continued from The Ryan Exchange Part Two

 

Part Three

New York - The Present

December 10th

Neal came out of June’s house; he pulled the collar of his coat up a little higher, his breath clouding in the cold air, and he smiled. He felt glad to be alive on a day like this; even the weight of the tracker on his ankle couldn’t bring him down. He started down the street when a limo pulled up ahead of him, and two men jumped out, grabbing him and dragging him into it.

Milton Gardner was sitting inside; he looked the picture of elegance. “Mr. Caffrey, it’s been awhile.”

“Mr. Gardner, it’s been what, seven years; you’re a long way from Chicago,” Neal put in calmly.

“Orange doesn’t suit you, from what I've heard, and now you’re nothing more than a pet to a FBI agent; how the mighty have fallen.” Milton shook his head; if he was expecting a reaction, he didn’t get one. “I can make you an offer that will get you away from this.”

“And what do I need to do? Offers imply payment.”

Gardner's hand dropped down onto Neal’s thigh and stroked up to his crotch. Neal felt his stomach flip over at the touch; only his experience as a con man made him keep still and his face neutral as he pushed the hand away.

“Nothing that you haven’t given me before, Neal, but first and foremost, I can offer you freedom from the tracker, a way out of the country, and enough money to make living worthwhile. What do I want? You made a copy of The Thinker for me in 2004. Which is now hanging in the Wharf Gallery. That copy is now due to be auctioned, on Christmas Eve. So you are going to steal it, before the auction. I don’t care how, but you will do it.”

Neal felt the car slow and stop; out of the window he could see they were outside of the FBI office. “What if I told you that I wasn’t interested?”

“Then you would disappoint me, Neal my boy, and you won’t want to do that. New York can be a violent city; it would be worth remembering that.”

The door to the limo opened and Neal got out; he stood watching the car pull away and suppressed a shudder.

0-0-0-0-0-0

Three Days Later

December 13th, Evening

The Burke Home

Peter was getting dressed to go out; he chatted to El as she slipped on her little black Chanel dress—it was about the case he and Neal had just closed. It was one of the most complicated fraud cases the White Collar Unit had tackled; the case had been passed from desk to desk for the last three years, no one able to get a handle on it. The problem was that the fraud wasn’t focused on one element, but involved stolen and faked artwork that had been used to secure mortgages on buildings that in turn had been used as collateral to buy legitimate artwork, and so the con had continued.

El paused to put on her earrings, and smiled as she heard him say, “Neal’s a genius—you know that, El—but it’s in a fractured way; that’s what made it so hard to catch him the first time. I just wish that he could be honest with us.”

“The music box, or the treasure?” she asked.

“That, but more with what’s going on inside that head of his; I was worried to start with that he was losing himself behind all the masks and aliases that he’s been wearing as a con man.”

El got up and went to him, moving into his arms. “We have Neal, Peter, and we are reaching him; the other day he came around here—he had paint in his hair, and he was wearing cargo pants and sneakers—to show me his latest painting. That, darling, is the real Neal, not the vintage Rat Pack suits; he let me see the real him for the first time.”  Peter hugged her closer.

With a year left of his debt to society to pay, Peter was all too aware that Neal’s feelings for them was a strong reason that the younger con man hadn’t run when he had the chance. Between them they gave Neal a stability that his life had lacked.

0-0-0-0-0

The meal at the Three French Hens Restaurant had been everything that the critics had promised.  It had been late when they had finally left; Neal was holding hands with El, and Peter following them, a bemused look on his face. In the distance they could hear carols being played on the radio, adding to the Christmas spirit. Neal spun El round in exuberance and danced a few steps with her. He bowed to her, and she curtseyed, and with a flourish he presented her to Peter. 

Peter was honest enough to know that things had been strained between him and his partner, because of the stolen U-boat treasure and El’s kidnapping. He had been of two minds whether he should take Neal down for the robbery and let him rot the rest of his life in prison, under the three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule.  But one thing had changed his mind.

Eight Months ago

Keller had been cornered; he had held Elizabeth at gunpoint and ordered that Neal Caffrey be sent to him.

The agent in charge had told Peter straight out that he couldn’t order Neal to go in, but before Peter could even speak, Neal had volunteered; he had  gone in unarmed and without a vest, to face a man that hated his guts. Keller had forced Neal onto his knees, and had the gun aimed at his head, at the same time holding Elizabeth close to him as a human shield.

Senior Agent Cox had ordered the FBI SWAT team in when Neal didn’t seem to be getting any results; as far as he was concerned Neal was nothing more than collateral damage. When the FBI went in, Peter had—against every standing rule—gone in with them.

