Peter was shaving when Elizabeth leaned into the bathroom. "Hon," she said, handing him his phone, "I wouldn't have answered it but it's June."
"Peter, good morning," June said.
"Hello, June, is there something wrong?" It seemed like a reasonable question at 6:25 in the morning.
"I was wondering if you really needed Neal to come in today."
Peter frowned. "He's got you calling out for him?"
She exhaled hard. "Peter, you disappoint me."
He was immediately regretful, both for angering her and for thinking the worst of Neal. "That was uncalled for, please let me try that again," he replied. "Is something wrong?"
"Maybe you should tell me, Peter," she said, the irritation in her voice changing to concern. "I'm worried about Neal. I know he's been keeping long hours, and I've never seen him this exhausted."
"June, we've done a lot of all night stakeouts, is there something different that I don't know?"
"Different? Yes, usually he can manage to get to his apartment on his own. Usually he doesn't need to sleep on my couch, although this is the third time in two weeks I've found him here. Why don't you tell me what's different." She was starting to get angry again.
"We've all been under pressure these last couple of weeks. I'm not asking him or any of my agents to do something that I wouldn't do myself, and we've all been putting in way too may 20 hour days." No, he realized, that wasn't quite true. He and Neal put in consistently long days; he'd been letting Jones and Diana alternate a few extra hours off during this particular investigation. On top of that, Neal's hours were largely undercover, with "business" often conducted before sunup. "We're all tired," he said, sounding lame even to himself.
"First, he's not an agent. Second, this is not just 'tired.' We both know that he'll keep the facade up for you, but I can't let this go on any further. Peter, I can hear him when he comes in, and I see him every morning, and I must say this to you, he's barely functioning. Certainly this is not at all healthy for him, but from where you sit it can't be good for your investigation, either. I'm asking you to consider just how difficult it is to be someone else so completely, so that you don't make a single mistake that might put yourself and others at risk. For days and nights at a time. And then be yourself again back at the office. It's not a matter of flipping a switch, you know."
If she had materialized through the phone and slapped his face she could not have made a stronger impression on him. Peter hadn't considered the stamina it took, both physical and mental, that Neal needed to play his roles. He'd always made it seem so effortless, going from Neal to Nick Halden or, in this case, Alain Hilaire, back to Neal again, and always with a smile. The problem was, usually when Neal was someone else there was the real risk of guns being pointed at him. Being on a job as himself wasn't necessarily without danger, either.
Thirty minutes later Peter found himself in June's front room. Neal was sitting on the same sofa he'd slept on, sipping a cup of coffee. His jacket and tie were draped over the newel post of the banister leading upstairs and his hair - well, finger combing was better than nothing, but not much. June sat at the other end of the couch. Her staff had brought over a chair for Peter, and a serving table with coffee and scones was between them.
"Good morning, Peter. June tells me she wrote me a note so I don't get demerits for tardiness?" Neal asked with a cheerful tone of voice, but at only three-quarter speed.
Peter and June exchanged very quick looks. Peter looked at Neal, really looked for the first time in a while. The man sitting across from him with tousled hair, pale skin, eyelids puffy and red, no jacket or tie, this was not Neal at anywhere near his best. The china cup he held in his hand shook slightly as he rested it on the saucer on his knee. Even his posture was off. He was more slumped into the couch than sitting upright.
Neal put his half-filled cup and saucer on the table and stretched his back.
"Sorry about the time. I just need to shower and change, you don't have to wait." He moved to get up.
"Sit back, Neal. Finish your coffee. Have some of June's delicious scones. I don't want to see you at the office before - what time did you get in this morning, three? Then, three this afternoon. If this weren't the end I wouldn't even ask that."
"Peter, you keep the same hours as I do. Are you telling me YOU'RE not going in until this afternoon?" Neal didn't even try to keep the tiredness out of his voice.
"My hours are probably a bit less - stressful - than yours," he replied. "Plus, I get to speak in my native tongue on the job."
"You know me, Peter. I'd rather do what I'm doing than sit in the van doing what you're doing. I do appreciate being off-anklet, though, so I guess that raises your stress level." He grinned.
"And besides, I can't just do nothing until later. I'm on call for my meeting with Arnaud, and Colette didn't give me any indication about time."
