That week, Neal was more like his old self again, and Peter began to settle back into the routine that had worked so well for them for so long. The occasional Prentiss Lloyd Scott influences the FBI man detected in his friend were a small price to pay for a multisyllabic CI.
On Saturday morning, however, a job came up, but when Peter called in the troops like he usually did, one of his troops was not having it.
"Please, Peter, I'm right in the middle of this canvas. Please give me the weekend off. I'll be on point come Monday morning," Neal pleaded.
"I don't want you around bullets if you're head's not in the game. But next thing I ask for- whatever it is—"
"I'll do it, carte blanche," Neal finished for him.
The artist had been waiting impatiently for his host to be through with some business deal that had occupied him for several days. He couldn't wait to show Prentiss the sketches he had been doing. When Scott came through the door of the viewing room, coffee cup in hand, Neal gave a pleased wave and wiped his hands on his smock.
"I wanted your opinion on these," he said with his portfolio opens on the table. "This guy I spotted at a bus stop. His face has a lot of character," Neal said.
"I see a boxer's nose, just like the other one," Scott said and flipped back to the previous drawing.
"But this man, he had this air about him that was similar," Neal traced the features of the next sketch with a finger, searching for the words.
"Yes, that mouth, I'd say that it was something with the mouth," the older man agreed.
"And this is someone I see in my corner bodega sometimes," Neal continued moving through the sketches.
Scott's hand stilled his guest's arm. "Neal, I see a quality to these drawings that has not been apparent in your recent work. Maybe you're coming out on top, artistically speaking. I'm sure I see something happening in you, so whatever you're doing, keep it up."
"Well, I was planning on working every spare minute this weekend," Neal replied. "Using your two-handed method, I was hoping to make progress on both paintings." He gazed at the billionaire who was nevertheless so down-to-earth. "There's no one else who could have understood what I was going through and patiently sat with me, looking at page after page of noses. Much less put up with how moody I've been for a couple of months."
"What else would I be doing?" Scott smiled.
"I have no idea—discovering more beautiful things? Making money? Playing your passive-aggressive games with Tomas in the breakfast nook? I don't think you ever get bored."
"No, I know how to entertain myself from my little corner of the world," his host agreed.
"There's a whole world out there for you, Prentiss. Maybe I can make you see that with the right brushstrokes."
"I think the world tends to look a certain way in juxtaposition with the right things. Let me or Tomas know if you need something," his host said, rising to his feet.
Peter's weekend was just as busy as Neal's but much more annoying. The job was right up the ex-conman's alley-the sort of upper-class gallery crawl he did effortlessly. Without their designated culture buff, everyone on the team did their own Neal Caffrey impression and failed miserably. Sheer persistence finally caught the suspect in an illegal offer, and they had just enough evidence to book her. They had to wait until Monday for Neal to mop up the mess from his absence, because they were sure the perp had done more than she'd admitted to doing.
Throughout the weekend, part of Peter's mind was thinking of unpleasant things he could make Neal do, to make good on that open-ended promise of his.
Other than the interrogations with the suspect, the team leader gave Neal the cold shoulder all day in the office on Monday.
"Should we just lock them in a room and leave them there a while?" Jones observed after a particularly tense meeting.
"I think they're cute when they have a tiff," Diana disagreed.
"Get your mind out of the gutter. I know we were onto something with this Scott fellow, but I don't understand why Peter doesn't let Neal in on our suspicions," Jones shook his head. "Peter doesn't tolerate intrigue long term."
"The boss will make his move at the right moment. He always does," Diana said with a smile. "What do some of the higher-ups call that look he has-it's like a rattlesnake under a rock that comes to life at exactly the right moment to lunge for the kill?"
That night, Peter gave his CI a head start and then headed over to Prentiss Lloyd Scott's mansion.
"I'd like to speak to Mr. Scott, please," he said into the intercom so that there would be no confusion about the purpose of his visit.
"Agent Burke, I see," Scott greeted him in his office, his eyes on the tie around Peter's neck. "Since you neckwear is loosened, I take it you're in some stage in your transformation to civilian? Please sit," the older man said, indicating one of the chairs in his work space. "Can I get you something?"
