Neal Island

Of Rhythm and Blues, Part One

Title: Of Rhythm and Blues
Author: eldorah
Artist: embroiderama
Beta(s): rose_of_sharon1
Rating: PG13
Characters/Pairings: Peter Burke/Elizabeth Mitchell, June Ellington, Neal Caffrey, Mozzie, Matthew Keller, Reese Hughes
Warnings: None
Spoilers: Through the end of Season 5 (This AU contains canon elements of Neal’s family history, which we receive various bits of info about throughout different episodes and seasons.)

Summary: When Peter Burke, well-to-do talent agent of both his billboard topping wife, Elizabeth Mitchell, and the legendary soul singer, June Ellington, finds raw talent unlike any other in the form of a young man recently relocated from the Midwest, he must find a way to gain the young man’s trust while helping him share his talent with the world.

Art Post | Master Post | Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

--------------


83507_original

The old wooden door slammed against its frame as the young man pushed into the third story apartment, storming in a rage of emotion.

“Danny,” a woman acknowledged from a small kitchen table, her dark hair a mess as she took a swig of the small square glass in front of her, “I didn’t expect you home so early. Ellen said you were going out for dinner. Happy Birthday, baby. I can’t believe my little boy is eighteen already.”

The boy didn’t even glance in her direction as he made his way through the old kitchen into his tiny bedroom. Hastily, he dumped his day’s worth of textbooks onto his bed and started shoving clothing into his ragged knapsack. Then, after tearing apart his sock drawer, he threw in a wad of cash bound by a gold tie clip with a police prescient’s engraving. Hands shaking, he slammed the drawer shut again and stormed back down the hallway, his steps echoing wildly in the small, barren space.

The woman had gotten up from the table and was standing in the kitchen doorway, supporting herself on its paint chipped frame and blocking the only exit from the small apartment. Her breath smelled strongly of whiskey, and as she clasped the young boy’s face, he could see the tears welling in her eyes.

“I told her not to tell you, baby. I wanted to talk to you myself,” she slurred, trying to stroke his hair. The boy pulled out of her grasp.

“But you didn’t,” was all he said, pushing past her.

“Where you gonna’ go?” she asked, her voice cracking, “Where you gonna’ go, Danny? You can’t just run off. I’m sorry, baby, but I did the best I could.”

The boy stared back at her, blue eyes matching hers in a cold stare.

“My name is Neal,” he stated as he shoved open the door, walking out of the apartment, and by the time she had stumbled across the kitchen, he had already disappeared.
--------------

The sequins on her lacy black dress caught the turn of the stage lights, scattering brilliant rainbows through the air in every direction. Her voice was smooth and rich as she hit each note with ease, and her smile was simply dazzling. She twirled around, her long brunette hair wrapping her body in a curtain as it flowed behind her, and the noise decimal easily tripled in the huge arena as she reached the chorus of her newest hit song. She was beautiful in every aspect of the word, and each time he watched her perform, Peter Burke could not believe that he could call Elizabeth Mitchell his wife.

“She’s come a long way from that meek young woman you first introduced me to,” June Ellington said from her seat beside him backstage, linking her arm into his, “You should be so proud.”

Peter blushed a little. Even though his friendship with June had started well before he had even met Elizabeth, there was something still so reverent about receiving a compliment from the likeness of such a legendary jazz and soul star.

“She’s got a lot of talent,” Peter said humbly, “I can’t take credit for that, and we both owe you a huge thank you for teaching her how best to use it.”

“Nonsense,” she said, flipping her free hand, adorned with pearls and a vintage diamond ring, “I enjoyed working with her this past year. It has been an absolute honor.”

Peter smiled. In retrospect, he also had come a long way since he first walked in as a new graduate to fill out an application as a talent agent with Reese Records. To his surprise, he had immediately been offered the job. Then, mere months after his start, the business got wind that the legend June Ellington was in the market for a new representative, since her longtime talent agent and husband, Byron, had passed away a few months prior. Peter had only been one of many agents vying for the spot, and the one with least experience at that, so he had never expected to land it. But his mentor, boss, and company owner, Reese Hughes, had encouraged him to bid on it, and ten years ago today he had signed a contract as an agent for the legend. He hadn’t looked back since.

The crowd thundered in applause as Elizabeth sang the last line, and lighters and cellphones immediately danced across the vast breadth of darkness that expanded in front of the stage, signifying the fans’ desire to witness a third encore. But Elizabeth just blew kisses to the sold-out crowd in response. She was young and fit, but a three and half hour set was draining nonetheless, especially with the heart and soul she poured into her performance. Plus, as much as she loved this new life, she was dying to finally get to be home and to spend some time being normal again.

“What a beautiful crowd to share my last night of this first tour with. Thank you, Madison Square Garden, it is good to be home!”

