Wine and Truth
By J. Rosemary Moss
Peter Burke didn't often smile on a stake out. Especially a pointless stake out like this one. Neal Caffrey was too damn clever a suspect to reveal anything. Still, Peter had to cover all his bases, even knowing the best he could hope for was a glimpse of some compatriot apart from the girlfriend.
So he frowned as he watched the entrance to Caffrey's new place. The kid had rented himself a second floor apartment in a half-way decent section of Queens. Well, better staking him out here than in San Diego; at least Peter was closer to home.
He hadn't bothered to hide the stake out from Caffrey--he had too much respect for his intelligence--so he wasn't surprised when Caffrey gave him a playful salute as he walked out of his apartment toward the convenience store down the block. In fact, the salute even drew a small smile from him. Had to give the kid points for his audacity.
But he was surprised when Caffrey walked back with two small grocery bags and headed straight for Peter's car instead of his apartment. He was even more surprised when Caffrey rapped on the passenger window.
Peter rolled his eyes, but put the window down.
"Good to see you, Agent Burke," Caffrey said with a friendly smile. "It's getting cold--why don't you come up? I'll make dinner, then we can watch a movie."
Peter grinned--his second smile on this ludicrous stake out. "You're inviting an FBI agent into your apartment? I'm starting to admire your balls, Caffrey."
"Not just any FBI agent," Caffrey assured him. "My own personal stalker."
Peter smiled yet again, but shook his head.
"Come on," Caffrey coaxed. "There's nothing illegal about accepting a suspect's hospitality, is there?"
"No, but it's foolish of you to make the offer."
"Not at all. You can look around to your heart's content, Peter. I'm innocent."
"Peter? Are we on a first name basis now?"
Caffrey gave him a smile that even Peter had to admit was dazzling. "We might as well be. So what do you say?"
Peter couldn't help answering with another smile of his own. "Ok, Neal. Let me just apprise the agency of the situation."
Neal turned out to be a decent cook--no surprise there. He whipped up some Chinese dish that might have fit right into a Chinatown restaurant: the ones where no one speaks English and you scarcely know what you're ordering . . . but God, is it good.
Peter ate heartily at the cramped kitchen table; he knew the kid wasn't trying to poison him. To do him justice, Neal wasn't the type to physically harm anyone. He was a classic white collar criminal, abhorring guns and violence.
So what was the kid up to? Ok, granted, it had been safe enough to invite Peter up here. Neal had just moved in--there was only a little furniture, a few basic supplies (including a wok) and a bunch of unpacked boxes that Peter had no excuse to rifle through. Still, why take a chance?
As Neal set another beer before him, he began to get an inkling. "You hoping to get me drunk, Caffrey?"
Neal nodded as he took his seat again, completely unabashed.
"Why?" Peter asked.
"To rip your clothes off, of course."
"Kidding," Neal said, his eyes alight with mischief.
"Good," Peter answered. "Even if I was interested, I think screwing a suspect might cause me some headaches."
Neal grinned. "I considered that angle, believe me. Something to hold over your head would be nice . . ."
"Except that you're innocent, of course, so you don't need to hold anything over my head."
Neal raised his glass in a mock toast. "Precisely."
Peter shook his head and opened the beer. "Ok, so no ripping off clothes. Why are you trying to get me drunk?"
Neal looked disappointed--and a little offended. "You mean the thought of me seducing you didn't distract you from your line of questioning?"
He laughed. "Curiosity, Peter. I want to know what kind of drunk you are."
"A very mellow one."
Neal cocked his head. "Really?"
"Really," Peter confirmed. "But you won't find out tonight. I've got a much harder head than you do. I know you're not much of a drinker--keep downing that wine and you'll be on your ass before long."
Neal gave him an enticing look. "And who knows what I'll confess in that state."
Peter leaned toward him. "Why don't you come with me and make a real confession about those forgeries? You do that, and I'll go to bat for you. I'll get you the best deal I can."
Neal shook his head. "I'm not a criminal, Peter. I'll admit that I have done copies of famous paintings, but I've always sold them as such--not forgeries."
"You're into more than forging pictures and we both know it. If I catch you on something worse, Neal, you're looking at a lot of years in super-max."
Neal just shook his head as he took another sip of wine.
Peter considered him for a long moment. What the hell drove this kid to these acts? He wasn't malicious--hell, Peter wondered if he even understood the harm he caused.
"Ok," Peter said at last. "Why don't you answer me a hypothetical question. What would make a brilliant and talented young man--a young man who could easily make a comfortable living legitimately--turn to cons, frauds, money laundering and forgeries instead?"
Neal leaned back in his chair. "That's a vague question, Peter," he chided. "You'll have to give me more details about this hypothetical criminal."