"A Neal Caffrey would hit the spot," Peter said with all the pent-up frustration of the last few days. "Otherwise, I'm fine, thanks." He looked around the office. "You seem to do a lot of work on your own, but you must have teams of people working for you all over the globe. I run a tight ship, and we're a man down without Neal—since I consider him worth more than one agent, the fraction that he drags around work leaves us about a man short."
Scott made an encouraging gesture with his hand that might have been inviting Peter to take more rope to hang himself. "Mr. Scott, I might not be an artist, and I can't tell the difference between Pop Art and Op Art, but I happen to believe enforcing the law is important. Maybe art is the true universal because we all need beautiful things in our lives; I won't argue with you. But making the long arm of the law touch everyone takes its own kind of art. Just ask Neal if it's relevant to him."
Prentiss Scott moved one of his pencil containers an inch to the right. "Neal has spent his life running from the law, so certainly he is marked by it, but I'm afraid I cannot allow its—or anyone's—arm to reach him right now. He's finally painting in earnest. I myself have scarcely spoken to him in days."
"How do you know that he's actually painting more than the lines and circles he's been doing?" All of the drawings he'd seen scattered on the floor the last time he was there were senseless scrawls to his untrained eye.
Scott interacted with his computer to little bit, and then turned the monitor around so that Peter could see a silent video feed playing. It must be live, because it had the current date and time, and Neal, wearing the same clothes he'd worn to work, was painting with great concentration. Sometimes he was using both hands on the two canvases before him, and sometimes only one. Peter saw a version of that wild bird in the face of this man with untamed eyes that shone out of the black- and-white recording. What he wasn't prepared for was to see that Neal was talking to himself in what he assumed was his painting privacy.
"There's something compelling about our mutual friend when he forgets to be beautiful," Prentiss stated. "Tomas will make sure the splatters of paint on his face are wiped off before he goes out into the street."
"What is he saying?" Peter couldn't resist asking.
Prentiss Lloyd Scott faced the FBI agent with eyebrows raised in what appeared to be real surprise. "There's something of the voyeur in you, almost-agent Burke."
His guest laughed it off. "Force of habit after chasing someone for so long. Maybe my boundaries got a little blurred along the way."
"Well, depending on how blurred they are, you can go see Tomas. I'm not the sort of employer who likes to listen to what the cooks say about him in the kitchen, so I don't have the audio on this machine. Tomas keeps the full audio and video feeds for security purposes for a certain amount of time. He has fewer scruples than I, I assure you, and I can instruct him not to request a warrant if you want to view it."
The butler was summoned and led Peter to a room with a wall full of monitors and fancy equipment. While the employee retrieved the recording, Peter looked again at the man who glided around without making a sound. The background check that they'd done on the butler when he first became interested in Prentiss Scott revealed an impeccable record. Former employers hated to lose him. There was a high turnover in his profession, and Scott was first employer that Tomas had stayed with over five years.
Peter didn't mind being near him the way he did his employer. Perhaps because he could feel the open distaste that Tomas clearly transmitted back to everyone except his boss, and the openness was refreshing. For a man who seemed to be in his early sixties, with no education to speak of, he was fiddling with the sophisticated computer equipment with confidence.
Finally he took off the headphones he'd been wearing and the audio filled the room. Neal was talking to the canvas in front of him as he painted. "Peter if you only knew how much time I've spent studying your mouth. It's your most interesting feature, and the reason why I haven't been able to paint you thus far, I suspect. It's so hard to capture the sense that it could move at any moment. It could easily be giving me the Peter Burke frowny expression," he made a grimace and giggled, painting a little in silence.
"Or it could be the guarded, 'I think it's OK to have a good time, but don't take advantage of my leaving my guard down,' sort of thing." He studied his canvas with the paintbrush in his mouth. "Right there, Peter, if you keep your mouth just like that, I promise I will not make you regret it."
The Neal in the recording started rummaging around the paint supplies. "Damn it, that's not the right color." And then the artist began swearing with much more abandon than Peter was accustomed to in his urbane friend.
The butler fast-forwarded. "If I can make this turn out all right, you owe me a big apology for all the Mountie-like looks you've been shooting me all these months from your high horse."
