By the time Neal got back to his apartment, everything was already arranged. Every thief worth his salt always had a go-bag hidden in some secret place. His was in June's stuffed attic in an old armoire.
His landlady was out, as he knew she would be. Neal changed into an outfit that was more Williamsburg than Manhattan. In this subtly different garb, he took his bag and left. Luckily he was spared the goodbyes with Mozzie and June. He and Mozzie would see each other again someday —they always did.
A good escape plan always has several steps. That's why the only things in his escape bag were disguise-related, along with a couple of burner phones, some wads of cash, and some granola bars.
Neal's first stop was Saint Mark's Place. Looking like a hipster as he did at the moment, no one raised an eyebrow when he got several fake clip-on body piercing rings, assorted chains, rings, black rubber bracelets and a studded belt.
He then headed into a tattoo shop he knew to be thief-friendly because it was part of the underground body mod network. The shop also offered hair dye jobs with temporary Manic Panic.
To the insistent whine of a tattoo gun, Neal passed a pleasant hour and a half chatting with the burly proprietor and his wife. He got his hair cut in short spikes and dyed a bright maroon red with some black streaks.
"What can I pay you to take that that off your hands?" Neal asked, having been staring at the weathered army green duffel bag sitting behind one of the counters.
"That old thing? You can get a new one for 20 bucks down the street," the man said, his words slightly garbled from all of his lip rings and tongue piercing.
"Not like that, my friend; that one has character. And I'll give you 100 bucks."
The proprietor chuckled. "I'll consider the rest as a tip for not letting on we met this evening," he said savvily.
"I'll do you one better," Neal said for extra insurance. "Tell your pals: don't deal with Dr. Finny. The feds are watching him on prescription drug charges and he'll poison your well."
"Thank you," the man said sincerely. "Not many outsiders care much what happens to us."
"Do what you do but be safe," Neal said about the sometimes extreme and dangerous modifications a few doctors or pseudo-doctors were willing to do.
Neal brushed the excess hair off the back of his neck changed in the bathroom. He came out wearing the distinctly more punk rock-looking clothes he'd just picked up on the street. That, along with the fake piercings and jewelry—Neal almost didn't recognize himself. He wished he could take a picture of it, because this was one of the best disguises he'd ever created. Too bad he was only going to be in it for such a short period of time.
Neal paid up and thanked the couple. The main tell for Neal Caffrey, he was aware, was the smile. It was something he practiced every day, fighting against the big smile that was so useful in contexts other than when he was on the run. Then, Neal always tried to smile as little as possible. Tonight, he didn't have to try.
Loading up the belongings he wanted to keep in the duffel bag and throwing away the hipster outfit, he emerged on the street, looking much more a denizen of that boisterous section of the East Village. The last thing he did going down the stairs was to affix cunning plastic clings on the front of his teeth, to make it look like they were stained with nicotine. Now he could smile all he wanted.
Sure that nobody would recognize him at all, Neal moved with complete ease down the street to acquire a few more things. Someone who looked like an aged-out musician, as he did, could shop in any army-navy that he liked and not arouse any suspicions. Neal hit the one he knew was open late and acquired much more straight-laced working class-looking garb. A drugstore sold him some hair accessories.
Then he slipped off the veneers for a moment to grab a falafel and carrot juice before getting on the subway to Brighton Beach.
One of the many useful things that Neal had picked up during his time on the other side of the law was that everybody was a little bit afraid of the Russian mob. In a place so heavily influenced by criminal elements as Brighton Beach was, he didn't need any particular contacts—people's default attitude was see nothing, say nothing, so you don't get into trouble.
It didn't take long for him to find a rent-by-the hour motel, naturally a mob-controlled brothel. On his walk there, Neal had found a restroom to use so that he could apply a little bit of the stage makeup he had in his bag. Looking distinctly less healthy, Neal approached the desk at the motel.
"How much does a room cost, man?" he asked in a tone calculated to sound like a privileged person slumming it and desperately trying to be Lou Reed.
"Just you by yourself?" one of the ox-like men asked.
"Oh yeah man, no girls, thanks, I just need a fix." Neal smiled his yellow smile, knowing that only a dumb hipster wannabe rockstar would talk so openly about drugs.
