She and Neal weren’t alone in the wine bar, the Michaels family had followed them and were quietly sitting at a table not far away from them, keeping an eye out for them. And for some strange reason, it made Bella feel safer. Bella was really uncomfortable, still, but she decided to go along with Neal’s idea.
Fear was sometimes a good thing, and maybe she’d learn something. Resistance was in some cases unhealthy and Neal had spoken about Peter in such a way so often, that it was easier to give in.
She had the strategic plan of shutting up and drinking her wine.
At least Burke came alone, like he had told Neal, which was a good thing. Bella wasn’t sure if she could deal with Mingus right now. There was one silver lining; when she and Neal would arrive home, her little program would likely have accumulated all the information on Grant Swan and/or Grant Cullen and it would be nothing. Absolutely nothing.
She wasn’t sure what she’d feel if her brother was still alive. Likely that her entire life had been a lie and Bella wasn’t prepared for that notion.
At least Burke’s smile was genuine when he hugged Neal tightly. So was Neal’s. So Neal hadn’t been playing to have befriended the Suit – which had been a possibility, but it was good to see confirmation of that. Neal introduced her as Izzy, which was great, and she said hi, before cloning Peter’s phone and remained quiet while the two old friends caught up with each other.
Oh, Bella knew that Peter was only one of the few people Neal fully trusted, and that should count for something because she believed she was one of those people as well, but how could you trust a Suit?
She quietly observed him, and Neal, as they talked, and Peter seemed to be quite relaxed, not as uptight during some of the calls she’d overheard. Very friendly too, a real family man. Super masculine, the typical look of a Suit, but yet, also a softness and a fondness towards Neal. Burke showed Neal pictures of one year old Neal Burke on his phone, pictures of other people that were a part of Neal’s history with the Suit and occasionally saw flashes of regret on Neal’s face.
Regret for faking his own death to live the way he wanted to?
She was surprised though that out of nowhere, Burke head slapped Neal.
“Ow! Why did you do that?” Neal pouted as he rubbed his head.
“Look, Neal, not that I’m very very happy to see you in the flesh, but what’s the use of faking your own death and then coming back to the States when you should be on the run from the Panthers? We never were able to catch them all. Even Mozzie was raging about you being back here as it puts you, and everyone you ever cared about in danger,” Peter said in a hushed voice. “He even told me that you told him to go back to basics. Going after a large crime family and coming back to the US is not going back to basics, Neal!”
Bella’s head shot up from examining Peter’s phone upon hearing the name. “Panthers? As in… Pink Panthers?” Oh, she wasn’t going to tell them that the Cullens loved the Panthers. Carlisle even lend her to the Panthers once to create a gadget just for them. They were bad, bad people, the thought of Neal allowing himself to get caught up in that… Was it because of the FBI? Did Peter put Neal in the line of fire?
“She didn’t know, Peter.”
“You should have told me!” she hissed as she, too, slapped Neal on the head. “Their notoriety matches that of the Volturi, they’re a bunch of psychopaths and professional killers!”
“Would you have accepted me and my help if I had told you?”
“You, yes. Your help? No. I would have asked my Uncle and Liam to keep you drugged and tied down.”
“That doesn’t work,” Peter shook his head. “Even while drugged he can get out of restraints, it’s almost as if he can’t help himself.”
“It’ll be fine,” Neal took a sip of his wine. “Neal Caffrey is dead and wiped. We still have time to go after your family, Izzy, I’m not too worried. Besides, the FBI got them all, didn’t they?”
Bella settled back in her chair and took a sip of her wine. Yeah, he wasn’t worried. Just like she wasn’t worried about the Cullens and the Volturi. “You still should have told me,” Bella muttered as she looked back on the phone. She was going to see about the status of the Panthers when they got back home, but she hadn’t heard of them for quite some time now, not after the FBI took them down. “Wait, you had a hand in them getting put away?”
“Yeah,” Neal smiled brightly.
“But they’re in jail now.”
“Yes,” Peter nodded. “Right where they belong.”
“The Panthers are in jail. So there’s still a Pink Panther group somewhere else, it’s merely finding out where,” she concluded. “They’re like Hydra, really. Cut off one head, they’ll grow another.”
“Who?” Peter and Neal looked at her with the same confused look on their faces.
