Disclaimer: White Collar is the property of Jeff Eastin and USA television, and is merely being borrowed here for recreational, non-profit purposes. No copyright infringement is intended.
Summary: Peter makes a dismaying discovery on a case, but is all as it seems?
Author's notes: The story is completely written, but not yet betaed. I will post every few days as fast as I, or my wonderful beta, Susan, can insert all the missing commas.
Since it takes me so long to write, this is very much a Season 2 fic, so I'm very happy to be posting it before the start of Season 3. That said, there are only fairly vague spoilers to Season 2.
Scapegoat Chapter 1
Peter Burke hummed jauntily as he approached June's house, despite the oppressive heat that still lingered in the evening air. The city had seen a week of soaring temperatures and correspondingly high levels of ozone and crime. However, Peter's team had kept their cool and that afternoon had wrapped up their latest case, maintaining their exceptionally high closure rate.
It was an evening for celebration, and since El was in the final days of preparation before a major event and therefore rarely home, Peter and Neal had arranged a night of beer and board games in the air-conditioned comfort of Neal's penthouse apartment.
Peter had long since received permission from June to enter without bothering her staff, so he opened the front door without pausing to knock, appreciating the fresh blast of cool air that enveloped him. A maid he didn't recognise was dusting in the hall, and he cast her an absent smile before taking the stairs two at a time.
The prospect of matching wits with Neal over chess or scrabble was remarkably invigorating. Despite the innate competitiveness of both men, their games were amicable - challenging, but always fun, with an extra piquancy added by the unique history that lay between them. Despite this shared history, or maybe because of it, Peter never really minded losing to Neal. He accepted the younger man as his intellectual equal. The success of their partnership derived largely from the easy exchange of ideas - quick riffs of inspiration intertwining and soaring up in harmonizing notes to produce a full symphony of strategy.
Playing games with Neal was an extension of that process, energizing yet oddly relaxing, so Peter approached in anticipation of an enjoyable evening. He rapped smartly on his friend's door, subconsciously listening to the movements within as he awaited a response. Instead of a shouted invitation to enter or the sound of Neal's quick, light steps, he only heard a low shuffle that alerted him to something amiss even before the door was opened.
"Neal, are you alright?"
His friend's head poked around the door, hair uncharacteristically disheveled, eyes red and heavy-lidded. "Peter, I'm sorry. I should have called, but I was in bed."
"You feeling okay?"
The concern was prompted as much by the mention of an atypical afternoon nap as it was by Neal's appearance. A slim hand gestured uncertainly. "I thought it was just a headache - too much paperwork at the end of the Oxford case, you know, but now it's possible I'm coming down with something."
"Can I get you anything?" Peter wasn't quite sure what he was offering; chicken soup wasn't his forte, but Neal's pallor prompted the effort.
"Just a rain check." The tired smile on his face was a shadow of his normal exuberant grin. "June's got a well-stocked medicine cabinet if I feel in need of something more."
"You sure?" Peter was reluctant to leave, and it wasn't just disappointment at the change in plans. "I've been exposed to your germs all day. Maybe a distraction is what you need. Let's see just how few moves it takes me to checkmate you."
"Taking advantage of an invalid? Peter, how Machiavellian of you. I'll take you on when my mind isn't quite so clouded, but now, I need more sleep. Go home, watch a game, and keep Satchmo company. I'll drop you a line in the morning if I'm impersonating Typhoid Mary."
Peter accepted the dismissal, turning away and raising his hand in farewell, but he didn't immediately descend, choosing instead to listen to the gentle pad of feet across the floor and the muffled squeak of bedsprings before he reluctantly headed down the stairs.
Every finely tuned Caffrey instinct he possessed told him that, despite appearances, he'd just been played. He couldn't even say what had pinged his deception radar. He hadn't noticed Neal showing any signs of feeling ill during the day, but his friend probably wouldn't admit to a headache if a piano fell on his head.
If Neal's performance had been deliberately misleading, the key question was why. Peter had learnt to trust his friend's intentions, but not his actions. Over the last year, Neal had never committed a crime for his own benefit, yet was sucked with lamentable ease into precarious situations that had Peter contemplating suggesting a matching leash to go along with the tracking anklet. It was also possible that Neal just needed some time alone. Although the months that had passed since Kate's death had dulled the immediacy of grief, loss and guilt still frequently shadowed Neal's eyes. Peter wanted to give his friend the space he desired while offering the support he needed. It was a high-wire balancing act fraught with potential missteps.
Peter considered calling Mozz for another perspective, but the prospect of rustling newspapers and yakking about mockingbirds in exchange for a few cryptic quotes soured him on the idea. It was too late in the day for enigmatic. He'd just have to keep a close eye on Neal's movements and hope to forestall any questionable activities.
