The Commission

Chapter 18

~Book 2~

"Team A, meet Team B," Hughes said nodding from Peter's team to a group of four agents Peter knew by name as Clarice Brower, George Suarez, Allen Singh and Sara Littleton. "You are now one team working on Caffrey's sting operation and will pool all intel you previously gathered from the Scott case."

Peter's team made noises of protest. "All this time you've had someone else duplicating our efforts?" Jones asked.

"You traced our database searches," Diana surmised. "That's how you've known all this time we were looking into Scott."

Peter was speechless with rage mixed with an animal wariness. He chose to take the high road. "You're the ones who have had access to Scott's business activities, I take it?"

"Yes, I won't tell you what it took to get past his electronic security measures," Brower said, evidently the techie of the group.

"You had a warrant for his business data?" Jones' sense of betrayal was evident. "What I could have done with a warrant—"

"Calm down everybody, Team B got the warrant in part because of your work, Jones, so let's consider it a group effort and move on."

"Will we be receiving the same intelligence going forward?" Diana could be trusted to ask the important questions, God bless her, Peter thought.

Hughes sighed. "Having two independent teams was important because the brass was very wary to take on a Titan like Scott was. Team A, you identified a pattern no one else would have seen, and you even got many of the whys and wherefores right. But as you say, you had no warrant, and only a suicide's word repeated by a, er, senior agent of impeccable reputation who was dosed precisely to diminish that reputation."

Peter felt like that was pretty fair, and didn't dispute the dosing.

"We needed a group of agents who had never met Scott, suspected him of nothing other than being a recluse, and it didn't take long for them to find irregularities."

Suarez leaned forward, looked at the boss for a go-ahead, and dived in. "Money. Huge sums of it. Going in and out of shell corporations for no apparent reason. It's the sort of thing that would have raised a red flag eventually if he didn't have these business entities hidden under so many aliases. The kind of thing that would scream illegal activity, smuggling, gambling, something unwholesome because it was being hidden so well."

Peter could feel his team getting drawn in despite themselves, which gave him a moment to give a serious think on exactly what Hughes had been playing at and for how long.

"Were you able to trace the money to anywhere? Did it fit my data?" Jones asked excitedly.

"Yes, in a word." Singh said with a glance at Brower, his team's equivalent of Jones, evidently one with little patience for letting the eggheads run off at the mouth. "There are many of these ultra-rich people who seem to have the hidden financial habits of high-stakes gamblers, except with few exceptions they're never seen at casinos."

"Does Interpol have any similar patterns?" Peter spoke up.

"They've been logging data, but with no evidence of a crime, it's been on the back burner," Hughes said. "Now we're in the opposite situation we started from—we have evidence of a crime—" he nodded at Neal, who darted a calming look at Peter, his first one since they were in the room together—"and we have no suspect. No live one anyway."

"What about the butler?" Peter asked.

"I have a few questions for him," Neal said quietly.

"As do I, Caffrey, but everyone is sticking to my playbook from now on, and that one says that this thing is going to be attacked from the top down or not at all." Hughes peered over his glasses and the agents seemed to shrink. "Good." He went to go sit on a table. "Take it away, Caffrey."

"You may have heard that the DOJ helped cut through the red tape on my, the, let's call it spoils, shall we?" Neal said delicately. "In order to allow me to quickly ascend to the ranks of the ultra-rich. From there it's one hop, skip and a jump to a rich, jaded sonofabitch who is dying to try out what nearly got him killed to begin with—the Game."

"Did you find out that's what they call it?" Diana demanded of Team B. "You got in that far?"

Agent Littleton spoke up. "They brought me in for cryptography. Yes I am of drinking age. No, I won't tell you how much older," she said in the tone of someone taking care of a monotonous responsibility. Peter's team exchanged a glance. The girl did look about eighteen, but they didn't much care as long as she got to the point.

"And?" Diana prompted.

Littleton flashed a smile. "And they don't call it anything. Or rather, each person has their own personal word to refer to what we call The Game. It took ages combing through the emails Brower was occasionally able to intercept, and I had to develop an algorithm that found different words of the same frequency within the text."

Jones nodded for the group. "And that appeared at the right time to be a response."

"Exactly. One person's noun was 'completion.' Easy to work that in, right? 'For completion it will be necessary to invest $250,000.' That was one transaction. Another person might write in response, 'I had a real nightmare getting to the airport today; the traffic took 45 minutes extra.' For that person, nightmare is their word, and you have to extrapolate from the time units to dollars. None of which is written down anywhere, I'd bet."

