"I haven't seen you for a couple of days," Prentiss Scott said, looking up from his desk. "They must be keeping you busy at the FBI. Have a seat," he gestured to one of the paper covered chairs. "Just put that anywhere, it doesn't matter."
Neal sat down in the office he'd not dared to go to before now. In fact, Tomas the butler had deliberately misled him about the location previously, but today the billionaire had ordered that his guest be received in the business wing of the mansion.
"Yeah, this was a tough one, right down to the wire," Neal said of the jewel thieves they'd busted after first Neal and then Peter was held hostage by some very smelly Bulgarians with an affinity for knives. He was careful not to share anything important about his cases. This discretion, which had always stood him well in his life, probably did a lot to assure Prentiss that he wasn't going to divulge anything that they talked about, either.
A smile played around the businessman's lips. "I know we have an accord not to speak of our respective callings, but I've been dying to know—do you change before you come here or are you one of those people who repels dirt?"
Neal laughed. "I don't change, usually. Sometimes I get dirty. A few weeks ago, this bastard stockbroker ripped the sleeve of one of my favorite jackets I still have from Savile Row."
"The black one with the thread?" Prentiss put in.
"Yes, a real work of art. I have someone in Chinatown, he's a master at reweaving so that you'd never know there was a rip. But in a pinch, I've done it myself," Neal said. "Being a forger is kind of like being a tailor. You have to know how to produce the right effect on people. The clothes make the man, and can forge someone into something impressive for awhile, even when the man isn't anything to speak of."
"I've often wondered, " his host said softly, "Whether being a very beautiful man, like you, is to wear a mask, like me."
Neal had learned to go with it when Scott started to push his thoughts in an unaccustomed direction. He ran a hand through his hair. "Maybe that's why I became a con man. When people like what they immediately see, they don't tend to look much farther than that. Ever since I became a prize for people to win, it's been easy to win something for myself."
All of the things that were missing from Neal's life that he usually pushed away – freedom, a home, love — seemed to come bubbling up to the surface so often when he talked with Prentiss. He sat there in one of those moments in which they were saying something almost audible to each other without saying a word: "It's so good to be lonely with someone else," was the sentiment uniting the two men.
"Might this have something to do with the painting that you keep beginning over and over again? It must be very important."
Neal finally shared with his host the goal he was trying to achieve in his Rembrandt room. "Elizabeth, that's the wife of Peter, my supervisor, commissioned me to paint a portrait for his birthday. For some reason it's taking everything I have—more than everything I have—to do it. You saw my forgery. I have the skills."
"I'm not sure you're lacking in anything," Scott said.
Neal got up and started pacing. "When it comes down to it, Peter's the biggest con of all. He's got this Dudley Do-right exterior—he practically throttles you with the steady vibe of 'I'm going to take you down,'" he said the last phrase in a resonant voice, "And then underneath it all he's a live wire."
"Unpredictable?" Scott supplied.
"Exactly. He's got a mask, too, and I don't know what's underneath it." Neal was surprised by the urgency in his own voice.
"Maybe this is why the portrait is so hard – not because you've lost your skills."
"if I have to crack the mystery of Peter Burke in order to paint him, I think Elizabeth is going have to buy a tie this year instead," Neal sighed.
Scott swiveled his chair away from his desk and towards Neal. "Listen. You just told me about two men who are hiding something—maybe from themselves. Perhaps you need to look elsewhere than my viewing room for your answer."
Neal looked around quickly, thinking that this gentle dismissal must have been the reason for his being summoned to Prentiss' private office. "I've basically set up camp there, haven't I? Maybe I should go back to watching the city and sketching pigeons."
"That sounds so grim and Dickensian," the older man chuckled. "I'm not trying to drive you out to make portraits of feathered vermin."
"No," Neal said excitedly, "They're not grim at all. I'll bring my big sketchbook next time. I have an Elton John pigeon that'll just slay you."
"I've actually met him—he's a frightful bore. I'd buy something like that in a minute and hang it in the breakfast nook," Scott said, enthused.
"You have a breakfast nook?" Neal could hardly believe that there was more to the mansion then he'd seen so far.
"I never go there. You know the ritual of breakfast has no meaning for someone who lives in three time zones at any given moment. I slurp down whenever vile health shake Tomas has concocted with the help of one of the more sadistic cooks while sitting in my office at whatever hour."
He clapped his hands. "But I like to picture your Elton, plucky as a pigeon, hanging there, waiting for a brunch that never comes. Tomas has already taken over part of it with his fussy ceramics that I won't allow elsewhere in the house. Come to think of it, we've both taken to relegating things we don't like to the breakfast nook and sometimes rescuing them from such a fate as well—it's a space for passive-aggressiveness to run free."
"You and Tomas have the strangest relationship," Neal observed, wondering how huge this 'nook' could be. "How long has he worked for you?"