Satchmo was gratifyingly pleased to see him and received a walk round the nearest park as his reward. On their return, Peter settled down to a less than satisfying evening alone with TV sports and beer. He switched on the TV, but after five minutes of staring blankly at the screen, he gave up and moved over to the table to pull up Neal's tracking data. He felt a little regret at the necessity and a slight guilt at the lack of trust it represented, but both were dismissed with ease because at some point he couldn't accurately pinpoint, the goal of monitoring Neal's whereabouts had shifted from preventing the recidivism of a potential asset to keeping a trouble-prone friend safe. What was a little invasion of privacy between friends?
His initial relief at the anklet placing Neal exactly where he was supposed to be quickly faded to irritation as the locating circle blinked blandly and uninformatively at him. If the conman ventured out of his apartment, it would at least provide Peter with clues as to his plans, but he remained stubbornly stationary. Maybe he really was sick.
El came home shortly after eleven to find her husband dividing his attention between the unmoving tracker and an equally boring basketball game, with the occasional ruffle of Satchmo's fur for variety. She dropped a kiss on Peter's waiting lips then shoved his feet off the sofa to make room for herself beside him. Taking in the open tracking data, she quirked a smile.
"So what's the working theory this time?"
Peter shook his head ruefully, remembering some of his more paranoid suggestions. "Apart from the ever present possibility of him working to find Kate's killer, I don't even have the germ of a theory. It's just a vague feeling, a hunch. Not even that, it's the hunch of a hunch."
"When it comes to Neal, I'd take your vague feeling over anybody else's strongest proof," El told him confidently. "Do you think he's in trouble?"
"I think he's..." the words to describe his impression eluded him. "I just think something might be wrong. Don't worry about it. Everything seems calm at the moment."
He tugged his wife down until she was snuggled tight against his side, her head tucked into his neck. "Why don't you tell me about your day?"
Another quick check the following morning showed that Neal had remained in his apartment all night, so Peter forgot his concerns long enough to enjoy breakfast with his wife. Since Neal had secured the gig for El at the Channing Museum, her business had expanded to capacity, and she was riding the momentum, hiring more helpers and enjoying the accomplishment. Peter didn't begrudge her either the success or the long hours she was working. After all, his job had never lent itself to short or regular hours, and El had never complained, but he did miss her. He hadn't realised how much he relied on her as a sounding board.
Shortly after El had left, he received a text message from Neal - which, to his mind, was a suspicious circumstance in itself.
So what are the medical benefits for a CI?
Peter hated texting, his thumbs lacking the agility for any sort of speed. Moreover, he had no intention of forgoing what advantages he could garner from hearing Neal's voice and analyzing tone, stress and hesitation, so he dialed back.
Neal picked up immediately. "Hey, Peter." He sounded tired and a little hoarse, and a glimmer of guilt tickled along the back of Peter's brain. He reminded himself that his suspicions were for Neal's own good and not a betrayal of their friendship.
"Hey, we could probably scrape up a bandaid if you have a paper cut," he opened lightly.
"Good to know. How about a day off for what could be a highly contagious case of the bird flu?"
"Do we have bird flu in this country?"
"We have birds."
"Well, that clinches it." Nobody made him smile as easily as Neal. Of course, no one could frustrate him quite as quickly either. "I think you've more than earned yourself a sick day or two. Call me if you need anything and...don't do anything stupid."
Peter closed the phone and sat turning it over absently in his hands, its smooth surfaces rubbing against his fingers. Ever since Neal had stated, with unmistakable sincerity, that he had never lied to him, Peter had listened more carefully to his words, sorting out the few definitive statements from the multitude of suggestions and obvious misdirects. It was clear to him now that Neal had at no point declared he was actually ill which was tantamount to an admission that he wasn't.
Neal appeared to be asking for some time. Working theory number one - his PTSD was flaring up. Nightmares and insomnia would explain the physical symptoms. Working theory number two - he had discovered a lead to Kate's death and wanted a day or two to pursue it. In Peter's opinion, door number two looked most promising.
Slipping the phone into his pocket, Peter wondered how many hours he'd spent trying to figure out the inner workings of Neal's mind from the slender hints he dropped, rare pieces to the complex puzzle. Life would be so much simpler if the young man were more willing to reveal his thoughts. Peter forcibly ignored the little voice that said life would also be boring. Still, a silent request was better than nothing, so he would give Neal the space he wanted while remaining vigilant.
Peter had barely entered the White Collar Unit when he was summoned into Hughes' office by two imperious fingers.