"For me, it will be in terms of painting," Neal said. Peter hoped that no one else felt like his ex-CI looked lonely standing by himself at the front of the room—Peter wanted to hug him. "Since paintings can only be so big, I plan on making the proportion of the length to the width be one figure multiplied by a constant once I figure out how these people play the—paint the painting," he corrected himself and flashed a smile to Littleton, who didn't seem to notice it was not even close to a real Caffrey grin.

"Today is the last time anyone will see Neal Caffrey at the FBI," Hughes resumed. "If you pass him on the street you may say a friendly hello, but we will do our best to make sure that nothing reminds these rich sons of bitches that Caffrey was ever a member of the FBI family."

Diana's eyes widened and she glanced at Peter over the unusual recognition from their boss.

"We went through everything your profiler said about Scott," Suarez said. "These people are all loners, even if they're loners in the midst of a crowd. If they had connections they wouldn't need to manipulate connections, if you see what I mean. Caffrey is going to need to totally reinvent himself, and Brower says we have to assume they have excellent data reach. Email is going to be risky, for instance. Telephones, also."

"We don't send agents out totally alone, much less CIs," Jones spoke up, and Peter wanted to kiss him. "What good does his info do us if he can't share with the bureau?"

"A, I won't be totally alone," Peter's heart leaped for one quick second. "I'm pretty confident my skill set is different than these people's. I know a criminal type with no record here in the states who can basically get on a plane tomorrow and become my equivalent of Tomas the butler. This person will be performing the same functions, the dirt-gathering—"

"But no drugs," Peter said.

"No drugs," Neal faced him for a moment and Peter could feel the message in his eyes that he was on top of the situation. "That's the only real risk, is that the group tries things out on each other. I don't think my kidneys could hack it, if nothing else."

"Caffrey's lawyers have that escape clause written in to his exit contract," Hughes said with what Peter thought was evident displeasure. "If he gets exposed to toxins or intoxicants on the job, he gets a get out of jail free card."

"Short of that, I'm in for a year. If I can't help make a case in a year, then I also get to go, time served," Neal said in a friendly tone. "My people are still talking to your people about how expenses will be handled, so don't say goodbye to me yet," he said, already being hugged by Diana.

"But my wedding, Hughes," she said in a pleading tone.

"He can go to the wedding; this is supposed to look natural. A natural distancing between someone who came into a great deal of cash and his working stiff friends," Hughes explained.

"I have a day to close some loops with some of my criminal friends," Neal said softly. "There's not many people I want to expose to the level of scrutiny these people are going to direct at my life, so it won't be too hard to alienate the few people who stuck by me once I started going legit."

Even the strangers in the room must have been able to tell that the next day was going to be very hard on Neal indeed.

"This is going to be a closed operation, for the most part," Hughes said, oblivious to Neal's tension. "I have been reporting to some higher-ups you'd rather not meet, to tell you the truth, and that's the way it's going to stay. A/B team, get to know each other, and we'll wait to hear from Caffrey and his 'people' about his first move."

Hughes left the room. Neal was quickly surrounded by the B team, who were anxious to impart information to the undercover operative before he went incommunicado.

"Oh, man," Jones whispered. "If this whole scene burns me up, you must be boiling," he said to Peter.

"Must be," Diana said in an offhand manner that Peter saw right through.

"First time the FBI played me, but there's a first time for everything," he said, stealing a glance at the gamble he would take again and again in the form of Neal. "We all want to shut down these people who are basically cockfighting humans, so that's what I choose to focus on."

Actually, Peter was racking his brains for what Terence would tell him if he weren't still out of his gourd, when Neal was suddenly leaving. "Oh, sorry guys, my lawyers just—excuse me," Neal said with his phone to his ear as he made his way out of the room.

Only later, when Peter went to the restroom to look himself in the eyes and check for signs of emotion did he find the paper Neal dropped in his pocket.

"No phones. Not safe. Not for you. Workout clothes have been placed in your locker down in the staff shower room. Take them and go to the gym on West 59th. Give your name at the desk as Brown, and say you have a massage booked for 8 pm."

Peter let himself float for the rest of the day, sharing information with the new team members about Scott's psychology. "What were the drugs like?" Littleton asked eagerly, and Peter gave an autopilot answer to that, too, complete with 'aw, shucks, guys,' pseudo-irritation at the teasing.

He and Diana knew each other so well that Peter found himself thinking his resolve at her so she wouldn't worry.

