The Commission

Chapter 8

"This is the ultra-secret meeting place?" Peter protested when he caught up to the small figure leaning on the railing of the Staten Island Ferry as it pulled away from shore.

"It's noisy enough to make it hard to overhear a conversation, and the tourists think you're a native while the natives think you're a tourist, meaning, in whatever case, not in their circle," Mozzie said, a couple of sightseeing brochures peeping out of his pocket. "After all, when you're on the subway, aren't you in full 'see no evil, hear no evil mode?'"

Peter took a deep breath and grimaced. "This is actually smellier than the subway, so I'll get straight to the point." The eyes looked at him unblinkingly through the glasses. "I'm going insane."

"I'd tell you it's all a social construct, but having walked through the valley of shadow a few times myself, I know what you're talking about."

The raging feelings that he had come to think of as a wild animal inside of him calmed a little, miraculously, at the matter-of-fact tone. Sometimes the FBI man understood why Neal kept this annoying little man around when everyone else flowed in and out of his life. Or maybe this was why Mozzie had a gift for animals.

The criminal pulled his hat down a little more securely against the wind. "You chose to talk with someone you don't think of as particularly sane because insanity loves company?"

"I'm not a civilian, Moz, I can't just make an appointment with a counselor if I need to get things off my chest. If anyone finds out, it goes on my record, and the bureau will use it against me forever."

"That's fairly medieval, especially in New York, where being neurotic is a time-honored way of life." Mozzie looked carefully out to the water. "I take it you don't feel comfortable talking to Elizabeth about it."

"I will, believe me I will, but she's been so accepting about this Prentiss Lloyd Scott thing I can't seem to convince her it's a delusion now."

"Hah! Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not—"

The look of abject misery on the lawman's face stopped Mozzie's recitation of the old saw.

"Why don't you tell Dr. Moz all about it, and if I can't help you, maybe I can refer you to a colleague?"

"Just like you have those shady law degrees and ordination certificates, are you really some kind of counselor?" Peter asked curiously.

The little man made a show of pressing his fingers to his lips. "Talk, because as Freud said, 'He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.'"

Peter was too overwrought to try to decode that reference.

"Ever since I've been carrying on my private investigation—always a bad idea, come to think of it—of Prentiss Scott, I've started becoming—not myself. It finally hit me the other day that this man Scott is actually quite normal. When he told me about his security recordings and I immediately wanted to hear both audio and video of Neal painting while he was alone, he treated me like some kind of nut."

"Suit, what is adaptive in one setting is completely nutty in another. Your paranoia makes you a star at your job. But up until now, that's where you've been able to leave it."

"Right, so I met your friend the monk, and at first I felt totally justified in my suspicions that Scott is this insidious influence. But in reality, this Norbu guy has no proof! Just a feeling that his misfortunes were authored by Prentiss Scott."

"Anyone else you suspect of being harmed by Scott?" Mozzie knew that Peter had collected quite a bit of information.

"They won't talk to me, or they a reasonable explanation." Peter paused and then continued unhappily, "That simply doesn't satisfy me."

"Do you believe there is something called truth, that exists separate from perception? It's a valid philosophical question."

"Moz, I'm on the ropes here," Peter protested.

The would-be counselor continued calmly, "Do you believe that it is entirely possible for this theory to be true while you are completely lacking in evidence to that effect? And do you need it to be proved in order to feel justified?"

"I don't care about truth! I want to stop feeling this way!"

The FBI man looked around nervously. Luckily the breeze and the motor carried away the force of his outburst.

"Delusions of persecution?" The con man was peering at him. "Do you think Scott is going to come after you?"

"Maybe, I have so many crazy thoughts going on in here you have no idea, Moz." Peter leaned against the railing. "I think I'm like that monk, like I'm doing it to myself. I'm my own worst enemy at this point."

"One of the skills taught to the ninja is the art of making a person take up the blade against himself."

"Thanks, Mozzie."

"I think you need to see a specialist."

Peter wasn't going to argue on that point.

"I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but this person better be so far off the books, below the radar and outside of any professional credentials or I'm not interested."

"Don't worry. You're completely safe. You think the denizens of the criminal underworld never need to get their heads shrunk?"

The FBI agent took a long lunch and then had difficulty locating the person, but then, Mozzie had only given him a quadrant of Central Park to work from.

He tentatively extended the box of chocolates to the person in the parks services uniform. "Terence Patterson?"

