Neal had asked for one month to put his rapidly calculated plans for a new identity into action, and he quickly realized he was through the looking glass.
Where normally he was trying to shed his skin in a con, this time he would be quietly holding on to some things he didn't want to lose. In this game, he would be using his own name, his face, and making headlines as himself—or as the new filthy-rich eligible bachelor he suddenly was.
He and Moz had talked it through in detail. While his new rich friends wouldn't consciously understand the significance, Neal created his own airbrush tattoos that were indistinguishable from the real thing and got his ears pierced several times. For a con man, altering his personal canvas in a recognizable way was bad business, as it made him more recognizable to the law. His criminal friends were to see the classic dragon curling up his left forearm, and the phoenix poking its head through the neck of his shirt as just such an abandonment of his old life-though everything was removable, of course.
As was the secret piercing that Neal couldn't wait for Peter to discover. That was his hidden anchor, and he focused all of himself he kept for Peter onto that one ring during the several sexual liaisons he thought necessary to complete the impression he was going on a spree. All women—he hoped that would mean a little something to his now-incommunicado lover.
Neal's hair also began to take on an edgier look, and his clothes became an odd mixture between his old classic style and a modern detail—a studded belt, or a leather vest. It was a careful effect that made him look like he was trying a bit too hard to be bohemian, which was the sin Neal had chosen for himself, where others who suddenly found themselves swimming in money would try too hard to look rich.
The airbrush was one of several pieces of art equipment that took up the space in his exclusive Setai condo with a view of the Empire State and the Chrysler Building. The latter building was another way to hold on to his real self and June's apartment-he actually wept when he left it. That he chose one of the few condos in a luxury hotel helped add to the catchphrase he had developed, ready for anyone who pointed out his tattoo wasn't real or he played hard to get with the ladies:
"I have a fear of commitment."
Anyone with eyes could see that wasn't true from his artwork, however. In this one realm, Neal could be his true self, and for the first time in his life he had the leisure for it. Each stroke was sure. He took his sketchpad or easel around the city and focused on it until the world fell away, all but the square of Bryant Park with the man in the formal suit playing chess with himself, or the model at one of the artists' studios he joined.
In such moments, Neal didn't belong to the FBI and he didn't have to be charming to other rich people who suddenly bored him because they were now his people. As a natural part of his artwork he took photos all over the city based on their code and posted a pictorial message to Peter daily, often with one of the pictures being a painting he was working on.
It really did take only a month or so after that before the novelty wore off and Neal was genuinely jaded with the artists' gallery crawls, the high-end hipsters and trust-fund experimental musicians who provided the eerie background music for the loft installations. The curious thing was, some of these people were very talented. And the newcomer Neal was instantly recognized as such as well. There was something about the air, however, that made it impossible for people to really talk, as if everyone feared being caught at some crime against style, and this concern made art almost impossible.
The new billionaire felt the sensation that he got when it was time to burn an identity and leave a city, a claustrophobic feeling that was completely irrelevant now that he was working on the right side of the law.
That must be it. Neal picked the occasional pocket to prove he still had it, but it provided no relief. He went to the roof of the building where he kept his separate studio and picked up his carrier pigeon, Charlene.
"Hey, baby, ready to run an errand for daddy?" he asked. Neal was considering getting a pet he occasionally felt so lonely, and the pigeon he'd been training tapped the same unusual sentimentality.
"Meet me in the Church of St. John the Divine, noon tomorrow," the message said.
Mozzie was there in clerical garb, and they sat in one of the pews to speak quietly.
"You're cracking up," the would-be pastor said after an appraising glance. "I like the tats, however. If I didn't know you I'd think they were real, that this—" his gesture took in the other changes—"hedge fund hipster was real. But it's not."
"I can't help wondering whether this is the last punishment from Prentiss Scott. Now I'm the one wearing the mask, and it's really easy to start thinking that there are two Neals, and which one am I being at the moment, always with a thin sliver of falsehood."
