The Commission

Chapter 13

Two agents, one DEA, one CDC, met him at the airport to drive him to the hospital. They each filled him in on their angles of the case, Peter listening quietly and giving succinct answers when required.

When the DEA woman had come up for breath, Peter leaned up to the front seat where they were both sitting.

"Thank you for the update. You both seem like team players—no agency pissing matches. I appreciate that. You'll find I'm the same way. But I'd like to make my position, and that of the bureau, clear.

"Caffrey is to be considered innocent until proven guilty. He has no drug priors—probably no one within three degrees of separation of him has ever been caught with a joint."

Agent Lopez from the DEA nodded from behind the wheel. "We did due diligence but this is a weird one. Designer indigenous drugs get sent to a different desk than the ones that focus more on the minor drug dealer."

"Great. Glad we're all on the same page on that. This other statement is for you, too, Dr. Chen," the FBI man said to the sturdily-built CDC agent who looked just as much a cop as the other two. "This is my CI we're talking about. And not just any CI. I've devoted years of my life to Neal Caffrey, and if he were conscious, you'd quickly see why many of us in the bureau are very fond of him. If you could call him by his name, I'd appreciate it. We're not looking at a criminal, a throwaway person. Neal is one of a kind."

Chen nodded. "Medical confidentiality has me trained otherwise, but no problem. Congrats on not being infected yourself, by the way. Agent Lopez has talked of nothing else but getting the details of your trip, and I don't mean your flight." He grinned at the driver. "Rumor has it Lopez was 'accidentally' exposed to a psychedelic once herself. She just wants to compare notes."

Lopez spluttered a little bit and Peter relaxed a little to see that the medical man had a sense of humor.

Chen's best guesswork was that the Leptospirosis bacterium was transmitted by one of the intoxicants administered to Neal, but that the person who did so either received a very recent shipment of a fresh preparation or plant, or they grew it themselves, since the water or soil needs to be warm to grow the infectious agent. It was more likely the former, because if there was an active colony of the bacterium growing in a hothouse, say, it would take extremely careful, consistent precautions to prevent the gardener from contracting it himself, and/or it spreading through the moisture of a ventilation system."

"You say a puncture or scrape would have been the most likely method. Have you found anything like that on his skin?" Peter asked.

"He's had a rash at points, and has scratched himself when he could get loose, so that's impossible to detect on the—on Caffrey's skin at this point," Lopez put in.

"'Get loose?'" Peter asked as they drove into the hospital grounds.

"This illness looks very much like dengue fever, which was our initial diagnosis," Chen said quietly. "You should prepare yourself, Agent Burke. Your CI looks pretty bad, and he's suffering from a sort of DTs as he detoxes from the drugs. He's restrained when necessary."

With a stoic expression, Peter produced his credentials at the desk and then followed the officers to the isolation unit where Neal was housed. The others stood back politely so he could look through the window.

Unless the CDC ran Neal's fingerprints, there was no way to tell this was the man he loved except for the panging he caused in Peter's heart.

Neal's hair was cut in a severe military hairstyle and the top layer was a light brown. His skin was a doleful yellow color, and he had lost a lot of weight in such a short period of time.

Peter turned to Chen. "I'd like to go in." The doctor obtained protective garb for him and helped him suit up.

Neal was muttering quietly to himself with closed eyes, which Peter had been told were bandaged to protect them from the light while he had conjunctivitis. He didn't react to Peter's gloved hand on his own. "Neal, it's me, Peter." The FBI man stayed inside almost twenty minutes, recalling random bits of Neal's history and their history together, trying to give the febrile brain something to focus on.

The whole time he had hold of the twitching hand. That's all that Peter needed for a little peace, at this point.

"He hasn't developed meningitis, as some would who reach the acute phase," Chen said as he removed the protective gear. "Did he know you at all?"

"I like to think there's someone in there who did, but we'll see," Peter discarded the smock in a biohazard bin. "The real question is, was Neal infected deliberately?"

Lopez stared at him. "This is one of those freak occurrences that we see sometimes when organic matter is snuck across borders. Why would anyone do such a thing?"

"I've got a trusted profiler on just that question," Peter replied. "How long before we know whether anyone else was exposed?"

