The Commission

Chapter 24

The last of the long line of criminals, thieves and scoundrels slipped out of the empty warehouse space in Brooklyn where Mozzie had organized the interviews.

"What did you think? Is anyone lying? No one jumped out at me," Mozzie said, opening the hastily constructed partition behind which Neal and Gaspar had been observing behind a two-way mirror.

"I didn't sense anyone lying either, and these are people we know relatively well, Moz," Neal said. "Did our outsider pick up on anything?"

"Only that people really wished they could help," Gaspar put in. "Do you feel all right with having given them a photograph to take back to their circles?" he continued as they vacated the premises and headed to a restaurant nearby.

"I wouldn't want to do any more interviews. These were all the people with whom I'm on a face-to-face basis," Mozzie said. "To some people I'm just a name and a reputation, and that's the way I want to keep it."

"Are you sure you want to go here?" Neal asked of the chain restaurant Gaspar had chosen for dinner on their way in.

"But of course," the big man said eagerly, surveying the menu and the plastic décor. "I am making a culinary study of American lowbrow eateries. The food tastes like an idea, rather than food, I've come to think."

When they were settled in the booth with their food, Mozzie inquired, "We set up the observation room for Neal, because he's so on edge he would make people nervous. But no one knows you, Gaspar, you could have sat out front with me."

"Alas," the European said after a genteel bite of fried chicken. "I would have made people so nervous they wouldn't have said a word. Your criminal friends would have assumed I was the hitman you'd contracted to kill the person who'd been holding out on information about the butler."

"No, I'd have vouched for you," Mozzie protested.

Gaspar exchanged a sad smile with Neal. "No, my friend, you do not realize what you have. With a physique like this, it speaks louder than words. I know from experience that no self-respecting criminal will come to a meeting with me without a gun. It's a mess, in other words. My height alone sets me within a small percentage for a lineup. And it does get very tiresome to be constantly looked at with fear, especially when I am as nonviolent as you, dear Mozzie. All I want is the crimes of the mind, but my body has made me suited for infractions of a coarser nature." He took a sorrowful bite.

"The baroness used to call Gaspar 'delicacy writ large,'" Neal interjected.

"So that's why you limited yourself to the financial sphere. Nobody cares what you look like as long as you know how to wear a suit," Mozzie said.

"Precisely, and in this age of computers, what I look like matters not at all. Although, the ability to wear a jacket properly is what allows me to slip in as a croupier from time to time. I own a replica of the dinner jackets used at most of the casinos in Europe," Gaspar confided as he munched on a French fry.

Mozzie had stopped eating. "I would never have thought of being physically intimidating as a drawback. There have been many times I wished I was scarier."

"It does come in handy," Neal said. "Gaspar here can hit someone on the head like this," he brought his fist down like a mallet, "and they're out for the count. He's gotten me out of a jam a couple of times that way."

"When I must, I must. But the grass is always greener, n'est–ce pas? Look at you, Mozzie," he gestured to the small man in front of him. "You're everyman." Mozzie smiled uncertainly. "No really, you can be anywhere and it makes sense. And you have a great sense of solidarity with your fellow man, yes? What I saw in all those interviews was people trying their hardest to come up with some information about this Tomas, because they'd do anything for you. Trust-that is a gift that cannot be bought, my friend, take it from one who knows."

"Excuse me, guys," Neal said, turning back to smile at his two friends comparing notes from the opposite ends of the intimidation spectrum on his way to the bathroom.

"We both agree this semi-biblical series of plagues on both Neal's and Peter's houses is real, correct?" Mozzie asked as soon as Neal was gone.

"Yes, absolutely. And this fellow Tomas exists. Beyond my affection for Neal, I am quite frustrated that someone is able to accomplish all of this with complete impunity."

"I don't like someone being able to pull off a massive con right under my nose," agreed Mozzie.

They were finishing their meals when they both froze simultaneously. "It's been too long."

"No way Neal had to wait in that long of a line for the john."

They leapt up and walked to the bathroom. Inside they found one of the photocopied pictures of Tomas Mendonça they'd been passing out for the last two days.

"Oh, this is too much," Mozzie fumed.

Gaspar was already making the rounds of the two-level restaurant, but as expected, there was no trace of Neal.

"Do you think we should turn in that paper to the police to see whose fingerprints are on it?" Gaspar pointed at the sheet between Mozzie's fingers.

"Peter would want us to, but honestly, fuck that. The FBI has flatfooted their way around this case and I've had it. This is personal, snatching my friend right out from under my nose. We do this our way. Besides, no way this guy leaves fingerprints."

