A storm was brewing in the silence that had fallen over the conference room. Neal, Peter could see, was now barely bothering to conceal his irritation, tapping his pen on the desk as he calculated his next move. He shifted, leaning forward in his chair as though it would somehow help him gain leverage in the argument. His posture was tense, his back a rigid line. Finally he pushed away the folder Hughes had placed on the table in front of him and shook his head. “There’s just no way I’m doing this here. It won’t work.”
“Caffrey - "
“No. If you want me to do this, we do it on my terms or not at all.” Neal squared his shoulders as he dug his heels in, unfazed.
“Neal.” Peter’s voice held a warning note.
Hughes let out an exasperated sigh; they'd been over this several times already. “We can’t let you make this forgery on the bureau’s dime unsupervised. I won’t argue about this with you any further.”
“But it doesn’t work like that,” Neal said, the frustration simmering in his voice. He gestured to the pictures clipped to the case file. “We’re not talking about some reproduction you can pick up in the Village. I can forge this painting, but there’s a process. I need my own space to do it, the right light, the - “
“Caffrey!" Hughes' eyes were dark with anger. "I don’t have the time or the inclination to deal with your artistic fantasies. This is a glorified paint-by-numbers, not a masterclass at the Beaux Arts. Expense whatever supplies you need and set up in here. I believe this room has enough light and space for your ego, does it not?” Hughes turned to Peter. “Burke, pull your CI into line.” With one last glare at Neal, Hughes stalked out of the conference room shaking his head in disbelief.
Peter looked around at the team of agents still gathered at the table who had been watching Neal in awed silence since he first started his verbal sparring with Hughes over thirty minutes ago. He rubbed a hand over his face. “All right everyone, take five.” He gestured to the door sharply. “Neal - with me.”
Safely ensconced in his office, Peter sunk into his chair and looked across at Neal who was leaning against the wall, his irritation gradually settling into sullen discontent. “What, you’re going to sulk now?” he asked, but his words didn't hold any sting.
Peter blinked. “Good, then we can - " he began brightly, but Neal cut him off as he started to pace, clearly not done with making his unhappiness known.
“Hughes doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He doesn’t understand art, the creation of it. Doesn’t appreciate what it takes.” Neal waved his hand in the air, a short, agitated movement. “The bureau just sees it as a commodity, another item to be used and traded in an investigation, like drugs or money.”
Peter snorted incredulously despite himself. “And you don’t?”
Neal looked at him sharply. “No, I - ” He stopped and let out a breath, perhaps wary of giving away too much. “It’s not like that. It’s not always like that.”
Peter nodded and waited for Neal to continue, but he didn't.
Hughes had taken a call from the Washington bureau an hour earlier; a Caravaggio had been stolen from the National Gallery of Ireland and rumour had it that the painting was now in the possession of a fence on the East coast. In the course of their investigations, the agents from DC had found themselves in desperate need of an expertly forged version of The Taking of Christ for their planned sting and Neal being Neal, he was the first person on a list of one. The elation at being commissioned (Neal’s word, not his) by the bureau had quickly faded when he'd been told the work had to be done at the office under supervision. It had surprised Peter when Neal’s expression hardened, suddenly making Peter realise how unused he was to seeing genuine reticence from him.
Neal turned to stare out across the bullpen and Peter studied him for a moment, wondering why this was such a sticking point. “You know the higher ups are nervy about letting you go to town on a Caravaggio forgery. They want to feel like they’re still in control - ”
“- and make sure that I’m not able to commit any felonies or forgeries for my own purpose or profit,” Neal finished, perfectly mimicking the tone and cadence of Hughes’ earlier words. “It’s draconian.”
Neal looked over at Peter in surprise, clearly not expecting him to acquiesce with the statement so readily. “I don’t like working in a goldfish bowl.”
Peter laughed and nodded towards the vast glass walls of his office. “How do you think I feel?”
Peter arrived early the next morning to find the office transformed. The conference room, usually a space defined by its hard lines and glossy surfaces, had been mostly hidden under large, crumpled dust sheets. The window on the south side was littered with photographs of the Caravaggio; some images were indecipherable in relation to the painting as a whole, blown up to expose the microscopic detail of the paint’s texture or the slight hesitation of a brush stroke. A stack of paints, brushes and tools surrounded an easel at the far end of the room, and there in the middle of it all was Neal.
The canvas, at least from a distance, still looked untouched. Neal was leaning in close, marking the material with the end of a brush handle, but Peter couldn't tell if he was drafting or starting work in earnest. The two coffee cups on the table suggested Neal had already been there for some time.
“Looks like he means business,” Diana said as she joined Peter by the stairs in the bullpen, her bag and coat still slung over her arm.
“That’s what worries me.”
Diana laughed and headed towards the coffee machine. “Our very own artist in residence.” She quirked an eyebrow as she picked up a mug. “This should be interesting.”
Peter walked up the stairs from the bullpen, and with one last curious glance in Neal's direction he continued to his office. Settling at his desk, Peter quietly started preparing his reports for the daily team briefing, already feeling like it would be a long couple of days without Neal at his side. An hour later, the rich scent of oil paint started to seep into his office through the interconnecting door that the cleaner had left left slightly ajar.
It took Neal three days to make the forgery.
Throughout those three days the entire bureau watched in rapture as the painting took shape and the story it told came to life under Neal’s fingertips. Agents would take their coffee and lunch breaks gathered at the far end of the bullpen or find reason to walk past the conference room, stealing surreptitious glances at the forgery as they went. Even Hughes, it seemed, had been taken by it; at the end of each day when Neal finally left for the night, Hughes would detour into the conference room on his own way out, closely studying each new layer of paint on the canvas. His expression was often inscrutable in the dim light, but Peter was sure that his perception of Neal was shifting.
