It's the birthday of the absolutely awesome dotfic, who is tremendously thoughtful in all the right ways. Honey, I hope this bit of spoiler-free nonsense makes you smile. My thanks to musesfool, who generously gave her time and energy to make this effort better.
There was a picture Andrea had shown him, years ago, when he was first bumbling his way through courting Elizabeth, frankly unsure of what the hell he thought he was doing pursuing a woman like her. It was El, all of maybe eight years old, looking up at the camera with huge blue eyes just begging for a treat. "She's always had that look," Andrea had mused fondly, "used to talk her father and me into all sorts of things."
Peter was familiar with that look. He had yet to build up an immunity to it. And that was why he was here in this ridiculous situation.
Moz had many birthdays. Which was not a fancy way of saying he was old. He just had a lot of beginnings to celebrate, so many dazzling reinventions that Madonna had nothing on him. The first con he successfully pulled solo. The first time he went out without his toupée. The first score that got him a step closer to understanding the allure of "one last job."
Today, though, letting Neal talk him into including Suit and Mrs. Suit in his plans and then getting stuck like this? This was not a birthday he was going to remember fondly.
Peter could protest all he liked about spending his weekend off with a couple of felons - Elizabeth knew that he'd never really relax unless he had an eye on them anyway. Plus, she'd been wanting to go back to the Cloisters for years, and if she could go and get the best guided tour money couldn't buy from someone with an unerring eye, why not?
Neal led them through the cool stone rooms, elaborating on the pieces that she only had a passing familiarity with, speaking with ease about "the Gothic S" and the tools needed to carve ivory. Fascinating as he was being, she found her attention divided; Peter was listening with that irresistibly boyish frown of concentration on his face even while his hand was snugged lovingly around hers, but Mozzie was the real star of the show as far as she was concerned, twitching and darting suspicious glances at everything, even the empty suits of armor.
If she'd maybe been a bit more observant of the others milling around them rather than concentrating on her own little party, maybe they could have avoided this whole mess.
Neal knew he had weaknesses that could be exploited - Kate sprang to mind, would always spring to mind, even if she was beyond everyone's reach now - but he'd never counted his fashion sense among them. It had been the key to so many successful cons, the unspoken assurance that he was the right kind of man, capable of not just mingling with the crème de la crème but that he belonged there.
But everyone who knew him was aware of his signature attention to detail, and maybe if he'd done as the Romans did, matched the well-worn jeans and scuffed sneakers that Peter and Elizabeth and Mozzie all sported, Haberman might have missed him exiting the Cloisters.
It was too late to worry about that now.
Peter very efficiently ran through a whole string of emotions once he realized what was going on: pride, that they'd seen him as the threat that needed to be neutralized first; anger, that they'd gotten the jump on him; gratitude, that he'd left his weapons at home, because he wasn't going to be the guy to introduce a gun into this powder-keg of a situation. And fear for Elizabeth, who was meeting his eyes with a passable imitation of calm, giving him the space he needed to think this through.
Five guys, all looking like they could benchpress him without breaking a sweat. No weapons, which was smart, but plenty of ill-will, which was dangerous. The one holding El's arms appeared to find his work especially congenial.
He was going to kick Neal's ass for this, break him down into a hundred tiny pieces, and dump them into a hundred different vaults. No one touched El.
That, Mozzie's brain helpfully informed him, was Haberman. He doubted whether Haberman's brain was being so cooperative, since the last time they'd met, Mozzie had been working a long con that'd necessitated some alterations to his appearance; he'd decided to have fun with it and go for a twenty-first century Truman Capote thing, and he'd been wearing a toupée with frosted tips, sporting bright blue contact lenses, and carting around a lapdog inside his man-purse. That con had gone off without a hitch, if the dog's incontinence wasn't counted.
Still, Haberman hadn't been the mark; he'd just been one of the hired goons surrounding the mark, and there was no reason to suspect he was branching out on his own because he felt goonery was limiting his mental prowess. Mozzie couldn't help wondering, though, how dumb the goons of a former goon must be.
