Disclaimer: Not for profit. I have no affiliation with Supernatural or White Collar.
"No way, Dean," Sam protested, turning the laptop toward him, "We are not going all the way to New York just because someone's stealing art."
"Come on, Sam. Every owner of this painting 'mysteriously' kicks it as soon as they display it. The last guy was found in a room locked down by electronic security. Apparently he shot himself in the head three times. Classic cursed object, or maybe even another spirit trap in a painting."
"Why are you pushing this so hard? You hate New York."
Dean sighed. "Why are you so against it? I just think we need to get back to basics, you know. Work a nice simple case while Cas recovers."
Sam shut the laptop harder than he'd intended. "He wasn't sick, Dean, he was power crazed and playing God, and now he's sulking because the real God came back and took away the souls."
"I get it, Sam. He did a bad thing, and I'm pissed at him too. But he was trying to do the right thing. Maybe you would know something about that."
"Why are you making excuses for him? You weren't this reasonable with me."
"I'm learning from experience."
In the end, Sam agreed to go to New York, because Dean was getting that look he got sometimes when he just wanted everyone to get along. But he made Cas sit in the backseat.
Peter handed out files. He tapped the enlarged photograph taped to his board, making sure everyone was paying attention. "Who knows this painting?"
Neal looked up from his file. "Rivers in Flood. J.P. Collins. Why would someone steal that?"
"That is the ugliest painting I've ever seen," Jones contributed. "And why Rivers in Flood? I don't see any rivers."
"It's a metaphor," said Neal, "And you've got a point about it being ugly, but that's not what I meant. It's not worth anything. Why would you go to the trouble of stealing it for less than two thousand dollars? It would probably cost that to steal."
"Nevertheless, it's been stolen. Repeatedly. And every new owner mysteriously dies within a few days of displaying it, and the painting always disappears." Peter paused to check everyone was following. "The painting has just turned up on our radar again after nearly two years. It's about to go on display in a small gallery that opens next week..."
"And you want someone to go undercover as a buyer," Neal filled in smugly.
"Actually, no. It just so happens that the gallery is looking for a salesperson. We need someone to get the job."
"I'll go put on my interviewing hat," said Neal.
Peter rolled his eyes. "Interview is this afternoon. We have a résumé and identity prepared for you. Jones, Diana, you'll be with me in the van. Neal will plant a bug while he's interviewing, just in case he doesn't get the job –"
"Why Peter, I'm astounded by your lack of faith..."
"The rest of you, I need you to run the names of the gallery owner and all current employees. Compare with previous owners and see if anything pops. I want links, people. This is not a coincidence."
"Where are we going for lunch?" Neal asked Peter as they stepped into the elevator.
"I am having lunch with Elizabeth. Don't you have someone else you can con into buying you lunch?
Neal widened his eyes. "Peter, you wound me."
"Oh fine, you can come. But only because I know you've just stolen my wallet."
Something strange was going on at lunch. Peter left the table twice, once to get napkins for El and once to use the bathroom, and both times when he got back Neal and El were looking shifty. Neal had that mischievous look of coiled excitement about him, the one he got in the middle of a con when he thought he was being clever. El was her usual lovely self, but she had that secretly excited look about her, like she was planning something. They had their heads together and stopped whispering abruptly when he returned. Hmm, suspicious.
The rest of lunch was spent going over the details of Neal's cover, with El offering useful little embellishments and suggestions. She'd worked at galleries before setting up as an event planner, and had lots of hints about what a gallery would be looking for in a salesperson. Neal was going in as a fairly recent art history graduate, with deep knowledge and enthusiasm for art but not too much experience. A new, small gallery would be suspicious of someone with too much experience. Anyone who'd worked anywhere better known would not apply at such an unknown gallery unless for some reason they could not get a job anywhere better.
The interview went well. The gallery owner was a woman, which always helped where Neal was concerned. She was mid-forties and well preserved. Monthly Botox treatments probably helped with that. Neal took his hat off to her as he sat down. He was careful to twinkle and flirt during the interview, but not too much – he didn't want her to think he wasn't interested in the job, or worse, that he was pretending to be interested in her to get the job. He carefully planted the bug under her desk, which was placed tastefully and inconspicuously in the corner. As she gave him a tour, he showed off his knowledge of styles and colour use, but pretended not to be familiar with too many of the paintings. They weren't well known, many of them painted by emerging artists, and to appear too familiar with them would be suspicious.
