Usual disclaimers apply. This story does contain some violence and the occasional use of mature language.
All the action takes place between the U-boat exploding and El being taken by Keller. It's a kind of 'What might have happened.' The title refers to one of our characters, but is also relevant in a wider sense when considering the provenance of the stolen cargo.
It's mainly a Peter and Neal story, although El plays her usual sterling self.
Once again I make no apologies for writing and spelling in English - but I do promise to keep these characters as American as possible.
Thanks for reading.
Remember and be Sad
Better by far you should forget and smile, then you should remember and be sad . . .
Christina Rossetti 1830-1894
Neal strolled out of the coffee shop and paused for a second on the sidewalk. Ostensibly, he was merely re-pocketing his change, as he glanced up and down the busy street. It was a sunny day and close to rush-hour, people were hurrying in every direction. Nobody appeared to be watching or paying him any special attention.
It was pretty much as he expected.
Whoever had been following him was good.
He took a casual sip of the latte and let it scald a path down his windpipe. The fiery heat helped to sharpen his wits and he came to a sudden decision. Turning suddenly, he began to move swiftly, ditching the coffee in the nearest trash can, and pushing through the crowds on the sidewalk, he lowered his head and wove along the street.
It helped he knew the place like the back of his hand. He'd spent enough time scoping out the neighbourhood. When you were limited to a radius of only two miles, it soon became mind-numbingly familiar. Ducking off around a narrow corner, he went down some redbrick steps into a basement. He sank back into a shadowed aperture and pressed his spine against the cellar door. It wasn't a good place to be cornered – there was no where to go, no escape from here - but he had a great view of the sidewalk. He could see but he couldn't be seen.
Someone was coming . . . Neal inhaled quickly, but it was only a couple of teenagers. Barely out of high-school and giggling, they posed no threat as they passed by above his head. A few more seconds and then he heard footsteps. A man strolled around the corner. He paused for the barest of seconds and then stopped and scanned up and down.
Neal waited and studied him closely; early forties perhaps, or maybe older. No particular distinguishing features which made him stand out from the crowd. Bland face, boring clothes . . . Mister Ordinary. Hard to describe and instantly forgettable. Unless Neal was very mistaken, they'd never crossed paths before. In the scheme of things, it didn't help much, or explain why Mister Ordinary was following him, and he wanted the answer to that question. He wanted it quite a lot.
A brief frown creased across the man's forehead, so quick, it was almost imperceptible. He reached inside his jacket for his cell phone and then carried on moving ahead.
Time to get going.
Neal knew he didn't have long, maybe nano-seconds to get out unnoticed. He took three steps up and then waited – his head now at sidewalk level. Mister Ordinary was still walking slowly away, talking rapidly into his cell. For the moment he was distracted, it was a window of opportunity. Neal had a gut feeling it wouldn't last long. The man was clearly on the alert. The steps were a temporary hiding place at best, and Neal knew he had to make a run for it. It wouldn't take long to figure it out if the man had a scrap of intelligence. Ten yards to sprint to the corner, and then he would be back out on Main Street. One last look and it was time to chance it. He might not get so lucky again.
Two long seconds of danger in which he would be plainly visible.
If the man turned around, he was truly fucked. He took a breath, it was now or never.
Neal surged forward and sprinted for safety. Perhaps two seconds had been pessimistic. He grinned and revelled in the adrenalin spike. He reckoned he made it in less.
Usain Bolt eat your heart out.
Forging on, he didn't spare a glance backwards as he retraced his route to the coffee-shop. A few people gave him the odd dirty look as he shouldered his way through the crowd. He ignored them and moved on determinedly. This was no time for manners or etiquette. A quick rush of endorphins surged through his veins as he all but forced them aside. He smiled at the heady thrill of it. The chase came to him as naturally as breathing. It was the challenge, the actual fun bit. This was the part he enjoyed. He stopped, and not a moment too soon, ducking swiftly back under the awning. His pursuer appeared around the corner and glanced up and down the street. Neal froze and felt his mouth go dry. He was taking a big risk and he knew it. Mister Ordinary was pretty tenacious and might head back at any time.