The rail-thin man, an African-American gentleman of about 55 with several gold teeth, threw down his bag and trashpicker and grabbed the chocolates. "They administer my salary for me, and my social worker and I have been at an impasse for some time: they won't let me buy junk food if I don't eat my meals, and I tell them the group home slop isn't fit for human consumption."

He chewed appreciatively while examining the box. "None of that assorted cream crap. These are hard to find. Thanks."

"You're a little hard to find yourself," Peter said, hoping to move this along.

"You must really need help," Terence said in a friendly tone. "Here, consider this my office; make yourself at home." He handed Peter a pair of gloves and some pruning shears.

The FBI man stared at the person who was asking him to do his job for him.

"Oh, take the jacket, no one will give us a second look."

Peter put the labeled slicker over his suit and immediately felt less visible.

"Are you trained in a certain school?" he asked politely.

"If you came to me, it's because you don't want someone with a wall full of diplomas. Waste of time, most of them anyway. I've been through the system enough times to tell you that," Terence asserted, spearing some food wrappers.

This comforted Peter for some reason, that he wasn't missing anything by not going to a Madison Avenue shrink.

The fact that Terence wasn't taking any notes was especially reassuring.

"This is considered my work therapy. I don't like sitting behind a desk," the other man said to fill the silence.

"I think I've stopped liking it too much for my own good," the FBI agent said darkly. "I have a job of a sensitive nature."

"You're the law, of course I can tell. And not the first one I've seen." He laughed a big belly laugh at the other man's surprise. "You wouldn't be the first person to go crazy from chasing criminals all day."

"It's only one. One in particular that I've been chasing for some years, and I –caught him for about 30 seconds, and I liked it too much, and now I want him back."

It was easier to talk while they were working side by side, so Peter was miraculously able to spit out a censored version of his long history with Neal and the recent change in his feelings towards him. Maybe this is going to be easier than I expected, he dared to think.

"Have you ever been attracted to a man before?" the groundskeeper asked suddenly.

"No!" Peter gave a savage chop with the shears.

"But you're having sexual fantasies about him."

"We went undercover together and I was pretty irritated at the other agents interrupting our 'date.' It felt—like there was nothing wrong with us touching each other and eating off the same plate. The world stopped for me, for seconds at a time, that night."

"Well, there wouldn't be anything wrong with it if you weren't married," the man said with a glance at Peter's ring.

"But I am!"

"We'll get to your wife in a little while. Let's just play this out. What would an average Friday night be like for you and him as a couple?"

Peter was ashamed to have a ready answer.

"He knows everything and everyone, so when he's patient enough to explain things, I wouldn't mind going to his art shows and concerts—well, maybe some of the concerts. He gets so happy from listening to a fat lady sing an aria that I be happy sitting next to him just about anywhere and feeling him being happy."

"And at home afterwards?" Terence lifted a plastic bottle into his garbage bag.

"After getting a drink with people we know, we'd go home. I'd make him one of my excellent steaks-he'd have wine, I'd have beer-and that's all we need. A home together."

"So who does the dishes?"

"He washes, I dry."

"You watch some TV?"

"Hardly," Peter laughed, totally caught up in the vision. "I watch, he reads."

"And then you go to bed."

"Right, a simple evening." A feeling of relaxation was rolling over him, just thinking about it.

"And then?"

The smile fell off Peter's face.

"Who initiates?" continued Terence in a natural tone.

"Me," his patient answered hollowly.

"Do you undress before or after you get into bed?"

"After, no, before."

"And he's laying there, looking at you, what do you do then?" the complete stranger asked.

"He said something about my mouth, for a painting. So he sees my hesitation and runs his fingers over my lips. I grab his hand and I kiss him.

"I keep removing my mouth to see that look in Neal's eyes, wild, but waiting to see what I'll do next.

"He's smaller than I am. He feels—fast—aerodynamic—made for flight-and I hold him in my arms and kiss him as if my life depends on it."

"Maybe it does," the groundskeeper observed.

The stranger's voice pulled him out of the fantasy. He dropped the shears.

"Did I really say all that?" he gasped.

"No hesitation at all. Like I barely had to nick the vein," Terence replied.

"I don't want to go any further." Peter realized he was trembling.

"Hey man, there's a bench right close to here. Sit. Have a chocolate. No, really, sugar is good for shock."

