They were being borrowed by homicide for a stakeout. A really long, really boring stake out that would probably, if they were very, very lucky, lead to exactly one of the nine teams sitting around various clubs and bars looking for the guy in the grainy surveillance film getting any action.
Neal was more antsy than Peter could take. It wasn’t that Peter wanted any part of tangling with a murder, but sitting in the car for hours on end, at the end of a long work day, was severely taxing what Peter suspected was a raging case of ADHD.
“Tell me about the first thing you stole,” Peter asked out of the blue. Neal was always an enigma for him. A good guy, but a thief. How did that happen?
“Peter,” Neal whined.
“What? How old were you? Ten? Twelve? Either way I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations is up on it. So tell me.”
“I wasn’t ten or twelve,” Neal said.
“Fifteen? Sixteen? I’m pretty sure you couldn’t have been much older than that – you were in juvie at seventeen.” There was no answer and Peter wondered if he’d tackled the subject a little too harshly. Elizabeth would have been able to get this information out of Neal. He decided that if he struck out as spectacularly as he seemed to be destined to, he’d get her to poke at him the next time he came over for dinner. “Wait,” he said suddenly, tracking back through their conversation. “Were you younger than ten?”
Neal sighed and slumped down in his seat, but his posture was more resigned than angry. “I was eight.”
Peter thought back to the mid-eighties, when Neal would have been eight and tried to figure out what it was that Neal might have taken. “Candy bar?” he guessed. Neal shook his head. “Video tape? Baseball cards?”
“Peter have you met me? Why in the world would I have wanted baseball cards?”
“What was it?” Peter pressed.
“A set of markers.”
Peter shook his head; that made so much sense. “And an art thief was born…” he muttered.
Neal hoped that having the basic answer to his question would give Peter enough of a feeling of having ‘won’ in the face of Neal’s reluctance to talk that he wouldn’t press any deeper. He wasn’t up to explaining how he’d grown up learning that there were times you could justify not paying for something you needed and how there were some people who just had so much that they wouldn’t miss a few things here or there.
But between being bored senseless and not wanting to trample on the trust and respect building between Peter and himself, he found himself talking anyway.
He remembered being about three when the idea of paying for things with money made sense to him. It was at about that same time that he was told by someone that you couldn’t take things from a store without paying for them. That was stealing and that was bad.
At three years old he just nodded and said ‘okay’ because he knew that was what he was supposed to do.
He was five when he really noticed how his mother operated in the grocery store. Big things like a whole chicken or a big box of pancake batter mix went in the cart. Little thing like a bottle of oregano or a can of corn went in her purse or her pocket or Neal’s school bag.
She was pulling out the corn and a small bag of rice from his bag when they’d gotten home one day when Neal asked, “How do you know what you have to pay for?”
His mother had said that you paid for what you could, and left it at that.
Some things didn’t make it into their apartment very often because they were both big and expensive. Milk seemed to fall into that category. It was a treat to have a carton of milk in the house, especially because it usually also meant there was enough money for a package of cookies.
When he was six his mother had explained that sometimes you just needed something and didn’t have the money for it. She told him that it wasn’t okay to take things just because you wanted them, but needing them was different. And it wasn’t like she was robbing the place blind. She always paid for most of the things they got, and the grocery store made so much money that they really didn’t notice a few things going missing.
Neal wasn’t sure where the large bottles of vodka or whiskey that were always in the house fit in. Was that something his mom paid for because she wanted them or stole because she needed them? There was something about the way his mom acted when those bottles were more empty than full that told him it was better not to ask.
When he was eight, he took something because he needed it for the first time.
He’d asked his mom for the money to get markers for school.
“You’ll have to make due with the crayons I got you when school started. We don’t have money for markers.”
Neal made a face. His teacher had said they needed markers for a project later that week.
On his way out the door the next morning his mom gave him three dollars and told him to get a loaf of bread and a package of hot dogs on his way home from school. She even told him that if there was enough change he could use it on a candy bar or can of soda.
When Neal got in line with the hot dogs and bread, the markers had been hanging on the endcap of the register line and after carefully scouting the area, he’d slipped them into his backpack, paid for the things his mom wanted and left. He pocketed the change instead of getting a candy bar, feeling like the markers were a better deal.
When he was in eighth grade he drove his English teacher insane. She’d assign a novel for them to work through for the next week or two and Neal would come back in the next day with the whole thing read and usually a fair bit of insightful commentary about the main theme of the novel.
In an effort to slow him down just a little, she’d brought him her personal copy of Les Miserables. Not the abridged copy, the full 1500-page version.
Neal’s new hero had become Jean Valjean. He wasn’t sure his English teacher ever understood why he’d come running in so excited that a former crook had become so powerful and wealthy. Why someone who stole bread for his starving family becoming so important to so many people had resonated so much with him. When he’d been spectacularly bored in prison one day he’d written her a letter and thanked her for giving him the book. He’d tap-danced around they whys (not to mention where he was writing from), but he figured every teacher would want to know that they touched someone’s life forever.
By the time he started high school he’d become popular with a group of kids who paid well for well-forged hall passes and doctored report cards. One of those kids hooked him up with an uncle who knew quite a bit about the local art scene and even more about how to replace originals with copies and how to move the originals quietly.
Just not quietly enough. There’d been a few run-ins for shoplifting and another for impersonating an undercover cop, so by the time Neal got caught participating in an art forgery ring at seventeen, he was sent to the Juvenile Detention Center, especially when they realized that his mother had disappeared when he’d been about sixteen and he’d been forging her name on school documents and the checks that were paying the rent and bills for the past few months.
Neal shifted in his seat, casting a wary glance over at Peter. He wasn’t sure what kind of reaction he expected.
“That’s why you didn’t graduate high school,” Peter said quietly, not having expected to get that much of Neal’s life history.
“I didn’t much care at that point. My mom was gone, the guys who’d been looking after me in the art forgery ring went away for a lot longer than I did. I was kind of aimless for a while.”
Peter drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “Neal, I didn’t realize… you know… that this was… I just figured you’d tell me some wild story about, I don’t know, stealing…” Peter sighed not even sure where he was going.
“Candy bars or baseball cards?”
“Yeah,” Peter sighed.
“Eh,” Neal muttered, shaking it off. “Like I couldn’t have given you some bullshit story if I’d really wanted to.”
Peter elbowed Neal companionably. “I’m glad you didn’t.”
Neal gave him a crooked grin. “Be afraid. I think I’m starting to trust you.”
Peter laughed. “Oh, believe me, I’ve been afraid for a while a now.”
They both laughed and got comfortable as they settled in to watch a club that had absolutely nothing interesting happening in front of it.