"My son, you haven't forgotten what side you're on yet. The information you gave me from the preliminary FBI studies of the gaming ring has had some fruitful results."
"Really?" Neal leaned forward. "You haven't sent anybody worms, have you?"
The small cleric made a sweeping gesture with his fingertips. "I would never do anything so gauche. And also, we don't know for sure who's involved, so let's say I'm having my operatives lean more towards the bizarre than the Mafia-esque. A woman had a bunch of helium balloons attached to her $2000 Coach bag while she was sitting in the park talking on her cell. She gave a good chase, I hear, and got it back after some hijinks."
"No apartment invasions?" Neal asked, chuckling. "It's too early to play our hand."
"No, no, but everyone on the list has had an odd encounter with a performance artist, say, or had a rainy day when not one Yellow cab in Manhattan would pick them up. One page I did take from Scott's playbook was that there's a certain someone who likes the lads, but no one is meant to know. He has a favorite spot at an exclusive restaurant where he lunches that has a good view the comings and goings of an even more exclusive escort service operating next door. The sight of others doing what they do scratches the itch for him, apparently."
"You convinced them to change the seating."
"It was in clear violation of an actual fire safety code to place a table there," Moz protested. "This gentleman couldn't throw a fit without showing his hand. I'm having a good time with this, especially since I can now grease some of the more reluctant palms thanks to your grease." His face became serious. "You haven't even met these people and you're already having a hard time. Neal, I'm your oldest friend, and I know you are nothing like Prentiss Lloyd Scott, or these moneyed dilettantes you're hanging out with. Take up jogging or something. You'll be fine."
Mozzie got up to go. "Wait. That's it? I'm supposed to go jogging?" Neal demanded.
"Preferably at dusk in the park in the Lower East Side on Tuesday," Mozzie hissed into his ear. He straightened up. "And tell Gaspar I've got a line on some of that revolting Muscat wine he likes so much. Not the Azerbaijani kind, I know."
Neal nodded and after a prudent ten minutes or so, left the church to visit his office. The big financial genius he'd imported from Luxembourg—all six foot seven solidly built inches of him—was hard at work in the large empty office space downtown.
"Are you compartmentalizing the above and below the table activities?" Neal asked, looking around the big man to see the several monitors he had going.
"Always. Luxembourg is not the Canary Islands of finance, you know. I'm perfectly aware of how to abide by the law to a certain extent."
"You wouldn't have stayed for so long in Luxembourg if it wasn't so comfortable for you," Neal reminded him. Gaspar was the son of an American diplomat who married a European adventuress and died soon after, thus giving Gaspar the American name of Edgecombe and a useful American citizenship he'd always kept on the back burner until now.
After not seeing his friend for so long, Neal had been amazed all over again at how the polyglot huckster adjusted his mixture of languages according to those present, but had a terrible time sticking to one per conversation. Their own mixture had always been French and Italian with some Russian thrown in, whereas Gaspar spoke to Mozzie in a mixture of German and English.
Neal listened to the update on his investments with half a mind, while he recalled the day Gaspar arrived in New York. He waved at the big man at the airport and Gaspar succumbed to the fits of emotion, and the huge silk handkerchief to mop them up, that were his trademarks.
"Oh, Neal, Mother always said she would see New York once again before she died," Gaspar sniffled, kissing Neal on both cheeks.
"What a tragedy—a lady such as she they don't make anymore," Neal mollified his guest about his mother's death six months earlier as he directed them through the airport baggage claim and to a taxi stand.
"And Mother said you were a gentleman of the old school-she knew the first moment that she set her eyes on you in Monaco."
"I remember you cut a very dashing figure in your croupier's uniform," Neal said. "You always could pull off a bow tie."
