The Commission

Chapter 9

Neal gazed at his host, mixed a slightly different shade of teal and resumed painting. "I can't believe you've never mentioned it," he said casually out of the blue.

Prentiss Scott froze from where he'd been posed on a blue brocade chair, gazed around the room intently and then chuckled. "I thought you'd fobbed off another forgery on me and I hadn't noticed for days."

"No," Neal said, "I mean that I've been painting you—among other things—all this time and you've never asked to see what I'm doing."

"Art is like life, my friend: we'd all do much better if we weren't constantly criticized while we were doing it."

"Well said, but you've even put one of your safes at my disposal. I've never put anything into a safe, Prentiss, only taken things out of them."

"And I've been encouraging you to rejigger your valuation of your own work," Scott wagged his finger. "Even if I'd never seen your recent drawings, I'd know your art certainly merits safekeeping. And when you choose to perhaps show it to me one day, it will mean all the more."

Neal sighed contentedly and took a sip from his teacup. "Sometimes I wish I had a real job just so I had the right to call in sick from it. Work is fine, but I love art. If I could paint or talk about painting all day I would be happy."

Prentiss stretched discreetly and resumed his pose. "And I've believed for some time that you were obeying just that summons when you decided to become a forger, except some wire got crossed at that moment."

The painter's brow furrowed for a moment and he brushed his hair back from his forehead. "So much is decided in a moment—maybe that one could have gone a different way after all." Then he brightened, "The other day Peter and I were undercover at the Metropolitan, and I had a very enjoyable conversation about painting. For once I was finally getting him to loosen up about being in a museum."

"Oh?" the billionaire asked.

"I was getting him to do word association, to show him that everyone can appreciate art. They had this Gauguin self-portrait special for the occasion, and do you know what he said?"

"Not at all," Prentiss replied.

"He said 'Sonny Bono.' That's what he saw in the Gauguin, and damn if that wasn't what I saw after he pointed out the resemblance. Sonny Bono! We laughed and laughed, all the while singing 'I got you, babe,' much to everyone else's confusion. Peter's so much more open than I used to think he was."

"I'm sure he is."

"I mean, we not only posed as a couple, but we did it on his suggestion! A few years ago he would have been too uptight, but he was a good sport."

"I'm sure he was very sporting."

Neal looked up sharply. "What do you mean?"

Scott took a sip of his drink and the ice cubes tinkled against the crystal. "I mean that he must have had an enjoyable evening, as anyone would in your company. A date with the inimitable Neal Caffrey, faux or no—"

The older man gazed innocently back at his guest.

Neal gave a double-take and then snorted. "What? I mean you met him, Peter's a straight arrow in more ways than one. His wife dresses him—" He stared at the older man. "You're serious."

"I don't know what you mean," Scott protested and then shrugged. "Come now, Neal, you know the effect you have on people. You mean to tell me you've never turned a head that was attached to an ostensibly straight body?"

Neal carefully removed his smock and sat in a chair. "You're messing with me. Besides, people don't all of a sudden start batting for the same team at his age."

"Actually, I'd say right now was about the point in his life for the desire to finally show itself. For some of us it's a tendency towards weak vision, in others, a weakness for one's own sex asserts itself."

"Stop it," Neal said in annoyance, "Being gay isn't a weakness." He reached over to the sideboard and poured himself a scotch on the rocks.

"Peter would never cheat on Elizabeth," he resumed. "You've never seen him running the other way from women when an undercover assignment made him flirt with them."

There was a silence.

"He was comfortable with me the other night because there was no attraction!"

"Pardon me for being something of a close study of the closeted man, young Caffrey. You have your areas of expertise that I don't dispute," his host said. "No gay man of my age has escaped the torture of Tantalus—the man who pursues you until he gets you, and then wakes up with a sort of amnesia, unable to recall his own actions. My familiarity with these 'straight' men is why I posit you are right—your friend is probably terrified of his feelings if he's even consciously aware of them. Has he ever initiated any other episode of intimacy? Unwarranted touching, perhaps?"

Neal laughed. "Come off it, man, every member of the team, we push each other out of the path of bullets all the time. By your definition, I'm a slut." He set down his glass. "Oh."

"Yes? My interest is not in getting your supervisor in trouble, but more-sociological."

"That night that Peter came here and then took me out, I got a little drunk. I almost stepped right in front of a taxi, I'm ashamed to say, and Peter grabbed me just in time."

"That sounds perfectly innocuous. Better than that, you could have been a New York cautionary tale."

