The evening had been a busy whirlwind event, his artwork selling (as it always did) for the highest bidder and for charity. It had all been made possible to support the Children's Shelter of Manhattan and local food banks. The holidays were coming and not everyone was as rich or lucky as himself so why not give a little back. Considering his background, Neal Caffrey should have been a criminal, not a famous artist with portraits and landscapes in museums across the world. He should be anything except a success. He should have had a sordid past, living it large as an international thief, smart as he was, but it was those same wits that had allowed him to become a world renown artist and household name. It had taken one art teacher in High School telling him to choose between the life he had come from and the life he wanted to have. He had believed in him and it was because of that one teacher he had flourished, proud to have had a strong mentor where his late father had been absent.
Neal sighed, a tired, happily exhausted sigh of someone who had drank just enough to become tipsy but not enough to be fully drunk. He still felt warm from the schnapps he'd shared with his fiancee, Ms. Sara Ellis at the charity reception. She had left the event early due to work commitments so Neal had returned home alone, taking the long way by cab, his thoughts on their relationship. There was a funny anecdote behind their meeting, a tale he liked telling because it involved handcuffs and a famous portrait. Sara would always blush as he told the tale but also add in her own embellishments, most of which were true.
It had been just about a year ago, late September. He had been guest curating an event at the Metropolitan, moving some of his pieces onto the floor from the back when Ms Ellis… Sara, had come in with the angriest look her pretty face had ever shown. She approached him with cuffs in hand as she pushed him to the floor and manacled him to the nearest chair. He'd been surprised if anything, her pale cheeks flushed with anger, eyes flashing at him beneath dark lashes.
"I finally caught you red handed!"
He hadn't understood what she meant until she opened one of his boxes marked "Landscapes" and found something that wasn't his. It was a well known piece by one of the great artists: Saint George and the Dragon. His blue eyes had glanced between the crate and her, uncertain how that had come to be in his container. Only a few people had access to the back of the museum while he was here and her expression told him he would have to talk fast before she jumped him again.
"I promise you, Ms… I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name."
He was holding out his free hand towards her despite the chilly response, her arms crossed over her chest emphasizing her anger. She expressed a kind of bravado that she had been right to call him out despite his knowing she had the wrong man.
"Ms. Ellis… Sterling and Bosch. Don't try to distract me with niceties Mr. Hunter. I was given a tip that my client's painting would be here and here you are with the exact thing I've been searching for."
She hadn't asked him his name, throwing out another he didn't recognize as her eyes scanned the painting with relief. She pulled out her cell to take a photo of the item and then make a call. They were alone in the back of the museum, the rest of the curators off for the night while Neal had decided to set up his section in the solitude of a nearly closed museum. So much for getting anything done. The cuffs rattled and echoed off the walls of the large space as he shifted slightly, finally pulling himself up into the chair to be more comfortable. Ms. Ellis was glaring at him warily and looking down at her phone with some frustration. He felt the skin around the cuffed wrist start to chaff but it was the least of his worries as he tried to convince her of his innocence.
"The name is Neal and I think we have a misunderstanding. I am not Mr. Hunter and that is not my painting as much as I'd like to claim credit for painting a Raphael."
He smiled charmingly up at her, but her angry look barely subsided as she glanced at her phone again in frustration. He had an idea what was wrong as she continued waving the cell around over her head.
"No signal. I would catch my thief and have no way of reporting it. There must be a phone around here…"
She was looking around the space, a big empty back room full of wooden crates of art and various sculptures. Neal smirked slightly, remembering his own discovery of not finding a signal in this part of the museum as he pointed down the hallway.
"There's an office back there belonging to one of the guest curators. I'm sure he would be able to prove who I am. He might even be nice enough to open it up and let you use the phone if you let me go."
He smiled at her again but she just frowned back, looking the way he pointed with some trepidation and then at him again. Finally she relented, removing the cuff from the chair but locking it to his other wrist in back of him as she pulled out a baton and poked him in the back with it threateningly. He twitched slightly but obeyed as they started walking.
"Don't try anything funny."
She pushed him forward as he led the way to the office several yards past large crates and displays. The corridor was dimly lit on this side as he paused before a door. Ms. Ellis blinked at him, trying to figure out why he had stopped when he reached into his pocket, pulled out a key and opened up the door. It took her a moment to register what he had done as he handed her the cuffs and smirked.
