"So, big plans for the weekend?"
Peter made a quick cut to the left, ignored the honking horn from the car he most definitely had not cut off, and then maneuvered back into the right-hand lane before answering. "No, not really. The Yankees are playing the Sox, so probably watch a couple of games on TV. Maybe cross a couple things off the to-do list." He finally looked over toward the passenger seat, a bit confused by the incredulous look on Neal's face. "What?"
"That's what you do pretty much every weekend."
"It's a good weekend plan. Yankees versus Red Sox is always classic."
"Even on your birthday?"
Ahhhh… so that was it. "El's sister had an emergency appendectomy last night. She's fine, but El's going out there for the weekend to see her."
"Well, I'm glad her sister will be fine, but it's too bad she'll miss your birthday."
Peter shrugged that off – just like he ignored the way Neal reached for support as he took a corner maybe just a tad too fast. "It's not like I'm a child, Neal. I wasn't expecting a cake and pony. We'll probably celebrate after she gets back."
Peter glanced over, wondering if Neal was really giving up that easily. But his partner had turned to look out the window, seemingly unconcerned. "I imagine I turn a year older whether I celebrate or not."
Neal turned back, smiling. "Probably."
"So what about you?"
"What about me?"
"Any birthday traditions growing up?"
Neal was silent, and for a moment Peter thought he might not answer. But he finally spoke. "My mom and Ellen, they always made sure we did something fun. We never had a lot of money, but there would be a cake, and we'd do something, like go to the zoo, or have a picnic. One year it was a riverboat on the Mississippi."
"It was. I'd come home and spend the next few days drawing everything I'd seen."
"Always." Neal turned in the passenger seat to look at him. "What about you? Birthday traditions in the Burke household?"
Peter navigated another turn – a little slower this time – and checked the GPS display before answering. "Mostly around baseball. With my birthday in June, there was always baseball going on. If the Yankees were playing at home, we'd sometimes make a trip down to the big city to catch a couple of games. And whatever little league team I was playing on at the time, my folks would always have a picnic in our backyard with all the kids and their parents invited."
"Yeah, it was."
"Your folks aren't coming to town for your birthday?"
Peter shook his head, double-checking the address he was looking for among the small shops lining the street. "El and I might be going up there for Independence Day next month. We'll see if we can work it in." He pulled into a parking spot, pointing across the street. "That's the place."
Neal was leaning forward, looking past Peter. "'Oscar's Sports Collectibles and Memorabilia' – sounds like the very hotbed of crime."
Peter stifled a smile as he unbuckled his seatbelt and opened his door. "Any idea what a Joe Montana signed football goes for?"
"Around five hundred dollars," Neal replied, tugging his suit coat into place as he got out of the car. He gave a little shrug when Peter raised an eyebrow in his direction. "What, I know how to use Google."
"Well, according to Oscar, someone is offering a dozen Montana footballs, plus assorted other sports paraphernalia signed by quite a roster of superstars, at bargain basement prices."
"Which made Oscar a little suspicious," Neal supplied as they waited for a break in traffic to cross the street.
"A little," Peter agreed. There was a gap between cars and they hurried across the way.
"Wonder if they have any signed Peter Burke memorabilia," Neal mused as they approached the shop.
"Now that would be worth investing in," Peter said with a smile and they headed inside.
Neal poured a glass of wine and settled himself – carefully – at the table. The stakeout at Oscar's Sports Collectibles and Memorabilia had been successful, but at a bit of a price. The suspect, probably high on something or other, had spooked and taken off. Jones and Diana had gone one way, Peter another – and Neal, having somehow failed to hear Peter's order to stay at the van, followed.
With no sign of a weapon, it was a foot pursuit. Peter had been gaining on the suspect, and Neal had been gaining on Peter, when the suspect suddenly turned and fired one of his forged footballs point-blank into Peter's gut. Peter stumbled, doubling over, and went down. Neal had almost managed to vault cleanly over his partner, but his trailing foot had caught the agent's arm and he'd gone sprawling too – fortunately, close enough to the stunned suspect to grab his foot and hold on until Jones and Diana came running up from the other end of the alley.
All in all, the injury count could have been a lot higher. Peter had bruised ribs and a wrenched shoulder. Neal had skinned knees, a sore wrist – and a suit that, regrettably, was beyond repair.
Maybe if Peter had a good weekend he'd be more amenable to signing an expense form for a new suit…
Neal took a sip of wine and then pulled his laptop over. He took another sip waiting for the computer to boot up as he considered his task.
