Summary: Peter's current case involves a forgery/art theft from years ago, and suddenly Neal gets very uncomfortable.
Written for: swanpride as a response to the LiveJournal collarcorner Prompt Fest #2
Prompt/Request: A forgery gets discovered. Peter now tries to determine, when the original painting got stolen and by whom. What he doesn't know: Neal is the one who did it before he went to prison.
Would Like: Neal scrambling to be "helpful", keeping Peter from the right track at the same time, but feeling bad about it. A plus if Neal only has to distract Peter for some time, until the crime falls under the statute of limitation. Another plus if Peter is able to determine when the painting got stolen and knows that he is on a timeline.
Don't Want: Peter suspecting immediately that something is amiss with Neal or that he is involved. I want him to be in the dark at least a little bit.
Characters/Pairings: Neal, Peter, Mozzie
Author's Note: There is no exact timeline to go with this. I'd like to think it takes place either some time in season two (pre-Point Blank) or any time after Mozzie has fully recovered (post-Burke's Seven).
Also, for those of you who are lawyers or know more about the statute of limitations than I do (which isn't hard), perhaps you could educate me. I've tried to look into how this works (and asked around at wcwu), but this whole things seems to be quite complicated. I read that the statute of limitations in the state of New York is six years, but I've also seen it indicated that for art theft it's 20 years. But since 20 years doesn't work for this story, I'm just going to ignore that. Also, it's not quite clear what the "start" and "stop" dates are. I've seen it indicated that it might be the date of the theft, or it could be the date of the discovery. Again, for this story, let's assume it's the date of the theft. And, uhm, yay for poetic license! :-D
Let me just mention that writing Case!Fics isn't my strong suit (pun intended). I hope I did well enough with this one.
A big thank you goes out to rabidchild67 for the beta-read.
Disclaimer: White Collar, its characters and its settings belong to Jeff Eastin and USA Network. And, guys? Your characters are not only welcome, they're wonderful. I'm just borrowing, I promise.
Neal hated mortgage fraud. Yet, somehow it seemed that at least 60% of White Collar crime cases seemed to involve exactly that. And it also seemed that Peter deliberately delegated them to Neal. Probably because Peter hated mortgage fraud just as much as Neal did. There was definitely merit to being the boss. It was on days like this that Neal wished more than anything to have his pre-prison slash pre-anklet life back.
So Neal sat at his desk, idly chewing the end of his pencil, trying to find something that would offer a plausible and inconspicuous reason for procrastination. One that would hold up even to Peter Burke's scrutiny. Unfortunately, so far he had come up empty.
He momentarily panicked when Peter came down to the bullpen and quickly pretended he was studying the paperwork in front of him. Innocently raising his head at Peter coming closer, Neal quickly relaxed when he saw Peter's expression. He was holding a light blue file, and he had that look in his eyes that he always got when an intriguing case came along. Maybe Neal didn't have to procrastinate after all.
"Neal," Peter said. "Here, take a look at this."
"New case?" Neal took the file. The top sheet inside had a photo attached to it that depicted a painting, and Neal had to try hard not to wince. It was a Cézanne, one that Neal was familiar with. Too familiar with. An 'uh oh' formed in his mind. He scrambled for something to say.
"Cézanne's Drapery, Pitcher and Fruit Bowl. Last I heard, it was on display at the Whitney."
"Well, apparently not quite. They took it down for restoration work, and suddenly there were suspicions of it being a forgery. They did some further investigating, and it turns out it was a forgery."
"Really?" Neal asked. "I've seen it. Never would have guessed."
"Yeah, I think that's usually the reason why people forge paintings in the first place."
Neal put on his best innocent smile, pointing a finger at Peter. "You know, I think you've got a point. So let me guess. Now they're looking for the original."
"For an alleged expert in European postimpressionists, you've got an amazingly sharp sense of deduction."
"Alleged? Come on, Peter, you insult me."
"Yeah, yeah," he waved at the air. "So you're telling me you don't know anything about this?"