"You and I, we think very much alike," Gaspar agreed as they walked out.

Neal was lifted out of the van he'd been stuffed into, after having been dosed with God knows what kind of indigenous chloroform. His head hurt, and once the hood shifted and he was exposed to a sliver of the weak light in the indoor parking garage, his eyes hurt, too.

He was lowered into a large cardboard box, which was taped loosely and then lifted onto a dolly. The sounds he could discern as he was wheeled through what must be the service entrance after a discussion with a guard, they seemed vaguely familiar. Like the Setai building where he lived.

He was lifted out of the box, wrists still held together with a plastic tie, and righted onto a chair very quickly, and then lashed to the back. The hood was removed and when the dizziness subsided, Neal saw that he was in a luxury apartment building. Somewhere on the East Side, judging from the buildings he could make out with his blurry vision. What he'd heard was the sound of wealth.

"So nice to see you again, Mr. Caffrey," said the butler.

"I wish I could say the same," Neal gasped when the tape was torn off his mouth.

"That's quite all right. I would like to offer you water, which will help with the headache, but I'm not sure you'll accept it. These aluminum cans are quite tamper-proof, so perhaps you'd prefer a soft drink." He gestured to modernistic glass and chrome table between them.

Neal raised an eyebrow. "I don't suppose we can avoid the indignity of a drinking straw."

"Alas, your hands need to stay bound for this conversation. Ginger ale is acceptable?"

In a bizarre reenactment of the many times the butler had served him drinks at Prentiss Scott's house, Neal had the can opened for him and then the straw was placed so that he could bend and take a sip.

"Is there something in the air here as well?" he asked resignedly. "You're going to scramble my brains personally because you're bored with wearing on my patience by remote?"

"No, Monsieur Caffrey, not at all. It has never been my intention to confuse you, but rather to elucidate certain points that did not seem to be clear for you." He waved off Neal's objection. "And the best way to explain is for us to meet."

The ex-butler sat back easily against the leather sofa, his gray suit only slightly less formal than the one he wore in his old post. "Let me tell you a story," Tomas said.

"This story has been passed down through the ages. It is a tale of two peoples—Our People, and Their People.

"Our People know how to eat and sleep and wake and love. Our People were also born knowing how to be sick, how to go hungry and hate and die.

"There is much to do, for Our People, who have to work hard at all these pastimes. And at one time, each person was born with their own constellation of suffering, and spent their time on earth doing the best they could within it.

"Then came a day when Our People met Theirs. This was a whole new type of living, and one that caught us quite unawares. They had a peculiar way of concentrating their genius on suffering—others' suffering. The methodical way they packed the ships full, the way they mixed us up so that we had no one to speak our native languages to when we landed. The way they kept people working who had long since given up. We puzzled over it, Our People, and the mystery of why Their People acted as they did was something whispered about in huts late at night.

"Their People had their own customs, and they were especially interested in getting us to join in. Our People, too, had a religious ceremony in which we enacted the experiences of one of our gods, so we were curious to watch their procession that had one man acting as their god, carrying a piece of wood throughout the town.

"Except of course, Their People had one of Our People carrying all the weight of this wooden beam, while the man acting as the god wore the costume and had the drops of blood painted on his brow.

"Our People finally began to understand: These People were unable to understand suffering; something in them made it impossible for them to learn anything from the unpleasantness in life. It must be that they had always had someone, like the man walking behind the other man in the parade, to suffer for them. They required it, more than they needed Our People to cook and farm.

"And thus, tradition has it, that Our People created a servant king, a person chosen among our ranks to be our version of that god of theirs, who they seemed to keep around for the same reason as us—to feel and to bleed where they, for some reason, were unable.

"The servant king was allowed as a quaint custom because this person served for a year as the one who made Our People get along a little better, to see that we were one body together.

"Even to my youth, there was always someone, usually an older individual, who helped unite the servants in my area. Since Our People have always been unseen, we saw everything, and having a central person in whom to confide helped centralize our knowledge of the people we served."

Tomas glanced at Neal's face as if gauging his disbelief.

"I had the opportunity to leave Brazil in my early twenties, and quickly managed to move from serving the son of a livestock magnate while he sowed his wild oats in New York, to serving in a home that valued my gift with languages and thus arranged my papers for me.

"You will think I have some sort of grudge from a bad upbringing, but I assure you, I grew up among family and had everything I needed. Perhaps more than most, I paid attention to the old stories, however, and to people in general, so this must be what set me apart."

Neal's expression betrayed his conviction that something else entirely set apart this man from the rest.