"You better hope he's not the next Kurt Cobain, and he doesn't OD on you—we don't need the press," the other man joked in Russian.
"This cocksucker's probably gonna be back down in a minute asking us to help him find a vein," the first man replied in Russian, snorting.
One of the hardest things to do while on the run was pretend you didn't understand a language. Neal's Russian was pretty good, and it had him biting the inside of his mouth until he drew blood as a distraction. "I'll pay you good money, dude. I just need a place to get right."
"It's a hundred fifty dollars an hour."
"What a yahoo," Neal heard the other man say as he put a heap of crumpled money on the counter without question. "Gimme 2 hours, for starters."
At long last, Neal let himself into the disgusting room with a latex-gloved hand. He was careful to wear gloves the entire time, and it wasn't just to avoid leaving prints. He used the clippers he'd bought at the drugstore to give himself a buzz cut. The remaining hair he washed several times with a strong shampoo to get the dye out, and then he lightened it just a few shades lighter than his natural color, so he wouldn't have obvious roots.
After cleaning everything carefully, Neal put on the surplus clothing, which was dark like the punk outfit. The boxy clothes combined with the slightly military haircut, made him look like someone who might have been recently discharged. People instinctively want to help out veterans and overlook any of their defects, so that had been the first part of his plan that he'd built around long ago.
Finally, he bagged up the punk clothes and garbage, keeping the leather jacket that had been his for a long time. Amazing how leather jackets could take on different personalities, and it's always best to have one worn to fit your form. A knit hat covered his new, shorter hair.
Taking one last look around the room, Neal slipped on a pair of contacts and shut off the light with a gloved finger before stuffing the gloves in his pocket.
By the time he staggered through the reception area, his pupils were pinpricks, as they should be for someone who'd shot up heroin. Looking for all world like a middle-class guy strung out of his mind and trying to keep his badass impression in place, Neal approached the desk. "I don't know what time I came in. Was it more than 2 hours?" he quavered.
"You better get him out of here before he passes out and his mama comes looking for him," one of the men said to the other in Russian.
"You're fine, everything is good, you feel good?" a Russian man said in English. Neal nodded slowly. "Then go outside and feel good somewhere else. Okay?"
Gradually straightening up until he'd gotten two blocks away, Neal removed one, then the other of the contacts as he walked. Then he put on another pair while he located a store that made passport photos.
"Can you take a picture of me?" he asked in Russian of an old man.
"You need a passport?" the man inquired.
"No, I need a picture for my sweetheart." Neal smiled.
"A picture for your sweetheart, huh?" the man repeated as if nothing surprised him. Neal quickly calculated the appropriate distance for him to stand for a driver's license and faced the camera. He made several small adjustments in the distance, but each of the photos caught him with a stern look on his face, as would befit an ex-military man, this one with decent Russian.
"Thank you sir," he said in English, paying the very reasonable fee.
"My best to your sweetheart, eh?" the man replied in Russian.
One of the most time-consuming elements of his plan had been creating a driver's license that he could easily slip up a picture in and out of. Neal had carried this one in his pocket on occasion to make it look aged. He trimmed the pictures with a pair of nail scissors and slid one of the photographs into place to find the one that looked the best. This one was a little bit too large, but he didn't expect anyone to look that closely.
With his weathered-looking driver's license and credit card in his pocket, Neal took a taxi to a rental car place. As predicted, nobody gave him a second look. His eyes were grey, adding to the somber aspect that he was cultivating with this identity, one that he did hope to keep for a little while. Aaron Richardson was a nice, normal-sounding name and the one on all his documents.
"Enjoy your drive to Chicago, sir," the man behind the counter said.
"I plan to," Neal said. And he did. He'd driven all too little in his life, both because he lived in New York, and because he was either in prison or a ward of the state. But he figured this was the most low-profile way to get somewhere so that he could regroup and then decide what to do next. Right now he didn't think he could take all the closeness with strangers that buses and trains implied. And airport security was out of the question for the next little while.
Neal did what no one would expect them to do—he drove. It wasn't a flashy car, in keeping with his humble appearance. But with the windows down, Neal was able to fancy that he could use the wind to beat anything out of his head that he didn't want to think about. And it worked miraculously well.