Neal had her off guard for a moment, something he had planned as he went into the office and pulled out his credentials, pointing at the phone on the desk. Ms. Ellis was definitely surprised, eyes on the phone but mainly on the placard and picture on the desk. The latter was of himself.
"You're Neal Caffrey?"
The flush of anger she'd had before suddenly became an embarrassed blush the more she looked around the office and saw he wasn't who she thought. There were photos on the walls showing Neal at different galas and events, proving he was telling the truth. He nodded at her with a grin, showing her his wallet which he had left in the office locked in a drawer. Her mood changed drastically from strong arm to mortified but he thought it was cute, shaking his head.
"I'm flattered you thought I'd steal something so precious but I appreciate art too much to hide it away in some secret vault. I'd rather share it with the world. If you still need to make that call..."
He was teasing her but also giving her a way out by making light of the situation. Neal didn't take himself too seriously. He was an artist. He made his money with drawings, sketches and whimsical pieces done in pigments. He could hardly call it real work but it was a passion of his he took to heart and was happy to say paid the bills. It was his bread and butter just as Ms. Ellis obviously took her job of returning stolen items to those who had clean title to them seriously. He kept smiling, her cheeks flushing more as she pursed her lips shut. She looked kind of cute flustered, his smile growing and her cheeks continuing to redden.
"I… Mr. Caffrey…"
She was unable to speak, something he sensed was far from normal as he waved his hand at her in polite dismissiveness.
"It's ok. Call me Neal. I'm willing to forget if you promise me one thing…"
He was holding out his hand towards her as he finished.
"Let me help you find the culprit. Better yet… do we know that's the real piece?"
He waited for a response, the look on her face priceless despite their short and abrupt acquaintance. She took his hand with a less sheepish smile, doubt in her eyes. Sara had a firm but gentle handshake. It told Neal she was dogged in her pursuits and it said she didn't give up easily.
"Help me? I… This isn't exactly a game, Mr. Caffrey. How would you be able to assist me although I could use some information on your colleagues. I still can't believe I… Mr. Bosch isn't going to be happy about this…"
She was no longer flustered but looking at him curiously as she finally nodded back at him with a certainty that meant she was accepting his offer if not a bit reluctantly.
"Nobody needs to know about this meeting but you and I. Agreed? Now, should we go look at the piece? I'm a not so well known study of ancient pigments and painting styles. It's one of my little known secrets. Also… my colleagues won't be back until morning. We have all night to figure out who this Mr. Hunter is."
He made a flourish with his arm towards the door, pocketing his wallet and cell as she put her cuffs into her small handbag and nodded. She was smiling more comfortably now as he locked the office and they stepped back into the corridor. She relaxed, her humor returning.
"You're a very lucky man, Neal. I only cuffed you. I also own a baton."
She pulled a small telescoping rod out, Neal smirking slightly as it was returned.
"I was hoping you meant the cheer leading one. I'll remember not to get on your bad side."
Neal caught her eye, something in her expression indicating the attraction he felt might be mutual.
"There's always a first time…"
Neal woke up with a start, glancing at the bottle of scotch beside him on the coffee table, his head a bit achy from drinking too much as he pulled the buzzing cell from his pocket and glanced at the screen with a quiet groan.
"Theo, it's... 2 AM…"
He squinted at the time in small characters at the top of his phone menu, his vision bleary from alcohol and tiredness. He must have passed out and didn't realize it. He barely remembered talking to Sara on the phone as she settled into her flight to London. Her job as an insurance adjuster and sometime recoverer of stolen items for Sterling Bosch caused her to leave at weird hours of the day and night to different states if not countries to find items that were taken from their clientele. In this case, she was looking for a rare piece in the form of a music box. He had wanted to go with her but the charity event had run long and it was his business to make sure everything went well, mainly why he was curious why his friend was calling. Theodore Winters was the reason for the charity, at least the part concerning the Children's shelter.
"2 AM? How did it get so late so soon?"
His friend sounded like he was about to start quoting Seuss as Neal coughed to bring him to the reason of the call. He was tired and a bit hungover, sitting up as he rubbed the bridge of his nose.
"Yes… my point exactly. What is it that you want, Theo?"