It had been a dinner at Elizabeth's day, but Peter merely went out on the roof and told her that Neal's money had come through and that was that. No fool, his wife had been trying to prepare him for this very eventuality for weeks, so he didn't have to break his confidentiality vow to let her know that Neal had been activated.

A few minutes before 8 pm, Peter was approaching the gym when he saw Mozzie coming out.

"If I find out you had anything to do with this," the small criminal said to him in a serene voice.

The hair stood up on the back of Peter's neck for some reason.

Peter was seldom unnerved by criminals, but suddenly he felt like Mozzie was going to take him down in some unimaginable way. He pulled himself together.

"How could you think I would send him back into danger? I got played here, Moz. The bureau was working against me, so how could I protect—" he paused. "Someone I care about very deeply."

"He should never have gotten involved with you people," Mozzie sniffed, but with a little less coldness.

"We are now officially on the same side, Moz, so expect to hear from me," Peter said, rushing away so as not to lose a minute with Neal.

"How disappointing. I was expecting you wearing a towel, ready to undo the tension you've caused me today," Peter said in an attempt at humor, sitting on the table across from Neal, who was slumped exhaustedly in a chair, fiddling with his phone. "Neal, are you even listening to me?"

"Yes," Neal came and perched on the table next to him. "I've been working on our personal code so we can still communicate somewhat. Here."

With his arm around Peter, Neal explained that it was based on the same idea that the gaming group had for a personalized word to signify the game. Each letter of the alphabet was signified by a picture that could only be decoded by them, with their years of intimacy, once it was posted on Neal's Instagram account. An A, for instance, would be anything associated with the Wall Street financial district, because that's where they worked their first case. A B, on the other hand, was anything chocolate, because Neal prepared a chocolate soufflé the second time he was invited to Peter's home. And so on.

Peter's mind went into overdrive so he could quickly memorize the picture code and then put Neal's phone aside. "What did you mean, the phone isn't safe for me?" he asked, memorizing and re-memorizing Neal's shoulders, his chest, his back.

"It's just a feeling I have from Hughes. You need to lie low, Peter, you've been in the spotlight too much with the Scott case."

"I'll lie as low as you want, Neal," he said, pulling Neal down with him to the table surface. "How much time do we have?"

"Until midnight. That's when the cleaning staff will come and my lawyers didn't know where to find them to buy them off."

"Are you really all that rich?" Peter asked, taking off his lover's clothes.

"Filthy, stinking rich," Neal said without a speck of enjoyment. "Listen Peter, no really. I'm hoping it doesn't take a year, but I think we should go into it with our eyes open. I have no desire," his voice broke, "no desire to be with anyone else. But this is like any con, in that I may have to." He nodded sadly at his companion. "I wouldn't rule it out, at least the appearance of an affair or two before I supposedly turn my back on the world. And I want you to go back to Elizabeth, if that feels right to you."

"If the two of you weren't so hell bent on being noble maybe this would be a little easier on me," Peter said glumly. "Am I the only one in this situation with emotions? Is it wrong to say, 'I love you Neal Caffrey and stop trying to pass me off on Elizabeth, on the bureau, on drugs, on some goddamn experimental phase'?" He sat up in sudden anger. "When does what I feel count, actually count as a factor to be reckoned with in any fashion?"

"Peter, I didn't mean—"

"No, I know you didn't mean." Peter was on his feet now. "I fucking throw my heart at your feet every five minutes or so, Neal, and you have the grace not to step on it when you avoid it like the plague." He was towering over Neal, and he didn't care that he was wasting his last evening with his lover being irrational. "I did the best I knew how. I hope you'll grant me that when you look back on this from your lofty height where you-"

"I had to do it, Peter," Neal said, pressing his palm against the cheek he just slapped. "Will you shut up a minute? Put your head between your knees if you have to." He rubbed Peter's back. "Better? Now when have you ever known me not to have a side game?"

He registered Peter's suspicious look. "Except in matters of the heart. Moz probably has a bigger network than some of these rich bitches will, and his is made up out of people who would go down for him, they love him so much. He has that gift."

Neal shrugged. "Mozzie and I have hundred ways to communicate with each other based upon years of working together, so there's always that. Some of these bastards are going to start getting a taste of their own medicine, random calamities sooner rather than later, so it doesn't coincide with my joining their clique." Neal almost managed a usual-wattage smile. "That means there's no reason we can't see each other."

"No," Peter waved his hands in front of him. "I refuse to rely upon Mozzie for my romantic liaisons."

