The next morning, Neal carefully packed and addressed the Monet in a long round tube, then proceeded to the DHL office on Rue Feydeau. He wore one of his hats, dark glasses, and a fake mustache and beard. “I’d like this delivered today, before noon.”
The clerk looked at the clock on the wall. “That will require additional charges.” Her English was only slightly accented.
“Not a problem.” He shot her his most charming smile. “My uncle works in Administration at the Musee d’Orsay. I forgot it was his birthday until late last night.”
She smiled. “That happens.” She looked up the fee.
Since the terrorist attack in Paris, all packages were inspected at the door, otherwise Neal would have taken it there himself and then persuaded someone to deliver it for him while he watched. Hell, at any other time, he would have broken in again and put it back on the wall, but time was short. Peter was leaving tomorrow.
“Do you wish to insure this package?”
What would be the point? There was no way they could cover an item this rare. “No, but I would like to have delivery confirmed.” On the form, he gave a fake name and the address of a popular local cafe. He was meeting Mozzie there in an hour.
It almost hurt to hand over the tube containing the painting. Although he’d toyed with the idea of returning it before Peter insisted, being forced into doing it felt wrong. This had been one of his most elegant heists, flawless in execution. He refused to consider Peter seeing him on a street cam as a negative. There was no way to connect him walking down a street with a daring robbery.
He paid the clerk and left. He wouldn’t breathe easy until he knew it was back at the museum.
Neal called Harris on the way to the cafe to meet Mozzie. He was surprised when he answered. “Aren’t you in class? I expected to leave a message.”
“I’m finishing up that project I mentioned. It’s due by two.”
The snow that had fallen last night was gone, melting off in unexpectedly warm temperatures. Sunlight made the remaining puddles glitter and shine. Wearing jackets or hoodies and long, colorful scarves, people sat outside, enjoying hot drinks and each other. Neal couldn’t believe he was thinking of leaving this city. The thought made his chest ache.
Then he remembered he could come back any time he liked and cheered up. He’d been pardoned. He had money. He was in absolutely the best possible position he could be in… as long as he didn’t fuck it up.
“You won the contest. You get to choose.”
“Dinner at Epicure.”
“Not the trip to Tuscany?”
“It wouldn’t be fair. If you’d won, you would have chosen something reasonable.”
“We’ll do Tuscany another time.” He’d arrived at his destination. Mozzie was sitting at an outdoor table, wearing red plaid flannel over one of his vintage, short-sleeved shirts. Sunlight glinted off his bald head as he sipped white wine, looking entirely content. “I have to go now.”
“Me, too.” Harris disconnected without saying goodbye.
Neal joined Mozzie, sitting and opening his coat but leaving it on. “It’s done, or soon will be. It’s being taken to the museum by courier.”
“Then the way is clear.” Moz filled a second glass from the open bottle on the table. He glanced up. “If you’re still of the same mind.”
“We can always come back.” He toasted Moz and drank. “We’re meeting Peter for breakfast at his hotel tomorrow morning.”
“You want to see him, don’t you?”
“Suit and I got along well enough, but he’ll always be the enemy. It would do you well never to forget that.”
“That’s a bit harsh, considering he came to Paris to tell me about June and offer me a way home.”
“Is that your way of saying you’re going straight again? When will you learn? You are who you are. You can’t change any more than I can.”
Neal didn’t want to have this discussion again. “Shall we order?” One day he would give up his criminal ways, and Mozzie would have to accept that and stay or go on his way.
They lingered after eating, both having a second glass of wine while Neal waited. It was nearly eleven thirty when the DHL truck pulled up at the curb, and the driver went inside in search of someone who didn’t exist, to tell them a parcel had been delivered.
Neal drained the last of his wine and stood. “We can leave now.”
Peter was exceptionally chipper over his omelet and coffee. “Please sit,” he said when they approached. “Order anything you like. I’m buying.” The waiter came and went. “Nice to see you again, Mozzie. Paris seems to agree with you.”
