... Tuesday on the way to the FBI ...

Neal was torn between delight about still having his freedom - that is, if you might call it freedom to work for the Feds, bound to a two-mile radius and a tracking anklet - and the pure shock that had gripped him to the marrow at having faced imprisonment. Nevertheless, when they stepped out of the elevator and entered the office, he looked unperturbed and confident. He made a sassy comment about how much he would have missed the FBI coffee and went to his desk.

The FBI agents were surprised to see Caffrey returning to the Bureau, but no one dared to ask about the story behind this. Agent Burke went to see Hughes to give him a report. The head of the department was concerned when he learned that their consultant had had an encounter with a former partner in crime.

"Do you think we can still take the risk of keeping Caffrey as CI?" Hughes asked. "He has access to confidential information when he's on our premises. It would reflect badly on us if he gets involved in a crime while working for us."

Peter had had the same apprehensions and had already thought it through. "I think we have to make sure he stays on the straight and narrow," he said. "I wouldn't rely on the assumption that Caffrey will play by our rules. We will have to watch him closely and give him the necessary motivation to make sure that he stays an asset for us."

Reece chuckled. "Trust, but verify... Taking Reagan's motto under advisement?"

Burke seemed to be disconcerted. "Trusting a criminal? No way. But verify I will."

In the afternoon, they got information that Curtis Hagen had taken on a restoration job in a church on Third Street. There was no proof yet that he was actually the forger they were looking for; therefore, the FBI couldn't just show up and arrest him. But they were able to observe him to find evidence for his criminal activities. This might take a long time, though, and many stakeouts, and it didn't assure success. Neal came up with another idea.

"If we could check his restoration work and find the same initials there which are on the Goya, we could at least be sure that we are on the right track," he suggested. "And if we do it undercover, he wouldn't know that the FBI is after him."

Peter took a liking to this suggestion. Both men went to the church after work. They hoped that the church would be still open and Hagen might have left because lighting conditions were too poor for art work in the dusk.

Once they arrived, the priest refused them admittance because the building was closed during the reconstruction work. Since they couldn't present a search warrant, Peter started to retreat.

But the con man didn't need a search warrant to gain access to any building he'd set his mind on. He led the priest away and started to talk to him in private. Peter couldn't listen to their discussion. From what he could see, the priest wasn't convinced easily but after a while he consented.

Neal gave his profuse thanks. "Thank you, thank you, Father. Sorry about that, we've got five."

Peter was baffled. "Did you just lie to a priest?"

Neal gave him an innocent look. "Do you think Diana's attractive?"

Since Diana Barrigan was a very attractive woman - even though he didn't feel attracted to her in any romantic way - the agent had to affirm. "Sure."

His consultant walked up to the painting and assured him, "Then we're good."

It was hard to acknowledge, but Peter Burke was slightly amused. When Hughes had hired the consultant for his out-of-the-box thinking, Peter wouldn't have imagined this coup de main. But one had to admit that Caffrey got what he wanted and that was more than the agent would have accomplished if he had been on his own.

The restoration work was extraordinary. Neal started to inspect the painting and quickly found what he was looking for. There it was: the initials C and H in the pattern on the hem of a dress. But they didn't look identical to the initials they had found on the bonds. Peter wasn't convinced.

Unfortunately, their investigation wasn't conducted unobserved.

"Can I help you, gentleman? Your face - it's very familiar. Maybe I've seen it on the news, or perhaps on a most wanted web page," Curtis Hagen said, catching them unprepared.

Neal extended a hand to welcome and introduce himself. But he was spurned.

"Forgive me if I don't shake hands with an art thief."

Hagen's statement invited contradiction. The convicted criminal had to clarify his position. "I was never arrested for art theft," Neal said.

They left the church a short while later and went home.

... Same evening at June's residence...

When Neal returned home, he found Mozzie sitting in the hall and chatting with June. It was rare that Mozzie hit it off with someone; in general, he was too suspicious to get involved with anyone. But it seemed June had won him over completely and they were both enjoying each other's company.

Neal took a chair and joined them. But he felt drained after the eventful day and was not in the mood for pleasant conversation.

His landlady hasn't seen him since the day before yesterday. She was shocked when she saw the bruises on his face which had a nasty yellow color by now.

"Neal, what happened to you? I hope this wasn't some of your new FBI acquaintances." Her Byron had never attracted the attention of the FBI, but she knew that back in the old times police officers could be pretty rough when they wanted someone to confess.

The young man tried to reassure her. "It's not that bad. And it wasn't the FBI who did this. It was an old partner taking care of some unfinished business. It's okay, don't worry. I am glad that I'm still able to sit here together with you - taking the course of the day into consideration."