What he had found out later was that Neal had thrown himself at Keller, Keller had fired—it was his gunshot that they had heard—just missed Neal, and he had powered into Keller and Elizabeth, knocking them over. He managed to drag her up and behind him. Keller, on his knees, had brought his gun up and fired, just as Peter appeared and fired as well, the two shots coming close on each other.

El was standing; all Peter could think was thank god Keller had missed.

In seconds he'd been at her side, all but throwing Neal away from her and hugging her tight, only slightly aware that Neal was walking out of the warehouse. He dismissed him; Jones and Diana would make sure he didn’t get far, and Neal couldn’t be further enough away from him at the moment. If he had to look into his smug face he would plant a fist through it. The next time he wanted to see him was when he was behind bars and he could have the satisfaction of walking away, knowing that Neal would rot behind them for life. El would always come first.

But even as he had tried to soothe El, she had been talking about Neal.

“Forget him; he’ll get what’s coming to him.”

“Peter.” El was all but shaking him. “Peter, Neal’s been shot; he took the bullet. It was meant for me, Peter, you have to check on him.”

Turning, he saw Neal walking slowly towards one of the exits; he seemed to stumble.

“Stop him,” Peter yelled.

Two of the SWAT team members moved to block him from leaving.

Peter, with El still clinging to him, came up. “Turn around, Caffrey,” Peter ordered.

Neal did it slowly; he raised his wrists, offering them to him. “Come to arrest me, Peter?”

“I should; you—” He broke off as he saw the blood soaking through the immaculate jacket. When he reached for Neal, the younger man pulled back, but Peter wouldn’t let him; he caught him by the lapel and pulled him sharply forward.

“I am sorry,” was all Neal managed to say before his knees buckled and he collapsed. The only thing that stopped him from hitting the ground was Peter; he caught Neal effortlessly, and slowly lowered him to the ground as El called for a paramedic. Kneeling, she pillowed his head, leaning over him as she gently stroked his hair, telling him he was going to be okay. Tears were glistening in her eyes, and they slowly trickled down her face, as she clung to Neal as if her very willpower would keep him breathing. Even in the ambulance she refused to let go of him; twice he flat lined, and twice he came back, her words and gentle touch giving him, Peter believed, a reason to keep living.

Neal had nearly been killed taking a bullet for El. Peter didn’t know what to think, so he had pushed his anger down, and dealt with what he needed to do—see Neal to the hospital, look after El, and try to find a way of answering Hughes' question, and those of the senior agent from the Washington DC office, in a way that wouldn’t see Neal locked away for life. Somehow he had managed it.

While Neal recovered enough to leave the hospital, El had worked at bringing them back together over the weeks that followed, and for that he was thankful; he would never forget what Neal did in stealing the treasure—although Mozzie’s unofficial confession cleaned up a lot of loose ends—but he forgave him because El did.

The same evening

The New York Christmas season was officially opened with the Pucci Foundation Winter Gala Ball, which was held for the employees and volunteers of the Foundation. In pride of place was Mark Ryan’s painting, The Thinker; it had been part of Marshall Pucci’s collection and would be on display until Christmas Eve when it would be auctioned to raise money for the Foundation's Children’s Charities. 

Mrs. Ilsa Pucci was stunning in her gown of green and white, with her dark hair and flawless skin; she stood sipping a glass of champagne. Her mind went back to the previous year’s dance; then she had had her husband Marshall on her arm. If she had known that three weeks later he would be dead, she would have wished that the evening never end, and she would have lived each moment of it with him to the fullest. But it was not to be. They had argued and she had left early; they had made up later and Marshall had promised that…. Ilsa blinked away the tears that beaded her eyes.

A hand reached out and took the champagne flute from her; she smiled as he put the glass down and reached for her hand, tucking it through his arm as he escorted her onto the dance floor. Spinning her effortlessly into his arms, his grip on her was firm, but instead of being frightening it felt secure and protective. She was surprised he was a good dancer; somehow she hadn’t expected it. But then, she mused, she had seen him sparring; he was fast and light on his feet, with the grace of a cat, so it wasn’t surprising that these same attributes made him a good dancer.

It had, she remembered, become her guilty pleasure, watching him spar, until the time he had picked up the towel at the end of one such match to wipe the sweat from his face, and seen her watching him. It was then something that she couldn’t put into words happened, and for the first time in the year since she had known him, she had seen the hunger in his eyes for her. She had turned and hurried away, and buried herself in her work, knowing only that she had to put some distance between them. Then she heard a soft knock on the door and looked up to see the boyish smile of Chance as had leaned against the doorjamb and said, “What happened back there ... I think we have to talk.”

Seeing her dancing partner quirk an eyebrow at her, Ilsa shook her head and brought herself back to the present and to the man that was holding her, and she melted into his arms.  She felt a light touch on her arm, and turned to see Milton Gardner standing there.