After a transatlantic flight Gaspar looked as elegant as could be, not a hair on his wavy salt-and-pepper head out of place. "What first struck me about your mother was the sapphire necklace—'borrowed' from her friend, that Spanish countess, for the night, I knew. But what really let me know I was in the presence of greatness was the way she expertly manipulated that Duke into betting the right numbers. The signs were so subtle between the two of you, Gaspar, that only someone like me would pick them up. Then I had to watch two fellow artists at work."
They loaded the luggage into the trunk of the taxi and continued their multilingual conversation. The driver, a Pakistani, was unlikely to understand their words.
"Ah yes, Mother and I were so good together we almost never were found out." Gaspar sighed. "But if you hadn't come along that night, it would have been such a scene that we would have had to cut out our yearly trips to that casino."
Neal laughed. "The look in that woman's eyes as she stared at your mother could only mean wifely troubles." He had seen the furious society lady appear and decided to help out his fellow grifters by creating a distraction.
"But Mother said that the way you knocked her feet out from underneath her, catching her as if she fainted and saying 'Madame, êtes-vous bien?' as you carried her outside for some fresh air and a getaway-it was the most graceful and efficient fainting spell she'd ever had, and Mother was an expert at having the opportune fit."
"Such a lady, your mother was." Neal reached over and squeezed the man's shoulder. "The Thieving Baroness, I heard her referred to in a Paris constabulary once, and they said it as a badge of honor."
"Some of those titles were real, you know." Gaspar took out his large silk handkerchief once again.
"Maybe this change of scenery will do you good."
"Your instructions for this unique job have been most engaging, I must say," Gaspar said, brightening, and then peered at Neal. "Where is the lady in all of this? Because there always is one, with you."
Neal returned his gaze. "As I told you, you will be providing a backstory for me, but with a few alterations. One being, that woman you met that one time in Cyprus when I was helping you and your mother move those jewels-"
"Ah, the Scottish woman with the red hair, a beauty."
"Tone down the passion on that story from a rapid boil to a mere simmer. The same for any woman you've known me to be with. I have a fear of commitment. I can't connect. Always searching, never finding. That sort of thing."
"All right. Easily done. Non ti preoccupare. Other than that, I maintain your fortune in a diverse portfolio of legal and marginally legal pursuits. I obtain your wine, facilitate any art dealings, make travel arrangements and—did I forget something?"
"The other matter I mentioned will need complete dossiers on the potential candidates assembled as quickly as you can, for us to go over together," Neal said, staring out the window. "The revenge business was never one that I wanted to get into, but I want to make sure they're people who really deserve the comeuppance."
"Do not worry, my dear Neal," Gaspar said with his eternally sweet nature. "Luxembourg is the window to the world. I can think of many such people without even trying. You consider this part of your business as resting on my shoulders."
Neal fell into his old friend's arms and they laughed and sobbed together. It felt good to be himself around someone, to have the perpetual dandy with his Gallic mannerisms let loose his emotions as well.
"There is one more thing I need you to do," Neal said as they were having his bags unloaded by the hotel doorman. For the short term, he'd rented a room for Gaspar in the same hotel where Neal's condo was located.
"Yes?" Gaspar asked attentively.
Neal took his friend to an ostentatious restaurant favored by Eastern Europeans looking to spend ill-gotten gains. They ate well, drank far better, and watched a burlesque show featuring the large ladies favored by the bear-like man in a beautiful suit.
It made him happy to have made Gaspar happy in a new town. They drank far too much, Gaspar egging him on to join in on duets in assorted languages, and by the time Gaspar was taking some of the tasseled and g-stringed ladies for a spin on the dance floor, the Bulgarians and the Russians in their flashy suits were clapping along.
By the end of the long night, the two men were so full of vodka it was streaming out of their eyes in tears of laughter, tears of something else they felt no need to specify. With his old comrade-in-arms, Neal decided that night, he would get through this undercover operation just fine.
"Would you like to go through the dossiers now?" Gaspar was asking him in that office that was mostly for show.