The veteran escape artist looked himself in the rearview mirror and nodded. The disguise didn't matter – this was who he was. Motion. All the time he spent at the FBI was like a dream. No matter how many times he told himself he was lucky, that he was learning new things and staying in one place and living above board, it wasn't him.
That must be why it was all so easy to leave behind. Once Neal made the decision at Prentiss Scott's, he felt completely at ease. He followed the escape plan as he had designed it not long after they let him out of prison.
While on the road he made contact with his associate in Chicago again. "Hi, this is Aaron," Neal said, using his new identity only on the second burner phone. "You been able to line up any work for me yet?"
"There's always work for an artist such as yourself," Yan said. "Besides, you're a man of true discretion, who understands—" and then he said something in Mandarin.
Neal didn't know very much Chinese, and most of that was Cantonese, but he had heard this expression several times from Chinese mobsters. It was the Chinese equivalent of "don't shit where you eat."
"Absolutely, I'm hoping to basically stay inside for a couple of months, You put the materials in front of me, and I'll make whatever documents you get commissions for."
"As you know, I don't do anything suddenly, to avoid attracting attention to my shop. So you'll have a few days to rest, before you have the supplies to begin work. I trust that will be welcome?"
"I feel fine," Neal said. "But if you don't have anything for me to do, I'll catch up on my reading."
"Very well, give me as much advance warning as you can before you near the meeting point."
Neal smiled to himself. Yan really didn't like surprises. Which is why he had been afraid he would have to go to name number two on his escape list—if his old acquaintance didn't appreciate being called on such short notice.
"I'm going to drive the speed limit," Neal assured him, "and I don't plan on killing myself trying to avoid stopping, so don't expect me anytime soon."
It was a very enjoyable ride. Neal didn't have to talk to anyone for the first time in forever. He got food to go when he stopped, and slept during the day at a rest stop. When he was getting close to Chicago he apprised his cautious friend of his imminent arrival. Dropping the car off at the rental place went without a hitch. Not that he believed that the FBI would have made the connections to this identity so quickly.
With so many hurdles already cleared, Neal decided to take a little walk to get reacquainted with Chicago because he had some extra time before meeting up with Yan in the restaurant. It had been years since he'd been there and only a couple months that he'd lived there per se.
Absorbed in all the changes since then, he looked at his watch. It was very close to the meeting time and Neal swore under his breath—he'd wandered a little bit too far away. Picking up his pace, he hurried towards the restaurant. Neal was feeling in his pocket to call Yan, who was sure to be annoyed that he would be a little late, when suddenly he looked around him.
Neal Caffrey didn't know where he was. He could be in an entirely strange city, for all he knew. Nothing felt the slightest bit familiar. Though he must've just come this way a few moments ago.
A conman is good at disguising his emotions. This one asked passersby for directions, but found himself nodding without being able to retain any of what people were saying.
Neal found a ledge to sit down on for a moment and catch his breath. Out of nowhere, everything that he had not been thinking about in New York came rushing in like an armed horde.
He thought of what Prentiss had helped him see in Peter, and he felt terribly guilty. Ashamed that he was letting his good friend down—both by running away from the deal that Peter had worked so hard to keep for him, but also running away from the feelings that Neal could never share.
"Not, you, too, Peter," he mumbled under his breath. "You're the exception. You're immune from the curse."
Neal felt sweaty and hot, and while his fuzzy brain tried to estimate how high his fever was, the nausea he had been clamping down on since thinking about Peter's feelings for him came rushing up his throat. He vomited.
"Hey man, are you okay?" someone asked him.
Neal walked away as quickly as he could and from the site of his humiliation. He took deep breaths. Fast food was always a gamble, was the obvious explanation. But he knew that it was not going to be that easy to ignore the memories. He just needed to make contact with Yan first. With a place to lie low, all ills can be healed, whether food poisoning or something deeper.
But when he reached into his pocket, it was empty. He seemed to have dropped his cell phone at some point, and it was his last one. Maybe it was on his lap when he stood up and ran away. Neal turned back to go find it, but by then the tears were about to overflow his eyelids because he didn't know where he was again.
Neal Caffrey did not cry in the face of adversity.
