Burke Residence, Brooklyn. January 2, 2004 – Friday evening.
On the way home, Elizabeth Burke was consumed with curiosity about her husband's consultant. She'd been wrapping up her day at the art gallery when Peter called to say he was worried about Neal Caffrey, who hadn't been out of the hospital very long. He didn't think Neal should be left alone, but also didn't think Neal would welcome any concern about his well-being. Peter proposed conning the con man. He was going to tell Neal that El had called volunteering to pick up Chinese food on the way home. If he took Neal to Riverside Drive, dinner would get cold, making it more convenient to have Neal join them for the meal.
When Elizabeth opened the door to their townhouse, she saw two suit jackets on the sofa. The one in a crumpled pile she recognized as Peter's. It fit perfectly with her view of her husband, who was in the dining room, setting the table. Clothing and appearances weren't a high priority for Peter. That's probably one of the reasons he forgot to stop at the drycleaners half the time.
The other jacket was clearly more expensive. Finely tailored in a high quality wool fabric, it was folded carefully and precisely, with a silk tie centered on top. It fit perfectly with her view of a slick con man.
What didn't fit her expectations was the sight she observed on the living room floor. Satchmo, the exuberant golden Labrador that normally would have been getting in Peter's way, was tangled up with a young man, whose face Satchmo was trying to lick. The man wore slacks and shoes that clearly went with the expensive suit jacket, but his white shirt had come untucked, and his dark hair was in disarray from wrestling with the determined dog. He laughed with such unadulterated joy that he looked and sounded too young to be the accomplished forger and thief Peter had described. El would have guessed he was barely twenty years old. When she closed the door behind her, he looked up, his bright blue eyes shining with pure happiness.
He wasn't at all what Elizabeth had expected, and she couldn't help saying, "You're James Bonds?"
He sat up straight, and pushed his hair out of his face. "James Bonds?" he repeated.
Peter groaned. "He wasn't supposed to know about that."
Neal turned his delighted grin toward Peter. "You called me James Bonds?"
"It was a case file name for an anonymous bond forger."
Neal looked into the face of an adoring dog. "I'm Bonds. James Bonds."
"I wanted to avoid this," Peter told El. "He's going to be insufferable now." But even though he tried to sound displeased, Peter was smiling.
Throughout the meal, Neal and El bonded over a discussion of art. Eventually she said, "It's obvious you love art. Why would you forge an artwork? It seems disrespectful."
She felt Peter go still beside her. He was more an aficionado of art theft than actual art itself. This turn in the conversation caught his interest.
At first Neal looked at El, but seemed to be looking through her, absorbed in memory. "It's a long story," he finally said.
Mindful of the fact that Peter wanted to keep Neal at the house for a while, El smiled. "I see. Then let's clear off the table, grab a glass of wine, and settle in the living room before you start telling us about it."
Neal shrugged. "Okay." As he carried his dishes into the kitchen, El looked expectantly at Peter.
"What?" he asked.
"Don't interrogate him."
"I wasn't going to –" he started.
"Wasn't going to what?" Neal asked as he returned from the kitchen.
"He wasn't going to hog the sofa with Satchmo," El said, "but somehow it always happens." She went into the kitchen for wineglasses, and Neal helped select and pour the wine. Peter settled into the old recliner from his bachelor days that El swore she would eventually get rid of, with Satchmo by his side. Neal and El took the sofa.
Neal paused a moment to savor the wine, and then said. "I broke my arm as a kid. Someone recommended art lessons to regain dexterity, and I was enrolled in classes."
"You loved it?" Peter guessed.
"No, I hated it."
"You hated art?" El asked.
"I loved art," Neal said. "I hated that I couldn't express what I wanted. A friend once described his frustration learning a second language in high school as having big thoughts he wanted to express, but with a tiny, child-like vocabulary that prevented him from saying anything interesting. That's how I felt. All around the classroom were posters of amazing artworks, and what we were doing was so childish, it felt like a waste of time." Getting caught up in the story, he toed off his shoes and put his feet up on the coffee table. Then he looked at El. "Umm. I should have asked first."
She grinned and kicked off her own shoes. "Make yourself comfortable."
"Thanks. I wasn't putting much of an effort in the art classes, and I guess I was starting to put up a fuss about going. That all changed after my aunt took me to an art museum. Seeing actual works like that, where you could make out the brushstrokes, it was incredible. There was a Van Gogh I stared at long enough to start gathering attention, and then I pointed to a specific area of the painting and asked 'How did he do that?' I leaned in so close that a guard actually pulled me away from the painting. But an art professor was part of the crowd. He took my hand, as if I were holding a brush, and showed me exactly how to accomplish what Van Gogh had done. I kept asking him questions for nearly an hour. And then he said he taught classes for children on weekends, and offered to let me join. It was an older set of kids. I was still in elementary school and they were junior high age, but it was perfect."
"He taught by emulating the classics," Elizabeth said.