Smiling, she shook hands with the fans in the front row as she collected bouquets on her way offstage, winking in between handshakes at her husband and June.

“Boss,” a voice suddenly cut over the noise into Peter’s ear, who was excitedly anticipating his reunion with the starlet, “Wesley’s got a private party going downtown and invited you both there to celebrate. Should I tell him you’ll be coming?”

Peter looked at his assistant with a blank stare.

“When do we ever attend the after-party? We’re in New York, it’s the last night of the tour. Elizabeth and I will be celebrating at home this evening.”

“That’s what I thought, Boss, I’ve already declined the invite. Clinton has pulled the car around back,” Diana said with a knowing smile, “I’ve placed a bottle of moscato in the car for the Mrs., and some Sam Adams for you.” She knew him all too well.

“You’re too good to us, Diana. You go home too, and spend some time with Christie and Theo. You deserve it, it’s been a long haul.”

“But a good one, Peter, but a good one,” the young woman, clad in an elegant business suit, replied, and then, after a quick wink, she turned to go.

Smiling, Peter turned back toward the stage just in time for his wife to leap into his arms.

“You were fantastic, Hon,” he said, swinging her around and kissing her softly on the forehead, “But I’m so glad I don’t have to share you with millions for a while.”

“I love you, Hon,” she replied hoarsely, “I can’t wait to finally be home.”

“Me neither,” he said, whisking her away quickly toward the back exit, “Me neither. Let’s make a quick escape before too many people realize you’re leaving,”

“Wait, June,” Elizabeth called over her shoulder, “Thank you so much for coming.”

“Sweetie, I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Now you two run off and have a good evening.”

Elizabeth turned back to her husband, elated to be returning to their little townhome in Brooklyn for the first time in almost a year. She felt like a teenager about to go on her first date.

“Don’t you worry, June,” she said, “We will.”
--------------

The air was heavy and balmy, way too hot for this early in the year, but Neal had grown accustomed to the erratic weather that had characterized his home in Missouri for the past eighteen years. Idly, he wandered up the steps toward the Gateway Arch, the crowning symbol of his city. Looking out over the Mississippi Riverfront as the sun set behind him, he pondered where he ought to go. One of the easier ways out of the city would be to sneak on a barge and take it down to Baton Rogue, but something about that didn’t sit right with him. He had little cash for a bus or a train ticket, and walking wouldn’t get him far enough. Sighing, he sat down on the shallow steps and watched the world below as he contemplated his options.

Children danced jovially down along the Riverfront walkway as their parents lumbered slowly behind. A group of college aged kids, decked out in black and gold and presumably on a trip from the University walked by, taking photos of the monument as they passed. Before today, he would have thought that one day that would be him. He had already earned an academic scholarship, a full ride to take on a double major in art history and civil law a few hours west in Columbia, and with graduation only mere months away, he knew the smartest thing would be to wait it out and start anew there. He could lie low in a friend’s loft for the next few months, finish out his high school diploma, and take off to the University without a word to his mom or Ellen. But he didn’t want to do that anymore, not after finding out everything he had worked so hard for had been built on a lie.

Lovers strolled through the park’s path, holding hands and oblivious to the world around him. Old blues music wafted through the air from a street musician sitting on a nearby bench, who was finger picking an old Gibson and singing about glory days gone by. Neal had always loved this aspect of the Midwestern city. There was a certain culture here that could not be replaced. Sure, other cities had better art museums, or plays, or restaurants, all of which Neal could appreciate, but this city had such great history and personality, and its streets were always alive with the sound of an old-time tune. He thought absently that he would always carry that with him, no matter where he might end up.

As the sun sank lower on the horizon, he made his way back down the steps toward the street musician, still unsure of exactly where to go. He dug in his backpack awkwardly for his wad of cash, and stopped in front of the older man, dropping two dollars in the fedora sitting on the ground when he took a break between songs.

“How much for the Gibson?” the light-eyed boy asked with an authority that belied his age.

“It’s not for sale,” the gruff voice replied, aged blue eyes peeking up curiously from his work.

“What about this?” Neal asked as he produced the tie clip with his father’s precinct number engraved on it out of thin air, “It’s pure gold.”

“Nice trick. Where’d you get this, kid? It ain’t stolen, is it?”

“No,” Neal said, “It was my dad’s. You want it for the guitar or not?”

The man took the clip from Neal and studied it.

“Your dad a cop?”

“No,” Neal said, and when the musician’s eyes met his with skepticism, he added, “Not anymore. It’s worth a lot. You could melt it down or resell it. You want it?”

The man remained silent for a moment, his tough demeanor slowly melting as he studied the clip a while longer.

“Sure,” he said, slowly, placing the guitar in its case and handing it to Neal, “It’s got a broken pickup and a big ol’ crack in the back, though.”