He stifled a yawn, staring across the large living room through the dimly lit space to the bay windows near the entrance. It was lightly snowing outside, small flakes passing by his window as he focused on the glittering flutter of each tiny white flurry for a moment. It reminded him of Christmases back in St. Louis with his Mom.
"I just wanted to thank you. We made a killing! The kids will appreciate it. Santa can be generous this year and you my friend are the top artist and a friend to foster children everywhere… myself included."
He heard the wistful nature of his friend's voice, understanding the call now as he smiled slightly. Theo had grown up in foster care, Mr. Jeffries the orphanage caretaker who'd helped him by taking the young boy in as his own when there was no where else for him to go. Jeffries had passed only a few short months before, missing the charity event that was for him and his foster home. This had meant Theo was now in charge of the newly updated Children's Shelter. He had earned the distinction but it was still too soon after Jeffries death to be anything more than bittersweet. Theo had looked lost as to what was to be done, Neal and Sally, Theo's current girlfriend, taking up some of the slack to help until he had come back to himself.
"I'm glad I was able to use my talents to help such a worthy cause. So, did you want to come over and have a drink with me? We should celebrate Santa's windfall."
Theo began to chatter happily, his voice becoming a buzz in the background of Neal's thoughts. He was missing Sara more than he cared to say, the house empty without her. He had been alone for a while now but once they had become a couple, He and Sara were inseparable except when work called. Their engagement 6 months ago had been whirlwind at best and now they were deciding when to set the actual date of their nuptials. The only problem keeping them from getting married tomorrow were their professions. She had her obligations to bring back purloined items and he was obliged to make artwork or curate shows. Sometimes a show coincided with her trip to the same locale. When that happened, life was good and they were able to enjoy the moment as if they were a normal couple. His fame and her travel kept them apart at times but it was also something they both enjoyed when they could share it together. He was thinking about her being gone for the whole week when he remembered he was in the middle of a call. Theo hadn't noticed the silence, jabbering on like a little kid too excited about the holidays. The image made him smile.
"I would but Sally… she's here. I just wanted to call to congratulate you on a job well done before we did some celebrating of our own."
His friend was more forthcoming than he liked, Neal nodding at the cell as he coughed uncomfortably at the image in his head. Sally was a nice woman, somewhat attractive in a mysterious hacker sense but he'd come to appreciate her talents as a web designer so much more since their introduction. Theo had come through with information Neal needed on creating an online presence when he'd found her through a mutual acquaintance. After a week or two, they had hitched up when they discovered their mutual love of tech. Theo had been divorced for a few years and Sally ended up being the fix for this friend's broken heart. So close to Christmas, it was nice that they were both in relationships. It mellowed them out, keeping them from being consumed by work or other encumbrances. Neal had been obsessed with his past for far too long and now that Sara was here, he could concentrate on the future. His friends, critics and fans noticed a change in his art for the better, the darker colors of the past fading into something brighter.
The conversation started to ease up focusing mainly on the art show's success and future plans for the Shelter before they said their goodnights. It was quiet after the final beep of his cell as Neal placed it on the coffee table. A clock ticked somewhere in the background, the silence too much for him as he stood and made his way to the kitchen.
He flipped the lights, the bulb giving a soft hum as it revealed a roomy space with everything the at home chef would need to whip up anything from crepes to fried zucchini. If Sara, Theo and Sally were here he'd be doing some culinary magic in this area but right now it was just him. He opened up the freezer and pulled out a pint of pistachio ice cream, taking it back with a spoon to the sofa. The fireplace was still lit, something he remembered starting when he'd come home hoping it would warm him up from the cold snowy evening outside. The ice cream cooled his disposition from lonely to only slightly less so as he grabbed the remote for the stereo and turned it on. Christmas music started playing; an instrumental of Sleigh Ride by the Boston Pops lilting in the background as he leaned back on the sofa and took another spoonful of pistachio, savoring the flavor. It was homemade goodness from the caterer of his last two events. He would have to ask about her recipe again but she was coy about giving out such secrets. He didn't blame her as he let the music relax him even further, a yawn escaping his lips.