The man didn't seem in much of a hurry as he continued to speak on his cell phone. Neal worried about attracting attention as he was forced to keep stepping aside. Too much more of this, and he was stymied. He couldn't hope to stay here much longer. In a perfect world, the man would give-up and leave, accepting Neal had won.
A perfect world . . . the words stung a little.
In a perfect world, he would call Peter.
Even now – in-spite of everything between them, he knew the man would still rush to his side. His mouth twisted a little crookedly. Calling Peter was clearly not an option. For all he knew, his mentor was on to him and the tail was FBI.
He didn't believe it. There was something, call it gut instinct, a sense he might be in actual danger. The hairs were prickling on the back of his neck as he considered the very real irony. It was a lesson he'd learned the hard way – not to ever take anything for granted. Fate was a fickle mistress. She had a habit of rearing-up to bite you. The only man he truly trusted, was the one man he couldn't ask for help.
His tracker turned back towards him, and for a second Neal thought he'd been rumbled. He shrank into the shadows of the awning as the man began moving again. Heart pounding, he considered his options. Thank the lord, the coffee-shop had a back-door. It might draw some unwanted attention, but he could use it as a means of escape. Not today though. Today he was lucky, and abruptly, the man changed direction. He stepped up to the edge of the sidewalk and held out his arm out for a cab.
Neal watched as a yellow taxi cruised by and prayed for an unlikely miracle. When it indicated right, he exhaled in relief as it pulled up alongside the kerb. He craned his neck to get a closer look as the vehicle drove right past him, but the man's face didn't jog any memories and was not one he recognised.
He glanced down at his watch. He still had plenty of time, and Moz would be getting impatient. They could conduct their meeting as originally planned, only now without an unwanted audience. It took a while for his pulse-rate to come back down to earth, and he kept a careful eye on his surroundings. He could not take the chance he was being observed or actually followed again. It furnished him with plenty to think about and a growing sense of unease.
Not FBI – he was sure of it – but that left some uncomfortable questions.
He really wanted to know who was following him.
And more specifically, why?
Peter studied the two men opposite him and wondered why he'd been summoned. His boss - Reese Hughes looked distinctly harried and his face wore an air of disquiet. The other man was watching him closely and Peter didn't care much for the scrutiny. He lifted his head with a slight challenge and didn't flinch from the stranger's eyes.
"What's going on, Reese?"
Hughes answered slowly and deliberately. "I've received an urgent message from Washington and this meeting is on a need-to-know basis. They've asked me to screw the lid down tight. It means we won't be using Caffrey on this one."
"You can brief your team as usual, but only on an assignment basis. They don't need to know any details yet, or the finer points of the case."
"Great - " he raised an eyebrow and waited. He hated this cloak and dagger stuff. It usually meant too many all-nighters and keeping secrets from El. "Want to tell me what this one is about?"
The stranger spoke for the first time, in a soft and barely accented voice. "Genocide. It's about genocide - and the largest, most successful theft in history. More specifically, it's about a certain U-boat and a cargo of stolen art."
Peter's heart sank and his response was terse. "I don't think we've been introduced."
The man smiled for the first time and held out a hand. "Zahavi - Colonel Rom Zahavi. I've heard a lot about you, Agent Burke."
"All good, I hope?"
"Peter," Hughes interrupted as he saw Peter's hackles rise and forestalled any further sarcasm. "Colonel Zahavi is part of a liaison agreement the FBI has contracted with Mossad. He's part of their restitution department which tracks down art and other property stolen or seized from Jewish owners before and during the war."