In the video, Prentiss came into the room, and the butler fast-forwarded until he left, evidently respecting his employer's privacy. All Peter could see was that they were pointing at the canvases and talking about what they saw. The video raced ahead and Peter saw Neal napping on the couch, having tea-it really was much more prosaic than he'd imagined, the time that his friend spent at the mansion.
The butler stopped the recording again. "I've got a bead on you, Prentiss Lloyd Scott," Neal was saying to a canvas. "I know now why Peter gets so into the art of pursuit." He reflected a moment. "I like that. That's what this is-the art of pursuit. I see you in there, Prentiss, and don't worry. I'll be gentle with him when I reach him."
"Do you want to hear more?"
Peter had been so absorbed by first, the revelation that Peter was painting him, which was quickly soured by the fact that he was in the same boat with Scott, that he started a little. It was the first time that Peter had heard the butler's voice. He was surprised to hear that it had the soft and rolling cadence of Brazil, which contrasted so starkly with the lugubrious older man in a tail coat.
"No, thank you, I must be getting home."
"Hi El," he called as he walked in the door. "I'll be in for dinner in a minute."
Peter went into the hall coat closet and began rummaging around until he was distracted by a smell. It was his jacket, one of his older garments that he'd lent Neal, who didn't posses anything low-class enough to blend in at one of their seamier undercover ops. He sniffed and there it was, that Neal smell. He'd never thought about it before, but he knew that it was some essence of his friend.
It wasn't lost on Peter Burke that there was something seriously wrong with first, knowing that this was the way his CI smelled, and second, lingering there with the aroma filling his nose. His life had begun a long, slow slide out of control at some point back, he suddenly realized, and he felt it was important to isolate exactly when that point was, but he heard his wife coming.
"What were you doing in the closet, honey?" Elizabeth asked.
Peter had emerged with his tuxedo in his hands. "I was just wondering when the last time was I got this cleaned."
"Are you taking me somewhere special?" she asked flirtatiously, executing a few dance steps.
Her husband felt guilty for some reason when he apologized, "No, it's for work. I'm going undercover, and I'm taking Neal with me, sorry, hon."
Over dinner he tried to articulate once more his misgivings about Neal's new friend. "I watched this security footage today. No, he doesn't spy on Neal; only the butler has access to all of it. And I saw this successful, aboveboard businessman, a philanthropist even, hour after hour of him looking at Neal's art. He has more patience for it than I ever could, even more than Mozzie. But I would much rather Neal have Mozzie, oddball career criminal, as his mentor, than this guy Scott."
As usual, Elizabeth was an intelligent listener. "Mozzie has grown on both of us, and you can't deny that he has a heart of gold in there. Evidently you don't think that this guy Scott does," she said. "I trust your judgment, but all we can do is keep reminding Neal that we're there for him."
Friday night was a rare event for New York's upper crust—the Metropolitan Museum of Art was having one of its exclusive dinners. These gala occasions, to which only the crème-de-la-crème of society was invited, were the stuff of legend. Naturally, socialites were abuzz with anticipation. But for some reason, there was also chatter in advance of the evening that a certain Rodin sculpture was going to be on the market.
"This person is either really cocky or really stupid, to be advertising an item they haven't even acquired yet," Peter said to the team as they prepared for the operation.
"Hey, when you do steal something like that, trust me, you want to be able to move it out as fast as possible," Neal disagreed. "So our mystery criminal might not be that stupid after all. Though they weren't very discreet about how they left word on a dealer site."
"Awfully hard to prepare when we don't even know who this person is," Jones said in frustration. "We have an IP address that's been cloaked and rerouted so many times, there's no way to trace it."
"Then we'll just have to be extra-observant," the team leader declared.
Peter didn't mind wearing a tuxedo; he wasn't one of those men who were allergic to dressing up. But he suddenly felt very self-conscious when he met Neal on the steps of the Met.
"Hey honey," Neal gave him a peck on his cheek.
As if he did it every day, Peter pulled his CI's arm through his an0d steered them through the elegant crowd towards the door. He caught several people giving him jealous looks, but other than that, being undercover as a same-sex couple was a perfectly natural plan in New York.
Since the setting was so intimate, he'd decided against having four undercover agents inside, and thus, Neal was his date. Peter wanted to be one of the inside men because he had his own game going in addition to official business.