Life is good…
The thought flashed across his tired brain just before another sound jarred him from mostly content to startled. Someone was pounding on his door urgently. Neal was uncertain who could be banging on front door 3 AM as he put the pint down on a coaster and went to take a peek outside. Maybe it was Theo come for that drink after all but his friend should still be at home. The call had only been a few minutes ago not that Theo hadn't called him while in route before. Neal pondered if someone could be at the wrong door. It had happened before unless it was a much too eager fan of his works coming for a visit. He didn't want to call the cops if necessary but some people mistook politeness at live events and adoration of his celebrity as an invitation. He gave a sigh, peering through the peephole.
Neal was surprised by what he saw outside. It was enough to make him open the door without a second thought, giving a quick glance around as he knelt down to touch the figure slumped on his stoop. The man was already covered in a thin layer of frost, the pretty flakes from earlier more like a blizzard now as he put his hands under the man's arms and pulled him quickly inside. Neal closed the door before more flakes could blow in, the young man shivering slightly from the cold and uncertainty. The man didn't move so he wasn't even sure he was alive, reaching for the cell in his pocket to call 9-1-1 but pausing a moment before to check for a pulse. There was a weak beat that met his fingertips from beneath icy skin, relief as he went to grab a throw off the sofa and wrap the man in it. He began to examine the figure noting their dark brown hair, cut short and that he was maybe slightly taller than himself if the man was standing. He felt around the man's pockets for an ID but found nothing, reaching for his phone again to call when an icy hand grabbed his. Brown, honest eyes peered up at him as if they were familiar with one another.
"N… Ne… Neal?"
The voice was shaky, unfamiliar and yet they seemed to know him even if he didn't. Neal didn't know what to say, blinking a moment in shocked surprise as he knelt beside the man.
"You seem to know my name… what's yours?"
He had the cell in his hand ready to call an ambulance. The man blinked back at him, staring around the space a moment as if uncertain about something before he replied once more.
"N… Neal… This… isn't…"
Suddenly the man slumped, Neal catching him before he could hit the marble flooring of the entrance way. He lay the man gently down, as he called 9-1-1 and waited.
"9-1-1, what is your emergency?"
"This is just like the old Chinese saying: May you live in interesting times. Neal… your fans are getting more desperate to see your works in progress although he looks less like an art lover and more like a plain clothed cop!"
Theo was babbling excitedly at him, something he did when nervous and he was definitely the nervous type. Sometimes he could be plain paranoid if not superstitious which didn't fit his techie background. Neal just accepted the weirdness, Theo's heart in a good place when it came to most things. The guy liked angles if not deals which helped Neal at time when he was looking for his caterer and webmaster. Theo was constantly reading classic fiction and random tech manuals but also about things like UFO conspiracies, anti-aging and new age mumbo jumbo. Perhaps his youth as an orphan had skewed his view of the world making him less able to cope with certain things. Still, it made for a fun conversation if you didn't mind the paranoid aspect of it.
"I don't think he's a fan but he seemed to know my name. Don't give me that look. You think I could have left him out there to freeze? Doesn't matter if he does end up being a fan, someone hurt him bad enough to almost kill him. I wonder what's taking the nurse so long."
Neal was worrying about the stranger despite himself. The situation was surreal at best beating any past interactions with fans or reporters he'd had up until now. He was still relatively off the radar but lately his art works had become popular due to more press from his agency. It was difficult at times to deal with being a household name when he had been a relative nobody for so long. He liked being renown but sometimes missed the days he was out of the public eye. Theo tugged at his sleeve like a little kid, pushing up his glasses slightly as they slipped down his nose.
"Fanatic is more like it although the contusions and gashes have me thinking maybe he was mugged. I thought your neighborhood was a nice one. Maybe you should move. I never stay in the same place for long. Feng Shui goes stale after a bit."
Theo was on one of his binge babbles again, Neal tuning him out a bit as he turned and saw a doctor and nurse chatting. The RN was pointed their way. Maybe this was the info he was seeking?
"Are you listening to me, Neal? Oh, is that the nurse?"
His friend's attention span was short sometimes, the nurse and doctor walking towards them as Neal waited to hear what was wrong with his strange visitor in the night. The doctor gave him a curious look, holding out his hand to shake. The nurse blushed slightly, waiting it seemed to ask something but remaining quiet for the moment. Neal had an idea what was on her mind.
"Mr. Caffrey… I'm Dr. Gary Carlson. Rebecca here was telling me that you were the one who found our John Doe."
The doctor was a 40ish looking man with salt and peppery hair, soft green eyes and tanned skin despite the season. He guessed the man was a golfer or traveled a bit because he could see the tan line near the edge of the man's sleeves of the lab coat and collar of the blue scrubs underneath.
