"You did what?" Terence was working at his new community garden plot, to be designated as an FBI wellness project. "The last time you drew a line in the sand, someone you care about almost died."
"You said yourself that I should go to some public place where I could close the public gap between me and Neal," Peter reminded his friend while he helped sift carefully through the soil for trash, needles and other detritus.
Terence put down his shovel. "I meant you should slowly begin coming out, cross paths with Neal, maybe sit in on a class to take the wind out of the blackmailer's sails. Not get naked in public, with a dozen drawings to prove it!"
Peter wasn't sure why his friend was so annoyed. "Gaspar has a sense of humor, and—"
"No, man, you don't get to put this off on someone else like you like to do. You made an impulsive decision, and now somebody can take an ad out in the New York Times with the proof of you having been willingly naked in front of Neal. You ready for that?"
The FBI man sighed. "The only reason I agreed to do it was because it's a beginner class. Housewives and retirees. If you looked at the portraits they drew of me, you would have no idea who they were trying to draw, so it wouldn't be useful for a lineup. And Neal goes to that class specifically because he only uses his left hand to develop—I don't fully understand it. Some new style."
"Caffrey can create bonds that people accept as currency. He could draw you with his feet and it would still look like you."
"He doesn't sign his personal work, so it would take an expert in his evolving left-handed style to know Neal drew it. Otherwise he wouldn't have dropped it off at any old framing shop."
Peter squatted down next to Terence. "The last time I baited Scott, maybe it wasn't the greatest idea, or maybe it was. But we've established that the butler is the one with the willingness to send Neal to the hospital and begin to undermine my professional reputation, so the two events were unrelated. Sometimes you have to go from defense to offense."
The gardener grunted. "In my experience, slow and steady is better than fast and stupid."
"You know I respect all of your wisdom about living life, Terence. I'm the one who didn't know I was in love with my CI for two years, couldn't decide what to do about that or my marriage. Basically, I'm like your average man—totally clueless and indecisive except in one area: my job. You and Mozzie seem to think I'm this very careful bean-counter and that's why I'm a good agent. But this work needs moments of inspiration and daring when you get to my level.
"If more of my cases come up for review, the chances of some minor error coming to light are very good. If my work or my judgment start to be questioned, it's not outside the realm of possibility that every case I closed can be reopened. Not only my work, but dozens of others' efforts undone. If I have to go down, it won't be by death of a thousand cuts. They need to get to the point, whoever they are."
Terence gave him a doubtful look. "Don't come crying to me when you don't like the point. Or only during office hours."
"Team Caffrey has made its first major win," Jones said, opening the meeting that Wednesday morning with a smile. "Though it's above my pay grade to know exactly where that three-quarters of a mil he bagged is going," he glanced at Hughes, "one money launderer has been effectively shut out of the business. Which, as we know, in the world of drug money is a drop in the bucket."
"But the amount of chatter Neal has generated in the network has been huge," Littleton interrupted.
Agent Brower agreed. "We have ten more names to add to our chart," she nodded at the growing web of high-profile names on the white board at the front of the room.
"Our profiler's hunch from awhile back is looking like it was right on target," Peter said with some pride on behalf of his friend. "Scott was an outlier—a real loon. If anything, the names we've looked into so far are known for their somewhat rigid ideas of moral rectitude. Or, in the case of members like Marina DiGioia, a significant personal tragedy for which she had no legal recourse."
"A handsome young man befriended DiGioia's eighteen-year-old daughter, introducing her to hard drugs, which he procured at a significant markup. Scumbag pockets the profits, takes her for as much money and jewels as he can get his hands on, said daughter winds up an addict and ODs," Hughes repeated what it took them a little time to hone in on as the top executive's motivation. "Rightly or wrongly, the mother saw her daughter's addiction and death as being part of a deliberate crime pattern where the police only saw a spoiled rich girl who made bad choices."
"And a certain charming corrupter of rich society girls found himself persona non grata at every wealthy home in the tri-state area, shut out by the servants, who found creative ways to make his life miserable," Diana finished, fresh back from her honeymoon. "And a vigilante was born."
Jones got that furrow in his brow that always worried Peter these days. "If these are vigilantes, why go after Peter?" he asked once again. "They must know he and Caffrey are close."
"The butler's still in the wind," Peter said calmly. "I think, Terence thinks, that he either had a promise to Scott to finish up some business with me, or he's motivated for reasons unknown to make my life difficult."