In advance of the event, Peter had used his network to spread a rumor: that Prentiss Lloyd Scott might make an appearance at the Met. With all the plastic surgery, he and Scott appeared to be about the same age, and men of his class must radically change their looks quite frequently because they could afford to.
If the rumor was skilful enough, the agent had a chance at seeing how people actually react to the presence of the billionaire in their midst. Everyone knew of him but few could claim to have seen him in recent years—a stock photo several years old was what was used when he appeared in the paper.
Neal had approved the open-ended identity assumed by Peter as a good way to fit in at the event without having to painstakingly construct a fake identity. If he noticed the similarity to the billionaire he knew best, he didn't say anything about it.
They emptied their pockets and went through an X-ray machine, coming out on the other side to be greeted by the private security the museum had hired for the event. "They seem to be pretty cautious," Peter approved. "But even I can tell that this would be an ideal setting to pull something off."
"Nick Holden and a very special guest," Neal said, with just enough emphasis to make Peter seem like a mysterious plus one. The person taking tickets gave a conspiratorial glance—Peter had been assured the greatest discretion for the evening.
They walked past the greeters and into one of the galleries that were specially set up with seldom-displayed pieces. "Yes, if you know rich people, they like to be surrounded by the idea of something luxurious, but it doesn't matter too much if they're actually looking at it or not," Peter continued, looking at the knots of conversationalists completely ignoring the art.
"I couldn't've said it better myself," Neal grinned. With his hand on Peter's arm he very naturally steered them before a collection of paintings. "Look at this; this is from a private collection, here just for the evening." With an assured touch, he kept one hand on Peter, directing him through the exhibits, while with the other he pointed out details of the artwork in front of them.
This was exactly what Peter meant when he told Mozzie that Neal made you feel like you're the center of the universe. For whatever reason, his friend usually didn't have the patience to explain what he saw in a piece of art before, but Peter was getting so much more out of it.
"What does this remind you of—quick—word association," Neal said, and Peter soon lost the self-consciousness that usually turned into an instant museum headache.
Though he knew it was only for show, anyone would like to pretend that they really belonged in the center of that spotlight provided by Neal, the only other person in the world for a moment.
That's why the FBI agent was surprised when he heard Jones' voice in his ear.
"You two done whispering sweet nothings in each other's years and ready to move on to sweet somethings?"
"I'll always be on the lookout for you, darling," Peter snapped for the benefit of their listeners.
"And I for you," Neal replied. They walked around in silence, Neal straightening Peter's tie and squeezing his arm to encourage him not to be annoyed at the sacrilegious accusation that he wasn't doing his job.
The ex-con halted them quite naturally before a tray of hors d'oeuvres. "Did you have a doctor's appointment at 4:00 tomorrow, honey?""
Peter's eyes flicked in that direction. "Most definitely 4:00, that I might be moving it up closer," he said to indicate to their listeners that someone suspicious was walking near them.
"Is that the suspect?" Diana demanded, "The thin blonde guy who joined that group?"
"He seems confident, but you can tell he's not comfortable in a tux," Neal said.
"I've got a good feeling, too," Peter said, covering Neal's hand with his own. The guy had been moving from group to group too much, unlike the more insular high-class folks.
A discreet chime sounded, and then the museum-goers began making their way towards the elegant meal that was to be the highlight of the evening.
"This is only my second one of these," Neal confided as they were seated in a prime location, from where they could see all of the artwork, the ice sculptures and the fountain that had been created for the occasion, with none of the string players in the way.
They couldn't have asked for a better view of the Rodin, which Peter recognized from the photos they'd prepped with.
"Is it really? I would've thought you were a veteran," Peter answered. A centerpiece that was a little too tall for comfortable conversation was removed without their asking by one of the wait staff. It was replaced by a simpler arrangement that was even nicer than the others.
"Mmm," Neal sniffed appreciatively. "Jasmine."
The dishes and cutlery that were already on each table were likewise whisked away. The porcelain that replaced it had a thin gold stripe, and the silverware had a more substantial gleam.
The two men watched the preparations. "So yes, the last time I was at one of these events was when I was straight off the bus and new to New York. This only happens once every several years, it's such a logistical nightmare. And mere mortals can't get tickets, unless they come in on the arm of someone with real connections," he grinned.
