By Design

A/N: "By Design" is a sequel to "A Priestly Sum" which was published just before Season 3 kicked off in June 2011. This story picks up immediately after where "A Priestly Sum" left off, when it was revealed to Neal that his father was alive and was responsible for swapping the U-boat treasure out. The primary White Collar characters are the creation of Jeff Eastin, creator and showrunner of the show. The character of Stephanie Harper, for the benefit of readers who are not familiar with my previous stories, is a self-made millionaire, and widow of someone from one of Manhattan's richest families. She is also the college sweetheart of Peter Burke and has been working secretly for the FBI White Collar Crime Division since college.


Neal walked into the FBI office with a cup of mocha chai latte in his hand. The office was already abuzz with activity and it was barely 7.30am. He took his hat off and placed it on the corner of his desk, then hung his jacket on the back of his chair before sitting down without saying a word to anyone. He picked up a file that was on the top of the pile that had accumulated there over the past few weeks – these were cases that Peter had asked him to look over before they had solved the Adler case.

Neal picked up his BlackBerry. Three missed calls from Stephanie this morning. He put the phone down and returned his focus to the files in front of him.

Fifteen minutes later, Neal was staring at his empty coffee cup and wishing there was an espresso machine in the office kitchen when Peter stepped off the elevator, walked into the bullpen and placed a fresh cup of coffee and a bear claw, still warm from the bakery, on his desk.

Neal looked up from his files and found Peter smiling down at him.

"Morning," Peter said.

"Morning," Neal returned the greeting with mild suspicion. "What have I done to deserve this?" Neal asked.

"What? Can't a guy buy his friend some breakfast?" Peter asked.

"So we're friends again?" Neal asked hesitantly.

"You helped me catch some bad guys and I know you're not the one who switched the U-boat treasure, so I'm calling a truce for now," Peter replied.

"Did Elizabeth put you up to this?" Neal asked.

"Well, yes," Peter admitted. "And I know Stephanie is heading out of town, so let's just say I'm doing her a favour by keeping you fed and watered while she's gone," Peter teased.

"Really? Are you my babysitter now?" Neal said as he bit into the bear claw. "It's sweet that you're worried about me but Stephanie is only going to be gone for a couple of weeks and I'm perfectly capable of looking after myself."

"That's good to know because we still have work to do and bad guys to catch," Peter said. "I need you to be on your 'A' game and not pining over your girlfriend."

"How long are you going to keep this schoolyard teasing up, Peter?" Neal asked.

"For as long as it still makes me smile," Peter replied.

"You used to say the thought of sending me back to prison made you smile too," Neal replied.

"The threat of sending you back to prison, not the thought. There's a difference," Peter said a little defensively.

"Well, thanks for breakfast," Neal added and looked back down at his paperwork while he continued to eat.

Instead of heading to his own office, Peter lingered at Neal's desk.

Neal finally looked up at Peter again, "Have I got crumbs on my chin?" he asked.

Peter put his hands in his pockets and replied, "Neal, I just wanted to tell you I'm really happy you and Stephanie are together…" Peter paused as he saw Neal frown at the word 'together', "or whatever you want to call your relationship. I don't want you to feel uncomfortable talking to me about Stephanie just because she's my ex-girlfriend. I'm here for you buddy."

With that, he left Neal alone.

Stephanie stepped off the elevator from her Park Avenue penthouse apartment carrying a laptop bag and handbag while her housekeeper Sofia pulled a couple of suitcases along behind her. Barry, the Concierge, hurried to the door to take over from Sofia.

"I'll see you in a couple of weeks, Sofia. Enjoy your break," Stephanie said to her housekeeper.

"Thank you, Mrs Harper. Have a safe trip," Sofia replied before stepping back onto the elevator to return to the Harper penthouse.

"Good morning, Mrs Harper," Barry greeted.

"Good morning, Barry," Stephanie replied.

"One of these days, ma'am, these suitcases will be for a vacation instead of business," Barry commented as he strode behind Stephanie with her bags.

"Hmm, yes, that would be nice," Stephanie replied.

"If you don't mind my saying, Mrs Harper, you could do with a break," Barry said with a smile. "Maybe have some fun with Mr Halden?" Barry suggested.

Stephanie stopped mid-stride, turned to Barry and said with a cautious smile, "Barry, you've been working here for a long time so I know you understand that I expect complete discretion with regards to Mr Halden and any visitors who come here to see me."

"Of course, Mrs Harper," Barry replied.

"Because you know, someone in my position, naturally attract a lot of people who could be snooping around for one reason or another," Stephanie continued with a slightly forceful tone.

"Yes, Mrs Harper! You know I'm not one to gossip," Barry added.

"I knew you would understand," Stephanie said as she turned back to continue walking towards the front door.

As Stephanie and Barry approached the door, her driver, dressed in a chauffeur's uniform complete with hat pulled low over his eyes, walked towards them and held out his hand to take Stephanie's bags.