Milton Gardner was a toad of man who made her skin crawl; since Marshall’s death he had chased after her, wanting her, never accepting no. She shuddered as she remembered the time he had tried to force himself on her.  She had been too ashamed to report it to the police; she had also been aware of the adverse publicity that it would have focused on the Foundation, and she would be damned if she would let him harm what Marshall had build, so since then she had kept her distance from him, refusing to attend functions that he attended. But tonight, as newly-elected head of one of the charities, he had been invited; it was either that or snub the charity.

He reached his hand out to cut into the dance. With an arrogance that was breathtaking, he turned to her partner to dismiss him; Milton’s hand dropped away under the ice-cold blue eyes that pinned him—whatever he was going to say was never uttered. The next instant she was being steered away from Milton by her dance partner; she could feel the tension in his body, and she knew with certainty that if Milton had pushed it, he would have put him down. You could never really hide anything from him, and she was aware that he knew that something had happened between her and Milton.  So she lightly stroked her partner's arm, brought him back to her, and she felt the tension ease from his body; he relaxed into the dance again, but she knew that she was just putting it off. One day soon he would ask, and she would have to tell him the truth. Ilsa couldn’t help but give a shiver, thinking what his reaction was going to be. 

December 14th

Morning

8:30 am

Ilsa Pucci was sitting taking breakfast in her penthouse suite at one of the most expensive hotels in New York when her team came in. Now she wasn’t really a Christmas person, but with the Christmas charity events going on, she was making the effort.

She saw the look that Chance gave the Christmas tree—if it had been real it would have been withering—and smiled. “It came with the hotel room, Mr. Chance; I think that it would churlish to ask them to remove it.”

Ilsa pushed the serving dish over towards Guerrero, as the smaller man had taken a seat opposite her and was looking over what remained of her breakfast platter.  Given his fast metabolism, Guerrero was always eating; watching him grazing on a free buffet was an education. That was the reason that she had started to stock the refrigerator at the office so that it contained more than old takeout and stale pizza. He eased back in the chair and began snacking on the toast and jam. “You had an interesting visitor last night, boss." He cocked his head slightly, and there was a hint of a smile as he added, “Nice dress.”

“Visitor, err, who?” She looked from him to Chance.

”Neal Caffrey—he’s an art thief and forger, and a first rate con man; he was scoping out The Thinker,” Chance told her.

 “Is he going to steal it?” She started to reach for the phone.

“Don’t need the cops, boss; we can handle Caffrey.” Guerrero leaned forward and turned one of the clean glasses over to pour himself some of the orange juice.

“What he meant,” Winston put in, “is that Caffrey tends to forge the painting and then do a snatch and switch, which usually gives him time to get out of the country.”  When he saw the look on her face, he added quickly, “We’ve got no proof that Caffrey’s out to steal it; we're just going to plan for all possibilities.”

Chance wandered over to look out of the window at the million-dollar view. “So last night was the first day of Christmas: the Partridge in the Pear Tree Gala, and today is the Two Turtledoves.”

“Yes, the foundation is presenting gift to—” She excused herself as the hotel phone rang. “No, tell Mr. Gardner if he wishes to speak to me it will be through my secretary at the Foundation.” She put the phone down and reached for her cup of tea, aware that he hand was shaking slightly; she paused as she could see Guerrero watching her keenly. If anyone had seen it he would have; he never commented, just gave a knowing look and took a sip of the orange juice. 

0-0-0-0-0

Two days later

December 16th

FBI Headquarters

Clinton Jones was a good FBI agent and also a good man. He had been in at the end of the hunt for Neal, and had been only a minor part of it, but Peter Burke had given him credit for the work that he did. Some wouldn’t have. Unlike some of the agents, he had never been openly hostile to the con man; trust had been a hard step to take with him, but he was pleased he had made it.

That was why, when he noticed the way Neal was hunched over his computer, as if in pain, and heavy bruising around Neal’s wrist when he reached for a file, he told Peter.

Peter called Neal to his office; he observed his partner as he came in, and waved him to a seat—Neal was moving with none of his natural grace.

“Take your jacket off and roll your sleeve up.”

Neal grinned. “At least you could buy me dinner first.”

The quip was right, the grin was dead-on, but the tone of voice was slightly off. Neal was a man playing a part; he had thrown up the walls that these days he reserved more and more for other people, not for Peter, and that set the alarm bells ringing in Peter’s head.

Walking around the desk, Peter caught Neal’s wrist to try and push his cuff back. “You don’t get to say no, Neal. If you’re hurt I need to know.”

Neal caught Peter’s wrist, and.…. Just then Jones knocked on the door; he started to apologize when he saw what was happening. “Peter?” Jones said.

Both men released their hold on the other at the same time. “Yes, Jones?”  Peter said.