"How many times have you had to change your phone number now?" Suarez asked. "Whoever is making sure it keeps getting printed in the back of the Village Voice is a little on the immature side, if you ask me."
The first few times Peter received a call from someone seeking a male escort from the infamous 'adult' section of the city paper, he hadn't found it amusing.
Now he merely shrugged. "There are different ways to play this 'game,' as Neal has proved. He always said that the best cons are accomplished by enlisting the help of the target. Caffrey always worked using the carrot rather than the stick. It was a brilliant idea to have us arrange for someone to give the money launderer a community award, which he accepted out of vanity, and to promote his image as an upstanding citizen."
"And printed in the newspaper article covering the event was a mention that he had been instrumental in a vaguely alluded to bust of one of Neal's cronies," Singh continued. "Criminals rely on trust, and suddenly all the people this man relied upon for discretion started re-examining their relationship with him. Pretty smart to have the blurb appear next to a picture of the guy shaking hands with the mayor of Miami—he couldn't very well deny it was him accepting the plaque."
Diana changed gears. "Maybe I missed something. Are we saying the whole operation-Caffrey helps us catch some members of the group in an infraction-is a bust because they're all reasonable people?"
Hughes took off his glasses and looked around the room. "I never said that. We merely have a good idea of what floats their collective boat. The desire for justice is a heady drug. It's what ups the body count in Shakespeare. 'The shining comet of revenge'? Anyone?" He looked around the room of blank faces. "This butler may well have an insider still in the group." There were groans. "I know, he's invisible, but now that Caffrey's had a win in the game, maybe it will draw him out. Dismissed."
The FBI supervisor took his note pad back to his office. The other agents pretty much governed themselves on the day to day. He got on the computer and spent some more time following his vague ideas and scribbling more notes for his lunch with the profiler. Amazing how a man with no previous experience in law enforcement adapted himself to the protocols of using code names and such so that public meetings weren't a risk.
He tore off the yellow sheet and stuck it in his pocket. "It's Monday working lunch for me; don't expect me back before two," Hughes said to his secretary on his way out.
Outside there was some damn protest, or maybe it was a movie with a protest scene, you couldn't tell what level of meta you were living on in New York these days. Hughes maneuvered himself through a group of gawking tourists or extras and breathed a sigh of relief when he could walk freely on the sidewalk.
"Hi boss," Terence looked up from the table at one of their preferred diners. "Coffee?"
Hughes sat down and reached in his pocket for the notes.
"What's the matter?"
"Somebody picked my pocket." Hughes started to laugh. "They got my notes!" Upon reflection, the yellow sheet might have been peeping up out of the top of his pocket.
"Nobody can read your multiple levels of paranoid code," Terence snorted.
"This time it was complete sentences, very carefully copied because my ability to remember iambic pentameter isn't anywhere near my memory for numbers. There's one I do remember: 'The villainy you teach me,' something something, 'I will better the instruction.'" Hughes took a reverent sip of coffee. "We'll see if one or another of our vigilante groups feels alluded to by a few quotes about vengeance from the Bard."
On Wednesday, Peter was already planning on being late because he had to go into his new bank and open a new account in hopes to stop the tampering. Then he was even later because his car was stopped yet again. It was a patrolman who'd stopped him before, and seemed to blame Peter for this routine inconvenience by making due diligence take an extra long time today and being especially rude. He called into the office to warn them he'd be late, but he'd picked the wrong morning to get pulled over.
"It was another APB on my license plate," he began when he joined the meeting in progress.
Diana slid the newspaper over to him. "The gallery that Marina DiGioia has part ownership of had a feature in the arts section of the Times today."
Peter looked at the large photo of some abstract mobile and read a few words of praise about a new collection. "Good for her."
Her finger underlined a short mention in the middle of the article. "Newcomer Neal Caffrey had an especially strong debut with a diptych of simple figure drawings executed with more passion and authority than many other artists would be able to attain if they gave up the pyrotechnics of experimentation for its own sake."
She flipped to the next page.
"Good for Neal," Peter said with an admirable calm after studying the photo of the two sketches and the caption: "Two Sides of Peter, by Neal Caffrey." The style was just as primitive as he remembered it, and his face was the bare minimum of lines. "It doesn't look like his style."