Arnaud Merchand referred to himself as an international commodities broker, and he was selling off his North American enterprises to focus on his European and Asian operations. Alain Hilaire, an ex-pat Frenchman, was buying that enterprise; specifically, accounts and records for bank, stock and real estate holdings, along with the gambling, insurance frauds and numerous other operations that fed those accounts. Colette Fournier, Merchand's second-in-command, was temporarily based in the U.S. to act as his agent and liaison during the sale. Merchand was arriving in New York sometime today to meet Alain in person for the first time and to finalize the deal. The real Alain Hilaire had been in custody for the last three weeks, and Neal had been taking his place. As a result, all of their proceedings had to be conducted in flawless French.
Peter looked uncomfortable. "Yeah, well, I shouldn't have needed a very wise woman to remind me of my responsibilities toward you."
Neal leaned back on the couch, frowning.
"What I mean, Neal, is that I ask you to do things I would ask my agents to do if they could do them as well as you, but I don't give you the support I and the Bureau make sure they get during and after an operation."
"What? Peter, are we having a moment? Because you really aren't very good at this."
Good to see Neal could still be sarcastic. "Neal, - "
"I trust you to get me out of these situations alive and relatively whole. What more support could I need?" Now he was serious.
"Time off, training, general health checks, including mental health - stress issues, things like that," he said quickly when he saw Neal's frown deepen. "Look, you make everything you do seem so damn easy I forget what goes into it all - you prepare, you become someone else, you come back. I like watching the smartest guy in the room work, and I should be a lot more appreciative of the effort it must take. "
Neal smiled wryly. "If we've finished admiring each other, I gotta - " and he pointed up toward the ceiling.
"I'll be here."
Neal left them to go to his apartment.
"June, thank you for reminding me what I shouldn't have forgotten. I know he'll never say anything to me. I'm glad he has you to keep me on the straight and narrow."
She laughed. "Peter, I know you're a good man, and that you care for Neal. If I didn't believe that, trust me, I would be having this conversation with your director. But I meant every word I said about the effort it takes to go undercover, especially since he's playing by your rules, not his."
"He's not used to rules, is he?"
"Oh, I wouldn't say that. A lot of his are a bit - grayer, shall we say - than yours. But the overriding issue for him is that no one gets hurt because of his actions, if he has any control. In his world, his words are how he controls nearly everything, so he can usually take care of himself. But in FBI matters, you know he's a lot more restricted in what he can do, so it's sometimes more difficult to get what you need."
Peter looked thoughtfully at his coffee cup while June let him consider everything she had said.
When he finally looked up he spoke slowly and deliberately. "This case, it's really important, and honestly only Neal - "
Neal came running down the steps, knotting his tie while descending. His hair was still wet from the shower.
"Colette just called; she's picking me up in ten minutes in front of FAO Schwarz, if you can believe it. I'm just going to grab a cab, I hope." He paused at the front door. "You're following me, right?"
"Got your watch?"
"On my wrist."
"Neal," he said, putting his hand on Neal's arm to stop him, "are you sure you can do this?"
"Yeah, I'm fine, Peter. I have to go."
"Be careful," Peter said as the door closed. He looked at June with a trace of anxiety. "This is it."
Peter called his team while maneuvering the Taurus through midtown morning traffic. Diana, Jones and Blake were in the van with all of the surveillance and tracking equipment. Unfortunately, they were in the garage at Federal Plaza, waiting for Peter.
"Change of plan, Neal's meeting Merchand at 5th and 58th, and I don't have eyes or ears on him."
"On our way, Boss," Diana replied as she put on headphones. "I hear Neal, sounds like he's in a cab. I'll put him on speaker for now. Jones is monitoring the GPS and Blake drew the short straw and gets to drive today."
They listened to Neal's heavily accented English as he spoke to the cab driver, then the sounds of life from a New York City sidewalk. A minute later they heard a car pull up and a door open. Neal greeted Colette in French. Then - nothing. This was the part that Peter liked the least - hated, truth be told, especially since he hadn't been able to get to the meeting point quickly enough to see Colette's car. He knew that Neal had disabled the communication and tracking device in his watch while Colette checked him for any electronic signals but it seemed to be taking longer than usual to come back up.
After a frustrating few minutes voices came through. The surveillance team could listen and track again. Diana, who was proficient in French but without Neal's perfect accent, translated from the van.
"Merchand is asking when Alain was last in Paris. Neal said he visited about 6 years ago. Merchand wants his opinion of the addition to the Louvre. Neal is telling him it's hideous but good for the tourists. Neal is asking where they're going. Merchand says they'll be seeing the merchandise as soon as the money is transferred." She paused, and Peter heard Jones's voice in the background. "GPS is up, it looks like they're heading north on Eighth up near 80th."