“Paris agrees with everyone.”
“The food in this city is almost as good as that in New York.” He raised a fork to his mouth, chewed, and swallowed. “I miss El’s cooking though. Plain food, but tasty.” He grinned. “I don’t think she’s ever served me anything with sauce on it, other than spaghetti.” He pointed at his plate. “See that? There’s sauce on my omelet.”
Coffee was brought, and Neal added a little milk and sipped. “The item was returned to the museum yesterday.”
“I know. I received a call shortly thereafter. You trusted a courier service to deliver it?” He shook his head. “You took a terrible chance. What if it had gotten lost or been misplaced?”
“It was a calculated risk. I wasn’t overly worried.”
“The museum administrators are thrilled to have it back, but they were set on finding the thief to make an example out of him until I convinced them to let it go. I pointed out guilt and remorse were already obviously at work on the perp, and since they had their property back, why not forget it and move on? Especially as they had no clue to the thief’s identity. The clerk at DHL was unable to adequately describe the man who arranged the delivery, and in-house cameras only saw the top of someone’s hat and a nondescript jacket.” He raised an eyebrow. “Better they spend their money improving their security systems than wasting it chasing a ghost. They eventually agreed with me and are preparing a celebration of its return.”
Their food came. There was a hollandaise sauce on his Eggs Benedict, and Neal chuckled and dug in.
Peter wiped his mouth with a napkin. “When you get back to New York, call me. I’ll set up a meeting with June’s lawyer. Mozzie? I assume you’ll be with him?”
“No decision has been made.” He finished the last of his eggs over easy and put down his fork. “Would you expect Neal to work with you again?”
Peter looked at Neal, who gazed back at him blankly. “No decision has been made,” he echoed Moz. “What do you think? Would that interest you?”
Neal shrugged. “Depends on how much you’d pay me and whether or not I got a proper office.”
Peter stood. “We’ll talk about it. In New York. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to check out and get to the airport.” He pulled his wallet out, removed a couple bills, and laid them on the table. “Nice seeing you both again. Stay in touch.”
Harris wasn’t much of a clothes horse, preferring to spend his money on art supplies and the like, but he had one good suit, and he wore it the night he met Neal at Epicure. The restaurant was in the Bristol Hotel and had received consistently high ratings from the people who bestowed such things. He’d never been there. He was excited about the outing but tried hard not to show it.
When he arrived, he was shown to a table in a bright dining room where all seats had a view of the courtyard garden. Neal greeted him with a smile, looking impossibly debonair in another one of his seemingly endless collection of suits. His tie brought out the vivid blue in his eyes, and the wall that had been around Harris’s heart since the painting contest fell, leaving him yearning.
This man was going to cause him great pain. He almost wished he’d never met him.
Harris took the seat opposite Neal. “The place lives up to the hype, at least so far.”
“Wait until after dinner before you say that.”
He picked up the menu. “Ever occur to you we always seem to meet in restaurants?”
“Special times revolve around good food and drink. Besides, this is Paris. Everyone meets at restaurants.”
“My friends and I usually hang out at McDonald’s,” he said dryly.
“That’s the starving part of being an artist?” Neal kidded.
“You’d be surprised how far one large bag of fries goes,” Harris joked back.
“Since it’s your first time here, why don’t we order à la carte? The chef’s signature dishes should be enjoyed. Next time, we can try the seasonal or tasting menu.”
“There’s going to be a next time?”
“I’m not abandoning Paris. I love this city. I plan to visit frequently.”
And I’m going to be his dirty little secret when he does? Hell no. Tightening his lips, he perused his menu choices. “What do you recommend?”
Dinner took almost three hours, and despite his decision to remain aloof, Harris enjoyed every minute of it. The food was, as promised, the best he’d ever eaten. Neal ordered a second bottle of wine halfway through the meal, and by the time the bill was paid, he was pretty toasted. He barely noticed how the temperature had dropped while they’d been inside.