Peter picked something that turned out to be a hazelnut truffle. It did make him feel a little better.

Maybe he should keep chocolates around the office to clear his head.

"I think about these things in the office sometimes. Or at home, anywhere, but it's like the thoughts are thinking me."

He looked worriedly at the older man, who merely nodded. "There are a couple of possibilities, the one you're most worried about, that you're going certifiable, being the least likely."

The FBI man slumped back on the bench in relief.

"However, the second worst-case scenario in your eyes-that you want this man romantically-is the most likely."

Peter took another chocolate.

"These things happen, what can I tell you?" Terence shrugged. "All the statistics in the world about sexual orientation being set by a certain age are made for exceptions."

The FBI man put his head between his knees.

"Hey, dude," Peter flinched from the slap on the back. "You don't strike me as a homophobe, so cheer up. Maybe this guy likes you back."

"I'm married!" he exploded, making a few birds scatter from a nearby tree.

"Let me put it to you straight-sorry, no pun intended. This is either something you explore, you learn about yourself, and you file away, never to disrupt your life—"

"Or it isn't," Peter completed.

"But the mind is like quicksand, my friend. The more you struggle with something, the easier it sucks you down. You don't want your life to change? Then you head face-first into those fantasies like a big boy. I'd say you have a 50/49 chance of being able to keep this as a fantasy, which is really nobody's business but your own."

"Where's the other 1%?"

"Oh, that's ending up in Bellevue. Don't worry; it's pretty nice there. The food is better than the group home. But like Freud said, 'One is very crazy when in love,' so chances are you're good."

This guy was so sensible Peter suddenly felt bad that he didn't have his own legitimate practice. There was one strong possibility for why that was.

"Can I ask-?"

"Schizoaffective disorder. Best of both worlds. I got your delusions and your emotional torment covered."

The agent hadn't even touched on his Prentiss Lloyd Scott delusions, but he felt that this might be the person to talk about them with some time.

He sat there at the end of his long lunch, feeling all the unthinkable things he'd just voiced hanging in the air. Peter took a deep breath. "As bad as this was, I'm not dreading going back to the office. Thank you Terence. What do I owe you?"

"My situation is kind of like being in prison-money doesn't do me that much good. If you could get me a new belt, something a little smaller than this one, I'd be grateful. Maybe a pastrami sandwich, next time."

"Consider it done."

"Leave word with our mutual acquaintance about your next appointment," Terence called after him.

Peter wolfed down a hot dog on the way to the subway and got back to work with a clear mind for the first time since his evening as Neal's "date."

That night was a goodbye celebration for someone at work, and Neal broke his recent custom and stayed for the party. It was so rare to have him at an office function that he ended up being the center of attention, people asking him to tell favorite stories and do card tricks. He was even forced to sing his famous insider trading aria, for which he received a resounding round of applause from the entire restaurant.

"Sometimes this feels like home," Neal said softly from where they stood with their drinks.

Knowing about Mozzie's "Homer" idea, Peter knew this was sacred ground.

"I think we each have several potential homes, and while sometimes we have to choose, there is such a thing as the 'home not taken.'" It was what he'd been considering since his "therapy" appointment today. Peter felt serene at being able to say a coded version of the fantasies his mind insisted upon producing about his CI.

Neal was looking up at him. "You're a wise man, Peter. I never know what you're going to come out with, and I like that. Like right now, you could just as easily be thinking of some crime you're going to nail me for, or—

"Or what?" Peter prompted in a small voice, both men looking at the woman serving her cake.

Neal laughed. "That's the thing. I don't know. That's the beauty of our relationship."

Peter's heart panged at the word relationship.

"Stop giving us another rendition of your date from the other night," Jones called over to them.

"I was disappointed I didn't get to see the kiss goodnight," Diana agreed.

"Come on!" Whistles and catcalls came from their colleagues.

Long experience undercover helped Peter keep his face in the appropriate "come on guys" expression, while inside he wanted to drag Neal out on the street and kiss him but good.

Peter's phone buzzed in his pocket.

"I'm sorry, honey, I've had the most terrible day," Elizabeth said in a weepy voice.

"What's the matter, hon?" Peter asked with his finger in his ear.

"Everything went wrong at this event I had tonight. Everything. I felt like I had a big kick me sign on my back."

"Are you home?"

"No, we're just about finished cleaning up. Do you know anyone who would need some extremely expensive vinegar? Because I'm your woman."