It was uncanny, Peter thought, that an office full of agents trained and educated in the prevention of this very crime could be so gripped by it. At Quantico he remembered learning that a vast number of artworks displayed in galleries across the world were forgeries. Peter had rolled that fact around his mind for a long time after, finding it strange that every day thousands of people visited art galleries and museums and, authentic or not, absorbed and reacted to the images they saw. Criminality aside, did it matter if a piece of artwork was a forgery when the effect was the same? Did it matter whether the hand holding the brush belonged to a seventeenth century Italian, or an American in modern day Manhattan? He wondered how Neal felt about his forgeries, if as he claimed, there was something more to it all than the money and leverage they could bring.
Peter would admit he had been as engrossed by the process as everyone else, but, able to observe Neal from the safety of his office, he had no witness. He found himself waiting with anticipation for mid-afternoon when the sun would move across the sky and Neal would move with it, turning the easel to catch the light; his profile would be in Peter’s direct eye line then, and illuminated by the window, the minute detail of Neal’s expressions were laid bare and elucidated for him to see only. It amazed him at how attentive and calm Neal was while painting, as though his mind and body finally, finally had something substantial enough to occupy them fully; his eyes were focused and sharp, crystalline in the bright sunlight, his mouth a firm line. As he worked, Peter could only ever see corners of the painting, partial glimpses of the areas of canvas not obscured by Neal’s body.
The delicate curve of an ear.
The tense grasp of a hand encircling an arm.
Light glimmering on metal.
“Did you know Caravaggio’s art was forgotten about as soon as he died?” Neal asked while they stood in front of the completed forgery. After a brief, bureau-sanctioned trip to a warehouse in Queens, he had brought the painting back to the office, aged and ready for collection by the Washington agents.
Peter tore his eyes away from the immaculate piece. “It was?”
Neal nodded while leaning in, scanning the canvas critically for any flaws. “He was seen as an outsider, arrogant, dangerous. It was easier to forget him entirely than remember the good if it meant remembering the bad too.”
Peter looked back to the easel for a long moment. “That’s a shame. It’s beautiful.” Whether he meant Caravaggio’s image or Neal’s, he wasn't entirely sure. “I thought all that danger and controversy was a good thing in the art world, like Tracey Emin or that guy who pickles cows.”
Neal smiled. “Damian Hirst. And it is, but then again Caravaggio did paint prostitutes in religious scenes and kill a man before fleeing Rome in exile, so - ”
“So…maybe they had a point?” Peter laughed and returned his focus to the artwork.
He had always known Neal was immensely talented, but this was something else. Perhaps it was because Peter had only ever seen Neal’s forgeries months or years after they were made, instead of watching them materialise before him; there had always been a certain amount of distance and time before now. He was taken by the drama and intensity of the image and he thought absently that his old Sunday school teacher would have liked it. Surrounded by soldiers, Christ stood near the left hand side of the painting embraced by Judas as he prepared to deliver his kiss of betrayal. The figures seemed to move across the canvas with a tangible sense of energy and the deep reds of the clothing burned vividly in the otherwise dark image. The chiaroscuro effect of the painting was arresting, a perfect play of light and dark, one bringing the other into relief. As he studied the painting, Peter was struck by how much the effect reminded him of Neal; bright, capable and talented, the beauty of the things he produced was always overshadowed, wrapped up in the dark artifice of his motives. He wondered if Neal ever saw it the same way.
It then occurred to Peter why Neal, usually one to thrive with an audience, had been so reluctant to undertake the work at the bureau. The process exposed a deep contradiction within him, edging a little too close to the truth of things than Neal would ordinarily permit. That truth found Neal on a precarious border between forger and artist, able to recreate an image with stunning accuracy and talent, evoke love and hate and everything in between, but for all that he was still following someone else's script. It wasn't Neal provoking the reactions, not really; he was just a conduit, passing the message along. Peter didn't understand art the way Neal did, but whether he thought of himself as an artist or not, Peter could see that what Neal had put onto canvas was soul bearing, an entirely different matter to forging a document or a bank note. It was the fault line that ran through Neal's identity, one Peter didn't think Neal himself had reconciled.
Neal moved across the room and started to clear up his materials. He looked exhausted, with paint streaked across his t-shirt and arms, hair tousled, eyes slightly red. Out of the corner of his eye, Peter saw him move a dust sheet, uncovering a stack of unopened paints and expensive looking pastels. Peter stepped closer to the painting and made a show of studying it. “Didn’t know Baroque masters used acrylics,” he said casually, the same way Neal would say, "And I don’t even need a corkscrew to open it."
Neal looked up, a blank, innocent expression on his face. “No, they didn’t.”
“So the paint on this canvas is…?”
“Uh huh, I see.”
Peter narrowed his eyes and tried to keep the smile from his face as he watched Neal continue to pack up. Neal moved another sheet, revealing a large supply of unused brushes and a thick stack of high quality paper. Giving no indication that he sensed Peter watching him, he rolled the art supplies up inside the sheet and made his way towards the door. Just as Peter was about to say something, Neal called back over his shoulder, “Hughes said to expense whatever I needed.”
“Just following orders are you, Neal?” Peter asked.
Neal paused in the doorway and flashed him a pearly grin as he shrugged. “You know me."
Peter tried not to laugh at the irony of it.