Damn, Neal thought, now he'd have to lie to Peter. And he really didn't like lying to Peter. Was there a way to turn this into a half-truth rather than a lie? "If you're asking me if I know where the original is, I don't have the slightest clue."
And that part was actually true, because he had fenced it to a Russian art dealer Neal knew would sell it at the first chance he got. For all he knew, it could be hanging in a Russian mob boss's back room somewhere.
Peter tapped the file on Neal's desk. "Look into this. Put feelers out. Let me know what you find."
When Peter turned around and walked away, Neal breathed a silent sigh of relief. At the same time, a feeling of dread spread through his insides. How was he supposed to help solve a crime that would ultimately implicate him as the culprit?
And then something occurred to him. When had he stolen the Cézanne again? He tried to do the calculation in his head, but since, unlike other people, he didn't have perfect recall, all he could come up with was a rough estimate of some time around six years ago. Finding out when exactly would be crucial. The statute of limitations in the state of New York was six years. Maybe there was a way of getting away with it after all.
Neal got his cell phone out of his pocket and dialed, waiting for the person at the other end to answer. "Moz? I need you to help me with something. Meet me tonight. My apartment."
Walking across the loft, Mozzie held up his glass of Cabernet Sauvignon, swirling the wine masterfully before taking a sip. "Ah," he sighed pleasantly, enjoying the aroma.
He turned his attention to Neal. "So, tell me again, how exactly did The Suit suspect that you're involved in this?"
"He doesn't. At least I hope he doesn't. Total coincidence that this case fell into Peter's lap. Or as much of a coincidence as it can be, seeing how this is an art theft case well within FBI jurisdiction."
"Well, that certainly simplifies things. Or complicates them, depending on your point of view. I should rather say, depending on whose—"
"Sorry. What was this about again?"
"I need to know when exactly the theft occurred."
"You mean when exactly you stole the Cézanne and replaced it with a near perfect forgery."
Neal sighed. "Yes."
"And you expect me to recall the exact day? The time too, maybe? News flash, Neal. I was not involved in that particular heist. Those were different times. You preferred to work alone. Less accomplices, less liability, remember?"
"A lesson I learned from you. And, yes, I do remember. But that's not the point. I need you to retrieve something. You remember the lock box I asked you to keep?"
"Twenty-three, thirty-two, five. Yes."
Neal smiled. He vaguely remembered Kate having put numbers on these boxes, but to Neal they hadn't meant anything. It was Kate's way of keeping track of things, but all Neal needed to know was that it was safe with Mozzie.
"Can you get me access to that box?"
"Oh, I can do even better than that. I can bring you that box. Within the next hour, if you like."
Neal nodded. He knew he could count on Mozzie. "Please do. And thank you."
"Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."
"You're quoting Emerson a little too often these days, Moz."
It didn't even take Mozzie an hour to come back with the box. Neal didn't know where his friend had hidden it, nor did he want to. It was easier and safer that way.
The notebook with Neal's neat handwriting was just like he remembered it. Black leather cover, entries inside grouped by date. He skimmed the pages from the year he was looking for, and sure enough, there it was. And, damn! Just his luck that he was over a week short. Seven days. Could he distract Peter that long?
He looked at Mozzie. "How do we do this?"
"You want to con The Suit? Again?"
"Do I have any other choice?" He lifted his left trouser leg. "This isn't exactly my idea of a life, and the prospect of going back to prison is really not all that appealing."
Mozzie lifted his index finger to point it in the air. "Oh, here's a thought. And it's actually kind of frightening that this is coming from me rather than you, but you're friends with The Suit, aren't you? Is there any chance that he might want to, oh, lose the file for a week or so? Or chase a lead that turns out to be bogus for a day or... seven?"
Neal looked at him, not sure if Moz was really getting at what he thought he was getting at. "You mean tell Peter the truth and hope for the best?"
Mozzie had an almost amused twinkle in his eyes. "I know, it's such a strange concept. And there must be something inherently wrong with me for even suggesting it, but... The guy's come through before. He even helped me out of a tough spot or two."
Neal pondered the idea for a moment, looking skeptical. "I don't know. It seems like an awfully risky 'maybe'. This is my freedom on the line we're talking about."