"Incubation is three weeks, and we're looking at the path traced by the GPS in Caffrey's rental car. So far, no one."

Peter hid a smile. "If I tell you about a criminal who is known to have handled Neal's body, can you promise to put on your scariest CDC demeanor while you test him? Frightening medical photos, the works?"

"The CDC has a reputation for being creepy?" the doctor asked innocently, and Lopez snorted.

Until he could make Scott pay, Peter would content himself with giving Sean O'Rourke the scare of his life.

The two and a half weeks he spent in Chicago were like a dream.

Most of the time, he was working with Agent Lopez and her people, trying to untangle the supply network that would have gotten the mixture of indigenous intoxicants from South America and the occasional chemical potentiating ingredients through legal or illegal channels.

"It's very difficult to get a sense of who to look for, because we don't know how much of the cocktail in Caffrey's system was by design and how much was a random mixture," the DEA woman said. "We know of sort of 'urban shaman' networks that trade in peyote and the like to raise their consciousness, but this doesn't exactly match any of the chemical fingerprints we've encountered."

The CDC was having no luck with finding other victims of the illness. O'Rourke had tested negative after a harrowing encounter with Chen, who casually mentioned that Agent Peter Burke was in town.

"I thought I was going to have to get him a bedpan when I mentioned your name," the CDC agent chuckled. "You must do one hell of a bad cop."

"The small fry always scare easy. Seeing how bad Neal looks I felt like this punk had something coming to him for dumping him on the street like that."

The rest of the time, mostly nights, Peter spent by Neal's side. He poured out everything in his heart, including his resolve to never speak of his feelings with Neal if only he would get better.

Finally, one evening Neal was being removed from the dialysis machine when he said, "Bay rum."

"What? What did he say?" Peter demanded of the nurse.

"I can just smell your aftershave over the hospital smell," Neal said, still with a thin bandage on his eyes. "How long have you been here, Peter?"

"Ever since we found out where you were. Over two weeks." The nurse settled her patient in the bed and left. Peter grasped the thin arm through the latex glove. "At this point I don't think any agency is considering you a suspect, Neal, so please relax on that count. There is no prison in your future as long as you don't commit a crime from that bed."

"I've seen a guard at the door when they changed my bandages," Neal said sourly.

"You're my star material witness—you get the star treatment," the FBI man said. "Now that you're awake, you're going to be grilled by the DEA and CDC, Good people, thankfully. You tell them what you can, and when you're tired, tell them to go to hell. I'm here part of the nights, which don't tend to be too restful for you, so we can talk then. You give an official statement of what you observed in that mansion, and tell me when we're off the record."

Neal nodded and then slipped back into the nightmare that had been flashing against the backdrop of his temporary blindness.

Peter's voice was a welcome memory of home, of Neal Caffrey, internationally renowned forger and gallant of the old school.

But he couldn't trust it now.

Men always want something. The ones who wanted him did, at any rate

When Neal left home at 17 he had $700 saved up towards a car, and thus felt like he had more than enough to get started in New York.

Witness Protection kids tended to be sheltered, and he was no exception. He'd never traveled by Greyhound before, and thus didn't know that if you were traveling alone and wanted to sleep, you did so wound around anything valuable so nobody could steal it.

He was at a rest stop in Missouri when he realized his money and the ticket for the rest of his journey were both gone.

The bus driver was unexpectedly nice, and organized a cursory search, but it became clear that the money was gone for good.

"I can take you as far as I'm driving, but you'll have to convince the next driver to take you on," the bus driver, whose name was Ike, said. "Not everyone is a humanitarian like me."

Neal tried to relax until the next leg of the journey, hoping Ike would help him talk to the next bus operator, the way he bought his passenger a sandwich and drink and was generally keeping an eye on him from the front seat.

The next meal break, Ike motioned for Neal to follow him. The few steps it took to enter the men's restroom and join the driver in a stall were all it took to change a 17-year-old's view of human nature forever.

Neal did it four more times, as many stops as Ike could engineer before he was to be relieved by another operator. His teenage self had long forgotten why he was traveling—his trip had converted into an escape, the first of so many, and Neal simply knew he must keep moving to find something better than that moment.