"Moving around from post to post when I got bored, I began to see a pattern. Some of the people I worked for had some odd disability. They were utterly unable to see when they had said something hurtful, or stepped on someone's interests or been in any way selfish or cruel. Many of these were the hereditary rich, but I emphasize, not exclusively. It made me think of the Our People-Their People divide. And it made me think of the servant king.

"These forty years now, I have lived and served in New York City and its environs, with a few sojourns in Paris and England. I have seen many secrets, as any servant does, and have not used this knowledge for my own profit. Rather, I have endeavored to create a network that helps Our People take care of each other.

"Our People are doormen, cashiers, waitresses and janitors. Most of Our People don't know that they belong, but over forty years, many of the professions in which there is some informal history, they have heard of a person, somewhere in the city, who is looking out for them. They may be asked to do something very occasionally in the name of this person, and in return, a troublesome supervisor might become a little more tractable. A coveted position might open up somewhere else. Nothing major, you understand, especially in the early years before technology became such a help. But the tradition remained alive."

"But with Scott you found someone to take things farther. You started using the world's best surveillance equipment," Neal stated.

"These things were not totally beyond my possibilities before," Tomas smiled. "But certainly, with his means, and I might add, his brilliance, I was able to expand my operation." He held up his hand. "Scott never heard this story in precisely this way. What I had taken decades to build was too precious to share with someone who occasionally acted like Their People."

"Occasionally? He wanted to own me."

"Scott was the first that I taught a lesson he desperately wanted to learn. Whatever you saw in him, it wasn't all drugs. He was a genuinely wonderful man in many ways. But he needed to sink, needed to go through darkness, although his money was keeping him stubbornly afloat.

"For a long while, he was abiding by the stakes of the game. Using the art of suggestion to give people a choice, and if so often people make the wrong choice, that was due to their own problems. When Scott became interested in these traditional calmatives as a way to influence behavior, I thought little of it, because these herbs are widely used to no ill effect in my homeland."

"But—"

"Before you can object, no one was supposed to have more than one or two doses. And for that reason, I was very unfriendly to you, Mr. Caffrey, because you spent so much time in the house and Scott made it his affair to regulate how much you received. He slipped God knows what into every drink you shared. I turned out his rooms and still I would see you leaving in much worse shape than you arrived, meaning that he kept his supplies from me. To this day I don't know what he gave you, but we had arguments about it. He couldn't bear to let you go.

"That's when I realized that you were the suffering he had been waiting for. You were the thing that made him alive in a place where he had not felt for a long time. And I like you, Mr. Caffrey, so I decided to give you a gift."

"Almost killing me is not the nicest gift I've ever received," Neal observed drily.

"Maybe it is," Tomas said in his soft, melodious voice. "As Scott saw the unresolved attraction between you and your colleague, so did I. And I also saw that nothing would ever come of it."

"You have no way of knowing that," Neal protested. "We would have figured it out eventually."

"No. No, I don't believe you would have. For all your inconveniences with the FBI, you were content. And Peter was in a stasis with his job, his wife, everyone allowing him to have this monomaniacal focus on his criminal consultant. You were a much less serious-minded person before you got ill, whether or not you admit it."

Neal made a noise of disgust but said nothing.

"You can't tell me it didn't mean something to be so sick, and for Peter to be there for you. It's a criminal's worst nightmare, to be helpless, and all your charm and physical attributes had vanished for the moment. Yet there was your colleague, at your bedside. It would have taken something that big to get you over whatever past hurts you have that made you unlikely to choose a relationship with a man."

Tomas made a calming gesture. "A trained therapist can also pick out people who have suffered a trauma of an intimate nature. I happen to know people, that's all. It's not that I've searched out whatever episode in your past. I, unlike some, do not delight in others' misfortune. Far too much of it exists in the world already."

Neal raised his eyebrows.

"And your colleague, I could see immediately, had lived fully but within a narrow expanse of life. You cannot deny this. He was generous and brave and not at all in touch with the world outside of the case placed in front of him."

Neal knew there was something in his face that was acknowledging there was some truth to that.

"He was so fascinated by you that I saw Agent Burke rotate like a sunflower before the sun in front of you. What he must have experienced, pursuing you and then working with you, was a hundred new colors and savors coming into his realm. You, Mr. Caffrey, were the suffering he had been waiting for. As he was for you. Yet still, without some sort of catalyst, you would have been inert together."

Neal set his jaw. He'd about had it with people telling him who he was and what he was capable of.

"Instead of running off to Canada, you ended up in the hospital, and you came back. You are perfectly capable of staying on the run indefinitely, so you must admit there was a strong chance this relationship of yours would never have happened. For one thing, you have a documented inability to deal with stasis. You would have found him too staid."