"It's his," Hughes said. "We've already spoken about it."
"And he denies ever submitting it to this gallery, and was most emphatic that these sketches had no title or signature. They were pieces from his figure drawing class stolen from a frame shop-" Hughes nodded at Jones.
"Last week," the agent said. "Neal admitted that the security was nonexistent, upon reflection, but since it wasn't a Warhol he was trying to move he didn't think it would be an issue."
"And the gallery woman?" Peter asked, feeling like he was dreaming.
"Neal confronted her himself, rather than involving us," Diana said. "Apparently he really didn't like having what he called a class exercise being plastered in the New York Times with his name on it."
"He's having the artwork sent to us so we can test his theory about how the signature was forged," Suarez said a disarming excitement. "You guys were lucky to work so closely with him—I would never have thought of the way he explained it."
Hughes had the grace to send for Peter fifteen minutes after the meeting adjourned, rather than making it look like he was in trouble. "Do I want to know?" he said tiredly when the doors were closed.
"Are you going to investigate each and every person who's ever sat for Neal? Because I thought he was no longer an object of interest in that way for the FBI."
"He isn't." Hughes looked at Peter steadily.
"Would you like me to take off my clothes to compare?" the agent offered.
He received a withering look.
"If our going theory is correct and there are two vigilante groups, two competing schools of thought at work, then our idea now is that one may be about a more conventional idea of justice—what people do—and the other is more like Scott, in that they target who you are, relationships."
The last word was the only one that had real feeling behind it. Otherwise, Peter was using his new neutral tone that did not betray how much soul-searching it had taken to get to this point.
"Neal changed a lot while he was with us here. One thing he commented on many times was how much work it really took to convict anyone—even people who were real bad apples and deserved to be behind bars. He began to understand that while one person can play the system, it takes an entire system to convict a criminal. It took more patience than he had, as you might remember from his frequent complaints about his enforced staid pace here."
"Get to the point, Burke."
"If it becomes FBI scuttlebutt that the boundaries between me and my CI might have slipped even the slightest, that record-breaking closure rate starts to become suspect. That bureau shrink already raked me over the coals asking me about my judgment, trying to show what happens when one thread starts to unravel from one's professional credibility. Which was something I'd already worked out on my own, sir."
Peter continued with his carefully worded statement. "It fits in with both Neal's and my values, then, that nothing must come out that will reflect on my judgment, and potentially my cases. But also, our shared values mean that neither of us believes that two consenting adults should be forced to live in fear as if this were the bureau in the Hoover era." Peter risked an FBI history joke. "And I think we all know how much unhappiness that hypocrisy about homosexuality reaped for J. Edgar."
"You're going to spin this that Neal had feelings for you while you were here and you were not receptive? I'd check that out with Caffrey first before presenting it in the meeting tomorrow," Hughes observed drily. Then he started. "Give me your phone."
Peter handed it over and watched his intact call history being examined. "If you get caught compromising this sting operation, I'll have to can you," Hughes said, handing the phone back. "You really didn't know about the article when you walked in, though."
"No. but this approach seems like the best for everyone, and he and I have—communicated—about it. Somehow I became aware of his attraction during the Scott case, it threw me, I moved in and out with Elizabeth a couple of times. Maybe she and I argued about having him on my team. But what is for sure is that I left for good after a realization about unsuspected interests in general."
Peter leaned forward and dropped the circumspection. "I have spent altogether too little time with Neal, sir. Not enough to be called a relationship. At this point, if Neal and I want a relationship, if we fall in love, there's nothing you or anyone can do about our feelings."
"And what would you have me do about this?" Hughes jabbed a finger at the arts section.
"If a human being loves someone enough to want to capture their feelings in a semi-abstract piece of art, I'd say that's the most natural thing in the world. It's a far cry from a sex tape being leaked on the internet, sir."
The old man shuddered. "See that it doesn't come to that."
"I think that" Peter nodded to the paper "is a sign that someone doesn't want Neal and me to be in the closet. I'm working on compromises. "
"Possibly imaginary nudes are somewhat compromising, Burke."
"You must admit sir, that neither Neal nor I has behaved as badly as you would have expected. We're both completing the tasks set before us. You have to see that as a sign that we're serious about building a future together."
Peter sat back, exhausted. It was a speech he'd rehearsed with a somewhat disbelieving Terence when the theft of the pictures came to light, and he wasn't sure his own mental state was as trustworthy as he was laying it out to be.