"A lot has happened in your life since you were, what, 17?"
"Yeah, I gave up the flannel a long time ago." The impeccably dressed criminal nodded at his companion's amazement.
"They let you in here with flannel?" Peter marveled, looking around at the furs and sequins.
"No, I—bartered—for the chance to be one of the wait staff, which is no easy feat. These people who do exclusive parties are bonded after going through an extensive reference check. It's probably just as hard to get a job waiting tables at the White House, as it is to get the chance to pass canapés to the best of New York."
"You were casing the art?" Peter was saying as the music started up.
"Nah, I happened by and was curious to see real muckity-mucks up close. Do you know someone in the event staff, Peter? Because we're getting the red carpet treatment."
Finger bowls with petals floating in them had just been placed on only their table.
"That's why I was asking you if you had been to one of these before." Peter had already noticed that whereas the other guests were subtly moved from exhibit to exhibit is so that they didn't obstruct the traffic flow, he and Neal were allowed to stand as long as they like to be for whatever they want to look at, while Neal showed him the high points of the Impressionist specimen before them.
Neal reached across the table and ran his fingertips over Peter's knuckles. "And here I thought you were trying to impress me, honey."
The first wine was brought around, and Peter was certain that it was not what everyone else was drinking, because Neal seemed in awe of the very label.
"This wine would get you pretty far," his friend said, making a face that comprehended what their colleagues in the van must be saying to that comment.
They had every right to the laughter they shared.
And so the two undercover operatives passed the time from course to course, each new dish presented with greater refinement to their table. And just like the practiced pretenders that they were, the exchange of these pleasantries did nothing to distract their observational faculties, which were on high alert.
The well-heeled gay couple chose the beef and the fish and shared them both, all the while discussing supposed appointments that were meant to indicate which direction the surveillance team was supposed to look. It seemed as though they had a busy social calendar, because neither of them was able to tell where the suspect was signaling to.
"Are you sure you picked the right guy?" Jones demanded. "Because we only have so many cameras set up, and you've got us on a wild goose chase."
"There's only one for me," Neal said, toying with Peter's cuff as he gazed at the young blond man who'd been seated at the long table with the less-important guests. He was talking easily enough with people around him, but Neal had a clear view of his fingertips, which were making subtle waving motions as he drank his wine.
"And it only took one look for me, too," Peter returned, affirming that he was sure that they had their man. "Any luck matching the face with the guest list?"
"Must be a pseudonym, and he was wearing gloves when he turned in his ticket, because there are no fingerprints on it other than those of the ticket taker," Diana said in frustration from where she was interfacing with security up front.
The last course was finally retired, and dishes of sorbet were being circulated around the room. A waitress came up to their table and indicated that the couple should follow her.
"I don't know what they have in store for us next, but I hope that they're going to serve us dessert in the Impressionists wing," Neal hissed.
But the FBI agent could tell that that wasn't what was happening. Their bodies tensed as one as the two men followed the silent waitress down a service corridor and out onto the street. The whole time Peter and Neal were exchanging looks that said, "What we've been getting is the law enforcement extra special treatment—how could they have made us?"
"Have a good evening," the waitress said politely, startling their silent conversation. Peter emptied his wallet of all the cash that he had thought to bring that night, and hoped it was enough to sustain the impression that he was Prentiss Lloyd Scott. The woman disappeared with a nod back inside the building.
"Where did you guys go? Wait, where did everybody go? Are you two all right? Peter, do you copy?" Jones was squawking urgently through their earpieces.
"They must've made us, damn it," Neal swore in anger. "They wanted to get us of the way before the deal went down."
Peter was holding his earpiece and frowning at the noise. "What's happening in there? Can you see the Rodin?"
"It's what we don't see," Jones answered. "Somebody let off some type of tear gas bomb or something, because the last thing we saw was people holding their faces and coughing, and then the smoke obscured the cameras."
"Stand down, Diana, don't expose yourself," Peter ordered.
"Son of a bitch," Neal said. "The reason why we couldn't tell who he was signaling to is that they're all in this together. That's the way these people are—the one time I impersonated being a waiter the guy had to check it out with every single person on the team before he would give me his jacket. Probably only as clueless as I was, fresh-faced off the Greyhound, would have been able to convince them."
