See here for Master Post
A couple of weeks later, Neal boarded a flight to Toronto.
This did not pass unnoticed by the FBI.
At the White Collar offices, Diana popped her head into Peter's office. "Neal Caffrey's in Canada."
Peter frowned. Neal Caffrey on the move usually meant some elaborate crime was about to go down. "Where in Canada?"
"He flew into Toronto. RCMP were waiting for him, but lost him shortly after he left the airport."
"Of course they did." Peter sighed. There wasn't much he could do. "Get everybody to check their street contacts, maybe somebody knows something."
But by the time this chat was taking place, Neal (or, Tommy Churney, per his passport), was sipping champagne at cruising altitude, on his way to Rome.
Upon landing, he breezed through Italian border control without a hitch.
Maria had no need for such delicate maneuvers. She took a flight straight to Rome a few days earlier, and was waiting for Neal by the time he exited Rome International, leaning casually against a yellow Alpha Romeo.
Neal gave her car a look-over. "Maybe you should tone it down."
Maria laughed. "Any problems?"
"None at all." He threw his bag in the back and got in on the passenger's side. The car screeched away from the curb.
"So," Neal asked after they got out on the highway. "Who's our mark?"
Maria shot him a quick look, then focused back on the road. "How about you let me worry about that?"
"Hey, we're partners, right?"
"Right. You handle the fresco, let me deal with selling it."
"You don't trust me." Neal looked out the side-window at the passing view.
Maria glanced at Neal again, but didn't say anything. Neal was a sleek conman, and she wasn't about to become one of his marks.
She drove a circuitous route, to make sure they weren't being followed, though Neal wondered how hard it would be to follow such a flashy car.
Maria had rented a villa in a little village outside Naples. On the highway she'd handled the sports car like an experienced race-car driver, and she barely slowed down now as she navigated the narrow streets and sharp curves. Neal was relieved when she finally came to a stop.
Their new home was two stories high, with pink bougainvillea climbing up the side wall. "Nice." Neal commented.
"There's a pool in the back."
"Wait till you see the studio."
"There's a studio?"
Maria was already heading towards the door. Neal hurried to keep pace with her.
She did not disappoint. The villa had an attached studio in the back. Large windows offered floor-to-ceiling views of the mountains around them. The rest of the walls were covered with paintings of the view. "The owner likes to paint," Maria said by way of explanation, gesturing over at the panorama outside.
Neal dropped his bag as he went to inspect the slab of travertine stone that was waiting for him.
"I've got everything you asked for," Maria said.
Neal ran his hand along the stone, feeling its texture. "Looks good. So? What about that trip to the museum?"
The next morning, Maria woke up to discover Neal doing the freestyle in the pool.
Neal had taken up swimming after his release. In jail his daily exercise routine was limited mostly to push-ups and pull-ups in his cell. Now he preferred being outside, the freedom of the water and the heat of the sun on his back.
He did a few laps back and forth before he noticed her standing at the edge of the pool. He stopped, treading water, and looked up with a bright smile. "Good morning!"
"What are you doing? We've got work to do."
By which she meant, you've
got work to do.
"This is part of my process."
She glared down at him.
"We're supposed to be tourists, I'm just playing the part."
Maria gestured towards the wide expanse of nothing around them. She'd purposefully chosen a villa which was situated at the far end of the village, far from any prying eyes. "For who?"
Wordlessly, Neal turned, and did another lap, spraying Maria as he passed by. On the other side of the pool, he pulled himself out and reached for his towel.
"You're a slave driver," he called out to her.
"So my students tell me."
Neal finished toweling off, then dropped the towel over a lounge chair and stepped towards Maria. "Yeah, well, I'm not your student."
Maria pointedly ignored him. She pulled a lounge chair over and sat down. "No, you're not. You're the partner who promised to make me a fresco. Our client is expecting it this weekend. He's already wondering what's taking me so long."
"Don't worry, it will be ready," Neal said with a reassuring smile.
"Let's make sure it will."
Neal smirked. "Slave driver."
After a few hours of intense work, Neal finally came up for air. He grabbed an apple, and munching, went out to the yard. Maria was still in the lounge chair by the pool, her head lolling off to the side.
Throwing the half-eaten apple across the yard, Neal stepped over to her. He lowered himself down to the deck and for a long moment just watched her. Her chest was rising and falling at an even pace. She was sound asleep.
No time like the present to do a little snooping. Neal didn't think Maria was running an op for the Feds, but he was quite aware that once he finished the fresco, he was going to become dispensable. She would have everything she needed to close the deal, and every reason to cut him out. A quarter of a million reasons, in fact.
She was clutching her phone. Neal considered relieving her of the machine, but he figured he wouldn't be able to dump its memory anyway. If Mozzie were here he could have done it. But Mozzie wasn't here.
Instead, Neal moved over to where she'd left her tote bag.