"Fine. Let's say, hypothetically, that his childhood had a few difficulties--enough to excuse him for a high therapy bill, but not enough to justify his future career."
Neal's eyes went cold as he flashed him a mocking smile. "Would you say, hypothetically, that he lacked a good father figure? Are you applying for the part?"
"I'd like to take the kid in hand," Peter said, meeting Neal's angry glare without a trace of shame. "In fact, if it were up to me, I'd put him over my knee and ground him rather than send him to prison."
Neal stared at him for a moment, but then his smile became genuine. Hell, it was almost appreciative. "It's a shame you can't test that theory, Peter--you'd be a good father figure, I think. But the FBI might frown on an agent spanking his suspect."
"More's the pity," Peter said. "But it doesn't matter, Neal, because it's not up to me. And as much as I'll hate putting him there, he deserves prison."
Neal's eyes flashed, but he kept quiet.
"Anyway, our hypothetical young man was the kind of kid who always got into trouble in school," Peter continued. "He was the class clown. Personally, I think he was just bored. You know how the real bright kids sometimes have problems because they're just too far ahead of everyone else?"
Neal nodded as he finished his wine. "Including their teachers," he said, pouring himself another glass. "That's a recipe for disaster."
"Still, he thrived on all the attention he got from his antics," Peter continued. "I figure that's part of his motive now--he's showing off. He loves seeing how much he can get away with. He loves having the full attention of his own personal stalker from the FBI."
"I can see how he'd be flattered by it," Neal owned. "Sounds like you have him all figured out."
But Peter shook his head. "No. I mean, I get the attention-seeking part. I even get that he's a thrill-seeker who loves pushing the envelope. And then there's the part of him that loves the high life . . . some of his alternate identities can do much better than Queens."
Neal grinned and took another sip. "So what don't you get?"
"I don't get him wasting his talent on forgeries and fraud. Why doesn't he want to make a legitimate mark on the art world? Why settle for fraudulent work that he can't even take credit for?"
To Peter's surprise, Neal laughed softly. Then he took a long draught of wine. "You're making an enormous assumption about this hypothetical young man, Peter," Neal said as he set down his glass again.. "You're assuming he has the ability to make a legitimate mark in the art world."
"Yeah, I am. I told you he has talent."
Neal's eyes glittered as he stared across the table at him. "I asked you up here for dinner and a movie--we haven't gotten to the movie part. I only have two of my favorites here: Amadeus and Bull Durham."
Peter knew that Neal hadn't changed the subject--but he wasn't following the kid. Nonetheless, he played along. "You're the Amadeus type," he said slowly. "I'm sure you listen to Mozart all the time. But Bull Durham is a baseball classic. As far as I know, you don't have more than a polite interest in sports."
Neal shrugged as he finished the glass and poured himself another. "One's about music and one's about baseball--but they're the same movie."
Peter thought about that. Now he could see where the kid was going with this. "Both movies are about the difference between talent and God-given genius."
Neal nodded. "There's lots of talent in the world, Peter. But God makes so damn few geniuses. The films are about having the talent, but not the genius--not that divine spark that makes your work soar. Not that divine spark that makes people want to copy your work just to get as close to that divine spark as they can."
The kid paused and looked away. "You're right. I'm going to be drunk off my ass soon."
Peter reached out and put a hand on his arm. "I think you're already there, Neal," he said gently. "But thanks for the insight."
Neal looked back at him. "Can you muster some sympathy for your hypothetical young man now?"
"Pity, not sympathy," Peter corrected. "Maybe you're right. Maybe he doesn't have the kind of genius that would set the art world on fire. But he has real talent--and, more importantly, he has the ability to recognize and appreciate genius when he sees it. He should put that to better use."
Neal smiled--a sad, drunken smile. So the kid wasn't a happy drunk; that was interesting. The face he showed the world was invariably cheerful and carefree.
"Tell me something," Neal said. "I've never been really drunk before. How close do you think I am to a crying jag?"
"Hard to say," Peter answered with a shrug. "You might fall asleep first."
"Hope not. I think everyone should be allowed to bawl their heart out when they're drunk. But--but they shouldn't have to be alone when it happens."
Peter sighed at the wide blues eyes in front of him. If he had any sense, he would get up and leave now. The last thing he needed was a drunken suspect on a crying jag. But there was always the possibility--however remote--that he could convince Neal to confess once he sobered up. That could lead to a relatively light sentence. Peter had enough compassion to want that for the kid.
"Will I be alone?" Neal asked, blue eyes still pleading.
Peter sighed again, but then he patted Neal's arm. "I'm not going anywhere."
To Be Continued . . .
To Be Continued . . .