"He grabbed me so hard he bruised me," Neal said quietly. "I had a perfect handprint for days, working its way out of my skin."

Scott leaned against the back of the blue chair. "Again, perhaps in a heated moment like that—"

"It was how he looked at me right afterwards. For some reason we'd been saying something about how you can tell if someone is in love with somebody. I was a little drunk; I don't remember how we got on the subject.

"Peter said that when someone has fear in their eyes, that means they're in love."

"Sometimes emotion lies dormant in someone until a shock jostles them out of their slumber," Prentiss Scott said gently. "Sudden tactile contact, perhaps combined with genuine fear for your safety—"

Neal looked at his drink as if some answer lay in its depths. "He's been looking at me like he's afraid of me since that moment."

He downed the rest of his drink in one gulp.

"Neal, I thought many times about bringing this up with you, what I noticed from the first time I met your friend." He nodded at the younger man's amazement. "Thinking that you would want to know, so you could maybe make things easier for your friend. To hurt him less."

Neal moved his head heavily. "Thank you, yes, I do want to know. We're stuck with each other for two more years, and I hate to think of him being miserable the whole time because of this thing neither of us asked for."

"It's really two years? Necessarily with Agent Burke?"

"What are you saying?" Neal asked dully.

"I'm merely ascertaining that you have had impartial legal counsel check that your arrangement is set up to your advantage."

"In the sense that it beats prison hands down, it is."

Neal moved to refill his glass and his host held up his hand. Scott retrieved a bottle from a hidden cupboard in a console. "For emergencies," he said with a sympathetic smile and poured the fine whiskey into the glass in front of Neal.

"That hits the spot," Neal said without relief after a sip. He drank in silence with Scott's question seeming to morph in the air between them, coming to imply that his deal with the FBI might have been set up for someone else's advantage.

"Please, Neal, don't judge your friend too harshly. I've often wondered if this was the reason why you were having such a hard time painting him—you sensed something else inside of him but couldn't articulate it."

Neal nodded, and finally got to his feet. With his usual efficient gestures he packed up his supplies, stored them in the safe, and picked up his bag.

"Thanks for everything, Prentiss, I would truly rather know the truth. But I need to go back to my place tonight. June is having the parquet redone and she's afraid the new finish they're using isn't going to be right."

"By all means. Sleep well, young Caffrey."

On the way out Neal followed his usual custom and went to one of the many bathrooms to wash up. The paint he left on his hands to deal with later when he had turpentine, but he washed his face, and this time, rinsed his mouth.

Tomas was waiting at the door to let him out. Usually Neal played a game where he tried to get the butler to crack a smile.

This time he scarcely looked at the old man until he spoke: "Bonne nuit et bonne chance, Monsieur Caffrey."

Three hours later Peter received the call:

Neal cut his anklet.

"What did he take with him? Any sense of where he went? What identity he was using?" Peter kept asking questions of the officer until he ran out of ways to avoid asking the one he couldn't bear to think of—


Peter readied himself to go in to work in silence, Elizabeth's eyes on him. "I'll find him like I've found him before," he muttered and slammed the door.

Except this time, Peter didn't go to Neal's place to look for clues.

He went straight to see Prentiss Lloyd Scott.

"What have you done?" he demanded of the man sipping a drink in a blue brocade chair. He seemed fresh despite the late hour.

"I'm afraid I don't know what you mean," the odious little man replied.

"Neal cut his anklet. He threw away everything he worked for, and I'm not leaving until you tell me how you twisted his mind around your little finger."

"Are you threatening me?" Peter stared at him. "When you were at my home last, I seem to recall your misusing your authority on that occasion, Mr. Burke. You had no warrant, and no justifiable reason to hear the audio tapes for footage you could see was perfectly benign." He looked placidly at Peter. "There's something you need to see."

The billionaire got to his feet and walked ahead of Peter down the long, burnished passageway. He let himself into the surveillance room.

Peter stared straight ahead in rage while his host queued up some footage and then pressed a button.

"So you have a video in this room as well, I wouldn't expect anything else," Peter said when he saw the recording of himself watching Neal paint. "Do you keep a video of your office, as well, so we can watch you in your possible voyeurism?"

Prentiss Scott laughed with enjoyment. "No, Agent Burke, I would hardly be an effective international tycoon if I allowed recordings to be made of my business transactions. One of my employees could get richer than their wildest dreams selling them, and then where would I be?"

Peter was scarcely listening to the man, because, though the audio was a little muffled, he could hear the recording of Neal say, "Peter if you only knew how much time I've spent studying your mouth."