"That's a lot of people to keep track of, Boss," Diana put in.
"Doesn't matter, we're still in control of this thing. Diana. Jones, lock down the building. Nothing goes in or out—that includes windows and grates, the works. I see a crowd that's been gassed by an unknown substance, and that sounds like a quarantine situation to me. Call in medical attention, and we use that as an excuse to make sure that everyone stays where they are."
"You don't think they're seriously going to go ahead with the job knowing that the law has been here all evening and is standing right outside, do you?" Neal asked.
"They let off the bomb after they escorted us out, and they didn't make us Neal, they're trying to protect us."
Before Neal could react to that statement, Peter added, "Let's give them a chance to hide whatever they're going hide, and then we find where they hid it. They still think everything is going according to plan after one small hitch."
Later on, as their fellow officers tried to sort through the contradictory stories of the wait staff, some of whom had allowed themselves to be gassed for verisimilitude, while others had been protected by gas masks, the core team got together.
"The old Rodin in the coffee urn ruse. Maybe these weren't master criminals after all," Neal shrugged.
"The classics got that way for a reason," Peter replied.
"You played a good game this evening, gentlemen," Diana congratulated them.
Neal seemed too tired to react to the innuendo. "I forget how much fun I can have with this job. You run a good con, Agent Burke." He extended his hand.
Peter grasped his hand and shook it. "Good night, Neal. And thanks."
"So why did they remove you from the scene of the crime if they didn't make you?" were?" Jones wanted to know.
"Because I am an international tycoon playboy who's too private to give his name and comes out all too seldom although he is out as gay."
"I get it. Nice play, boss," Diana said.
"I dropped a few hints, that's all. And you see that I was given the kid glove treatment. People actively involved in a crime were willing to take a risk just to make sure that I didn't inhale tear gas or run any danger whatsoever."
"I knew you're onto something with this Scott guy," Jones said.
"We still don't have any evidence," their boss reminded them.
"But this man's connected," Diana put in. "And not to other people of his class, but to caterers and criminals."
"They helped him, sight unseen. This guy has a powerful reputation."
"It was a very instructive evening overall. Thank you both for picking up the slack with the unexpected turn of events," Peter told his trusted team members.
"Then why the long face, boss?" Diana asked as they were about to part ways.
"This is finally progress, but I don't feel any better. I know there's something there but I can't do anything about it." Peter rubbed his face tiredly.
"And at least you know," Diana said gently. "I got your back, no matter what."
Peter got his car out of the garage and drove home. He did have a really good time. The kind you're not supposed to have at this point in his life.
All the wait staff had ghosted in and out, conspiring to help this couple be alone, and they had created a sort of cushion around them. Yet Peter looked back on their evening as if he and Neal had been enclosed in something warm and translucent like amber. His and Neal's mutual enjoyment belonged to other people in the same way that you couldn't help but smile when you saw prom dates or proposals in restaurants.
Together, they had made a very successful counterfeit—worthy of a Caffrey. For one evening, Peter and Neal had made the fancy partygoers believe in something for a few moments, just by virtue of their shared laughter at the private facial expressions Neal had made at the expense of the team listening in.
Somehow, with agents hearing every word, Peter had experienced a private moment.
Agent Burke remembered clearly the first lesson he learned about undercover work: the best lies are based on truth. Lesson number two, don't fall for your own lie, was getting harder and harder to remember.
It was all part of that need to feel like he was at the center of the world. "You don't get to stay there, Burke, he doesn't belong to anyone like that. Much less you. And what would you do if you had him?"
That totally unexpected question had him gripping the steering wheel white-knuckled all the way home. This was something he never wanted to know, that he never wanted to know that he wanted to know, and here he was, Peter Burke, losing his mind, finally, after too many lies.
Occupational hazard. Get some perspective; everything will be all right in the morning.
But that question, once conceptualized, was not so easily dismissed. Peter asked that question silently, with every movement, as he slowly seduced Elizabeth awake and made love to her. What would I do? Why am I thinking these things? He pounded the interrogation into her and she responded with joy.
Spent, satisfied, he slept peacefully. As did Elizabeth.