"Maybe later. The big thing I need you to finish up is using your connections to map your way to the gaming group." He picked up the burner phone that had come in his Chinese takeout last night. He hit the speed-dial and then entered a code before handing the phone to Gaspar so he could listen to the recording getting him up to speed with the FBI's latest intel on the gaming group. His friend took notes and hit the number that would repeat the message before looking up.
Neal loved working with another pro.
"This will be no problem at all. I recognize two of the names, and I have excellent contacts in both British and German finance. You tell me how fast you want your path to cross with one of them, and I will do the rest."
"Am I paying you extremely well, Gaspar?" Neal smiled fondly.
"As far as the IRS is concerned?" his friend asked.
The one snag was that Mozzie had some odd phobia of Gaspar, who he had worked with in the past and respected, but also feared as his doppelganger. "He's me if I had height, hair and a family history."
"I see the resemblance in that you both have hearts of gold and light fingers, but other than that—" Neal laughed. "He's my aboveground messenger and you're my belowground one-you'll have to find a way to get along."
And they must have, because when Neal left the building in his running clothes to walk over to the East Side park and jog down to the Lower East Side, Gaspar was there, distracting the doorman with his best incomprehensible foreigner routine. Always good for at least five minutes with these hotel staff trained to please, Neal was able to leave with no one taking much note.
After several weeks of taking out his frustrations on the folding elliptical in his apartment, Neal was glad to be running. He tried to enjoy the movements, the sensation of knowing Peter was somewhere nearby…
A delivery van was parked in one of the empty parking lots near the extreme lower end of the park.
"Get in and be quick about it," he heard Mozzie's voice.
"This better not be—"
"It isn't, now get in already."
A sweaty Neal full of misgivings jumped in the back of the van.
"I know, I wasn't thrilled about the setting myself, but he assured me we're actually going somewhere," Peter said.
"You're a sight for sore eyes," Neal said, embracing his lover in the jouncing back of the van half-filled with sheets and towels.
"And you—" Peter moved back so he could take in the changes. "My uncle was a sailor and he had tattoos much like this."
"I worked very hard for that effect, so thank you."
He traced the forearm tattoo and then peeked in Neal's shirt to see the bird. "Is it wrong that I like this?" he asked, touching the earrings. "I'm not used to seeing you look rough around the edges." He touched the more artsy-looking hair.
"It's okay to like it," Neal smiled. "A while back I had a disguise sort of like this, and realized I could pull off hipster if I had to."
"They said you had made some changes but I didn't expect to have a reaction to it," Peter said, placing Neal's hand illustratively. "I have some things to tell you," he breathed in his ear.
"Yeah, Peter, about that. I don't want our rare meetings to be about the case," Neal wriggled out of his grasp. "You've been undercover before. You can't wait to shed that skin and be yourself."
"Of course," Peter answered, soothing Neal's tense muscles with a big hand. "There've been some paintings I don't recognize in your photo stream. Tell me how that's going."
While they both knew the FBI man was no artist, they knew each other well enough by now to have established a sort of emotional vocabulary. First one, then the other, shared frustrations and anecdotes and the little daily things that make up so much of life. Peter was telling about the much-improved Terence's attempt to reason with one of his psychiatrists when they were both startled by Mozzie opening the van door.
"Don't bitch at me about this. It was the only thing I could do on short notice."
Jacques, the prizefighter who had driven around Peter in his mobile mental hospital that time, appeared and started emptying the linens from one of the wheeled carts in the back.
"No," Peter and Neal said together.
One by one they were wheeled into the interior of the hotel and into the room Mozzie had reserved for them. Peter, especially, had to tie himself in a knot to fit.
"It was worth it to sit on a bed next to you," Peter declared, pulling Neal down beside him. "Let me just say this and I won't mention anything else.
