Diana stretched as far as she could in the cramped van's interior. "Does that offer for a bachelor party still stand?"
Neal grinned at the FBI's most eligible lady-loving agent just off the market. "I hope you actually manage to walk all the way down the aisle this time. Suzette is a rich, beautiful sugarmama. If you're smart you'll retire from this glamorous life." He didn't have to open his arms very far to encompass the monitors and audio equipment "Take advantage of equal opportunities for being a kept spouse now that it's legal in New York."
He sniffed the musty smell that seemed to live in the surveillance van and grimaced. Being a confidential informant was much smellier than the thieving days just behind him.
They gazed at the displays for the convention where Peter Burke, Neal's handler, and another agent named Jones were undercover. It was an accountant convention, so Peter was in his element and Jones was bored out of his mind.
"What about you? You've definitely got an in with the upper crust these days," Diana said after awhile, with a deadpan expression.
"What about me what? I don't do things like that! I thought we were friends." Neal glared at Diana with sudden anger.
Actually, the FBI agent did consider the ex-criminal a sort of friend. Neal was so full of life he made a sometimes boring job interesting. This was one of the few occasions she'd really pissed him off, and the fact that it was this particular subject that was a sore spot pissed her off a little as well.
"Oh, so the great womanizer Neal Caffrey gets all offended at a little joke about being with a guy? I had no idea you were so homophobic. I'll skip the party, thanks."
Neal was chuckling and then laughing outright. "That's all you meant? I thought you were asking me if I was hanging around on Park Avenue trying to gold-dig, and I couldn't understand why someone who knows me at all could think that I would marry someone for their money. You know I believe in love."
Diana was still looking at him coldly and he shook his head in wonder. "You honestly think I'm homophobic? Now it's my turn to be offended."
They listened to the audio feed of what had to be the dullest stakeout Neal had ever been on, and then Diana asked slyly, "So that means you could potentially benefit from the new same-sex marriage law."
Her companion gave a long, low whistle. "If you're asking me if I'm one of the family, you could've saved yourself the setup, Diana. Love is love, that's all I have to say about it."
He felt Diana's eyes on him and smirked a little. The time he'd been spending with a certain ultra-wealthy person had piqued Diana's interest and this was her fact-finding mission. He didn't mind fanning the flames of gossip a little. After all, when people think they have you all figured out they take you for granted, and someone in Neal's position, always one step away from going back to prison, couldn't afford that.
His companion opened her mouth to pursue the matter further, but then they heard an oath in Jones' voice and Peter calling for backup in a scuffle visible in the monitors. They eventually apprehended the dishonest accountant, but not before he made Jones and lunged for his throat with a decidedly un-accountant-like fury.
Because the perp was not known to be violent, no one thought there was anything amiss in the way the agents had behaved, but Jones and Peter knew better.
Somehow Diana had mistakenly left the audio feed to the two-way setting during her conversation with Neal, and both of the undercover agents had listened to every word through their ear pieces. It was more interesting than listening to people talk about balance sheets, and it threw them off their game.
Though Peter realized guiltily that he had been the more distracted of the two. Something half-clicked in his head and it paralyzed his body. His reaction to the accountant's burst of rage had been a split second slower than it should have been, though Jones didn't seem to have noticed.
By Saturday, Peter gave in. It was killing him, so he told Elizabeth that he was going in to the office for a few hours.
"Oh, honey, I thought we agreed this Saturday was for us," she said, rubbing his back. "But you know what I said when I married you."
"That you would never try to change me," Peter completed, taking time out between bites of breakfast to give his wife a quick peck. "You're an evolved soul, hon."
A month earlier, Elizabeth had taken advantage of a similar working weekend for her husband. As he headed in to the office, Elizabeth had poured herself some more coffee. "Well, do you mind if I use this time to have Neal give me his advice on the company's catalog and web design? For the amount of money I'm paying the designer, I don't want to wake up the next morning and decide I hate it."
"By all means, honey, if it will stop you from worrying." Peter was already grabbing his briefcase. "I'll call you if these reports drag on longer than usual."
When he was gone, Elizabeth dialed Neal. "Do you have plans today? Because I'm dying for you to come over and discuss a surprise I had in mind."
For the past two days, Peter had been turning Neal's cryptic response about his sexuality over and over in his mind, which might have been a way to avoid thinking about why he was thinking about it.