At the end of the interview, he knew he was in, because she smiled at him as widely as her frozen face would allow, and told him to call her Melinda, and expect a phone call about the job. The wait was just a formality. He tipped his hat to her, gave his most winning smile, and made his way out to Peter in the van.
Castiel looked around the hotel room. It was unusually clean. Dean had got them a room in Manhattan, instead of one of the cheaper places in the less upmarket parts of the city. He said it was because he'd just come into some good money in a poker game, but Cas privately thought it was because Dean didn't want to use public transport, and this hotel meant they could walk to the gallery with the cursed object.
They went to speak with the relatives of the previous owner of the painting that afternoon. Cas was unclear on why Dean was so insistent on his coming. He was terrible at interviews, never really understanding appropriate times to lie or reveal the truth. And if a vengeful spirit or a curse should make itself known, he doubted he would be much use. He was human now, and the loss of his angelic might had served him badly. But Dean had managed to at least partially forgive him for his monumental error of judgement, and so for the moment he would do as his friend asked and stand silently behind Dean and Sam as they asked questions, and ignore Sam's glares and open distrust while he did it.
The man they visited was surprised to see them, and could not fathom why the FBI would be interested in reopening a case apparently solved two years previously. He was also very angry, because he was in prison for a crime he hadn't committed.
Castiel stood with the Winchesters as they studied the man through a thick plastic partition – glass was too dangerous if it was broken – while the man raged at them through a telephone and demanded a lawyer. He was in his early thirties, with prematurely grey hair and heavy bruising on the left side of his face. He wore glasses with thick rectangular frames that Dean referred to scornfully as 'trendy'.
"Oh, now the case is being reopened? It's a bit late now. I've been in prison for more than a year!" The man said angrily, "Do you know what happens to guys like me in prison? When you find the evidence that proves I didn't murder my brother, I'm going to sue your asses for all you're worth. And the NYPD! And the justice system!" He carried on in that vein for some time.
"I'm sorry you feel you have been treated unfairly, Mr Winterbourne," Sam told him, in a voice that reminded Cas of the old Sam, the one from before Castiel had accidently raised him from the cage without his soul. Cas deeply regretted the mistake, but it had been a mistake, even if Sam was disinclined to believe that. Sam continued, "We were not involved in your case, but in the course of another investigation, new evidence has come to light. It involves a painting that went missing at the time of your brother's murder."
The prisoner chuckled bitterly. "I told Marc not to buy that. It wasn't even worth anything. It looked like it was painted by a four-year-old."
"Was there anything you noticed about the painting? Anything strange?"
The man looked at them strangely. It was the expression that said he thought they were crazy, or at least not quite normal. Cas recognised it because it was directed at him a lot.
"It was ugly, if that's what you mean. The thing gave me the creeps. Rivers in Flood? More like Rivers of Blood. And really overpriced. Marc only bought it because he heard the last owner got murdered for it. He was like that."
Cas wasn't sure why somebody would wish to own a painting because all its owners had died mysteriously, but then he often had difficulty understanding humans. Perhaps it was like Dean's attachment to the movie Poltergeist, and the man was drawn to the mystery surrounding the artwork's origin.
"You know. Too much money. Wanted things for the notoriety."
"Did you ever see it move?" Dean asked.
Cas saw Sam elbow him, but wasn't sure why. It had seemed like a perfectly appropriate question to him.
"No, I never saw it move," The prisoner said, the strange look on his face intensifying, "What, are you crazy?"
"We have reason to believe important information is hidden in a hologram within the painting," Sam covered, "Thank you for your time, sir. Oh, one last question: Do you know the name of the person who sold the painting to your brother?"
"I told this all to the police last time."
"It was a private sale – someone Clark. Joseph, maybe."
"Thank you, sir. We'll keep you updated."
Sam exploded when they got back to the motel. His temper was short these days, even though the wall had been restored in his head. Castiel thought his presence might be a source of tension, but he couldn't bring himself to leave even though he knew he didn't deserve to be there.
"God, Dean!" Sam said, "Remember subtlety? What kind of question was that? No wonder Cas is so bad at interviews."
"Well we got an answer, didn't we? And now we know who he bought it from, and we can go to the gallery opening and see if it was the same person. If it's never moved for the new owners either, it's probably not a spirit contained in the painting, and if the seller was the same, he might be controlling it. Using it for some kind of vendetta."
"I still think it's just an art thief."
"You heard the guy, Sam. The painting's not worth anything. Why would people murder for it?"
"Just let me do the talking tomorrow."
They had forgotten Cas was there again. He felt empty and cold, and curled up under his blankets, pretending to sleep even though it was still light outside.