"Yes. I already told the officers who were here earlier all about what happened. I have no idea who he is and didn't find any ID on him when I checked. He seemed to know me but I can't think that I've met him before. Is he going to be ok? I did what I could under the circumstances."
Neal thought back to bringing more blankets for the man to keep him warm as well as taking him over to the fireplace. Something about the stranger made him curious as to why he had been on his doorstep. He wasn't the only house on the block.
"He's doing better but he's still unconscious. He's dehydrated, some signs of minor frostbite along with signs of being beaten. I would have to say he was mugged or carjacked, not uncommon in this city but your home is off Riverside Drive by the park, is it not?"
The doctor seemed well familiar with his address, Neal feeling a slight flush of his cheeks. Most everyone knew about him in the city that liked his artwork and apparently the doctor was one of them. He nodded somewhat uncomfortably, the nurse still looking at him expectantly as he realized she probably wanted an autograph even at a time like this.
"Yes, you could say that. Not a neighborhood many people get mugged in. The officer who interviewed me, Captain Barrigan said that she would be certain to get back with me if there was anything forthcoming. Please let me know how he is. I'll do what I can to help find his family."
He was being cooperative, still very curious about the man who showed up on his stoop. Theo had been oddly quiet, listening to everything with wide eyes before they said their goodbyes, the doctor agreeing to contact him if anything came up. Neal started to walk away when the nurse quietly coughed, holding out a piece of paper.
"I wouldn't normally ask…"
She was shy if anything but also looked rather embarrassed considering everything but Neal nodded, smiling back. He finished writing her an autograph which she gently tucked into her pocket.
"I loved your Kate of 1000 days. Such a beautiful, haunting portrait. I'm sorry for your loss."
Apparently the nurse knew more than most about that portrait, his recollection finally coming back that this was the same hospital he had come to see about Kate that fateful night. It had been almost 4 years ago to the day; a plane accident. Kate had not survived her injuries and it had been a terrible time for him until recently when Sara had entered his life. He just nodded politely, trying not to remember the incident as Theo pulled him aside with some pretense about thanking her for the interest. The nurse nodded with a shy smile, cheeks still slightly blushed as she left them. Neal even after all the time he had spent being at galas and shows still had trouble telling people no. Theo didn't have that problem and for that he was glad for his friend's presence. The little guy had a way of shooing people away when it was necessary, distracting them so he could get away when he was too polite to say otherwise.
"The nerve of her wanting your autograph at a time like this. This is why I hate hospitals!"
He wasn't as loud as he could be but they were out of earshot of the nurse, Angela having gone back to her duties as they saw her assisting another patron in a wheelchair. How someone could go from fawning over a not so important artist as himself and then back to a selfless job of helping people made him wonder. He had never been a selfish sort but growing up as he had with a mother that was distant, he had found means to get around the system and get what he needed even if it was at times ill gotten means. That was why his art teacher had tried to help him. He'd been in danger of getting expelled if not of creating a juvie record for himself without his help.
"She was starstruck. I can't… blame her."
He smirked slightly, the narcissist in him coming out despite everything. He was good at what he did and he knew it, a smack on the arm bringing him back to reality as Theo hit him with his palm.
"Great, Rembrandt… get your head out of the clouds. Do you want me to drive you home? I haven't been drinking… yet."
Neal nodded at his friend's words, tired suddenly after the excitement of his big show and everything else. He slumped on the passenger side of the yellow sedan Theo drove. He kept joking it looked like a cab but the little guy liked it as did Sally so he only teased once in a while by holding up his hand when he saw him as if he were hailing a taxi. Neal tried to relax on the ride back, close his eyes a moment and not think of anything but it was hard, the man's words coming back.
"N… Neal… This… isn't…"
That's what the man had said, the last word barely breathed before he passed out from the cold and his injuries. The comment both confused and intrigued him but right now all he could think about was why this man had picked his stoop and how he knew his name. Theo was chattering at him in the background and it occurred to him his friend had given up on a date night with Sally to come help him with this situation. For that he was reminded why he had a friend like Theo. They had met on a particularly bad day only months after Kate's death, his thoughts pushing aside the memory of the how and only concentrating on what it meant to him as he nodded off.