For some reason, Peter couldn't wrest his eyes away from his own image, his eyes with a febrile intensity he would instinctively avoid in someone else. It was as though his eyes were eating Neal up so that there would be nothing left for Prentiss Scott.

"Right there, Peter, if you keep your mouth just like that, I promise I will not make you regret it."

The FBI man watched himself lick his lips slowly.

He regretted seeing himself in that light, all right.

"Do you need to see more?" Scott asked, his finger on the play button.

"Are you blackmailng me?" Peter asked slowly, forcing his eyes away from the screen.

"No, I'm trying to show you yourself as you haven't cared to look at yourself for some time."

"I know who I am, and I also know who you are. You get in people's heads, Mr. Scott. This is all your doing," Peter insisted.

"Pardon me, Mr. Burke, as a man who has always known he was gay, I tend to get a little frustrated with men like you who go around completely unconsciously setting up your lives for a cat and mouse game, always the young beautiful ones who would never have you."

"Why not?" Peter asked, suddenly feeling weak.

"Because you're controlling and cowardly. You remind them of their fathers, of what they don't want to be when they're your age."

Peter sank into a chair, gripped by the voice that was confirming all of his worst fears.

Scott continued in a kinder tone, "To be homosexual, especially when I was coming up, it means you can never be sure of anything. It's this complete lack of assurance you learn to live with like living on a small raft when everyone else exists on solid land.

"Men like you, you get to have the exact same feelings somewhere inside you, but you never doubt yourselves." Scott threw up his hands. "People around you never doubt you. You seem to be rock solid, even to yourself, when all the while you're wearing a mask."

The billionaire took a breath.

"When you first came to my home and were so clumsily marking your territory around Neal, I thought you were at least somewhat aware of what he meant to you."

"I didn't know," Peter said in a voice he didn't recognize.

"Evidently not," Prentiss Scott said drily "Though how you could have such a poor grasp of Neal Caffrey is beyond me. You've studied the man like an insect all these years, surely you must know he doesn't take kindly to being controlled."

"That's why I sought some help about it. I know I shouldn't feel this way." Peter was glad to finally tell someone.

"It's not that you should feel one way or another, but you shouldn't be skulking around while satisfying your desire to be near him. How many times have you made him work an assignment where you didn't really need him? Where behind your automatic suspicion of him was some other alarm ringing in your poorly maintained psyche?"

Peter held his head in his hands. "I don't know. I can't be sure. I enjoy having him around and never thought there was anything wrong with that until recently."

Scott made a noise of disgust. "You see, this is what I mean. Your kind gives up so easily. If you love this man, and you want to be worthy of him, that's something else entirely. But I'm afraid you might lose your cozy professional situation and your wife. For someone I tell you is unlikely to love you back."

Peter looked up quickly. "How can you be so sure? He doesn't like men at all?"

"I have no idea!" Scott got up and left the room, Peter behind him, unable to walk in any way that didn't seem creepy and skulking. "I am not in the business of invading people's privacy, 'Agent.' He and I, we've never spoken about it, but I'd say the fact that he has taken off to parts unknown shows that the news is quite unwelcome."

Peter was rooted to the spot.

"He knows?"

Prentiss Lloyd Scott turned and looked at him with pity.

"He started telling me about this 'date' you initiated and put it together himself. You've been dropping hints about signs of love." He smiled. "And apparently you really bloom as an openly gay man."

"If I find out that you had anything to do with this, Scott, so help me—" Peter stood there, his thoughts and emotions a tangle, but with one thing shining out like a sickly beacon in the darkness, as it had for months now. It was Scott. It was all Scott.

"Mr. Burke, you know where to find me. I seldom leave this house. Are you quite well enough to travel? Tomas can call you a taxi."

Peter felt the butler's eyes searing into him as he stumbled through the foyer and out the door. He walked blindly for about three blocks on Park Avenue, when he had to stop because he felt like he was literally going to come apart. This was it. He was completely insane and, what was worse, he had driven away his closest friend, who he evidently had some sort of filthy attraction to.

The FBI agent not worthy of the name held onto a railing, trying to catch his breath, when he heard a screech. So immersed was he in his misery that he didn't even look up and. Not until the large prizefighter with the neck tattoo was right on top of him holding a handkerchief to him as if Peter had dropped it.

"That's not mine," Peter mumbled with an odd herbal smell in his nose.

The next few moments were a blur of colors and sounds and he completely lost all spatial orientation.

The next thing he knew he woke up in next-to-complete darkness. Moving darkness.

He had been kidnapped.

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