Jones knew that something had been happening between the two of them—he could feel the tension in the room—but whatever it was, it was between them. “We’ve just a break on the Robin Rush case.”

Peter nodded. “Tell Diana we'll be straight down.” Then to Neal he added, “We will talk about this later,” as he stalked out.

0-0-0-0-0

Neal’s Apartment

It was late evening when Mozzie got the call; he had been at one of his safe houses, and it was in a cell dead area, so the moment he got away from there he picked up the voice message from Neal. He felt a cold coil of fear in the pit of his stomach; he had known Neal a lot of years, and knew him better that anyone else, but the moment he heard Neal’s voice he knew that something was very wrong.

Neal’s voice was slurred as if he was drunk—Neal drank but never got drunk—there was also an edge of pain to it. The message was simple: he was home and needed him.

The housekeeper opened the door to his knock and exchanged a quick word with him; it seemed that he wasn’t the only person worried about Neal. When he got to the apartment, he found the door partly open, the lights were off, and if Mrs. Hudson hadn’t told him, he would have thought that Neal was out.  It was then he saw him sitting on the floor with his back to the wall; the moonlight that came through the French windows glinted off the bottle of wine he was drinking from.

“Neal.” Mozzie rushed over to him; concern for his friend had him kneeling by his side. All Neal was wearing was a towel wrapped around his waist. When he called his name and didn’t get a reply, Mozzie put his hand out and rested it on his shoulder. Neal’s skin was damp and cold; gently, he shook him, and Neal seemed to come back to the present with a start. 

“Neal, I am just going to put the light on.”

“No.…” Neal’s hand shot out and caught his wrist, his slender fingers digging painfully into him as he caught him in a death grip.

“All right,” Mozzie said slowly, “at least let me put the lamp on.”

When Neal didn’t protest, Mozzie reached over and switched it on. When he got his first clear look at Neal, it wasn’t good: Neal’s skin was red in places as if he had scrubbed himself raw. There was dark bruising on his chest, and bruises around his wrists and his throat.

“Dear God, what happened to you?”

There was a long pause and Mozzie heard Neal’s breath come out in a shudder; finally he seemed to have marshaled his thought. “I said no, Mozzie; he threatened Elizabeth and Peter, and he.…  Peter, Elizabeth, they suffered before because of me; I can’t let that happen again. I am …  I am going to do it, told him yes. Mozzie, only way to keep them safe. He told his men … he told them to show me what they would do to Elizabeth if I failed.…” All the time he was speaking, Neal had avoided eye contact with him.

He didn’t have to say more. Mozzie closed his eyes as the realization hit him: just like 2004 all over again. Mozzie told himself he had done this before and would do it again, only this time he wasn’t alone in looking after him; Neal had friends who cared about him. “I can’t believe I am going to tell you this, Neal, but you have to tell Peter; you have to trust him.”

Neal shook his head. “Can’t, he’s got people on his payroll; he would know.”

“Gardner, damn him.” He had seen the man at the Gala a few nights back, and the thought that he had his claws into Neal again sickened him.

But Neal didn’t appear to hear him, and if he did, he didn’t answer. He took a deep breath. “He wasn’t the only one at the Gala, Mozzie; they work for Pucci now—Junior and Guerrero, contact them.”

Mozzie hissed at him, horrified, “Neal, Guerrero makes the Peacemaker  looking like Mother Teresa.”

The younger man managed a soft chuckle, and for the first time looked him in the eye. Mozzie could see the pain in his eyes. “You just don’t know him.” Neal smiled; it was strained but it was a smile. 

“And I don’t want to,” Mozzie drawled.

“So will you do it?” Neal asked.

“If you saw them, they would have seen you; better to get in first.”

“I thought—” That was as far as Neal got as Mozzie cut across him.

“Carefully, Neal, really carefully.” He didn’t have the same faith in those pair as Neal did.

0-0-0-0-0-0

December 17th

Sunday

Peter couldn’t settle; they had finished their last case in a frantic race to stop a priceless jade statue from being smuggled out of the US to Rio. It had resulted in a violent struggle; Neal—for his entire non-violent stance—had piled in and helped them.

Once the paperwork was done, Hughes had sent them home, so they had a long weekend; normally at some point Neal would put in an appearance—his tracker had been modified to allow him access to the house without setting off the alarm at the Marshals' monitoring center. Now, 48 hours later, Neal still hadn’t arrived, and his cell phone was going straight to voice mail.

Finally Elizabeth had sat him down and listened to what he said about what Jones had told him about the bruising, and how Neal had reacted when he had confronted him. He had tried to talk El out of coming, but she was adamant: if Peter was with her, Neal might take it better, see that it was genuine concern for him. Considering there were only seven years difference between them, she felt very protective, almost maternal, towards the younger con man.