"Thank you, Jeffrey," she said to her driver as they walked out on to the street toward her limousine. Her driver held open the car door for her while Barry loaded her luggage into the trunk.

When everything had been loaded, Barry waved to Stephanie one last time before returning to his post inside.

As the car pulled away from the sidewalk, the driver finally took his hat off and looked at Stephanie from his rear-view mirror. It was Nicholas Caffrey, the same man who had been responsible for switching out the U-boat treasure from Adler's warehouse at the pier.

"Why did you sell the Degas?" Stephanie asked.

"To fund our getaway," Nicholas replied.

"You realise that's going to draw attention," Stephanie said.

"I was careful," Nicholas replied, "just like I was careful whenever I got your husband what he wanted."

Stephanie did not reply. Her late husband's penchant for stealing and buying stolen art despite being one of the wealthiest people in the US remained a tightly-guarded secret, and an even greater concern for her now that he was gone.

"It's been three days," Nicholas finally said, breaking the silence.

"Nicholas, you've had thirty years to think about this," Stephanie replied. "Neal has had three days. He can barely deal with finding out that the father he believed to have been long dead is actually still alive, let alone all the art. It's a life-changing decision."

"What's he said to you?" Nicholas pushed on.

"He's not returning my calls," Stephanie spoke as she stared out the darkened window of her limousine.

"I want to talk to him," Nicholas said.

"He's not ready," Stephanie replied.

"We have to keep moving," Nicholas said. "The art was never meant to sit in that store room indefinitely and I'm not prepared to wait too much longer."

"Are you afraid Neal will choose Peter over you?" Stephanie asked.

"Burke's a Fed. I'm his father," Nicholas replied.

"Peter's been more of a father to him in the last two years than you have been for the last thirty," Stephanie said.

Nicholas did not reply. Stephanie spoke again. "What will you do if Neal chooses to stay?"

"My son will make the right choice," came the simple reply.

"For him or for you?" Stephanie asked.

"For us," Nicholas replied confidently.

"What makes you think you want the same thing?" Stephanie said.

"He is my son," Nicholas said.

"He doesn't know you," Stephanie retorted. "All the pieces will fall into place when he's ready."

"And while Neal is deciding, the clock is ticking. The Feds are closing in," Nicholas warned.

"They don't have anything concrete," Stephanie replied.

"Maybe that's just what they want you to think because they know you've been seeing Neal but I noticed you've grown a tail recently," Nicholas commented.

"It's not the FBI," Stephanie replied. "My guys have beefed up the security around my house and all my offices already."

"Any idea who it might be?" Nicholas asked.

"Could be anyone – journalists, paparazzi, corporate spies," Stephanie said.

"You know Burke has called in the Art Crimes Division in DC to investigate," Nicholas said. "You need to find out what they know."

"Hence the purpose of this trip," Stephanie said. "Peter is smart, Nicholas. He is much smarter than you ever gave him credit for. I can't keep asking him questions or he'll start to suspect something."

"Tick-tock, Stephanie. You have two weeks. Or I'm leaving," Nicholas said.

"What about Neal?" Stephanie asked.

"Two weeks," Nicholas repeated.

Diana and Jones were sitting in the conference room looking at the latest issue of Vogue magazine. The Harvard crew was settling down and chatting when Peter walked into the room, followed by a still-distracted Neal.

Neal walked over to stand behind Diana and Jones, looking over their shoulder to see what they were looking at. "Buying a new Prada bag for Christie?" Neal asked Diana.

"Can one of your forger friends get me one?" Diana asked.

Neal looked at her seriously, trying to determine if she was serious about wanting a Prada from the black market or if she was just ribbing him again – he could never be certain with her. He decided she was ribbing him and ignored the question and gave her a sarcastic "yeah, right" smirk.

"All right, quiet everybody!" Peter said loudly. Neal took his spot by the window sitting on the window sill. After four years behind bars, no-one could appreciate having a window more than Neal.

The room fell silent as all eyes focused on Peter standing at the front of the room. The screen on the wall changed from the FBI logo to a photo of a magazine ad featuring a naked woman kissing a man in a three-piece suit. The woman was wearing the highest pair of stilettos ever seen, accessorised with a thick diamond bracelet, a chunky diamond necklace and matching earrings and hair pin. The men in the room whistled but a look from Peter silenced them immediately.

"As you all know, Fashion Week is coming up," Peter began. Neal grinned – it seemed like only yesterday that Peter barely noticed the hordes of beautiful models flooding Manhattan around this time of year.

"These days, the fashion shows are not just about the clothes," Peter said.

"Clearly," Jones snickered and was stared down by Peter for the interruption.

"The accessories industry is worth over $100billion," Peter continued. "The speed at which the latest designs are copied by counterfeiters of handbags, shoes and jewellery is faster than ever before and fashion houses are losing millions everyday."

"The first copy of Catherine Middleton's wedding dress was on the market within 24 hours of her stepping out of the car at Westminster Abbey to say 'I do' to Prince William," Diana added.