As he reached for it, Maria shifted, stretching her right arm above her head. Neal froze. A few seconds ticked by, until he was sure that she hadn't woken up.
Neal turned back to her bag. A couple of books about the archeology of the area. A legal pad. He skimmed her notes, but there didn't seem to be anything of interest there. And a gun.
"What are you doing?"
He looked up to see Maria staring back at him. She had woken up without him even noticing.
He held up the gun. "What is this?"
"It's exactly what it looks like."
"Guns are dangerous."
Maria snorted. "If you've got one pointed at you."
"This wasn't part of the deal."
"Are we changing the deal now?"
"No." Neal got up, removed the clip, and threw the piece into the pool. Without further word he walked back to the studio.
The next few days were quiet ones in the villa. Neal threw himself into his work and Maria was often out. They both pretended nothing had happened.
It was getting close to the deadline when Maria showed up in the studio, nightcap in hand. "How's the painting going?"
"It's going well."
She leaned closer to take a look. It was a celebratory scene, looking, as far as she could see, just like the original.
"Hey, watch it with that wine glass."
"The Greeks probably spilled wine over their walls all the time," she pouted. "A few wine-stains will just give it a more authentic look." But she did take a step back.
Neal got back to his work.
Maria swirled the wine in her glass. "Have you ever thought of painting original works?"
Neal didn't stop his brushwork. "Would you pay half a mil for an original Caffrey?"
Maria laughed. "Probably not," she admitted after a short silence. "Is that what it comes down to?"
"Doesn't it always?"
"Do you always evade questions like that?"
Neal paused, his brush hovering over the stone slab. Then, with an annoyed shake of his head, he turned around to face Maria. "What is this really about?"
"You can't answer a simple question. Didn't you say honesty is a more challenging game?"
"So... why don't you paint originals?"
Neal hesitated, then turned back to his work. "You'll have to wait for next New Year's for that."
Maria shook her head at Neal's evasion. "You can count on that." She turned back to examine the painting. "You're almost finished."
"Just about. I need another day for painting, and then a couple more days for drying it out and aging it."
"I want to come along for the meet."
"You don't trust me." Maria sounded surprised.
"Any reason I should?" Neal retorted.
Maria finished off her wine, and put her glass down on a side-table. "I've got nothing to hide."
For somebody who had nothing to hide, Neal thought, she was sure doing a lot of it.
Maria had rented a small truck, and so the morning of the swap, the two loaded up the fresco in the back.
Neal gave the fresco one last look-see, making sure it was firmly tied down in place, before he hopped down to the ground and slammed the truck doors shut behind him. "All ready to go."
"Good. Get in." Maria hopped into the driver's side.
They got on the main highway going south along the coast, but after a while Maria veered off towards the mountains. The flat, wide road turned windy as it started to climb up the mountains. Traffic thinned out. Maria kept a slow and steady pace and every once in a while an impatient driver would honk away as he bypassed them.
At some point a police car, sirens blaring, showed up behind them, but it soon passed them as well, heading off to whatever emergency. Neal and Maria exchanged a relieved look.
After a couple of hours of driving past picturesque villages, Maria turned off to a dirt path, which wound its way between planted fields and vineyards. The truck kicked up dust, and Neal, coughing, rolled up his window. Maria didn't seem to mind.
Finally, she stopped the truck, in what seemed to Neal like the middle of nowhere. An olive grove to their right, an empty, plowed field to their left. More of the same ahead of them.
Neal looked out through the dusty windshield. Besides the birds flocking overhead, there was not a soul in sight.
"And now what?"
"Now - we wait," she said.
And so they waited. The van had no air-conditioning and the heat was beginning to get oppressive. Neal rolled his window back down for a little bit of air. He was relieved when a quarter of an hour later, an approaching dust cloud signaled that somebody was coming.
Indeed, soon enough three cars materialized out of the dust. They came to a screeching halt around the truck. The people who piled out didn't look like businessmen to Neal. Broad-shouldered, muscular and armed.
Neal glanced at Maria. This was not at all what he was expecting. "I thought you said our client's a businessman."
"He is." Maria nodded over to where an older man was getting out of a car. "That's him. Stay in the truck."
Before Neal could respond, she was already slamming the door shut and walking towards their client.
She greeted the men in Italian, which Neal could understand fairly well, but then they moved around to the back of the truck, and their voices were lost in the wind.
One armed man was standing by the truck. He glanced impassively at Neal. Neal nodded with a quick smile, which was not returned.
Neal leaned back in his seat, staring at the view ahead. He heard the truck door open, and muffled voices behind him as they entered the truck.
He was just beginning to think of getting out and checking what was going on back there when, suddenly, the man next to him sprung into action, unholstering his gun as he ran towards the back of the truck.
From his vantage point, Neal couldn't see a thing. He leaned over to check the driver's side mirror, but he couldn't see much there either. The Italians were all around the truck, yelling and waving their guns at the back.