"Hughes knows. Yes. He knows. Since he's watching me like a hawk for any toe out of line, I moved back in with Elizabeth—to the guest room. They already sidelined me once, and I think the bureau is doing it again with your operation. That's why any I don't want to know what they've been telling you, because Hughes has me convinced he can read my mind."
Peter gave a miserable summary of part of his conversation with his boss.
"Shit. That's worse than I thought," Neal declared. "But Hughes is no Scott. He'd just as soon not be bothered with other people's issues. He'll leave you alone."
Peter nodded, not wanting to bring up his pesky instincts and what they had to say about the matter. "Let me see," he directed, beginning to unfasten his companion's clothes.
Neal grinned when the other man was stopped short by the new metallic addition to his body.
"Why do I like that so much?" Peter demanded. "I've never thought twice about that sort of thing." He inspected the ring thoroughly, obviously excited.
"This is you. This is us. Consider it a shorthand code," Neal explained, not wishing to go into the reason why he needed to have a reminder of Peter to counteract the occasional liaison for show.
He was satisfied to note that Peter's eagerness was such that it was unlikely he was sleeping with Elizabeth.
Neal was very satisfied by the time they fell asleep. He dreamed that he and Peter were laughing, jumping from iceberg to iceberg in a surprisingly balmy Antarctic sea. When he woke up very early in the morning, Peter was looking at him.
"I have to go," he whispered.
"All this secrecy is a little excessive at this point," Neal said, following him into the shower. "I'm hoping to make contact in the next week or so, but still—"
"They took out one of their own this week. Diana told me," Peter put in while soaping Neal's back. "Maybe this group has gotten all blown up out of proportion in my mind because I have nothing to do but worry about you, but—"
"Don't worry about me. The easy life doesn't agree with me so well, apparently, but other than that, I'm fine. You haven't met Gaspar."
"They described him at the office as a taller, more lethal-looking Stephen Fry," Peter recalled. "Yes, the English actor, I had to look him up."
"I was going to say that you must be boning up on gay culture or something," Neal observed as they stepped out of the shower.
"Is he gay? How would I know?" Peter asked.
Neal indicated their bodies growing towards each other once again. "What do you call this?"
"Something the paparazzi would enjoy knowing, since you made Page 6 last week with an heiress on your arm," Peter said while regretfully getting dressed.
"Do I have to worry about you showing up at one of my pretentious gatherings, wearing a housecoat and calling the girl du jour a cheap floozie?"
"No. This holding pattern we're in right now may be uncomfortable but it's better than the alternative, which is our private lives not being private." Peter slipped on his jacket.
"When we go public, I want it to be on our terms, and I want it to be spectacular," Neal mused. "I'm thinking, I slap you in the middle of a restaurant for having a wandering eye, something like that."
"See you at Diana's wedding," Peter said at the door.
"I'll have to be in character, unfortunately, and half the FBI will be there, but maybe we can sneak away," Neal agreed. "Seeing you in a tux is always a treat."
Neal didn't have to go to work, so he let Peter sneak out the service entrance on his own. Only after he had sat with his pocket sketchpad for a few minutes did he put together the missing piece of his dream.
He and Peter had had to keep jumping from iceberg to iceberg because they couldn't find one that would sustain both of their weights.
"I think I'm losing it for sure this time," Peter complained to Terence, who he was taking out on a pass from the hospital as part of the preparation for his discharge. "You remember how you said if someone gets delusional it's really hard to fix?"
"Naw," his therapist said, digging into the real meal at the diner he'd chosen for his furlough dinner. "This guy Hughes, I've met him. He's a father figure to you, and you're all freaked out about him knowing you're dating a dude. When meanwhile, Hughes couldn't give two shits about you. He's thinking about retirement in his E-Z Boy recliner when he's looking off into space, not about you and Neal getting it on."
"Are you considering Hughes' offer to be brought in as a profiler on kidnappings, things like that?"