"What was it you said awhile ago? Perhaps I forgot our code already, because I thought it started with 'L'?"

"In our code, L is pictures of a virile looking man, standing for—something you apparently aren't going to miss," Peter said, swatting Neal's hand away from where he was tracing an L on his anatomy.

"I'm either worth the trouble or I'm not," Neal said simply.

"You've always been worth the trouble," Peter relented. "Which is a good thing, considering how much of it you've caused me."

"I'm not going to push you back to Elizabeth, or back into your old bureau mindset, if that's not what you want. But I need you to promise me—if you're no longer there for me to come back to, I have a right to know. You post a picture of a sunflower on your Instagram, and that's it. I'm gone from your life."

"Why a sunflower?" Peter asked foolishly because he didn't want this escape clause.

"Smarmy bastards. Always hated the smug frankness of 'em," Neal said.

"And how do I know when your fabulous wealth has introduced you to the man and/or woman of your dreams and you've forgotten my name?" Peter asked, sinking back down on the table.

"Unlikely," Neal said, kissing his head. "Un-fucking likely." He ran his tongue lightly over Peter's lips. "Peter Burke, I'm coming at this situation from more angles than you can imagine. And they all are leading to the same direction." He quickly stripped off and clambered on top of Peter. "Home."

Knowing that for Neal, "love" was spelled "home," Peter grasped the other man tight in his arms and they nearly dislodged the table from where it was bolted to the floor.

The experience was enough to keep Peter going for several days. A week, almost, he was able to play his role perfectly. He learned it from watching Terence actually, in his frequent visits to Bellevue, where his friend had taken a turn from up to down and was dragging around like he was made out of lead, the usual sequence of events being a severe depression after a manic high.

He saw his therapist go through the motions of standing in the med line, answering the nurse's questions, and only when they were left alone in the visiting room did all the pretense slide off of him and the man sat very still, showing his sadness to the one person who wouldn't judge him.

Peter tried not to overwhelm Terence with his own troubles, but he did say that Neal was going to be away for a while, and then they sat, for a half an hour at a time, grateful for someone to be lonely with.

"Thanks, man, you do me a world of good," Peter said softly at the end of every visit. "Let me know when you're going to get off your ass and fight the good fight, soldier. I have plans for you."

And he watched as Terence gathered up the shreds of his social mask to make it through the agony of a brief interaction with the cheerful nurse. He looked back once and nodded at Peter, the only communication he could manage.

Peter didn't have it as bad as all that, he decided, and he concentrated on being the best FBI agent he could in hopes that he could help end Neal's operation sooner.

The one problem was Hughes. Not only was Peter relegated to a rank-and-file officer on this case that he'd identified himself, but he was sure it had something to do with Neal. Either Hughes knew that he was involved with Neal, and was punishing Peter for it, or he was wanting something different from this case than Peter would want—that is, he was willing to take more risks with his (his!) CI than Peter ever would.

Either way, Peter took Neal's parting words about being careful at the FBI very seriously indeed. "You could quit tomorrow. Peter, I'm sure I could find a way to funnel some of my millions to you and put you on a remote island until I'm done with this. But you wouldn't be happy. Take care of what you've still got, until such a time when we can walk down the street together, say. I want more in your life, rather than less."

As a result, Peter really did empty his mind and go with the flow, as he had during so many cases before. That was why he was shocked along with the rest of the team when Hughes, in the middle of some pep talk about getting Neal plausibly introduced to the inner gaming circle, suddenly exploded, "With me, Burke!"

Diana, Jones and Peter all exchanged looks of mutual confusion as he followed Hughes into his office.

"Stop doing that!" Hughes exclaimed.

"What? What am I doing?" Peter asked, completely flummoxed.

"You're looking at me like I'm a total bastard, that's what," his supervisor replied. "I have two ex-wives and they don't even look at me that way anymore."

"But sir, I—"

"Look Burke, I'm going to tell it to you straight, and you'll thank me for it: I don't give a good goddamn who you're sleeping with. Got that?"

Peter sat down without asking if he could.

"Oh yes, Romeo, I've seen you give goo-goo eyes to Caffrey for longer than you were probably aware of. I had a good mind to separate you long ago, but you two were so damn effective I couldn't have even if I wanted to."

His listener could feel a foolish expression of tragedy barely avoided spreading across his face despite his best efforts.