Mozzie sobered. "Okay, I get the point. So... maybe we can create that bogus lead for him to chase for a few days."
Neal sighed. He didn't like this idea any better, but it was certainly the safest route to go. "What do you have in mind?"
It didn't take long for Neal and Mozzie to draw up a game plan—though with the lack of time, it was far from perfect and would still require willful misdirection and careful vigilance on Neal's part.
The next morning, Peter called Neal to his office, asking for the progress on the stolen Cézanne. Neal very much tried to keep things simple, keep to half-truths that wouldn't feel like them. And reroute Peter's attention away from the real forger to the evidence that, thanks to Moz and some poetic license, could be interpreted in ways other than those that would point straight at Neal.
However, Peter had also done his homework. He showed Neal a four-page printout. He pointed to a line on page two that was highlighted in yellow.
"Here," Peter said. "Six years ago almost to the day. There were some irregularities in the alarm system that night. Security did investigate it then, but they blamed a technical glitch, seeing how nothing was stolen. Of course they didn't realize that the Cézanne had been stolen but was replaced by a near perfect forgery. Pretty damn clever job."
Neal had to keep hard from starting to beam and only reminded himself at the last second that he mustn't let anything on that might make Peter suspicious. And sure enough, Peter added, "If I didn't know better, I'd say it was so perfect that it could have been something you pulled off."
Peter's eyes suddenly scrutinized Neal, and he felt the blood rushing to his face. "Wait," Peter said to him. "What if it was you?"
Neal tried to think quick on his feet. Distract, distract, distract! "Me? Why, you flatter me, but my interests lay in other areas six years ago. Besides, I think the evidence tells another story."
Neal handed Peter a sheet of paper. "Do you see this here? When they analyzed the forgery, it's a specific brand of paint that was used. It's easy to detect if you know what to look for because the manufacturer uses a unique ratio of pigment to solvent. And this particular brand happens to be used by someone known as 'The Traveler' in certain circles. He'd hone in on a target and swap the original with a forgery. But he never hit the same place twice. Always a different museum, usually a different country.
"A few of his forgeries have been discovered, chances are a number of them have not. Looking at the Cézanne, this fits his MO perfectly."
"'The Traveler', huh? So who is he?"
"The people I ran with never figured it out. I don't think anyone knows."
"And this thing you mentioned about the paint he used... If it's so easy to discover, why would he make himself vulnerable like that?"
"Come on, Peter, have you learned nothing about forging in all this time? The one thing a forger can't do is sign his work. So we—they," he quickly corrected himself, "learn to find ways to leave a signature without leaving one, if you know what I mean."
Peter rubbed one hand over his face. "Okay. So how do we catch this guy?"
Neal shrugged. "By following the clues?"
"Yeah, but that hasn't gotten us anywhere so far." Peter helplessly skipped through the file in front of him as if he was hoping something would jump out at him from the page. "I mean, come on, you gotta help me here. We're running against the statute of limitations, in case you hadn't noticed. If we don't catch him in the next eight days, it'll be as good as not catching him at all."
Neal took the file from under his fingers. He studied the print-out Peter had shown him, and this was curious. The night that Peter had pointed out, the night where they supposedly found a few irregularities, it was two days after Neal had stolen the painting. He wasn't about to correct Peter on it, though. This could actually work in his favor.
Neal looked at Peter. "Let me go over this again. Maybe I have someone who can help me with this."
Of course Peter knew full well who Neal had in mind. What he didn't know was that the Little Guy was already involved way deeper than Peter would have wanted.
Seven days later, and they were still chasing ghosts. This partly had to do with the fact that Neal and Moz were doing a pretty darn good job at deflecting the FBI from the real target and partly because Neal had managed to cover his tracks pretty well, back in the day.
It didn't help that tomorrow was Saturday and Peter was beyond antsy. Tomorrow was the day that (Peter thought) was the statute of limitations deadline. If they didn't make any headway, that'd be it.