"It's a traditional approach, and learning how the masters created masterpieces resonated with me. In that setting, there's a reverence to copying a piece of art. An average reproduction is mimicry, and you can sense the new artist is constrained. But if you love the original art, love creating art, and have a good eye for it, then you really are recreating art rather than simply copying it. The new version retains that sense of freedom of the original artist, rather than constraint."
Neal paused for another sip of wine, and El asked if he wanted a refill.
He shook his head, and continued the story. "My first forgeries were enabled by what I learned in those classes, but my forgeries weren't of art, and I wasn't doing it for profit. I needed a bus pass to get to school, and later an ID that made me older in order to take care of some things for my mom. We were going to get into trouble if I kept missing school, and dealing with utilities and banks required being perceived as at least eighteen. I knew I was good at those forgeries, and I took pride in my work. I didn't have any other options to keep my mom out of trouble with the civil authorities, so I couldn't feel guilty about breaking the rules of those same authorities in order to meet their demands. That's just the way the world worked."
"But when did you turn to art forgery?" she asked.
"My junior year of high school, I was taking classes with college students, still learning from the same professor. There was a project he assigned us that fall, to spend the entire semester perfecting a single reproduction. Mine was a Degas, and I was really proud of it. I knew I was good, but this was the best work I'd ever done. The professor raved over it, said he was going to add it to the school's collection. I was disappointed about not getting to keep it, but being included in a university art collection sounded impressive. The problem was, whenever I wanted to see that collection, the timing never worked out with the professor. Then, early in the next semester, he was arrested. I followed the story, and when I heard he'd been accused of selling a forged Degas, I realized what had happened."
Peter shook his head. "I remember hearing about that case. We always assumed it was the professor's own work. That forgery sold for nearly four million dollars."
"All that money," Neal said, "and I didn't see a penny of it."
"It all came down to money?" Elizabeth asked. "That's why you started forging art?"
"It was more complex than that. This professor, he'd been a mentor for me."
"A father figure," Peter suggested.
"You could say that, I guess. That relationship, and the world of art, had all existed in a bubble, untainted by everything else in my life. The money issues, my mom's drinking, that all disappeared when I stepped into the role of an artist. But suddenly art wasn't pure anymore. It was one more system that exploited people, and my reaction was to exploit it back. Because I could. Because it deserved to be exploited. Because it seemed like a victimless crime. Eventually I was in too deep."
"What does that mean?" Peter asked.
El frowned at him, and mouthed, "Don't interrogate him."
Neal shrugged. "A few years ago, someone figured out that Degas was mine. It was someone I wanted to impress. He asked me to prove how good I was, by forging an unforgeable bond. Not just reproducing a single copy, but doing it in a way that could be mass produced. I did it, not for money, but to show off. He kept most of the bonds, and evidence that I'd created them. He gave me a few, knowing I'd be tempted to cash them in when I needed money."
"And that's what put you on our radar," Peter said.
"Right. At that point there was no going back."
"This someone you wanted to impress, was it another father figure?"
"What can I say? My choice of mentors hasn't been the best." Neal chuckled without mirth. "You know, the day before he disappeared, Vincent Adler said I was like a son. As soon as he said that, I had a bad feeling about him."
"When you gave your confession, you never mentioned that someone asked you to create the bonds."
"What would be the point? He didn't technically break any laws."
Peter frowned. "If he's commissioning crimes, I'd like to keep an eye on him."
Neal shook his head. "You're not going to catch him in a pattern of commissioning crimes. That was an aberration. He wanted to make a point of the fact that I was a criminal. It was personal."
"Now that we have your confession for that crime, and you have immunity for it, whatever evidence he has shouldn't have any power over you now."
"You're mostly right," Neal said. "Don't worry about it, Peter. He's not going to trick or coerce me into committing any more crimes."
Peter looked like he wanted to argue, but Elizabeth shook her head. To turn the conversation in another direction, she said, "My father would be fascinated by your story, Neal. He's a psychiatrist, and he's always been interested in how people's childhood experiences affect their adult choices."
"Don't try to psychoanalyze me," Neal warned. "If you try to sketch my character tonight, 'there is reason to fear that the performance would reflect no credit on either.'"
It was clear Neal was quoting something, and it seemed familiar. Elizabeth thought about it a moment, and then felt her eyes widen in recognition. Immediately she grabbed a throw pillow and started pummeling Neal with it.
He held up his arms to block the blows and laughed. "You don't like Pride and Prejudice?"
Elizabeth finally put down the pillow, but glared at him. "You do not get to quote Mr. Darcy to another man's wife. Some things are sacred."
"I stand corrected."
Elizabeth viewed him with suspicion. "Is that another Pride and Prejudice quote?"
"I sincerely hope not."
At that point Peter, who looked very much as if he were trying not to laugh, suggested that he should drive Neal home.
A/N: After everything I've put Neal through in this story, I thought he deserved a chapter that was mostly fun. But now it's time to return to actual plot. The next chapter brings back Mozzie and Dr. Collins.
Thanks for the comments and reviews. They really brighten my day.