The blood drained from his head, and he was momentarily dizzy. “What?”
“I’m sorry, Neal. She died two months ago in her sleep. Doctor said it was a heart attack.”
He remembered the last time he’d seen her, at his apartment in her mansion. He hadn’t told her he was disappearing, but he’d lingered over a hug and kiss goodbye. He still hoped she’d gotten as much out of that final gesture as he’d put into it.
“She left it all to you, Neal. The mansion, the money.”
His jaw dropped. “What?” He was repeating himself, but “June’s dead” was still echoing in his mind.
“Her lawyer was instructed to come to me if he couldn’t locate you. June and I met for coffee once in a while. She never believed you were dead, only somewhere else, and eventually you’d return.”
Neal signaled for another glass of wine, and when it came, he sipped, waiting for his heartbeat to slow and his hand to stop shaking. June had been too vital to die. Too full of the enjoyment of life. It was inconceivable she was gone, even more unbelievable she’d left her possessions to him. Remembering the rooftop apartment she’d let him use filled him with nostalgia. What a grand place that had been. Beautiful and fine and perfect for his needs.
“Meeting her changed everything for me. I honestly don’t know if the relationship between you and me would have worked out without her.” That was a lie. He knew what would have happened. Stuck in that fleabag hotel Peter had put him in initially, after springing him from prison to be his confidential informant, would have broken his spirit. He’d have found a way to run long before discovering what kind of man Peter was.
“I know how important she was to you.” He said it sadly. “You can return to New York wealthier than when you left.” His smiled was knowing. “I suspect you left with plenty.”
He ignored the insinuation to leap on something else. “And pick up my life where I left off?” His lips thinned. “Working with the FBI again? Tell me, Peter, will the ankle bracelet go back on?”
“Neal Caffrey is dead. He can never come back. But Neal Morrisey can.”
Shit. Peter knew his current identity. Jabir must have let it slip; Mozzie would never have mentioned it. “I can’t claim June’s property using that name.”
“That’s correct, but I told the lawyer you were in WitSec, living under another name—which is why he couldn’t find you—and I would provide proof of your real identity. I convinced him there was no reason not to follow the directives of June’s will.”
Neal picked up his wine again. There wasn’t much left. He debated ordering a third glass and reluctantly decided against it. He was meeting Harris soon and wanted a clear head.
Smart of Peter to think of saying he was in the Witness Security Program. It offered him perfect cover and explained so many things.
“It’s a way for you to come home again, Neal. If that’s what you want.” His voice hardened. “But none of this can happen until the painting is returned.
“And if I don’t give it back?”
“I tell the police my suspicions and give them your current name.”
“Forcing me to run again,” he said bitterly.
“If you hadn’t taken the painting, we wouldn’t be discussing this. I would be here to tell you about June and nothing more.” He leaned forward. “You know actions have consequences, but you did it anyway. Neal… why?”
Why, indeed? He tightened his jaw. “And if I return the Monet?”
“I say nothing.” He sat back with a sigh. “You return to New York to claim your inheritance. Whether or not you remain there is up to you.”
“I’ve committed fraud by creating a new identity, and it’s possible I left the States with money that didn’t belong to me. You won’t throw me back in jail? No more anklet or working for the FBI?”
“The crime of possibly stealing money during the Pink Panthers robbery has been forgiven. After your supposed death, I spoke with the governor about the fine job you’d done for us. I showed him years of case files and stats, and convinced him you were deserving of a full pardon.” He smiled. “It was granted nine months ago.”
“And the new name?”
“Reappearing as Neal Caffrey would create all kinds of problems I don’t think either of us want to deal with. I’m not happy about this, and it may come back to bite me on the ass one day, but I can live with it if you keep your nose clean. One false move, one small heist, and I’ll send you right back to prison, no matter what it costs me, and believe me, I’d be in as much trouble as you if it came out I knew Caffrey was alive and didn’t report it. Understood?”
Neal nodded, his heart soaring. He really was free. “Thank you. I… there’s more I should probably say, but my mind is blank.”
“I’ve given you a lot to think about.” He drained his beer, stood, and put on his coat. “I’ll be in Paris two more days. Think you can take care of the Monet before I get on the plane back to the States?”
“Sure.” He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt this good about his life. Much as he loved Paris, the thought of being in New York City again filled him with excitement, and this time he wouldn’t be limited to the two-mile radius dictated by his anklet.
