Chapter 1: Prelude to a Case

St. Louis hotel room. Friday morning. Early December, 2003.

A/N: White Collar and its characters are the creation of Jeff Eastin. They are not mine. Sigh.

In the story Caffrey Conversation, I had Peter say Neal "looks like a freaking choirboy" and that inspired the idea of Choirboy Caffrey. It seemed ideal for a holiday story. I just needed a choir for Neal to join.

Additional inspiration came from the season 1 episode Book of Hours. With multiple scenes set in a church, and Peter and Neal debating what constitutes a miracle, it frequently came to mind as I tried to create a Christmas-themed case.

Neal Caffrey picked up the business card he'd borrowed from Special Agent Peter Burke, and twirled it through his fingers as if he were performing a card trick. He didn't need to see the card to keep it moving smoothly; instead he gazed at the Gateway Arch from his hotel room window. It still felt odd to see that landmark, to be back in the city where he grew up. He'd come here to participate in a museum heist as a favor to Mozzie, and had been shocked to find Peter here, too. Peter had been undercover as the client, and when Neal helped him maintain his cover, suddenly the sides had changed. Neal ended up working with Peter against the unhinged leader of the crew, and was instrumental in the man's arrest.

Ten minutes ago Peter had left for the airport, heading back home to New York. But Neal had a commitment keeping him here. He also had unfinished business. Turning away from the window, Neal put down the business card and dialed the number on it.

When U.S. Marshal Simon Preston answered, Neal reminded him how they had met the day before and said, "I could use your help. I need a birth certificate and a background in order to work for the FBI."

"The U.S. Marshal's Office isn't in the business of issuing birth certificates to just anyone. We only do that in special circumstances. You'll need to provide proof that you meet the criteria. Can you do that?"

"I think you have a good idea who I am," Neal said.

"I think I do, too. But I need proof. We'll need to take fingerprints and ask you a few questions." Simon invited Neal to his office to complete the process that afternoon. With the conversation over, Neal was at a loss. The government was being helpful. Accommodating. This was disconcerting. And boring.

"I'm bored," he said aloud, surprised. In the 6 years since he'd run away from home, he'd been too busy to be bored. After dealing with the basics like shelter, he would explore the cities he visited. Museums, art galleries, libraries, concert halls, restaurants – there had been plenty to keep him occupied in every location when he wasn't busy planning a crime. He knew St. Louis offered all of these same amenities. He might be more familiar with this city, but much would have changed over the years. He knew, intellectually, that he could find new entertainment if he tried, the same way he had in any other city. But coming back here seemed to bring out the petulant child in him. He could imagine himself at 10 whining to his mother, "There's nothing to do."

Usually at that point his mother would turn him over to Ellen, which was not an option anymore. Contacting Ellen again wasn't a good idea, not if he wanted to stay on the Marshals' good side. But he could prepare for the meet she'd set up for Sunday night. Her church was hosting a Christmas concert, and she'd promised to leave a pager there for him to pick up during the event.

In theory it was simple. The church would be filled with visitors from the community. A stranger wouldn't be questioned, and could be excused for getting disoriented and wandering off the beaten path. On the other hand, members of the church would be shepherding visitors into the pews and would be likely to follow a wanderer to send him in the right direction. He'd have more freedom if he could pass himself off as a member of one of the visiting choirs. They would arrive early, and stay late. They would be dressed in matching robes that made them anonymous.

A call to the church told him which choirs were participating this year. A Catholic parish in the neighborhood was sending its women's choir, and a Baptist youth choir was participating. A Methodist adult choir would perform, plus a men's choir from the Concordia seminary. And of course the adult and children's choirs from the hosting church would take part.

Neal remembered the Methodist choir from previous Christmases. They were amazing and would probably be fun to join, but were primarily African American. Not the best choice if he wanted to blend in. Joining the choir from Ellen's church was risky. She'd taken Neal to her church often in his youth, and he might be recognized if he spent several hours with them. The seminary was his best bet. Students in a college choir would turnover every few years as they graduated, so members of the other choirs wouldn't be surprised to see new faces.

With a grin, he grabbed his jacket on his way out. Time to pass himself off as a student of theology.

WCWCWCWCWCWCWC

Neal loved college campuses. It was easy to disappear into the crowds of students. There were a variety of events for entertainment, libraries for research, and student centers to crash in for a while if you wanted food or simply needed a place to rest and plan a getaway. A variety of helpful students at Concordia, under the misconception that Neal was on campus to enroll for the next semester, told him the choir director's name was Professor Evan Bell. They also provided the professor's schedule and the location of the choir room.

He picked up a campus map and studied it over lunch. Then he found the choir room, arriving about 20 minutes before practice was scheduled to start. There was a piano, of course, and there was also a guitar. He picked it up and strummed softly as he wandered around the room, reviewing the stacks of sheet music laid out for the next rehearsal. Most were for carols he already knew. He opened the music to a song he wasn't familiar with, and was intrigued. He put away the guitar and tried the melody of this new song on the piano.

Neal didn't have Mozzie's gift of perfect recall, but he did have a good ear for music. He picked up tunes quickly and could usually play the basic melody of a song after hearing it a couple of times. He stayed in practice, partly for the joy of it, and partly because playing piano and guitar kept his fingers nimble for pick-pocketing and safe cracking. Reaching the end of the song, he started over again, singing along this time.

The words were what you'd expect for a Christmas choral piece, but the tune took him by surprise. It was modern, with a rock beat. He was surprised he hadn't heard it on the radio, because it should be a hit for whatever group recorded it. It was hard to imagine a Midwestern college choir getting this music ahead of its being released more broadly.