On the way out, Peter collected his gun and badge. When he saw the look El gave him, he shrugged; it was a gut feeling but one that he couldn’t ignore, that there was something very wrong going on.

On the way over, his cell phone had rung and he had hit speaker phone: it was the Marshals' monitoring center. They had registered some unusual activity on Neal’s tracker: there had been six instances of 15-second loss of signal, not enough to call the Marshals on him, but enough for them to report it to Peter. Peter thanked them, and said that he was checking up on Caffrey himself, but to keep him informed if it happened again. He exchanged a puzzled look with El.

“It’s only 15 seconds, Peter.”

“If it was ten I wouldn’t think anything of it, but 15 seconds is a window for a hacker to use." Peter could remember all too clearly Mozzie’s new friend the computer hacker.

As they pulled up on the opposite side of the street, he saw Mozzie and Neal arriving back home. Peter concentrated on Neal, and really looked at him closely. No longer among the FBI, Neal’s whole body language was different; the way he walked up the stairs showed that he was carrying some injuries. Neal was about to unlock the front door when he paused, frowned, leaned forward and checked the lock; something was wrong.

Neal used his key to unlock the door, and pushed it open slowly. Mrs. Hudson was off so the house should be empty; nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but he wasn’t taking any chances.

He spun around when he heard someone coming behind him. Peter threw a hand up. “Easy, Neal, it’s just us.”

“I might have company, Peter.” He nodded to the stairs.

It was on the tip of Peter’s tongue to ask him what the hell he had been up to. But he remembered all too clearly that he had accused Neal before over the explosion in the warehouse, and at the time Neal had been innocent. He couldn’t help but wonder that if he had believed him then, Neal might just have told him about the treasure when he first found out about it. Instead he had called him a liar and made him undertake an unofficial lie detector test and then still made it clear to Neal that he didn’t trust him.

So this time he held his peace. Peter moved in front of Neal, his gun in his hand, with Mozzie and—El who had refused to be left behind—following the two partners up the stair to Neal’s apartment. At Neal’s door, Peter frowned; he was sure that he could hear movement. He flung the door open, yelled “FBI! Freeze,” and going in fast, found himself looking down the  barrel of two guns. “FBI, put your guns down.”

“Not going to happen, dude,” the smaller of the two gunmen drawled.

The standoff was broken as Neal walked past Peter; the older man tried to grab him and pull him back behind him, but Neal pulled free. He addressed the smaller gunman.

“It’s been a long time.”

The smaller man answered, “Detroit, dude.”

 “Who the hell are you?” Peter demanded, then to Neal, “You know these guys?”

The smaller gunman looked Peter up and down, and said sarcastically, “A Fed.” He ignored the question from Peter. His expression was fixed; he didn’t like cops and feds, and didn’t care who knew it. “That is seriously not cool, bro,” he snapped back at Neal, then looked down at the tracker and cocked his head. “Wouldn’t have thought they could hold you on that.”

“It’s part of the deal with Peter, with Agent Burke,” Neal clarified. He could feel the tension in the room. “It would be a lot easier if you all put your guns down.” When the two ex-assassins made no move to do it, Neal turned on Peter. “You’re going to have to do it first, Peter. I promise you, no harm is going to come to you or Elizabeth.”

Every fiber of his being was telling Peter not to do it, but he saw the look in Neal’s eyes and believed him, and did as he was asked. He was surprised that once he had holstered his weapon, the two other men did the same.

Guerrero looked El up and down, and the smirk became a smile. “She’s hot, nice dress.”

“That’s my wife,” Peter snapped at him, but the smaller man just ignored him.

“Been a while, Junior,” Neal said, his eyes meeting those of the blond assassin without flinching. He had never really been a close friend with him, but knew him through his relationship with Guerrero and knew the two of them were tight. 

“Name's Chance now,” the blond corrected, then added, “Mind telling us why you were at the Gala?”

“You got my message?” Neal asked.

“No, we tracked you down here,” Guerrero said. “Wasn’t hard.” He looked around him. “Nice digs,” then added, “You didn’t answer Chance's question, dude.”

“I was there to see the artwork; it was the first time that the Pucci Foundation has offered those paintings up for public viewing. One of the works was  'The Thinker',”  Neal said levelly, “which, by the way, is a fake.”

Even as he said that, he saw that Guerrero had zeroed in on Mozzie, and he didn’t like the look he was giving his old friend.

Neal was aware of Guerrero’s reputation; he had left a bloody footprint across the criminal underworld, and there were times like this when he got a certain look on his face, of intense concentration, that Neal felt a cold shudder go down his spine. It was like a cat that had just seen a mouse it was going to play with.

“Been a while, Dentist; Detroit, if I remember correctly.” Guerrero drawled.