"Right," Peter said. "We've been cracking down on the counterfeits hitting some of the major fashion houses over the past decade, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, but now the counterfeiters are getting smarter and starting to hit the smaller up-and-coming fashion houses and copying their work before they're even launched so they're ready to hit the market as soon as the first model steps on to the catwalk."

"Yeah, but they're usually manufactured outside the US or Europe so they're hard to catch and outside our jurisdiction unless we're investigating the sale of the counterfeits," Neal chimed in.

"And that's why we're going to try to shut them down before the designs leave the country," Peter said.

"Who are we investigating, exactly?" Neal asked.

"What do you know of Verone & Sassia?" Peter asked.

"Lena Verone and Carol Sassia – best friends since high school. They were turned down by every design house until they were discovered by some Hollywood starlet who started carrying their purses and wearing their jewellery 18 months ago. Started hitting the fashion shows soon after. I believe Vogue called them the future of style at the Paris show recently," Neal replied.

Peter looked at Neal, clearly impressed but not surprised by his knowledge.

"They just signed a multi-million dollar deal with Saks as sole distributor of their latest line of jewellery a couple of weeks ago," Jones added.

"They did," Peter said. "$10million to be exact. The new line is due to be launched in a week as part of Fashion Week. Saks have already had pre-orders for some pieces from some of their clients, sight unseen."

"That's not surprising," Diana said. "New Yorkers want to be the trend-setters so that by the time the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills are seen wearing the same pieces they are already out-dated."

"So what does this have to do with us?" Neal asked.

"Yesterday, Lena Verone received this," Peter said as he switched the monitor on the wall to an email.

The email read:

"Congratulations on your deal with Saks. Love your work. So will all of Manhattan's bargain shoppers. $5million. I'll be in touch."

"Not much of a blackmail note," Neal commented. "How credible is this?"

"The blackmailer sent photos of five of their signature pieces to Verone & Sassia two hours later," Peter replied as he passed some photos inside evidence bags around the table. "We have a women's bracelet, a ring, earrings, a tie-bar and cufflinks. Lena Verone confirmed these are very close replicas of some of the pieces in their new collection."

"The photos came with the threat that if Verone & Sassia don't pay up by the end of the week, the entire collection of replicas will be released online," Jones added.

"The photos look professional," Neal said as he inspected the photos closely. "How many people have seen or had access to the designs?"

"Verone and Sassia claim all their pieces are individually hand-made," Diana said. "They made the prototypes but they also have three jewellery-makers who work for them to make the additional pieces."

"Lena said the pieces were photographed last week for the Bon Chance magazine shoot," Peter added as he passed around some more photos.

Jones picked up one of them, similar to the one on the monitor earlier and whistled at the lack of clothing on the models. "I'm not sure their strategy is working if they want readers to be looking at the accessories rather than the models."

Neal took the photo from Jones and smiled. It was Diana's turn to give the men a disapproving look. Neal turned serious.

"So our list of suspects includes the jewellery-makers who work for Verone & Sassia, the models, the stylists, the photographer, the photographer's assistants, the magazine editors – for starters – and that's assuming neither Lena Verone nor Carol Sassia had anything to do with the blackmail note," Neal summed up.

"Lena and Carol are equal partners. They have no reason to do this," Diana said.

"Do we have any other potential suspects? It's a cut-throat industry. I imagine they could have made enemies along the way," Neal said.

"Could be, but we're still looking into their backgrounds to look for whoever is behind this," Peter said. "In the meantime, we have to look at the people who had immediate access to the photos to find the leak."

"Did Carol receive the same note or was it only sent to Lena?" Neal asked.

"Carol was on a flight coming back from Western Australia looking at pearls when Lena received this so we don't know yet," Peter said. "She's due to land in JFK in an hour. I've asked Lena to let us know when she arrives."

"So, where's our 'in'?" Neal asked Peter.

"There's another scheduled photo shoot tomorrow for Bon Chance and we're going to be there," Peter replied.

Neal raised his eyebrows and asked, "We're going to just waltz in and ask the blackmailer to raise his or her hand?"

"No," Peter replied with a slight hint of a smile. "They're re-shooting because they weren't happy with one of the models from last week."

Neal was immediately worried by Peter's smirk. "Why?" Neal asked hesitantly.

"To quote the editor: 'He looks like a funeral director'," Diana replied.

"He looked pretty good to me," Jones replied.

"That's because you're looking at her," Diana said as she pointed at the naked female model.

"That still doesn't really answer my question," Neal said. "How do we get in to question our suspects?"

"Well, they're looking for a new male model who isn't going to look like a funeral director," Peter replied. The smirk on his face was unmistakable now.

"I'll do it," Jones volunteered.

"Thanks Jones, but we, through Lena, submitted a few candidates, and the editor has already picked someone else," Peter replied.

"Who did they pick?" Diana asked. Then the Harvard crew followed Peter's gaze.

"Are you ready to strike a pose?" Peter asked Neal.

"This already feels worse than the bachelor auction," Neal sighed.