"Don't think I'm a prude, Burke, oh no, you forget that the FBI was a very different place in the Seventies, pal, mark my words." Hughes perched on the edge of his desk and he smiled. "Everything was shades of gray in the Seventies. But now, I'm frankly surprised you went for it, everyone choosing sides and labeling themselves the way they do. Who would've thought you had the balls to act on your feelings for the CI that you spent more time looking at under a microscope than I did either of my marriages. Ha."

Hughes looked over and seemed surprised Peter was still sitting there like a rabbit under a rifle sight.

"But I'll tell you something Burke: whether you are with Caffrey, your wife, A and B, or none of the above, concerns me not at all. This may be my last big case, is what I'm saying, and it would be a hell of a way to go out—winning something that isn't recovering the embezzled dollars for the bamboozled bigwig, isn't righting a number on a balance sheet that nobody noticed in the first place. It would be about the whole attitude towards money that is all haywire in the world—rich people treating others like playthings. Point blank. This is a values case, and I'm sorely in need of a moral victory.

"See, agent, you still have a wife, as far as I know. And as far as any mere mortal can read Caffrey, you have him totally freaked out, which must be pretty close to love. You know what I've got? An AA sponsor named Maurice and a waitress at my regular diner who gives me extra saltines free of charge with my soup.

"Perhaps now you can understand what I mean when I say that I'm not about to let your little love affair get in the way of my big send-off case. If I know about your shenanigans, that means somebody else can know about it, and that, believe me, will end up causing you a world of hurt someday."

Peter opened his mouth and then thought better of it and shut it.

"The day that they found Scott's body, did you ever ask yourself why NYPD had preliminary control over the case? The case that our agency identified and pursued—with brilliant out-of-the-box thinking, for the most part, I have to say."

Peter went back to his frozen posture.

"The mansion is crawling with DEA, they've got CDC on the horn, everyone is swarming around the crime scene that should have been our crime scene, and you know why? Because my lead agent is known to have such an insane hatred of the dearly departed that—" Hughes began ticking off on his fingers—"Scott's staff knew it from merely witnessing your entry into the house that night. My staff knew it and had been burning the midnight oil trying to assuage said hatred. And DEA is the one that happens to mention it based upon your manner whenever the man's name came up in Chicago."

Peter was certain he'd been nothing but professional while in Chicago.

"Suddenly, NYPD has an in, we're on the outs, and FBI has to wait with our thumbs up our asses while everybody else determines that you can't possibly have offed Scott because the liver temperature is wrong and there's no way you could have gotten in to finish the job.

"That's downright embarrassing, is what that is—having to wait until the FBI's transparency has been upheld. I never want to be in a position where my agent's love life becomes my business like that again, understood?"

"Yes, sir." Peter got up and then sat back down. "Sir?"

"What is it, Burke?"

"Who else knows, sir?"

"Probably no one but me and I assume Diana. Jones doesn't even know, for Chrissakes. I'm a cagey old bastard who doesn't have much to do except watch people," he indicated the personnel in their glass cages. "That's why you're going to have to tone down the paranoia vibe and the love vibe, because to me they're deafening."

Peter tried to summon up indifference for Neal, but that was asking too much. His shoulders slumped.

"Burke, this is why what you're doing is so dangerous." Hughes sat back and put his arms behind his head.

"Career suicide, you mean, sir?"

"No, are you a fool? Life isn't a career. Life is about what you're willing to give up, which always is more than you think. Caffrey, he's from the other side of the tracks from you, and he's used to making these calculations all the time. Maybe I agree with his conclusions, maybe I don't, but no criminal, not even the handsomest, most brilliant criminal, has an easy life.

"You, Burke, you haven't even lost your wife yet. Are you willing to give her up for this dazzling smile? Are you willing to give up your job, the people who you see every day and who look up to you—when was the last time someone really stood in your way? Scott? Before that? This conversation is a tickle compared to getting interrogated by the police or locked up, like Caffrey has. Ask yourself, Burke, would your smile be intact after those experiences? Because from where I'm sitting, you're shooting me these hateful looks when all I'm guilty of is doing my job."

Hughes took a deep breath and then expelled it. "So quit it. Look for someone else to blame for your unhappiness if you're not man enough to shoulder it yourself."

His boss suddenly changed tone. "A shame about that profiler of yours. Truly one of the better ones we've had. None of that psychobabble hocus-pocus. Refreshing, that. I'm actually willing to give him another go, but only on the cases where his background won't make a difference. You know a court would have him for dinner."

The supervisor got up and walked to the door. "Everyone loves a good love story, Burke," he said softly, unexpectedly, and then threw the door open.

Peter walked calmly to the bathroom and vomited.

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