Mozzie swallowed hard and tried to edge back. He was scared; he knew exactly who and what Guerrero was, but to his surprise Neal—rather than being nervous when confronted with an infamous hitman, which would be  normal—seemed almost relaxed, as if he knew something the rest of the world didn’t. It didn’t make sense.

“You agreed to back off from him, remember,” Neal said firmly.

A slight nod of Guerrero’s head in acknowledgement. “Old times, Neal,” he drawled.

“Old times.” Neal exhaled slowly. “I was just looking at the paintings at the Gala and it’s in my radius.” He threw that in as a sop for Peter. “Nothing more, nothing less.”

“Did you forge it, Neal?” Peter said, and then exploded, “Damn it, Neal. What have you done this time? If you’ve done something that is going to bite us on the ass, I want to know about it. I am not having El put at risk because of you again. Or God is my witness, I am going to see you rot out the rest of your life in prison.” He heard El gasp, and saw the shocked look on her face. He swore under his breath; the hatred in his voice had shocked him as well. He had thought that the resentment he had felt was under control; it seemed he still had some work to do on it.

“Neal,” he paused, seeing the weary look on the younger man’s face, so he took his badge out of his pocket and slammed it down on the table. “Remember this, Neal.” Seeing the younger man nod, he continued, “Anything short of murder I’ll give you a bye on.”

Neal looked at the badge. “I might have, allegedly—” He never got to finish.

“Damn it, Neal.” Peter  said grabbing hold of him and spinning him to face him.” The sudden violent movement made Neal cry out in pain. But before  Peter could say anything, Guerrero was there, pulling him free and getting right into Peter’s face, making the older man step back from him.

“So this is who’s been using you as a punching bag?” His voice was soft and deadly; Guerrero’s gaze swept over Peter. Neal spoke quickly.

“No, he’s never touched me. Street crime. New York’s a dangerous city.”

Guerrero nodded. “Yeah, right, dude; why don’t I believe you?”

Chance moved forward, flanking his smaller partner. “Talk to us, Neal. After all, you wanted to speak to us.”

“Milton Gardner approached me after the Gala; he had seen me there looking at 'The Thinker,' and knew that I recognized it as my own work.” He shot a glance at Peter, and then seeing the nod, continued.

“He wants me to steal it before it goes to auction. I turned him down flat.”

“He’s a multimillionaire, a senior board member of the Pucci Foundation; why would he…?” Peter said.

“Because of Vincent Adler,” Neal explained. “He invested in Adler’s dream, only the money wasn’t his own—it belonged to the Foundation. He needed to repay it before an audit, and wanted 'The Thinker' copied so that he could replace it and sell the original.

“I refused, and he kept me prisoner while I did it for him; his men made it hard for me to refuse. I escaped, Mozzie helped me, and I never looked back.” Neal paused and took a couple of deep breaths. Here it comes, he thought to himself. Peter and Elizabeth would never want him around once they heard this, and Guerrero, he would see it as a weakness.

“It has to be stolen before the auction on Christmas Eve—he can’t afford for the fake to get out of his control. When I refused, he offered more money, and I kept refusing him, Peter. Honestly I did.” It was suddenly important for Peter to understand that, that he hadn’t willingly turned his back on the agreement they had made after Keller.  “Then he.…” Neal closed his eyes and exhaled slowly. Then lifted his head, opened his eyes and looked Peter straight in the eye.

“He had his men beat me up. I still refused, and he came back again; this time he told me ... he threatened you and Elizabeth, and he…. He … his men....” Neal knew he would see disgust and he wouldn’t blame them. “He ordered his men to … to show me what would happen to Elizabeth if I refused.  I can’t let that happen again; she can’t be hurt because of me.  Not again.”

“Oh God, Neal,” Elizabeth went to him, putting her arm around him and pulling him close to her; she had never heard such utter despair in his voice before.

“It was nothing more than I deserved,” Neal said. “After what happened last time because of me.” 

“No one deserved that.” Peter wanted Neal to believe him, needed him to believe. 

“Are you going to arrest me, Peter?” He looked at the badge on the table; somehow he couldn’t believe that Peter would allow him to walk on this—he had endangered El once again.

Peter's mind was on Milton Gardner and he missed what Neal said; the younger man must have taken his silence as confirmation that he was.

“I am not going back to prison.” Neal began to pull away from Elizabeth.

It brought Peter’s attention back to Neal; he clapped a hand on his shoulder and gave it a shake, which turned into a reassuring squeeze. “You’re not going to prison for this; you did what you needed to do to keep Gardner's men away from—”

“Elizabeth. Of course, I—”

“From you both,” Peter corrected firmly. “I’ll bring Hughes up to speed and see if we can nail the bastard.”

“He’s got people in the department,”  Neal tried to warn him.

“I’ll see Hughes first and we can tackle that next.”