"And you've been targeting Peter, especially, because you think he needs to learn how to suffer?" the prisoner couldn't hold back any longer.

"I think he had some catching up to do to be worthy of you," Tomas said, pouring more tea from the teapot in front of him.

"The man who fascinated me right off with his sincerity and his intelligence did not need any improvement," Neal snapped.

"Tell me that you didn't get over your mistrust of him in part because of the misfortunes you've endured together. And that he finally decided to leave his wife just before your patience would have eventually run out. You don't suffer from low self-esteem, that I've noticed, Mr. Caffrey. You could have any woman you wanted, with much less turmoil. But love doesn't grow in a hothouse, that I've seen."

"Where does it grow for you? Surveillance footage of other people?" Neal cast a disparaging glance at the older man.

"Our People know how to love," was all that Tomas said about that. Then he resumed, "That's how I knew you were one of us. You know how to love. And so, we have discovered in the final analysis, does Peter."

"Game over then," Neal said, having scraped his wrists raw trying to get out of his bonds.

"Not quite. Your companion has essentially given up his career for you. What are you willing to give up for him?"

"Take the money, if that's what this is about," Neal said. "Scott didn't leave you anything in the will. Okay, take what you want, and let me and Peter be. Can't you see that these are our lives to live, not yours?"

"The money is neither here nor there." Tomas produced two envelopes. "In each of these packets there is some evidence of a crime. Since justice can often be swayed by those with the means to do so, you will be able to get a reduced sentence, but there is almost assuredly jail time. Definitely some sort of mark on the record is inescapable."

"You're asking me to choose whether to send myself or Peter to jail in the short term? Of course I'll go. I know how to survive," Neal scoffed.

"Peter or your little friend, Mozart."

Neal struggled in vain against his bonds. "This is insane. I won't lend my ear to more craziness from you, Mr. Servant King. Your us vs. them worldview is only the tip of your mental illness iceberg."

He leaned forward as far as he could. "If you have a 'people,' sir, it's Brazilian people. I've been there: great cuisine, amazing dancers, tiny swimsuits. Brazil. You are not the head of the proletariat in New York City. Maybe you are a very organized crazy person, and that's how you've meddled in our lives to this extent, but I do not buy in to your personal mythology. Kindly let me go."

Tomas laid a hand on each envelope. "I'm afraid that these are merely copies. The real evidence is already en route to the authorities. If you do not make a decision soon, both of them will be delivered."

"Some demented version of the prisoner's dilemma?"

"You and your lover deserve to know what kind of man you are."

Neal smiled. "There is no contest here, but I'm curious what you expect me to do." He studied the other man's reaction. He stared and he stared, and then burst out laughing.

"I would think having to condemn someone close to you would be no laughing matter, Mr. Caffrey," the ex-butler said.

Neal laughed until he cried, and then he finally got hold of himself. The crying would have to wait.

"I've been sitting here, Mr. Mendonça, wondering why your little evil mastermind speech fell flat for me. And now I understand what all of this is about. Every bit of it. And I have to say, I feel 100% better at this moment, because I was sure I'd lost my touch. None of this has made any sense to me all these months, but it's not because I can't read a con anymore. All you did was direct attention to the wrong place." He laughed again, and saw how little his interlocutor liked the sensation.

"Mozzie is the servant king. He is the one who can unite people, and organize their sympathies towards a cause. And you can't stand it. This whole thing has been a tour de force, a senseless show of prowess for Mozzie's benefit."

"I don't know what you mean," Tomas said testily. "It's he that's been riding off my coattails his entire tenure in this city. I was here for three decades before he arrived. The waiters, the delivery men, the doormen, all were primed by me."

"Maybe it was technology, maybe Scott's resources, but I'll bet your little game took off in a big way about ten years ago, and you've been stewing about it ever since," Neal continued. He laughed some more. "You do realize that even if he'd known that you were trying to provoke him, Mozzie wouldn't fight you. He'd probably burn an incense stick in your honor." Perhaps it was the drug still in his system, but the petty reason behind all he'd suffered made Neal's laugh get away from him.

The punch to his jaw knocked the chair backwards.

"I've never done that before. Not myself," the older man was saying, looking in wonder from his hand to the trickle of blood coming from Neal's nose.

"How is it for you?" Neal asked politely.

"It's too bad," the host said, going over to the freezer and wrapping some ice in a towel. "I rather liked it, but unfortunately years of polishing silver and the like have given me mild arthritis. Like so many things, I started too late."