Even as he shook the Israeli's hand, Peter felt his gut start to tighten. He had a very uncomfortable feeling he knew what this might be about. The stolen art was no secret and the manifest had long-since reached Washington. It stood to reason they might share it with Israel or the Commission for Looted Art. The booty was probably worth billions - in financial terms the sums were mind-boggling – but there was another, more tragic subtext to this which had caused him a few sleepless nights.
No matter how beautiful the Rubens might be, or how astonishing and vibrant the Dali's, every painting, every item on that manifest was tainted with suffering and blood. It was easy to forget there were victims involved – most had probably been dead for decades, de-humanised by sheer volume of numbers and murdered due to accident of birth.
Zahavi was right about one thing. From a Nazi point of view, the seizure of property and assets had been a lucrative bonus of the holocaust. The list of missing artefacts was staggering but they did trickle down onto the market. Changes in world-wide and European laws had made restitution somewhat easier. The difficulty was finding living relatives or claimants who could prove they had a viable case. Peter had come across questionable provenance before. It was not unusual when working White Collar.
If he was right – if his suspicions were justified – and Neal and Moz had the stolen cargo, then the stakes had become a lot higher and the ante had just been raised. The whole thing was sad and distasteful and a part of him still hoped he'd misjudged them. In his opinion, if they sold the art for profit, they would have traces of blood on their hands.
He nodded and chose his words carefully. "I'm sorry we lost the U-boat. I imagine it would have gone a long way to providing some sort of compensation."
"Not as much as you think," Zahavi was sober. "Compensation is an obvious factor, but it's more about a sense of injustice. No amount of money can bring back the dead. There's no way of making things right."
Peter felt a little nauseous, and guilty by association. "And any chance we had of helping literally went up in smoke."
"There's no perhaps about it. I was there, I saw the explosion. When our techs examined the warehouse they found evidence of Nazi packing crates. There were fragments of gilt frames and canvas, and traces of oil paint."
"All easy enough to fake, Agent Burke, as I'm sure you are well aware."
"Are you saying the treasure's still out there?" Peter asked the ten million dollar question. "If so, do you know who took it, or more importantly, where is it?"
Zahavi sighed. "When U-boat 869 left Germany in 1945, she was destined to arrive in Argentina. Many Germans with Nazi connections fled to South America at the end of the war, and were given shelter by sympathetic governments. The stolen plunder she carried was not meant for specific individuals, even though many such funds did get – shall we say – diverted into private bank accounts. It had a far more sinister purpose - to finance a new Fourth Reich."
"Baby Hitlers," Peter murmured, reminiscently, remembering the gruesome stories Moz and Neal had told him. "Surely all those Fourth Reich yarns are simply that – fairy tales, rumours and nonsense?"
"Hardly nonsense," Zahavi spoke sharply. "Like most tales, they have a foundation of truth. In this case, those stories are real. Have you ever heard of an organisation called Odessa?"
"Read the book and saw the film, but isn't it a little out of date now? An underground organisation of Nazis dedicated to creating a new Reich?"
"Ah, my friend, I wish you were right, but sadly, it isn't that simple. In 1944 after D-Day, it was obvious the tide was turning. Rommel had lost to the British in North Africa and the Russian Front was a military disaster. Many Germans began to anticipate defeat and make plans for that eventuality. This was the genesis of Odessa and other similar organisations. A quick and safe transference of assets, and a reliable means of escape. During the last chaotic months of the war, the latter was the obvious priority, but another and very definite objective was the foundation of a new Reich."
"Hence the U-boats?"
"Hence the U-boats. Each one packed with plundered treasure. Some were sunk, others apprehended, and more than one reached its intended destination. Others, like 869 seemed to vanish off the face of the earth, the fate of their contents unknown."
Peter sighed. "Until now. I'm sorry, Zahavi, but why are you really here?"
The Israeli leant forward, his demeanour changed, and suddenly, he was all business. "Mossad monitors the global art world, and someone has been putting out feelers. Discreet enquiries about some of the paintings listed on the U-boat's manifest. Any attempt to move so much as one canvas would cause a massive ripple in the art pond. We think someone still has the cargo, and more importantly, so does Odessa."
