Disclaimer: I don't own White Collar or profit by it, just dream in their world.
Merry (belated) Christmas and Happy New Year! I meant to get this up earlier but just didn't have time.
Neal studied the nearby crates which, judging from the one open, were filled to the brim with toys and then shifted his gaze back to the mark. "Okay. I believe I can help you do business."
"Forty thousand for a forty five thousand investment in the company." The woman typed in the account numbers for the transfer. She shoved her straight medium brown hair back. Her eyes narrowed as she looked up at Caffrey. "I've got people who will make your life a nightmare if you cross me on this."
"Understood." Neal showed only amusement outwardly. Inwardly he was more ready for a take down than any time since Keller had been a problem. This was one cold hearted female con artist he had no desire to flirt with.
"So what are you going to do with the rest of this stuff?"
"Not your business." The woman snorted.
"Nice doing business with you." Neal fought to hide his dislike.
A moment later a crew of FBI agent's burst in the door and the woman spun, rage in her eyes. It suddenly occurred to Neal that there was a box truck and many boxes between the FBI and them. Her hand darted into her purse and suddenly a gun was pointed at him. He dove aside, behind boxes and the bullet hit the box, just missing him. Splinters of wood and plastic flew everywhere. More gunfire rang out, the box shattered and a short column of crates toppled. Toys scattered everywhere even as "FBI DROP YOUR WEAPON" rang out repeatedly at her. Neal rolled over to stare at the warehouse ceiling and found himself shifting a mountain of toys off his back. Stuffed toys, dolls and plastic cars shifted with him and he winced as the sharper objects poked him in the back. He went to brush aside a doll and found himself studying the packing material, then picking up the doll. He studied the porcelain head, which was damaged and stained. "Hmm."
"Are you all right? Hey, be careful, that's evidence."
"Yes, I'm all right. And please tell me that we are returning the toys for Christmas to the charity for kids and not locking them up in an evidence warehouse for eternity."
Peter sighed. "Not eternity. But probably until the trial. We still don't know why they took them."
"The trial! That'll take years. Christmas is in days!" Neal objected. Peter held out a hand and Neal grabbed it and pulled himself up. He glanced around. "Anyone hurt?"
"Nothing fatal. Our suspect took a glancing wound to the shoulder, other than that it's mostly splinters. Including you." Peter motioned to Neal's cheek. "Your bleeding."
"I'll be okay." Neal said, his eyes said something else though.
"About the toys…."
"Neal, I'd give them back if we could…."
The younger man held up the doll and pointed at the damaged head. "Look in the head…I think I read about something like this in a war. Only it was secret messages."
"They hid something in the toys. Some of them anyway. And were using it to smuggle it out." The con man's voice held barely restrained anger.
"Okay." Peter made sure the evidence was being collected before insisting Neal saw an EMT, who cleaned the cuts and pronounced him otherwise fine.
"See? I told you. Can I go now?"
Peter flung his hands in the air. "In a minute."
"…..Peter…." Jones was calling. When he turned around, Neal was gone.
"He's not wearing his anklet." Diana said quietly.
Peter put his gloved hands on his hips. "Darn it, Caffrey, it's too cold for this." The sky was clouding over and a big snowflake drifted down. Jones and Diana just looked at him. "Should we…."
Peter just waved at them. "Just get the scene secure. I'll deal with Neal."
Frowning, Peter glanced around and was rewarded with a bit of good fortune. A trail of packing material led the way Neal had gone. Bits of the styrofoam were stuck to him and popping off as he moved. He hurried after it, knowing the gathering dark and light breeze meant he'd lose the trail soon. He pulled out his phone and dialed the young man but got only voice mail. He finally lost the trail. Considering his direction, he made a judgement call, returned to get his car, and retraced the route by car as close as possible. Then he kept going in the general direction of Neal's apartment. The snow picked up, so did traffic as people hurried trying to get home. He passed into an area with small businesses, a small corner in a vast city. Suddenly a familiar hat poking above the scurrying crowd made him slam on the breaks, skidding on the ice to find a parking spot at the curb. At least, he assumed the curb was under the mound of slush and snow he'd hit.
"Neal!" He called. For a moment, he doubted it was him. But jumping out and approaching he found the young man staring into a toy store window, lips turned down, hands in pockets, watching motorized trains and airplanes circle while animatronic dolls and bears moved. His eyes seemed fixated on the deserted Santa chair in the corner.
"Hey. Neal. You forgot something!" The young man's eyes for a long, long second didn't blink. Finally they dropped and turned to look at him. "What? Oh. Sorry."
Peter was taken aback by the reaction. It lacked the normal Neal mischief.
"What's wrong? We got the bad guy. The charity gets their money back…"
"But not the toys."
"The toys were not for essential services. The money helps feed the kids and put clothes on them and buy school supplies."
Neal stared at him. "Don't you get it? The toys are a sign of Santa Claus. And what happens when you don't get any? You start to doubt he's real. You lose a bit of your childhood."
With the increase in cold, Peter sighed and glanced back at the traffic at his car, longing to return to the warmth. But judging from the solid line of traffic and the sudden, distant 'bang' of a car accident, getting out of the parking would be nearly impossible. So he took Neal's arm and led him inside the cheery building.