Jones noted every change of direction, but it soon became obvious that, wherever they were going, they were in no hurry to get there.
"I hear glass clinking. Merchand is offering something to drink. Neal is trying to refuse - says he prefers wine before breakfast. Merchand isn't taking no for an answer. He wants to drink to their successful transaction. Neal agrees.
"Merchand is asking about - he's asking if Alain liked the chocolates he sent." There was silence.
"There were no deliveries to Hilaire's home, right?" Peter said to his team. "I hope that's not some code we missed." He felt his heart speed up.
Diana came on again. "Neal is asking when they were sent. Damn, Boss, even in French he sounds apologetic. Merchand said two weeks ago. Neal said he's very sorry, he never received them, and he hopes that Merchand wouldn't think he was so rude as to not acknowledge a gift. Merchand - wait, he's laughing, - he's saying, maybe he just thought he sent it, maybe he forgot."
It was a test, Neal passed, Peter thought.
"Merchand wants to know how Yvonne is doing." "Yvonne" was definitely a code. The FBI had intercepted a series of e-mails in which Hilaire used the name Yvonne to refer to his gem-smuggling side business. "Neal said Yvonne found a diamond bracelet she absolutely must have. Merchand is asking where the diamonds are from; Neal said he had someone to make sure they all have the right provenance. Merchand said he might have something Yvonne would like; Neal said he'd be pleased to look at it in the future."
"Good, Neal," Peter said, more to himself. "You remembered about Merchand's blood diamond trade."
"Merchand is giving Neal an account number."
Peter let out the breath he didn't realize he was holding
There was silence. "Anything, Diana?"
"Nope, just glass clinking. Sure hope there's some orange juice in there."
Jones cut in. "The money's been transferred out of our account. Looks like it went to an account in Dubai."
"Good, good," said Peter.
Jones watched the money move through several more banks over the next fifteen minutes. Diana heard nothing but glass, so she at least knew Neal's transmitter was still active.
Then - "Neal's asking if he's planning to see the Matisse exhibit at the Met."
That was Neal's signal that the financial transaction was complete. "Merchand sees that the money's in his account," Peter said. " Where are they now?"
There were so many points along the way in which this operation could have gone badly, from the first contact over three weeks ago to today. During that time Neal met players higher and higher in Merchand's organization and had to convince each one he was Alain Hilaire. Six days ago he met Colette, who kept him dangling for nearly a week, with meetings and phone calls at unpredictable times and locations. As Merchand's trusted intermediary she was thorough in vetting Neal as Alain Hilaire. So far, Neal had been completely convincing.
The last act of Neal's undercover operation was the meeting with Merchand this morning and making the actual transaction. They knew Merchand would have some kind of tests of his own; they had not considered he would chose to do so over very early morning drinks.
Now they were just waiting for Neal to be taken to the records. Once the FBI could verify the receipt of the purchased materials Peter would give the order to agents stationed around the city to arrest Merchand, Colette and his remaining U.S.-based organization members. At the same time Hughes would contact Europol.
Diana came on again. "Boss, I think Caffrey needs help. He just told Merchand he needs some air, and he sounds like he's starting to slur. Wait - Merchand is saying here's the key. Neal's thanking him - sounds like they're pulling over."
"Au revoir," she heard Neal say, followed by the sound of a car door closing. She put Neal back on speaker just as he said, "Peter, Fort Washington at West 173rd. Dark blue '11 Audi A6, New York plate WER75 - umm, damn, missed the last couple of numbers, sorry. Think they're going toward the GW bridge." He speech was definitely slurred. "You should get here soon."
Peter arrived five minutes later to see Neal leaning against a metal-shuttered storefront. He was running one hand through his hair, the other cradling his stomach. When he saw Peter he pushed himself away from the building and pulled a key from his pants pocket. He grinned and gave Peter the double finger point. "Check this out," he said as he unsteadily led Peter to a door on the side of the building. Inside were dozens of filing cabinets filled with property deeds and records going back over thirty years, hard copies of insurance policies on thousands of businesses and individuals, numerous laptops each with multiple external hard drives, stacks of CDs and DVDs, and a large safe with diamonds and at least a hundred safe deposit box keys. Right in the center was a series of ledgers that formed a very clear index to everything they were looking at.
"Jones," Peter said, "how far back are you?"
"We're right behind you, Peter," he responded, as Peter saw them parking the van opposite the building.