It was the whole "mystery of Neal Caffrey" hobby of his. He was addicted to finding out new little facts about his onetime quarry and current—colleague.
Peter began searching through Neal's files with the same urgency with which he had performed similar searches in the past. Those times, he had been concerned that Neal was about to commit a crime, or had committed one that Peter didn't know about. But this time, it wasn't about bringing his friend to justice anymore; he just needed to feel like he knew everything there was to know about the enigmatic crook who was his friend.
It was simple prudence, Peter was telling himself as he scrolled backwards through Neal's extensively documented history. Here was one: Neal had posed as an exclusive male escort in Amsterdam so he could steal back a priceless antiquity some gay thief had won from Neal in a (supposedly rigged) card game.
"But that's classic Caffrey," Peter murmured at the coffee maker. "He'll take any means to get to his desired end." Or almost any. Neal had this selective but intense sense of morality that put certain people off limits from his cons, and made others worthy of a kind of Robin Hood-like protection. The way Peter had caught Neal was by knowing the notorious con man had a passionate heart.
Kate. Peter didn't hope to find anything to fit his new theory during the times when the Juliet to Neal's Romeo was in his life. He did find one instance in which Neal had used his impeccable sense of style to pose as a gay best friend kind of guy for an heiress who had inadequate security for her jewels. Befriending for mercenary reasons, okay in the Caffrey moral code. Marrying for money, no. Peter shook his head. One thing he knew all too well was that being Neal's friend may or may not come out on top in the con man's, ex-con man's, ethical calculus.
Peter went all the way back to the earliest documentation on Neal, but found nothing to indicate that he'd missed something so important as Neal being into men.
"Diana's gay, of course she'd eventually ask Neal if he was. Those clothes, after all," Peter chuckled, thinking of his friend's impeccable suits and hats as he was beginning to pack up for the day. He locked away his personal external drive and prepared to return home. One single overlooked variable could mean, say, a stray Nazi treasure trove, such as Peter chased for months without being able to prove Neal had it. But there was nothing to indicate that Peter had missed Neal having a hidden sexual life. All was right in the shared world of Burke-Caffrey.
And if it ever wasn't, Burke would be on top of it immediately. Their rules of engagement established over years wouldn't have it otherwise.
Peter smoothed the last unsettled edge of his instincts and made his way home.
"So, what's this surprise?" Neal had asked on that earlier Saturday at the Burke coffee table over lunch. Catalogue samples were strewn on the table, but he had quickly picked out the best designs so they could get to the real reason for his invitation.
"It's about Peter's birthday," Elizabeth turned to him excitedly from her armchair.
"But he just had a birthday a couple months ago," Neal said.
"And I wanted to give you plenty of time to make it happen," she said with a sly smile.
Neal waved his hands in front of him. "No, if this is about getting sports memorabilia of questionable provenance, I'm not going to piss him off like that. He'll ask questions eventually."
"No, silly, it's something you would make, and he would know you made it."
"You want me to make my grilled fish and a chocolate soufflé?" Neal asked. "Peter does like that. Or maybe something more special."
"I can't believe this wouldn't be the first thing you would think of. I want to commission a painting for Peter's birthday," Elizabeth said, pushing the plate of cookies towards her guest.
"I can do any style you like," Neal said, beginning to get enthused. He looked around. "I think a nice Matisse would really set off this sunny room."
"You choose the style, but here is the subject matter." His host slid a photo towards him.
It was the snapshot of him and Peter wearing tuxedos and smiling. They looked like equals. Like friends.
Neal's heart sank.
"Elizabeth, you were an art major, you should know better than anyone: I'm a world-class draftsman, not an artist."
"You have an artist's soul, Neal, everything you do is art," Elizabeth said, tipping a little rum into her coffee and offering it to her friend.
Neal poured a generous shot. "I'm like someone who's been doing an accent for so long I don't have my own."
Elizabeth sensed she'd touched a sensitive subject. She reached over and squeezed his arm. "Then that's fine. Consider this a commission to do whatever you want. Paint the two of you like Rembrandt would have done it, or Warhol. Whatever you like. I know this portrait would mean a lot to Peter, as long as it came from you."
"Can I paint us as ruffed Elizabethan lords?" Neal asked, beginning to warm to the idea.
"I leave it up to you," Elizabeth said, dunking a cookie. Her birthday plan was in motion.