Neal stuffed him in a taxi, and he leaned against him all the way to Neal’s apartment, oohing and aahing at the lights on the river as they crossed the bridge. His eyes welled at the beauty of it, even as his fingers itched to paint the scene.
In the elevator, feeling as good as he ever had, he knew he should go home but couldn’t make himself do it. What was waiting for him there? Ron with his latest conquest? The girls, high on weed and giggling over some guy at school?
Neal unlocked his door. “What did you think of the wild sea bass?”
Harris followed him inside and let his coat drop to the floor before grabbing Neal from behind and burying his head in his shoulder. “Wonderful. Perfect. Best damn fish ever.”
Neal turned in his arms, smiling. “You’re a little drunk.”
“So are you.” He kissed Neal. “Wanna show me your bedroom again? —Wait, let me give you a little incentive.” He reached between Neal’s legs and squeezed.
They stumbled, laughing, to the bedroom, removing each other’s clothes along the way. Neal always smelled so good. “What the hell cologne do you use?”
“Acqua Di Gio. Armani.”
Of course it was Armani, and probably expensive as hell. “I’m going to be a famous painter one day. Then I’ll wear Armani, too.”
“Speaking of which—”
“No more talking. We have some serious fucking to do.”
Neal fell asleep afterward and didn’t wake until nearly three, when his bladder drove him to the bathroom. He went to the kitchen next, filling a pitcher with water and carrying it back to the bedroom with two glasses. His head ached from all the wine they’d had with dinner; water would rehydrate him. He’d been hitting the vino hard the last few days. Time to take a break.
He poured himself a full glass, sat on the edge of the mattress, and drank it slowly.
Harris reached for him with a groan. “Could I have some of that?”
They sat side by side, pillows at their back, gazing out the windows at the balcony and the night sky. The moon had long since vanished from that sector, but fast-moving wispy clouds were lit underneath by city lights. Watching them was almost hypnotic.
“You were going to talk to me about something earlier.” Harris spoke in a near-whisper, but it was so quiet in the apartment, Neal heard every word.
“I’d like to leave for New York next week.” Neal spoke just as softly. He curled his hand around Harris’s, holding it loosely. “I’ve decided to keep the apartment, and I want you to take care of the place while I’m away. I don’t know how often I can get back here, and I’d rather it not sit empty. Places like this need care. Love, even.”
Harris’s hand tightened in his. “I’m not sure I could afford the utilities here, much less rent.”
“There is no rent. I paid cash for the place.” He still remembered the shocked look on the seller’s face when he’d made the offer.
“I’d stay here for nothing?”
“Officially, you’d live here as my caretaker. It would be like a house-sitting job. I’d pay you something monthly to water the plants, make sure the plumbing is working, dust and vacuum once in a while, and take in any mail or packages.”
There was a long silence. “And when you did pop into town, would you expect me to be at your beck and call?” The words had an edge.
Neal seemingly took a conversational left turn. “Did I tell you what my friend said about your painting?” He continued without waiting for an answer. “He declared it was really good, that he could sell it tomorrow for a thousand dollars.”
“He said that?”
“He did, and he knows the art world. He chose you as the winner, didn’t he?” He nudged Harris’s shoulder. “You are going to be a famous artist. Let me provide you with a space in which to create. You’d be doing me a favor and helping yourself at the same time.”
“Your offer is appreciated, but answer the question. Am I expected to be your butt boy when you blow into town?”
Neal recognized serious damage when he heard it. He’d suffered enough of his own, and if not for Mozzie and Peter, he’d still be broken. “When I visit Paris, I expect to sleep in this bed. Whether you choose to join me or not is up to you. The couch in the living room folds out.”
After a moment, Harris surreptitiously wiped his eyes. “You don’t know what this means to me.”
Neal recalled the moment when Peter had offered him a way out of prison. At the time, he’d seen it as another situation he could manipulate, but hindsight showed it had been a turning point in his life. The literal fork in his road. “Move in. Paint. Become who you were meant to be.”
Go to Chapter 6.