"You'll take care of this for now? I think I need to, uh, debrief Neal. I'll be back later. Neal? "
Neal carefully slid into the passenger seat and closed the door as softly as he could. "I can't believe he comes from Alsace and all he wants is to do shots of Kentucky bourbon," he said, breathing heavily. "Shots, no sipping. At eight in the morning."
"I think it was a test," Peter replied.
"I guess I passed, was hard at the end there." Peter watched him in sympathy as Neal leaned his head against the cool window glass.
"How many what?"
"I don't know, half of three quarters of a - bottle?"
Peter winced. "Anything I need to know about the case right now?" Peter asked.
"Did I give you the car description?"
"Then, no." His eyes were closed, he was still leaning into the door, breathing hard and shaking slightly.
"Peter, please pull over." The sidewalks were getting more crowded as they headed south, and Peter knew how badly Neal would have to feel to be sick on a public street. But Peter always had a few evidence bags handy in the car, just in case evidence suddenly appeared. He passed Neal one of the larger plastic ones, while switching off the communication button on Neal's watch. He saw no need to broadcast and record Neal's misery.
Neal slid out from behind the seat belt's shoulder strap and leaned forward to heave into the plastic bag. After three bouts in twenty blocks he sat up again. "God," he said so softly that if Peter hadn't glanced over at him at that moment he wouldn't have heard.
"Feeling any better?" Neal's breathing had at least slowed to a more normal rhythm.
"Mmm, some. Shoulda done that sooner. Does the offer to come in at three still stand?"
"Nope, that one's off the table. You're going home and staying there. You'll try to get something in your stomach, you'll go to bed, and when you wake up you'll call me. Then we'll talk." They were just getting to June's block. "And since I don't know how much of this you're going to remember I'm going to talk with June, too."
June herself opened the door for them when she saw Peter supporting Neal up the walk. "Long story, and yes, exactly what it looks like, " Peter said, seeing her concern. "I'll tell you what I can, but can you get him something easy on the stomach, maybe? I'll come down for it after I get him settled in. And I would like to finish our conversation."
By the time Peter got Neal upstairs, removed his jacket, loosened his tie and shirt, handed him a glass of water and a trash can ("just in case") and put a wet wash cloth on his forehead, June was halfway up to Neal's apartment with fresh coffee, ginger ale, a large chunk of Italian bread, and a bottle of acetaminophen.
"Neal, darling, you should try to eat a little something before you go to sleep," she said.
"Room spinning, no. Just ginger ale, aspirin and sleep." He was out in five minutes.
"So, this case, it's finished?"
"Yes, it is, and we could not have done it without Neal."
June smiled and nodded. "I suppose you need to get back," she said.
He started to say that he did, but realized that, as much as his accountant brain wanted to sort through the evidence, his team could handle part of the day without him.
"Do you think he'd mind if we relieved him of some coffee? Let's sit on the balcony for a bit." He carried two cups outside.
"June, thank you again for your call this morning. Neal's not going to tell me when he hits a wall, I get it, and I need to watch for that. You were right, I don't know how much longer he could have lasted at this pace, and that's a discussion I promise you I will have with him very soon. But, June, you should have heard him today. He was amazing." Peter was almost gushing as he told June what he could about the case and Neal's actions during the last three weeks.
June listened to Peter's words while watching his facial and body expressions with her usual placid demeanor. Peter was surprised, however, that she stopped him after he told her about his giving Neal an evidence bag when he was sick. It was just a minor point and he almost didn't mention it.
"Peter, it might have been a small thing for you at the time, but consider this. If you were in the situation he found himself in, wouldn't you have wanted to hang onto whatever dignity you could have? And you did that for him today."
That was it. That was precisely it. He needed to treat Neal with the same dignity he treated his agents, and he knew he didn't always do so. After all, how often did he remind him about orange jumpsuits, even in jest? Or tell him to cowboy up, when maybe it was an inappropriate response. And he also needed to remember that Neal was not one of his agents, and although he was every bit as capable as they were he had neither their training nor their desire to be in law enforcement.
"He does what he does for you, Peter, not for the FBI or because of his agreement with your agency. It's his personal commitment to you. You remember what I said about him and rules. He'll never cross a friend. It's not always in his best interest." She paused. "But once you've earned his friendship, he will always go well beyond what's expected. Don't take advantage of that."
Peter wouldn't, but maybe the FBI might. He thought about what he had said to Neal a few months back - he could be a con, or he could be a man, but he couldn't be both. Well, someday and in some unforeseen circumstance, Peter might find himself in a position where he could be an agent, or he could be a friend, but he couldn't be both.
"He's my friend, June. I won't take advantage of that."
Thanks for reading.