Peter was pacing the space between his desk and the window, his hand going from his face to his hip, into his hair and back to his hip. Neal sat in the chair in front of the desk, watching Peter, trying not to be gleeful. Because what Peter didn't know was that the deadline had already expired yesterday. Whatever happened now, Neal was scot-free.
Peter turned toward Neal. "Neal. Come on, give me something. What have we missed?"
Neal pondered for a moment whether he wanted to keep playing the game, but then he figured it wouldn't be fair. Peter deserved a weekend off. That wouldn't happen if he didn't tell Peter what had really transpired six years ago.
"Actually," Neal told him, "You've missed a whole lot."
That stopped Peter dead in his tracks. He squinted his eyes at Neal. "Oh yeah?"
"Yeah," Neal smiled smugly. "Like the fact that the burglar didn't break in through the delivery gate, like you suspected. He actually came in through the window of the utility room in the basement. The only window not protected by an alarm system. And that's because the door to the utility room can only be opened with a swipe key. Which isn't all that hard to fake."
"And you know this how?"
"Oh, it gets better, Peter."
Peter took a step closer. "Enlighten me."
"The alarm system glitch you detected? Well, it may have been a glitch, but it didn't happen on the day that the Cézanne was stolen. The theft actually occurred two days earlier."
It took only a moment for it to sink in. "Two days? That means..."
"We lost the race against time yesterday." Neal couldn't help but let a smile cross his face.
"Dammit," Peter hissed. "Wipe that smirk off your face, Caffrey. Wait, why are your smirking?"
"No." Peter pointed a finger at Neal. "No no no. Don't tell me—"
"Tell you what?"
"You stole the Cézanne." It wasn't a question.
"What if I did?"
"No," Peter said again, rubbing his face with both hands. "This can't be happening."
"I think it is," Neal said, unable to hide the smugness from his voice.
He looked Neal straight in the eyes. "You're really sitting here, telling me to my face that you stole the Cézanne?"
"Would you rather I lied?"
"No," Peter said quickly, letting it hang in the air for a long moment. "So that's it? You admit to it here and now, and I can't do anything about it?"
Neal shrugged. "Looks like it."
"Can you prove when the theft occurred? How do I know you're not lying right now?"
Now Neal actually looked hurt. "Come on, Peter. I told you I've never lied to you. Not to your face. You still don't wanna believe that I'm telling you the truth?"
"Oh, so you've never lied?" Peter's voice took on an angry tint. "And what was this? This whole charade of feeding me clues, letting me chase leads that turned out dead ends? Those weren't lies?"
"I merely pointed out certain options and possibilities. It was you who decided to investigate them."
"Yeah," Peter said with raw, unbridled sarcasm. "I was stupid enough to fall for it. Thank you."
Despite himself, Neal was getting defensive. "Come on, Peter, what should I have done? Refused to help you? Yeah, that would have gone over well. Admitted straight away that I stole the painting? Thanks, but going back to prison isn't very high on my to-do list. You would have figured it out if I hadn't thrown a few alternatives into the mix."
Peter lifted his arms and let them fall dejectedly at his sides. "This is just perfect. And what am I supposed to do now? This is going to make all of us look stupid. I can't go to Hughes with this. He's gonna pull you off my service, and I think you know what that means."
Neal swallowed, lowering his head. He hadn't really thought this far ahead. "Peter," it came out like a plea. "I can't go back to prison."
It was the second time he was telling Peter this, and he still meant it just as much as the first time—maybe more.
Peter stood very still, then lowered himself in his chair, leaning his elbows on the desk, pressing his folded hands against his mouth. Neal watched him guardedly.
Peter breathed in and out a few times, then told Neal in a cool, neutral voice. "I need you to leave."
"No. I need to think. You're going home, and you're staying home until I tell you otherwise. Do you understand?"
Neal's eyes flicked to Peter's, and what he saw in them told him that he had no choice. "All right," he said quietly.
Just before Neal left Peter's office, Peter told him warningly, "You'd better not do anything stupid, Neal."
Neal turned around, his voice honest. "I won't. I promise."
In the elevator on the way down, he let his back sink against the wall, his hands bracing against the cold metal. This wasn't how he had pictured this going down. He'd worked this con of sorts up so hard to the moment where he was going to tell Peter who the real thief was that he'd not considered the consequences.