The idea had been germinating in Neal's brain for a couple of weeks. By the time Peter was catching up on his paperwork in the office, there were sketches littering Neal's apartment. The canvas Neal had started on the easel was of himself like a Gauguin.
"Because he sees you as this exotic species," Mozzie immediately grasped when he walked in the door.
"Or what about this one? The painter showed him a Lichtenstein-style pastel sketch with the characteristic dotted cartoony features and blank thought bubbles above the heads.
"You won't get away with it," Mozzie said, sotto voce, pointing to the cartoon Peter.
"Catch me if you can," Neal replied in kind.
This went on all weekend. Neal sketched out a couple dozen ideas, some with him and Peter in the same artist's style, sometimes mismatched. When Mozzie was there they talked about it; same with June.
It was great fun.
Until Neal realized that it was about time he commit to an idea, and nothing seemed more than what it had been—a game. Elizabeth's words, "as long as it came from you," echoed in his mind with the ring of something sublime and truthful he could never equal.
"I haven't been to church in awhile," Neal said to his friend.
"By all means, you should go," Mozzie said. His owlish little friend and mentor was serious about spirituality, in any form. For him, Buddhism did the trick most days. Neal worshiped at a different church.
Actually several, but often on Friday. Friday was the optimal day of worship because it was suggested donation. At most New York museums, anyway.
It really had been some time since he had gone to sketch, Neal told himself. Looking at the art with his hands' sensibility was entirely different than just going to soak everything in. He'd long ago finagled a pass at the Met, so he could go there any day. He chose the Guggenheim because the snail-like spiral always made him feel like he was shedding the world in one long curl of jaded skin, so by the time he got to the top, where the most avant-garde stuff was usually displayed, his senses were raw, exhilarated.
But this Friday he merely watched the part of himself that calculated how much each piece was worth, how he'd forge it or steal it, and where a likely market would be.
"I've lost my edge!" Neal exclaimed inwardly in horror. What made him such a good forger was that he could get inside the feeling of a painting, what the artist was thinking when he or she created a work. If you think of a piece of art as a clockwork, something that moves, most people could only hope to create the golden exterior, but it remained empty. Neal got all the moving parts to go.
Except not anymore. His sketches were hollow—not only to his trained eye, but, he fancied, to others as well. Usually his focus on the sketchpad could keep unwanted conversationalists at bay, but other museum-goers seemed drawn to his frustration today, and when they passed over his work with only a polite word, instead of effusive praise, he knew it for sure.
He'd lost his shine.
That was thief-parlance for having lost that glimmer that distracted people during card tricks and glossed over counterfeit goods. Without that innate belief in himself, he was as good as finished with the life. It happened to conmen all the time, this occupational hazard like a musician losing their hearing or a dancer developing arthritis. Neal shuddered in the middle of the museum, thinking of stories he'd heard of crooks whose fingers had grown too heavy to pick a pocket, and were thus condemned to some square job that required no imagination.
He was so shaken he couldn't even tell his best friend.
Mozzie did tend to catastrophize-either that or overwhelm with advice-and neither would help Neal get back in touch with his inner compass.
Neal was too smart to spend overly much time in museums, for fear of the record on his tracking anklet arousing Peter's suspicions about some imaginary heist, so he went to his other museum: the city streets. New York had gotten in his blood by now, and like any good city dweller, Neal felt calmed by the pulse of the city. With his pastel set in hand, he challenged himself to find the hidden colors within the variegated grays of the cement and the cloudy sky. The pigeons were his fail-safe: no two were alike, and they easily lent themselves to lightning-fast caricatures. His sketchbook held a Laurel & Hardy, a George H. W. Bush, a Judi Dench.
He rubbed the oily sticks between his fingers as if he were rolling in nostalgia for his vanished shine.
Claiming he was in an intensive refresher regimen he was able to avoid Mozzie, who was in one of his literary phases anyway. (Once a year or so, his master-criminal friend got the idea that his checkered past deserved a memoir, but he was terrified of any of his crimes getting traced back to him. Hilariously vague results always ensued). Neal began avoiding the museums with a sort of phobia, as if all the art in a finite world had already been made and he couldn't bear being confronted with the confirmation of this claustrophobic fact. In the galleries it was like being able to see the edge of his two-mile radius imposed by the FBI's tracker, and that was intolerable.
Work was easy because it was very seldom that someone came up with a truly innovative con for him to figure out, but Neal imagined that Peter and the others could see his lack of verve.