"No, sweetie, you're not making any sense. Vinegar, did you say? Did something go wrong with the supplies for the dinner? I thought you triple-check everything the day before, like always?" Peter was pulling on his coat.

"I did, Peter, but I don't open every single bottle of wine, obviously. This was that professional association for the architects, they wanted to spend more on the wine than the food for the dinner. We sampled the wine together; I ordered cases of white and red; and I sampled it again yesterday."

Peter was holding on to a doorway.

"All of the layers of the bottles, all except the top, had faulty corks, though they looked absolutely fine to me. Normally it would be the reverse, you know, the elements getting to the outside bottles first. But it was the inside that had all turned. We're not talking 1957 Chateau Marmont, so the chances of the red and the white-" Elizabeth gave instructions to someone. "I'm here. Are you there?"

"Don't you have your special service to get you out of a jam?" her husband prompted.

"Yes, I brought in different wine, which you know how people are, after the second glass they don't notice. But it was at a steep markup for the rush delivery. I won't even tell you—"

"Ssh, honey, I don't care how much it cost. I care that you had a terrible evening and I know how you are—you put on a brave face so you don't make things worse for everyone else, and you were crying on the inside."

He listened to the sobbing for another minute while he threw some money down and squeezed the shoulder of the woman who was leaving the bureau.

"It's El," he mouthed to Neal, and Peter left the restaurant.

"Listen, El, I parked my car nearby. I'll be home within the hour. Can you leave all the cleanup to someone else?"

"I'm sorry to ruin someone else's good time by having you leave the party," she sniffled.

Peter didn't want to think about what kind of dare his colleagues would have egged Neal into trying on him.

But he forced himself to play through the fantasy in the car so he could focus on Elizabeth when he got home.

Neal's hand had been playfully snaking up his arm. It circled around his neck, swiveling Peter to face him, moving down his mouth so he could do something teasing and liquid with his tongue.

Peter had to slow down. He was going way over the speed limit.

He didn't know when it had happened, but fantasizing about his CI was now less frightening than thinking about Prentiss Lloyd Scott.

His wife came in right after him and he listened to Elizabeth tell the tale again, calmer. Apparently one of the refrigerators at the rented space had been functioning just below food-grade temperature, and the shrimp had spoiled.

"But that was clearly the rental hall's fault, so they had to assume all the expense for getting more shrimp cocktail at the last minute," she related. "People think I'm crazy for going around with my food thermometer."

"You are not crazy, Elizabeth Burke. You listen to me on this one."

And he hugged her while swearing himself to secrecy:

Don't tell her about the worms-don't tell her about the monk and his Chippendale furniture—Peter Burke, you keep those worms to yourself.

There was nothing he wanted to do more than share the clammy feeling that had reasserted itself in his throat.

Peter had no way of proving that these two misfortunes to befall his wife were not only related, but intentional.

"Scott's flexing his muscles, showing me what he can do," he thought to himself, lying in bed next to his sleeping wife. "This is what he does—he gives you a warning that he holds your life in his hands and you'd better do what he wants."

What the billionaire wanted was very clear:

He wanted Neal for himself.

Maybe a while back, when Peter was trying to show the tycoon that Neal was off-limits because he already had a home, and loved ones, and didn't need his Rembrandt and his fine wines, maybe then the threat wouldn't have been as effective.

But now, when even hearing Neal's voice evoked that special Neal smell in this nostrils and it made him have to recite the Bill of Rights to calm down the commotion in his pants—

Now the choice between his wife's wellbeing and Neal in his life was a torture.

Every time Peter leaned back on the pillow and shut his eyes he saw worms.

But when he finally got to sleep, very late, there was something wriggling in the bed with him all right. It was Neal, slinking, almost escaping his arms. Peter wrapping his body around the other man to hold him, keep him, just like that, don't leave, just like that.

Elizabeth was stroking his back when he woke up.

"I wasn't very attentive to you last night," she said, evidently much calmer.

"You were upset." He stroked her face and then followed her gaze.

"You know stress at work does that to me sometimes," he said, getting up to change himself and the sheets.

"We both have stressful jobs, and I love how you don't judge me for my occasional crying jag over spoiled shrimp," she said, following him into the shower.

He held her close under the stream of water, happy that they could rely on each other, happy that he couldn't tell if there was additional moisture on his face that was being washed down the drain.

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