiss said. "The list is quite extensive."
Agent Hotchner stood. "Thank you for your help, Agent Burke, Mr. Caffrey." He gathered the papers on the table. "We will let you know if we need anything further."
Peter stood. "Always glad to help out the BAU."
Neal picked up the picture of the elderly couple with the Van Gogh and stared at their smiling faces. "I don't understand it," he said. "I mean, what's the point?"
"The point, Mr. Caffrey?" Agent Hotchner asked.
"What's the point of killing these people? It's not for the paintings; not only does he know they are forgeries, but he destroys them anyhow. Then he waits until they get home and kills them… just because they bought a forgery? I mean, why isn't he just going after the people who created the forgeries. Or those who swapped them out in the first place?"
"The person who is doing this is a sociopath. His reasons are his own. He may not even know why he's compelled to do it." Agent Hotchner reached out and gently took the photo out of Neal's hand and placed into the folder on the table. "While understanding why he does it may help us catch him, its not always necessary." He studied Neal for a moment, much like a scientist studying a bug under a microscope. "Would you have preferred him to come after you, the person who created the forgery?"
"Yes. At least then they wouldn't be dead because I…" Neal trailed off. "All they did was buy beautiful piece of art. They didn't do anything wrong."
"This was not your fault," Agent Prentiss said. "The unsub killed these people, not you."
"And you've provided invaluable help with the case," Agent Hotchner added. "We'll catch him."
"But probably not before he kills more people." Neal didn't say it as an accusation, merely a statement of fact, but Agent Hotchner's eyes narrowed again and the dangerousness that Neal first sensed in the agent returned full force.
"What if there were a way to draw the unsub out?" Peter asked, breaking the sudden tension in the room.
"What do you mean?" Agent Prentiss asked.
"Well, we know that he targets people who buy forgeries through auction houses. What if we plant a forgery and have some undercover agents buy it. Then we wait for the unsub to make his move."
"That could work, Hotch," Agent Prentiss said. "We know he's been moving east across the country. We profiled that he's most likely in the New York area."
"The Wienhutten Art House is having its fall auction is in two weeks," Neal said. "All the items on the docket are open for viewing starting Monday."
"We could contact them and have them add a piece to their docket—"
Neal cut her off. "That won't work. The inventory is set up months in advance. They aren't going to accept any last minute entries. At least not without pulling strings."
"And that would probably scare the unsub off," Agent Hotchner finished for him.
"Yes," Neal agreed. "But there could be another way."
Agent Prentiss raised an eyebrow at him again. "You know of a forgery being offered at the auction?"
"No. Well, at least not any that I'm aware of, but there is a very nice small piece done by Georgia O'Keeffe that's up for sale."
"And you know this because?" Peter asked.
Neal shrugged. "Professional habit. The thing is I also happen to know where you can get a very nice reproduction of that painting. All you would have to do is swap out the paintings without anyone knowing and you have your bait."
Agent Hotchner actually smiled slightly. "Are you offering to give us a forgery, Mr. Caffrey?"
"No, I'm offing you a reproduction," Neal clarified. "It's not illegal to make a reproduction, it only becomes a forgery when you try to pass the reproduction off as the real thing. And I'm not going to be doing that, the FBI is."
Agent Prentiss looked over at Peter. "Does he split those hairs often?"
"You have no idea."
Neal just grinned. "What do you think?"
"I think it may work," Agent Hotchner said. "How soon can you have the reproduction here?"
"Tomorrow morning. It's not the easiest thing to get to."
"Good." Agent Hotchner nodded. "I'll have one of my people stop by and pick it up then. Thank you again for your help, Mr. Caffrey."
"My pleasure," he said. "But if you really want to thank me, you could have Agent Prentiss pick up painting in the morning. I'd even spring for breakfast."
Neal could have sworn that he saw a glint of humor in the agent's eyes when he looked over at his colleague. "I will take that under consideration." He headed out the door.
Agent Prentiss actually rolled her eyes at the conversation. "I'm perfectly capable of buying my own breakfast." She walked around the table.
Neal smiled at her again. "Then you can pay."
"Neal." Peter's warning was soft and low. "Let's not destroy the good will we just made here."
"Don't worry about it, Agent Burke. I'll let it slide as long as his reproduction helps us catch the unsub." She shook Peter's hand. "Thank you, again." Then she turned to Neal. "Thank you, too."
Neal picked the folder of photos up off the table and handed it to her, turning serious again. "I just hope it works. You'll keep us informed, right?"
"Absolutely." She crossed to the door. Agent Hotchner waited on the walkway outside. "We'll let you know if we need anything else. Agent Burke. Neal."
Neal smiled as she left, then he turned to Peter, who was starting intently at him. "What?"
"She's right, you know. This wasn't your fault. Don't make this personal."
"What makes you think I am?"
"The fact that you slipped the photo of the Wittenbergs out of the folder before you handed it to agent Prentiss. It's under your jacket right now."
Neal sighed and pulled the photo out, looking at it again. "I just keep thinking that if I hadn't have made the reproduction, they'd still be alive."
"That line of thinking will drive you mad. Everything we do can have unintentional consequences. It's what we do to fix those consequences that make us who we are. That photo's evidence. It has to go back."
"I know. I just took it for inspiration."
"Inspiration?" Peter repeated. His eyes narrowed. "You don't have a reproduction of the O'Keefe, do you?"
Neal shrugged. "I'll have one in the morning."
"Damn it, Neal. What were you thinking?"
"That people are dead because of a painting I did. I have to try and make that right. I didn't think Agent Hotchner would go along with the idea if he'd think the reproduction was already done."
Peter studied him a moment before handing back the photo. "Just don't get any paint on it or you're going to have to explain it to Agent Hotchner."
"Thank you, Peter." Neal carefully returned the painting to his jacket. "I better get started on the painting."
"I'll drive," Peter said.
"Yes. How often do I get to help stop a serial killer? Do you need to stop and pick anything up?"
"No. I've got everything I need at home."
Peter led the way down the stairs. "I probably didn't want to know that."
"Probably not." Neal ran his hand over the photo once more, thinking about unintentional consequences. The O'Keefe reproduction may not fix those consequences but if it helped catch a killer, it would go a long way to making him feel better.