But seriously, after this was all done, he was going to demand that Neal make this up to him, in some extravagant, expensive, and meticulously planned way.
El watched the pin-scratch frown between Peter's eyebrows deepen and considered the situation for herself. They were in a public, if remote, place, being detained by men who appeared to be unarmed. So far, so good, and she gave Peter her best level gaze to let him know he didn't have to worry about her.
Fort Tryon Park was beautiful, though there was still bite in the early spring air. She looked at the crocuses and irises and didn't let herself panic.
They hadn't made any moves for her purse or Peter's wallet, and she finally registered that one of them - the one wearing glasses like he thought they'd make him look smart - was saying something.
"Slick Nick," Haberman said, shaking his head, and Neal was instantly irritated that not only had Haberman not put the pieces together and realized that Nick Halden was the same person as Neal Caffrey, but that he thought he should be able to bestow such a stupid nickname.
"At your service," Neal said, flashing a smile. "What can I do for you?"
"Recognize these, pretty boy?" Haberman asked, snapping his fingers for one of his pet thugs to come forward and slap something into his open palm. Neal barely refrained from rolling his eyes at the cliché. Haberman's meaty hands fanned out the pack of playing cards and Neal obligingly leaned forward to take a closer look.
Oh. That was the pack he'd made himself, half a practice run for his first bonds and half a way to pass the time he'd otherwise have spent missing Kate. The queens all wore her face. "Where did you get those?" he asked sharply. The last time he'd seen them, they'd been in Kate's purse.
"Let's just say a little birdie sold them to me," the thug said, and Peter couldn't quite believe that he'd lost a contest - even one of strength - to someone that stupid. He had a pretty good idea what was so special about those cards, though. He'd bet that they were the infamous Kate Deck; Kate herself had told him all about them.
Peter would never tell him, but he was pretty sure that Kate hadn't loved Neal, or at least, hadn't loved him the way he loved her. And Neal wasn't grown-up enough to have figured that out yet; he still had a kid's sense of black-and-white romance, where love was always requited and never less than triumphant.
Peter had never seen the deck himself, but he figured there was some secret to it, given that the jokers supposedly wore Neal's smile.
Fifty-four original Neal Caffrey paintings, that was what that meathead Haberman was holding in his hands and ineptly shuffling, totally forgetting to remove the jokers from the pack. Moz cringed at the thought of the oils from the man's hands muting the brightness of the paint.
He wondered if Haberman had worked out the cards' code. Most likely not, since he hadn't even seen Neal's signature on each of the face cards, half-hidden in stylized swirls of fabric.
Mozzie snorted. The goon holding him squeezed his arms tightly behind his back, and Mozzie said, "Sorry. Allergies, you know." He sniffed a little to keep up the charade, and pretended not to see the disbelieving looks Mr. and Mrs. Suit shot his way.
"Hey!" Glasses Goon said, and El snapped her head back around to face him. "These queens look a lot like you." She heard Neal's indrawn breath, felt her own stomach drop a bit, and saw Glasses smile meanly. "You the model for these, angel? You his little girlfriend?"
Forget it. She wasn't going to be intimidated by anyone stupid enough to have missed that she and Peter were the only ones wearing wedding rings.
"No," Neal said into the silence. "She's not Kate."
"Oh, Kate, huh? Who's Kate?"
"The queen," Neal said; one of the advantages to telling the truth was that it could simplify things immensely. "But if you didn't know that, why'd you buy the deck?"
"A former client of mine handed them to me as a way to convince me not to break his legs."
"Let me guess. Your hand slipped?"
"Just once." Another nasty grin filled Haberman's wide face. "But then he told me that they were hand-painted by a con man who could win any game with them, and I thought that sounded interesting."
"Okay, so you've got the deck, what do you need me for?" Neal asked.
"Teach me the trick."