And there was something familiar about the song, something that took him back a few years.

"Can I help you?" The questioner had the least welcoming tone Neal had encountered on this campus. Someone wasn't happy to find him here.

Neal stopped playing and stood up to face the man who had entered the room. He offered his most winning smile. "Sorry. I saw the music and couldn't help myself. You must be Professor Bell."

"Unfortunately, no. I'm leading the choir for the next few days until Professor Bell gets back on his feet." The man was about 15 years older than Neal, with blond hair and brown eyes, was slightly under average height, and 10 pounds overweight. He wore the corduroy and tweed of the stereotypical professor. There was absolutely nothing exceptional about him, and yet…

Like the song, this man's voice took Neal back to his teenage years. He felt he should recognize this person. "I'm sorry I missed him. Maybe you can help me. Professor…?"

"Michael Darling."

As in Wendy's brother in Peter Pan. As in the platinum rock album Neverland released by Local Devastation when Neal was 14. Michael Darling was a member of that band and the Grammy-winning composer of most of their songs until he left the group 5 years ago. They'd only lasted a year without him. Neal eyes widened as he picked up the sheet music. "Whoa. You wrote this. I'm actually holding a new Michael Darling song. Why aren't there screaming fans chasing you across campus?"

"It's been long enough that most people don't recognize my name anymore, and they don't exactly listen to a lot of 90's rock here. I'd appreciate it if you didn't make a big deal out of it. I need to keep the choir focused for their performance this weekend, and not distract them with stories about my old life."

"Fine. I'm not here to cause trouble."

"Then why are you here? I know everyone in the music department. You don't work here, and you aren't a student. Are you another writer?"

"I wish. I love music but I can't write it."

"That's not what I meant." Michael walked to the end of the room and back again. "There's always another magazine wanting to publish a 'What became of Michael Darling' story. It slowed down for a while but I should have expected a resurgence, now that…" He paced the room one more time. "If Ty sent you, tell him the answer is still no."

Ty Merchant, lead singer of Local Devastation. Interesting. "Believe me, I am a big fan and it's an honor to meet you, but it's also a complete surprise. If I'd had any idea you were here, I wouldn't have been playing your song. I mean, it's like having Van Gogh watching me draw a cartoon of a sunflower. Or preparing a microwave dinner in front of Wolfgang Puck. I'd run away out of embarrassment if I weren't too awed to leave."

Michael's posture relaxed slightly. "I'm not usually so paranoid. But I'm still confused about why you're here." Before Neal could answer, footsteps sounded in the hall. The choir was arriving, and Michael grimaced, looking displeased at the interruption.

"I'm here to rummage through your drawers and steal your precious belongings."

"What?" asked a startled Michael.

"I'm kidding." As the choir members filed into the room, Neal tailored his answer for his audience. "I love a good mystery, and I'm considering making that my vocation. Religion attempts to answer the biggest mysteries of life. Where else would I start but at a seminary?"

The students welcomed Neal, who made himself at home to listen to the rehearsal. He knew they would be too polite to kick him out if he acted like he belonged there. Michael grudgingly invited him to sing with them. But handing out the music, he made a comment under his breath when he stopped at Neal's chair. "You have a gift for not sharing any details. I still want answers."

When Michael sat at the piano and started playing the traditional carol "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming," Neal held his breath. He couldn't believe he was watching a legendary keyboardist at work, listening to him sing in what felt like a private concert. For a while he forgot about everything but the music.

As the rehearsal continued, it settled into the pattern Neal had expected. This time of year, several students had succumbed to colds. Two were likely to miss Sunday's concert. After letting Neal participate in their practice, they realized he had a solid singing voice and asked if he could be a substitute choir member Sunday night. He agreed to join a dress rehearsal Saturday afternoon, and with that he was in.

He was in Michael Darling's band. Well, his choir. If Neal were still a teenager he'd be dancing around the room now.

He was trying on a choir robe for size when his phone vibrated. Peter's number. Shouldn't he be on a flight to New York by now? "Peter?"

"Neal, I need you to pick me up at the airport."

"What happened to your flight?"

"There's a blizzard in Chicago. Any flights connecting through there were delayed and then cancelled. I have a new reservation for Saturday. And you have a roommate for another day."

"Great."

"And there's no need to make the FBI pay for a rental car for me, when you already have one."

"In other words, all the rental company had left were sub-compacts. You know, you could get a cab."

"I have something better than a cab. I have you."

"I'm sort of in the middle of something here, Peter."

"I'm looking forward to hearing all about it. Remember when I told you that until we've worked together long enough to trust each other, your best tactic is to follow orders? Well, you're getting a chance to practice."

"I didn't expect to become your chauffer."

"No problem. Once you get here, I'll drive."

"Your name isn't on the rental agreement."

"Hell, your name isn't on the rental agreement. They think someone named Henry Winslow, who is 27 rather than 24, is driving their car. How soon can you get here?"

"I'm on my way." Neal pocketed his phone and shrugged out of the robe. The choir members had left, and Michael was leaning against the piano, watching Neal with clear intent to find out why he wanted to join a college choir. "I've got to go, but you know those details I left out? One of them is the FBI agent I'm picking up at the airport. I have contacts if you need help." Neal grabbed a piece of paper and wrote his number. "You can call me here."

"What makes you think I need help?"

"I have a lot of experience running away. You look like someone who's tempted to run."

"Am I finally going to get answers about what you're doing here if I call?"

"More than you'll get if you don't call."

A/N: Concordia is a real Lutheran Seminary, but all of the characters Neal meets there are fictional. The band Local Devastation, its members, albums, songs and lyrics are also figments of my imagination.