He returned to the couch. "You know, I do believe this is you trying to turn the tables on me, in hopes that I'll spare all of you. But this is a question of battling worldviews. Which shall prevail—will you remain loyal to your criminal past, at the expense of your lover's future and reputation? Or will you choose him over your oldest friend? It's a choice that you would have faced sooner or later."

"For you, I do believe it is a question of worldviews, Tomas. That's your pathology, all the rest of this game being merely your attempt to act like a crazy person. That's why I couldn't get a bead on your motivations. There was no passion in the moves you made. If someone were jealous of either me or Peter, say, things would have gotten more vicious more quickly. I know why you brought me here. You wanted to pump me full of your noble vision of yourself as the true king of New York's proletariat, so that no matter who I choose to bring down, Mozzie gets the message that none of his accomplishments in this city are really his. It's a win-win for you. Except nobody's going to turn on him, if that's what you're thinking."

The laugh bubbled up out of Neal despite his best efforts to control it. The butler calmly stood up, picked an umbrella out of the stand and hit Neal with the crooked wooden handle, hard across the jaw.

"That's a handy trick," he said, hefting the umbrella in his hand. He stood over Neal. "Every restaurant worker in the city has been at my command. The doormen in your building. The concierge. And a good many of the criminals as well have been following my directions all this time. I am Mozzie, you see."

Neal gave off wondering if his jaw was broken to stare at the butler. "What?"

"As I say, most people have neither met him nor me. And not everyone has met you, Mr. Caffrey. When 'Mozzie,' everyman-criminal, asks someone to, say, let someone else know when Peter leaves your building. Or a waitress calls a number when she sees you leave a restaurant. They truly believe that your friend is settling a score."

The pain in his jaw wasn't as bad as the pain that thought caused Neal. "Mozzie is a Buddhist. He would never incite violence." He groaned. "That's why people assumed that Mozzie was going to harm them for not having helped me when I was sick. You've not only been riding on his coattails, you've been deliberately tainting his reputation."

Tomas nodded. "If something were to happen to the man who was escorted into this apartment today, it would have been on Mozzie's head." He smiled more assuredly, seeing Neal's discomfit. "Not to worry, Monsieur Caffrey. As you say, you are more valuable to me alive, and no one's murder is the crime in either of those envelopes. But your time is up. Do you choose to sacrifice your hard-won love to this quaint notion of a happy-go-lucky criminal world marshaled by a benevolent little man? Or do you—"

"The choice is between people, sir, not all of these abstractions. You should stick to your day job, whatever it is, because you are not called to be a con-man. Life is about people, and messy feelings, and ugly little things like jealousy."

He expected the blow this time and toppled the chair to miss it.

"Everything you have said here today is a lie. You enabled Scott to do whatever he wanted to me, to Peter, to all those people. Maybe you started off by standing back and thinking, 'Why are rich people so fucked up?' But you had your own game going, and when I showed up that day you couldn't believe your good fortune. A direct line to Mozzie."

The butler dangled the envelopes in front of Neal. "Kindly nod at which envelope you choose, so that I can enjoy my win-win, and you can reap what may well be a lose-lose."

"That one," Neal indicated with his chin. "Can I go now?"

"Absolutely." The older man made a phone call. He withdrew to another room when the knock came at the door.

"Come in," Neal called from the floor. A bag was over his head in a minute and he was cut free from the chair and put back into the box, his hands still bound.

"Neal Caffrey, you will not lose it until this is finished, do you hear me?" he rehearsed to himself all the way he was wheeled on the dolly, down the service elevator, and then put into the van.

By the time he was dumped somewhere, Neal's mind was made up.

He got out of the hood easily, and then found a piece of glass to cut off the plastic tie. It took much more time and care than he wanted to dedicate to the task, but he finally got free without slitting his wrists in the process. It was almost dark, in an unfamiliar section of Brooklyn, and Neal started walking towards civilization while he placed the call.

"I'm fine Mozzie. I'm heading in your direction." He felt for his wallet. Everything was still there. "As soon as I can find a cab to take me to Manhattan. I'm in Bed-Stuy. Really, I'm fine. You and Gaspar get ready, because we need to move fast."

Neal found a place where there was a likely cab and he placed a fast call to Peter.

The cab came and Neal got in. "You look like you've had a hell of a day, mister," the cabbie said.

His passenger looked in the rearview mirror. His nose had bled down his face. His jaw was swelling. Hair all mussed. "Actually, I think it's starting to get better."

Neal told himself that it was the distorted jaw that made his smile look unfamiliar in the mirror.

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