Neal glanced once at the image on his phone Peter had sent and his brows rose sharply. "A Van Gogh? Real or forged? " Was Peter's message.
In spite of his sudden interest in Peter's case, he was more interested in the event. A tiny image couldn't compete with the wild bidding. Bidding went wild on the wide variety of items. Everything from bicycles to cufflinks to antique toys and mostly mediocre modern paintings, although one or two older gems did catch his eye.
People were buying from the tower of bears like crazy and since he was on 'bear tower' duty he had to keep hopping up on a ladder and handing down the upper bears. The appropriate card on the front of each bear would be turned in at the end, indicating how many bears would be given out and how many of each accompanying basket: food, school supplies, or clothes.
His eyes widened as he noticed Mozzie bidding on a few items in the auction. Elizabeth hurried past, refreshed a tray of finger food and came back to pause near him. She spotted his stare. "Should I ask how he plans to pay for that if he wins?"
"I wouldn't. I know he'll pay but we probably don't want to know where he got the money."
Elizabeth shook her head, a half smile on her face. "I hope if it was less than ethical at least he ripped it off a drug dealer or something."
Neal laughed. "That's one way to look at it."
The event was beginning to wind down. Neal was exhausted. Few bears were left on the table. They'd literally sold hundreds. One little girl, dark chocolate skinned and with a blue dress was crying nearby, holding her mother's hand and trying to reach back. "Hey, you okay?"
The girl just looked at her. Her mother patted the child's head. "She dropped her bear over there." She pointed. "And I don't want her getting trampled to get it."
"I'll get it." Neal volunteered. He hurried over, gently nudging with 'excuse me's' through the crowd. He kept his eye moving until he spotted the bear, kicked over by the sold auction items. He grabbed it from under a telescope and nearly ran into Mozzie standing beside it. "You bought this?"
"I'm afraid to ask why."
"Star gazing." Moz gave him his best, innocent look.
"Right." Neal wondered whose window Mozzie was going to peer in, probably to ogle someone's priceless collection. He hoped he and Peter didn't end up investigating!
He hurried back and the child grabbed the bear as he held it out and smiled. Her mother smiled too. "Thank you. Are you helping or a patron?"
"A bit of both I guess. I'm friends with the caterer and she needed some last minute help." He smiled. "It's been kind of fun."
"For the children too. It brings out the best in people."
"Yes." He made a mental note to buy a bear for June's granddaugher, Samantha, if any were left.
His eyes widened as he spotted the back of the room. Peter was standing there, looking around. Neal cautiously ambled over. Elizabeth got there first. She gave her husband a quick hug and a kiss. Peter returned it and looked around.
"Hey Peter. I thought you were hanging out with the van team all day."
"I finally had to come and see it."
"You. Catering and the like. And El sent pictures." He stared at the much decimated cakes and the former tower of bears, now a mere table of bears. "There must've been a lot of people."
"Hundreds." Elizabeth smiled. "I know the charity made lots of money. Now I feel like I could sleep for a week."
Peter held her hand and continued gazing around at the chatting crowd. Normally, he felt out of step at these things. But this was a more casual affair.
Neal swooped to the bear table and returned, holding it out. "Buy a bear for charity?" He asked brightly.
Peter gaped at him, then glanced at Elizabeth. "What would I do with it?"
"You'd give it to your lovely wife as a souvenir from an amazing event, which she brilliantly catered. And it's twin goes with...," Neal flipped the bear around to read the card, "...a basket of food to a needy kid."
"I really don't have a choice without feeling like Scrooge, do I?"
"Are you buying one?" Peter challenged, eyes narrowing.
"Yes. I think I'll get one and give it to June's granddaughter." Neal nodded. He shoved the bear into Peter's hand. "Don't forget to try the cake before it's gone. Come to think of it, I haven't had time to try the cake either! And I could use a sugar boost." Neal headed for the table. El pulled Peter along and they finally had a chance to sample The Greatest Cakes super size bear cakes. At this point, there was little left but the enormous paws.
"I'm glad I got pictures." Elizabeth observed. She looked at Peter. "Did you see them?"
"I did. But until I see the size of these paws I didn't realize they were so big. How tall were they?"
Neal held a hand over the table. "They were about that high. They'd have come almost to your waist if they were set on the ground."
"And Neal's bakery pulled them off at the last minute." Elizabeth hugged Peter's arm.
"Mm. Didn't skimp on quality either." Neal announced, after swallowing his first bite.
Peter tried it, then froze, staring at the other end of the room. A child was riding along on Mozzie's shoulders. Two more were at his side. In his hand he clutched a telescope.
"What the blazes?"
"I shanghaied Moz into picking up the cake. He bid on the telescope and won it in the auction."
"I suppose it's a bit much to hope he just bought it for giving those kids an astronomy lesson."
"No idea." Neal said innocently.
Peter looked at him. Neal shrugged. "I'll admit it occurred to me I might be better off not knowing. Although I'll admit ignorance isn't really bliss. I don't have to know about things to get dragged into the middle of them."
"Trouble is attracted to you as if you are a magnet or something.." Peter sighed. "You were right about the stake out, by the way. I'd probably have had a better day here."
Neal leaned back against the table, licking the last of the cake crumbs from his lips and feeling the most content he had in a long time.
Elizabeth suddenly veered off to collect empty trays from off one of the tables. This left Neal and Peter alone.
Awkward, Peter asked "Get the picture I sent?"
"The Van Gogh? Yeah. It looks like his style, but I don't recognize the painting. Is it supposed to be a forgery or a new discovery?"
"That's what I hoped you'd know. We got a call from NYPD that a big time drug dealer's place had been raided and a bunch of stolen artwork was there. But that one is a big mystery."
"I'll look into it. I can't tell much from a cell phone size photo. But can it wait until Monday? I've got to give Elizabeth credit. I knew this took a lot of planning, but I had no idea it was so exhausting."
Peter turned brown eyes on him then. "I'd say you've more than earned it."
Neal stiffened and then felt warmth flow through him. His eyes turned to meet Peter's. It had been awhile since he'd seen that look. That look that said Peter was proud of him. Not since Elizabeth's kidnapping in fact.
"Thanks." It seemed so trite. "I was glad to help."
"I know." Peter paused. " I know you want to help" And he did. Even when he wanted to strangle him for his methods. Even when his loyalties got confused. Neal just wanted to help. And that, he knew, was why they were still friends, even when their relationship was strained.
Neal closed his eyes and let the sounds of the winding down event drift over him. He smiled. He'd never suspected when Elizabeth asked him for a miracle, that it wasn't really the last minute special order cakes that would qualify as the miracle. Peter was proud of him again. And that was absolutely priceless. That was a miracle that would feed his spirit longer than any cake.
The End. For Now.