"Ten years. Even before my transformation," his fingers made a small movement towards his face, "I enjoyed him bringing out the bitch in me, which at that time was otherwise dormant. I was a real workhorse, and very engaged in social causes. Tomas' barbed comments about all and sundry made me remember the absurdity of life – a lesson I have now assimilated all too well."
"He's like a pit bull with an extensive knowledge of Ming Dynasty ceramics. Pardon me for asking, but why is he a butler? He could be anything," Neal said. "He could be me – or probably even you."
"It is a bit of a puzzle. Tomas had no capital to begin with, unlike my inheritance or your good looks, but I recognized the diamond-hard jewel that he is and pay him accordingly. And he is now wealthy in his own right, thanks to his skill with investments. I think he enjoys working from the inside of life, or perhaps dealing with other's lives. It's the maitre d' syndrome—it really doesn't matter to such a person who gets the prime table, but they relish exerting that authority all the same. Some people really prefer administering power while staying invisible." The sentence ended on a falling note.
"You are not invisible to me, Prentiss. You're the patron every artist needs, and I see the effects that you're having on me," Neal said warmly.
"And what effect is that?" Prentiss asked, pushing the plate of sushi that he hadn't had time to eat towards his guest on its own little chilled table.
"You're trying to do exactly what you described; you're engaging my non-dominant hand or brain hemisphere or something. Every time we talk or you leave one of your art books open to a certain page for me, it's not about my completely fruitless frontal assault on my portrait – portraits," he amended.
"The frontal assault has never been my favorite maneuver, nor, do I suspect, is it yours," Prentiss Scott said with his usual calm.
Neal's dazzling smile proved equal to the well-hidden double entendre. "This eel is excellent, are you sure you aren't having some?"
"I've got something for you, boss," Jones said at the bar that had become their hangout. It was an after-hours hobby for the three of them—chasing down some dark spot on Prentiss Lloyd Scott's record.
Or, in Diana and Jones's case, trying to mollify their boss' concerns that they saw clearly through his usual jocular efficiency with Neal at work.
"What've you got?" asked a weary Peter. He disliked the sensation of two parts of him traveling in different directions. One was focused on the cases, business as usual, and the other, insistently sounding an alarm he couldn't locate.
"Scott was seeing someone right before he became a recluse. Promising young fashion designer by the name of Timothy Ben-Israel. Israeli-born, but grew up in Poughkeepsie."
"Oh I remember," Diana jumped in. "A lot younger than Scott, but they were quite the it couple in the gay community for a while."
"So, Prentiss cut all the relationships in his life at that time, including this one," Peter said.
"Maybe there's more to this relationship, boss. See, Ben-Israel went to go live in Utah, changed his name in everything. As far as I can tell, he runs a clothing store selling off- the-rack stuff, probably things he would have looked down upon just a few years ago."
Peter shrugged. "It was a hard breakup."
"I see which are getting at," Diana said. " Utah—not so gay-friendly."
"I don't think that I want to move to most communities in that state." Jones agreed. "He might be the only gay Jew for miles. Why voluntarily go someplace where you're the only person like you?"
"Maybe he had no family and saw there was a market."
"His parents are still in Poughkeepsie. He has lots of cousins in the Northeast and in Israel."
"This fits in with one of our theories," Dana pointed out. "It could be that Scott lost it after testing HIV positive and his partner did the same. People are shattered by news like that and sometimes withdraw like these two guys did. I've had friends—"
"Well, I have a relative who was diagnosed a few years back," Jones replied, "And he did just the opposite. He moved closer to family, joined every support group he could find, he even took up golf. There's an urge to connect so you have people to fall back on."
"You're right. Why change his name? He wasn't that famous, and you know these high-class circles forget last year's news pretty fast," Diana said.
Peter was staring into space.
"How are those instincts, boss?" Diana ventured.
"I think this might be the right avenue," he affirmed. "We have to look deeper into Scott's relationships. Jones, find out if this is a pattern – if anyone else in Prentiss Lloyd Scott's world also suffered a similar crisis. Di, you find out why the 'it boy' of New York's scene would exile himself from the gay community."
"And you?" Diana asked.
"I'm gonna make a call." Peter was already out of his chair.
Several nights later the group got together at their usual table. Jones was listing every relationship he'd been able to determine Loyd Scott had had in the last 20 years or so.
"Then there is this trusted executive in his UK office who was arrested for swindling money from the company. A cousin lost a teaching job when it got out what she likes to do in bed."
He slid something across the table to the other two, who raised their eyebrows and slid it back.
"The family man who was outed as gay. Actually, more than one. Artists or writers who for some reason had their stellar career fizzle out suddenly. The only violent crime, so to speak, I could find was this priest that he used to play chess with when visiting Rome."
The other two looked at Jones expectantly. "He lost his faith and committed suicide."