"A more conservative supervisor would have washed his hands of you long ago, Burke. What if I hated gays? You would be having your pride parade somewhere else."
"That's the idea," Peter thought to himself as he was dismissed.
"I'm so glad we could meet up for a late breakfast," Marina said earlier that morning, turning away from her computer to sit at the coffee table in her office across from Neal. "Bialys! What a treat. How much do I owe you, since you insisted upon bringing the food yourself?"
"Don't worry about it." He bit into a piece of bread. "Consider it a celebration of our making the Times together."
His hostess caught the conflict in his tone. "I am so sorry, Neal, that I never acknowledged your submission to the gallery. I am very busy, and sometimes one of my partners tires of waiting for me to look at new items and approves a bunch of things without me." She smiled. "I've respected our accord and not made our friendship a source of public comment, so they didn't know to single your work out for my attention."
Neal let the word 'friendship' slide because he was too busy working out the larger issue. "I didn't submit anything. I've never submitted anything under my name anywhere, for the simple fact that I don't really have an identity as an artist."
Marina seemed genuinely surprised. "When the Times reporter was in a few days ago, she looked at the new collection, taking her time as they do, and when she asked me who Neal Caffrey was, I couldn't imagine why. She pointed to the card, and I felt terrible for not being aware of your piece. Which betrays quite an artistic identity, I'll have you know." She took a sip of coffee, nodding. "I've had offers, just this morning."
Neal's jaw set.
"Of course we can discuss how the money will work," the woman said soothingly. "Normally the gallery gets a certain percentage."
"The portraits are not for sale." His quiet voice was enough to stop Marina mid-chew.
"They were being framed—rather cheaply, I might add—for my home. They're the first truly successful pieces I've done with my left hand, and they're—personal. Then they were stolen from the framing shop and apparently given a title before they were displayed in your gallery."
The accusation hung there for a moment. The woman put down her bialy. "They were signed. I remember noticing your signature and thinking it must feel odd to you to sign your work with your past."
"I'd like to see that signature."
"If you didn't submit the art, then I hate to consider what that means for the security in my gallery." Her brow knit together. "If someone is making a maneuver on me, I appreciate it even less than you do."
DiGioia canceled an appointment and they headed straight to the gallery.
After some investigation, all that they were able to discover was that there had been a batch of new pieces for consideration, and just like always, the other two partners had gone through to make their picks, placing the approved items in the area for categorizing and hanging.
Neither partner remembered approving Neal's pieces, but they each assumed one of the others had selected it. Since it was of gallery quality, no one objected to seeing it on the wall, where it appeared with a card printed by one of the assistants.
The young man who remembered typing it said that there was a slip of paper with the artist's name and the title of the piece, but he hadn't kept it.
Neal had been examining the signatures. "Do you have a loupe?" he asked one of the workers. "And a pen and a thin piece of paper?"
Someone handed him the articles and he called for Marina. "This is my signature. Watch closely." He signed his name and held it over one of the pictures, which had been signed in a uni-ball type pen something like the one Neal had just used.
"But it's a match," Marina protested.
"There's a hidden tell with my signature. If you compare the overall pressure on my first name with my last, Neal has always been my first name. Well, almost always. But I grew up signing another surname. The Neal part has a deeper indentation on the paper because I'm more used to signing it."
She looked through the magnifying glass and nodded. "Very few people would notice that. But let me see the portrait up close—that was written by a pen. It's not a transfer."
"This was made by a pantograph," Neal declared. "Those wooden contraptions with two pens, one that follows the movement your hand makes."
"But as you say, a signature isn't just the right shapes, it's the fluidity. There's no way someone could trace a signature with that even pressure—too even, in this case, according to you," Marina replied.
"There are modern computerized versions of a pantograph for people who don't know they're no good," Neal told her. "Or have no contacts with anyone who could do a better job."
Marina put down the glass. "You underestimate me, Neal. Perhaps they wouldn't have noticed the difference between your two names, but it's not hard to find a fair-to-middling signature forger." She took a breath. "Let's have some tea in one of the offices."
They settled in two armchairs. "You may not believe me, but this gallery is one of the few things that really means something to me. The fact that someone infiltrated our admittedly loose system here is actually quite a blow in an intimate place, so perhaps I can empathize with you a little."
