It's A Wonderful Life

Ch 4 'Mama Liked the Roses'

Peter called Hughes, and spoke with him for a long time in hushed tones, standing by the window with his back to the room. Neal could not hear what was said, and after a minute or two he began to fidget in his chair. Finally he stood and moved restlessly about, pausing now and then to look at a photo on the wall, and then moving on. Elizabeth sat at the table, Satchmo at her feet, watching the two men.

After an eternal five minutes, Peter lowered his phone, and there was a quiet beep as he ended the call. Neal stopped his pacing and waited. Peter glanced at him. "Hughes offers his condolences." He said quietly. "You have as much time as you need, and I have the rest of the week off."

Neal nodded, releasing a breath he hadn't known he was holding.

"Now," Peter picked up Neal's phone, and held it out. His look softened in understanding when Neal hesitated, but he did not pull back. "You have to make the call, Neal."

The call was made. The hospital nurse on the other end was relieved to hear from him, and did all she could to give as much information as possible. The funeral home had already been contacted. Everything had already been arranged; the funeral was planned for ten o'clock Thursday morning, December 24. Who had arranged it all? A close friend of his mother; a Mrs. Stought.

She offered her sympathy. He thanked her. The call ended.

Peter regarded him quietly as Neal set his phone down on the table and sighed, dropping his head, his elbows on the table's edge, his hands running through his hair. "Everything alright?" Peter asked.

"Funeral's tomorrow morning, ten o'clock." Came the mumbled reply.

Neal finally lifted his head, and rested his chin on folded hands. His blue eyes were shadowed. His voice was low when his spoke, halting. "Peter…"

The agent nodded. "We'll pack our bags."

The cold wind bit their faces as they walked through Grand Central Station. They boarded the Metro North Train, and were soon on their way to Hartsdale, Westchester. Neal adjusted the strap of the duffel bag, pulling it more securely onto his shoulder, and he stared out of the window. He had not been to Hartsdale in a long time. The last time had been a long distant Easter, when he and Kate had visited his mother and they had attended the Easter Service. His mother had played the piano.

"I wonder how Aunt Miriam is."

He hadn't realized he'd said it out loud until he noticed Peter and Elizabeth looking at him. Peter's brows were pulled into a quizzical frown. "I didn't know you had an aunt." He said.

Neal's mouth lifted into a half smile. "You don't know everything about me." He teased. He was rewarded with an amused snort and a roll of brown eyes. "Miriam's not my real aunt." Neal said. "I called her Aunt Miriam when I was a kid, and it stuck. She and Mom have- were, friends for as long as I can remember." Neal looked out the window again. He didn't mention the twelve messages he had found on his newly charged phone, from that very person. "She loves cats."

Hartsdale was a quiet place, with an older feel. There was not much to draw visitors, but Peter got the sense that it was a good place to live and raise a family. When they left the Station, Neal paused a moment to look around, pulling a folded piece of paper from his pocket. Peter surreptitiously looked over his shoulder; it was an address. The heading was 'Poet's Corner'.

"This way." Neal said, hoisting his duffel bag onto his shoulder. He started walking towards a waiting taxi; knowing the transport service in Hartsdale and the impossibility of hailing a cab, Neal had called ahead.

Peter held out his arm to Elizabeth, supporting her down the icy steps. "Where're we going?"

Neal's blue eyes glanced back. "Home."

The houses all had a similar look. The taxi driver dropped them off at a small house on Holmes Avenue; before he left he tipped his cap, and offered Neal his sympathy. He knew Neal's mother, had attended the same Church as her for years. She was a good woman.

As the cab disappeared around the corner, Neal stood on the sidewalk and stared at the house. It was white, with a tan roof, and trees on either side. He glanced to one side, to the grey-shingled house on his right, and the corner of his mouth rose. Slowly he led the way up the front walk to the door of the white house, and there Neal paused and carefully slid his fingers behind the decorative "Welcome" sign. A moment later he pulled out a key.