"Sure you don't want to go my way? I'll make it worth your while," Ike groaned from the restroom at the station where he was getting a ride home.

"No thanks," Neal said after washing his mouth with hand soap. He held onto the $20 in his pocket-not enough to get a ticket anywhere.

After Ike was safely away, Neal took his bag and went out into city because the idea of doing it again in a Greyhound stall made him want to retch.

With his pack and flannel shirt, he hitched a ride. When the man reached his hand over the stick shift, Neal was glad it spared him having to make the first move. This one was kind of nice but he didn't like being cooped up in the car after he'd done what they'd done in a truck stop parking lot.

For his troubles he got a sandwich and a piece of pie, as well as a generous $50.

The 17-year-old began to calculate the worth of incalculable things like self-respect.

The man was going all the way to New Jersey, but Neal switched off, preferring to avoid any intimacy. He forgot now how many men he rode with. Every man but one exacted a certain price, except for the fundamentalist Christian who tried to convert him as they crossed West Virginia.

Something had changed in him, though. The pious promises sounded far away.

Neal stole the evangelist's credit card while he was in the gas station restroom. His first steal.

Maybe his younger self was angry at that one for being nice to him, in an invasive way.

Maybe he was already tired of invasive men.

Too young to rent a car with the card, Neal used his other means to get to New York. one of the men's groans still fresh in his ears.

"You don't know what you have, boy. You could be a high-class rent boy in New York. Remember me, give me one for free next time I'm there."

When, by chance, Neal saw the caterers arriving at the Metropolitan Museum for the big gala, he was there because he wanted to see rich men in their habitat. To learn what they were like, so that he could take them for something more than a sandwich and a couple sweaty bills.

Luckily, there was still something left in him of the old Neal, the student who did a brisk business reproducing pictures of kids' favorite musicians on their notebooks or t-shirts in Sharpie marker.

To get in as a waiter, Neal had to not only please his initial target, but receive the approval of the group. Something in him must have aroused their collective pity, because he donned the catering outfit and passed out hors d'oeuvres as if he belonged there.

Instead of focusing on the men who gave him appraising glances, however, Neal saw the art.

He saw the Rembrandt. Prentiss Lloyd Scott's Rembrandt, as it turned out, lent for the occasion.

It was a small self-portrait out of many the artist produced. He was older, not attractive, bulbous-nosed and with a self-deprecating smile.

But he was alive, this artist Neal had scarcely heard of was alive in that sliver of wall in New York. He wanted it for himself.

And imagined that many other people felt the same way.

At that moment Neal began to change his chosen career path from hustler to forger.

His contempt for all who wanted to control him, commodify him, was identical in either case.

Neal was going to steal their antique settees from under their backsides.

To this day, the smell of industrial hand soap reminded him of tastes that couldn't be washed away.

Neal's feverish mind relived his process of becoming, over and over, always becoming more anguished when he got to the Peter chapter. How many times had he been relaxed, trusting Peter, sitting next to him in the van or on a rooftop, and Peter was covertly looking at him like that.

Like something to have.

Maybe that's why he was suddenly so successful with women upon coming to New York, he thought for the first time while confined to bed. He sympathized with them, wanted to make them feel special in a way the men in their lives seldom did.

Because most men were brutes when it came to sex.

Poor Elizabeth.

All these months, Neal couldn't help but notice that Peter had been running some kind of game. He thought it was a suspicion that he was planning an elaborate heist on Prentiss. Peter was his handler; he didn't know art. He couldn't understand an artist's needs.

Over the next weeks, Peter was in and out of Chicago, making very little headway on getting probable cause to search Scott's house, but content that Neal was getting better slowly.

With the bandages off his eyes and the quarantine precautions lifted, Peter told Neal, bit by bit, what they'd been able to piece together about his illness and drug intoxication. The FBI man was sad to see how zealously Neal defended the billionaire while often treating Peter himself at a distance.

Finally one evening, he pushed aside the ice cream he'd been toying with. "Peter, I hate skirting around this. I knew what you felt when I left, and I heard some of what you told me when I was completely out of it." He regarded his frequent visitor coldly. "How can you act like Elizabeth doesn't count?"