Chance had been listening to what was being said, and was one of the few men that could read Guerrero possibly 80 percent of the time, which had saved him a lot of broken fingers and gunshot wounds during their early days together. The anger that was radiating from him was almost tangible; he could see the way the others—except Neal—had backed off his partner. All of his friend's subtle tells told him that Guerrero was on the edge; the last time he had seen him like that was when his son had been threatened by a rogue group of CIA agents. He had wiped them out, then tortured and killed the man responsible. His friend had zero tolerance where threats to Neal were concerned.

“It’s not going to happen,” Guerrero drawled.

“I—” That was as far as Peter got.

It was Chance that cut across him. “You think that they’re not going to go after a conviction on Neal for 'The Thinker' painting, the one painting they can prove that he did, and third strike and he’s in for life?”

Chance added, “And after that, you really think, Peter ...” His tone made the name almost an insult. “... that they'll let him out to play your games, if he’s doing a life sentence? Because what are you going to threaten him with to stop him running? After all, what’s worse than a life sentence?” Chance paused. “We can’t risk it, so we’re handling this in house, the six of us.”

“Six. I only count five,” Mozzie said.

“We work with Winston; you haven’t met him yet,”  Chance replied, and then added, “You’ll like him, Peter; he’s an ex-cop.”

0-0-0-0-0-0

Hotel

10:00 pm

Ilsa hadn’t spared any expense when she had booked accommodations for them at the hotel; the suite had a spacious sitting room and three bedrooms leading off from it.

 “You’re late,” Winston said as Guerrero and Chance entered the suite.

“Didn’t know that I had to book in with you,” Guerrero said as he took his coat off.

“So what did Caffrey have to say?” Winston asked as Chance handed Guerrero a tumbler of whiskey.

“Milton Gardner wants him to snatch 'The Thinker' painting; it’s worth a cool 1.5 million, dude,” then added under his breath, “if it was an original.”

Winston leaned back in his chair. “Gardner, he’s board member at  the Foundation; why would he do that? Okay, the man’s a real slimy bastard, but ...” He paused. “... we only have Caffrey’s word for it and the man's, let’s not forget that he’s a criminal; since when we can trust the word of a criminal?” He saw the look on Guerrero’s face, cold and intense, and added, “Present company excluded.”

“Caffrey might bend the truth, but he’s never lied to me," Guerrero said levelly, his eyes ice cold, aggression barely held in check.

 A statement like that from Guerrero had a lot of weight: no one willingly lied to him. “How long have you known Caffrey?” Winston asked, his cop instincts telling him that there was back history he didn’t know about. Because, barring Chance, since when did Guerrero care about anyone but himself?

Chance poured himself a drink, and it was he that answered and not Guerrero. “A few years ago.” He shrugged. “Neal was a con man, forger and art thief, and one of his dupes decided to pay to have it taken out on his hide; he contacted a rival of the Old Man to have him run over in a hit and run. We caught them before they could attempt the contract, and once they told Guerrero who had employed them, we went right to the source.”

“What happened to him?” Winston asked.

“They had to use DNA to identify him,” Chance said, and took a sip of his drink as Guerrero went into his room and closed the door behind him.

Winston looked at the closed door thoughtfully. “Why is this Caffrey so important to him?” 

Chance shook  his head. “That’s up to him to tell you if he wants, just know that they have history, and leave it at that.”

“So,” Winston asked, “what’s the job? And what the hell did he mean by if it was an original?”

0-0-0-0-0-0

December 16th

The Next Day

Neal Caffrey had gone into work as normal, and then—as far as the rumor mill could agree on it—he and Agent Burke had had a long drawn-out argument at high volume that had resulted in the agent grounding his consultant for the next week.

Agent Burke, it was agreed, could have sent him back to prison, and some people had taken bets on that happening, but instead had had Agents Berrigan and Jones lead Caffrey out in cuffs in front of the whole department, taking him back to his home, which would double as his own personal lockdown, with Agent Burke turning his back on him in disgust. At least three agents had heard Burke call the Marshals and have Caffrey’s radius cut back to 50 feet around the apartment; any attempt to try and leave it would result in him being arrested by the Marshals, and this time, prison.

It was also agreed that Agent Burke was working from home for the next couple of days to polish off some of his paperwork and pending reports.

0-0-0-0-0-0

December 17th

Neal looked around at what he considered his crew. “Remember, Peter, when I said there were a couple of cons I wanted to try if I ever got a seven-man crew together?” He grinned. “It looks like I got my wish.”

“Yeah, as if; dream on, Caffrey,” Peter said, but smiled all the same. “Let’s just get through this one first; okay, buddy?”

Neal started the briefing. “The Thinker is a work that Mark Ryan did when he was an up-and-coming artist in the 1950s, for a commission by the Wright Turner family; it was during his brown period....”