Jones sat back and made a frustrated noise. "I mean, look at this. There's this very private village near Cadiz where Scott still visits occasionally. The villagers love him; they call him Don Scott. And there's this fishmonger—actually more of a magnate in the food and restaurant industry in the area—his business was sunk when it was found out that the quality of his fish didn't meet health standards. Come on Peter, if you look at all the people in each of our lives within six degrees of separation, there'd be a helluva lot more tragedies."
"You're an FBI agent, not an international tycoon. Trouble follows us. But what I hear is trust. These are all inner circle people. Most of which he still sees after shutting himself off. Do we have travel records for him?"
"He has a private jet, of course," Jones said, "But he doesn't seem to use it much. Let me keep digging on that front."
"Diana?" The two men waited expectantly for her contribution.
In response she slid a DVD of the Godfather movie across the table. "I watched this movie so many times Suzette and I were talking in a Marlon Brando accent for a couple of days," she laughed. "It was worth it. I think this is the key."
"No way," Jones scoffed. "Are you telling me this gay mafia thing is real?"
Peter was already one step ahead. "An international business figure like Prentiss Scott at the center of a huge network, just like the Godfather, and he never has to get his hands dirty. He just makes someone in one part of his network take out someone from the other part. And for people of Scott's class, reputation is everything. They don't want to know what you've done so much as who you know."
"I know the mob," Jones said. "I know all the mobs – I worked on little Italy, Russian mob, the Japanese. These are all well-organized ethnic groups, some of them with a history longer than their current governments. No offense Di, I don't see the parallel to gay people."
"Everyone knows that in New York and LA, for example, several industries are run by a lot of gay talent," Diana said. "These are small worlds within big worlds. The way gossip travels is unreal, believe me."
She sat up suddenly. "Can you imagine being a fashion designer stuck out in Utah selling dresses to church ladies? It's like hell-some people say exile is the worst punishment. We don't know how he does it, we don't know why he does it, but this Scott guy may be some kind of very refined sadist."
Peter had been very quiet during this whole exchange. "I think I know what makes this guy tick."
"Planning on sharing with the class?" Jones prompted after a moment.
Diana shot him a look. "I'm sure Neal is safe. Who knows if they really see each other that much; you said yourself that guy's a workaholic. That mansion of his is so big—"
"I need to check on something. Thank you, both of you. This one's on me," Peters said sincerely and then threw some bills on the table and dashed off.
"Why did you give me that 'shut up or I'll use my martial arts skills on you' look?" Jones demanded. "We've been burning the midnight oil on this and I think we deserve to be in the loop."
"Peter hides it well, but I know he's beside himself about this for some reason. We have to make sure Neal is OK and then our boss will be OK again."
Both left wondering why they had come to accept this causal link without questioning over the past couple of years.
"Moz, tell me the additional criteria helped you find something," Peter sank down on the bench du jour.
"It did," the little man beamed. "And I think you'll like what I found. This fellow is here in New York."
"Here? You mean, he didn't get banished from his profession and his community?" Peter asked, wondering why there was this break in the pattern.
"Well, he assumed a new identity and became a Buddhist monk in Tibet." Peter frowned. "But he comes back here pretty often with his religious group, and still engages in his true profession of trading in antiquities under the table. He was in the outskirts of my extended thievery family, but it's sad to say that people drop off the grid all the time. Things are good for him now—he's able to exploit obscure treaties dealing with the provenance of items that really did belong to the religious group for centuries before things were carved up by modern rulers."
"So you're saying Scott doesn't know this man is in New York?"
"Who's to know that one guy with a shaved head in a maroon robe is actually an unreformed conman? It's brilliant."
"Can you arrange a meet up?"
Mozzie's attitude became more businesslike. "As his attorney, I would like you sign this list of conditions, including full immunity and no disclosure of his dual identity to anyone," he droned, producing a folder from his briefcase.
"Fine." Peter signed it.
"All right, you and a certain Buddhist monk have a date at the U.N. in" he checked his watch "45 minutes. Choedek Norbu will be the one with two knots in his robe. He's part of a delegation, so no fear of standing out while you talk. People are constantly having tête-à-têtes in the hallways."
"How do you know that?" Peter asked, accepting the piece of paper with Mozzie's coded assurances that their legal requests had been met.
"As a social activist I've –"
"Never mind. Thanks." The FBI agent turned to go and turned back. "So—Neal seems OK to you?"
"He doesn't spend a lot of time in the apartment anymore," Neal's friend said with a touch of sadness. "If this is a romance, and all signs point to yes, Neal is too absorbed to realize he needs to tell people what's going on."
"All the more reason to be sure," Peter said.
"I hope you're wrong, Suit, 'cause this idea of yours is hard for me to swallow and I believe almost every conspiracy theory you've heard of, and most of those you haven't, are actually real."
"It's all about getting inside someone's head, Haversham."
Peter rushed off to his meeting on the East Side.