Then he told both his friends about the trip to the state penitentiary that day and his handler's sudden change of mind. Mozzie was puzzled.

"Are you telling me that you actually trust the suit?" he asked.

Neal denied this categorically. "Trust and Feds are mutually exclusive," he insisted. "I can't trust anyone in the FBI. But maybe they are, I don't know, fair? At least that's something I can work with."

Mozzie looked doubtful. According to his experience, a fair-minded FBI agent had yet to be born...

June was worried, too. Even though her tenant had tried to reassure her, she knew from her life with Byron that old partners could be dangerous, and she didn't understand the FBI's intentions either. She sighed when she thought back. Every time Byron had left the house for a job or a meeting she felt bad and worried whether he would return at all, and what state he would be in if he did. Even though she knew Neal only for a short while, she already cared about him. And caring for a criminal wasn't good for your own peace of mind...

... Wednesday ...

The next morning brought bad news. Neal was sitting at his desk and watching Diana talk to Peter in his office. Diana seemed concerned and Agent Burke looked outright furious.

When she finally came downstairs, Diana revealed to Neal what she had just told her boss. "Hagen is leaving the country," she said. "He booked a flight through a private charter company in Barcelona for the 19th."

Now the consultant understood why his handler appeared so angry. There was only one week left. Seeing him must've tipped Hagen off. Damn it. Neal tried to assess the situation and find a way to cope. Obviously, Peter Burke was mad at him. If they hadn't gone to the church and met Hagen, he wouldn't have found out that someone was on his trail. Trying to pretend as though it wasn't his fault wouldn't work well with Peter. The con man decided that it would be a better strategy to let the agent lay all the blame on his CI. Performing an act of contrition and promising to do better next time might appease the FBI man. He hoped that his handler wouldn't see him as a useless liability after this disaster.

He went to face the man who had the power to decide his fate.

"Peter, Diana told me about Hagen," he said. "I am so sorry. It was such a stupid idea to visit the church. I should have known better. I promise next time I will leave the decisions up to you."

Peter Burke stared at him. Apparently, he wasn't appeased at all. In fact, it seemed he was even more upset.

"Caffrey, on this team I'm still the one who makes the decisions. Sorry to break the news to you. It was my decision to go there. I liked your idea and knew the risks and I have to take the responsibility for anything that goes wrong. You came up with the idea, but I decided to actually go there."

Neal was perplexed. "Oh. But you are mad at me."

His handler began to understand. "Being mad at you is my normal state of mind," he said. "I am no more mad at you now than at any other given time. I am angry that we gave Hagen an edge. I hate the thought of losing the suspect. Once he's off to Spain, I won't catch the Dutchman for a very long time. I am not looking for a scapegoat, but for a solution to the case." He looked his consultant right in the eyes and sighed. "We have one week to connect him to the forged bond. If we lose him on the 19th ... Neal, if we lose him, you're back in. I can't save you."

The CI was stunned. He'd never met someone like Burke before. He'd conned a lot of people in his life into liking him, but he could tell that the agent wasn't overly fond of him, and he hadn't been an advocate for the deal the FBI had cut either. And still he acted in Neal's best interest and didn't jump on the first chance to get rid of him.

... The same evening ...

It was already dark outside. Neal had spent the evening with Mozzie, trying to get some intel from old street contacts. If someone was trying to forge hundreds of Spanish bonds, he must have set up a printing press somewhere and got ahold of ink and fusing materials. They must have left a mark.

But he made sure to be home well before 10 p.m. The con man was surprised when June knocked on his door.

"Neal, there was a delivery for you just a moment ago. Here you are!"

She handed him a big manila envelope. His address was written on the outside, but there was no information regarding the sender. He gave her a smile. "Thanks, June."

Neal waited until he was alone to open the envelope. He pulled out a piece of paper and read the message on it: "I've thought about our conversation. I guess you need additional incentive to make up your mind. I really miss my painting, and I guess you will soon understand how much it hurts to lose something precious. W."

There was a photo included in the envelope as well. Neal's stomach turned when he took a look at the picture. It was June, sitting on a bench at the Riverside Park and watching her granddaughter playing soccer. In the middle of her chest was a red dot from a sniper rifle.

... to be continued

AN:

Thanks for all your inspiring reviews. Without giving away too much away I can promise you that Peter won't stay so mean and distant. But he'll need his time.

As for this chapter: Thanks to VoicesInTheWind for reviewing this chapter. I can't tell how glad I am for her help.