"And that's more important than clothes?"
"Peter, really, did you ever get underwear for Christmas? Do you remember when you stopped believing?"
"Uh…" Peter stopped to consider. "I don't remember, really. I think I just started to realize the physical impossibilities involved."
Neal snorted. "How old?"
"I don't know….seven, eight?"
Neal sighed and looked around the store, drawing Peter aside. Suddenly Peter realized they were blocking the entrance. He followed as Neal wandered the aisle aimlessly. It finally hit him, like a thunderbolt.
"You were only two or three when your Dad left and you went into WitSec."
"It wasn't long after that, things started to…well, I started to lose the faith." Neal frowned. "When you just wish Dad will come home and you don't understand why he can't. When the toys get kind of threadbare and you get socks instead….." He shrugged, listlessly. "It gives you what the body needs sure. But when kids need something to believe in."
And the kids wouldn't get that, because of the thieves who robbed the charity. Peter had suspected Neal was hiding something from him since the start of the case. Now he knew what. The case reminded Neal of the losses of his own childhood.
His phone rang. "Jones?" He listened. When he hung up he frowned, thinking. "Hmmm. They're re-counting but it looks like we didn't find everything after all. They must've already shipped some of the stuff out. Anyway, I need to get home and you do too."
"You mean I need my leash on."
"If you insist on using the term." Peter glanced around. Not that there was anyone to hear him in this aisle. His eyes landed on a stuffed dog and he studied it for a moment.
Neal was back in the anklet and at home and Peter was home in bed, when he woke with an odd feeling that he'd missed something.
"What is it?" Elizabeth asked after enduring his restless tossing.
"I didn't ask what he'd been doing all that time, and we didn't find everything."
"But he didn't have anything on him did he?"
"Noooo. That reminds me. I want to go back to that toy store…."
The next day he spent filling out paperwork and watching a brooding Neal. He noted carefully when the younger man got a phone call, went out, and came back. He looked a bit brighter.
"Feeling better?" He asked on the way out.
"The weekend is here, there are holiday lights and holiday specials and it's hard to stay down."
"Uh huh. Glad to hear it." Peter nodded. "Stay safe this weekend."
"Sure. You too."
Peter's mental wheels were spinning quickly. He still had a feeling….
Christmas day dawned bright and he and Elizabeth exchanged presents. Satchmo played with fresh new dog toys. The tree sparkled in the living room. And Peter's phone rang. He answered it and cocked his head, listening. "Ah, of course, you're welcome. Yes, it is miraculous. Merry Christmas to you too." He snorted as he hung up.
"Well?" Elizabeth asked.
"Well, a truckload of toys…..probably the other half of the bunch stolen from the charity, appeared just in time for Santa to give them out." He hurried to the laptop and checked his email. "They're sending pictures."
Elizabeth leaned over his shoulder, hand on her mouth. Kids were collecting toys, ripping them open gleefully. "Zoom in."
Peter zoomed in and snorted again. Elizabeth started to giggle. Peter shook his head. "I knew it. I just knew it. How did they pull it off?"
"Ask him." She motioned to Santa Mozzie, who had finally been caught in the reflection in a mirror.
"I think I should ask Neal, who, if you recall, you insisted on inviting for dinner."
"And isn't that convenient now? You know, being an orphan, Mozzie probably took this case personally too."
"Even if his involvement was largely peripheral."
When Neal arrived Peter just leaned back and looked at him. "Okay Rudolph, how did you do it?"
"Extinguish your glowing nose, track Santa's missing toys and deliver them?"
"I have no idea what your talking about." But the younger man was smiling.
"Your con man mask is seriously slipping." Peter's eyes narrowed. "I knew you were up to something."
"Did so. You had plenty of time before I found you." Peter went to the tree and pulled out a box. "This is for you."
Neal paused, looked up uncertainly. He had gifts for Peter and El, nothing too fancy because (legally) he couldn't afford it and didn't want to put Peter on a spot. But he was speechless for a long moment when he opened his. Then he started laughing. The stuffed Labrador bore a striking resemblance to Satchmo, had a Santa hat and bell collar and was motion sensitive. It barked when anyone passed nearby. The real Satchmo recoiled, grabbed his toy, and vanished into the kitchen.
"Your own personal alarm system, since we won't pay for self defense courses…"
Neal snorted with laughter. He plucked a gift card for art supplies from the guard dog's mouth. "Thanks. I think." He frowned then, noticing a hardcover kid's book at the bottom. A quick glance revealed it was 'Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus'. He picked it up and flipped through the beautiful illustrations.
He paused to read some lines "You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever."
Neal paused and glanced up at Peter. Elizabeth came around and squeezed his shoulder as the dinger went off, signaling the dinner was ready. "I thought you didn't believe in this stuff?"
Peter looked at the ceiling and sighed. "I didn't. But…. its hard to be around you and not believe in something. Miracles maybe. You're still here, you didn't run. We've had ups and downs and come through. Faith in each other….."
"You said that at the conference."
"Meant it, too."
Neal pondered that as they sat down to dinner. Then he proposed a toast. "To faith in each other…through the New Year".
"To faith." Peter and Elizabeth joined in.
Complete text of "Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus" by Francis Sun from the New York Sun is at the Newseum website.