Peter was going to be spending his birthday weekend alone, and now hurting from the case. That didn't seem right at all.
And Neal thought he had a solution…
The pounding on the door, combined with the doorbell ringing, was incessant. Peter groaned and forced his eyes open, taking a moment to focus on the clock.
Who the hell was making that much racket at six o'clock on a Saturday morning?
It wasn't stopping, and now Satchmo had added some excited woofing to the general cacophony. Heaving a heavy sigh, Peter forced himself upright, pausing just a moment when his ribs protested the movement.
It was probably time for another pain pill – after he took care of the idiot making all the racket.
For a moment he considered whether it was Neal, but he quickly rejected that idea. While it would be totally like his partner to wake him up early, Neal would simply have let himself in…
Peter stopped to grab his service weapon from the gun safe, just in case, and then made his way downstairs. Satchmo was at the door, anxious to get to whoever was on the other side.
He deactivated the alarm, opened the inner door, and looked out the side window. There was a man he didn't recognize standing on the stoop; he appeared to be wearing the standard uniform of a limo driver, including the trademark chauffeur cap.
And was that an actual limo double parked out front…
Keeping the gun ready, but down, Peter unlatched the door, opening it just as the man was reaching for the doorbell again.
"Do you have any idea what time it is?" Peter asked. It maybe wasn't the most probative investigative question ever, but it was certainly the thing foremost on his mind.
The driver smiled – way too brightly for that time of morning, in Peter's opinion. "Oh, yes sir. I was instructed to be right on time, not a minute late."
"On time for what?"
The driver reached into his pocket, and Peter's hand tightened on his gun, but the man simply drew out an envelope and handed it over. "I was told everything would be explained in here, sir."
Peter took the envelope, considering his options. If this really turned out to be something innocent – or, more likely, a wrong address – there was no need for the man to know how close he'd come to having a gun in his face.
And if it wasn't so innocent, having an obstacle between him and trouble could be good.
"Wait here, quietly," Peter said, closing and locking the outer door. He sat down on the stairs, with a clear view of the door and his gun by his side, and opened the envelope.
The card had a drawing of a grand birthday cake – and a pony standing there looking ready to gobble it up. And even without remembering his recent mention of a cake and pony to a certain someone, he recognized the handwriting on the letter immediately.
Pack an overnight bag and go with Marcel. You deserve a better birthday than being home alone, injured, and I've got the perfect solution. (Don't bother pumping Marcel for details either – all he knows is the destination, and he's sworn to secrecy. Paid for secrecy too.) I promise you'll like this.
PS – Happy Birthday!
PPS – I'll pick Satchmo up later this morning. I'm sleeping in :-)
Peter's immediate impulse was to call Neal and demand an explanation. But then he thought about it a little more and had to laugh. Whether Neal's idea of a "perfect" birthday plan would coincide with his own was a matter of some debate, but it wasn't apt to be dangerous.
Neal tended to keep the really crazy stunts, like jumping from a moving tram car, for himself.
And, truth be told, he hadn't been looking forward to spending his birthday alone, no matter what he told others. Add in the injuries from the day before, and it was even less appealing. He certainly wasn't going to call El and ask her to come home because he had an owie – in fact, she wouldn't hear anything about that until she was back – but maybe a diversion could be good.
Besides, he could always order the driver to bring him home; he'd pack his gun and badge, just in case.
Decision made, Peter got slowly to his feet and let Satchmo out into the yard. He told the driver to give him fifteen minutes to get ready, and then he headed upstairs.
What was Neal getting him into this time…
Peter had half suspected that they'd be making a stop on Riverside Drive to pick up another passenger, but that didn't materialize. Instead, after they crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, they continued up West Street, through the Holland Tunnel into New Jersey, and headed north, out of the city.
At first, he tried to guess the destination. Outside of a few spots in Newark, and heading south to the Jersey Shore, he really wasn't that familiar with a lot of destinations in the neighboring state. But they kept driving, onto the turnpike.
He tried guessing at what Neal would consider the "perfect" birthday plan, but the possibilities left his head swimming.
He reached for his phone several times, tempted to call and demand an answer – but there was no real reason to expect he'd get one. And really, what could he do, threaten to send Neal back to prison for planning a birthday surprise? He'd gotten into the limo quite of his own free will, driven by the same type of curiosity that made him a successful investigator.
An hour into the drive, he tried his interrogation techniques on Marcel, but the driver was good at keeping secrets.
He watched all of the signs as exits came up, trying to guess if any of them gave a clue to the final destination, but none seemed likely to attract Neal's attention, and the limo kept going.