Three weeks went by and he'd forgotten the original cause of his misery was a birthday gift for Peter.
Neal was having an identity crisis, and he could only think of one way to find himself: to go back to the phase in his life in which art was something to make or to love, but not to copy or steal. He could remember exactly what painting first gave him that feeling like he was looking through a window into magic.
So Neal went to go visit it.
"You want what, exactly?" the butler asked in a bored tone.
Neal had already turned on the charm to get into this elegant Park Avenue foyer, no small feat when there was an intercom and a butler in between him and his goal.
He'd been seventeen and just off the bus when he first saw it, a very small specimen lent from a private collection for a special exhibition at the Met.
The canvas, along with its owner, vanished from society some years ago. But of course Neal knew exactly where to find them. He could locate most major pieces of artwork in the world in short order.
"All I want to do is spend a little time with it," he said again in the luxurious foyer.
"Oh, do let him up already, Tomas," a voice came from a hidden speaker.
"Thank you," Neal flashed his best smile in what he judged was the same direction as the voice.
He was ushered through an impossibly huge flat, which, he was gratified to note, bore none of the ostentation that many uber-rich dwellings had. Priceless pieces mingled with mere antiques or found objects in tasteful combinations.
Finally, the butler gave a nod to a sitting room, and Neal entered. A handsome man looking to be around forty was smiling at him.
"How did you know I was even in the city?" the man asked.
"Prentiss Lloyd Scott spends his autumns in the city, unless he's in Cadiz, but he's there less than he says he is," Neal replied, holding out his hand. "Neal Caffrey. Sometime artist."
"Prentiss Scott, most-time recluse," the man returned, smiling. "Have some tea."
They talked of art, of New York, of various European cities, and again, Neal was pleased that it was actual conversation, and not name-dropping to prove how privileged or educated they were. It went on for about an enjoyable hour until the man leaned forward.
"You are, of course, welcome to 'spend time with' the Rembrandt, but just how many times should I allow you in before you attempt to steal something? Oh come now," he dismissed Neal's protest-for once, genuine. "A man of your age and aspect," he took in Neal's considerable charms openly, "can't be bought by a man of my age and inclination at this point. You do know both?"
"Even if I wasn't good at math I'd know you to be around fifty-five, and yes, I have heard that you prefer men," Neal said candidly.
"What do you think of the work?" Scott asked, turning his face this way and that.
"Some of the best I've ever seen," Neal began.
"In other words, an abomination to an artist such as yourself."
There was nothing for Neal to say. Looking at the man's artificially Kennedy-like features made his stomach churn, though he had taken care to hide the reaction.
Scott nodded again, as if he'd had the same conversation with himself every day for years. "You won't find a mirror or overly reflective surface in this mausoleum. I can't bear to look at myself, nor to be looked on, for the most part. Not by anyone who knew me before, at any rate."
"You really don't leave this apartment," Neal finally grasped. "Though if I had this many square meters of Manhattan to call my own, I might not feel like I was in prison." He lifted his pant leg delicately to reveal the tracking anklet.
"So you aren't even a good thief. I feel slightly less intimidated," Prentiss said, with what Neal figured to be his most human-like grin.
"I'm world-class, but even the best fall on hard times."
It was the right thing to say. Tomas was rung for. Liqueur was poured. The person underneath the careful sculpture of features seemed to thaw a little.
"From one cock-up to another, if you pardon the pun in my case," his host said, lifting his glass. "I truly won't mind if you steal a little something. Let's say, surprise me with something worth no more than $10,000." Again, he gave a practiced gesture. "We both know it won't really be a surprise, since homosexuals are the original patsies. All the way back to the first caveman who dreamed of love when he was dragged off by his fellow brute, who feigned amnesia afterwards."
Scott's bitterness took him off guard. "I'm sorry to surprise you, Mr. Scott, but I truly am interested in the Rembrandt. Well, even that is a means to an end. I need to find myself as an artist again, and somewhere in that painting is a seventeen-year-old me."
There was a pause in which Neal imagined he could feel his own frustrations beating next to the other man's like two butterflies.
"If you'd rather not steal, then I have conditions," Prentiss Scott said, suddenly the businessman who'd turned his healthy trust fund into billions with his own talent. "I'd like to commission you to paint my portrait."