“Seriously, you need to get out more,” Bella replied as she looked at Cole who was sitting in her view at the bar and he rolled his eyes. Yeah, he understood that reference. Of course he did. She was still going to check out to see how much of a threat the Panthers still were. When she briefly looked at Peter before looking back on the phone, she noticed that he had a look that could rival her Uncle Garrett’s look when pointing out something obvious with concern. “As long as Neal doesn’t draw attention to himself, he’ll be fine. I doubt that they’ve shared his photo around, or yours, or your family’s.”
“And how do you know?”
Bella sighed as she put the phone in her pocket to fully focus on the conversation. “The Panthers don’t employ hackers of their own, they hire them on the darknet. I haven’t seen any recruiting going on for them last time I checked. I’m also keeping tabs on Neal’s names and aliases on there to see if anyone is looking for him. Your adult son is safe, suit.”
“I wasn’t saying —”
“You’re concerned about your friend, I understand that, and I appreciate that,” she said as she took a sip of her wine. “But I’m not just some girl, and anyone who’s my friend or in my presence long enough gets those tags to keep them safe, even if their own past is just as checkered as mine. You don’t have to worry about him. On top of that, he’s proven more than once that he’s more than capable of recognizing danger and how to get out of it,” she mused as she took another sip of her wine, keeping her eyes on the Suit. Neal was hers now. Hers. He was in her world, so he was hers. Just like she was his.
Burke seemed to want to say something but refrained from doing so before nodding. “Thank you. Now, what’s this about not wanting to do things the easy way when it comes to your family, Izzy?”
“It’s complicated, but also part of a mindset I’ve been taught to live by. Don’t get law enforcement involved. On top of that, it’s personal. They want me dead? I’ll make sure to have them screw up and I’ll be long gone once law enforcement gets involved by their own actions,” Bella replied. “I might have left them, but they’re still mine. My family. No matter how much I’m annoyed by them now or how much I disagree with their ways. I can play dirty, just like they taught me.”
Peter shrugged then. “Fair enough. I suppose it’s also a matter of honor for you, not to snitch even though things are getting complicated.”
“I do have integrity,” Bella replied, finishing her glass. “You boys want some more? I’ll head over to the bar to get us some more,” she said as she got to her feet and walked over to the bar and let out a deep breath as she grabbed onto the bar and steadied herself.
“He seems like a decent guy,” Nick said as he took a stand next to her. “I never seen a conman befriend his handler like this before, their friendship is quite… unique.”
“Which might be the saving grace in this situation,” Bella replied after taking another deep breath and waited for another bottle of wine to appear. “I think the Suit had some influence on Neal while they worked together, but it’s also the other way around. Burke does seem like the type of guy who’s a straight arrow, though. By the book, always.”
“Unless it’s your former CI.”
She shrugged. “I’m still not liking the friendship because of what I was taught, but he’s truthful.”
“And what of the Pink Panthers? Shall we have something happen to those who are in jail?”
“Won’t that draw them all out?”
“Not when you do it the right way,” Nick smiled at her. “I think that dealing with one group of psychopaths is more than enough, don’t you?”
Bella took the bottle from the bartender and returned Nick’s smile. “I’d be in your debt.”
“Consider this part of our agreement, not as a favor.”
“Thank you,” she nodded before returning to the table, refilled everyone’s glass, and got the cloned phone back out of her pocket to scroll through it again. There were so many pictures on there, pictures of Peter and his family, of their friends. Not a familiar face in sight, apart from some old pictures of Neal.
They were adorable. Neal with an old woman, likely June, standing next to a piano, seemingly singing. Neal with a beautiful golden retriever. Neal with who Bella believed to be Mozzie. Neal at the FBI office. Neal in cuffs. Neal smiling, Neal laughing. Neal wearing that stupid goofy look on his face that she loved so much.
“What are you looking at?” Neal asked sweetly as he leaned into her before realizing what she had in her hands. “You didn’t!”
“Best way to get to know someone,” Bella shrugged.
“Well, I guess I owe Auggie 20 dollars,” Burke laughed, shaking his head. “He said that hackers were predictable. Find anything interesting on my phone, young lady?”
“Not yet, just looking at pictures,” she replied. “Cute family.”
“Izzy,” Neal said as he took the phone from her hands. “He’s my friend, you don’t do this to friends.”
“He’s your friend, not mine,” Bella replied as a matter-of-factly and yanked the phone out of Neal’s hand and put it in her pocket. “But fine, I’ll continue to dig once we’re back home.”
“Feel free, there’s nothing incriminating on that phone,” Peter replied, a smile on his face as he looked at Neal. “I like her.”
“Good, because she’s here to stay,” Neal nodded as he took a sip of his wine.