"Wait a minute, Odessa's still active?"
"Very much so, and with a new generation of supporters. Fanatics, staunch fascists and Neo-Nazis dedicated to the old regime. I think you would be surprised, Agent Burke, they have friends in very high places, a giant spider-web of contacts all over the world who share their twisted ideals."
"In this day and age? It seems very far-fetched."
"Does it?" Zahavi was almost weary. "This is a new age of anti-Semitism which has its roots in a very different origin; a resentment and hatred of Israel being fuelled by Islamic fanatics. Odessa has done very well out of this. You might call it a supreme twist of irony. Sun Tzu said it well in 'The Art of War;' the enemy of my enemy is my friend."
The more Peter heard, the less happy he felt. A pulse beat behind his left temple. Thanks to Neal, he was smack bang in the middle of this, and in a truly awkward position. Nazis and secret societies - the whole thing sounded pretty incredible, but Mossad wasn't known for playing practical jokes, and the Israeli sounded sincere.
He frowned. "Are you saying Odessa is here in New York? The whole thing sounds totally absurd. A bunch of Nazis in search of a treasure which officially no longer exists."
Zahavi paused. "Nonetheless, Agent Burke, Odessa is real and right now they're operating in your city. They're after the same thing we are, but with one very notable exception. They don't care how they get what they want, and will kill for it without drawing breath."
"Apparently, this organisation is quite ruthless in the extreme. It means we need to be on our guard," Reese Hughes didn't sound very happy. "We're the only link to the U-boat now that Adler is dead."
"Not quite," Peter said quietly. "There's Caffrey and Alex Hunter."
"Gerhard Wagner's granddaughter," Zahavi watched them both carefully. "She's been on our radar for quite along time – we're particularly interested in her. Our Intel is fairly certain that Wagner had links with Odessa. As for Caffrey, the man intrigues me. We've had dealings with him in Israel. There was an incident several years ago involving the Dead Sea Scrolls."
The Dead Sea Scrolls?
Well, that was a first, but not really all that surprising. Peter suppressed the hint of a smile and filed it away for later. Right now, he had far more pressing concerns. Like his conscience and a stash of stolen art. Stalling for time, he exhaled slowly and wondered how the hell to play things. It was all one gigantic car-crash and he could do with some divine inspiration.
The man had a real talent for pitching them headlong into danger. It was time for a little straight-talking which might at least help clear the air. He felt betrayed, uneasy and extremely pissed off, but god help him, still somewhat protective. He flexed his hands under the desk-top, and then pictured them around Neal's neck.
Peter knew he had to stay ahead of the field. Rom Zahavi had just changed the parameters. To voice his suspicions would endanger them all and add an unpleasant twist to the game. Poor choice of word – he shivered a little, there was nothing game-like about it. He was filled with a presentiment of menace as someone walked over his grave. There it was . . . that feeling again, as though the waters were closing in on him. Out of his depth and fighting for oxygen as they rose up over his head. Great analogy – his lips twisted wryly. It was pretty apt in the scheme of things. He wished the cause of his present troubles had remained in its salty tomb.
He really needed some air – to get out of here. He wished to god he'd never heard of the U-boat. The whole chapter was a wretched a nightmare that simply refused to go away. The Odessa thing – he shook his head a little. It was like a conspiracy theory. The ravings of some internet crazy who tweeted the Loch Ness Monster was real. He wasn't sure he was ready to believe in a sinister Nazi society, but Reese Hughes wasn't famous for joking around and the implications posed an unpleasant threat.
He looked up again and met the Israeli's eyes. Zahavi was watching him intently. Peter knew he was under inspection and wondered if he'd passed the test. The man might be softly spoken but his bearing was quick and intelligent. If Neal thought he could take on Mossad, he was playing a dangerous game.
Lisa Paris - 2012