“Mozzie has my number. Call me when it’s been handled.”
He moved past Neal, pausing long enough to lay a hand on his shoulder. “You’ll get the check, right?” He laughed his way out the door and down the street.
Neal gladly paid and left a more than generous tip. Time to meet Harris.
“You’re late,” Harris said when Neal joined him at Le Campanella. It was too cold to sit outside, and he was inside in a booth next to a front window. His leather jacket was on the bench seat next to him. A glass of water was in one hand. A multitude of clear teardrop lights hung from the ceiling, making the place bright as a sunny day.
“Only a few minutes.” There’d been no animosity in Harris’s tone, so Neal didn’t take the seeming complaint seriously. “Be nice. I got bad news today.”
Harris, in the process of folding a red paper napkin into an origami shape, gave him an inquiring look. “What happened?”
He sighed. “I heard a friend of mine recently died.”
“My condolences.” He made another fold.
“But there’s also good news.”
He nodded. “It’s making you glow. Your sadness is obvious, but there is also light.”
Every time Neal was with Harris, he discovered something new to like about him. “What are you making?”
“Wait….” He made a few final folds, then held it up. “A dragon.” He pulled the tail, and the wings flapped.
Neal laughed, delighted. “What else can you do?”
Harris winked. “Oh, that’s too easy. I’ll leave it to your imagination.”
A waiter appeared, and they hurriedly made their choices. Neal went with a simple salad—”It was a lunch meeting, and there’s not much room left”—and Harris chose a salmon club sandwich and fries.
After she left, Harris prodded him. “The good news?”
Suddenly, he felt as if talking about it might jinx everything, so he reined his excitement in. “I might be returning home soon.”
“To New York City?”
“Even my old apartment is still available.”
“The one on Riverside Drive. I remember.”
A wall had gone up between them. Neal felt it as strongly as if it was real, but this was not the time to make offers or promises—not when he was feeling higher than an eagle on crack.
“When are you leaving?” The words were cool.
“Not for a while.”
“Takes time to disentangle. I get it.”
“Don’t do that.”
“I’m not doing anything.”
“I want to keep seeing you.”
Harris raised an eyebrow. “While you’re here. You want to keep seeing me while you’re here. What the fuck for? In a few weeks, there’ll be an ocean between us.”
“There doesn’t have to be.” Why had he said that? He wasn’t ready to say that yet. He might never be. And christ, didn’t Harris sound like any woman who thought he was pulling away? There wasn’t as much difference between genders as he’d thought.
The food came, preventing Harris from responding. Neal picked at his salad and sipped mineral water. Harris plowed through his meal like a starving man and drank beer while doing it. When the check came, Neal paid it.
Outside, he wouldn’t let Harris go. “We’re not finished.”
He hailed a cab, and they got in. A few minutes from his Marais apartment, his cell rang. Mozzie. “I can’t talk right now.”
“Just tell me: good news or bad?”
“Both. I’ll call you as soon as I can.” He disconnected.
Upstairs, Neal took off his wool coat and urged Harris to do the same.
“I’m not staying.”
“Stop being twenty-four years old and take off your coat.”
“Well, I am twenty-four-years old,” he mumbled, tossing the jacket on a chair.
“And damn good at it,” Neal teased. “I feel like painting this afternoon. How about you?”
Harris gave him an incredulous look.
“You know, dabbing colors on canvas to create a picture? Come with me.”
He walked through to the studio, picked up the digital camera, and stepped out on the balcony through the door off the bedroom. The snow had stopped overnight, but it was lightly falling again on the small park across the street. He snapped a couple pictures, then went back inside, shivering.
Downloading the shots to a laptop, he opened them, chose the better one, then sent it to the printer. Harris watched him from a corner, still resentful.
“We’re going to have a friendly contest today. Best painting wins, and the painter gets to choose a reward. It can be a ballet, theater show, movie—”
“Weekend trip to Tuscany?”
“If you win, sure, why not?”
“Who does the choosing?”
“My friend, the guy you didn’t meet last night.”
That made Harris laugh. “Does he know art, or is his idea of a fine painting four dogs playing poker?”
Neal’s smile was smug. “Trust me.”
He taped the photo to a cabinet door, then set up a second easel. “The time limit is two hours.” He put out paint and brushes for them both, then set a timer. “Any questions?”
Harris shook his head. “I’m ready.”