At some point, Peter finally relaxed a little. He opened a bottle of orange juice from the mini bar, and munched on a croissant from the bakery selection provided.
They crossed into Pennsylvania, ever northward judging by the compass Peter could see on the driver's mirror. And then they crossed back into New York just north of Great Bend.
He knew where they were.
And when Marcel continued to follow I-81 north out of Johnson City, he knew where they were going. It was a drive he'd made before, though not nearly as often as he should have.
They left the freeway near Whitney Point, meandering into Finger Lakes territory. He let the familiar scenery take him away, into his memories, as his childhood home grew ever closer.
And then they were pulling into the driveway, the trees surrounding them. The house where he had grown up, with a peek at Cayuga Lake beyond the yard.
Peter climbed out of the car as soon as it stopped, breathing in deeply. The aches and pains already seemed to be fading.
Two people came out of the house, and he moved to meet them. "Mom. Dad."
There were hugs, and greetings, and later, Peter realized he wasn't even sure what was said. He was too busy taking in the whole sensation of being there.
Peter was vaguely aware of Marcel taking his bag from the car and handing him a business card, telling him to call on Sunday when he was ready to go home. "Any time, sir."
The limo pulled away, and Peter found himself being led around to the back of the house. The screened porch was there, just as he remembered it.
Except now someone had moved a flat screen television out there. Two Adirondack chairs were set up facing the screen, the thick, brightly-colored cushions inviting someone to settle in for a while.
A Yankees baseball cap rested on each chair.
"Your friend Neal called yesterday," his mom was saying. "He mentioned you could use a weekend away."
"All set up to watch the game," his dad added. "Got plenty of beer."
"I'm making your favorite pot roast for dinner," his mom said. "And we have cake."
His dad pointed off to one side. "Even got the gloves ready. Maybe play a little catch between innings…"
"Just like we used to," Peter whispered, reaching over to touch one of the gloves. He recognized it as one of his old belongings – aged, but well broken in.
His mom's hand slid into his. "I hope it's all right. Your friend said you just had a rough case."
"It was a little tough," Peter admitted, though the aches and pains had all but disappeared in the moment. "But this? This is perfect."
Neal stepped back, studying his work. It was a reproduction of Matisse's Les toits de Collioure. He'd first been impressed by the piece on a visit to the Hermitage, many years ago now. In fact, he'd even produced a forgery of the piece – unlike the current reproduction – with the intent to perhaps do a bit of midnight shopping. But something else had come up, he'd left St. Petersburg, and a little thing like a federal prison sentence had kept him from going back.
He was just going to touch up the background a little when his phone chimed with an incoming text message.
NEAL: Good day?
PETER: Except for the early noisy start.
NEAL: Hope you didn't arrest Marcel.
PETER: Close call, I refrained.
NEAL: Good to know. Not sure what he'd charge for that.
PETER: True, probably extra.
NEAL: How was the game?
PETER: Had the best seat anywhere.
NEAL: And the beer?
PETER: The best, and the company.
PETER: But the Yankees lost :-(
NEAL: Not even I can work miracles for the Yankees.
PETER: Double header tomorrow, we can still take the series.
NEAL: Good luck with that!
PETER: Satchmo doing OK?
NEAL: Snoring by the fireplace. Bugsy wore him out.
PETER: You staying out of trouble?
NEAL: MOI? I'm wounded.
PETER: Of course you are.
NEAL: I'm painting.
PETER: Anything I should be worried about?
NEAL: Depends, are you going to let me go to Russia anytime soon?
NEAL: Then no.
PETER: Imagine I'm there, looking at you skeptically.
NEAL: Imagined. [SHUDDER]
PETER: You're incorrigible.
NEAL: Thank you :-)
PETER: Someday you'll realize that's not a compliment.
NEAL: Or you'll realize it IS.
PETER: But thanks for today. It was… perfect.
NEAL: Glad you enjoyed the surprise.
PETER: Turning in now. Got woken up EARLY.
NEAL: Sacrifices must be made.
NEAL: Sleep well. See you Monday.
PETER: You too. Monday.
Neal set his phone aside, smiling. There had been a slight risk with his plan, in that Peter didn't always appreciate surprises. But it seemed like everything had worked out just as he'd planned.
He got up and poured a glass of wine – well deserved for finishing the painting, and for giving Peter a birthday gift he deserved.
He lifted the glass in a silent, solitary toast – to a job well done.
A/N: Happy Birthday to Tim DeKay, June 12 – long may he bring Special Agent Peter Burke to life.