The first thing Peter noticed when they walked in was that the place smelled like baked goods and flowers. The second was that the home felt like an odd mixture of the modern and the Victorian. They entered the open kitchen, with its spacious cupboards and counters and small breakfast table. A white apron, with its bottom edged in a ruffle, hung from the wall. To the left of the kitchen was the open dining and living area, the two places separated only by the floor– the dining room was hardwood, while the living room had soft grey carpet. Neal dropped his duffel bag, looking around, taking it all in. She was right; other than the size, the new house was almost exactly the same as their old one.

There were only two bedrooms, one that was his mother's, and a very small spare room that had been prepared with his old bed and dresser. His chest twinged. She had been nothing if not sentimental; everything from his old room was there. Pictures from his school days were on the wall, as well as a few paintings of his. There was his bookshelf lined with mysteries, history books, art instruction, and Hardy Boys.

His mother's room was beautiful. There was the white feather down quilt, the decorative pillows, the two, mirrored dressers on either side of the bed. There was her rocking chair, and the blanket his dad had given her, years ago. The walls were lined with photographs, and yes, even some of his paintings. Neal shook his head as he glanced at the portrait of his parents, decently done but with raw talent and very little instruction. Then he found the last photograph ever taken of his parents together. It was their fifteenth Anniversary, and they had saved for two years to take a cruise to the Bahamas. Evelyn was beautiful, in an elegant summer dress with a silk shawl, her blond hair loose and blowing. His father had his arm around her waist, and had his nose against her hair as though he were smelling it; his white shirt was open and un-tucked.

There was a step behind Neal, and he turned slightly. Peter standing behind him. "Your parents?" came the soft inquiry.

"Yeah." Neal gently touched the frame. "Evelyn and Jack."

Peter took another step, bringing him beside Neal, and he studied the photo. "I don't remember finding much about your father."

"No," Neal crossed his arms, widening his stance. "You wouldn't have. His last name wasn't Caffrey."

"Oh?" Peter's interest was piqued. Though information about Neal's childhood had not been important in his investigation years ago, it had always been of interest to him that he couldn't find anything about his father. Not that he had looked too hard.

A small, enigmatic smile was on Neal's face. Peter could see the almost-exact expression on the face of the man in the photo. Neal really did look like him; right down to the dark, wavy hair.

"His name was De Bellis." Neal said. "He was Italian."

"Ah." Peter nodded. "So, why is your name Caffrey? That is not an Italian name."

At the question, the smile faded, and Neal backed up and sat on the edge of the bed. His dark brows pulled together. "He– had a good job. He worked for a top advertising company, so he was always traveling." Another deep breath, a pinched line of thought between the eyes. "He was also a con man."

Peter raised his eyebrows. He was very interested now. He joined Neal, sitting on the bed.

"Nothing quite so spectacular as what you caught me for." Neal continued. "But he was good. He was very good."

"So, is that why you did what you did? Carrying on the family business, so to speak?"

There was a faint shake of the head. "It was the way he talked about it. To hold a true Rembrandt, the canvas in your hands stretched and prepared by the artist himself, looking at the paint that he applied with his own hands–" Neal's eyes took on a distant shine, and Peter understood. The younger man shook his head, breaking the trance. "Anyway, he died in a major accident on his way to the airport. I was twelve. Dad had recently made some enemies, and Mom was worried, so she changed our last name."

"Back to her maiden name?"


There was silence for a moment. Then Peter straightened, set his hands to his knees, and stood. He was trying to hide a smile. "Well, that at least explains your middle name. Neal Fabrizio Caffrey."

"That was my grandfather's!" Neal called after the chuckling man.

They settled in, and Neal, after being reassured that he did not have to take care of the house immediately, found a box and began to fill it with only those things he wished to take back with him the next day. Some photos, a blanket. He had just brought the box out to the living room and set it beside the couch, when the front door opened, and a small fifty-something woman bundled in wielding an umbrella like a sword, her short hair feathered up, and her eyes wide behind her glasses.

"Neal!" Rushing forward in a flurry of snow, she dropped her weapon and threw her arms around the young man, hugging him tightly.