They ignored each other while they worked, remaining silent. As the two hours passed, the light moved, and they shifted their easels to follow it. Neal wanted to peek at Harris’s effort really bad, but he wouldn’t let himself, even when Harris went to the bathroom.
When the timer went off, Neal put down his brush and threw a cloth over his painting, then tossed one to Harris. “They stay hidden until the judging, agreed?”
Harris nodded, covered his work, and left the room. Neal followed. At the door, Harris donned his jacket.
“You’re leaving?” Neal didn’t want him to go.
“I have a project due tomorrow.”
“Is there anything I can say to convince you to stay?”
“I really can’t. Lunch and our contest took up more time than I’d planned.” He opened the door. “When will your friend decide?”
“Soon. I’ll call you.”
“Sure.” And he was gone, closing the door after him.
Mozzie showed up after dinner and went straight to the kitchen, where he chose a bottle of wine. Brandishing it, he said, “Or do we need the scotch again?”
“The wine will do.”
He opened it, poured two glasses, and took them to the wood table. “Tell me what Peter said.”
Neal sat and told him, leaving nothing out.
Moz was aghast. “You get a pardon and June’s property? When they talk about being born under a lucky star, they’re referring to you.”
Neal had been thinking about it since Harris left. “If I go back, would you go with me?”
“You know how I feel about that city.”
“So you’d leave Paris?”
He rolled his eyes. “We are a team. We always do better together. What about the island?”
The falling snow had become heavier, and the day had darkened early. Thanks to climate change, winters were colder and lasted longer.
“If I’m right about the size of her estate, we can have that, too.”
“Then you’d be a fool not to take it. I can practically hear her saying, ‘It’s yours, Neal. Keep it or sell it. I trust your judgment, and so would Byron.'”
Neal wished he’d had a chance to meet her husband before he died. “I’d be happy with just the apartment.”
“Then sell the rest, or turn it into a school, or give it away.” His eyes widened. “Forget I said that last part. Never give anything away.”
Neal stared at him. “So we’re going back?”
“Can you live without New York City?”
He looked away, biting his lip.
Neal and Mozzie were in the studio. Neal uncovered his painting.
Mozzie studied it at length. “Good use of color and form… oh, this bit of reflected green is nice.” He straightened. “An excellent effort. Anyone would be proud to hang it on their living room wall.”
“Are you insulting me, Moz?”
“Not at all. You painted what you saw. Not many people can do that. It’s what makes you a first-rate forger of the masters. Your eye is spectacular when it comes to duplicating line and color.”
They moved to Harris’s easel, and Neal removed the cloth. Mozzie stepped close to the painting. “This… is different.” He pointed. “There is the suggestion of a face in those tree branches, and here, in the bush behind the bench, there’s something, but I’m not quite sure what.” He bent to look at the lower right-hand corner. “This plant is wrong, but it’s not. It gives me a sense of unease.” He moved back again, stroking his chin. “Danger lurks in a bucolic scene, evil is present in the everyday, but it’s not overt.” He turned to Neal. “This painting is good. Clever, creative, subversive. I could sell it tomorrow.”
Neal was well aware of his shortcomings as a painter, and he wasn’t the least bit offended at Mozzie’s declaration. “I agree. That woman’s face? The one standing by the trash can? It gives me the chills, but I don’t know why.”
“Who’s the painter?”
“The young man you saw here last night.” Neal couldn’t stop looking at the canvas. It was impressive.
“I can probably get a thousand for it. Ask him if he wants to sell.” He returned to the dining room table, where he’d left his wine. Neal joined him. Mozzie sipped. “How did you meet?”
“At a bar. He’s American, and I thought it would be fun to talk with him. He’s from New York City, too.”
“What a coincidence.” Moz sat on the couch, picked up the bottle of wine, and refilled his glass. “What’s going on between you two?”
“What do you mean?”
“He came out of your bedroom, looking like he’d just rolled off the mattress.”
He held up a hand. “No judgment. It’s just that you’ve never swung that way. It’s always been the ladies up to now.”
“He interests me, and he’s talented, as you saw.”
Mozzie leaned back, expressionless. “I was with a man once, some years ago. I still remember him fondly.”
That surprised Neal, probably in the same way him being with Harris had surprised Moz. “And?”
“Some things defy explanation and are better experienced than discussed.” He raised his glass. “Do you need help returning the Monet?”
“I’ll take care of it tomorrow.”