“Which art gallery?” Peter asked, bringing Neal back to earth again; when he talked art he was in a world of his own.

“The Wharf Gallery. The picture is on limited loan, and then Christmas Eve it’s being auctioned off for charity,” Neal answered.

“So we have to hit the gallery before then,” Chance said.

Neal nodded. “Certainly. On Christmas Eve, the security is going to be heavy, because that's when the VIPs are coming, and included in there are some ambassadors and government officials. The Wharf Gallery is a relatively small gallery but they have good security. But ...” He gave a smile. “... they don’t have excellent security.”

He looked at Peter and saw the shake of the head and look of exasperation on his face. “I promise you, Peter, I wasn’t thinking of robbing it, it’s just—”

“Yeah, I know, buddy; it’s a reflex action to you,” Peter said. “Back to business—how are we going to do this?"

0-0-0-0-0-0

Five Days Later

December 22nd

Ilsa sat in the penthouse suite of the hotel next to Elizabeth Burke; she had only just met the woman. But they both shared something in common: both of them had friends—no, more than that, family—going into danger, and all they could do was sit, wait and pray.

“8:00 am; so what’s happening now?” Ilsa asked; the job was like an elephant in the room—it couldn’t be ignored.

Elizabeth said, “Mr. Guerrero,” then added in a slightly puzzled voice, “He gives me the.... Sorry.” She apologized again.

“Gives you the creeps,” Ilsa supplied, to Elizabeth’s surprise smile. “Mr. Guerrero can take a little getting used to, but he’s …  unique.” Ilsa chuckled softly, the added, “You were saying, Elizabeth.”

“8:30 am, Mr. Guerrero will have hacked into the control program for the traffic lights."

Sitting in the utility van, Guerrero’s fingers were flying over the keyboard as he sent the codes to activate the traffic light program he had planted. The lights at both intersections would remain stuck at green. He hit the relay code: the same would be happening in a cascade effect fanning out from those two intersections; soon all the area around the entrance to the wharf would be in a total gridlock. Putting the laptop away, he drove down the back alleyways, missing the mayhem he was causing, and joined up with the others for the attack on the gallery.

Ilsa checked the clock.  “The curator will already have opened the doors and disabled the alarms. His team will have started to set up for opening to the public." 

Elizabeth took up the timeline again. “8:40, they will have arrived by boat; water is now the only way to get to the gallery. Winston will guard the boat while they go in; the others will run interference for Neal as he takes the painting. The only things stopping them now are the three guards and the alarm on the painting itself.” El tried not to look worried, but in her stomach she was worried sick, Peter and Neal had taken part in sting operations before, but they had always had full SWAT backup; this time it was different. She looked at Ilsa and it was as if the other woman understood.

“You don’t have to worry, Elizabeth; they have Chance, Guerrero and Winston with them, and they might be well … different from what you're used to, but they are highly trained professionals. You can trust them to do what is best.” 

Neal had entered the gallery in the middle of the flying wedge; Chance and Guerrero had taken out the guard with a restrained ruthlessness without even breaking stride.

The Thinker was hanging in pride of place on the wall; it was held there by two security wires attached to the top corners of the painting.  Quickly Neal pulled a small box from the bag he wore, attached two cables to it, and clipped these cables to the security wires.  The green light on the box came on. The current running through the security wire was now successfully bridged. He cut the wires, took the painting, and started back out of the gallery; as he left, Chance hit the silent alarm—the more confusion the better, and they would want witnesses for what happened next.

Elizabeth looked at the clock again. “8:52, they'll be out of the gallery, back on the boat, and crossing the river.

Winston was monitoring the police band; he could hear the reports on the gridlock, as the police tried to clear the way, then the call on the silent alarm. As soon as they jumped onto the speedboat he applied the power, and they headed off to where Mozzie was waiting for them with the cars. A quick glance across his shoulder showed Neal cradling the painting in his arms.

“9:00, they should have met up with Mozzie and started the end plan.” She reached out a hand and Ilsa took it. The Englishwoman picked up a remote and went onto the news channel; there, running along the bottom of the telecast, was "BREAKING NEWS: ART THEFT OF PRICELESS PAINTING.”

Winston took the radio and cut into the police frequency. He reported he was in pursuit of a car with the robbers in it; all the time he was transmitting, he watched as Chance and Guerrero staged the car accident, then broke the painting up and left it inside the car. Chance helped Guerrero fix a small explosive charge to ignite the fuel tank. By the time the police got there the car was nothing more than a burning shell, the painting shreds of burned canvas.

It was only when the Ilsa and El received a call from Peter that they finally relaxed; it was over and done with and everyone was safe.

 

continued in  The Ryan Exchange Part Four