Peter could see the indecision on Neal's face, and realized this had to be killing him, having to give up one of the tricks of his former trade in front of an audience. Served him right.
Make something up, Mozzie chanted internally. The card trick was one of their best, and he still used it to plump up the coffers from time to time; he needed an ample rainy day fund. Make something up - this guy'll believe anything.
"Not Kate!" Glasses said, and Elizabeth arched an eyebrow at him. "Yeah, you, hot stuff. You know the trick?"
She shook her head; she didn't remember Peter saying anything about a deck of cards on any of his cases.
"He'll tell you the trick and then you'll play me and we can see if this thing really works." He stared her down. "If it doesn't, then I might get angry."
She looked up at him and spoke slowly. "Why don't you just have him tell you and we'll skip the game?"
"You don't think I know he could lie to me? Or that you could throw the game? No, this way, I'll be trying to win, but you'll have to. If the trick works."
Neal swallowed. Elizabeth hadn't signed on for this, and she should never have been dragged into the middle of his mess. "I'll play you," he said.
Haberman waved him off like an insect. "No, she will. Go ahead, tell her what she needs to know."
Neal leaned forward to get his mouth as close as possible to Elizabeth's ear. "Look at the diamond pattern on the backs of the cards. Full diamonds across the top and bottom means ace. Full diamonds down the sides means king. Half-diamonds across the top and bottom means queen. Half-diamonds down the sides means jack. Nothing special on the number cards."
She nodded once, a lock of her hair tickling his nose, and he stepped unhappily back. It was all up to her now.
Peter was smiling.
Mozzie was smiling.
El was projecting nervous but determined. Haberman kept watching her, trying to see what her eyes were tracking, but the only thing she seemed to study was him.
Neal had no idea Elizabeth was such a shark.
Peter barely waited until the crew of thugs piled into an SUV - in New York City, really? - and screeched off before pulling his wife in for a kiss that, in other circumstances, would have been just the start of a very good night.
Then he took out his phone and gave full descriptions of the five men and their vehicle to the desk sergeant of the 34th Precinct.
He spent the five minutes it took for the A train to arrive happily kissing his wife.
Mrs. Suit had layers. Moz wondered if maybe she'd been in the drama club back at school.
She hadn't consciously used the wide-blue-eyes trick on anyone since the Halloween she'd gorged herself on her dad's entire stash of Whoppers, but it was apparently just like riding a bike. Earnest look fixed on her face, she told Glasses that there was no secret trick to the deck, that she'd won those five rounds so handily because the real way to win at cards was to beat your opponent, not the cards he held.
"Look," she said, confident that he'd never see the difference in the tiny diamonds on the backs of the cards, "there's nothing that distinguishes this ace from this three. See? You expected me to win, so I won." She'd expected herself to win, too; she hadn't been Casino Queen of her sorority for nothing.
Glasses was looking at her like he was having the first moment of comprehension in his life. It took everything she had not to smile Neal's smirk at him.
Neal hated fidgeters, but he couldn't seem to stop fussing with his tie, with his cuffs, with his hat. That had been a ballsy move on Elizabeth's part, and the worst of it was, it'd worked.
No, the worst was that she knew exactly how one of his best scams was run, and she was sure to tell Peter and dispel the magic.
He wondered how he'd be able to convince her - once Peter let her up for air - that this was a secret better kept than shared. He started to relax, confident that he could come up with something, but then he shivered. She was fully entwined in Peter's arms, kissing her husband back enthusiastically, but her eyes were open and fixed on him.
Neal gulped, discarded all his half-formed plans, and decided to go straight for the groveling. Who knew what other hidden talents she had?
NOTES: The card scam is lifted from my hazy memory of one of John D. Fitzgerald's Great Brain books. And I only realized after I'd written this story, but I borrowed the portrait queens from one of my own (Veronica Mars) fics. Hey, recycling is awesome.
As always, I'd love to hear what you think.