“And she’s going home,” Bella smiled at Neal. “I still have a few things running at home that I want to check out and I want to give you two the opportunity to catch up without me.” She got to her feet and looked at Neal when he took her hand. “Don’t worry, Cole will walk me home,” she said as she thumbed over her shoulder. “Have fun.”
When Neal let go of her, she walked over to Cole and looped her arm through his. She couldn’t wait to get out of there, Bella had a feeling that Burke was going to bring up Mingus, or her brother, or whatever and she just wanted to get out of dodge. Once she was outside, she let out a deep breath, and took a big gulp of air, the alcohol truly hitting her now. “Finally. I’m drunk!”
Cole let out a laugh as they started to walk the short walk towards her home. “Does it make any difference?”
“Unfortunately not,” she sighed, only slightly unsteady on her feet. “I just wish I could just drink it all away.”
“It is slightly unsettling, isn’t it? Your partner being friends with a Suit.”
“Yeah, I mean… where does the friend end and the Suit begins? You know… it’s…” Bella looked up at him. “What were your teachings about law enforcement?”
“Teachings? We were raised to respect the men in blue, despite our activities, as long as we didn’t get caught while we were doing said activities. Being friends or on first name basis with cops is a valuable thing.”
“Well, we give them someone to arrest, they might do us a favor when we need it. Like when we get caught with our hand in the cookie jar,” Cole laughed. “Nick believes that the relationship between your boy and the Suit is genuine.”
New Orleans at night was beautiful. There were different kinds of lights everywhere, and you could hear live music come from every bar you’d pass. People laughing, smiling, having a good time, and of course, the obvious pickpockets. It was so easy to tell who was a pickpocket and the marks they picked out. “Yeah, I figured that myself.”
“Which is likely the reason why the Suit lets it slide that you want to go after your family. He trusts Neal. Neal trusts you, so the Suit has no other choice but to trust you, too.”
“Do you think I’m too set in my ways?” It was hot and sticky outside though, she couldn’t wait to be home and have air conditioning.
Cole sucked in a breath then. “Like I said, I put emotional warfare on the list of things that your family likes to do. Nick agrees with me, he’s better at reading people than I am and he and Myriam both studied psychology. You were taught to fear the authorities. They also likely told you your brother had died.”
“He is dead. The Suits are lying, and as soon as I get home, I’m going to prove it. I’ve been running an algorithm to find any trace of a Grant Swan or a Grant Cullen.”
“It’s funny how you both picked the name Swan.”
Bella huffed. “We both felt like ugly ducklings as children, and ugly ducklings grow into beautiful swans. It’s not that far fetched.”
“How could the Suits know this?”
She didn’t have a quick answer for that. “If my brother is still alive, why hasn’t he looked for me? W-why ask a Suit to find me and look out for me? And fucking unwillingly put me in WITSEC?”
Cole shrugged as they turned the last corner. “Maybe there’s more going on than what you’re currently dealing with and he wanted to protect you, as family should do.”
“It’s a lot of maybe’s, and when it comes to family, I don’t like to hear ‘maybe’,” Bella replied as she typed in her code, waved the fob key over the sensor and then unlocked her front door. “Thank you for bringing me home, Cole. I really appreciate it.”
Cole smiled widely at her. “Of course, no lady should walk the streets of New Orleans by herself at night, no matter how badass they are.”
“Good night, Cole,” Bella laughed, shaking her head.
“Good night, Izzy.”
She closed the door behind her and headed to her computer after snatching another bottle of wine on the way up and settled in her comfortable chair. She took a swig of the bottle and set it next to her as she moved her mouse to wake up her computer monitors. The screens flickered, and a bright light greeted her from all directions.
Bella had hoped her algorithm didn’t come up with anything, that Mingus had been wrong and making up lies, but she couldn’t say that anymore. In front of her there were several government documents of Grant Swan, a soldier in the US army, special forces. Documents about his time in the army and reports on how he went AWOL. Pictures of him and his unit, pictures of him and other soldiers from different units, one of them had a smiling Mingus on them as well with Grant having his arm around him.
Facial recognition came up with more images, from newspapers or snapshots people had posted on the internet. Grant had gone everywhere under different names, different specialties.
But she had not expected the next batch of pictures, they were from a private investigator and recently uploaded to his cloud. Pictures of Grant and Cole. Grant and this tall dude. Grant and Nick.
She knew she had to hack that PI now to see who hired him to make sure Grant was safe, but she felt betrayed.