"She knows," Peter said, the relief flooding his body as it did on the day she cornered him in the kitchen before he left for Chicago. "She's very supportive. You've gotten the worst of it, obviously, Neal, but Prentiss Scott got inside my head, too. Neither Elizabeth nor I wants to throw away a good marriage on a pipe dream. She's giving me time to sort myself out, and we talk every night about you. You know that Elizabeth cares about you very much."

For perhaps the first time, Peter saw Neal with nothing to say. It was as though there were two boxes into which the ex-criminal placed men—solid protectors like Mozzie, or men only concerned with their own sexual conquests—and Peter was watching Neal juggle something that didn't fit in either box. The younger man stared at the wall in front of him for a long time. Then he began to speak.

"Mozzie knows," the ex-conman finished after telling of his brief career as a hustler. "He's the only one."

Peter had gradually withdrawn to a far corner of the room, afraid to get in Neal's space after that horrifying story. "I can see why you would have been upset to find out about—me. I knew you weren't homophobic, so it was difficult to understand you throwing everything away to get away from me simply because you're strictly heterosexual."

Neal laughed. He laughed for so long that Peter feared he was getting delirious again. "Should I call a nurse?" he began.

"Now where did you get that idea?" Neal said finally.

He regarded the shocked look on his friend's face. "Do you need a nurse?"

"I'm confused," Peter said.

"Do you know statistically how many guys experiment with each other during their teens?" Neal asked. Peter looked shocked. "A lot."

"You experimented a lot?" the FBI man faltered.

"No! I only dated one guy!"

"Was it serious?" Peter asked.

"As serious as you can get when you're all of sixteen. We hung out for five, almost six months, which at the time felt like an eternity. We were inseparable, and I thought I'd found that stable thing I was looking for. We were—very compatible-in every way, I thought," he said, reminiscing. "But you know how it is at that age- there's these scenes that are like islands. No bridge in between. He started to get really into death metal, and I didn't know who Bach was at the time, but that kind of noise is just not my thing.

"We drifted apart. He grew his hair out and started being a backup screamer in his new boyfriend's band. I dated a couple girls, no one serious, and then I left.

"No trauma. No weirdness. I honestly didn't think twice about it. No more than, 'Oh, there's this other possibility out there. I'll keep that in mind.' You know how I am-I accommodate quickly. It was the same when I realized you don't, strictly speaking, need to pay for things."

Peter's emotions were all mixed up. On the one hand he was disappointed that Neal didn't make being with another guy sound very interesting. On the other, there was a clear precedent of him being with a guy of his own free will.

"How did you get together with this guy?"

"As I recall, he passed me some zine he made in class one day. It was well done, funny. He was in a cartooning phase, and we drew together." He coughed weakly. "It's hard to see what someone who passed me cartoons in the back of English class has to do with me now." He paused. "I don't even recognize myself in the mirror."

"I recognize you," Peter said quietly.

The other man lay back, showing signs of exhaustion after the long, serious conversation. "Can you give me that water?" he asked.

Peter helped him drink and thought for a moment. He was known for his bravery. "Will you go out on a date with me, Neal?"

"What?" Neal asked in a low, irritable voice. "I can't even pick up that water cup."

"Consider it a wager that you're going to be on your feet soon. The doctors have told me that you've walked around a little every day this week, and you aren't contagious." He sought out the blue eyes that were his anchors in the haggard face. "So I'm asking, will you go out on a date with me?"

He allowed his motivations to be weighed by those penetrating irises. "You're not my CI right now. You're THE material witness for the FBI in a major case. Right now, you're our only link to the bastard who, directly or indirectly, put you in this bed. You've got the power now, Neal. Tell me to buzz off, I never bring it up again."

The silence seemed to stretch forever.

"Otherwise you're stuck with the hospital snack bar until discharge," he risked. "And I'm afraid I'm the only agent watching over you that you want catching you if you faint somewhere." He added anxiously, "Aren't I?"

Neal made a show of thinking and then nodded.

"That's a nod meaning you don't want Jones or Diana catching you, or a nod meaning—"

"Yes, Peter, I'll go on a date," Neal said in a querulous tone and fell asleep.

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