His survival instincts kicked in, and, unwilling to be found by police, an ambulance, or a good Samaritan, Neal found a dark corner. He lay down, tangling his arms and legs and in the duffel bag so it couldn't be easily taken from him, with a piece of cardboard over his body that he wished was a little larger to cover his face and body at the same time.
Some time later, he woke up with blurry vision and the worst physical sensations he'd ever felt in his life. At least he was indoors, although he didn't remember that happening.
"Where am I?" he asked in a gravelly voice.
"Neal Caffrey, you are one lucky man," the voice that sounded vaguely familiar said. "I don't need to go into the details of what I was doing in that dark alley, but at least I wasn't pretending to be a bum. It was such a good impression I almost didn't recognize you. Do you recognize me?"
Neal shut one eye and was able to sort of focus on a chubby man with curly red hair. "Um, don't tell me." His brain plucked the name out of nowhere. "Sean O'Rourke, since we're doing away with any aliases."
"You better thank your lucky stars that you got me out of that jam that time. You remember when I tried to pass that terrible fake off as legit art, me not knowing a Michelangelo from a hole in the wall?"
Neal was thanking his lucky stars—he was seeing them spinning around his field of vision. "You think I can have some water?"
"Better try some of that ice right there," the guy indicated. "You've been really sick. Like food poisoning botulism sick. I was afraid I was gonna have to actually call 911 on you and leave you to take your chances."
"That would be suicidal at this point," Neal whispered. "So if you don't mind, I'll rest up a little bit and then as soon as I can walk, I'll give you a big tip and be on my way."
"I won't mind you owing me one," the jovial face was saying, but the voice seemed somehow out of sync with the mouth. The mouth. Him saying something about Peter's mouth.
Neal just made the bucket beside the bed. He could never be mad at Peter for having feelings like this, but Neal knew that he was going to be in hell for some time because of this unlucky confluence of events. It was something he never thought about, and for the very reason that it did make him nauseous.
He put some ice in his mouth and it was heaven. His fever was so high he felt like he was floating. His eyes were too heavy to keep open, and Neal listened to the friendly chatter that was completely incomprehensible coming from the criminal he had known years ago. His savior.
Sean O'Rourke couldn't have known it then, but Neal wasn't just going back to sleep, as he had slept already for almost 24 hours. Since bringing the famed thief back to his apartment, Sean saw the man's color slowly begin to change, and his breathing began to slow, slightly, but perceptibly.
O'Rourke became frightened. If he had the nerves for it he would go big time, but he never had. He knew nothing of medicine, and he couldn't afford to be linked with the legendary criminal who was obviously on the run.
He called a couple of other underworld types for advice. "You've got to just stick it out, and when he gets better, he owes you," one thief said. "You can go big time; you can make him pay forever. We're talking forgeries for art, documents, bonds. You'll be all set—and especially with all of his contacts."
"But he was with the FBI. Everyone knows that. How do you know that he's not gonna get better and turn you in?" another lowlife suggested.
Sean, a good-natured fellow, had been genuinely glad to help out, especially someone who he remembered to be as entertaining as Neal Caffrey. But the man in the bed wasn't even the right color, and he wasn't telling jokes.
The criminal Samaritan began to regret getting in over his head. Finally, he was unable to rouse Neal, even after slapping him, putting his hands in ice cold water, laying hot and cold towels on him. There was someone he knew who claimed to know how to use an adrenalin shot, but who knew if that was what Neal needed?
Sean made a decision. He called in a favor, and a friend showed up with a car, into which they bundled Neal in the dead of night. They dropped him close enough to a hospital that he was sure to be found but not close enough to be picked up by any security cameras. They even drove to the nearest pay phone and called it in just to be sure. Sean mentally gave Neal the thieves' blessing, which was all he could do. Besides removing anything that might identify the sick man as Neal Caffrey, master forger, or any aliases that might lead to him, which is what Sean would have wanted Neal to do for himself.
And there Neal stayed at the hospital, a John Doe, an unknown man with an unknown illness. He was stranded in a no-man's-land between the acute care ward and the psych ward, alternately catatonic and raving, fighting against any of the treatments that were complete guesswork.
He was such a handful, no one tried very hard to figure out who he was.