Her hand reached halfway across the table to Neal's before she checked the gesture. "Of course we know about your feelings for your friend. Scott did say that the air practically crackled between the two of you the first time he saw you together. And that he thought your friend was going to challenge him to a duel, he was so fiercely protective of you. And you, he said, talked about this man constantly. Scott saw what you couldn't see, right from the start." She smiled.
Neal tended not to smile at any mention of Prentiss Scott.
"There are people in this world, Neal, I know you've met them. Paparazzi, which is a professional muckraker by a fancy name. People that aren't even of the level of a blackmailer, because their recompense is from rooting through the dirty laundry of the wealthy and public figures, and then exposing what they find. There's a gossip industry these days. It's a certain mindset that I deplore. I would not publish the details of your love life in the paper."
Marina toyed with her teabag. "Something that is rather frustrating for someone like me is that someone like you doesn't believe me capable of suffering because our backgrounds are so different. But I have. I know loss. You may find now, Neal, that having money doesn't prevent misfortune from reaching its long finger into your life. I know what it is like to have my name in the papers for the wrong reasons, and I know what it is like to lose someone in a terrible, senseless way."
Neal's antennae registered only sorrow, though he looked hard for something else.
"So I am not alone in saying that I hope you are able to work things out with him someday, after an admittedly complicated beginning, after being gravely ill, and having to rearrange two lives around what was probably a very unexpected attraction."
He did smile at that, and the woman smiled back.
"How much do you know about Tomas Maria Mendonça?" Neal said suddenly.
"I don't know where he is. He doesn't have the means to wager in our group, and no one would have let him stay on his own account, not after the strong likelihood that you were infected with that awful disease on purpose."
"You think so?" Neal often wondered on that point.
"If it was an accidental infection, someone else would have been accidentally infected. Don't you agree?" She finished the rest of her tea.
"But what is he like? What makes him tick?" Neal asked, standing up.
"I don't know. But rest assured, Neal, this provocation will not go unremarked." She looked at the portraits in his hands. "Very nice. Any time you want to submit something, call me so I know it's really coming from you."
For the rest of the day, Peter very good-naturedly put up with ribbing from around the office. The newspaper reproduction of an abstract print was too many steps removed from a photograph for people to treat it as real proof or see much more than a generic male shape, though it became an office Rorschach that was passed around until some people swore it was the shape of his head. Nevertheless, he caught a couple of women giving him calculating glances that he was sure he'd never received before. Not to mention the look from a man from whom he would never in a million years have expected it.
Then Peter received a call from the front desk. "You said to hold any delivery that came for you," the guard said.
The FBI agent stifled a groan. What fresh hell had been cooked up for him and sent straight to the FBI, of all places?
He came back a few minutes later with a flower arrangement. "You sure those aren't poisonous flowers?" Jones asked, poking his pen at the expensive arrangement of blue hyacinths and blue irises. "What does the card say? Some cryptic taunt to make you lose your mind?"
Peter's reflexes were deliberately slow when Jones grabbed the card. "I didn't intend for it to be like this, but you know I am one for making a big statement…. I hope this one ended up getting through loud and clear. Neal Caffrey."
His good friend's face went through several changes before Peter's eyes: surprise warred with disbelief, with an undercurrent of betrayal that he might have been left out of something so big. Disbelief won out. "Is this real?" he tilted the card this way and that.
'No idea," Peter said placidly. "But my favorite color is blue."
As no doubt his lover had intended, Jones took the card and marched over to where his two portraits had been delivered by a trusted underworld messenger to the FBI's forgery unit.
After some time, Peter looked up from his paperwork to see Jones, card in hand, being let into Hughes' office.
The agent exited a while later, his face a bit worse for wear after months of rationalizations had just given way under Jones' feet.
Fatefully, Diana had left early, so Peter and Hughes both watched Jones circling around, looking for someone to talk to. He settled on Suarez, who happened to be walking by. Through the various layers of glass, the FBI supervisor and Peter watched a wildfire of gossip be ignited around the office. They exchanged a look of relief. This was overdue.
Jones certainly thought so as he cornered Peter who was putting on his jacket at the end of the day.
"Did the signature have Neal's tell?" Peter asked.
"Yes it did." Jones was evidently searching for the right words and then gave up.
The pictorial message Peter composed for Neal that night said, "Out would be better with you in it."