Neal's face broke into an expression of recognition and delight, and he returned the embrace, closing his eyes. "Aunt Miriam."

"I saw the lights on, and thought someone had broken in!" She pulled away and strained her head back to look up at him. Her hands found his face, patting his cheeks. "I never though it would be you!"

"So you decided to confront the burglar yourself?" Neal chastised.

"Oh, tosh, I was armed."

"With an umbrella."

"You ever been whacked with an umbrella?" she looked over her glasses at him. "I thought not. Oh my goodness, look at you! I swear you've grown. But you're so thin! Doesn't the FBI pay you enough to feed yourself?"

Neal rolled his eyes. "I eat just fine, Aunt Miriam." He said fondly. Then he turned, and before she could begin again he held out his hand. "Aunt Miriam, this is Peter, and his wife, Elizabeth. He's…" his voice trailed off, and he glanced at Peter, hesitating.

Peter held out his hand. "I'm his partner." He said.

Neal stared, then a slow smile crossed his features. Peter winked.

Miriam took Peter's hand and shook it firmly and with enthusiasm. "Oh, you're the FBI Agent! How wonderful to meet you!" She found Elizabeth, and took her hand. "And you! My, you're pretty!" she dropped her voice, and glanced at Peter conspiratorially. "Good catch, young man. Better keep hold of this one."

In the background, Neal covered his eyes.

Elizabeth chuckled. "It's so nice to meet you, Miriam."

"Yes, I only wish it were under better circumstances." The older woman's eyes grew sad. "It was such a shock." Turning, she found Neal again, and clasped his hands in her own. "Oh my dear." She whispered; her eyes glimmered. "I am so sorry. So very, very sorry."

They dined together that night; Elizabeth and Miriam bustled about the kitchen, chatting happily, while the men sat at the table and held their own conversation. Miriam's meatloaf and Elizabeth's carrots and salad were soon brought out, and quickly consumed. Then they moved to the living room, and sat in the glow of the Christmas tree.

Neal sat beside the little woman, and eventually she laid a hand over his. "I hope you don't mind that I planned the funeral." She said, looking up at him. "I tried calling you, but there was so little time…"

He winced; he shouldn't have blown it all off like that. It should have been him planning his mother's funeral, him taking care of things, and he hadn't. "Miriam," he said quietly. "It's fine. I should have been there. I am so sorry I made you do it all." His eyes were wide, and dark with apology and distress and guilt. "I didn't mean to put that on you…"

She shook her head, stopping him. "Hush boy." She dashed at a glimmer on her cheek, and sniffed, and cleared her throat. "I did the best I could; I hope you approve."

Neal glanced back at the papers she had brought over, full of the plans she had made. Large pink roses, her home Church, "The Holly and the Ivy" as the special song. He offered Miriam a small smile, and she relaxed.

"There is a young girl who is going to play, but she's very nervous, I don't think she likes playing for an audience." Her look was questioning.

Neal leaned his head back against the couch. "Yeah," he said. "I could do it."

She sighed with relief. "I didn't know how to ask."

He swallowed, staring at the ceiling. "It was her favorite song." He whispered.

Late that night, when the conversation had waned and people began to doze, Miriam said goodnight and returned to her own home in the grey-shingled house next door. Elizabeth went to the bathroom to get ready for bed, and Peter changed into pajamas in Neal's room, which had been given to them for the night.

As he finished pulling on the warm shirt, the soft strains of a piano suddenly filled the air. Peter paused, listening, wondering if Neal had put on a CD. It was beautiful. Opening the door he stepped out, and peeked around into the living room.

Neal sat at the golden spinet. His hair had partially fallen into his eyes, which were gazing down, their expression soft. His long, slender fingers moved across the great expanse before him, dancing upon the ivory keys, playing the music his mother had taught him long ago.

The next morning dawned cold and bright. They heard Neal moving around, and wondered how long he had been up, if he had even gone to bed at all. Breakfast was ready for them, the coffee brewed, the eggs hot. Neal was full of energy, talking at a rapid pace about everything and anything. They let him.