Inwardly, Neal groaned. He'd tried to do portraits of a few moneyed old dames who wanted an excuse to look at him, and any attempt to render artificially stretched features ended up ghastly. It was like the plastic surgery had broken the link that had existed between the real features and the soul.
"Consider it a test," Scott continued. "If you can breathe life into this," he prodded his own cheek, "You're truly a master. Come with me."
The man was leading him though a sophisticated security system and into the climate-controlled inner sanctum where his truly valuable art resided. But the part of Neal's mind that would normally be looking out for ways to break in was oddly silent.
Why would anyone have so much surgery that he hated his reflection? was what he was wondering. He stole a glance at his host—most people weren't observant enough to see that his face wasn't a face, but an idea of a face.
Prentiss Scott sustained his gaze in that way he had, as if everything was predicted.
"My lover at the time, about seven years ago, was much younger than I. We were happy, I believe. Yes, I truly believe we were. I developed a slight ptosis in one eyelid, and it was drooping enough that it was obstructing my vision, so I consulted a plastic surgeon."
They were standing before a Picasso Neal had only seen in books, and all he could do was stare at it for a moment. "And you decided to do a little more than that?" he ventured, because he sensed something was expected of him.
"It was to be just my eyes, the crow's feet. Who could blame me? It was Tim who convinced me to plan on a little more, and then a little more, with the idea that people would stop looking at him as a gold-digger if we seemed closer in age."
"And you both ended up regretting it," Neal surmised before a small Rodin sculpture.
"Tim said he never knew what I was thinking, that he felt like I was always lying to him because my expressions weren't the same. We grew apart. I started to sense a coolness, a distance between me and other people that hadn't existed before the radical surgery. Gradually I stopped going out."
Neal forgot to say something noncommittal. It was the Rembrandt before him. That luminous quality had him by the throat again, just as it did when he was seventeen. "I can do it, I know it," he heard himself saying.
"Oh good. When should I expect you back? I'll have whatever materials you require," Prentiss Scott said. "Just leave a list with Tomas."
Neal scribbled a list under the skeptical gaze of the butler, who looked at him as the pigeons had been looking at him recently: safe in an absurdity that Neal was unlikely to crack.
"Where were you while I was in the throes of writer's block?" Mozzie asked him tipsily when he got home.
"Pursuing spiritual ends," he replied.
Friends who would merely nod and pour him a glass of wine at such a statement were a rare and wonderful breed.
The unusual destination on his tracking log did not go unremarked by Peter.
"Is there something you want to tell me?" Peter asked him with a disarming open-endedness.
"Just tell me that the Prentiss Lloyd Scott, the billionaire art collector, isn't spending time with one of your aliases."
"I showed him the anklet. And by the way, butlers can usually be trusted to pick out the riff raff from a mile away."
"Had you pegged as a crook?" Peter grinned.
"From the intercom, don't ask me how," Neal laughed. Sometimes he felt really comfortable with his FBI friend.
"Well, I'd rather prevent a relapse than give you absolution afterwards, so let me know if you're feeling the urge to fall into sin," Peter went back to shuffling some files about some dry crime or other.
Sometimes Neal hated his keeper. You don't just dismiss an existential crisis like one more paper to file! Peter could be so heartless. The idea that all his angst was due to the desire to paint a genuine portrait of the two of them crept into his mind, and quickly turned to annoyance.
"Since you find me so predictable, you'll be able to find me when you need me," Neal retorted and went up to the roof. Maybe he'd find a pigeon that wasn't mocking him so he could sketch it.
"What did I say?" Peter asked to the empty air where his CI had been a moment ago.
Only much later, after hearing Diana's conversation with Neal over the audio feed, did Peter return to that moment of odd irritation on Neal's part. Was his collaborator involved with this fantastically wealthy openly gay man, and did he take Peter's comment to mean he thought it was a sin?
Damnation, thought Peter. He should have suspected that the pansexual Caffrey, with the ability to charm humans of all ages and persuasions, might bat for both teams. But Peter and Diana were extremely tight from way back. Everyone knew that he had been the first person she'd come out to at the bureau. He was going to be her best man at her wedding. There were no issues about sexuality with Peter Burke, straight shooter and all-around good guy.
Slightly hurt that Neal would think such a thing of him, Peter resolved to be more sensitive to his friend's needs. Something was up with Neal, and if he was nervous about how dating a man would affect his standing, he should know that Peter didn't care one way or the other.