He knew it was one of his biggest flaws. He could still hear Alex's words about how he'd never been one to make smart decisions. And he'd been so blinded by the attempt to lead Peter away from the real delinquent that the full brunt of the situation only sank in now.
He sucked in a shaky breath, hoping that Peter would find it in his heart to fight for him. It'd be a small miracle if he would walk away from this without ramifications. Right now, he'd settle for anything that would keep him living the life he had—a life outside of orange jumpsuits and iron barred doors.
Back in his apartment, Mozzie was waiting for him. The smile on Moz's face quickly turned into a grave expression when he saw Neal's mien. Neal told Mozzie what had happened, and Mozzie was just as stricken.
"You know what?" Moz finally told Neal. "I'm gonna pay The Suit a visit."
"No," was Neal's immediate reaction. "That'll only make things worse."
"Okay, then we move to the backup plan. I'm gonna pay Mrs. Suit a visit."
"To do what exactly?"
"Put in a good word for you."
"Well, unfortunately she's not the one deciding about my life in or outside of prison."
"Oh, but you underestimate the influence she has on The Suit, my friend. Who do you think he goes to when he has life-or-death decisions to make—you know, figuratively speaking."
Neal sighed. Maybe that wasn't such a bad plan after all.
After Mozzie left, he felt very alone. It would be a long weekend.
It was Sunday afternoon when Peter called Neal's cell phone. Neal wasn't sure whether to take it as a good sign that Peter was asking him to come over to their house. He couldn't deny the feeling of dread that spread in his stomach as he knocked on the Burkes' door an hour later.
Peter, dressed casually in jeans and t-shirt, opened the door for him. Neal couldn't tell from his expression if he had anything to fear.
Neal waited for Peter's cue. When Peter gestured to the dining area, Neal knew to sit down at the wooden table with the red and yellow table runner.
"So..." Neal carefully offered.
"So," Peter echoed. "I guess you could say that you're lucky I've had a pretty relaxing weekend."
"Meaning you get off with a slap on the wrist. Or something like it, anyway, compared to the prospect of sending you back to prison."
A huge weight lifted off of Neal's mind and the relief was visible in his features.
Peter's gaze on him was still stern. "You know, Neal, I want you to know, this wasn't an easy decision. But I think we both know it's not doing any of us any good if we put you back in, so this is how the official version of the Cézanne theft goes.
"Due to lack of incriminating evidence and the fact that the statute of limitations has run out, we are officially calling this a cold case. I am going to Hughes tomorrow morning to tell him that we didn't manage to come to any conclusions and couldn't pin this on anyone. There will be no mention of 'The Traveler' or you, or anything that you told me on Friday."
Neal didn't know what to say. He wasn't known to be a very emotional man, but he felt sudden tears of gratitude stinging behind his eyelids. He quickly blinked them away before Peter could notice. "Thank you," he said, and it was heartfelt. More than Peter could ever imagine.
"Oh, don't thank me yet. This doesn't mean you get off easily. There isn't anything I can do officially, but make no mistake. I will be watching your every move. You will get no privileges. That means no extra coffee breaks, no leaving early to hook up with the Little Guy, no dodging the boring cases. Also, no undercover operations for at least a month. You are going to be a model citizen, and you are going to like it. Am I making myself understood?"
Neal almost smiled, the relief still tangible. All things considered, he was indeed getting off easy. He could take all of that.
When he didn't answer, Peter warningly asked, "Neal...?"
"Yes, that's... That's perfectly fine."
Peter squinted his eyes briefly, but seemed to be satisfied with the reaction and response. "There is one more condition," he finally added.
"You will tell me all about the theft. How it went down, who you planned it with, what you did with the painting. Everything."
Neal quickly considered it, but didn't see how he had a choice. There wasn't anything Peter couldn't do anyway. So he acquiesced.
Elizabeth found the two men pouring over roughly drawn sketches and notes two hours later, deeply engrossed in conversation. She smiled to herself and went into the kitchen to get them all some dinner.