“That’s fine,” Neal said, taking the instrument, “It still makes music.”

“That she does, son,” the street musician said, his face softening, “Where you headed?”

“Who says I’m headed somewhere?” the boy asked, suddenly defensive.

“I know people, kid, I can tell when they’re leaving for good. Wherever you go, don’t be afraid,” he said with a genuine smile, “It’ll be alright. You got your whole life ahead of you. Go on and have fun.”

Neal smiled and shook the man’s hand before turning to go, his heart aching a little already.

“Just don’t forget the ones you leave behind,” the street musician called out, and as Neal turned back, he thought he saw the man’s eyes glistening.

“And you’d better take good care of my Gibson! Here,” the man called him back, emptying out the fedora of his night’s meager earnings, “Take this with you. You’ll need it more than I do.”

Neal watched as the man stood up, smiling fondly as he tossed Neal the fedora, “You put that on now and walk like you’ve got someplace to be. You’ll go far, kid, don’t you worry.”

The young boy smiled, blue eyes looking back as he rolled the fedora up his arm and popped it on his head with his shoulder. “I’ll mind your Gibson just fine, sir, I promise. What’s your name, anyway?”

A twinkle lit in the old musician’s eye, “Wise men don’t give away all their secrets. Now get going, you’re a natural, blue eyes. Take care of yourself, kid.”

Smiling to himself, the young boy turned quickly on his heels and jogged off down the path, hoping to make it to the east entrance ramp of interstate 70 before nightfall. For some reason, the old man had reminded him of the vintage Sinatra posters his mom had hanging on the walls of her bedroom. Whenever Neal was sick or sad back when he was a child, she used to let him crawl into her bed, and the smooth voice of the famous crooner would lull him to sleep. She had told him that his father loved the singer, and that their first song together had been one of his. He wasn’t sure what about the old man had brought that memory back, but somehow, he seemed distantly familiar, as if he knew more about Neal than he had let on.

At any rate, he was glad he did, because the man had reminded him of just the perfect place to go to get his brand new start. He had always wanted to go to New York City.
--------------

Peter playfully goosed Elizabeth as he slammed his shoulder against his townhome door, eager to walk into his Brooklyn home for the first time in what felt like forever, but reluctant to remove his hand from Elizabeth’s waist long enough to manipulate his keys. The place was modest – certainly not what one would expect from such a high profile couple – but it was how they liked it. A little two-bedroom townhome with a tiny backyard for their Labrador in the heart Brooklyn seemed like the perfect reprieve from the chaos their life had become since Elizabeth’s recent rise to fame.

Finally able to swing the door open, Peter stepped aside and allowed his wife to walk in first, greeted in the dark by a happy yip from a ball of fur literally trembling with excitement.

Peter stepped in behind her and bent down to pet the dog just as the agonizingly bright living room lights turned on suddenly and a little bald man jumped from the staircase raising a banana in the air, shrieking manically. Elizabeth screamed, Satchmo barked, and Peter aged ten years before he realized who it was.

“MOZZIE!” The talent agent roared, his heart rate racing, “What are you doing?!”

“What am I supposed to do when you come barging in at all hours of the night?” the bald man replied, clad in his pajamas and clearly annoyed, “I was protecting your humble abode. And your canine, for that matter.”

Sighing, Peter rubbed his forehead. He had wanted to hire anyone, anyone, but this quirky man to take care of the house and Satchmo while he and Elizabeth were out on tour, but June had spoken so many great things about him. Apparently, they had met years ago at a local coffeehouse and now played Parcheesi together. Plus, the first time Elizabeth had met him, she had been enamored by his peculiar personality. In the months leading up to the tour, they had even started having regular lunch dates, not that Peter would ever admit to jealousy.

“What exactly were you defending yourself with? A banana?” Peter asked incredulously, his heart still racing.

“Not just a banana,” Mozzie said with pride as he flicked it open to extend a sharp blade from its top, “A banana knife. Russian surplus –“

“Just stop,” Peter said, holding up a hand, “I don’t want to know.”

Sensing that the characteristic bickering was never going to end without her interjection, Elizabeth jumped into the conversation to thank Mozzie for his services while they were away. They then exchanged small talk for a little while before he turned to leave.

“As always, it’s been a pleasure, madam,” Mozzie said charmingly to Elizabeth bowing slightly as he kissed her hand, and then, “Take good care of her, Suit.”

Peter cringed at the man’s nickname for him. It was well known in the business that despite his incredible success as a talent agent, Peter Burke lacked any semblance of success when it came to his wardrobe. Despite this fact, the ascot-wearing man’s digs about his Brooks Brothers attire always rubbed him the wrong way.

He had a few choice words he wanted to say in retaliation, but a look from his wife told him it was best just to smile and wave as the short man bounded down their stoop steps and disappeared into the darkness.