"Damn." Neal slid over to the driver's seat, and reached for the key. But there was none. Maria had taken it with her. Probably to prevent him from running off with the treasure while she was closing the deal.
Muttering a string of curses, Neal leaned down to pull out the wires from underneath the steering wheel. A minute later, the truck stuttered to life.
Neal hoped that Maria was inside the truck as he shifted into reverse and pressed down on the gas pedal.
This was greeted by shouts from the Italians. Neal could hear the ping-ping of gunshots hitting the metal siding as he shifted back into drive and floored the pedal.
He didn't get far. A few bullets hit the back wheel and the truck careened off the road and into a field, planted with long rows of greens.
Seconds later, Neal was dragged out of the van by a couple of burly Italians. Amid much yelling and shouting, he was brought around back, when Maria was being held by a few more men.
Their 'businessman' client walked in front of them. "So," he said in strongly-accented English, "you think you can play games with me, heh?" He waved a gun, which Neal recognized as the same gun he had thrown into the pool.
Neal glanced with annoyance at his partner. "I told
you, guns are-"
"Silence!" The older man shouted.
He was in the middle of nowhere, Italy. If this was the end, it was a sorry way to go. Would anybody know what happened to him? Would anybody even care? Neal was pretty sure Mozzie would care, but he had a hard time thinking of anybody else who would miss him.
Mercifully, he didn't have long to contemplate matters, for suddenly - everything went dark.
Neal groaned. His head was throbbing so badly, he just wanted to die. Then he remembered that he could have been
dead. It took a few more minutes for the next thought to coalesce in his mind: He wasn't dead.
His head was killing him, ergo he wasn't dead!
Slowly he felt the back of his head. His hair was sticky, and he could feel a tender, sore spot there. When he brought his hand back, it was covered in blood. His own blood.
Neal groaned again and closed his eyes.
"Hey, you okay?" Neal's eyes opened again too see Maria's head swim into view.
"More or less." He thought about that for another moment. "Less."
This earned him a quick smile. "How many fingers am I holding up?"
He squinted at her. "Three."
"Good. You had me worried. Come on, we need to get out of here."
He was lying on the dirt path. She gave him a helping hand. He took it and slowly moved into a sitting position.
"The deal went south. Our client decided he could take the fresco and forgo the payment."
It was all coming back now. The meet in the middle of nowhere, the Italians, the guns. "The truck?"
Neal felt the sore spot on his head again. "So what was the plan? Not just con the mob, but also steal from them?"
"There was no plan," Maria answered. "Our client got greedy and decided to back out of our deal."
Neal wasn't sure he believed that version of events. "So you pulled a gun on him?"
Maria's eyes narrowed. "We would have gotten away with both the fresco and the money if you hadn't driven off like that."
Neal exhaled in surprise. "Seriously? You're gonna blame me for this now?"
"Just giving you the facts."
"And what did you intend to do after you had the fresco and the money. Get rid of me at some stage?"
Maria's jaw dropped. "You're unbelievable."
"All I know is that I do all the work, you set up the deal, and now the fresco's gone."
do all the-" she spluttered. "So what, you think this was all a setup?"
Neal looked up at her. "You tell me."
Maria shook her head in disbelief. "If I was going to steal the fresco, I wouldn't be here right now."
Neal didn't buy it, though he wasn't about to argue the point. Shakily, he got to his feet. He took a few unsteady steps, and then collapsed in an ungainly heap on the road.
"God." Maria looked at him, and after a moment's hesitation came over to help him up. "Come on."
Neal leaned on Maria as the two walked back towards the main road. Maria had taken off her shoes and was holding them in one hand.
It was by now late afternoon, and they cast long shadows ahead of them.
"We could try to get the fresco back," Neal said after a while.
Maria came to a stop, looking over at Neal. "How?"
"It shouldn't be that difficult to locate the truck. Every rental has GPS tracking nowadays."
"So we'll find the truck, how would that help us?"
"The fresco might be nearby."
"Not very likely," Maria dismissed the idea. "They could ditch the truck, and have the fresco halfway across Italy by now."
"You're not that keen on getting that fresco back, are you?"
"I'm not that keen on getting myself killed. This isn't New York, we're in unfriendly territory, and it can get really dangerous to go up against the mob."
Neal wasn't about to give up so easily. "He's probably keeping it close where he can see it. I can break into his home, and-"
"Neal!" Maria almost shouted. "You're talking about a very secure compound that the Italian police don't dare approach. Face it. We've been had."
"How very convenient."
Maria just shook her head. Then an idea popped into her head. "Maybe we're going about it the wrong way."
"What do you mean?"
"Maybe we don't need to get the fresco back..."
"I think we already established that's not your top priority."
Maria waved that away. "Will you listen
? That fresco is only worth half a mil if it's rare Greek art. How much do you think the mob would pay for a Caffrey original?"
It took a moment for the idea to sink in, at which point Neal grinned. "You know, Maria, we could make quite a team."Next Chapter