Soon they were ready. Miriam walked over, dressed in a dark dress suit, and they rode together in her car.

They were early; very early. No one was there but the funeral home director and the pastor. The flowers had already been delivered and set up; bouquets of large pink roses, their scent filling the Church. White tapered candles lined the front. Before all, at the center, was Evelyn. Neal hesitated only a moment. Then he walked forward.

Peter gently took Elizabeth's elbow as she made to follow Neal. At her questioning look he shook his head. Quietly the three of them stepped out of the sanctuary, just outside the door, and Miriam began to talk with the pastor, going over the service. Peter and Elizabeth partially listened, and watched Neal from the corner of their eyes.

Neal felt like his legs were going to buckle the entire way up the aisle, but somehow they stayed faithful and carried him all the way, till he was standing, at last, at his mother's side. She lay in a simple coffin, the wood polished and golden, wearing her favorite pink Sunday outfit, shirt and skirt trimmed in lace,

He stared down at her. She had not changed in four years; she looked the same. Her face was smooth, and peaceful. The funeral home had done a perfect job. Neal stood, unsure of what to do; finally he held out a shaking hand. He touched hers. It was like touching cold stone. He jerked back with a sharp intake of breath; it was not what he had been expecting. She looked so warm and at rest, but the chill still on his fingers spoke otherwise.

She was really gone.

The funeral had been peaceful and warm. Despite the fact that it was the day of Christmas Eve, the attendance had been great; the seats were packed, and some guests had to stand in the back. Most of them knew Neal, and had watched him grow up. Peter was amazed at the number of older friends Neal had, and watched with fascination as they all approached, a couple or a person at a time, to offer their condolences. Neal knew them all by name.

The pastor gave the eulogy; it was well worded, and well given. Neal played the piano for the special song. People sang. Miriam read Evelyn's favorite passage of Scripture, the last two chapters of Revelations. The congregation then moved to Ferncliff Cemetery. The pastor read, and prayed. People were crying. Elizabeth turned her face into Peter's shoulder, and he held her.

It was after the luncheon now. Most of the people had left. The remaining few were in the process of leaving. Peter looked around for Neal, but the young man was nowhere to be found. He asked Elizabeth, and Miriam, but they were no more informed than he. Frowning, he searched the different rooms, and finally he asked the staff of the Elmwood Country Club if they had seen a tall, slender man in a black suit with a pink rose on the lapel. A server nodded, and pointed to the door.

"He was pulling on his coat; I haven't seen him since."

"When was this?" Peter asked, trying to ignore the worry that had settled in his stomach.

"About twenty minutes ago."

Peter thanked her, and hurried outside. Across the parking lot he found a set of tracks in the deep snow; they were headed for the cemetery. Peter returned inside, and as he pulled on his own coat he told Elizabeth where he was going, and assured her they would meet back at Miriam's.

The going was harder than he had expected, at least at the end. Neal had hooked up with Westchester View Lane, which cut a straight line almost to the cemetery, but then the road ended in a cul-de-sac. Peter followed the tracks through someone's back yard, and then through a tall hedge, and finally through the snow that blanketed the entire cemetery. Pausing, Peter put his hands to his knees, and caught his breath. It was far too cold to be walking like this. As he pulled in some much needed oxygen he looked around, searching for any sign of his wayward friend.

There was a dark figure beneath the canopy that still covered the new grave.

Peter approached from behind. Neal was standing as still as a statue, his hands in his pockets, the wind blowing through his hair. He was staring at two gravestones, sitting side by side. Jacopo "Jack" De Bellis. Evelyn Caffrey. Peter slowly took his place beside Neal, and settled himself into a good standing position. For a few minutes there was silence.

"Dad. Mom. Kate." The name was said with a hint of bitter laughter.

Peter glanced at him. Neal looked like he wanted to say more, but he couldn't find the words. Still, Peter understood. The three people who had been in Neal's life, and no longer were.

His eyes were red, staring at his parents' graves. Two fresh tears slid down his cheeks, and Neal took a deep breath, unashamed. "They're both gone."

Peter put his hand on Neal's shoulder.

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