After Peter closed the door, he turned to Elizabeth. “Why do I always feel the need to search our place for missing items every time he leaves?”

“Oh, you’re too hard on him, Hon,” Elizabeth said, kissing him lightly on the lips. “He means well. Now, come with me. I think we’re supposed to be celebrating tonight, aren’t we?”

Smiling deviously, Peter kissed her back, his annoyance at Mozzie dissipating quickly. It was already past midnight, but that didn’t matter. They were finally home, and it sure felt nice to wrap himself in Elizabeth’s arms as they receded for the evening to their bedroom. She was right: there sure was a lot to celebrate.
--------------

The ride to New York City took all of about twenty-four hours, between stopping for food, rest, and switching vehicles. All in all, Neal had bummed rides off of two truck drivers, one college kid headed home for the summer, and a man relocating himself due to a divorce. The last leg, which was a particularly long stretch from West Virginia straight into the city, was rather quiet and depressing. His companion, with good reason, hadn’t been very talkative and Neal had a lot of time to think about his current situation. By the time he bid his thanks and well wishes to the man and stepped out onto the bustling New York City street, Neal had worked himself up to a state somewhere in between depression and anxiety.

Looking up at the towering buildings and around at the people brushing past him, the young man had never felt more alone. It was unlike him not to have a plan already in play and a back up ready just in case, but this had all happened so fast. He had always been one to react rashly in the wake of strong emotions, and this situation had been especially tough to handle. But, poor planning aside, he needed to move forward and figure out where to go from here. The college kid who had given him a ride from Indianapolis to Wheeling had briefly explained the city layout the best he could, but already Neal could tell New York was so much bigger than his home city of St. Louis. If he was perfectly honest, he wasn’t even sure he knew which way was east and which was west.

A ticker atop a corner news shop indicated that it was nearly 9pm. He surprisingly wasn’t tired, but the growl in his stomach indicated he was probably running on pure adrenaline. The sun had long since set but the city was far from asleep, so he set out in no particular direction, focused on getting oriented and getting food.

About a block into his journey, Neal caught the unmistakable sound of a baby grand piano fighting to be heard over the city traffic. He followed the beautiful music, keeping his Gibson pulled taut against his back, until he was standing outside a corner coffee shop. Looking up at the old, vintage sign, he saw that the place was called Adler’s, and that it marketed itself as a piano coffee bar. Inside, two Steinway baby grands were facing each other on a small stage, and from the looks of it, both musicians were going at it whole-heartedly. Thoroughly intrigued, Neal popped his fedora on his head and walked in.

The place had an upscale, slightly pretentious vibe and the young man immediately felt under-dressed in his worn out jeans and grey v-neck tee shirt. Gazing around, he saw that people of every age were sitting in swank chairs, dressed to the nine and sipping Café Americanos, enjoying the two pianists’ show. The two musicians seemed to be dueling against one another in an attempt to win over the audience, who showed their apparent preference in the form of donations to their chosen musician’s jar. At the end of each round, the person with the most money in their jar got to stay on stage, while the other retired to the crowd with their earnings.

Neal was immediately fascinated. After fishing through his pockets, he determined he had just enough money to order a small cup of the place’s signature Italian Roast. He then sat down near the back of the room and observed the next few rounds.

He deduced quickly that the house favorite was unequivocally a short, slippery looking man named Matthew Keller. He was dressed for the part that he seemed to play, with a black leather jacket and dark washed jeans. Most of his tunes appeared to be complex piano arrangements of classic rock songs, although he did sprinkle in an original tune or a classical piece every now and then. He swept the floor with three other young men eager to try to take away his throne before volunteers stopped coming up to the stage readily. He was good, Neal thought, but nothing extraordinarily unique. After all, it was easy to win if you were feeding into what the crowd wanted, which was songs that they could recognize. It would have been more impressive had he been winning while playing only original or classical works.

After a minute or two sans challenger on the stage, a man in an incredibly fancy suit sauntered out. Introducing himself as the coffeehouse owner, Vincent Adler, he made one last call for volunteers to duel against Keller before he declared this evening’s official winner. Silence fell across the room as a smug smile began to spread across Matthew’s lips.

Neal didn’t know what it was about the man that he didn’t like, but something rubbed him the wrong way. Perhaps that is why he found himself shoving past the crowd, careful not to jostle anyone’s coffee with his guitar bag as he weaved his way up to the stage. The small crowd roared in eager anticipation as he placed the bulky instrument on the ground, removed his fedora, and placed it upside-down next to the jar on his side. He then took his place at the piano across from Matthew Keller while Adler, still on stage with them, welcomed him and declared the start of the next round.

And Neal, looking his opponent directly in his cold, brown eyes, began to play. Conintue to Part Two!