"New case," his boss announced without preamble, then paused. "Where's Caffrey?"
"Sick day," Peter responded with equal brevity.
Hughes arched an eyebrow. "Genuinely sick?"
Peter felt as if he'd reverted to ninth grade, covering for his best friend skipping class. "He looked pretty bad last night." He was spending way too much time with Neal if he was using the conman's techniques of prevarication to evade awkward questions.
"That's a shame. This is right up his alley. We're looking at a diamond heist." Hughes handed over a slim file for Peter's perusal. "Janssen's, one of the sightholders for the DTC, was robbed last night. The thieves got past security guards, surveillance cameras, and motion detectors to get to the diamonds, which were in a vault."
Peter looked up from the paperwork. "Inside job?"
"That's for you to determine. The stones were rough, so they'll be more or less impossible to trace. They're expecting you at Janssen's. Talk to a Mary Cassela."
Janssen's Diamond Merchants were located in a squat, nondescript building on 56th street, the exterior belying the riches that passed through its doors. New York was one of the five main diamond centers of the world, but there weren't many sightholders - companies that bought rough diamonds directly from the all-powerful Diamond Trading Company to sell to manufacturers - and the general public was unaware of the role they played in the multi-billion dollar business. This made the inside job theory even more plausible which probably accounted for the general air of anxiety permeating the building.
Mary Cassela was also gratifyingly eager to please, which made a nice contrast to the frequent stonewalling they encountered on such jobs. Her assistant, Sung Li, took Diana, Jones, and the team to start interviewing the staff while she ran through the security system with Peter.
Not for the first time, Peter was acutely aware of the empty space by his side. He told himself sternly that he was an excellent agent before Neal Caffrey came along, but honesty forced him to admit he was an even better one with Neal as his partner. Their knowledge and skills complemented each other, and the job was altogether more fun with the younger man to challenge him. Right now he would like his friend's opinion as to whether the security was as impenetrable as it looked, or if he could spot critical weaknesses.
No system was perfect, as the history of diamond heists proved, but a breach of this nature would usually require more blunt force. This robbery had been precise and clean with a distinct lack of evidence. Although the failure of the cameras remained inexplicable, Peter was at least able to determine the method of ingress. The thieves had come down from the roof and through the window of a small bathroom, which was now being swept for trace evidence.
Peter was trying to figure out how they accessed the roof. It wasn't a particularly tall building, only eight stories, similar to its immediate neighbours but dwarfed by many in the surrounding area. There were no convenient fire escapes or scalable drainpipes.
It was another scorching day, and Peter used a hand to shield his face from the sun as he revolved slowly in place, analysing the possibilities.
"Maybe they parachuted in," Cassela offered helpfully.
"Possible, but unlikely. That's a stunt more suited to movies than real life. There are very strict rules for any planes flying over the city, and trying to hit a small target like this with all the higher buildings around would be virtually impossible."
He walked over the to the west side of the roof. "Look at these marks here. I think we have a very talented cat burglar who used some kind of rope system to come over from that building."
He pulled out his phone. "Jones, leave the rest of the interviews for Diana. I want you to go round the area for several blocks, concentrating on the west side, and pull any video surveillance footage there is. Maybe we can catch them before or after they committed the crime."
It took several hours to collect and analyse that data, and it was late afternoon and Peter was back in his office by the time the preliminary results were ready. He looked up from the computer as Jones entered. "Anything?"
The other agent grimaced. "Yes, but nothing that will really help. We caught a glimpse of someone, enough to verify your theory, but he's wearing a ski mask, so we can't identify him. Here's what we've got." He plugged the zip drive into the computer.
"There's nothing on any other tapes showing how he approached the area. He just shows up...here."
The gritty video feed showed a man dressed in black, carrying a large backpack. He was only on the screen for a few seconds, walking swiftly at an angle away from the camera. He looked around briefly, jumped up and caught something, then disappeared up out of view.
Peter swallowed despite a suddenly dry throat, his breath catching in his lungs, oxygen suddenly too thick to draw in. A cold sheen of sweat prickled his back, and for a long moment the erratic thumping of his heart seemed to drown out all other sounds. He didn't need to see a face - the swing of the shoulders, the tilt of the head, the coiled athleticism of movement were all too familiar.
"Is there more?" He fought to keep his voice level and unaffected.
"Yep, he comes back down forty minutes later."
The slim figure reappeared even more abruptly, swinging down, releasing to land lightly on the ground. Peter had witnessed that identical move after a swan dive from the fourth floor onto an awning. Then it had been followed by a self-deprecating shrug in his direction, but Peter was left in no doubt now.
The thief was Neal Caffrey.