"It's the fluorescent lights, Peter. I don't do well inside. Thanks, though. Now my resume will be a real headscratcher the next time I apply for a groundskeeping job and list the FBI as my previous employer."
They laughed. "I guess it's selfish of me to want to have you at the office with me, Terence," Peter admitted. "You make everything seem so manageable, and right now, all I hear all day long is about this mysterious secret society that nobody will give me direct information about. It's paranoia-inducing."
Terence dug into a baked potato. "You know me, man, I have so many thoughts floating around in my head that I have to focus on the concrete. And you don't have much of anything concrete on this supposed secret society, so worry about something you can fix."
"Like what?" Peter asked warily.
"What do you picture yourself doing in five years? Uh uh," Terence held up his fork, "Not who do you picture yourself doing, but what?"
Peter's mouth opened and closed several times but he didn't speak. "I thought so. Your life had a track up until you got together with Neal, and now that pat answer doesn't roll off your tongue."
They finished dinner and Peter dropped his friend off at the hospital. If nothing else, Terence had told him about a using a trick that amateur criminals employ to beat polygraph tests—the tack in the shoe. "This is straight conditioning—one psychologist I saw recommended snapping yourself with a rubber band when you think bad thoughts, but the tack is more subtle."
Someone like Neal wouldn't need such a trick, of course, but his therapist counseled him that the distraction would be a good way to stop focusing on the terror that Hughes inspired in him now.
At least now Peter could sit through a meeting without looking everywhere but his supervisor's face. He went in to work that morning, confident that he wasn't exuding that "love vibe" his boss found so objectionable.
Just blending in was the FBI man's new measure of success, and he succeeded for the next couple days.
"All right, gang, ready to quit futzing around and get to the good part?" Hughes asked without preamble that Friday morning.
Littleton, the cryptographer, spoke up. "Whatever feelers Caffrey's assistant put out, they got to the right people almost immediately. We saw a flurry of communications activity go out to an even wider network than we've been following. They're excited to meet the man that Prentiss Scott told them so much about. Bets are flying around as to whether he's looking for someone to blame or looking for a piece of the action."
"Caffrey can handle himself with one hand tied behind his back," Hughes declared. "As we've discovered with the abrupt ruin of one player's business recently, the cardinal sin with this group is them turning on each other, so tread lightly with the IT mumbo jumbo, will you? From here on out, anything we do could be associated with Caffrey because of the timing."
"Hey, speaking of timing," Hughes said at the end of the meeting which was a relief to everyone, even Peter, most FBI agents sharing an allergy to the sit-and-wait phase of an investigation. "It's what, two weeks until you're off the market? Everything in place for you and Suzette?"
Only Jones, Peter and Hughes, who knew Diana best, were left in the room as she shared her last-minute plans and jitters. "Suzette has forbidden me to bother the caterers with one more worry, so instead I'm dreaming about running out of plates and people eating off saucers."
"I thought Peter's wife had her company on the job," Hughes remarked.
"No, Elizabeth and Diana talked about it and it would be too odd for Elizabeth to be a guest and the caterer," Peter explained. "Elizabeth will be giving most of my best man speech, I'll have you know, or else it's bound to be all of twenty seconds long."
"I'll be looking forward to it," Hughes said and walked out.
All of Diana's worry was very obviously focused on the dry old man walking down the hallway. "I hadn't really accounted for Hughes standing around and 'looking' at everything."
"Don't worry, Di, he won't stay long. Once you break out the booze for real, he's out the door," Jones said, slinging his arm around her. Her wedding had brought out a rare vulnerable side in the formidable female agent, and both Jones and Peter had been carrying some of her weight while her mind was elsewhere.
Peter hung back and kept Diana with him for a moment. "Don't worry about Hughes, I can 100% guarantee he won't be asking his droll little questions of your guests. Put it out of your mind."
No, what Hughes was really interested in about the wedding, Peter realized, was watching how Peter juggled the presence of his wife and his lover.